We lost Mom twice this year.
First on Feb. 7, three days before her 93rd birthday. Then, as if the annus horribilis couldn’t get any worse, for six weeks when the U.S. Postal Service lost her remains.
Dad would call for updates, sometimes several times a day. “Have you heard anything about the package?” he’d ask. He is 95, her partner for 75 years, and husband for 73. They’d lived on their own in a sunny Florida apartment with views of the ocean and MSNBC blaring from each room.
There was nothing new to tell Dad.
Cremations By The Sea had sent her off on Feb. 17 for next-day delivery, and we were going to keep her until the pandemic ebbed and we could gather in the Massachusetts cemetery where her parents await.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel about having the package in the house.
A couple times this year Mom had mentioned that I was never that good at facing reality when it came to death, and I’m sure this came in part from lack of practice — all four of my grandparents lived long enough to dance at our wedding.
Mom was a counselor — more than 30 years advising women of their choices since before Roe v. Wade. She relished chewing on a problem. We loved to argue. When she brought up my history, I’d counter that she was remembering a boy who had to grow up a long time ago, who’d covered wars and bombings and seen things that toughen the skin.
Over this past pandemic year I was so insistent on defending myself that I didn’t realize she was intimating her own mortality. Her hearing had declined, so our conversations had become more speeches than debates, and her part was talking about the doctors appointments she had coming up — the ones we didn’t cancel because we didn’t want her to take unnecessary risks during a plague.
I never really grasped what bad shape she was in. I hadn’t seen her since March 2020, when I scooted down to Florida, knowing there was a good chance I wouldn’t get to see them for a while. She went into the hospital after the kind woman who had been helping Mom with meals noticed Mom’s hands were blue. Her CO2 level was high. Her heart was working too hard. Her breathing was labored.
She lasted a week there, and we all got to FaceTime and call, and leave texts and favorite family photos. And then we said goodbye, Mom being ready and telling us it was time to let her go.
The last thing she told my sister was “Keep exercising.”
By phone and email the man from the cremations company told me how sorry he was. Two other shipments sent that day were long-delayed but had found their way to a home, and that left just Mom, somehow lost in the mail. The tracking info was frozen at Feb. 17.
He was a persistent advocate, pleading to supervisors in Florida and Philadelphia. For the longest time there just weren’t answers. Then he got someone to consult a physical shipping log in West Palm Beach and learned that the Postal Service had handed the package off to its partner FedEx, which had flown it to Memphis, where it likely still was. I updated my father.
“She always wanted to go to Tennessee,” Dad said.
I got a call a few weeks later from an older gentleman in Memphis. He worked for the Post Office there and his name was Philip — same as my dad’s. He said he’d found Mom.
She was in a bin for packages that had been damaged in transit.
He told me how he repacked and boxed her, affixed the old label to the new container, and placed it on the truck for delivery himself.
I talked to him again a week later, when Mom still hadn’t arrived.
A supervisor in the Philly office of the Postal Service was at an equal loss to explain why the trip from Memphis was taking so long.
Then on March 29 Mom arrived, after 40 days and 40 nights.
I put the package on the buffet in the dining room. I couldn’t bring myself to inspect the damage.
We tucked it under the dining room table, and a couple days later, I started talking to it, just “Hey, Mom,” and “I miss you” at first, then easy conversations, or speeches, that surprised me at how easy they were.
My wife figured we could do better by Mom than the plastic bag and cardboard box she came in. Mom was a fashion plate — she used to tell me she had her Ph.D. from Filene’s Basement. My wife shopped for a cabernet-red velvet bag and a little plain pine box for Mom, and transferred the contents of the Postal Service package.
Mom’s back on the buffet now, awaiting some better day when we can all gather again. Each time I walk past I sweep my hand over the pine box’s smooth surface and say something light.
Mother love serves a boy well, long after he’s ready for the world.
Happy Mother’s Day.