By Lourdes Dolores Follins
Image: Tolu Bamwo c/o nappy.co
All we have to do is steal my mother’s cremains from my elderly stepfather’s apartment in Staten Island and I can fulfill my last filial responsibility to her: Scatter them where she wanted. But there’s a hitch: My wife Martine is freaking out on the other end of the phone.
“Babe, I think we have a problem,” Martine says. I imagine her going to town on her cuticles. After six years together, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing her slender, caramel-colored fingers creep up to her lips, like pilgrims on a journey. She’s usually a calming presence when I’m stressed, but we’re both anxious this breezy April morning. I can see her large hazel eyes darting back and forth, worried that my stepfather will enter the room where he keeps Mom’s cremains any second.
Absentmindedly nibbling on my bottom lip, I ask, “Whaddya mean? What kind of problem?”
I’ve been so worried about this caper that I haven’t been able to concentrate or sleep well for days; it’s begun to affect my job as a freelance copyeditor. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror by the front door of our apartment in Brooklyn, NY. It’s eight-thirty in the morning and my cocoa brown face is already glistening with oil. My silver-gray, ear-length Sisterlocs are tousled because I keep running my fingers through them.
My mother has been dead for almost five years and I still haven’t completed the simple task of sprinkling her cremains as she wished, in either London, Italy, or Versailles. (Yes, as in the Palace of Versailles that some of us learned about in our ‘World’ History high school class.) One reason why I hadn’t done it immediately after she died in June 2014 at age sixty-four was because I gave Dad Mom’s cremains after I picked them up. It was my way of giving my poor, bereft eighty-four-year-old stepfather a modicum of emotional comfort. The other reason was because I was so caught up in tending to my mother’s affairs that I forgot that she wanted her cremains scattered. My parents weren’t married and my younger sister lives in Oakland, so I was the only person around who could administer my mother’s estate.
However, six months later, I was ready to do what Mom said she wanted. But Dad had other ideas. I still remember the drunken telephone conversation I had with him that December. I’d been at home, polishing off a bottle of red wine alone when Dad called. At some point, the conversation turned to my task.
“Dad, Mom wanted her ashes sprinkled in one of three places: London, Italy, or Versailles.”
“Well, I dunno about that, but I want her ashes mixed with mine when I die.”
It’s not difficult for me to believe that Dad didn’t know about Mom’s wishes; my parents didn’t discuss financial information or anything related to their shared future. The one time I tried to get them to discuss end-of-life planning, Mom folded her thick, nut-brown arms across her chest and simply said, “I’ll be fine,” while Dad impassively looked on. At the time, I nervously watched as Dad adjusted his bifocals and scratched at the gray stubble on his sepia-colored chin. I knew Dad had no savings or a pension, but Mom was tight-lipped about these things. It was almost as if she thought we had no right to know.
“But that’s not what she wanted, Dad,” I insisted as I watched the sun set slowly as we talked on the phone that December evening.
My parents had been together for almost forty years when my mother died suddenly. Mom had congenital heart disease for most of her life and had gained almost one hundred pounds after giving birth to my sister in 1983. Unbeknownst to anyone, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 2 endometrial cancer two months before she died. None of us knew: Not Dad, not her closest sibling, my Uncle Joe, not her best friend, Linda, and not me, her eldest daughter. Unfortunately, since none of us knew this, when Mom died five days after having a hysterectomy to remove the cancer, none of us questioned the circumstances of her death. We assumed that her body was too weak to recover from the surgery and that her heart gave out.
Mom died without a will and her only beneficiaries on her pension, IRAs, and other pots of money she had squirreled away over the years were my younger sister and I. She left Dad nothing and his name was nowhere to be found on any of her medical records or financial documents. I suspect this was because Mom was still angry with Dad for not telling her that he lost their rent-to-own home in Staten Island, NY until the day they and my sister were evicted in 2003. After that, Mom became verbally abusive towards Dad. The idea of mixing their ashes together just seemed wrong to me and antithetical to how she treated him up until the end.
“But that’s what I want,” Dad said plaintively on the phone that cool December evening. For the first time in his life, Dad was all alone. My sister moved to Oakland in 2008 and has never come back to visit. (I suspect it’s because our parents abused her when she was a child, but we’ve never talked about it.) Besides Mom’s belongings and his memories, Mom’s cremains were all that Dad had left of her. But I didn’t care. I wanted to fulfill my mother’s wishes so that I could finally be free. Free of the responsibility to a mother I loved, but didn’t like much. Free from the stress of not having fulfilled what I thought should’ve been a simple task. Except it wasn’t.
“So, you mean I have to wait until you’re dead to fulfill Mom’s wishes?” I slurred. I’d drank about three-quarters of a bottle of wine by that point; this had become a daily occurrence at that point in my mourning process. I love my dad, but I was both angry and sad that I’d been robbed of the chance to reconcile with Mom before she died. We weren’t estranged or anything like that; for many years, I avoided her like the plague because she was self-centered and I saw her as an energy vampire. But when I turned forty, I’d had an epiphany: I didn’t want either of us to die before we had a chance to clear the air between us. So, for the last five years of Mom’s life, I called her more often and tried to meet up with her for lunch or the movies when our schedules permitted. Even though she hadn’t changed and become more inquisitive about my life, I’d gotten to the point where I accepted the reality that my mother was the way she was and acknowledged that life might be easier if I changed my perception of her. Her death meant that I missed my chance to have that come-to-Jesus talk with her.
“Yes,” Dad said resolutely. I envisioned him jutting out his chin with a defiance that I’d never seen or heard before. Dad is always a diplomatic, kind and gentle soul, the one who smooths out things when they’ve gone awry. But not in this situation. He was an eighty-four-year-old man whose life partner died in his arms; he was fighting for his dream that they would be together forever.
“Fine.” I ended the call by pressing the little red telephone receiver button on my cellphone. To emphasize my rage, I drunkenly hurled the phone across the living-room and wept in my glass before blacking out.
Almost five years later, my wife and I are trying to steal my mother’s cremains from Dad’s apartment while he’s at the CYO Senior Center. Dad still lives in the apartment he shared with Mom in Staten Island. Martine insisted on helping me with this misadventure. The plan was for her to drive to Dad’s apartment, let herself in with my set of keys to his place, open the breadbox-sized cardboard box the cremains came in, and switch the cremains for the clear, Ziploc bag of sand that I gave her. Right now, Martine’s anxiously yammering on about some problem.
“The ashes are in a large plastic bag. Your dad opened the velour shroud that he had made for the cardboard box that contains the ashes. But the bag is open and there’s about one to two pounds of remains in there….” I remember going to the Lower East Side with Dad to pick out the navy blue fabric for that shroud and grimace at the memory.
“Cremains!” I correct her because I’m frustrated with how long this is taking and the pronunciation of the word is the only thing I can control right now. I assumed she’d be in and out since Dad wasn’t home. “Okay. So what’s the problem?” My heartbeat quickens and I try to calm down, but my guilt for stealing my mother’s cremains from my eighty-nine-year-old stepfather is unrelenting.
“Well, you only gave me about a pound of sand, see?”
“Yeah?” I’m getting impatient now, for I still don’t see the problem and Martine won’t FaceTime me.
“And the ashes and the sand are two different colors, so it’ll be obvious if your dad looks in the bag. He’ll notice that these aren’t…cremains. And it’s clear that he’s been in this bag. It’s barely closed,” Martine explains.
“What?!” I sputter. I still don’t understand what’s the problem. “Put me on FaceTime so I can see what you’re talking about!” I demand.
“Bae, I can’t do that right now. I’ve got the bag of sand you gave me in one hand, the bag of cremains in the other, while my phone is nestled in between my shoulder and my head.” I imagine Martine’s soft, black curly locks framing her heart-shaped face and smile weakly.
I groan aloud. Now I understand why my mother always said, “If you want something done right, you have-ta do it yuh-self!” The only reason why I’m not the one in Dad’s apartment is because Martine drives past my father’s house to get to her job as a union organizer every day. Since I don’t drive, it would take me hours to get from our place to Dad’s using mass transit. Today’s one of those rare days that I wished I drove.
On my forty-fifth birthday—five days after my mother died—I picked up Mom’s cremains. I was ambivalent about spending my birthday focusing on my mother when I believed the day should’ve been about me. My mother worked hard to provide for me materially, but ignored my emotional needs. Like her Black working-class parents, she believed that children should be seen and not heard. When she was home, Mom rarely seemed interested in spending time with me and only spoke to me to tell me what to do. My biological father, Basil, was a Marine who died in Vietnam in 1972, a few years after I was born. Dad is my stepfather, so my mother didn’t give him much say in my upbringing; as a result, he took a hands-off approach to rearing me. Yet, he taught me important things like chess, how to grow tomatoes, and how to use tools (hammers, power drill, screwdrivers). He was a janitor at a local Catholic elementary school, so Dad was often called on to fix things.
While I knew that Dad cared for me, I grew up thinking that my mother didn’t like or love me. So when it was time, I chose to attend an HBCU in Atlanta and after graduation, moved out of my parents’ house within six months. Afterwards, even though Mom and I lived in the same city, we only spoke on the phone about once a season. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it was a lop-sided conversation that went like this:
“Oh, hi!” Mom always sounded like I was a long-lost friend she missed, which never failed to confuse me.
“How are you?”
Mom always followed up with either, “Good” or “Oh, you know….”
If she said, “Good”, I’d then ask about her job, the family, and the few friends she had. If she said, “Oh, you know…”, I’d respond with, “No, Ma. I actually don’t. What’s been going on?” Then, I’d ask about the three aforementioned topics. Either way, she never asked how I was doing. Sometimes Mom would surprise me with, “Do you remember (insert random co-worker’s name here)?”
“No,” I’d reply.
“Well…” and then she’s launch into a monologue about her co-worker, her interactions with said co-worker, laugh about their interactions, and then move onto something else that happened at work. Mom worked as a psychiatric nurse for most of my life and genuinely got a kick out of her job, so I was well-acquainted with her duties because it was nearly all that she talked about: teach and monitor her severely and persistently mentally-ill adult patients’ activities of day living, give them their psychiatric medications, and make sure patients attended their psychotherapy appointments and behaved themselves. The excitement tended to happen when patients refused to take their medications or when there was office drama between the psychiatrist, psychologists, and the various types of nurses.
Mom was a licensed practical nurse (LPN), the lowest level nurse, but since she’d gotten her license in 1969, she was the most qualified and experienced nurse on the unit. However, because of capitalism and the push to professionalize nursing, the system changed during my mother’s lifetime and the LPN credential lost its luster in New York. As a result, Mom never advanced in her career. For years, I tried to get my mother to go back to college so that she could get her bachelor’s degree in nursing, become a Registered Nurse (RN), and stop working overtime to earn what RN’s made. I saw the toll that decades of working overtime took on her body and her relationships. Our conversations about her returning to college tended to go like this:
“Oh, I don’t have time!” Mom insisted.
“What if you worked less overtime for a while?” I suggested.
“Oh, I don’t have money!” Mom claimed.
“I’m sure your union has scholarships, Ma.” I offered.
“I don’t have anywhere to study!” Mom asserted.
“Doesn’t the College of Staten Island (CSI) have a library? What if you went to the library to study?” I proposed.
“Oh, I don’t have the energy!” Mom swore.
“What if you went to bed a bit earlier?” I advised.
Mom eventually changed her mind and enrolled in college nine years ago, but after two attempts to get her degree at CSI, Mom dropped out, and later enrolled in an online nursing course. As someone who believes in the benefits of in-person classes, I scowled when I heard the news. But Mom seemed so pleased with her choice, I didn’t press her about enrolling in a traditional, brick-and-mortar institution. Encouraging Mom’s dream was more important. I suspected that if she didn’t have to work so much, she’d be freer to tend to herself and her relationships. In retrospect, I secretly hoped that she’d use some of that energy to tend to ours.
“What do you want me to do, boo?” Martine sounds worried that Dad’s going to come through the front door at any moment, dangerously brandishing his folding walking cane.
“Abort!” This has become more complicated than I anticipated and Martine’s nervousness became infectious. My left hand is tugging at one of my locks.
“Are you sure?”
“Abort!!” I scream through the phone as I pace our living room floor.
“But I think I can take some of the cremains and mix in the sand you gave me so that it doesn’t look so obvious if your dad looks at them again,” Martine adds.
“Abort the mission!!!” I’m freaking out, imaging Dad entering the apartment and catching her. But my nervousness is now tinged with anger because I still haven’t fulfilled my responsibility to my mother and I want to be free. Once I do this, I’ll be free and will feel like less of a shitty daughter than I did before Mom died. Even though I knew that it takes two to have a healthy, reciprocal relationship, as I got older, I thought that if I changed my approach to and perception of my mother, our relationship would be smoother. I never got the chance to see if that was the case.
“Babe, I think I can still bring you some of the cremains and we can come back another time to get the rest… Okay?” Martine calmly replies. She senses my despair and frustration and is trying to calm me down, placate me with some cremains versus no cremains. Especially since we’re going to Lourdes, France to commemorate the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death in a few weeks. Lourdes is a small town located in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountain range in southern France. My mother named me after the town and I had planned to scatter her cremains there. Thinking about the prospect of flying six hours without those cremains helps me make up my mind.
“Actually, no. Take the whole thing and leave the sand. I’ll deal with Dad’s reaction later,” I say stubbornly. I feel my shoulders slide back down.
“Positive. Take ‘em.”
“Okay, Boolittle! I’ve got to head to work now, but I’ll give ‘em to you when I get home tonight.” My wife and I have lots of nicknames for one another. “Boolittle” is one of her names for me. I don’t recall where it came from, but I suspect that it’s because even though I’m 5’2’ and she’s 5’4’, she thinks I’m so much smaller than her because I’m petite and she’s stocky.
I exhale a bit and nod. “Thanks, my love. I appreciate you!”
“I know you do… and I love you back,” Martine says before hanging up. For some reason, the idea of my mother’s cremains hanging out in the trunk of my wife’s car while she’s at work doesn’t bother me in the least.
I bought our airline tickets to France in early April because I knew if I didn’t, I’d never go get Mom’s cremains. Even though I’ve been to London before, I didn’t want to be there for my birthday—it’s too cold in June. Italy was experiencing more anti-Black, xenophobic violence than usual and though I speak some Italian, I didn’t feel safe going there. My high school-level French is crap, but as a Haitian woman from an upper-class background, Martine’s fluent. So, France it was! I was set on spending the anniversary of Mom’s death in Lourdes because I wanted to sprinkle her cremains in a place world-renowned for miracles, faith, and healing. Miracles she never experienced, faith she never had, and healing she sought just before her death. Sprinkling her cremains in Lourdes was my way of honoring her wishes and allowing her to eternally ‘visit’ a place she was clearly moved by at some point in her life.
Once we landed in Lourdes, it took both of us a couple of days to recover from the jetlag. As usual, I had it worse than Martine, so she sometimes took evening strolls around the town without me. The night before the anniversary, Martine asked if I wanted her to accompany me when I scattered my mother’s cremains, but I told her that I needed to do this part of our adventure on my own. After breakfast the next morning, wearing white capris, navy blue suede Timberland slip-on sneakers, and a light blue chambray tunic, I climbed the steep Hill of Espélugues behind the grand and sprawling, Byzantine Revival-style Notre Dame du Rosaire de Lourdes basilica. I decided to sprinkle Mom’s cremains on the mile-long Way of the Cross or ‘High Stations,’ as they’re called by Catholic pilgrims.
As a non-Christian, I am amazed by the larger-than-life, gold-painted, cast iron statuaries that depict Christ carrying the cross to his crucifixion. The fifteen tableaus feature 115 biblical figures, including but not limited to, his mother Mary, Veronica who wiped his face, Simon of Cyrene who helped him carry his cross, the Roman guards, and Mary Magdalene. I am equally fascinated by the various ethnic and racial backgrounds of the people whom I encounter on this path. It’s a stony gravel road and at Station 1: Jesus is Condemned to Death. I’m aghast by the multi-lingual sign that suggests that pilgrims ‘walk’ up this road on their knees so that they can experience a degree of Christ’s suffering.
Ugh! That sounds excruciating! I muse as I grimace, imagining my own scarred, lumpy knees being scraped with each movement up the winding incline.
I pat the natural-colored, cotton tote bag holding Mom’s cremains, assuring myself that I will find a way to do this without anyone’s watchful eye.
But how? I wonder, as I hear a South Asian family trudging up the hill behind me, chattering in Urdu.
Keep going, I think to myself. You’ll find a spot and you’ll know when it’s right.
I press on, gulping the thin, humid Pyrenees mountain air. I reach for my water bottle and quench my thirst, knowing I’m also drinking because I’m partially dehydrated by the stress. I gawk at how life-like each of the figures at the Stations are, how artists skillfully captured pain, anguish, disgust, suffering, horror, and sorrow. With each step, it gets progressively stiller as I pass each tableau. It’s almost as if Olodumare (God) wants this to be a place of peace, an outdoor sanctuary. The oak and ash trees are full with bright green leaves and the sun’s rays peek through the branches and warm my skin. Gravel and twigs crunch beneath my feet with each step as the road becomes more and more unruly; weeds and grass poke through. Nature is reclaiming this path from humanity, making it wild again.
At each Station, I see a family or a cluster of adults and grow increasingly frustrated and concerned. By Station 10: Jesus is Stripped of His Garments, I nearly lose hope. But I press on because I need this done. As I walk a bit further, the air becomes increasingly thinner and cooler, so I slow down a bit. I pant and wipe sweat and sunscreen from my face every few minutes. As I turn around another bend, I notice that Station 12: Jesus Dies on The Cross isn’t occupied and has a bit of tree covering.
A-ha! I delight. I furtively look around, hoping there aren’t any CCTV cameras in the trees and pull out the Ziploc bag of Mom’s cremains. As I carefully, but quickly open the bag, I say aloud, “Ma, I know you wanted me to sprinkle your ashes in Versailles, London, or Italy, but this is the best that I could do under the circumstances. I hope you like this place.”
Mom’s cremains are dropping onto the ground like gray, chunky baby powder. This not how I thought it’d be. I imagined that the cremains would be lighter in the air, like dust almost. I try to contain my disappointment and frustration.
“Anyway, I thought scattering your cremains here, in the place you named me after might be nice. Even though we both stopped being Christians long ago, I thought you might like seeing the pilgrims. Did you know that they have nightly candlelight processions here? Martine watched one the other night and said it was both kinda beautiful and creepy at the same time. I think you’ll get a kick out of it.” Mom was a consummate people-watcher; she liked to sit for hours, quietly watching people.
Just then, an Italian family approaches and I quickly close the Ziploc bag and shove it into my tote bag. I try to act nonchalant, as if I’m just another pilgrim, when I make eye contact with the teenaged girl in the family. She looks bored and her younger brother looks equally bored, but he at least looks glad to be outside. The girl looks as if she’s being brought to the gallows, but her expression changes when she sees me. I suppose it’s because I’m the only Black person here alone and my mannerisms and style of dress are neither African nor European. I turn away and scurry up the road.
Between this station and the next is a large cave that is dedicated to Notre Dame des Douleurs. Inside, right below a massive, seven-foot tall, gold-toned statue of Notre Dame des Douleurs that hangs on the inner wall of the cave, there’s a five-foot long black iron votive candle rack where one can light a candle for their loved one. I learned in Catholic school that votive candles represent both the fulfillment of a vow and an intention to say a prayer for someone. I light one for Mom, for even though she’s been dead for almost five years. I figure it can’t hurt.
“Ma, I know we weren’t Catholic, but I hope your spirit is at ease and that you’re no longer in pain.” At 5’1”, my mother had sciatica, congenital heart disease, and asthma that developed once she surpassed 200 pounds. By the time she was my age—fifty—it was difficult for her to walk, stand, or sit too long. I whip out the plastic bag and sprinkle some cremains in the cave and head out when I hear the Italian boy’s whining nearby. Less than 200 feet away, is the 15th Station: Resurrection. It’s the most beautiful part of the whole journey. This Station is composed of a large, cream-colored, striated, round stone in front of what’s supposed to look like the mouth of a cave. If you’re not looking for it, you could easily walk by thinking it’s just a place to sit and catch your breath. I stop and stand by the four-foot long rectangular stone opposite the station that lies underneath a red oak tree.
This is perfect, I think.
“Ma, this is the last place I’ll sprinkle your cremains. May you find peace, calm, and quiet here. I hope you’re satisfied with my choice to scatter your ashes here in Lourdes.”
And with that, I shake out the remainder of the cremains near the foot of the tree, behind the stone bench. As I do so, I look over my right shoulder to see if anyone is approaching, walking up the road behind me. There’s no one. While my head is turned, a slight breeze comes along and lifts some of the cremains up into the air and dumps them on my right ankle and sneaker.
“Dammit! How am I gonna get this off?”
Shaking my head at my dumb luck, I thank God for the opportunity to fulfill my mother’s wishes and finish the walk. “Bendicion, Olodumare!”
As I walk downhill, away from the last Station, I notice that the air has warmed up and the path ends behind the Basilique.
“Maybe this is Olodumare’s way of making sure that I always have a bit of Mom with me?” I wonder and shrug. It’s a question that I will ponder for a while, especially since I don’t intend to clean off that blue suede sneaker.
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