My dad’s Catholic funeral mass probably ended an hour ago. I did not attend.
“Wakes and cemetery’s are for the living,” Dad told me after my mom died in 2007. It was, for a long time, the intention of my parents to donate their bodies to science – like my maternal grandmother and, I believe, one paternal uncle had done per their wishes.
However, my sister Cathy, the eldest of ten children in my birth family, would have none of that. She loves all of the pomp and circumstance no matter what the occasion. And a death in the family is a perfect opportunity for all of that.
Cathy convinced my parents to be buried – in a Catholic cemetery, of course – so that she and others could physically mourn them. While my parents were very spiritual persons, many of their children, for some reason, are not. Some people need material, tangible objects in order to relate to the spiritual world.
So, Cathy went and purchased a plot of something like twenty graves at Good Shepherd Cemetery in Orland Park, Illinois. Apparently, this was supposed to be a family plot for my parents, Cathy and her husband, and anyone else who wanted to be buried there. (Providing things for people for nothing in return is often a means of controlling them.)
During the summer of 2007, while Mom was under hospice care, she asked me to help her with her final arrangements. She asked me to sit in the living room with her as she bravely informed Cathy that she didn’t want a high mass which is what Cathy wanted for her. I am not sure what a high mass is but I think it is a very fancy, formal, ostentatious Catholic ceremony which would be the very opposite of my mother’s cup of tea. After Cathy left the room, Mom thanked me repeatedly for supporting her. At the time, I had no idea what she was dealing with but I would learn, before long.
A few weeks later, Mom asked me if I would drive her to the funeral home to finalize her arrangements with the caretakers there. Then, when I was in her kitchen, I overheard her tell Cathy in the adjacent family room that I would be her driver that day. I believe Mom had made a point to break the news while I was in close proximity. Again, I thought nothing of it at the time.
Before our trip to the funeral home, Mom kept reminding me to bring the documentation she had for her life insurance policy. This was a policy, I would find out later, that she took out a short time after Cathy had purchased the cemetery plot. I tried to ease Mom’s mind by assuring her that I wouldn’t forget her insurance papers but that didn’t keep her from reminding me more.
Just before Mom and I were to leave for her appointment at Brady-Gill funeral home, we went for a walk up and down the street, me pushing her in a wheelchair. As we returned to the house, walking up the long driveway, I noticed Cathy and Dad standing outside of her oversized SUV with the doors wide open. “That wasn’t the plan,” I thought to myself, but I figured the plans had been changed without anyone telling me. When Mom didn’t say anything, neither did I. After struggling to get Mom into the vehicle which may as well have been a semi-truck, I got into the back seat – with Mom’s insurance papers – and Cathy took her usual place in the driver’s seat.
During the meeting, I took notes. Mom’s wheelchair was positioned at the rectangular desk directly across from Peggy, the woman who was helping us, with Cathy seated on her left and me to her right. Toward the end of the appointment, my cell phone vibrated and it was my husband calling. Because our children were in school and I wanted to make sure nothing was wrong, I excused myself from the room and took the call which was very brief before returning to the office.
After the meeting, while we were getting Mom back into Cathy’s monstrosity, she asked me to go back and ask Peggy if girls could be pallbearers. (The question didn’t matter. Mom wanted me to speak with Peggy in private.) During that brief exchange with her, Peggy told me she hoped she didn’t offend my sister. When I gave her a curious look, she told me that as soon as I had left the room, Cathy pulled out her credit card and gave it to her. According to Peggy, she immediately saw the look on Mom’s face and then told Cathy to put her card away and that no payment was required yet.
Several months later, after an entire summer of trying to get Cathy to release to my parents some of the $97,000 of theirs that she and her husband, Tim, had in their possession, I sent to them, via FedEx, a demand letter. It informed Cathy and Tim that, if they didn’t return every penny of my parents’ money to them within the week, I would deliver all of the documentation I had to the Will County State’s Attorneys Office. A few days after the deadline, my parents received a check in the same amount as the check my mom had made payable to Tim in 2004, proceeds from the sale of their own home.
When I showed Mom the check, I asked her what she wanted me to do with it, thinking she would say deposit it into their savings account or put such-and-such in the checking and the balance in the savings. Instead, with tears rolling down her cheek – at the sight of something she never thought she would live to see – Mom expressed only one wish: “Pay Tim back for the graves”.
I told her I would definitely do that but that she and Dad were the priority now and that refunding Tim, a urologist who rarely misses an opportunity to brag about how rich he is and how much he owns, could wait.
The morning after Mom passed away on September 27, 2007, I made an appointment to meet with Peggy. Another sister and her daughter accompanied me to that appointment. During this meeting in which the arrangements Mom had made in July were finalized and confirmed and materials and services were paid for, Peggy telephoned the woman at Good Shepherd cemetery. As that lady rattled off over the speaker phone all of the information about plots and graves – typically a formality, my ears peaked when I heard her say “grave 3”. I referred to the notes I had taken at the July meeting and saw on my paper “grave 1 or 2” (in case Dad happened to go before Mom).
I immediately interrupted the woman and told her Mom was supposed to be buried in either grave 1 or grave 2. It didn’t really matter to me which grave my mom’s body was buried in but Mom wasn’t there and she trusted me to be her advocate and so I felt a duty to make sure all the ‘i’s were dotted and ‘t’s were crossed as she had gone to the trouble to arrange.
“Yes, that is true,” the woman replied. “However, your sister was in my office this morning and changed it. She filled out the paperwork and faxed it to her husband in Michigan who signed it and faxed it back.”
“Was my dad with her when she did that?” my sister asked, all of us in the room in shock at what had just been reported to us.
“No,” the woman responded, “she was alone.”
After the meeting in July, Cathy drove to the cemetery to point out to Mom where exactly the graves she and Tim had purchased were located. The plot wasn’t in the front section of the cemetery, she explained, because only flat markers were allowed there. The plot she and Tim bought was located in the middle of the cemetery where large, upright headstones could be displayed. One rule on those tombstones, I would learn, was that the name on the family stone must match the name of the person in Grave 1 of that plot.
That explained the last-minute, behind-the-back switch. Cathy and Tim didn’t want the family tombstone to read “GREEN”, which is my maiden name, but “MCHUGH”, which is Tim’s last name and Cathy’s married name. I know for a fact that neither of my parents ever agreed to that!
When we found out what Cathy and Tim had done just hours after Mom had passed, we immediately purchased two graves for Mom and Dad in the front section of the cemetery. Mom must have known they were up to something or would try to pull something like that. That is why it was so important to her to have her own insurance policy – money – to pay for her own postmortem arrangements. That is why it was so important to her to pay Tim back for those graves. That’s why she wanted me – not Cathy – to drive her to the July meeting with Peggy. That is why her heart sank when Cathy tried to capitalize on the two minutes I was out of the room at Brady-Gill.
Like I said, my parents were spiritual people and they were both very humble. Mom did not want a eulogy nor her picture on the cover of her funeral program. “It’s not about me,” she insisted, instead choosing an image of Jesus Christ sitting on a rock and surrounded with children.
For years after Mom had passed, Dad would remind me how he wanted things “just like Mom’s”. She elected not to have a wake because she didn’t want to put Dad through a lot of unnecessary ceremonial stuff. She didn’t want a procession to the cemetery because of the risk of causing a traffic accident. Of course, none of that would have been an issue if she was allowed to donate her body to science as her own mother had done and as she had wished.
For months after my mother’s death, some of my siblings would pressure my dad to go to the cemetery and “visit her grave”. Finally, Dad empowered himself enough to say no. “She is not there,” to told me emphatically.
And now, one week after Dad said good-bye to this world, I remind myself, “He is not there”. All of the events that will happen today – the funeral mass, the graveside prayer, and the luncheon afterward – aren’t for Dad. They are for others – for relatives who locked me out of the house when I arrived to visit Dad; who shadowed and hassled me during another recent visit; who falsely accuse me of this and of that because I dared to support and empower my parents from the controlling grasp of Goliath and her Daddy Warbucks spouse.
Missing Dad’s funeral is not a show of disrespect toward my dad. Quite the opposite. My husband, our children, and I have decided to honor Dad in more meaningful ways. We are not allowing others – or society – to dictate to us how to remember him, memorialize him, or honor him. We are not allowing the very same people who tried so hard to control Mom and Dad during their final years on Earth – and beyond – to control how we will connect with them spiritually.
Through all of the attacks, conflicts, shunning, and other nonsense that my family and I have been subjected to by people who seriously need to find the nearest 12-step program ASAP, I have learned one thing: To live by my own terms. Life is short; follow your heart. There is no greater lesson my own parents could have taught me than that, and they did.
Congratulations, Dad. You scored!! And you played a great game, too!