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Chapter Three

 “Angela.  Angela Palanca.  Wake up, dear it’s me, your mother.”

As if I wouldn’t recognize her voice. Fighting off the chill, I pull the covers up over my shoulders and remind myself to turn the AC down before bed next time.   “Again with the Angela Frances Palanca.  It’s Panther, Ma.  Panther.  Should I spell it for you?”  I turn my head, hiding under the covers, willing this to be a dream.

“Ah Madone, child, I can spell Panther, I just don’t like it. It’s like Richter, too damned German.  Why didn’t you marry someone with a good Italian name like Angelini or Marconi?  Those I could use, you know?   Now turn over and look at me. I’m real, Angela.”  She nudges my shoulder and I open my eyes to see her crouched down and floating next to my bed.

“Told you so.” She smirks.

I sit up.  “Angela Angelini?  Really, Ma?”

Wait.  She nudged me, and I felt it.

I turn and look at Jake, who’s doing his freight train imitation again.  Clearly he didn’t hear Ma ranting about his name, either because he’s asleep or because I’ve gone insane.  My guess is I’m insane.  I get up, grab my robe, and quietly leave the room.  Gracie gets off her chair in the corner, nose up, and sniffing the air.  Her ears stand up, and she follows me out.  Unbelievable.  Gracie can smell ghosts.  I wonder if she’s smells dead people every time she sniffs the air?  Goodness, I hope not.  If that’s true, I’m sure I’ll never sleep again.

I tiptoe down to the kitchen.  I’m going to see the ghost of my mother at this hour; I’m going to need caffeine.

“Where are you going?”

I turn and give her the evil eye.  “Shh. Come.” I whisper and crook my finger for her to follow.

I turn on the coffeepot but lack the patience to wait for it to finish, so I cheat and pour myself a cup before it’s done.  Thank God for the auto stop feature.  Ma is quietly floating near the kitchen sink, and I motion for her to go down to the basement where no one can hear me.  I don’t want to wake the kids and have them think their mother is loony, not that they don’t already think that anyway.

“Look at you, pointing and motioning, telling me what to do.  I may be dead, Angela, but I’m still your mother.”

There’s something innately wrong with her last sentence, so I do what any crazy person would do; I ignore it.  “Holy mother of God, I’m going insane.  I have to be,” I say as I look at my mother floating around the basement family room.  “You nudged me Ma and I felt it.  I felt it.”

“Ah, you’re not any more crazy than you were before I died,” she quips. Then her mouth takes on the shape of a capital O shape.  “I did nudge you, didn’t I? Well whadda know; I can touch things.”  She looks at the wall, leans her shoulder into it, and disappears.

“Ma?”

She laughs her loud, that-is-really-funny laugh, but I can’t see her.

“Ma?”

“Whoops,” she says as she reappears, shuddering.  “I guess I can’t touch everything, and I gotta tell ya, that’s okay.”  She shakes and little flickers of light float from her.

It’s disturbing.  My mother sparkles.

“That whole passing through things feels creepy,” she continues.  “When that man at the funeral home walked through me, I thought I might barf.  It made me sick to my stomach.  Huh.  I wonder if I still have a stomach,” she says as she looks at her belly.

In life, my mother was a beautiful, robust woman.  She had curves that she hated, and always wanted to be thinner, smaller, and taller.  I’m not sure if I got my body image issues from her, or if that’s how all women are, but I loved her curves.  She wasn’t fat.  She embodied strength, both mentally and physically.  I admired that and yearned for it for me.  It was heartbreaking to watch cancer rob her body of its stature, in the end leaving her nothing but skin and bones.  She often joked that she’d be skinny for eternity, but I couldn’t quite see the humor in her dying.

Now, as I watch her floating next to me, I see the more voluptuous Ma, only she’s transparent.  The irony of what she looked like when she died and what I see now is not lost on me, but I’m not stupid enough to say that out loud.   It’s not just her shape that’s changed.  Her eyes have regained their bright blue hue, and her nose is no longer red from years of uncontrolled allergies.  Her lips are fuller, like the lips I remember from my childhood, not lips that have been permanently crinkled to inhale the poison of a cigarette.

“Ma, where are your dentures?”

She puts her hand to her mouth and feels around.  “Huh.  Beats the hell out of me.  Maybe ghosts don’t need dentures,” she says as she smacks her lips together, making a funny sound.

I hug myself to ward off another chill. “I still have them.  They’re in the medicine cabinet in the kitchen.”   Tears well up in my eyes and I wipe them away, not wanting to cry about something as simple as her dentures.

“Ah Madone.”  She throws her hands up in the air.  “You kept my dentures?  What, did you think you could use them some day?  Goodness, child.  You have beautiful teeth.  I always loved them.  They were like mine, so big and strong, until I was pregnant with your brother and he sucked the calcium right out of them, that is,” she touched her mouth again and sighed.

“And you wonder why I’ve never really liked him.”

Ma looks serious. “Ang, you gotta let that go and be nicer to your brothers.  Leave the past in the past because pretty soon it’ll be just you three.”

The hairs on my neck stand up.  “What are you saying, Ma?  Are you saying something’s going to happen to Dad?”

She shrugs her shoulders. “I’m not saying anything, Angela.  It’s just the way it is.  No one lives forever; so don’t waste your time on the past.  What’s done is done. You gotta move on.”

“What’s this?  You die and suddenly you’re all patient and forgiving?  That’s a crock, Ma, and you know it.  Patience was never your virtue and forgiveness wasn’t even in your vocabulary, so don’t go acting like you’ve seen the light or something and tell me how I should act now, because you know if you were still alive, you’d be singing a totally different tune.”

She looks at me and we both burst out laughing.

“So you believe me now?  You believe I’m a ghost?”

“You’re not my imagination, are you?”

“Nope.”

“But why are you here?  It can’t be this unfinished business.  That doesn’t make sense.  Didn’t you see the light?  You’re supposed to go to the light, Ma.  I mean, there is a light, right?”

My mother throws her arms up in the air, and floats around the room.  “All my life I told you if I could, I’d come back, and you always said, good Ma, come back.  But when I do, you tell me I should have gone to the light.  For the love of God, Angela, make up your mind.”

She’s right.  I did always say that, I just didn’t know it would actually happen.

“Geez, Ma,” I say, throwing my hands up in the air, too.   “Cut me some slack here, will you?  I don’t know what to think.  It’s not like I’ve been seeing ghosts my whole life.  This is new to me, and honestly, you’re freaking me out a little.  I can see through you, and you’ve got these little sparkly things flying off of you.  That’s messed up, Ma.  It’s messed up.”

She frowns, and mumbles something I don’t understand.

“What?”

“I freak you out, do I?  You want I should disappear and not come back? I can do that, Angela.  Say the word and I’m gone.  Poof.  Out of your life and back into the light forever.”

I rub my temples, feeling a headache starting.  “No, Ma.  That’s not what I’m saying.  I’m just saying you need to give me a little leeway here, so I can wrap my head around this, is all.  You think you can you do that for me, Ma?”

She looks at the ground.  “You should clean this carpet.”

“Ma.”

“Oh, fine.  Fine.”

“Thank you.  So about the light; there is a light, right?”

“Yes, Ang, there is a light, and I’ll go back to it.  I just got some stuff to do down here first.”

I don’t know how this afterlife stuff is supposed to work, but I thought that once a person dies and goes to the light, they’re supposed to stay there, not go back and forth.  Maybe Ma didn’t actually see the light, and she’s afraid to tell me.  Maybe she needs me to help her find it.

I’m no ghost whisperer, but I give it my best shot.   I lean forward, putting on my most sincere face.  “Do you see the light?  Go to the light, Ma.  Your family is there, waiting for you.”

“Ah, Madone, knock it off, will you?  I’ll go back when I’m darned good and ready.  Your grandmother, she knows I’m busy taking care of things down here.  She was just dead once too, ya know.”

“You saw Grandma?”

“Of course I saw Grandma.  What do you think happens when you go to the light?  Didn’t you ever listen to that psychic on TV?  The one from that show, what was his name again?”  She pauses, then flicks her hand in the air.  “Pfft.  I can’t remember.  But yes, I saw your grandmother, and your grandfather, and your auntie Rita, too, but I told them I’d be back.  I said to them, I said, I’ve got affare non terminato down there, and here I am.”

“John Edward, Ma.”  I tell her.  “John Edward is the psychic with the TV show.   And what do you mean you’ve got affare non terminato, unfinished business?  We took care of everything before you…you know.”

“I died Angela.  Before I died.  You can say it, you know.  It’s not like it’s gonna change.  I’m deader than a doornail, already a pile of gravel in a fancy little bottle, so you might as well get used to it.”

Get used to it?  It’s been a little over a day.

“What unfinished business, Ma?  Maybe I can help you with it, so you can, you know, get back to the light?”

“Stuff.  I’ve got stuff to do, and…and it’s not your business anyway, so don’t you worry.”  She turns away and looks at the wall. “You really need to paint down here; a nice light grey would be pretty.”

I fall back onto the couch and cover my head with a throw pillow.  Flip me over and put a bun on me because I’m done.  I’m seeing the ghost of my mother and she’s telling me to redecorate.

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Chapter Two

 

 “Honey, it’s time to wake up.”  My husband, Jake, shook me gently.  “We have to go to the funeral home.  Come on, your brothers will be there soon.  Wake up.”  He shook me a little harder. 

 I sat up. “Where’s Ma?”

      He looked at me, his expression a mix of sadness and compassion.  “I know this is hard but it’s going to be okay,” he hugged me, and it felt good, comforting. I let him hold me a little longer, and then I remembered the night before.

“No,” I told him, pulling away, and rubbing the sleep fog from my eyes.  “Ma.  She was here.  Last night.  I know she’s dead, but she was here. I saw her.”  I grab his shoulders, trying to show him how serious I am, and whisper, “she told me she’s a ghost.” 

He looked at me, and all of the sadness and compassion flew right out the dining room window.  Jake is a fantabulous husband, and supports me in ways that often try his patience, but to see the gray area of what he considers to be only black and white, is asking too much.  Fantabulous and all, he has his limits. 

“Ang, it wasn’t Fran.  It was a dream.  I’ve read that that kind of stuff happens.  People dream about the person who died and think it’s real.”  He made a small attempt at comforting coos, but they just sounded like our cat before she died.

I push away from him, and get up.  “Stop it.  You sound like a sick cat, and I need coffee.”  My mind barely works without a good night’s sleep, but without coffee, even the simplest conversations are practically impossible.  Besides, now is not the time to get into a debate about the hereafter.  I walk to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee, and say a silent thank you to Jake for making a pot.  I’d say it out loud but I’m a little miffed at him for discounting my ghostly experience.  

Jake was kind enough to get our two kids, Emily and Josh, off to school without waking me.   I feel a sense of relief at not having to deal with them this morning, then feel a little guilty because of it.  They left me a handmade card near the coffeepot, knowing I’d be sure to see it there.  It has red hearts and sad faces drawn all over the front, most likely by Josh, because he draws eyes with eyelashes.  The inside of it reads, “We’re sorry for your loss.  We loved Grandma and miss her.” 

They weren’t here last night.  I knew it was Ma’s last day, and Jake and I didn’t want them to see her die, so we made arrangements for them to spend the evening with friends.  Jake picked them up last night after the hearse left.  I lacked the energy and courage to talk to them, so Jake asked them to give me some alone time. 

The card is sweet, and I get a lump in my throat just reading it, even though I’m sure they’ll never work for Hallmark. 

“What time is it?” I ask, and then look at the clock.   “It’s 10 AM.  What the – we have to be at the funeral home at 11:15.”  I finished pouring my coffee, took a huge gulp, and cursed myself as it burned my throat, then rushed upstairs to get ready.

We arrive at the funeral home just before 11:15.  My long blond hair is pulled into a ponytail, since I didn’t have time to style it and I don’t have on an ounce of make up.  I’m dressed like a typical soccer mom heading to a yoga class.  Normally I wouldn’t go to an appointment like this, but considering the fact that my mother just died, I don’t really give a crap.

We walk in through the front doors, into a sitting area I’m sure ismeant to seem comforting and inviting, but instead feels like a grandparents family room.  The couch is a ridiculously huge, 20 years outdated, 1980’s floral print of mauve and grey, flanked with humongous pillows in matching solid colors.  There are two matching and equally uncomfortable looking chairs, and ugly, ornate tables that don’t match, intermixed with the seating.  A few magazines and tissue boxes sit on the tables. I grab a couple tissues just in case I need them later.  Overhead, they’re playing soft music, and I’m sure they think it makes someone in my position feel better; but mostly it’s just annoying. 

Carnations in various colors sit in vases on stands around the lobby, attacking my nasal passages like an old women drenched in White Diamonds perfume. I instantly feel a headache coming on from the sensory overload.  The entire room smacks of old people, but I guess it should since it’s really mostly old people who die.  Jake crinkles his nose at the smells, too.  We both move quickly as we follow the signs to the assistant funeral director’s office.  I silence my cell phone, knowing my best friend, Gen will probably be texting me any minute.  I’d talked to her after Ma passed, but haven’t yet this morning and I’m sure she’s worried about me. 

Before Ma died, we talked about what she wanted and I promised her I’d honor her requests. They were simple.  She wanted to be cremated and buried with my grandparents in Chicago.  Since we’re in the suburbs of Atlanta, we’ll have her body cremated here and the rest we’ll handle on our own.

My brothers, John and Paul, are already in the Funeral Director’s office.  There is a spread of coffee and its fixings set out on the conference table, and I make a beeline for it.  I’d have an IV of caffeine inserted into my wrist if it were socially acceptable.  Actually, forget socially acceptable. I’d do it even if it weren’t.  Coffee for me is like sex to a 20 year old man, never too much, and never too often.

     My oldest brother John, lives near by, and was with Ma and I when she passed.  Paul lives in Indiana and didn’t make it here in time.  He was on a business trip and couldn’t get a flight here.  I can see the angst and regret on his face.  I say hi, hug both of them, and blink to stop any surprise tears. 

“Ma wanted to be cremated and buried with her parents,” I tell the assistant funeral director, a short, squatty man, with a bad comb-over and a blue paisley tie that doesn’t quite fit over a mid-section that rivals Santa’s.  

“Yes, your brothers told me,” says Comb-over.  “It is our policy to return the remains to the loved ones for proper burial if our services are not being used.”

We all nod in agreement, and then Paul asks Comb-over if he can see our mother before she’s cremated. 

Comb-over gives us what must be his really sympathetic face, and says, “Oh, no.  No.  I’m sorry.  It’s against our policy to allow family back into the crematorium.  You understand.”

Paul nods in agreement. 

Seriously? 

“Excuse me,” I say.   “My brother wasn’t able to see our mom before she died.  He lives out of state and couldn’t get here, so I’m sure you can make an exception.” 

Jake smirks in my direction, liking my passive aggressive technique, and I give him a quick smile. 

 “Well,” Comb-over says, back peddling. I’ll see what I can do.”  He gives us what is obviously his, I am not making enough money for this job, face, and excuses himself, closing the door behind him.  A chill fills the air, and I hug my arms to my chest. 

My brothers look at me.  “Well, it’s a stupid rule and someone had to call him on it.”

“Thanks,” Paul says. 

I smile at him and then see my mother floating behind him, smiling. 

 “You’re such a good girl.  I knew you loved your brother,” she says.

“Uh, I guess I do.”

Paul looks at me.  “You guess you do, what?”

Well, crap.  For a brief second I consider saying, sorry I was talking to the ghost of our mother, who is, by the way, floating behind you, but instead go with, “Sorry, I was just thinking out loud.”   Probably now isn’t a good time to tell my brothers I’m seeing ghosts.   Probably there will never be a good time.

Paul starts to say something again, but Comb-over walks back in.  The man may be a fashion nightmare, but his timing is impeccable.   He coughs lightly and straightens his tie.  “We don’t normally allow anyone into the crematorium, but given the circumstances, we’ll make an exception.”

We.  Uh huh.  We, as in the big boss, I bet.  I smile my, I won smile, and thank him.  Comb-over explains that since our mother is being cremated, they don’t prepare her body as they would for a traditional burial.  I assume that means she’s not made up and nod my understanding.  He walks to open the closed door behind my brothers and walks right through my mother. 

She shudders.  “Oh, Madone, that was creepy.”

I look at the wall and ignore her.

Through the doorway I can see my mother lying on a gurney, the one that’s not floating in the room with me, that is.  I look back and forth between the horizontal Ma and the floating Ma.  This is all a little confusing.  First I had one Ma, and then she died.  Now I have a dead Ma and a ghost Ma.  If they both start talking to me, I’m getting up and driving myself straight to the loony bin.  I stand up quickly, shake off the crazy, and say, “Ah, Paul, you can go first.”  And he does. 

We all say our goodbyes to my mother.  I can’t hear their private whispered words, but I can hear Ma responding.  Not the Ma lying on the gurney, the ghost one.  As I said, it’s confusing.  Like the loud Italian woman she was in life, her raspy, I’ve-had-one-thousand-too-many-cigarettes, voice envelops the room, for me at least, since apparently I’m the only one who can hear her.  “Oh Pauly, it’s okay.  I’m not mad that you weren’t here.  Don’t be upset.  It’s okay.”  

I always knew he was her favorite. 

Paul and I haven’t always had the smoothest of relationships.  In fact, as a child he wanted me dead.  No, really.  He pushed me in front of slow moving cars a few times, but thankfully I wasn’t hurt.  Highly embarrassed from peeing in my Granimals, but much to his frustration, still alive.  Angst and sibling rivalry aside, my heart aches for him now.  The guilt of not being there when Ma passed will haunt him forever, and I can’t help but wonder if that would be easier than being haunted by her ghost.

An hour later, the four of us are having coffee at Starbucks.   Before we left the funeral home, Paul asked Comb-over to let us know when Ma’s body was cremated.   I’d prefer not to know, but everyone handles death differently. 

We’re discussing the arrangements of her burial when I get the call.  Comb-over tells me they’ve started, and as I nod to Jake and my brothers, a heavy sadness fills the air. 

I disconnect from the call and say, “Okay.  When should we go to Chicago?”

“That’s a good question,” John, the over thinker of us siblings, says.  “I’ll call the cemetery later today and find out if we can bury mom with Grandma and Grandpa.  If they won’t let us, we’ll have to figure out what else to do.  I was thinking maybe we could each take a portion of her remains and do something with our kids to honor her.”

Oh, no.  No, no, no.  That is not going to happen.  I promised Ma I’d do this for her and I’ll be damned if I don’t.  Especially since she’s haunting me.  There is no way I’m going to spend the rest of my waking days with the ghost of my mother pissed off because we didn’t honor her final wish.  No way.

“It’s okay,” I blurt out before Paul can agree.  “Ma was worried about the same thing, so we called the cemetery a few weeks ago and found out that it’s fine.”  I take a quick breath, hoping God won’t strike me dead for lying.      

“They told me that as long as we’re not getting a stone, the plots are ours to do with as we please. Except for digging up our grandparents, that is.”  I quickly look out at the sky, but still no lightening.  Phew.

My brothers nod and say, “Okay.” 

What’s wrong with a few little lies?  This is what Ma wanted and eventually I’ll tell them the truth, once she’s buried and we’re on our way home, or maybe next year.  What’s the saying?  Ask for forgiveness, not permission.  That’s what I’ll do, eventually.

I offer to make the memorial arrangements even though we all know they’d have asked me to do it anyway. 

“I already called Roxanne, who said she’d make the rounds of calls and since the funeral home here said they would put the obituary in the Chicago papers, that’s covered.  Does the weekend after next work?  This gives us all time to plan accordingly.”

“I don’t see a problem with that, but I’ll have to check with Elizabeth and see what her schedule is,” John says. 

Jake nods in agreement, not looking up from his iPhone.

Paul nods his agreement too, and says,  “Let’s go through all of our pictures of Mom.  I can make a video with music, and we can show it at her memorial.” 

We all agree that’s a great idea, make plans to confirm the date over email by tonight, and my brothers leave.  Jake and I share the same addiction to the warm, smooth taste of coffee, and get refills before we head home, too.