Turn Down the Lights Slowly
by Ute Carson
Family Gatherings, Edited by Whitney Scott, Outrider Press, Inc., 2003

Funerals in Germany draw large crowds. Maybe it's because we're summoned by mail. A black-bordered envelope alerts us. Someone has died. We take a deep breath, tear open the wrapping. The name and dates of the deceased, a Bible verse, lists of family members and information about the funeral are engraved on ivory-colored stationery, framed in black, the European hue of mourning.

When my mother died, an international bird sanctuary might as well have opened its gates. Such a mixed bag, our family lot. Neighbors, friends and acquaintances, too, heard the call. It was, after all, not an ordinary funeral, but the leave-taking of a Countess.

Opportunity is all.

A parliament of owls was already present. They lived in the same assisted-living residence as Mother and had shared in her illness, watched her decline. They were wise to grieving.

A paddling of ducks and a gaggle of geese flocked to the funeral. They knew Mother from the grocery store, the pharmacy, the knitting circle, the Titled Ladies Auxiliary.

From America and Africa casually dressed foreigners drifted in, spicing up the black-clad local crows. But the strangers were like a flock of birds blown off course at the Inn on the River with no televisions in their rooms and with keys that made crunching noises in the rusty iron door locks.

Old, old friends, patches of skin showing through the down and some feathers missing, wearing dark suits with frayed cuffs and shiny elbows, arrived at the train station with large hats and small suitcases. The two taxi drivers on duty were out of breath from flitting back and forth.

Nieces and nephews fluttered to the funeral, perky hens and red roosters, squawking and flapping their wings.

A watch of magpies flew in. They were the curious, in search of glittering hand-outs. Only I knew that there would be no leftovers. Mother had willed everything to her beloved American grandchildren, including the gold-framed, gloating ancestors who, I suspected, might step from behind the glass and join the company. They had seen it all before.

But among the gawking, the old-timers and the greedy were the truly bereft. My children among them. They resembled awkward fledglings, unaccustomed to sadness, new to loss. The first lines, fresh tiny wrinkles appeared around their innocent eyes, their smiling mouths.

Whatever the ilk, they all came, they stayed, they witnessed and listened to the story of a gentle death befitting an aristocratic life. Mother died the way she had lived, a Countess.

She had looked regal. She walked straight-backed and held her head high as if in stem reproach. She always donned hats like the Queen of England and dressed with graceful elegance in sedate tones of deep greens, blues and browns. She was a prim, old-fashioned beauty with real blond hair before it turned silver-white with a single stroke. Her eyes were dazzling like the sun she worshipped, and blue like the cornflowers she adored. She extended the cigarette she always had lit in an ebony holder between fine-boned fingers, showing off her ring, a ruby set high in spikes of white-gold.

Mother should have been given a medal for grooming, for I never saw her unkempt. Even in the World War II air-raid shelter, she had worn pearls. Her first name, Maria, was used by intimates only. She was affectionate with the ones she loved and comfortable with her body, but she detested informality and bad manners. Though on the opposite end of war politics from them, she understood why the English would take tea under a merciless sun, never shedding their black gloves with white-stitched seams to dab beads of perspiration from their brows with monogrammed starched linen handkerchiefs. Appearances reflect attitudes Mother kept up appearances and adhered adamantly to family rituals "Tradition endures like a hardy desert plant," she once said "It will survive in the most inhospitable terrain."

And grave loss did Mother endure. Men adored her and she took advantage of her natural beauty. She flirted shyly and dated with reserve. But no men stayed. Life is blind to personal charms. Loneliness was to be Mother's lifelong companion. Her father, whom she adored, left the family when she was seven, and she lost two brothers and both husbands in World War II. Today they look out from yellowed photographs in pressed uniforms and with confident smiles, joining the ancestors, forever young.

At 27, Mother was driven from her castle in Silesia during the Russian invasion to settle in West Germany, a widow with two young daughters She endured mostly in private and kept her thoughts in clouds of proper silence. But occasionally there were outbursts when she would blame the world and her children for her fate, with a wail of woe, a flood oft ears. She was never able to build a new life. Like a sand castle, her dreams crumbled and washed away At all times she clung to our hearts Mother was brought up at a time when women were well educated in private boarding schools but were expected to become wives and mothers.

She felt betrayed by her daughters' independence moving to Africa and America, becoming professionals, living with different partners. Mother earned some money selling needlework, but her scant funds were supplemented by contributions from her children and wealthy relatives. All the while she stiffened her back to fate and held on to a vanished lifestyle, her elegant wardrobe, her classy furniture, her refined manners, and many an ancestral cobweb.

And babies.

Babies - her own, mine, my sisters' and then the grandchildren and great-grandchildren- always fit perfectly into the shape of her life. All children slept peacefully in the cradle of her ample arms, and holidays in Mother's Germany were fairy-tale adventures. Children were Mother's substance, the bridge between the generations, the hope beyond life's disappointments. Mother was a victim of an unfair fate but as she was master of appearances, she became the master of her death. As far as I know, she never contemplated suicide but she determined the course of her dying. She had a simple belief in a heaven above, her reward for earthly troubles. And she did not fear death. "Death is not evil or frightening, just the end of a difficult life."

And she hoped there would be some use for her knitting in the beyond. Despite being of high birth, she had no intention of resting her nimble hands. Mother used to come to America for extended stays.

"It doesn't pay to travel so far for just a few weeks."

She made her last journey to this country one July for her 80th birthday. Bone cancer had invaded, deeply tormenting her, and she had lost her mobility to a wheelchair. But she celebrated like the proud matriarch she was with erect posture, demanding everyone's full attention.

That December I started yearly visits to the historic spa of Arolsen where Mother lived in a retirement community. I relished my homecomings. It was the time of the Nikolausmarkt when the aroma of Lebkuchen, Advent wreaths, spiced wine and dripping candle wax wafted from the street market right into her apartment. Mother loved this festive season as much as I do.

But she was in pain and had no time for the sorrow she saw in me as I watched her suffer. Her decline dragged on for three long years. Our relationship had been wracked with omissions. These last years allowed for second chances. It was 1999. The cancer had spread to her spine and she was on a morphine drip around the clock. She was delighted to see me and kept me busy buying and wrapping Christmas gifts. For long hours I sat at her bedside, knitting, talking. We moved entirely in the moment, looking neither forward nor backward. Those were full, warm days.

The time came for me to return home. Mother was in good spirits, but reduced to eating morsels. By now she was so thin, it was as if she had been erased to her essence. One morning she asked for her hairdresser to have the "dullness washed out." The ordeal left her wrung out and bone‹weary. It was then that she gave me a shopping list and some unusual instructions.

"I'd like you to make potato pancakes tonight."

My mouth watered at the thought. When I was a child, my mother had taught me to whip up crisp pancakes from raw, grated potatoes, fried in butter, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and topped with applesauce.

Mother cheered up under the influence of crispy potato pancakes and smooth champagne. We talked quietly, mostly about the children and grandchildren. But when she held the chilled champagne glass to her left temple, I knew her terrific headaches had returned. Several times she licked her lips compulsively. Then she sank into her pillow and drew a deep breath that was almost a sigh. With a voice now brittle as hollow egg she whispered, "No diapers. Do you hear me? No diapers. And turn down the lights gently." I swallowed. The insult of being treated like a baby again. It took me a minute to find my words but then I promised to do my best. I hoped I didn't sound as transparent as I felt.

Mother was at odds with my sister, a nurse. But she instructed me, "Call your sister. You'll need her."

Then she deliberately set her jaw, gumming her lips together. Her eyelids fluttered like tiny bird wings, and then they shut down She never opened her eyes again. I called my sister and Mother's personal doctor in panic. They both arrived within hours.

"Your mother and I talked about her dying," the doctor said calmly, and turned up the morphine drip.

For the next 10 days my mother's breath was a rattle, then a flicker. Her strong heart opened and closed like her firm, dappled hands, fist, palm, fist, palm. Finally she curled her fingers like a flower about to rest for the night. My sister and I massaged her bluing feet, then slipped on woolen socks. We watched over her as people came and went, relieving us for a meal, a breath of fresh air, a couple of hours lying down on the couch.

It was time to turn down the lights, light the candles, play music from the old days. Her plump cat "Tiny" who once had been a scrawny orphan, used Mother's chest as his cushion and slept.

How long had it been? A couple of minutes? My watch ended at 2 A.M. I woke my sister who emerged only slowly from deep slumber. Then I curled up on my sleeping bag. With a thump Tiny jumped to the floor and meowed. Startled I leapt up, ran to my mother's bedside and placed my ear to her lips. No quivering. Not a single puff. She lay still as though carved. My mother had slipped away within minutes, between watches, silently and alone. For the duration of a just a few flutters of my heart, I cocooned her body in mine.

Then I woke the rest of the family.

My sister led me through the ritual of washing and dressing. We chose a white silk dress with lace and ruffles, luxurious as any bridal finery. Preparing my mother for burial was an act of love and farewell that yielded the comfort of ancient practices. When she was ready for the funeral director to be called, I went to the windowsill and cut all the orchids she had so lovingly grown. I placed the bouquet, a scented crucifix, under her folded hands.

It snowed, had snowed for days. The winter wind was moaning and downy flakes kept drifting down. For a while I kept my eyes on the window and the snow beyond. As the first sun rays pushed back the starless night we began to notify the other residents. They arrived with rolls, eggs and freshly brewed coffee, passing by Mother, kneeling a minute, touching her hands, murmuring good-byes, hugging us.

The in-house nursing staff paid their respects. We had done their work and I couldn't tell whether they felt left out or pleased with us. Our doctor wrote out the death certificate after probing Mother as gently as he had handled her when she was alive. Then he joined us for coffee.

"No diapers," I announced proudly.

"Sometimes, just sometimes," the doctor told us. "The body shuts down cleanly. Your mother must have willed it."

I heard admiration in his voice.

Life was still, as in a painting. The elegant furniture in my mother's apartment had faded beautifully over the years. Even now, my mother was an integral part of her peaceful surroundings. As we ate, we looked at her resting on the daybed, formidable and serene. Our conversations floated in her direction and we reminisced about her life. This breakfast made the room foreign to sadness and death. Yet death was solemnly present Death gave dignity to our wake. When the funeral home director and his assistant entered wearing masks and sterile gloves, they quickly removed them to pick my mother up. There are no beautiful deaths. There is always a vacant seat at the dinner table, an empty place in the heart. But this was a chosen death, a gentle death, a death that did Mother proud.

That night, about to take a bath and searching for some talcum powder, I opened the medicine cabinet. There were my mother's morphine injections, another month's supply. I slumped down on the toilet seat and cried. A dear voice forever silent, a familiar face now vanished.

Mother had planned every detail of her funeral and we followed her instructions to a T. We put her favorite pillow, embroidered with tiny pink rosebuds, in the casket and her plain cherry wood coffin was barely visible under the colorful profusion of flowers.

"Contributions to worthy causes are fine. But I want flowers, plenty of them," she had said.

For the service she had requested summer songs, flower songs and a song about the sun. Only her authority as a Countess persuaded the stodgy pastor to allow such lighthearted singing. Mother had asked my husband to deliver the eulogy. The two had grown fond of each other, though choosing an American had been a cultural faux pas on my part. Two granddaughters sang a popular love duet. Then I had to invoke the spirits that hover in the realm between the visible and invisible worlds. As we shed our tears, the newest great-grandson made sucking, smacking sounds, the sweetest music for my mother's ears. And as Mother had predicted, the crowd was huge, standing room only in the chapel.

The cemetery lay in deep winter sleep. It snowed as my mother died, it snowed during the service, and now wispy flakes tumbled down from heavy clouds as her grandchildren carried her casket from the chapel to the gravesite. These pallbearers glimmered like moving ghosts as they wound their way under white powdered trees, up the path, the soft ground muting their steps. The snow was calming, mystifying. There was a mellow odor in the winter air like clean linen. The snow settled in silver-gray layers over each grave, blanketing the entire cemetery Mother certainly would have liked the pristine orderliness of her resting place.

A traditional meal followed the burial.

At the threshold to the restaurant, we shook off the snow clinging to coats and hats, stomped our boots and wiped melting snow drops off noses and cheeks. Then we walked into a hazy curtain of heat. Plumes of steam from the round, tiled stove in the dining room obscured our faces and soaked through our garments into our hearts, drying, soothing.

We consumed the rich food heaped on hot plates like hungry hunters. And we drank amber-colored schnapps in crystal tumblers. Our eyes moistened amidst the warm sea of bodies and with the sense of relief. We had accomplished what we had come for. We had given Mother a proper escort on her last journey. As the evening wore on we huddled together in small groups. The wise owls, the yapping geese, the curious magpies and the awkward fledglings, now nibbled on sweets and drank more schnapps. And we told stories about Mother. That was her obituary. We were all salivating for a different nourishment - some soul food. Was it harvesting memories? Or reaffirming connections, some spanning several generations? Or was it the joy of being among the living? Whatever we each felt or thought, we knew that we were honoring a tradition that transcended our individual needs.

"Turn down the lights gently," my mother had said. And so we did.

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