Umbrella Point is an idyllic setting in Manor Park on Long Island Sound in Larchmont, New York, twenty-five miles north of Manhattan. It remains the crown jewel that exemplifies Larchmont’s privilege and beauty. Immaculately kept, always quiet and with spectacular views of sailboats, manicured grass, and infinitely climbable rocks on the waterline, it has remained largely unchanged for generations.
A long-time resident of the town and mother of three passed away nearby last year, and it was decided that her ashes would be spread at Umbrella Point. For her, the park had been a long favorite sanctuary from a difficult life. She told her three children that their father’s ashes were scattered here, which brought them some small solace during their lives. This would be the right place to spend eternity. “Location, location, location,” a mantra upheld even in the afterlife.
The spreading of her ashes was a small affair. The mother had experienced a lifetime of hardships and was socially withdrawn for the past twenty years. Her family was her lifeline to the outside world. The mother’s daughter, one of her two sons, and her grandson were in attendance. The other son, the youngest of the three, stayed an ocean away from this sad farewell.
It was at this occasion of the spreading of the mother’s ashes that the attending son, the oldest, decided to reveal a troubling secret that had been kept from the rest of the small family for most of their lives.
Ten years before, he was approached by an acquaintance whose family had owned a local funeral home. They had cremated the father some forty years ago and informed the eldest son that the ashes were never picked up after the services. This was not uncommon, as some people are not equipped for the finality of retrieving and attending to the remains of their loved ones. Clearly, the mother who then had three small children to raise alone was not up to that task. This became yet another item on the indelible list for her oldest son, who saw failure in his mother’s every breath and blamed her for his unhappiness for most of his life.
When the oldest son heard this news about his father’s long-forgotten ashes, it presented him with a unique opportunity for unity within the family. If handled properly this hidden truth could allow the family to grieve as adults, and perhaps even to in some ways heal. The grieving process was never appropriately addressed by the mother with her young children. The death was a tragic event she was in no way prepared to handle, and her three children were far too young to understand how their lives would be forever changed. The loss of her husband and her inability to cope with it would be a filter through which all new experiences would pass, a poisoned seed in their little collective.
This opportunity raised by how to impart the unexpected news to his siblings was a gift. It was a chance for the three children and the mother to all come together as adults and say a proper goodbye to a long-deceased father. Unfortunately, the oldest son didn’t recognize this moment for what it was. He saw it instead as a dark secret to be maintained and hidden from his brother and sister. He confronted the mother, who did not display her best instincts and only thought of herself at that moment. In her shame, she implored the son not to tell his siblings about the ashes. He then took it upon himself to go and spread the ashes alone, thus perpetuating the original offense of the mother’s avoidance of the task, sealing it forevermore.
It would be easy to blame the mother until you’d seen her life through her eyes. Her husband’s death was tragic, the consequences overwhelming. Although the family never fully healed the mother did the absolute best for each of her children, ensuring education, and maintaining a large home where they were never wanted for anything except that which remained unspoken: Closure.
Now, ten years later, at the moment of spreading the mother’s ashes in the same spot the oldest son decided to share his secret and unburden himself of this knowledge that he’d held for so long. He told his shattered family of the forgotten ashes and his decision to spread them on this same spot alone, a decade before. This compounded the moment exponentially and sealed the fate and direction of how the surviving children would experience the loss of their parents. The poisoned seed of impotence had been allowed to thrive.
How I learned about our mother’s passing is illustrative of the level of disfunction and disassociation within our family which has been present since my early childhood and throughout my entire adult life.
There was no incident nor sirens. No sympathetic voice on the phone sharing pain or platitudes of comfort.
The news was transmitted not to me, but to my wife. An impersonal text from my estranged sibling across an ocean and through the buffer of a six-hour time differential, (preferred protocol when one has estranged siblings).
We left Barb behind us when we moved to Europe six months before she died. It was becoming clear to me that she was losing the will to continue living as our departure drew near. For her, watching her body fail her was just another slight. Watching her youngest son, favorite daughter-in-law and only grandson all leave her to start a new life across the ocean provided confirmation of what she knew was soon coming.
With our departure I had forced the timeline upon her.
Defeated, tired, and now feeling yet again betrayed, she resigned, declining to reinvent her life one last time.
This is how we die in stages. We accumulate enough gut punches, betrayals, and hardships until one day we stop advocating for ourselves to ourselves. The standard-issue internal narrative keeps us strong for most of our lives, but when we stop fighting it’s the beginning of the end.
I had already said my goodbyes to my mother during a recent visit to New York and did not relish the high drama of a long-broken family now in the last throes of pretending to be at any time whole.
And this is how, for me, my mother’s life ended: “Honey, I have some bad news I need to tell you.”
I had just awoken, my eyes not yet opened, still in bed with the covers to my chin. The December air was frigid and I was relishing the warmth of the blankets, feeling the cold in the tip of my nose. Sublime comfort with my wife and son as we immersed ourselves in rented Swiss luxury amongst the snow-covered mountains just two days before Christmas.
The words came just as I was just beginning to construct the day in my head and then, my wife’s voice gentle, but persistent, “Honey…”
The news put all of us on our backs for most of the day, our physical energy instantly depleted as Barb’s new finality demanded our attention and affirmation. Life came into focus in her death, as clouds rolled in to cover the lake outside our window, silently creating a slow-moving and surreal stream of haunting beauty as we lay out on the chateau couches too numb to move.
Was she in any way present in the essence of those clouds as she eased from life to death? Or was I simply projecting some momentary spirituality upon the scene outside my window as I wrestled to find some comfort, any comfort, in her passing?