I wake up the next day knowing there are things that need to be done. I don’t allow myself to think, even for a moment, of what I have lost or how I feel. I know that I will fall apart if I do. Arrangements have to be made, which require sanity. There is a funeral to plan; and not just any funeral – the greatest, most momentous grand finale in the history of humanity. I must do it justice. I must do her justice. I will make it happen. I will do what needs to be done even if it kills me.
I need to go to Bunbury to organise it, because the funeral will take place there. It is where she grew up and where I was born. I am filled with a sense of purpose and urgency. I want to get down there as soon as possible. I need to keep moving or else Grief will stop me in my tracks and I will be unable to do anything. But I must organise things here first. What do I need? What do I need to take? The memory of the preparation for my gramps’ funeral – a mere three weeks ago mind you – jogs me into swift action. I am momentarily struck by the hideousness of the last month. My mother’s father – my beloved Gramps – died a few weeks ago, at the age of 94. I have just been to a difficult funeral. I have just written and read a eulogy for another that I loved, and now I will be forced to do it again, only for someone whose time was not up. I don’t allow myself to think on the cruelty of it for long. Even though I am an atheist I thank god – thank god – her father died before her; having to tell him that his adored daughter had died would have been too much for any of us to bear.
With the memory of organising Gramps’ funeral fresh in my mind, I am able to account for what’s needed for my mother’s quite easily. I try to just think of the practical necessities and shut my emotions out – a feat which I find strangely easy because of the lingering shock. First things first … I need clothes – mine and hers. Yes, I must pick out the clothes she will be cremated in. The grief stabs freshly. I get my clothes first and shove them into a bag. I make the journey into her giant walk-in robe. The sight of all her colourful clothes, and her neatly aligned cheerful shoes, paralyses me for a moment. Realising that I have no strength to actually look at her belongings, I suddenly lurch at the coat-hangers and grab items. A selection of evening- wear is stuffed into a bag, and some of her fun holiday outfits. I grab several pairs of bejewelled shows, and quickly stash boxes of her jewellery into the side of the bag. I will consider it all later and make my selection for her final resting attire.
I take a breath. But that one second without motion is enough for the emotions to take hold again. I must keep moving. I need music to play at the funeral. I go into the dining room to the stereo and grab all the CD’s I can find. What else? We’ll need photos. I immediately stop dead in my tracks. Oh no, I have to take photos to make a montage – like the one I just made for my Gramps. I have to look through mum’s very poorly organised plethora of happy snaps, and take some down to Bunbury. I suddenly feel incomparably sick. But I must remain objective at this stage and just get on with it. I go into the games-room and tentatively approach the huge cardboard photo box. With a shaking hand I open the flaps. A thousand loose photos stare up at me. I see images of her, glaring happily at me. I shove the grief down further into the pit of my being as I start placing piles of photos into a bag. I decide I will sort through them later, knowing full well that it will be unbearable whenever I choose to do it.
I get my cat – Julius Caesar – ready, and then stuff everything into the car, including the wailing cat. Before we can make the two hour journey down to Bunbury, Ross must go and get what he needs from his parent’s house. I cannot go in and face his parents; the thought of facing anyone seems insurmountable. I wait in the car and try to organise the thoughts in my scattered mind. I recall the phone conversations I had with my family when I got home from the hospital. The grief stabs. I try to focus on the practical arrangements. The funeral director is coming up to Gramps’ house in Bunbury later today to organise everything, just as he did three weeks ago. He knows the family well, and the thought of him being in control of this event quietly reassures me.
During the long drive I am unable to still my mind, so I give in to smoking because I don’t know any other means of getting by. I feel intensely guilty, but I tell myself that I just have to do whatever I can to get through each day. Finally we arrive at the house – the little blue house where my mum grew up. This darling little dilapidated house has always been my sanctuary. I can survive here. I can do what needs to be done here. As I walk up the broken wooden stairs onto the front veranda that overlooks the ocean, I am stung by the haunting reality that she will never set foot in this house again. I close my eyes tightly and will myself to just go in and keep moving.
Before too long Uncle Chris and Aunty Judi arrive – mum’s older brother and sister-in-law. I am sitting at the kitchen table when I see the figure of my aunty appear in the doorway. She looks at me. She puts her head to one side and throws her arms up in silent exasperation. There are no words, but there is love. She hugs me. Uncle Chris comes in and we embrace briefly. He is pale and he looks like death; lines of torture spread liberally across his face. It is obvious that he is completely and utterly broken. His baby sister is gone. And what was once a happy, vital man now stands broken before me. He looks how I feel. We all sit down at the kitchen table – the table that has brought our family so much joy and laughter over the years. Now the vacancy of its chairs is palpable.
The funeral director –Errol – one of the kindest men I’ve ever known, joins us shortly after. Judi uneasily comments that she had hoped she wouldn’t be seeing him again so soon. She says what we’re all thinking. We sit down around the table. Erroll takes out a folder containing a stash of orderly papers. He has a little white booklet entitled, ‘Funerary Arrangements’. He carefully writes, Elna Margaret McKimmie, on it. I want to hit him, even though he is a wonderfully tender man and I am grateful that he is here. I take a deep breath. It is time to begin.
He goes through the necessary questions with a beautiful sensitivity and efficiency. But they are all questions that I desperately long NOT to hear. I am not ready for this. Yet I have no choice. First we have to set a date. It has to be Monday, so people can arrive from interstate and overseas. The chapel at the funeral parlour is too small to hold the funeral. Ellie knew too many people. The crematorium chapel is bigger, so we decide to have it there. It is going to be at 11am on Monday the 7th of September. Before we move on to arranging the details, Erroll points out that the funeral notices in the paper need to go in right now if we are to meet the deadline. We all must write them now, on the spot. Uncle Chris and I hastily write them, whilst trying to stifle our emotions. What can I say in a line or two? I am enraged that the newspaper needs to know any of this! But mum would enjoy having more notices than most people, so I have no choice but to write one.
The chapel is booked. Now we must decide upon a venue for the wake. Again we need a large venue. I quickly say that there needs to be alcohol – an open bar in fact – and lots of party food, like sausage rolls, party pies and other related products. I feel stupid asking for them. But she made it clear she wanted them. She actually made joking comments about her own funeral when we were planning gramps’. She didn’t understand why there couldn’t be alcohol involved, and she thought mini sandwiches were highly insufficient. How ironic, I muse painfully; because we had just planned a funeral together I know exactly what she wants. Many of her requests – no not requests, demands – were ridiculous in my opinion and I told her so as I laughed at her childishness. But now I don’t care, she must have them all honoured, down to the last silly detail. The Parade Hotel will work for the wake. It’s perfect. She loved it there. Yes – she will have a huge wake, with an open bar, copious tacky foodstuffs and lots of Asti-Riccadonna – her favourite drink. I make it clear that there must be a constant supply of Asti-Riccadonna.
I already feel weak and sick with the onslaught of preparations, but there is so much more to consider – a cruel amount of things. Do I want a cremation or a burial? I know for certain she wanted a cremation, so that part is easy. Who will conduct the service? I think about it for a moment. I remember her saying that she wanted her best friend’s sister Karen to do it, even though she’s a priest and mum was a shameless atheist. Errol says he will call her and ask. Who will want to speak? I want to say something. Uncle Chris surprises me by saying that he will have his daughter Elissa read something that he has written. Trudy, my beloved cousin, has told me that she wants to speak. Saran – my dear friend who adored mum – unable to make the journey from London, wants someone to read a short testimony from him. Her work friends also want to contribute. She was a teacher, and the entire staff and student body loved her. There are a lot of speakers, so we are each given a time limit.
Who will be the pallbearers? The question stings me, as it is accompanied by a hideous image of her body being carried in a coffin. Nonetheless it is a fairly easy decision. We will have her nieces and nephews – Trudy, Elissa, Oliver, Annie, and Lara – she was a fabulous aunty. We are one short, so Ross agrees to be the last pallbearer. Erroll, having known Ellie for a long time, anticipates my response to the next question. Do I want a photo montage? I say yes, and I add that mum will require double the amount of photos that is considered normal – 50 instead of a more tasteful 20. I agree to assemble them and take them in to Errol.
Uncle Chris interjects at this point. In a broken whisper that freshly breaks my heart, he says, ‘There’s one photo of her as a little girl … in her bathers … that’s my favourite, but I don’t have a copy’. He can barely finish his sentence. I vow to find a copy. I know the one he means.
Which song will be played during the montage? I know she wanted Barbara’s, ‘The Way We Were,’ because she just told me so a few weeks ago when we were getting the photos of Gramps ready. We also need songs for arriving, the casket coming in, the reflection, and the end. I will listen to some music later and make a selection. Would we like a Reflection? Yes, definitely; music will be played as people place flowers and petals on the casket to say their final goodbye. Next Erroll asks, what about the flowers? I say that I will go to the florist and order them myself. As I do so, I know, with a mounting sense of foreboding that we are gradually getting to the most difficult questions.
And sure enough they appear, made only marginally more bearable by Erroll’s unmatched sensitivity. What kind of coffin do we want? I grimace in response. Before I can utter a word, Erroll says, with a tactful smile, ‘You want a pink one, don’t you?’
Highly embarrassed, I ask if it’s possible to get a pink one, knowing full well she would be satisfied with nothing less and would find a way to make it known to the entire congregation if her last resting placed failed to meet her expectations. My being sighs with relief when Errol says he has a pink one – bless his heart. They have a selection at the funeral home for us to look at tomorrow, including the pink one. He assures me that if it’s not the right pink he can order another one. While on the subject of what I would personally consider ridiculous and altogether tacky requests for a funeral, I take the opportunity to say that mum wanted pink balloons. Erroll is completely unperturbed by the request. He says the florist can organise balloons. They can be placed in the chapel and then released afterward. I feel so relieved. Lastly we must consider what cars would we like. They cannot be black, I say forcefully – she had a phobia of black cars. Silver Hertz’s will be far more suitable.
Just when I think I cannot take any more, the hardest part is upon me … organising her.
She is still in Perth. Errol will arrange for her to be transferred down here to the funeral parlour. I am momentarily panicked that the transport car might be black. She cannot go in a black car, I tell him. He assures me that she will be moved in a white van. I feel another surge of relief. Then he explains that I need to pick out the clothes she is to be cremated in, along with jewellery, and bring them to him. He asks for a recent photo of her to give to the makeup artist. I fumble for one in the bag I have brought down. I also need to provide some of her makeup. He then explains to me, very gently, that she may need to be embalmed to preserve her appearance. He will take a look and advise me on whether or not he feels it is necessary. I agree as I trust him implicitly. I feel my heart shrivel up. Do we want an open coffin? No, I reply, but I want to see her, and I want other people to be able to if they need to. Erroll says that’s fine, that a time can be arranged in the coming days for a viewing at the parlour chapel. 11am on Sunday she will be available for viewing.
At the end of the onslaught, Errol leaves, with his deepest sympathies and comforting reassurances that he will handle everything on his end. He hands me a list of things I need to do. This is unbelievably hideous. But it will keep me moving. It will give me purpose. It will keep me living. I will have a reason to get up tomorrow.
Chris and Judi leave, and Ross and I are alone again. I settle down to business. Equipped with red wine and a packet of cigarettes, I sit on the back veranda with the task of making more calls. I go through mum’s address book to search for people that don’t know that she’s passed who need to know. I find several. I call them. I tell them she has died. I listen to their shock, hurt and empathy with a vague, fuzzy, cold objectivity. The last call is made.
I sigh and carry on. We must find the right music. Ross and I gather hundreds of CDs on the back porch and start listening. I make a shortlist during hours of listening. But the perfect songs echo out from the others, as though making the decision for me. Then it is time to sort the photos. Oh god, the photos. I must find 50 – no, not find – I must narrow down thousands to just 50. I pour through reams and reams of photos and divide them into piles. I try not to look at her. I treat it as an art project. Somehow I manage to narrow it down to 50, though new torture comes from every single image.
I am utterly spent for the night.