My mama is never far from my mind these days. Even though I’ve been busy with usual day-to-day responsibilities, more days than not I spend a few minutes thinking “this time last year, we were in the waiting room at MD Anderson” or “this time last year, we were about to start radiation treatments,” or “this time last year, I was living with Mama in Alvin…”
It’s hard to believe in only three months it will be a year since Mama passed away and we laid her to rest under the beautiful old oak tree at the Confederate Cemetery in Alvin. Of course, it’s just her physical body lying there. We know where she really is. We know she’s with Jesus.
When I think back to last August — how the expected was still very unexpected — I am so grateful for Mama’s planning. I think it was around the time of her first battle with melanoma, probably four years ago, that she started thinking about preparations for the inevitable journey that we all face at the end of our time on earth. I am the daughter who usually sticks her head in the sand about things like this. I can’t help but also be grateful that my sister, Angie, handles “things like this” so much better than I do. (I owe you big time, Little Sister!)
Whenever Mama tried to talk to me about it, I emphatically insisted on changing the subject. Poor Mama! It was important to her to have a “nice” funeral — she did not want to be cremated. She pointed out how much respect the living paid the dead in the Bible. She couldn’t reconcile cremation with the traditions of the early church, and did not want us to have to resort to that because a traditional funeral was too expensive. I have to assume my sister helped her coordinate the information needed to purchase a $10,000 life insurance policy for burial expenses when the time came. Mama paid the monthly premium faithfully to make sure we wouldn’t have to worry about anything.
During the last few months of her life, she started making known the specifics that she wanted for her last “party.” It sounds strange, but to us it is a party, a celebration of eternal life through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Don’t get me wrong — we cried plenty, but there is comfort in knowing we will see her again.
The Christmas before she found out her cancer had come back, she faxed me her Christmas list. She asked for two specific songs: “I’d Rather Have Jesus” by George Beverly Shea and “There’s Just Something About That Name” by Danny Gaither. I was able to find the first, but could not find the second. I gave her the one I could find on Christmas Eve and then discovered she’d asked for them because she wanted those songs played at her funeral! I fussed at her about that, asking for funeral music as a Christmas gift! My silly mama.
From the time she was diagnosed the first week of April, until she passed away the first week of August, she kept hoping and praying that she would get well, but she also faced the fact that might not be God’s plan for her. So my sister brought her computer over and they looked at caskets and flowers and headstones online. It was during their conversations that she let it be known she would really like a mahogany casket, and that she wanted her full name, “Norma Jean Swearingen Swan” on her headstone. My niece was paying attention, because when it came time to choose a casket piece from the florist, I could not remember what my mama’s favorite flower was. My niece quickly offered that Mama said she loved lilies. Mama mentioned that there was an available spot near her friends at the Confederate Cemetery and my sweet husband took care of securing the spot under the beautiful oak tree.
When you lose a loved one, it’s amazing how quickly everything happens. You’re standing in a hospital room at 4:35 am being told your mama is gone, and before the end of the day, you’re talking to a funeral director and trying to deal with how far $10,000 will go in between close encounters with a soggy Kleenex. It’s painful and messy, but much less so than if you had to make these decisions all the while wondering how to pay for everything.
The precious funeral director took such excellent care of us. My sister brought the paperwork from the life insurance policy to the funeral home and with the ease of a couple of signatures, signed it over to them. The funeral home kept a tally of how much everything cost and deducted it from the value of the policy. We looked at caskets, and in the course of the conversation, mentioned that Mama really wanted a mahogany casket. The funeral director asked us if we’d looked online. We were both a bit shocked by that, but she smiled gently and said, “You can get what she wanted for half the price if you order it online. But you need to do it tonight so the truck will be able to deliver it from Dallas in time.” I cannot say how much we appreciated this kind soul who basically took money out of her own pocket so that we could honor our mama’s wishes. When all was said and done, they returned a balance to us which we set aside for Mama’s headstone.
The service was beautiful and I’m pretty sure Mama was pleased with how we did things. The mahogany casket arrived on time, and we were invited to come see Mama the night before the funeral. The director had taken special care and even allowed my sister to come sit with her while she did Mama’s hair and makeup. It was really important to Angie that Mama’s makeup look the way we remembered it. As we stood there next to the casket, Angie said, “Mama, how do you like your new bed?” We both burst into laughter through our tears because we knew it was what she wanted and that she would be pleased. The flowers were beautiful, and we displayed photos that Mama loved in the foyer. The next day, during the service, the entire congregation joined together to sing the songs Mama had asked for, as well as Amazing Grace. It was the most beautiful funeral I think I’ve ever attended.
I’m so grateful that Mama made provision with the insurance policy, and that she made her wishes known so we, her daughters, her son-in-law, and her grandchildren, could honor her in a way that reflected who she really was at heart: a loving mother, grandmother, and most importantly a woman who’d rather have Jesus than anything.