A little over a year ago, I was taking a walk, talking on the phone with my mom like I do most afternoons. We hadn’t been talking about anything important—a book one of us had read maybe or a restaurant we wanted to try—when suddenly she interjected with, “By the way, I just heard from Nancy. She finished the death dress.”
Despite the fact that my mom was and continues to be completely healthy, death was not a surprising topic for her. While most people shy away from using the d-word—He’s passed on; She’s in a better place; They are no longer with us—my mom can’t talk about it enough. Her favorite pastimes are watching YouTube videos of people recounting their near-death experiences, which she affectionately calls NDEs, and researching “green funerals.” She has a two-inch-thick binder labeled “When I Die.” Her favorite animal is the vulture.
Enter my aunt Nancy, one of my mom’s five sisters, who, upon learning about my mom’s preoccupation, offered to make her something to wear on her big day. Dyed with cabbage and crafted from organic cotton, the garment we call her death dress is embroidered with over twenty vignettes inspired by my mom’s life.
She made the world more beautiful and healthy… it reads. By tending the land. By writing stories. By loving Kirt and keeping him alive. This last one refers to my dad, who is accident-prone and resistant to proper medical care. The words are accompanied by a hand-stitched likeness of him.
Somehow, Nancy captured the exact look in his eye when he laughs. By banning plastic, the list goes on. By planting trees. By raising two lovely daughters. A section on the hem commends her degree in Spanish: Ella hablaba español y estudio español todo su vida. Another says, She fit in a dog door, because one time, she did.
Dyed with cabbage and crafted from organic cotton, the garment we call her death dress is embroidered with over twenty vignettes inspired by my mom’s life.
It will probably come as no surprise to hear that I too am preoccupied by mom’s inevitable death. Frankly, when she’s already put together her last look, it’s hard not to be. But the interesting thing is that her fixation with it and my own came about completely independently. Years before she got the dress she’d wear in her coffin, I was already pre-grieving the time I’d no longer have her with me.
My forthcoming novel, The Truth About Ben and June, is about June, a thirty-year-old woman with a new baby and a recently dead mother. Struggling with feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, and feeling like she has no one else to turn to, June begins writing letters to her dead mom, seeking a resurrected connection or maybe even a sign.
I don’t need my therapist to tell me that June is a receptacle for my dread about my mom’s death. The only major difference between my character’s grief and my own is that hers is in reaction to a loss, while mine is in preparation for one. In fact, June’s grief is the only element of my book I didn’t have to research. All I had to do was prick at my own, and hers bled out.
With June as my vehicle, I journeyed through the stages of grief. This wasn’t, as the list suggests, a steady progression from denial to anger to bargaining and so on, but rather like a game of Wac-A-Mole. One moment, June would ache with all the questions she could no longer ask the woman who had guided her through life. The next, she’d rage at her mom for dying when she did—before she could walk June down the aisle, or meet her grandson, or see June finally get accepted into the dance company for which she’d auditioned seven years in a row.
While the details of our lives differ, all of these emotions are echoes of my own. My mom may have lived through my wedding, but the first time she skips a book launch because she’s dead, you better believe I’m going to be pissed. And the world in which I will no longer be able to call her for advice is a world I want nothing to do with.
The only stage of grief I never got to was the last one—acceptance—though I did eventually gift it to June. Hers was murky and hesitant, but it was there. Yet, even as I wrote the words of my character’s newfound peace, I only felt it for the loss of her mom, not my own.
So it leaves me to wonder: what the hell is the point? Why grapple with death if it doesn’t help us come to terms with it?
In fact, June’s grief is the only element of my book I didn’t have to research. All I had to do was prick at my own, and hers bled out.
This past Easter, at the invitation of her pastor, my mom gave a presentation about the death dress to their congregation. My husband and I, along with my sister and her partner, attended as guests for moral support. During the talk, my mom’s pastor asked her what the death dress means to her. “It reminds me of my relationship with my sister,” she answered. “It makes me grateful for that.”
I had to reign in my shock. That was the takeaway? When I look at the death dress, my chest caves in. It is a reminder that one day, my mom will be ripped from me. One day, I will no longer be able to hear her answer the phone with a shriek because she is genuinely that excited to talk to me. One day, she will be gone, and I will be left to do nothing but hope she isn’t quite as gone as I think.
Over the next few months, my mind periodically turned to that day, and I began to realize that it wasn’t actually the disparity between our reactions that had been so surprising. After all, I’d always known my mom had a different relationship to the dress than I did. It was that her takeaway had nothing to do with death at all. Somewhere along the way, I’d let myself believe the dress had unlocked some secret about death for my mom that my book had not done for me. I’d come to believe that because she was in some small way ready for death, she would understand more about it.
But how could she? Every one of us is, after all, on the opposite side of death. It is inherently unknowable. The only thing I’m certain of, when I think about the day my mom will die, is the love I have for her and the love she has for me. It is a living thing and it will continue to live inside me after she is gone.
In the wake of this idea, I reconsider my mom’s reaction to the death dress and think perhaps it isn’t so far off. After all, the dress reminds her to be grateful for a deep love and I suppose what it teaches me is that my mom will never be fully gone if I carry her with me. When I squint my eyes, I can make out a commonality there. Maybe the death dress, and my book, and grappling with the inevitable can’t teach us about death at all. Maybe the only thing death will ever be able to teach us about is life.
Still. I can’t help but think as June does, that one day after my mom dies, I could receive a message from the beyond—and we’re not the only ones either. In one of the pockets of my mom’s dress, Nancy stitched the words, Send a sign. And believe me, if there’s anyone who could transcend time and space to communicate with the living, it would be my mom.
Sometimes, I daydream about what sign she might choose. Messages in a foggy mirror aren’t really her style and while flickering lights may appeal to her, I think she’d go for something bigger. I think of her favorite animal, the vulture, how she likes that they turn death into life. I envision how high they soar, how magnificent their wingspan is, how free they look against the wide open blue. And I think perhaps, when I’m missing my mom most, I will look to the sky.
The Truth About Ben and June by Alex Kiester is available from Park Row