Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Photo taken Halloween 2007

When I was a child my mother built several rituals into our lives that I still recall with great fondness. One of them was making hot chocolate (from scratch) on winter days. My brothers and I would come in through the front door and immediately remove all our snow-covered outerwear and boots and strip down to the driest layer. If necessary, a change of clothes was waiting nearby. We were anxious to disrobe, tantalized by the smell emanating from the kitchen. We'd rush to the kitchen and watch as my mom skimmed the top layer off the chocolate and then pour each of us a mug. Nothing before or after tasted so much of love.

My mother also recognized every holiday with a treat. It didn't matter how small the holiday -- though she did not observe President's Day, Yom Kippur and other Jewish holidays, or any other religious holidays outside of Christian ones -- a special treat always awaited us at home. Sometimes it was homemade cupcakes with a jellied rabbit candy atop and other times it was a treat from the bakery. I still remember anticipating the treat that awaited me after school on any given holiday.

Like my mother before me, I established my own traditions with my family. Every year Bill and the kids designed a gingerbread house on graph paper while I made the dough. We baked the pieces, and over several nights we assembled the house. As the children grew older I let them oversee the decoration, resisting my urge it make it perfect. I marveled at their creativity as they rifled through the pantry to find ways to embellish their masterpiece. We also had a ritual at Halloween that involved a trip to JoAnn fabrics to pick out their costume pattern and the material. I then spent several weeks preparing for the big night. And I was easily as happy as they were to see the finished product. This year is the first year that I will not be able to do that; fortunately, they chose costumes for which we already had all the necessary parts: Aidan will be Yoda and Amelia plans to be a horse rider. They were very mature about letting this ritual go, making me realize that the ritual was probably all about me all along.

Of all our many rituals, two are sacred. Every night before they go off to sleep I sing them the lullabies that I have sung to them since they were infants. For the first couple years, I held them and rocked them while I sang. Then, I sat on their beds and rubbed their backs as I sang their songs. As my cough worsened, there were nights when they sang the songs instead of me. And, now, they often come to my room for their lullabies if I am too tired to come to their rooms. At some point I need to record myself singing them so that they will have them though the quality of my singing now leaves much to be desired. The second sacred ritual is Friday night movie night. We always made homemade regular and caramel corn and settled down to a movie. Afterwards we had our family "sleep over," in which the kids slept in their sleeping bag on our bedroom floor. The movie part is getting tricky because Amelia's and Aidan's tastes are diverging so who knows how much longer this will last. Sometimes we split up for the movie and reunite for "sleep over."

All this thinking about ritual brought me around to birth and death. When a woman is expecting, there are a number of rituals that anticipate and celebrate the blessed event of birth: picking a nursery theme, having a baby shower, washing the newborn clothing, taking childbirth classes, and preparing the nursery. By the time the baby has arrived, mama is as ready as she is ever going to be (no one is ever truly ready for the life changing event, are they?).

And now I find myself entering the last phase of my life and there are no rituals for the dying. I'm just sort of "winging it." We hosted a healing ceremony in April that was beautiful. Many friends and family members attended the service that my friend Kevin presided over. The weather seemed apropos with a gray sky and the blossoms of our cherry tree raining down all around us. Everyone anointed me with chrism, sacred oil used in Catholic sacraments. In some ways the healing ceremony was my way of "coming out" and admitting to everyone that I held dear that I was very sick and entering the final phase of my life. It was my way of inviting them into this journey and asking them to walk it with me in the ways that they were able. It was the beginning of my long good-bye.

The idea for the birthday gifts for the kids came from my friend Susan who once heard about someone else doing that. It seemed like a grand idea. The journals I kept for the kids were written for the very purpose of serving as my memory of them should I die before they became parents themselves. The CDs were a fleeting thought that really caught my attention and became an enjoyable activity. And the video was the brainchild and gift of a friend. During my many hours alone I try to think about what I would want to have of my mother, and I pick through ideas like shells on the beach, selecting the perfect ones and leaving others behind.

I wonder why we have no rituals surrounding death that involve the dying person. We Catholics have Last Rites (which has been renamed but I cannot remember the new name), but beyond that I am not aware of any cultural rituals for the dying. Tim McGraw suggested skydiving and Rocky Mountain climbing but I am not quite up for that physically. Is death just too individual to come up with a selection of rituals or are we so afraid of death that we elect to deny the reality of it? I'm not sure.

I don't know whether it's my OCD or control freak tendencies, but I have intense need to say good-bye on my terms. I wrote a good-bye letter to be read at my funeral; I wrote it at least three years ago "just in case." I told Bill where it was and emailed it to four trusted friends. I planned the slideshow and the accompanying music that I want played at the funeral. I've decided to be cremated and where I want my ashes interred. At first Bill and I worried that the kids would be upset by the idea of me being cremated but it's what I really want and I need to honor that.

After all, dying is my chance to say good-bye too. It is my opportunity to show others that I loved them and had a richer life for knowing them. And I don't want to let that opportunity pass me by.


Samaire Anson said...

glad the costumes worked out. i'm sure that the kids will lovingly remember your rituals. note them down in a book for the kids. like a scrapbook. i know that energy is limited but have them help you. perhaps the kids will carry them on to when their adults with their own children. you're wonderful; and they know and will always know this.

you're right. you shouldn't let any opportunity to leave your mark pass you by.

you are thought of and many people out in the world are praying for you and your family.


homefire said...

Sounds to me like you have done a lot of wonderful things for your family to remember you by! And part of the challenge is knowing what's worth it and what's not.

One curious question: Why is it that you really want to be cremated? That's not in our tradition, so I haven't thought much about it, but I'm wondering what makes a person choose that.

amanda said...

You should talk to the chaplain at your hospice home. He or she should be able to help you come up with some rituals.

Last rites are now called anointing of the sick, so it's not just a one time thing anymore.

I was formerly a hospital chaplain and have watched many people go through the same journey. It is such a personal thing, but can really be quite beautiful.

Michelle Mayer said...

I want to be cremated b/c our parish is building a columbarium for ashes an I would like my remains to be on thatste b/c I formed many friendships there. There will not be a graceyard at the parish.

desert dirt diva said...

your an amazing women with strenghs i don't know that i would step sister did this very thing when she found out she had lung cancer(yes alot of people i know have had this terrible diease)but it was a wonderful celebration of her life....and one, her kids will carry with them...and i'm sure your children will carry with them as well your in my prayers, take care

Helen W. said...

Your careful attention to rituals and relationships over the past years has been a great gift to me and so many others, including Amelia, Aiden and Bill. You are an amazing pioneer-- brave enough to live life to the fullest and cherish the moments that many of us let pass by. I have gained so very much from your bold living and bold dying. Much love to you, Michelle. Helen

Deb said...


Your ideal of a ritual for dying made a lot of sense to me so, being in computers for a long time, I looked on the web for some dying rituals. There was quite a bit of information. Two things stuck out. The first is a web site for a family ritual. The address is

The book that I saw was:
Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life by
Megory Anderson (Da Capo Press; Rev Exp Su edition (December 23, 2003) (ISBN 978-1569244340)

Anderson, a theologian who founded the Sacred Dying Foundation, has written a guide for people facing the death of a loved one. To that end, she relates stories of her work and discusses rituals that help the dying find peace and the survivors to go on with their lives. These rituals include prayer, creating sacred space, using music, listening, and dealing with the past. Quotations from Christian and Jewish sources as well as The Tibetan Book of the Dead illuminate the text. Not just a guide, this is also a useful reference work: the appendix contains prayers and poems about dying from a variety of traditions, and the bibliography, which is over 20 pages long, covers such categories as general works, care giving and hospice, rituals, and afterlife as well as the various religious traditions.

I am sorry this is so long but I thought maybe I could help.

Much love. You are in my thoughts.

Mothers heart said...

Just a thought; have you heard about cremation jewelry? I know some people who have purchased this and they are very pleased. The pendants come in many styles some where the ashes are seen and most are where they are inside the pendant. People tell me that they like to feel as though they have their love one close to their heart. Just a thought.

Keep your spirits up, you are an amazing woman. Let me know if you can when the package arrives.

Sue R said...

I had the same ritual of singing to my three boys every night. They sat on my lap even when their heads were higher than mine. Now they are all 6'3" or taller, and that ritual is long gone. They all learned to sing really well, though, and have sung in choirs, as soloists in church, in musicals, and otherwise. Just singing to them helped them become very musical, and that was one of my gifts to them.

I wrote a song some years ago that I want to record and have played at my memorial service. I went to a memorial service for a young man who'd recorded Silent Night, and his version was played then. It gave me goosebumps. I don't think it's at all strange to plan these things, for whenever they're needed. Like you,I want to leave some good moments for those remembering me, to help them know who I was and remember me better. I want a microphone passed around at my memorial service or the reception afterwards, and I want people to tell stories about me. Heck, if I could, I'd like to gather everyone and have the memorial service while I was alive, so I could hear those stories! Maybe that's a ritual to consider too!

Trish said...

I've been reading your blog now for several weeks. Reading your story has been an emotional journey, but a little backwards for me. My mother died when I was 20 from breast cancer. It was very quick and I was completely caught by surprise...or perhaps I was in denial. I often wonder if she had the same feelings and questions about my brother and me that you are facing now. Anyway, one of the things that I wish I had from my mother is the story of my own birth. I had no reason to ask her about it before she died, but then, after I married an then became pregnant, I wished so much to be able to ask her questions about my own birth... When did she go into labor? Did she have any drugs? How long did it last? Did I nurse well? Etc... My father was in the military and wasn't in the room...and just generally wouldn't know those kinds of answers. I now have 5 children of my own. Each pregnancy has been an obvious reminder of her absence and I miss her terribly. I have written the birth story for eachof my kiddos and put copies in their "baby box" as well as the safe deposit box. Anyway, I thought that might be another item you would have the energy to write/record, particularly for your daughter. However, I suspect your son's future wife would enjoy reading about his birth some day as well.
Trish Y.