“Cheap Funeral and a Good Party”: An Amazing Final Gift

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post. You can read more of Tom Gerdy’s work for the Huffington Post here.)

The derecho was unkind to our town of Lynchburg, Va., on the night of June 30, 2012. The 80-mile-an-hour straight-line winds tore trees out of the ground and dropped them on top of houses in almost every neighborhood. Most of the city was without power. However, I was about to discover that damaged homes and lack of electricity were just the beginning of my challenges that week.

I am a building contractor, and I was inspecting a neighbor’s tree-damaged home the next day when I got the call from my sister in New Jersey. She told me they were taking my 87-year-old mother to the hospital because “she just doesn’t look good.” Late that afternoon, I got the call we all dread. The doctor said my mother’s lungs were about done, and we had better get there.

My wife and I quickly packed and got on the road for the 430-mile trip from our current home in Virginia to our old stomping grounds in northern New Jersey. Dreading what I figured we had in store for us made the trip seem longer than usual. We arrived in the middle of the night, and my mother was resting peacefully. The reports were that she might even make it out of intensive care in a day or two. It was a great relief, and we all thought this might not be the end.

My two brothers arrived that morning as well. We had our work cut out for us because, as we dealt with our mother’s challenges, our 89-year-old father was in a rehab center recovering from a fall. We visited him that morning, and he was critical. I am not talking about his health. He was critical of everything, including the nurses, the doctors, the food, and the facility. We thought that was a good sign because complaining is a right we earn for living a long life. We took all the griping as a sign that our father was getting better. We left his bedside and went to visit our mother who seemed to be doing better as well.

Unfortunately, we were wrong about both our mother and our father. This was the beginning of the end for them both. We got the call the next morning that our father was being rushed from the rehab center to the hospital because his kidneys had given up. By the time we got to the hospital, he was in a coma. Two days later, on the morning of July 4, he died.

I don’t mean to make light of our father’s death, but laughter sometimes helps you through the toughest times. Standing at our father’s deathbed shortly after he died, I called the funeral home where previous arrangements had been made for them to be cremated. It was the morning of July 4, and I think I caught the funeral director offguard. When I asked him to come to the hospital to pick up our father, his response was, “Did he pass?” It was one of the funniest things I had heard in ages. I only wish I hadn’t been tired and a bit stressed. The best response would have been, “No, but we don’t want to wait until the last minute.”

After dealing with the funeral home and the hospital, we drove the 15 miles or so to the hospital where our mother was in intensive care. She asked how her husband of 64 years was doing, and we gave her the news. It was a painful moment for everyone, but we soon started to talk about wonderful memories, and we laughed much more than we cried.

I decided that, with the family gathered like this, it was time to ask my mother what I had wanted to ask for many years. “Mom, I was always your favorite, wasn’t I?” My mother took her frail little arm from under the covers and gave me a thumbs-down as she rolled her eyes. My mother loved to tease. At least, I think she was teasing.

We spent four or five hours with my mother on July 4. Just a few hours earlier, we had been at our father’s deathbed. My mother had trouble talking at that point, so she wrote notes to us. Although we still had some hope, we knew the end was getting close as she penned her final messages to us. The first was “Go get beer and pizza on me.” The second was “I was lucky to have all of you.” As we got ready to leave the hospital, my mother gave us her last gift. She wrote the words I will remember forever, “Cheap funeral and good party.” She was telling us her job was done, and it was all right. Her message was not to mourn, but to celebrate.

We got the call just before midnight at my sister’s home on July 4, as we celebrated my father’s life with a big meal and many toasts. My sister got off the phone and said we needed to get to the hospital. My mother was no longer responsive when we got there, and two hours later, she died — 16 hours after our father had died. I made my second call to the funeral home in less than 24 hours. His response was not as funny.

We honored my mother’s last request. Several weeks after their deaths, we honored our parents with a service at the church our mother attended for about 50 years. That evening, we had a party, and a few hundred people joined us to celebrate their lives.

I will always be grateful for our mother’s last request and gift. It gave mourning a back seat to celebrating the many lessons and gifts my parents gave us. I hope when my time comes, my children will celebrate my life in a big way. I want to go on record that I want Jimmy Buffett to play at that party.


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