Funerals for My Mother, All Around the World

In Depth
Funerals for My Mother, All Around the World

“Take the holy water,” said our translator, “and pour it into the brass bowl. Repeat after me: Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa.”

The monk put his hand on the orchids I’d given him, the robes and canned goods. He touched a name on a scrap of paper. He prayed.

It was Songkran in Bangkok, and I was making merit at Wat Pho. It was my mother’s fourth funeral.

We don’t die well in my family. I mean both the march towards death — it’s always cancer, dementia, something protracted — and the act of marking loss.

In the ‘90s we were better. When Grandpa passed away, we celebrated his life and scattered his ashes on the golf course. But by the time Grandma left us a decade later, we were lazy, or maybe just rusty, and we ended up sticking her little cardboard box in a closet next to the dachshund’s remains. (“Be careful,” we’d say. “Grandma and Rascal are in there.”)

We get sick, we linger, we leave, we are gone. There are no tombstones in my family, no benches under trees; there are just closets that need emptying, items that need to be given out. You take his porcelain bowl, we say. You take her diamond ring.

So when my mother died last year (Valentine’s Day, heart attack, age 62), everything exploded. For starters, she did it wrong: A Kos family member dies at 95, moaning for God to take her. A Kos spends decades spending the money and making everyone miserable. A Kos does not just fall down one night, does not leave the world with an Irish Goodbye. But Mom married into the family, so maybe that’s why she left how she did. She didn’t know the rules.

She died and the rest of us had absolutely no idea what to do. Mom was the organizer, the bill-payer, the shorer-up of funds and feelings. If we couldn’t get a funeral together when she was alive, we certainly weren’t going to do it when she was dead. And so we didn’t: My siblings and I flew to Florida, made sure our father didn’t kill himself, and went home. We ignored this particular bad thing like we ignored all bad things, and kept going.

The Northern Lights are like cigarette smoke. Every photo is a lie, though — those raging purples and blues are from ten-second exposures, cameras that unblinkingly suck things dry. The lights are more subtle in real life. They’re more elegant.

When I first saw them, I was so excited I feared I was hallucinating. But they were real. One green plume, and then another, and then smoke-bodies swirling and merging. I gaped, open-mouthed, and I thanked God. I thanked Mom.

It was midnight in Sweden, and I was above the Arctic Circle. Behind me a hundred sled dogs howled and pawed. It was my mother’s third funeral.

Mom didn’t travel much, and most places she did visit ended up being a bust: Germany (questioned by DDR police), France (so depressed she wanted to lie down in the street), Key Largo (wept with disappointment). By the time I was a teen, she and my father owned their own business, and that meant no vacation time. A few times a year we’d drive to Niagara Falls. That was it.

But she loved how much I traveled, how many places I saw and wanted to see. For my sixteenth birthday, she convinced my father to let me go on a “student ambassador” trip to Australia and New Zealand. She wore the opal I brought back for her, fire-bright, for years.

It wasn’t so much a vicarious enjoyment as it was an immense pride. Here was this person she’d made, hauled around inside her for ten months, and this person was sentient and clever and exploring the planet. She’d brag to anyone who’d listen: a piece of her, her bones and spit and hair, was off having adventures.

Mom wasn’t surprised when I wanted to move to London. “No Kos has ever done this before,” my father said, but my parents weren’t fazed by my decision to attend graduate school abroad. It was the natural next step, we all knew, for a girl who’d always saved her money for plane tickets, who’d always dreamed of being somewhere else.

I sent my application in January. A few weeks later, I woke up to eight missed phone calls. Five voice mails. They all said the same thing: I need you. Where are you? Oh, God. You have to call. You have to call. This is your father.

In Marie-Galante, a speck of beach off a lung-shaped mainland, the ocean is the kind of blue-green I don’t have a word for. Everything is in French and Kreyol; everyone is what Tony Kushner called “brown as the mouths of rivers.”

I went swimming, all full of deep-fried fritters and drunk on rum and guava juice. I let my arms grow thick and heavy, felt myself held by the sun and the placid, perfect water. I closed my eyes and thought of Mom, how much she’d have loved this, loved me for doing it.

It was afternoon in Guadeloupe, and I was drifting in the Caribbean Sea. It was my mother’s second funeral.

People say grief is a funny thing, but people are stupid. Grief is cruel. It shoves a pillow over your face. It attacks when you can’t begin to defend yourself. It makes you dream about the same thing every single night.

The five of us who were left — three daughters, one son, one father — kept hurtling forward uselessly, and largely alone. We all wept and drank and didn’t tell one other. I got into graduate school; I moved away. They kept living lives I knew nothing about, and I didn’t bother to ask.

Growing up, family was the most important thing in the world. My brother and I always had to be home in time for dinner, where we’d have to sit at the table and put away the book and act like humans. We learned lessons: The family is the unit. The family is the monolith. The only people who ever really love you — the only ones you can really trust — are sitting across from you, picking through city chicken and green beans.

But after Mom died, after we scattered, I realized that wasn’t strictly true. There was a vast, glistening world to explore and I’d already been doing it for years. The family gave me life, but the actual living of it was entirely mine. And just because they didn’t hold funerals doesn’t mean I couldn’t.

So to celebrate a woman who loved that I traveled, a woman who rarely went anywhere good herself, I decided to honor my mother in as many places as possible. In my weird, furtive way, I told nobody about this; I just started trudging across the planet with her memories on my back. It was the only way I could think of to start healing.

I tested things out in Reykjavik, my first trip alone. After the shopping and the coffee and the lava fields, I wandered long streets until I reached Hallgrímskirkja. It was November, and in the cold twilight the church’s lights glowed like home. I went inside. I lit a candle.

It was my mother’s first funeral. There will be dozens more.

Abbey Kos is a writer and editor living in London. She tweets at @abbeysuekos.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.

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