I’m standing in front of a Starbuck’s on Geary Street in San Francisco, clutching the handle of my red carry-on bag, trying to figure out my next move. It’s 7:06 AM in Union Square, and I can’t figure out if I should head to the airport and go home, or go see my mom.
The thing is, she’s been dead for an hour or so.
As you might expect in such a fresh dead mom scenario, I am sobbing. I’m hunched over at the waist. And I’ve stopped making sense to my husband over the phone. Only in this part of the world, in my home town, could a girl wail at approximately the decibel level of a foghorn and do a physical thing somewhere between davening and capoeira and go mostly unnoticed.
“WHAT DO I DO? I can’t leave her. I just can’t leave her. I can’t just leave her,” I’m repeating myself, now bending over fully, bracing my arm on my thigh. “I… JUST …CAN’T … JUST LEAVE … HER BODY.”
Of all the shitty things I’ve ever done to my mom, this now seems like the very worst, leaving her somewhere in the Comfort Care wing of UCSF, maybe still in her bed, the stick end of the chocolate See’s lollipop I had brought her still poking up out of a Styrofoam cup.
Someone should be there. To keep her company. And to prove she wasn’t an anonymous indigent carted over by a beat cop to be buried in a pauper’s grave.
She wouldn’t want to be seen as nothing and nobody, just another stiff with a C-Diff infection who would no longer be needing her room. I wanted what she would have wanted, for me to show up in my most expensive yet most understated outfit, with maybe a real Chanel bag or something, dripping in expensive jewelry. They would know she had been somebody. That would be the sort of master plan she would have hatched.
On the other hand, as my husband pointed out on the phone, I had been there when it mattered. Now she was gone. And I could go home.
And that’s when I called Uber.
Within moments, a pleasant-faced, stocky Turkish woman with lavender eye-shadow and a high, wheat-colored ponytail plucked me weeping from the curb and swept me up toward Market Street.
“I am so sorry,” I whispered. “I wouldn’t normally talk on the phone in your car, but my mom has just died and I need to make some calls. I’m so sorry.”
“Like, she literally just died. She had cancer but she died of an infection in the hospital.”
“I’m sorry. I, too, have lost my mother. In Turkey. I’m sorry for you,” she said, her eyes darting from the road to me in her rearview mirror.
There are calls to return to the palliative care doctor and to the hospital social worker, after which I reach out to my mom’s best friend Kathy, who lives in Richmond, across the Bay.
“She died this morning. They say it was peaceful,” I explain to Kathy, looking out the Uber window. “I need a favor. I know this is weird, and stupid, and it makes no sense, but could you go to the hospital and be with my mom’s body? I just can’t leave her there.”
Kathy agrees. A relief comes over me. She and my mom were friends for forty years, scavenging every flea market in the Bay Area together, eating ramen noodles in Japantown and seeing documentaries about obscure union leaders or Tuvan throat singers. Kathy had lost her partner to cancer years before. She was from Detroit. If anyone could handle dead body duty, it was Kathy.
This exposure to the intimate details of my mom’s death, and the whereabouts of her probably still warm body, and this sudden transformation of her Camry into a grief-mobile shakes my driver to her core. Tears are streaming down her cheeks, leaving a light dusting of lavender sparkle shadow.
I apologize. I also don’t want to share this singularly heartbreaking morning with a stranger, but I needed confirmed dead body coverage before I could go to the airport and now I have it. In fact, the more distance between me and the body, the happier I am that I’ve got this shift covered, this one last deal between me and the part of my mom that walked this earth (almost always in very comfortable shoes).
A San Francisco native, I don’t get back home much these days, so maybe I don’t know my way around like I used to. The driver is taking a route that makes no sense to me, and I’m not really in a position to question her since I’ve been yammering in her car and also making her cry.
The next thing I know, we are pulling up to a corner so a woman with a sharp bob in a grey skirt and blazer can hop into the front seat.
I’m so confused as to why she’s joining us. I stare at her pale face and Jodie Foster haircut as she tucks her JanSport under her legs and buckles her seat belt. However, I say nothing, because I’m in a general cloud of bewilderment.
At this moment, there are so many things I don’t understand.
How is it that only in the last moments of our shared consciousness could I see my mother as a human person, not just the one assigned to the job of being my mother? When I smoothed her hair, which was coming out in sections on her hospital pillow from the chemo, I whispered, “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to feel better. These good drugs are going to kick in and you’ll be so comfortable.” I actually stopped my mouth from saying, “Mommy’s here,” which is exactly what I say to my kids when things are scary. I think my mouth actually went so far as to say the “Mm” sound before I caught myself. This mind-altering experience of becoming a mother to my mother who was never really the best mother is not something I could understand, in that Camry, on that corner.
What I wanted to grasp was this: if I could have understood that she was just a person who happened to be my mother, and as such, worthy of my forgiveness and tolerance despite her parenting years filled with benign neglect, could I have been a better daughter? I saw her face in mind, saw her licking her lollipop as I held it to her mouth, looking up at me with a sweet, lost terror. My entire life, until that very moment, I had wanted something specific from her, I wanted to order all the things off the standard mom menu, appropriateness, protectiveness, concern. But in that moment, I thought only about what I could give, not what she failed to give me.
Was there some way I could have had this epiphany without her dying, or did she have to die in order for me to wake up to this essential truth? If I could have stopped expecting her to be the Pillsbury biscuits that rise symmetrically and taste exactly how you expect, instead of the sloppy, messy homemade ones missing half the ingredients, could I ever have come to delight in the biscuit of weirdness that was my mom?
As we cut across a lane of traffic on Folsom Street to pull up to yet another corner, I wonder what would life have been like if I could have included my mom? She would visit and take my kids to R-rated movies and buy them Red Vines and be quirky and eccentric; I would have gotten to see her enjoy my babies and call them Peanut and teach them how to count cards. Now, I don’t get that. I will never get that.
And I also don’t get why another woman, this time in a navy Lacoste and pressed khakis, is getting in the Camry next to me.
She glances around, and seeming to take in the heaviness of the car, gives us all a grim, reserved quarter smile.
This drive is filled with mysteries.
Now, it’s clear we are not going in the direction of SFO.
I explain, now to three people, that I must talk on the phone though I know it’s rude, but my mom has just died.
The Khaki Lady and Grey Blazer nod gravely. Oh, no, go ahead, we understand. So sorry.
I call my boss. I call my sister-in-law. I’m rolling the death calls.
When I’m done, I apologize again. The driver, feeling an urge I recognize from my own persistent, lightly roiling sense of co-dependence, can’t handle the sad silence at a red light. She reaches for something positive, something helpful, a bright side.
“Do you have brothers and sisters?” she asks, the notion of a shared burden being a poignant one.
Unfortunately, there is no way for her to know just how much she’s miscalculated.
“I had a brother, but he died four months ago of cancer,” I answer matter-of-factly. “Four months ago to the day.”
This is too much for the driver, who grabs a box of tissue from the center console, snatches out a few sheets and begins to blink sharply, her eyes going crimson.
The Camry becomes a chorus of sniffles as tissues are passed from front to back.
And together, the four of us drive around the financial district of San Francisco.
They don’t say much, but they don’t look away.
Accidentally, I am sitting Shiva in an UberPOOL.
Only I don’t know what UberPOOL is, because I live in Phoenix, where the ride-sharing option doesn’t exist yet.
If I had known, I would have gladly paid double the standard fare to avoid pooling with strangers who happened to be going in the same general direction. Instead, I fat fingered my way into this awkward roving assemblage. A very modern algorithm has brought these souls to me in my ride-shared house of mourning and now they sit with me in a ritual thousands of years old.
The basic idea of Shiva seems to be that you don’t leave the bereaved alone with nothing but shock and a brisket. To paraphrase medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, offering comfort by “sitting” with mourners in the immediate wake of a death is a five star mitzvah, raising your overall mensch rating in a big way.
These women certainly didn’t plan to sit with me, didn’t plan to share my sorrow or remind me of my inextricable link to all of humanity. They were probably just hoping to get to a morning staff meeting on time without facing the overcrowded trains and sour stench of Civic Center Station.
But they had opted to POOL that day, knowingly opening themselves to all the moods and flavors of the human experience.
We don’t pray in the Camry. We just ride. We ride together.
At least until King Street, when after dropping off our POOL passengers, the driver turns onto 280, and just the two of us head for the Delta Terminal at the airport.
At the white zone, I hoist my red carry-on bag from the trunk before walking around to lean in and stare into the bloodshot eyes of my driver before whispering possibly the most heartfelt “thank you” in the history of ride-sharing.
I’m basically an agnostic, but as I roll my suitcase through the terminal, I think about Psalm 23, the only psalm I know, mostly because it’s in that Coolio song.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” I say to myself.
I didn’t walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But I did walk through the valley of the shadow of the Comfort Care wing and then ride through the financial district toward SFO.
I shall not want.
Except I do want. I want to go back in time, to when my mom cancelled her own funeral from her deathbed (“No funeral,” she pronounced sternly, afraid nobody would show, needing to avoid a grade A snubbing from the Afterlife) and talk her into one. We would drink frozen mudslides from a giant, tacky machine and eat See’s suckers and dance to the Four Tops and laugh about the Scottie dog salt and paper shakers she would surely be scoring at the vast open-air flea market in heaven.
Now that I have skipped it, I can tell you there’s a reason for funerals, but if I try to articulate exactly what that is I’ll be attempting to dive from the roof of a skyscraper through a small ring, miss the opening, bounce off an awning and crash into a dumpster of clichés and platitudes somewhere between annoying yoga sweatshirt and 99 Cents Only Store condolence card.
There’s a reason.
Are rituals and togetherness just for fancy funerals and formal Shiva visits and people who know more than half a psalm and people who always believe in God and people who immediately know what to do with their dead mom’s body?
Fellowship isn’t something we can reject. Not if we need a ride from Union Square to the airport. Even Uber knows we’re all going in the same general direction.
The strangers didn’t have to like sitting with me. And I didn’t have to like their company. And nobody really likes a funeral. And I don’t know why humans are selfish and selfless, introverted and tribal. I just know you shouldn’t skip the funeral, shouldn’t be alone right after a death.
There’s a reason for human communion.
Just as there’s a reason that the only way home from that street corner in San Francisco where I stood gasping and drowning was to doggy paddle in my accidental pool, beside the still waters, sharing the ride.
It was complicated
Before that was even a thing.