On September 3, 2022, my 92-year-old mother Donna died from complications of a stroke she’d suffered 12 months earlier. She’d been living in a nursing home in Fresno, California where my sister also lives. My sister reported that a “Dr. Doogie Howser” diagnosed the stroke as major. He predicted another was bound to happen in the next month or so and that one would deal a fatal blow.
My sister and I began to mourn.
The anticipated catastrophic event never happened. As time ticked by, it was painful to watch Mom struggle to communicate—reduced to only being able to say “no” and babble incoherently. She’d been proud of her Scots Irish heritage, which she credited with making her a feisty survivor of this life. One of her biggest fears was to become helpless, and she did everything she could to remain vital for as long as possible. In her later years, as she learned more about Buddhist philosophy, she was able to let go of some—but certainly not all—of those Scots Irish traits that are ill suited to practicing acceptance and creating internal peace.
Despite our grief over Mom’s condition, my sister and I were grateful she was pampered by the nursing home staff and hospice nurses. For two years before her stroke, she made friends with fellow residents and endeared herself to the staff. Some of the nurses regularly took their lunch breaks in her room. These angels continued to do so even after she lost her ability to speak.
I have to confess I often wanted to put Mom out of what I felt was her misery, but am grateful I didn’t have that power. She was deeply loved by the people who cared for her. For the last year of her life, she was nurtured like a baby, given the affection and attention her abusive mother never gave her. I believe this might have been the best year of her life.
Each week that Mom lingered in a barely communicative state, my sister and I wished for her speedy and painless death. In retrospect, this wish was to put us out of our misery—out of the pain we felt by worrying about her.
Shortly after Mom entered the nursing home, my sister and I made arrangements for the eventual disposal of her body. We looked at a few prospects and chose Tulip Cremation because it was inexpensive, had mostly good reviews and, after all, how complicated is it to cremate someone?
I was about to find out.
Three days after Mom died, a Tulip rep named Evelyn sent a short email stating “Donna is safely in our care,” and gave me her email contact information.
I asked how long it would take before we received our mother’s ashes. The following day, someone named Dom answered:
Great question. We like to tell our families the entire process due to include the return home of a loved one takes about 2 weeks. I’m going to be checking in with you every couple of days so you always know what’s going on. I’m here if you ever have any questions.
I never heard from Dom again.
A week later, an email arrived from Cynthia:
I wanted to let you know that the county has registered your loved one’s passing, so we’re now ready to move forward with cremation. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.
My main question was why in the hell does it take over a week to cremate someone? But I didn’t want to sound like a bitch. Instead, I asked if they were going to send me a death certificate or if I had to order one.
After a week of waiting for Cynthia’s answer, I sent her an email on September 19th (sixteen days after my mother died) saying I was anxious to receive a reply. The following day, I received this:
My name is Rose, I am one of the team members here at Tulip Cremation. I would like to express my deepest condolences for your loss.
To confirm, we have received your request. I apologize for the delayed response.
If you have any questions or concerns, please let us know.
A woman named Rose works for a company named Tulip. How ironic. Also, ironic is how she didn’t answer my question.
I emailed Rose and asked when my mother was scheduled to be cremated and if they were going to send me a death certificate or if I had to order one.
On Friday, September 23, twenty days after my mother died, I sent an email to Dom—the one who’d promised to check in with me every couple of days—and asked for the whereabouts of her remains and clarification about the death certificate. The following day, I received a response from Lisa Ann:
As for the cremation progress we are pretty much near the end stages. All legal paperwork necessary for us to schedule cremation has been sent to the crematory we are just waiting now on the crematory to schedule in your loved one for their cremation. As for death certificates, it looks like you did not order any death certificates from us. We always advise families if they need death certificates fast and they live in or by the county of the passing (which is Fresno in this case) to get death certificates in person as it is faster. Then passing has been registered so you can get death certificates from the county in person now if you would like, I would call the county first to inquire if there is a waiting period because some counties require families to wait a certain amount of time before they can get it in person.
Three weeks after the death of my mother—the bearer of five children, a woman who’d endured a pretty awful life—Tulip still hadn’t cremated her. What the hell?!? I imagined bodies waiting in a queue like backed up jets on the runway at JFK Airport. At this point, the thought of her lying in cold storage somewhere—where???— agitated my sensitive nerves and threatened to give me the vapors.
I live in the small town of Fort Bragg, California, across the alley from our only mortuary. When my husband Gary died, those lovely people took expedient, respectful care of him and our family. He was cremated the following day and his ashes delivered to me a few days later. They also provided me with his death certificate. This was my experience. I expected something similar for my mother.
Twenty-one days after Mom died, I was caught in a whirlwind of disgust over Tulip’s handling of this situation. I sat on my patio in the brilliant, warm sunshine with my iPad and researched complaints about this business. There is far more positive feedback than negative, but my vile mood focused on the negative.
At one point, I paused, looked away from my screen and saw dainty flying insects rising from the grass—as if solid ground suddenly erupted in light. They looked like tiny dragonflies with gossamer wings. I know little about bugs, but later learned they might be flying ants. They rose in large clusters like a symphony, one group after another and disappeared into the clear blue sky. I felt surrounded in a halo, engulfed by my mother’s spirit telling me everything was okay, to calm the hell down and stop the nonsense of worrying about what might be happening to her body.
A few hours later, I took my dog Lucy on a walk. Before we left, I asked Mom to send me a sign that everything was okay—as if the flying insects were not enough! At the end of our stroll, as we approached our house, a little fox darted from our property and ran across the alley to the mortuary. This made me smile.
I went inside to look up the spiritual meaning of a fox crossing your path. “It helps you see a problem for what it is, rather than what you want it to be. When you realize this, you learn to be flexible and adaptable.”
The events of that day helped me accept that Mom wouldn’t care one bit about where her physical body was located. She didn’t believe in heaven or hell, but in reincarnation. She also believed in karma—which I suspect had a lot to do with her early indoctrination of being raised with Catholic guilt.
On September 3rd, Mom’s spirit began a journey of swirling around the universe, having a grand time, without a care as to the life she left behind and where the next life might take her.
Tulip Cremation personifies the saying, “You get what you pay for.” My sister and I were raised to be frugal and carried that trait into adulthood. I realize my anger towards Tulip was mixed with guilt over not splurging an extra thousand dollars or more to ensure Mom’s body was handled in an expedient manner. Bottom line—my mother doesn’t care, so why should I?
I’m no longer angry with Tulip. I now find their behavior humorous. Mom’s final physical adventure on Earth turned into one of those dark comedies that she so enjoyed while alive. We will get her ashes when we get them—however long that takes. Mom is okay with that. I’m finally okay with that, too.
P.S. My sister received Mom’s ashes on September 27, nearly three and a half weeks after she died.
Aye yai yai, Kate. I’m still in my Scotch/Irish “what the hell?!” but appreciating your letting go. Beautiful piece, as always, and a good reminder about what matters all the way around.
Thank you for sharing this strange, honest, sad/happy tale. Glad you and your mom are able to skate above the fray. I enjoy your writing.
Thank you for sharing this strange, sad/happy tale. Glad you and your mom are able to skate above the fray. I enjoy your writing.
Thank you, Kate. As always you reach to the depth of questioning and I learn from your response. I may leave a copy of this with my 5 Wishes for when Lonny and others wait for my cremains.
I love to cook. It’s a relatively new passion of mine. Sometimes it takes me a couple of days to gather the materials do the prep and then finally cook the thing I’m dreaming of: fresh pasta, homemade bread, etc. My family can make short work of tucking into these things. All that preparation, and they gleefully devour it in 15 minutes.
That’s what I do with your columns Kate. I gobble them up as quickly as they arrive and then look up expectantly: more?
My mother passed in Reno and it only took a couple of days to get her ashes and DCs. But it took two years to get an engraved headstone to put in the family plot in Massachusetts. Something to do with the tremendous backlog from the pandemic. It’s hard not to get irritated when things take so long – especially if you’re dealing with people who can’t seem to answer your questions!