It was hot and windy – so unusual for Minnesota in early May – the day I drove home to my mother’s wake. My mind was blank while I drove through the western suburbs that look like suburbs. When the landscape changed to hills, lakes, woods, and pretty lake homes I didn’t look. I went through the small town of Delano where the landscape opens onto the wide prairie and I didn’t see. Then Dakota Indian music began to play on the radio which had never happened before, not here, while I was driving over the land it came from. Male voices soaring, a single drum beating. Singing together but apart the voices soared up, fell back, soared up again. As I drove through small town after small town it felt like a long-playing omen. A DJ somewhere was giving me exactly what I needed.
My mother lay in an open casket which I hadn’t helped pick out. It was to the right of the entrance in the far corner. I didn’t go near it – not because I was afraid, but because we’d been close, maybe too close over the last year, and I had no use for her painted face and rosary beads that were no doubt strung through her waxed fingers. This wasn’t the first time she’d died.
She’d written labels on the drawers … picked up the wrong end of the phone and talked … got lost in her own yard … ate frosting for butter … planted tomatoes sideways in the dirt … didn’t know me … begged God to kill her … drugs didn’t help … bits of food stuck to her dry teeth for hours … morphine, more morphine … then she stopped breathing.
I was happy. They were going to put her in the ground and I never felt better. When I talked to my cousins Matt and John I wondered if they thought I was callous. But outsiders who come to funerals don’t usually know what’s really going on. Two years before I’d stood in the same lobby for an old man’s wake, and I’d asked his sister, “Was he aware at the end?” and she looked at me like I lived on the moon. Then she patiently told me that he’d had Alzheimer’s, and he’d been locked away for a long time because he’d become violent, so no, he hadn’t been aware for some time – he who’d always been so gentle and kind.
I didn’t want to stay at my brother Allen’s house, a mile from the farm where I’d grown up. My five siblings were there and I didn’t want to see them. The “old post,” as our mother used to called herself, was dead and I felt no obligation to keep up appearances. So I drove further west, twelve miles to Benson where I was born. I found a Super 8 Motel on the western edge of town near the Pamida store where I’d bought cassette tapes as a teenager, near The Benson Bowl where I’d hung out bored as a teenager, and near Sandy’s Cafe where I’d gone with friends late at night drunk or high to eat hamburgers and fries and spill ketchup on ourselves.
A young family from India ran the Super 8 Motel, and I asked the young wife who worked the front desk what they possibly ate in this godforsaken place. She said they ate at home mostly. She would be pleased to serve me leftovers from supper in my room if I wished. Yes, I would love that. So in a town whose finest meal was a steak and a baked potato, I sat in my room eating a delicious vegetarian Indian dinner. What a lovely gift.