"You sure you want to do this, Mom?" I ask, steering her Buick toward the cemetery.
"Of course, honey. Why wouldn't I?"
What can I say? I glance over at my mother, who turned 71 last March. Her face is that shade of yellow grey that comes with the territory of terminal illness. But her eyes retain the same crystal blue and still have the power to see through pretense. She is looking at me now as if to say, I dare you to say it.
We wind our way through the narrow lanes of the Terrace Heights Cemetery to place Mother's Day flowers on the graves of my grandma and great aunt.
Sound off on the important issues at
"Over there, honey, I always look for that flag pole. Otherwise, I can never find them," she directs.
We each take a potted plant, Mom insisting she is strong enough, and begin the search. Grandma is easy enough to find. We have been there many times.
"The geranium is for Grandma," Mom says. "You know Grandma and red. Red cars, red sweaters, red flowers."
"I can never remember which way Aunt Virginia is from here," I look around awkwardly, as if Aunt Virginia will pop up and wave, Yoo hoo, here I am.
Mom admits she can't either and somehow this strikes us as funny and we start to giggle, calling out for my eccentric aunt.
"Oh, Auntie Ginny," I sing out, "Where are you? We have a little something for you."
"Ollie, Ollie, in come free!" calls my mother, a mischievous look in her eye.
Flowers dutifully placed, I feel relieved and irreverent, stuck in the emotional landscape that brings tears as easily as laughter. Ready for different surroundings, I slip my arm though Mom's and guide her back to the car. I insert the key in the ignition, trying to remember the point in my mother's illness that she started letting me drive.
"Les Adams died last month," Mom says matter-of-factly, "and he had a graveside service. I don't want that. I want the service in the church and close friends and family over to the house afterwards."
I attempt to match her lightness. If she can do this, so can I.
"Okay, Mom. I think we can manage that."
"It's so beautiful here, don't you think?" Mom leans her head back on the neck rest of the passenger seat and gently eases her legs forward. The May wind is chilly but in the car all we feel is the warmth of the sun pouring through the windshield into our laps.
"I am putting together what I want for the service. There's a T.S. Eliot quote I would like read. Let's see," she closes her eyes in concentration to get the words just right. How many times had I seen this same expression cross her face before she launched in on a passage from Shakespeare, or Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky or her annual recitation of Twas the Night Before Christmas?
I can't talk. I just sit, with the engine still running. We are parked on a slight rise and the sun is making me drowsy. I want to close my eyes and sleep.
"I can't quite decide about the music. All of my favorite hymns are in a minor key. Do you think that's too depressing for people?"
"I think you should have what you want, Mom."
I take the key out of the ignition and reach in Mom's purse for a mint lifesaver. It's a motion from childhood and it comforts me. I don't know what else to say so I look out the front window to the hills that define the Yakima Valley, bare and brown in contrast with the irrigated green that surrounds us.
"You kids have moved so much. Where would you want to be buried?" she asks, as if inquiring about summer vacation plans.
I tell her I want to be cremated, not buried.
"Cremated? Really? I've never understood that, to tell you the truth. It just seems so violent somehow."
"Violent?" I ask, surprised at her choice of words.
She explains that she likes the idea of being part of the earth, of having the seasons change around her, knowing she is part of it. Fall changing to winter and the flowers blooming in the spring.
Like composting, I think.
"It makes my palms sweat to think about being in the ground," I say, "You know, my claustrophobia."
"You won't have to worry about your claustrophobia by that point, dear."
We laugh at the truth in that.
"Mom? This all feels a little unreal to me. Like we're talking about someone else, you know?" I turn to face her, to look into those blue blue eyes.
"It does to me, too, honey. Believe me, it does. But, really, isn't that how we manage?"
Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of life, work and family in Juneau.