So Dad passed away in early 2015. He was 90. He was in a nursing home for the last year-and-a-half of his life which wasn't the way I would have liked to see things go but he had a bit of dementia and had many issues physically which made it impossible for my 87-year-old mother to care for him. Additionally, all of us kids were either dead or too far away to assist. He needed care before we could make other arrangements after he fell and broke his hip and voila, once you're in the system, there's no coming out until you're dead, practically speaking in our situation.
And he was buried. My older sister, older brother, and I missed the funeral because the three of us live over 500 miles from New York. At the time of dad's death, it was February, my brother was in Seattle and it had snowed over 18" here in Kentucky. The three of us opted to trek back the following month to get together at the apartment that my mother was living in and drop by the cemetery to visit the gravesite with mom. It was cold, cold, cold when we went a month after dad's death, the mound of dirt still sitting by the graveside that had been dug only weeks before.
We led mom over the spongy grass to Dad's grave. There were patches of snow on the ground but for the most part, things were winter-bare and brown. I think it was my brother or sister who walked mom over to the headstone. I started to walk ahead of them because immediately upon getting out of the car and facing the site, I noticed something on the ground just past the mound of dirt past the headstone. Something that I couldn't recognize. And yet... yet... instinctively, I knew exactly what it was except... my conscious, present, self didn't want to make the connection. It was a rather large, off-white, almost grey rock sitting on the grass at the bottom of the dirt pile next to the sunken ground where dad's casket had been covered. Alarm bells were quietly ringing in my head, unconsciously pulling me toward investigating this smooth, not-quite-spherical stone before my mother arrived at the gravesite. As we got in front of the headstone and the sunken rectangle of dirt, I sidled over to the rock and tried to lean over without bringing any attention to myself just in case this was, well, no rock. I didn't want to announce what I was doing so as not to make a scene. Just in case there was no reason for a scene.
You know when you have that moment of recognition, that instantaneous flooding of information when it all clicks into place and your brain not only names what it's seeing but suddenly, you're also overwhelmed with all the ramifications and consequences that come with being fully aware? Like enlightenment? But more... macabre?
I bent down to glance at the rock just to the left of my ankles and saw them, the squiggly lines, the seams, three fine, black threads like meadering lazy rivers, tiny grooves that met in the middle. There's a name for them. Cranial sutures. Yes, it was a skull. A human skull. On the ground. Next to the fresh mound of dirt that had been excavated for my father's remains weeks earlier. That meant, in all likelihood, it was... one of my relatives. Just the head. Just the bony, top half of the skull. No jaw. No hair. No flesh. Just bone. Just sitting there. On the ground. As my mother and brother and sister stood paying their respects to my father's recently interred remains.
Oh, it's amazing how many simultaneous thoughts you can actually have running through your head at one time when things come together.
Holy shit, that's a skull. Holy shit, that's the skull of one of my father's side of the family. Holy shit, no one else has seen this. Holy shit, I literally just got here and haven't even begun to feel for the significance of the moment. Holy shit –block everyone's view– can they see?
WE MUST GET MOM OUT OF HERE. NOW.
said the loud voice in my head above all the other chaotic thoughts.
I stared across the group of us, trying to strategically place my body in mom's line of vision should she look towards me and away from where dad had been recently buried. At the same time, I stared hard and beamed the concern of emergency to my brother, silently, and I hoped, discreetly. You know the look, the widening eyes, pursed lips and small jerky head movements that should have clearly communicated, "Don't look now but Grandma's head is at 11 o'clock!
" My brother, sensing I was acting a bit odd, leaned over to me and mouthed, "What?" without making a sound.
"Don't make it obvious," I said, low under my breath, "but go over to that "rock" and and just see if you see what I see."
He slowly switched places with me as I stepped closer to mom. My sister could tell some kind of conspiratorial conversation was happening and slid over to follow my brother, me taking her place at mom's side between us and Poor Yorick. I hooked my arm through my mother's and we silently stood looking at dad's gravesite, contemplating dad's end of life...
Well, not really. Look, realistically, mom may have been assessing all the details of the past few weeks, months, the last year-and-a-half, her lifetime with my dad and marriage of sixty-five years. I, on the other hand, was rolling over obsessive thoughts in my head like an automatic rifle.
"Are you kidding me? The second we get here? I cannot believe this is happening. Wait, yes. Yes, I can! Of course. Of course this is happening. Why not? Why should I be able to grieve like a normal person? This is just par for the course for this weird family. Why wouldn't there be a human skull on the ground? Who is filming this? Someone must be filming this. We have to go now!"
"So," I turned to mom, "you want to head to the Piper's Kilt for lunch?"
"Yeah," she said, "Let's go."
And with that I turned her away from the spectacle at the edge of the gravesite and walked her back to the car. Behind me as I looked over my shoulder, I could see the shock and surprise in the faces of my siblings as my brother took photos of, presumably, one of the Cusicks. They arrived back at the car as mom was getting in. We all settled in the car seats, adjusted our seat belts and conducted ourselves as if nothing had happened. Because of course we did. For mom's benefit. I was driving. As we started to pull away and my sister was conversing with mom, keeping her distracted, I turned to my brother and exclaimed under my breath words to the effect of "You have got to be kidding me."
We went to lunch and had to endure another hour of sad, reflective Dad memories, comforting mom while shooting looks of "What the fuck?!
"over her head to each other when she wasn't aware. For an hour. I don't remember eating.
Now, let me point out that although some might find this experience unnerving, unsettling, shocking, traumatic, worthy of drama and freaking out, crying, lamenting or what have you, I come from an odd family of second generation immigrants, an Irish, German and Lithuanian mix, lower middle class to middle class upbringing, depression-era sensibilities passed down from my folks and their extended families, lots of drinking with all the co-dependency and dysfunction-ality that comes with it. We descend from people who have gone through struggle and hard times but use humor, dark humor, to get through all the shit. So the moment I knew what I was looking at (and I want to say it was when I leaned over in my discreet yoga-stretch lean for my close inspection but looking back, there was a part of me that knew the instant I stepped out of the car), that moment, although some might have been traumatized, I was struck with shocked amusement and had to work hard not to burst out laughing. Could this be a more bizarre, absurd episode? I could hear the snorting laugh of my late brother in my head if he could have been there. I couldn't stop wishing if only, if only
my younger brother had been here, too. What a moment! What a defining Cusick moment!
It was absolutely perfect. You cannot make this shit up! While others can wax poetic about losing a loved father, sympathy and grief and tears, I'm franticly trying to usher my mother away from human remains. My god, that meant it would have been there when the funeral at the graveside happened! How did no one see? How did it get above ground? Then I remembered the patches of melted snow. Chances are it was all covered in snow weeks earlier and had only been exposed over the course of the later weeks. Didn't the gravediggers notice it rolling across the ground? Did they lose sight of it in the snow?
We finally got back to the apartment after lunch and the three of us furiously speculated how it all happened and just which relative was that?
We surmised because it was a bleached skull, it would have had to have been remains that were in the ground a long time and in a decomposable casket that could have been disturbed by a backhoe as opposed to a metal casket. Based the marked dates on the headstone, that meant Grandma or dad's sister were the likeliest candidates, but dad's sister died in infancy and this was a full grown skull. Grandma, it is!
Leaving mom to nap in the apartment and walking down the street a bit later, still discussing this, we fell silent. Finally, one of us said, "Well, who can we call? We can't just leave it there!" Visions of strangers showing up at the cemetery and absconding with a skull passed through my thoughts. Teens playing football with it. That kind of thing. Why? Well, to be frank, when I bent over to look at it, had my siblings not been there, had mom not been there, you're god-damned right I would have picked it up. Hell, I might have even taken it home. After all, it was one of us! (One of us, one of us) The urge was strong to touch it when I saw it. I mean, how often does one get the opportunity?
Back at the apartment, my sister found out who managed the cemetery. My brother was elected to call the parish although he insisted on making the call not in our presence so as not to listen to our wisecracks in the background. The conversation on his end sounded like this:
"Yes, my family and I were just at the gravesite of my recently passed father, and there seems to be a skull on the ground that was disinterred and is just sitting next to the headstone... A skull... Yes, a skull... Yes, I know... Yes, next to the headstone... Well, we were just worried that someone else might come by and see it...Yes, of course, thank you."
They immediately dispatched Fr. So-and-so to reinter the remains. My brother had to call back and ask that they not call the home phone number if they had questions, ya know, in case mom picked up the phone and found out what we'd been trying to keep from her.
She still doesn't know what happened. I suppose we could tell her now that she's settled in her cabin and she's acclimated to dad being gone. One day. And we'll show her the pictures. After a few beers, though.
Thinking about it, it's fitting that this happened. For me, the journey of my parents getting older and dying has routinely drifted into territory of the odd, bizarre, frustrating, and absurd. It's not over, either. Not only because mom's still alive and kicking, spending her days on her Kentucky porch, enjoying her puzzles and beer, but also because the DMV in New York keeps sending letters to my father warning him of his car registration suspension even though the car was re-registered to mom almost two years ago. Even though the car was then sold and re-registered in Kentucky about six months ago. Even though the man is dead. And just the other day we received a call inquiring about the apartment that mom vacated back in Scarsdale. Did we know that someone was still paying the rent on it?
I'm sorry, say again? Is this a joke? Nope, rental company says someone in the family is still paying rent on the apartment.
Dad... is that you????