The flight from Miami to Newark was creepy enough: My mother, in her coffin, was somewhere in the belly of the plane; my siblings and I, sitting in coach, told funny Mom stories, as if the last year of suffering through cancer treatments hadn’t existed. We had all flown to West Palm Beach to be with Mom when she died — my sister and brother from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and me, from Paris, where I was living then.
She had died while my brother and I shopped for sneakers at the mall. I had forgotten to pack shoes. In fact, luggage became the theme of that day. And creepy hardly begins to describe what happened next.
I remember not wanting to leave Mom after she died, even though I hated sitting with her body in that cold hospital room. My siblings and I said our silent goodbyes and headed to her condo to pack our clothes. We also needed to pack her clothes — that is, one last outfit for her to wear into the grave. We argued about that one: My sister preferred a blue suit my mother sometimes wore; I wanted her to dress for a party. My mother was a party girl.
I won the battle — as youngest and brattiest child, I usually won all battles. I picked out the dress, the bra, the panties, the jewelry and the shoes (red heels!) and placed them in my suitcase, on top of my clothes. The funeral was set for the next day in Trenton, New Jersey, where we had all grown up.
I remember one other strange thing about that flight home: We couldn’t stop laughing. We had been crying for a year, since her diagnosis with ovarian cancer. Hours after her death, we stopped crying and instead howled with laughter. Remember how Mom used to knock every baseball out of the park? Remember the story about the bad date, when she climbed out of the bathroom window of the restaurant to escape the guy? Remember when we thought we had tricked her into thinking we were asleep in our beds, and she met us at the front door as we sneaked back in later that night?
When the plane landed, we headed to baggage claim, groggy with exhaustion and emotional overload. We stood numbly at the carousel, along with the hundreds of other passengers, waiting for the luggage to descend.
First, before any suitcase dropped through the chute, a single shoe rolled down and onto the revolving conveyor belt. A red high-heeled shoe. We stared at it, our mouths hanging open. There were murmurs and giggles from the crowd. Mom’s shoe! I grabbed it and tucked it under my arm. And then a dress floated down onto the carousel, my mother’s diaphanous flowered sheath. It even held a ghostly form for a moment before it crumpled onto the conveyor belt. I lunged for it and held it to my chest. There was a pause, a breathless moment, when the crowd watched and the unthinkable happened. My mother’s bra descended. It was a large DD bra, lacy, lovely and private! I grabbed it up and hid it in my arms. Stockings followed, and then another red shoe, as if it were chasing the taupe legs down the chute.
The crowd was laughing by then. My siblings were murmuring to each other. I was hugging my mother’s clothes for dear life.
Death is indecent! Death should be hidden!
(MORE: On Becoming an Orphan)
Finally, my suitcase fell onto the conveyor belt. It was partially open, all the contents spilling out from a broken zipper.
It was a mess; I was a mess. The suitcase couldn’t contain my mother’s wardrobe; I couldn’t contain my grief. I couldn’t comprehend that she was really gone, yet here came proof that she was still around, still making herself known, one article of clothing at a time.
Ellen Sussman is the author of the novels French Lessons and On a Night Like This, and the editor of the anthologies Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave.
From Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes the Sting Out of Death, edited by Victoria Zackheim, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2012 by Ellen Sussman. Reprinted by permission of publisher.