Mom’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Party

“I’m dying,” said Mom matter-of-factly, sitting on the couch in my family room with my wife and children gathered around her.

I was not surprised. She had suffered a heart attack six months earlier, and I had heard a rumor that an x-ray revealed a tumor in one of her lungs. Considering that she had been living in a nicotine fog for all of her seventy-seven years, dying from a cigarette addiction had always been a strong possibility. Even as a little boy, I remember her going to the bathroom periodically to hack her guts out. But what had made me certain she was now nearing death was that she had arranged to visit each of her children in Illinois and Indiana—and was staying in each of our homes. This had never happened before; on previous visits she had always insisted on staying in a motel. So we all knew what was coming. As my brother Randy put it, capturing her theatrical tendencies, “This is Mom’s farewell tour.”

She arrived in early May, coming to my house first, and as she made her way from one home to the next, she told us she had an inoperable tumor pressing against her heart and that she had about three months to live. She did not want us coming out to Santa Fe, where she and Dad lived. She did not want a funeral, and she did not want the family gathering after her death. “No tears,” she insisted. She wanted her body cremated and her ashes distributed to her six children. We could each dispose of her ashes however we wished—except for Ray, my oldest brother, who had explicit instructions to spread Mom’s ashes on the streets of Las Vegas, where she loved to gamble at the slot machines three times a year.

I began making arrangements to cancel my summer sabbatical to Britain and Alaska. Regardless of Mom’s desire for no funeral or family gathering, this was no time to be out of the country. But when I told Mom and Dad I was canceling my trip, they insisted I go. They wanted me, my wife and children to enjoy the sabbatical we had been planning for over a year and a half. My siblings all agreed: Mom and Dad would be devastated if we didn’t go.

So during the three days Mom stayed at my home, I said my goodbyes to her.

As she visited each of her children, revealing her terminal condition and expressing her wishes, some of them protested that she needed to allow us to gather together after her death. She relented, giving us permission to find a date convenient for everyone, but under one condition: it could not be a gathering for mourning her death. It had to be a rock ‘n’ roll party.

Five weeks later, after spending an evening touring the haunted alleys and catacombs of Edinburgh, Scotland, I received an email from Ray that Mom had died. She died the way she wanted to: at home, with minimum fuss and no life-prolonging measures.

The task of taking care of her, though, had been too great for Dad during the last three weeks, so—despite her wishes—each of my siblings had taken turns going out to Santa Fe to help out. Regan, the youngest, had been present at her death. Over the phone, he described to me her final days. She had become so weak that he had needed to pick her up to take her to her chair, her toilet, her bed. All her strength was gone and she could barely speak. But the day before she died, when Regan was moving her, she stood up by herself with surprising strength, looked Regan in the eye, and said in a clear voice, “You and Christine, Raymond, Randy, Ryan and Rus are what my life is all about.”

After Regan had put her to bed, Mom looked up at the ceiling and said, “All my friends are here.”

Regan replied, “Yeah, Mom, we’re with you.”

Mom rolled her eyes, indicating he wasn’t understanding. She continued to look up as she repeated, “All my friends are here.”

Those were the last coherent words she spoke.

My siblings and I picked out a weekend for the rock ‘n’ roll party. On August 31 we, along with our spouses, children, grandchildren and Dad, gathered in Galva, Illinois, at Regan’s rambling home. Regan had collected hours of Mom’s favorite songs and burned them on a series of CDs. Throughout the weekend he played the songs she used to play on her stereo every Saturday morning; songs like: “Up, Up and Away” by The Fifth Dimension, “Soolaimon” by Neil Diamond, “Lay, Lady, Lay” by Bob Dylan, and—Mom’s favorite—the theme song from “Rocky.”

In the afternoon we bent our agreement with Mom: about thirty family members jammed into the living room and talked about what we most appreciated about her. Food was a major topic. Mom’s cooking was limited to the three major food groups: boxed, canned and frozen; but she excelled at butter- and sugar-loaded desserts that have never been surpassed: chocolate chip cookies, brownies, fudge, bread pudding, cheese cake and banana cake.

We also noted the wild ideas she came up with—like the time she suggested we make a totem pole. Soon one of Christine’s friends showed up with a stolen telephone pole, and we commenced chiseling and carving faces in the pole during an all-night party, after which the pole was set up in the backyard in cement, where it remained for decades. She was the cheerleader of our blue-collar family. As she frequently said, “Our family can do anything!”

During the sharing, I recalled—sometimes out loud, sometimes silently—my own favorite memories of Mom: her feeding the ants with me outside our house with bread crumbs, her listening to my bedtime prayers each night, her spending every day at my hospital bed for six weeks when I had a broken leg, her making sandwiches for me every day when I came home from school for lunch, her support for me when I chose to go against convention and was ridiculed by my classmates, her wonderful stage acting in It’s Never Too Late and The Little Foxes, her fascination with the Loch Ness Monster, Abominable Snowman and UFOs (including her own UFO sighting), her curiosity about all things, and her declaration with arms outstretched: “I love you this much!”

Despite this treasury of warm memories—and a childhood belief that she was the perfect mother—I had shed few tears since her death; so few that I felt guilty. Perhaps I was not emotional because I was prepared for her death and had said to her what I had wanted to say. Also, I no longer needed her the way I did when I was a child or a teenager. And I had the comfort of knowing she had died the way she wanted to. But another truth—though I did not share it during our gathering—was that I had gradually lost my mother over the years of my adulthood. She seemed to have only a passing interest in my wife and children, or in what I was doing; and I often felt disappointment and resentment toward her. She had become grievously insulting toward Dad, and often moody and uncooperative with me and my siblings. Perhaps demons from her past had caught up with her and she no longer had the energy to be who she had been. In any case, such thoughts would be for another time to share.

At the conclusion of our time set aside for appreciative memories, Christine presented Dad with an award: “To the one Mom chose to be the father of us all.” Dad’s eyes welled up, but he managed a clever comeback: “You were all accidents.” We all laughed.

Before we dispersed, Dad handed each of his children an envelope stuffed with hundreds of dollars. He explained that over the years Mom had been hiding from him half of all her winnings from her many trips to Las Vegas. Her final wish was for those winnings to now go to us with the following instructions: “Do something fun.”

About the Author

Ryan  Ahlgrim

Ryan Ahlgrim is a pastor who always wanted to be a writer. He has served First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis for the past fifteen years, and has written frequently for various denominational magazines. He has authored a youth curriculum, Morphed: New Life in Romans, a book on preaching, Not as the Scribes, and contributed a sermon to the anthology, Keeping the Faith: Indiana’s Best Sermons. His first published short story, “The Day I Saw Bigfoot at the Zoo,” appeared in the New Fiction issue of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing (see Archives). Many of his sermons, as well as his Bible study blog, can be accessed through his church’s website:www.indymenno.org. He and his wife Laurie have two teenage children, Garrett and Savannah.