Updated: Jul 9, 2020
I knew that the time was drawing close. Every phone conversation we had now consisted of her crying and complaining that she was tired and didn’t want to live anymore. Each time I hung up the phone I was drained, frustrated and helpless. What could I do?
The words she spoke were painful for me to hear, but I knew deep down in my heart Mom had had enough of life. The life she lived now was no longer the life she desired to live. She spoke about her friends who had died one after the other and how she had laid her last sibling to rest. Mom was losing her will to live and nothing I said was going to make her change her mind.
I tried my best to cheer her up by flying down to Jamaica for short weekend trips.
Five Yards of Baby-Pink Crepe
On one of those trips Mom gave me about 5 yards of beautiful, baby-pink crepe fabric.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“My dress,” she said.
“What dress?” I responded.
“My burial dress,” she replied, without so much as a missed beat.
I looked at her and my heart ached. I forced back the tears welling up in me. “Why me?”
But of course, it had to be me. No one else could sew as good as her, knew her style, or how she liked things done immaculately, except me.
“I want to look like a queen,” she said, smiling with eyes that lit up for a tiny moment as she spoke. “You know what I like.”
“I do?” I asked, laughing. “I guess I do now.”
“I want a lace headdress and lace gloves, and white slippers.”
Like a young child, telling their parent what they wanted for their birthday party, she continued to prattle of the list of things I was to do. From the interior of the coffin, music to be played, hymns to be sung, and food to be served. She had spoken to Pastor Greaves about the service and Mr. Phillips, the funeral director. She had already arranged, with her church sisters and the Women’s Group she belonged to, what meals they were to prepare for the day and given them funds to make it go smoothly.
It was a long list.
I sat still and took notes. I made small talk all the while crying inside. It was hard, but I kept a smile on my face as I listened to this beautiful person plan for her homegoing.
When I finally got up and went to my room, I was emotionally drained. She was satisfied that I had everything under control. I was worried I would miss something important.
That night, I tossed and turned upon the bed hearing her groaning and crying. She was in pain. I knew that. Her body was fighting, her mind was wrestling, and she was trying, but too weak to fight back. I couldn’t take it anymore and got up.
I entered her room. The nightlight sent out a warm glow. On her bed, curled up in a fetal position, she moaned. I walked to the bed and laid down beside her. Gently, I began stroking her hair. It was soft and silver, thinned out from age and the medications she took. As I would, when taking care of a child, I encouraged her to rest, rubbing her back in a circular motion. This was all I could do to try and calm her back to sleep, but sleep did not come for her, or for me.
When I left to go home, she tried to be upbeat, but I saw the sadness and hurt in her eyes. She wanted me to stay, but how could I. We made small talk and kissed goodbye.
“Till the next time,” I said. I always said that, each time wondering if there would be a next time.
The ride to the airport was troublesome as I sat in silence and reminisced over my life. Death surrounded me. I counted in my mind the friends and family that had died in the past few years and my heart ached.
The tears would come, but I always shook them off and cleared my head. No point in dwelling on all of those losses. I had things to do. There was a pink dress to design for a special occasion. One thing for sure, when she was laid to rest in that coffin, mom was going to be royal.
I got back to Brooklyn on that warm, sunny June day. In my suitcase was the 5 yards of pink crepe fabric. In my mind was the playback of what had taken place in my mother’s living room. For days I agonized over how I was going to do what she wanted. Her instructions were very clear. She wanted her last farewell to be the finale to the life she had lived.
This was her send off. It was going to be bigger than the one she gave my father. It was more flamboyant than all the ones she had taken care of for so many who had gone before her. Her death, just like her life, was going to touch many lives. As she lived, so she was going to die. She wanted her last farewell to be remembered. I was the one she entrusted to make sure it happened.
Even before I started the process of designing, and then sewing her burial dress, I had to purchase all the materials. I was tormented. Like someone possessed, I walked around with a swatch of the fabric looking for the right lace. Up and down Broadway I walked, checking the places I knew sold bridal fabrics, nothing. Mom loved lace and she loved embroidery so I knew these would be the major makeup of the dress.
The lace I wanted to get was not going to be pink because that would not be eye-catching enough. It could not be white because that would take away from the pink. I pictured a more ivory or bone cream, with a slightly raised pattern. I wanted it to contrast again her brown skin and should buy enough to give her a head wrap.
I pictured a lace bodice that covered from her collarbone down to the top of her breastbone. The rest of the bodice down to the waist would be embroidered in the same pattern of the lace. I knew who I could get to do the embroidery because I had a man who had embroidered fabric for me before. If I could just find the right patterned lace.
Along Flatbush Avenue, there were two large fabric stores. Most of the small ones had closed down. Sewing was a dying art, I guess. This was my last hope. I started my journey and walked to the closest one. Usually, a shopping trip like this, browsing around a fabric store, would have me smiling and feeling joyful, but not today. My heart was heavy with thoughts of my sick mother in Jamaica.
Despite having a large selection of lace, they did not have what I want. When I asked the store clerk if they had cream Guipure lace, he looked at me strangely. I tried to explain what it was, but as I got more upset with him, I realized it wasn’t his fault. Shaking my head, I walked out of the store and caught the bus to the other end of Flatbush Avenue. Thankfully, I had better luck and even found the exact type and color of lace I was looking for. There was even perfect pink-colored taffeta for lining the dress.
Next, I moved to the threads, zippers, and buttons. A special dress needed extra special buttons. Only pearl ones would do for her. There I was with the reels of pink and white sewing threads in one hand, reaching for beautiful pink pearl buttons to fasten the back.
I pulled the packets off, one by one, and then stopped.
All I heard were the final words of instruction Mom gave.
“Remember to leave the back open,” she told me. “Leave the back open and make it bigger so they can overlap it.”
As I stood in the fabric store, surrounded by shelves of fancy trimmings, it hit me hard. Right in the stomach.
I was not making a wedding dress like I had for my sister. It was not a bridesmaid dress, although I had made many of them in my time. Nor was it an elaborate, elegant evening gown to be worn to some fancy party. Lord knows I had sewn many of those in my time. No, this was my mother’s shroud.
This pink dress would never see light of day. It would be forever hidden, in a lonely coffin, lined with cream satin fabric as she had requested. Her head would forever lay on the small lace pillow, where she would rest in eternal sleep.
This was Pearl’s burial shroud. This time I let the tears flow. I knew then, this dress would be the last dress I would ever sew and, because it was for our Pearl, it was going to be special.
Throughout my cutting, sewing, and stitching, it was sprinkled with so many teardrops. You see, no matter how hard I tried, each time I saw what I was sewing, the tears came. I couldn’t set it aside and leave for next week or next month. No, I had to keep sewing until it was complete. You see, I did not know the day or time when she would need to wear it.
I gently put the packet of buttons back in their place, wiped my eyes, and moved over to the cashier’s desk. As I stood there, I pictured mom laying in her coffin, serene and at peace, looking like the queen in her beautiful pink dress. There and then, I knew exactly how the dress would look.
The Pink Dress
This trip was special. It was to celebrate her 90th birthday and also show her the dress. Everything she had asked me to do, I had done.
The pink gown, with the silver-thread, delicately embroidered, patterned, bodice and long lace sleeves, was clean, pressed, and protected in a plastic suit-bag. The white lace gloves and other accessories right there with it. The lace headwrap with embroidered edges and the small pillow made with lace and remnants of pink crepe.
When I showed Mom the dress, she cried.
“Don’t cry, Mom,” I said.
“Thank you me daughter,” she exclaimed. “You going to mek me look like a queen.”
“I know,” I said, “Because you are.”
And we both laughed and cried at the same time.
My mother was grieving. She could not control the deterioration of her body. She could not control her death, but she was determined to be control how she would be buried. By giving me detailed instructions of how to lay her to rest, she had control. I thought she was being unfair, but she wasn’t.
When I left this time, I had a feeling it would be the last time I would be seeing Mom. I was almost right.
A Love Letter to Mom
It was a busy morning and I was churning through the piles of documents on my desk. If I kept working with no interruption, I could make a dent in them. I was focused as best as I could even though my mind kept running back to my mother in Jamaica and our conversation on the last trip. It was not easy, but I tried.
I jumped when the phone. I knew the call would come; I just did not expect it to come now.
I picked up the headpiece and gingerly answered, “Hello.”
“Mom,” my daughter said, “Granny is dead.”
The agonizing scream that came from the pit of my stomach was heart wrenching, at least that is how my co-workers described it. The piercing scream had people running towards me wondering what had happened. One of them said she knew, right away, that my mother had died. She had instantly wrapped her arms around me, trying to console me. There was no comfort, only pain and sadness, sorrow and tears. The Pearl had gone. My life was never going to be the same again.
You are not alone in your grief. Every tear you shed, every scream you let loose, and every sigh you expel is being taken note of. Every sleepless night. Every toss. Every turn is being watched. Your loss is about to change the course of your heart, but rest assured your heart is in safe hands.
When Mom asked me to make her dress, she gave me a gift. She knew the pain her death was going to bring to her family. This was her way of removing some of that.
I sewed a love letter to mom. All the words I wanted to say to her, but did not, was said when she finally saw her beautiful, embroidered pink dress. She knew the labor of love it took. I saw the love, respect and gratitude in her eyes. This was our last farewells. It was finished.
Now was my time to grieve.
As I sat down and began writing my story, I didn’t know that grief was about to cover the globe like a tsunami. I could not visualize that a small virus was about cause so many people to face devastating loss of one kind or another. I could not even comprehend the depression and painful emotions that would soon be experienced. All I knew, as painful as it was, I had to push myself to get the message out. You see, even before it was all over, people were lost.
I wrote my story to help you move through grief without ignoring it or being completely overwhelmed by it. It’s okay to grieve. That gaping hole in your heart is something you will experience at least once in your lifetime. With time, the hole will close, but the wound will remain. You will have lost, but you will also have gained so much more.
This is the big one. You’ve lost before, but this time it’s big. That’s why this book is in your hands. I pray that you will give yourself permission to grieve. Don’t listen to anyone who says, “It will pass.” Grieving takes time, but understand this, time is on your side.
The only one way you can make sense of your loss is to go through the grieving process. Without the journey of passing through the different passages of grief, you will never heal. The only remedy for coming back after your biggest loss is to heal from the pain and suffering that always follows death. And that takes time.
An excerpt from A Moment Alone to Grieve by Pangeline Edwards
Launch Date: July 6
For those of you going through the grieving process at this time, I pray that you will give yourself time to grieve. I pray that you move through grief without ignoring it or being completely overwhelmed by it. It’s okay to grieve. Be at peace.