By Suzy Barile

“Does Emma know she absolutely cannot die on a Monday?” I asked my brother-in-law, Michael. We were in the lobby of the emergency room, waiting for Dr. Anderson to emerge and tell us what he’d found during my mother-in-law Emma’s latest trip to the hospital.

“Does she realize that Cynthia would never cancel her Circle meeting for her own mother’s funeral?”

My voice dripped with sarcasm. This weekly Thursday afternoon meeting of Cynthia’s, where she supposedly coordinated all the behind-the-scenes volunteer activities for her church, had been the bane of our caretaking efforts for Emma over the last few months, ever since she’d been diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer.

Never mind that this was Emma’s third bout with the disease that had also taken the lives of her older sister, her father, and her youngest brother. Never mind that even while undergoing aggressive chemotherapy, she continued to care for her grandchildren – Cynthia's children, and there were five in all, from age 16 down to 3 -- as her middle daughter worked dead-end job after dead-end job.

No, Cynthia had never in the dozen or so years I’d been married to her oldest brother been able to let go of any sliver of her own self-importance long enough to think of anyone else. I often wondered if her children saw it. Did they feel put upon, especially as the oldest children cared for the younger ones -- changing diapers, putting them to bed, entertaining them during Cynthia's favorite weekly television show?

Their father, Thomas, had died two years before – a heart attack, the doctor said. He failed to note the fact that Thomas had been in another woman’s arms when fatally struck.

With a modest life insurance payout and the children’s Social Security benefits, Cynthia had tried to continue living in the manner she imagined a middle-class widow would. There were dance lessons for the girls and music for the boys, but no sports, Cynthia insisted. She feared the children would be injured, even in a non-contact sport such as swimming or tennis. It was probably just as well. Their after-school activities changed as often as Cynthia did jobs. No team or teammate would ever be able to depend on a long-term commitment.

Emma always said her daughter's problem with keeping a job was because none of her employers ever realized or understood the stress placed on Cynthia as a single parent. But truthfully, her high school education afforded few career choices, and if Cynthia wasn’t late for work, then she was having to make up time. She was always running late, even when it came to picking up the children at her mother’s house where the youngest three stayed. When Cynthia tired of the chaos, she’d quit her job and vow to find something more amenable to her lifestyle needs.

Everyone knew her ways, even my family members. They had attended enough joint events over the years with my husband’s family. My sisters simply said, “That’s Cynthia,” each time she was late to a family get-together or complained of unreasonable work hours and difficult bosses.

Yet more and more, her no-one-else-in-the-world-matters attitude was playing out in her children. When the younger ones were at their grandmother's house, they loved to make mess, but never cleaned up. The older children's grades showed a lack of study and interest in homework, and regularly they were called into the principal’s office for mischievous deeds. Cynthia called the misdeeds "cute pranks" and never punished one child.

It was no wonder, then, that when she was asked to head the women’s Circle at her church, all who knew her well wondered how she’d manage it. This volunteer effort involved making certain there were flowers on the altar each Sunday morning, that the communion plates and cups were cleaned and polished after each use, that cards were sent weekly to parishioners in need of prayers, and that staffing was found each week for the nursery during the two-hour Sunday school and church service.

With five children, and a mother on the verge of dying, there was no way Cynthia's ways would or could change. But because she didn't see these problems in her life, and apparent those who asked her to serve didn't either, she agreed to head the group during the upcoming church year.

Silly women, I thought, when I heard Cynthia had been tapped to lead the Circle. They'll soon learn they can’t trust her to follow through on anything, not even with delegating tasks.

No sooner had fall activities at the church gotten under way when all her family knew about her became clear to the women in the Circle -- as well as to other church members. Because Cynthia never got around to delegating any tasks, and certainly (she said) couldn't be expected to do them all herself, Saturday evenings found one or another Circle member making phone calls to see who had flowers in bloom in their garden, or running by the grocery store to find and purchase the least-sad-looking bouquet.

On Wednesday before the first Sunday of each month, when the church held its communion service, two sopranos (also members of the Circle) met after choir practice to rinse off any sticky cups and wipe away any tarnish spots on the plates.

And thank goodness for the church secretary who began keeping a supply of prayer cards and envelopes, stamps, and a membership roster at hand so when the self-appointed card sender stopped by Monday morning, all was ready.

The task of getting help for the nursery, however, was a whole other problem. Young parents weary of their own charges looked forward to a couple hours of calm on Sundays and seldom signed up to help. Each week, frantic calls went out late on Saturday afternoon, trying to catch those planning to attend Sunday school and the church service and coercing them into watching over the roomful of rambunctious babies and toddlers.

As usual, Cynthia was oblivious to what went on behind her back while she enjoyed the status of being leader of the Circle. At its monthly meetings, the good church women who made up its membership never said a word to Cynthia. Instead, they chose to count down the Sundays until spring when her leadership role ended. They also agreed to rotate the task from that point on.

Despite the fact that Cynthia did none of the work assigned to her circle, much less serve as a responsible leader, she surely would never miss a monthly meeting. Waiting for Dr. Anderson to speak to us, I reiterated to Michael what I knew to be true: "If Emma dies on a Monday, the funeral will most likely be on Thursday, three days later.

“Cynthia won’t cancel her meeting for anyone.”

Michael was a bachelor who lived far enough away that he was called on to help only every once in awhile. He shrugged and replied, “Well, you know Cynthia.”

Just then Dr. Anderson emerged through the double doors separating the lobby from the emergency room examining area. Grave concern showed on his face.

“It doesn’t look good,” he said. “The CAT scan shows the tumors have spread more aggressively than we’d have liked. I think the best we can do is keep her comfortable.”

And so it was that when Emma breathed her final breath, at 12:05 a.m. on a Tuesday, Cynthia also breathed a sigh of relief. The funeral, planned for three days later, would be on Friday.

No comments: