“The funeral made the boy very sad, even sadder than a real funeral, he said.”
-Mary Ruefle, On Imagination
I want a funeral for my mother’s mind. It’s partway gone and not coming back. Even a sailor lost at sea is given ceremony, despite his missing body. What if the body’s here, is living, but the mind is drifting? Let’s make it official. Let’s have a funeral.
Funerals are just theater. A funeral for my mother’s mind would be like that—a play—only my mother will act all the parts: king and country, horse and sword, Falstaff and Catherine, the French wife who can’t speak an English word.
Involved would be the incidental and counter-factual, the simultaneous and historical. We’d need everything in: ocean creatures, cardiologists, cinnamon-flavored coffee left on a counter to cool, drinking fountains in elementary schools, saddle shoes, bad perms, cesarean sections, sleeping pills. We’d need also civil unrest, mass shooting drills, wars, wars, wars, and the long, undisturbed sleep of old dogs.
Time is of the essence, in other words.
I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m not saying it’s never been done. Adam Long, Jess Winfield, and Daniel Singer crammed all of Shakespeare’s plays into a single, 97-minute show called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged (I’ve seen it; we’ll come to that).
We’ll need props and costumes, of course. The mind wears and wields them too, and if the mind is diseased, then it’s a matter of provenance and persistence, as well as loss. Even the diseased mind must have something to put on, something to carry, something to do.
A wedding dress, for example—every wedding dress starts somewhere. The one I have in mind—my mother’s second—is sewn by a single mother, then hung on a rack until it’s worn, then hung on a rack again for days, for weeks, for years, until it’s a ghost that only fairly disappears.
For this play, we’ll need the ghost and the rack. We’ll need the daughter and the dress. We’ll need the days and the thread and the house. We’ll need the mother who grew up in pain. We will need her pain, need to make it live again.
And it all must happen in the present tense—in the present as we watch, because it is always happening and has already happened. Let’s have a funeral.
Let’s cry for fields. Let’s cry for houses. Let’s cry for trains and disembodied bruises. Let’s cry for our thoughts. Let’s cry for action and for deadlock. Let’s cry for our missing, our aimless and accumulating. Let’s cry for weeds, for spiders, for broken glass. Let’s cry for the no-one-there to pull, to crush, or be cut. Let’s cry for a woman’s mind. Let’s cry for the mind that overspills its borders into another woman’s mind, then another’s, and so on. Let’s cry for the untended garden, arugula mingling with poppies, poppies with tomatoes, eggs broken then tossed on the compost. Who cares? The worms care. Cry for the garden. Cry for the worms.
It’ll be an artistic breakthrough, also a natural progression. Let’s call it A Funeral for My Mother’s Mind.
Curtain-up the day Princess Diana dies. (We must start somewhere.) Or, better yet, curtain-up on a cabinet in a house on a cul-de-sac, and find inside that cabinet a jewelry box, and inside the jewelry box, the spoils of three marriages (all ended), including a ring like Diana’s: oval sapphire in the middle, a queen’s ruff of diamonds around the sapphire, but fake. Fake as in not the princess’s, yes, but fake as in glass stones? I couldn’t say.
It’s from this ring the rest emanates.
My mother’s second husband bought this ring for her.
No, again, but in the present tense, please:
My mother’s second husband buys this ring for her. Later, when she leaves him for her third husband, he throws his body on her car as she tries to drive away. There is screaming—her screaming and the screaming of wheels.
The chorus steps on stage. The stage is a tumult of wet wood, old dirt, and fabric. The chorus is trying her best to make something out of it: “The flat unraised spirits that have dared / On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object—”
She holds up a ring so all in the audience can see it.
The play about my mother’s mind offers us no clues except the ceremony of the thing. As her second husband chases after her car, he acts the scorned lover, plays the paparazzi chasing a princess through a Parisian tunnel. A hounded princess is mythic, an abusive man chasing his wife is sad. To gift a real ring to a princess is ceremony, to demand a fake one back from an ordinary woman, melodrama.
Now we arrive, as promised, at The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged:
It’s August 31, 1997. I’m nineteen and at a matinee performance in London’s West End. We are waiting. We are restless. The stage manager emerges from behind the curtain, and he says, “It is with great sadness I must report that Princess Diana has died from a car accident early this morning.”
The show goes on, as it does.
Titus Andronicus is a cooking program. Othello is a rap. The histories are a game of American football, only instead of pigskin, a crown is thrown around, with words like “Derridean,” “jejune,” and “metaphysical.”
Ophelia runs screeching onstage, her arms above her head, sporting a manic blonde wig. The audience laughs. “All is not well,” she says.
But the histories are a game. They are fake/real and real/fake. A quarterback may fake a pass. A king turns the line of succession into a game. History is written by the winners, never the superfluous. A superfluous soul can sometimes win, but only by lying very, very still, or by lying. Which of these was a real king, the play asks us. Foul! Lear must leave the field. Lear is a fiction.
Hear humming under the stage business:
“She is dead and gone, lady. She is dead and gone.”
And like a slide clicked into its viewfinder: everything turns blue, blue, blue. I hear slides click into place all over the theater as the audience lets her death bruise the scene. Diana is dead. Diana is dead.
Hear humming under the stage business:
Actors toss the English crown back and forth. Henry V passes to Henry VI. Meanwhile, I sense the weight of the princess’s body, something she was always trying to lighten, prone in the middle of the action, the players constantly stepping over and around it.
The body is everybody and has no mouth for speaking.
What the hell do I care about Diana? Diana is bulimic and so am I. I say we are, because you never fully excise the bulimic. She just finds a new bathroom in which to throw up. Inside a palace, this isn’t difficult, but the mind isn’t a palace. It’s a suburban house, and Diana is a postcard taped to my bedroom wall.
I’m thirteen. My mother indulges me: a whole pizza, frosted sugar cookies, bagels with cream cheese. She doesn’t forget she’s already fed me, but feeding me again makes her feel she’s doing something useful.
The second husband will always have something to say. Having caught me throwing up, he backs me against a wall and says, “Why are you doing this to her?” He points to my mother who is teary in a corner.
Even the tragedies are comedies. The histories, too. And the romances are strange equations: something plus something plus the supernatural. A ghost is always part human. If the dress becomes a ghost and only fairly disappears, then my mother is somewhat the woman she was.
She’s feeding her cats multiple times a day. It’s because she forgets she’s already fed them, and also because feeding them makes her feel she’s doing something useful. She likes to buy me clothes. (It makes her feel she’s doing something useful.) But we need to hide the shopping bags from the second husband, else he’ll get angry. My sister hides my mother’s bank card from her, else she’ll buy booze. She cries unconsolably for her lost cats and dogs, my sister tells me.
She cries for her favorite dog. The dog is dreaming of her lost teeth. She’s dreaming of a house where a ghost girl watches her ghost mother sew a ghostly wedding dress. Stitch. Stitch. Twitch. Twitch. The dog is dreaming of dream squirrels dreaming of her on a night full of painkillers.
That dog is buried behind the house, the one where my mother is no longer allowed. There’s a stone with the print of a paw. There’s kingcup, harebell, foxglove. The dog is drifting in a small boat under the grass. If only she might dig up the bones, my mother might take the dog’s skull in her hands, and joyfully say how she bore her on her back a thousand times, “and now how abhorred in my imagination it is!” But my mother’s third husband is done with her.
Every ditched princess needs some sorcery. Enter Mary Ruefle, a real Prospero. In her book On Imagination, ever the magician, she presents a trick of language. “Beware the difference between real pretend and fake pretend,” she says, but my mother struggles with the difference. She’s sometimes frantic, sending multiple text messages in an hour. “You stole my jewelry!” she types to her third husband. Where is the ruby necklace her grandmother gave her? Where is the Commoner’s Ring?
The missing ring’s centerpiece is a sapphire—blue, blue, blue—but as a jewel, the sapphire is a shallow mutt, made of corundum and other stuff. Diamonds, however, are pure carbon. They’re found deeper down, one hundred miles below the surface. She wants her mutt back, her glass gem.
The whole thing is funny, if I let myself think like that. Romeo and Juliet began as a comedy, I hear. All the comedies run together until the characters are interchangeable, the settings just backdrops to marriages. Then what to make of The Merchant of Venice? It ends in (along with marriage) a forced conversion—a sort of funeral for the mind. The daughter is a stolen gem and also has stolen gems. She is missed and missing. Beware the difference.
They call it the “Commoner’s Ring” because rumor has it, Diana found it in a catalog ordinary women read, opting for ready-to-wear in lieu of unique. Still, the jewelers who made it are jewelers to the rich and landed. They modeled it, in fact, after Victoria’s brooch—Queen Victoria who dressed her children as peasants in idylls then sketched their portraits. Or it may be called the “Commoner’s Ring” as a smear on Diana’s daughter-in-law who wears it now.
My mother’s second husband takes her to a jewelry store in a South Florida arcade. She chooses the ring. “An exact replica,” the salesperson says and places it on the counter, “down to the cut and color.” These jewels, however, were made in a lab somewhere in California. Beware the difference.
If a mother is a sapphire, then a daughter is a diamond. Find her deeper down. She is born of great heat and pressure. If she won’t crown, then cut her out. “Your grandfather held my hand before the operation,” my mother says. “He was there when I closed my eyes.” I wonder, was he there when she reopened them? I was.
I’m forty-two and I have a daughter that I love “passing well,” which means, in Shakespeare’s language, more than anything. Most mornings, my daughter lies awake in bed a while. I pass her room and put my ear to the door. I listen as she whispers to her stuffed animal the day’s plans: “All things are ready, if our mind be so,” she says. “There are throats to be cut and works to be done!” I’m suddenly embarrassed to be eavesdropping, and rush away.
That is an example of history in a play.
Now my mother reaches for her husband in the night and he isn’t there. I don’t know which one she means. She asks, “Was I a good mother?” I say, “Sure. Sure.” We leave it there.
It may appear the diseased mind has no agency, that a cry for help is passive, that the diseased mind just is, never does, or if it does, the doing is dismissed as irrelevant, a miscomprehension, a trompe l’oeil. “I want to do, not just be,” Diana says. But we just are. To throw up after eating would be a cry-for-help. To bang my head against the toilet till I bleed would be a cry-for-help. To scream back, “FUCK YOU,” would also be a cry-for-help. It is never, simply, a cry. In the bathroom, I wield my toothbrush handle like a dagger, going for the throat.
I am always trying to die. But, “No one cares,” my boyfriend says when I worry aloud about my body. He probably thinks it’s only vanity. He probably believes saying so is a kindness. But behind what’s expressed is real meaning, delicately wired, carefully calibrated, and not meant to be seen: my boyfriend is ashamed of me. Still, when I beg for it, he reluctantly complies. So that we won’t be heard, we sneak out of our hotel room and slip into a utility closet. He props me up on a washing machine and fucks me like it’s a chore, like taking the dog for a walk, like doing the dirty dishes. He does me, too.
“I want to do, not just be,” Diana says. People think the diseased mind has no utility, but I disagree. It satisfies a desire for unmooring everyone has, no matter their station. We become children again, and who doesn’t want to be a child? My mother is like a teenager, pouring water into wine bottles to hide her drinking. We are, in a sense, on equal footing now, my mother and I. Dementia and bulimia: two abstract nouns, two spirits of loss past midsummer, cast as Fairy Cobweb and Fairy Moth, my mother, Moth, who throws herself against the glass.
In my memory, my mother is usually looking at herself in the mirror: her thighs, her ass. “So-and-so says I have great legs,” she tells me. “Can you believe it?” Belief is what this is all about. Prospero tells his daughter, “Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and… .” Prospero is mollifying her, setting up the story, weaving a tale.
Here’s what I do know: my mother dives from a boat to swim with a dolphin. The dolphin swims away. Goodbyes take forever on a boat—she can still see the person she left onshore as she rocks along in the opposite direction. She waves for a while at herself, but can’t continue on like this forever, and finally lowers her arm.
“I hope I was a good mother to you.”
I read the same sentence over and over and over again.
“I hope I was a good mother to you.”
Queen Katherine wants to know how she can marry a man who lately stole her country. Queen Gertrude asks her child to cast off his mourning color—not black, but blue, blue, blue.
Never worked a day in her life, but she was a teacher for a while, wasn’t she?
My mother has stopped working for pay. Now she works to kill time. She is a good gardener, but only ever plants flowers. She has a knack with them and works for a spell in a florist shop called Covent Garden, among other odd jobs: realtor, aerobics instructor, flight attendant, hostess, teacher. Every one, with the exception of teaching, is work, not vocation. It is the teaching, she says, that actually made something, by which she means, broke something: her body carrying children up and down stairs, also her heart. “Those kids,” she tells me, “just need someone to love them,” and “Did I tell you I’m walking a few miles every day? It’s good for me mentally and physically.”
There is a pause. Her mind resets. She says, “Did I tell you I’m walking a few miles every day? It’s good for me mentally and physically.”
I am here for her, a doll to be talked to, the way my daughter talks to her panda bear. She says, “Pandy is scared. Pandy doesn’t like bugs.” But when my daughter digs in the soil, she finds bugs and isn’t scared.
Hamlet talks to himself and to a skull. Yet he is still afraid.
My mother talks to her cats. One is called Pretty. One is called You. She is fine, she says. Don’t worry about me, she says. Worry about Pretty. Worry about You.
I talk to dead writers and sometimes living ones, too. I prop them up on a shelf like dolls and they stare down at me as I sleep. When I awake, I still don’t know which words to use.
Diana talks to the press, only rarely. She says, “Don’t call me an icon. I’m just a mother trying to help.”
Beware the difference.
What if Diana has always been dead, but on August 31, 1997, everyone suddenly and at once agrees? We might throw a funeral for our years of misconception. We might sing an Elton John song, only change the address to: “Goodbye, memory…” then continue with, “Though I never knew you at all / You had the grace to hold yourself / While those around you crawled.”
The mind is in its body bag far from the palace and the Queen won’t come down from Scotland to cry for her. There’s no guard in a black box by the front door. There’s no maid or manservant, no flag on the flagpole to lower.
“Worry about Pretty,” my mother says. “Worry about You.”
The ring was returned a long time ago.
Now an abrupt change of scene:
August 31, 2018: A group of artists and writers recreate Diana’s funeral word-for-word, twenty-one years after the real thing, but in Manchester instead of London, a warehouse instead of Westminster, with a mariachi band instead of Elton John and an Uber for a hearse. People throw broccoli at the coffin, people who were likely too young to remember the real one. Actors play all the parts: Diana’s brother, the priest, even the mourners, though they are just superfluous passersby, extras, ad-hoc, asked in fliers to come dressed in black.
In the Manchester warehouse is a wrecked car—not a Mercedes but a Volkswagen—its roof covered over with cellophane-wrapped bouquets, parked indefinitely by a set of double-stacked speakers. The audience is forced to file past it as they claim their space on the pew. They are the sorts of people who huddled in throngs outside the cathedral then, and now are allowed inside, or, in this case, inside the White Hotel—a rehabbed nightclub where they might go on a Saturday to rave and drink and score. This ceremony is called The Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales 2.0. and they clap once it’s all over. The Guardian gives it five stars.
In the play that is A Funeral for My Mother’s Mind, there would be no discernible difference between the first funeral (real) and the second funeral (fake). We would hear audio of my daughter’s plush panda crying as my son transforms into a bird, as well as my mother forgetting their names.
Now back to the top:
August 31, 1997: We leave the theater unchanged.
There are awestruck crowds formed in a ring around Buckingham Palace. There are flowers, teddy bears, and balloons; garrulous and beautiful, these are pain’s byproducts built by ordinary people. The space between themselves and the dead seems impossible, still they try and try to reach her. They keep on, day after day, night after night, erecting their monument, weeping and bricklaying, weeping and hammering. If one weeps on another, all the better. If one forgets and loses herself in the weeping, then call it tenderness until the hammer.
Later, in a Stratford hotel room, my boyfriend and I lie together on the bed, looking up at a TV bracketed and braced high on the wall. At Westminster Abbey, Elton John sits at the piano playing a song he’s played thousands of times before, only now no one claps when he’s finished. Here, then, is the moment I feel something, and I cry a little, my boyfriend’s hand—out of habit—lazily climbing my thigh.
Or, I’m on a boat on a canal, and the canal itself is penned in by luminous green, stippled by kingcup, harebell, foxglove. The sky above is obscenely blue, blue, blue, like a sapphire, and the boat is moving so slowly, who would know or care if we are arriving or leaving, if we are riding on water, grass, or sky. I think to myself: this is such a happy boat, covered over in pots of tumbling flowers and painted a jolly red. There is white wine, bread, cheese, fruit on the boat’s roof, towheaded kids onshore in wellies waving, waving, waving, and I see my mother, and it looks as if she’s holding my skull in her hands. Then she whispers to me, where my ear would’ve been.