When I was 21, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was told that she had about one year left to live, and she died in November of the following year.
On the night of her death, I sat alone in the room of my apartment where Hospice set up my mother’s bed and other accommodations. I watched her alive but unconscious body for about three days, waiting. I was told by someone that the dying sometimes wake and I was desperately hoping that moment would come so that I could say goodbye to her.
When a metastasis of the cancer grew in her brain in the previous week, my mother stopped recognizing me and violently reacted to her condition. She told me I was hurting her, and she asked what she did to deserve the pain that she was in. I tried to console her and she called me a monster. I didn’t want those to be our last words to each other.
The Hospice service that I was provided with did not provide a nurse to care for my mother, but they did provide me with the drugs needed to make her comfortable during her final days. I carefully administered morphine and a topical cream that reduced anxiety to my mother who grunted and moaned all through the last week of her life. She was in so much pain, and I knew she didn’t want to die.
Exhausted, I left the room for a moment to go to the restroom and freshen up. When I returned, she was dead. I knew it as soon as I walked into the hall outside of her room because I could no longer hear the labored breathing that had become a rhythm in my life, a metronome that heaved in and out and told me my mother was still there. I walked into her room and it was silent. I walked up to the bed and grabbed her hand. It was limp in my grasp, but still warm. I just held on to it for a little bit, and I said aloud to her that I was sorry. I hung my head in sadness, but did not cry.
When I looked up, blood was running steadily out of her mouth, and I knew then that I had to call the Hospice line and ask for help preparing her body for the morgue.
As the nurse cleaned my mother and flushed the rest of her narcotics down the toilet, I called the funeral home in the little town where my mother raised me. I told them that my mother had died and I needed her body taken from Austin, the city I live in, to Lampasas, the town where she would be buried. They sent a woman in a black van, and I helped her put my mother in a body bag. When the nurse and mortician left, I was alone in my apartment for the first time since my mother brought in her belongings a few months prior.
In the time it took to care for her and help her die, I lost my job and dropped out of college. In those three months, one or two extended family members came to visit her. Though my mother’s father and three brothers were still living and resided in Texas as well, none of them visited us. No one visited us because my mother was the victim of incest as a young girl, and when she broke her silence as an adult, they said she was crazy. They told me I was crazy too, “just like her.”
I knew my family was deeply dysfunctional and disordered, but when I drove into town the next day, I thought we could put all of that aside for one day so that we could have a funeral for my mother. I spoke to the funeral director and made arrangements. Some members of my family, mostly distant relatives, made a lot of requests for the services.I had to have a viewing, I had to make sure there were rosary prayers being said (we were Catholic), and I had to provide dinner after the funeral.
At the time, I still felt like members of my family would come forward to help me pay for the expenses of the funeral. I put down one thousand dollars of my own money. It was my rent and food money for the following month, the only money I had. I told my family if nothing else, to please provide donations in lieu of flowers to our local church in my mother’s name and I could use those funds to pay for the funeral services.
As of the morning of my mother’s funeral, I had received no money from my mother’s family. I was beginning to become worried, and then I walked into the church. Inside, one person, my mother’s best friend from high school, stood by her casket and cried. Sitting in the pews, distant members of my family sat in black dresses and suits. Three people approached me as I made my way to the front pew reserved for immediate family. One was a woman who had taught me my catechism as a child. She hugged me and asked if I remembered her.
“Of course, I remember you.” I cried then, for the first time, since my mother died. Her embrace on that morning would be the only comfort I would receive that day.
The next person who approached me was a woman that I knew to be a cousin of my grandmother. I know that her family stayed with us when a hurricane left them homeless in the mid-90s. I do not know her name. She handed me an envelope, and inside of it was five hundred dollars.
The last person who spoke to me before I turned to sit was my great aunt, the sister of my grandmother. This woman was the source of great torment to me as a child because she despised my mother and me for being overweight. She called me “panzona,” a derogative word that in Spanish refers to a girl or woman with a big belly. On the morning of my mother’s funeral, my great aunt gave me a one hundred dollar bill, folded over. She said it was from one of her sons. I thanked her and turned toward the front of the church to sit down.
I know I had told them to give donations instead of flowers, but since so few people had donated and the secretary at the church said no one had called or left anything in my mother’s name, I didn’t expect to see the alter of the church so completely bare. No one had sent flowers.
When the funeral came to an end, the director of the funeral home confronted me and asked about payment for the services. I gave him all of the money I received that day, and I told him what happened.
“So, how do you expect to pay?” He asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied and apologized very sincerely. I told him I didn’t know it would be this way, and that I would do my best.
In the following weeks, I received a phone call from him every single day demanding payment. I sold some of my belongings, including my mother’s jewelry, so I could put down another payment and receive her death certificates. I called local Catholic charities and explained the situation. I was being threatened with legal action regarding the funeral debt, and I was frightened, sad, and alone. They said they could not help me. My father, who divorced my mother when I was an infant, was unable to help me because his alcoholism drove him into poverty. His sister, a woman who barely knew my mother, paid another payment to the funeral director in hopes of persuading him to offer me a payment plan. The funeral home refused to offer payments, claiming that the amount is usually paid up front and they had delayed payment long enough. They put the account in collections.
Growing up poor, I was familiar with the process of collections. I thought they would call and threaten, but never do anything. A few weeks later, a man showed up at my apartment and I hid in the linen closet while my roommate answered the door and claimed I had moved. Soon after, I moved to another part of the city and got a new job, trying to support myself through the loneliness, loss, and grief. Since then, the debt has been transferred to at least two different collection and asset investigation agencies.
It has been five years since my mother died. Since her death, I’ve had seven different jobs and six different apartments. Most of the time, I’m doing the very best I can just to survive on my own. I recently graduated from college, and I’m working for a local business. I love my job, and I can finally see a source of stability opening up in my life. I want to hold on to that, and maybe stay in one place for a change, but last night I checked my mail and found a letter from a new collection agency. They found me again.
I know it isn’t right that my mother’s funeral services remain unpaid. If I could, I would gladly pay that debt and settle what has become a very unfortunate reminder of my mother’s death and the family that turned their back on me during a time of great financial and emotional need. Though my mother and I were very poor, the family that victimized her has gone on to enjoy wealth and prosperity in their lives. The woman who gave me 500 dollars probably had nothing else to give, while some members of my family carry more money in their wallet for petty cash than what I owe for the funeral services. I don’t want to take that away from them, but, like my mother, I wonder what I did to deserve this and what I could have done at such a young age to avoid what inevitably happened at the time of my mother’s passing.
Sometimes, I feel like I have already lost everything, and yet there is this entity that seeks to take something else from me -– not just money, but my dignity and the right that I should have to mourn the loss of my mother. I feel like a criminal, but I didn’t do anything wrong, and while I run from this debt, the people who participated in and concealed my mother’s repeated molestation and abuse are free.
The agency that is pursuing my mother’s funeral debt is Hunter Warfield. Their website claims that they specialize in high end debt, specifically funeral and medical debt. I recently contacted Hunter Warfield over the phone regarding my situation, but because I am unable to pay the debt, I was told there was nothing that can be done.
When it occurred to me that there is a market for funeral debt collection, I realized that I was probably not the only person who has been threatened and pursued for the unpaid burial of a loved one. How sad, I think, that there are more people like me, and there is so much money to be made from people who have nothing left to lose.