After many years of ambivalence about engaging with High Acres Farm, feeling haunted by its legacy of suffering yet inspired by its beauty and potential, during a trip to India in the fall of 2015, I finally decided to move home, choosing March of 2016 as a moving date.
Starting that same fall, my mother began to experience severe breathing problems from fifty years of cigarette smoking, and she was sent to the hospital by ambulance multiple times. For the next few months, she was in and out of the local hospital’s intensive care unit, a rehabilitation center in Burlington, and her bedroom at High Acres Farm, where she entered hospice care in February of 2016.
On March 4, 2016, I loaded up a U-Haul truck in Brooklyn, New York to finalize my move to Vermont, arriving home at High Acres Farm later that day.
The following afternoon, just when the truck had been fully unloaded, I received a call from my sister, telling me to come upstairs to our mother’s bedroom, as her health had become precipitously worse.
As I arrived at her bedside, she asked us to put on her favorite recording of Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, about the brotherhood of knights who guard the Holy Grail. While the gorgeous music played, my sister and I lay with our mother in bed, as she drifted in and out of consciousness between us.
By the late afternoon, with the winter sun going down behind the Adirondacks, she had taken her final few breaths, and her body had become limp in our arms.
A few minutes later, my sister having left the room, I found myself alone with my mother’s body, and I felt a sudden urge to look in her eye. So I rounded the bed to kneel on the floor beside her, and with one hand holding her forehead, with the other hand I gently lifted her eyelid. As I looked into her eye, I marveled at its beauty, remembering all the times I’d looked into that same exquisite eye over the many years of my life. And yet now, it was missing something ineffable.
Like gazing into a glass marble, I saw my own rounded reflection looking back at me. And I knew in that moment that my mother’s body was only her space suit — allowing her to be here on Earth for a while to experience this human life, with its strange phenomena of time, touch, choice, and emotion. Her body was her space suit, but it wasn’t really her, and where she was then I could no longer say.
As I looked at my own human body, and at the sunlight streaming in through the window, it was clear to me that our human bodies are the ultimate virtual reality machines — delivering a totally convincing experience of a self-consistent world.
From that point on, the subsequent tending to her body was like putting away a costume from a long and beautiful (and yet finally finished) performance.
This ritual witnesses the experience that followed three days later, when our mother’s body was cremated in nearby South Burlington, Vermont.
The process — careful, meticulous, and full of love and respect — was carried out by a gentleman named Gary Reid.
In the back room of the crematorium, where few families ever ask to go, the owners of the chapel had parked their fiberglass motor boat, presumably waiting out the winter for future summer adventures on glassy Lake Champlain.
I remember glimpsing their boat in the background, and imagining my mother’s spirit stepping out of her space suit and into this watery vessel, handing her little steel tag to the boatman, while traveling the River Styx to her next incarnation — while somewhere else faraway, her old space suit was being recycled by fire.
The music that accompanies this film is the opening prelude to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, the music that my mother asked to listen to in her final moments as she was dying. We introduced this music to the film after the edit was already complete, but it ended up matching the picture in an eerily natural way.
Her obituary was published the following day in The New York Times.
Original music by
- Gary Reid
- Stephen Gregory
- Amanda Herzberger
Cremation filmed at