They fill the pews and spill into the corridors, emanating a chill that would rival the newly formed grave. As I pass mechanically, simultaneously counting the steps and searching their faces they avert their eyes, futile attempts to hide themselves from me, the windows of their unfamiliar faces drawn and shuttered against us. I look to them vainly to mirror my grief, to ascertain what grief should look like—perhaps what mine looks like–but I find only shuttered windows and granite countenances.
When they believe I am not gazing absently at them they purloin glances like beggars, lifting her memory from me.
“She’s so strong,” they’ll whisper amongst themselves about me later, relieved to be free from the burden of my sorrow. I glance up, quickly, catching widened eyes and tight smiles. The eyes dart away, followed by shudder.
Perhaps death is catching.
Swallowing hard, I smother the stone that forms in my throat; my nostrils flare and acid burns my eyes, but stoic and still I remain. A lone tear threatens to escape, and so I cast my treacherous orbs downward, staring at the absurd lucidity of my Funeral Shoes.
Loving Mother. These words catch me off guard. Cast out from an unfamiliar mouth. Cold and damp, the words settle over me echoing in my ears. Loving Mother. Loving Mother.
What did I expect? Of course I knew this part was coming. He reaches for my hand, I reach for hers. Our grips are so tight that it would hurt, if we weren’t here. Now the sting is a blessed distraction, a release for phantom pain, that distant ache. With them gripping me—us gripping each other—it can be shared. The burden of grief is shared.
I am faintly aware of my name being spoken, the thousands of eyes that find me.
They exude a loathsome sadness that I want to cast back at them, and it makes me ill to find them all here. Who are they?
He helps me to my feet, and graciously I glide to the podium. The sickening smell of flowers threatens to overtake me. A thousand poppies, white and innocent, leer up at me. Who sends flowers? Why? They smell like death, and I hold my breath against them.
In solemn silence I stand for a moment, my heart thrashing in its cage.
Why am I here?
Why did I agree to stand here, to do this? I take a moment and look down upon my audience, imagining again their eagerness to assess my grief—to steal stories of her, to make her belong to them. That’s what this is for. She doesn’t need it. Of course she would want it. She would want us to stand here, mourning her. She would want these people to regret her passing—real or imagined, no matter—she would welcome this attention all the same. She would want our minds to be empty save for thoughts of her, only her, regrets for all we did not say, all that we did not do to please her, to love her, to make her whole.
All of the beautiful things in life my mother taught me.
Mentally I have spoken the words a thousand times, coaxed them gently from my lips, letting them fall like white poppies themselves, numbing me and marking where she fell. But now they are stuck, and the lie of her lies exposed before us.
“M-my mother. Loving mother. Wife. Friend. Sister. Daughter. She would be so happy that you all are here. My mother was. . .beautiful. She was the middle child, between two brothers.” Why am I saying this? Surely if they know—knew—her they would already be familiar with this. Surely they don’t care. “She was young. And. . .complex.” I pause here. My heart pounds ever harder and the blood rushes to my ears.
How did I fit her life onto this tiny index card?
What about all of the things I’m not allowed to say?
I’m not allowed to talk about my first memory of my mother. It would tarnish her. It’s rude to speak ill of the dead—even if it is true. Lie. You lie about the dead. If he was a crook, you say that he was a shrewd businessman. If she was a bitch, you say she was strong-willed. If she was your mother—I hear her voice.
The bible says honor your father and your mother. My children have never honored me.
“I think she would have liked to have been a star. Or a musician. She couldn’t sing. Couldn’t carry a tune. She tried, though. And once, once when we were younger she tried to get us to perform a duet with her. Karaoke, I think. She said we had a choice but she was so angry that we didn’t want to. We were shy.
She was shy, too. She had this tell. You all couldn’t. . .you probably didn’t know. But it was her tell. She would bite her lip and kind of pinch her fingers together, like this. She would take a deep breath and smile. She had a beautiful smile. It wasn’t perfect and she hated that. When I lost my retainer she was so angry.
She didn’t speak to me for a week. I thought it was just about the teeth, which was weird. It’s just a retainer. She wasn’t religious. She tried to be for awhile. I mean, she would be glad that we brought her here but she wasn’t religious. She would want to be here because it’s a large space and it would feel right to her.
You didn’t know my mother. Not really. None of us did. I didn’t. Not really. Who she was when she wasn’t facing us. When she wasn’t imagining a camera. She did that, too. When we were driving, taking trips. She would turn down the radio and act out scenes from plays. Sometimes she would make them up.
They always ended in tears. She preferred the dramatic soliloquies best of all.
She hated people dying. I know that given. . .she just hated that. So she—even though she wanted one for herself—she hated funerals. She always pretended that the person didn’t die. They just moved away. They moved away and she wouldn’t see them again. . .until she did.
She knew everyone, or she knew of everyone. Any time someone died—she was profoundly connected to them. More even than their family. I think that’s why she would be okay. She would be okay with you being here. I think she’d want you to understand.
She didn’t. . .she didn’t leave a note.
I think she wanted us to say goodbye for her. Not the goodbye with permanence. This kind. So maybe. . .we can pretend that she just moved away.
My mother was. . .she was. . .she just was. She would be so happy that you all are here,” I finish, my words swallowed in the silent stillness of the room. Briskly I walk back to my seat, avoiding their eyes—and her. I have not looked at her since The Day. When I sit, I think I see movement, and finally my eyes lock on her coffin. I am only feet away, on the second row. The First Mourners usually take their rightful mourning place at the front, but, without speaking about it to one another, we chose two rows back.
In case her illness was catching.
In the event death is contagious.
There is singing now, and I gaze upon her, staring at her chest, wanting to catch her breathing. She was a week ago. She was breathing then. When she offered those horrible muffins. How is she still, so still now? Where is she? Is she anywhere? Does she know we are thinking about her? That I am thinking about her? I force my eyes downward, again, angry at her for controlling me. Angry at myself for mourning her improperly.
Through the haze we follow the coffin out of the church, watch as she is placed in the back of that depressing car. I hate hearses. There is something so profoundly grim about the loneliness of them. We are forced into the Mourning Limo, and we make our slow drive to the graveyard. I wonder faintly why cars have stopped—these people don’t know my mother. No one cares enough to piss a fire out when you are here, but when you’re gone, they stop traffic.
We sit stiffly, graveside. The air is cool and still. The day is plain, the sun absent. Not rainy, not sunny. Just plain. The grass is spongy and damp, and I am aware of tracking the Georgia red clay that my mother so despised onto the fake green grass that keeps the chairs, which are covered with a strange blue carpet. I presume the carpet is meant to comfort The First Mourners, but it only makes me uncomfortable. One homily was not enough for her evidently, because the preacher, a forgettable, small man must again speak.
He pronounces her name wrong. This surprises me; not because she was an active churchgoer–she wasn’t. But because her name is so common. How do you fuck up such a common name so badly?
There is a glint bouncing from a gravestone–JONES–who has been here long enough to look a natural part of the scenery. To presumably find peace. The sun has appeared from behind the film of clouds. I wonder if this should give me hope. Find light in dark places or something. It doesn’t, and I don’t.
My uncle stands, gazes at myself and my siblings, says something fierce and passionate. My ears are still ringing, so I don’t hear him. When his mouth stops moving, I nod forcefully, and attempt to look as veiled as possible. He takes a clod of dirt—so soft it is almost mud, really—and tosses it into the hole. It is sad, but comical. Now he has dirt under his nails, mud on his hands to take with him. How symbolic will he find this later? When he discovers the mud stuck to his snakeskin shoes. He isn’t used to this climate; he’ll shit himself when he realizes they’re ruined.
We stand shoulder to shoulder, and watch, silently, as mourners move around, speaking in hushed voices. They pick up a flower here, a plant there. Two women reach for the same peace lily. There is a stare battle before the smaller woman decides to settle with a few cloying sweet roses.
We do not move. Stoic and serene we stand, as the flowers and plants are picked away. They have lowered her into the ground, and my throat hurts so badly I think I will be sick. They have not yet covered her, and I am struck by the need to yell.
Wait! I have something to say. We’re not ready yet. She’s not ready. I’m not ready.
My brother, perhaps sensing my anguish, grabs my hand once more. I grab my sisters, and she grabs the air and holds on to nothing. The three of us stand this way as people come up. They take hugs, kiss cheeks, give us sad, encouraging smiles.
I stare down, willing my eyes to pierce the wood that holds her. I think the words, hoping she can hear them from where she is, hoping she feels my anger.
I hope that when I grow up I can be half the mother you think you were. Guilt, unbridled and unwelcome, holds me, overtakes me, and refuses to let me go. Truth appears behind the guilt, swallowing me in its cheshire cat smile.
I love you. I love you. I loved you.