I don’t often attend the funerals of people I have never met. And by that I mean I don’t ever, as a rule of being a decent human being, crash the funeral of someone I have never laid eyes on. Laid eyes on while they still had a pulse, that is. I don’t make exceptions to this rule and I generally don’t find that I have to. It is not an itch I need to scratch or an urge to swallow down unfulfilled. I suppose there are people wandering around who struggle with this very thing and I shouldn’t be so quick to judge but really, it is profoundly strange and tacky.
And today I have decided to be profoundly strange and tacky.
Not tacky in appearance or mannerisms, I look and act quite normal. If you were to see me on the street you would think “My. What an incredibly ordinary girl in an incredibly ordinary dress on her way to an incredibly ordinary place.” That ordinary place being the funeral home, wherein lies the body of a woman whom I have never layed eyes on. I have never heard her voice or smelled her perfume. I have never seen the way her eyes crinkle up mid laugh. I don’t know her favorite color or how she took her coffee. Or if she even drank coffee. She may have been a life long tea drinker. Earl Gray with one sugar and a slice of lemon. She was most definitely a tea drinker, I decide as I hover in the back of the parlor, trying desperately to make myself invisible.
I watch as the people in the front rows weave a box of tissues in and out of the fold up chairs. I don’t know these people, just like I don’t know the guest of honor. I don’t know their morning beverage preferences. I don’t know their names and I don’t recognize their faces. Maybe I do. I think I may know the plump woman with the black hair. Her bright pink lipstick makes her teeth look too large for her mouth, framed by curly hair allowed to fall on her shoulders and around her face in a way that evokes images of Fran Drescher. It’s been years but I remember her now, the too-young mother of a friend who taught me how to smoke and smuggle thong underwear out of Sears. It all falls into place, who she is and who the ones clutching the tissues are, who the woman lying in contrition at the front is. I stare at the looped slideshow again, hoping to feel less intrusive now that I can name at least 2 out of the dozens of smiling faces.
My mother sniffles. It’s the sort of sound that should bring you back down to earth. Snap you out of whatever day dream trance you have caught yourself in. It’s the sound one makes when they need a kind word or an arm around the shoulders. I know I should do at least one of these things but I have found myself innately numb to that particular sniffle. numb when I heard it on the phone this morning (“I need you to come with me”), in the car (“She just meant so much to me”), and again when my emotional speedometer landed on ‘Appalled’ instead of ‘Contrite’ as I heard the words tumbling from my mother’s mouth (“You owe your LIFE to her”). I could never tell which one of us was at fault when my mother cried. Perhaps I had been too harsh in the car. Maybe I could have listened more. Maybe I could try better to understand the illness that has infiltrated her brain. But even if all of my maybes aren’t really maybes at all but real, true facts I still don’t think I am in the wrong on this one. I don’t think tricking someone into attending a funeral is ever the right thing to do.
I continued to ignore the pleading sniffles coming from my right. The slide show had me in it’s grips, anyway. Her name was Kathy, I had learned. She was someone’s mother and grandmother. Wife, sister, aunt, friend. All of the words we hoped to have engraved after the word ‘Beloved’ on our tombstones. I could see a little of her in Fran when she spoke, her pink lipstick clearly inspired by her mothers (which was neatly applied even as she lay in the silk lined casket). An entire life’s story ricocheted off the walls, much of it being sacrificed to the poor acoustics. I gathered pieces of her life in the basket of my mind, cruises and lawn parties, tours of submarines and wax museums. I revisited my Coffee Vs Tea conundrum once more. Ditching the Earl Gray for Folgers and the occasional cigarette now felt natural. Sitting at her kitchen table in the morning, cream and sugared coffee and an ashtray full of lipstick covered newports was how she started her day, newspaper or paperback Danielle Steel in hand.
I heard the sniffles once more, but above me this time. Everyone was standing now, their heads bowed and hands clasped. They begged God and Jesus and the angels to accept Kathy into whatever Holy Kingdom the sign out front had specified (to be honest I can’t remember what it said but there was a definite Methodist vibe. Maybe a dash of Episcopalian.). I stayed where I was as it seemed rude to stand mid prayer. Especially when you were trying your best not to be profoundly strange and tacky. I did, however, stand for Amazing Grace, the obligatory closing hymn of any respectable funeral.
The tissue clutchers filed out first, past the 6 or 7 rows of red-eyed onlookers. Some offered a pat on the shoulder or a close-lipped smile. I hid behind my mother, having nothing to offer but my intense shame and desire to slip back into my yoga pants. They moved single file, dragging their feet against the green carpet and out the double doors. A sea of black followed them out, black cardigans and navy sport coats inhabited by sympathetic faces. It took forever. My legs itched inside my pantyhose as I rapidly lost patience with the invisible illness that had dragged me here. It wasn’t even my illness, rather, one that had parented me and defined all my lines and edges for the rest of my forever. It was ruthless, dragging me here and there, each place less relevant than the last. Our turn to join the black sea came in the form of a bald, overweight man motioning for us to step in front of him. A kindness usually reserved for congested Walmart parking lots, I instinctivly searched for an impatient blinker or pair of flashing headlights.
We had filtered out to the parking lot seconds after leaving our seats. There hadn’t been much time for thought in that short space but still I brooded. I brooded over my current situation and my past situations and the situations that had yet to happen. Circumstances out of my control that would inevitably lead to more of the same awkward encounters. More fake tears. More tense car rides. More contrived conflicts and heart aches. A hearse sat idling in the loop in front of the church, anxiously waiting for it’s cargo to be loaded. It’s purpose clear and defined; to cart away this woman that I just met, or didn’t meet, and bury her on a hill somewhere under a mound of dirt. A life was over and there I stood; a stranger at a funeral in the middle of a random Wednesday, pissed off at my running hosiery and sobbing mother.
“So was that the last time you talked to her, then?”
My mother blinked, her suffering suddenly assaulted by my question.
“Of course not,” she began. “We kept in touch through the years. She would have been very proud of you.”
“Proud of me or proud of you?” I said this with too much of a kick. Too brash and salty than was appropriate for a funeral.
She blinked again, unable to understand the relevance of my question. Who is the dead woman proud of? It seemed both tasteless and irrelevant, and yet I yearned for the answer the way Kathy yearned for her morning cigarette.
“It wasn’t an easy decision. You know how alone I was” she paused, catching me with a well placed side-eye “how alone I am.” I held steady, deftly side stepping the verbal punch.
“She told me how much I would love you. How much you would love me. When everyone left I would always have you. She told me that. She told me to keep you. To keep you even after I had you. Keep you safe. Keep you warm. Keep you close.” She looked at the ground, her eyes now dry and contemplative, mulling over the decades-old advice once more as if it hadn’t done her any favors.
‘Keep her’. That’s what the dead woman had told her. I imagined her then, a raspy voice floating through too-big teeth. ‘Keep her’, the voice whispered once more.