It's the funeral that changes everything. Not the death. Not the indescribable emptiness death burrows through those left behind. That emptiness sweeps over you, a microburst from nowhere overturning anything in its path.
And that's right where you were standing—in the path, in the eye of the storm. But, just like the news footage that runs after every big storm, depicting downed tree limbs resting where nature left them, you know these aberrations are to be expected. So, was there really any reason not to expect it?
You are strong, though. You know how to put on a game face; that comes from years of being part of the brass at work. People look up to you for your ability to remain in control, to make critical decisions on the spot, to take the heat when the heat comes down. You know how to ask the right questions and how to deliver bad news, steady and unfazed.
Taking charge is what you do best, and it's what you do when the phone call comes: Hello, Mrs. Wilcox? This is Dr. Erikson from Rose Medical. I have some unfortunate news regarding your mother-in-law . . . heart attack . . . nothing we could do.
You make sure to get as many details as the doctor can—or will—provide, all of which you will be glad you've written down because you will uncharacteristically forget them immediately after hanging up. Afterward, the only thing you’ll remember clearly is how absurd your voice sounded when you closed the call, Thank you for calling, as if he had just invited you to a social event.
Then the irony strikes you—he did. It's a social event you will spend the next three days planning and hosting: as momentous as any of life's celebrations, but without the joy that comes with weddings, showers, and birthdays. And without the luxury of weeks or months to prepare.
Instinctively, you know you need to jump into action. Don't think about what this news means to you, about the loss you're going to feel, about the bond, the friendship, the relationship you've forged with her over the past 15 years. Think instead about what needs to be done, what phone calls need to be made. The hardest one comes first.
You close your eyes and inhale through your nose, holding the air as long as your lungs will allow, then you let it escape, long and slow through your lips—a calming technique you learned in yoga. Your nerves settle enough to pick up the phone and dial your husband's cell.
The children will need to be told, too. But not yet. You look at your watch and consider how much time you’ll have to make sense of it all before having to pick them up from school. You wonder if they will understand. You think your oldest will. He is nine, after all. You remember talking about death with him last year when one of his classmates lost a parent in a car accident. This makes you feel greedily grateful that you and your husband are both fine. At least you don't have to tell the kids that kind of news.
You look at your watch again and worry about your husband driving home. You pray for the first time in longer than you can remember. You pray he isn't so overwhelmed with shock and grief that he drives too fast or runs a red light. Tragedy begetting tragedy.
"You pray he isn't so overwhelmed with shock and grief that he drives too fast or runs a red light. Tragedy begetting tragedy."
Yoga breathe again.
Dial the school and tell them you will be late picking up your kindergartner. "There’s been a family emergency. Can he stay through the afternoon session so I can get both boys at the same time?"
They don't need to know yet, you tell yourself. We can tell them together tonight.
Call the office and tell your assistant you won't be able to finish the project you've been working on from home this morning. You'll email her the files with notes on how to proceed until you return. No, you aren’t exactly sure when that will be. Probably Monday.
You hear the garage door open and shudder with an odd mix of relief and apprehension. When he walks in the door, you see the shocked and vacant look on his face. You know this is real.
The funeral home is empty except for the long-faced director who greets you and your husband. Although you've never really considered what a mortician would look like, you realize he fits the role perfectly. You wonder if working with grieving families every day has that effect, or does a person start out looking like that—so somber and stoic. You think of an article you read in last month's Redbook about how married couples begin looking alike after a while. You inspect your husband's profile, then glance around for a mirror to compare his face to yours. There aren't any. You remember why you're here.
The director begins by taking you to the casket room. Oak? Cherry? Mahogany? Steel? No, cost isn't an issue. We want her to have the best. She deserves the best. You point out the tasteful embroidery in the lining of one; your husband drifts towards another that has an ivory rose inset upon the lid.
Forty minutes later, they all look the same.
Tomorrow, you and your husband will ask each other which one you ended up choosing. Oh yes, you'll agree, she would've liked that one.
Fatigue sets in and you don't offer many opinions when the director puts the book of stationary selections in front of you. Something simple is fine. But nice. Oh, yes, we like that verse. We'll go with that one.
More paperwork. More questions. More decisions.
Yoga breathe when you are finally back in the car.
Your husband decides to tell the boys as soon as you bring them home from school. You’d rather wait. They’ll be hungry and should have a snack first, you protest, but you know you are finding excuses to delay the inevitable. Waiting any longer is unfair, your husband says. You concede.
As the four of you sit on the grey sectional in your living room, you try to smile and respond with interest as the boys unfurl excited tales from school, one interjecting over the other as they so often do. Your husband tires of waiting for you to cue the transition. He is noticeably drained, yet maintains a soft patience when he calls your older boy to come sit with him. You follow suit and scoop your youngest onto your lap. You wonder if you should have him put his toy plane down, but your husband has already started talking and you decide against breaking the hold he has on the boys’ attention.
You are surprised with the quickness of how the words fall from his mouth. Grandma has gone to live with Grandpa in Heaven, he says. Yes, the grandpa you have not met, he deftly answers an innocent question. She loves us all very much, but she loves him too, you add.
Your oldest understands immediately and begins to sob into his father’s chest. Your youngest is confused by his brother’s crying; you can tell he is unsure of whether or not to join him. Can we see her when she gets back? he asks. You pull him closer, kiss his hair, and whisper that Grandma won’t be coming back.
When you sleep that night, you hear her voice but can't make out the words. You see her smiling from her favorite easy chair.
You want to hug her, but you can't. You ask her why she left, but her words are jumbled and you don't hear the answer.
You wake up shaking. Your husband is too still; you know he's awake. You roll into each other and share unspoken thoughts.
You're hesitant to leave the house, to leave him alone in his grief, but your husband assures you he will be fine. The phone hasn't stopped ringing. Talking is a good distraction.
You take the kids because they need black slacks and new shoes—something suitable for a funeral. The chore requires more stops than you had anticipated. Children’s departments are not well-stocked for death in the early days of spring.
You sigh as you look at your sons in the rearview mirror; you think the worst is over. The days ahead are going to be difficult, you rationalize, but surely nothing can be as hard as yesterday.
Today is a day for taking care of business—clothes, caterer, obituary notice. You aren't looking forward to going to her house to select a burial outfit, but you have all day. Save that for last, after you take the boys home. Going to Grandma's house without her warmth waiting to greet them at the door might be too much for them.
Traffic is smooth; the streets and stores that are normally so familiar have an oddity to them. Maybe, you rationalize, this is because you’re usually tucked in your office, not out shopping, at ten o'clock on a Wednesday morning.
Deep down, you know the real reason is because you are existing outside of yourself. You are only a shell of yourself, going through the motions, wondering if your cloak of sadness is visible to the outside world.
You forget to yoga breathe when your youngest jumps purposefully into a mud puddle as you are leaving the store. Although you're usually sensible and even-tempered when it comes to discipline, your fingers are now digging tight into his shoulders, and you hear yourself shouting, "Look what you've done!" until you both are crying. You know you aren't being fair, but you can't stop. For some reason, knowing you're going to have to add cleaning a muddy kid and a muddy car to your list of unpleasant tasks for the day is simply too much.
A stranger approaches and hands you an old beach towel. He doesn't say anything, but his expression brings you back to your senses. You hug both your boys and tell them how sorry you are for getting mad and for scaring them. You wonder if you scared yourself more.
You want to find the stranger and thank him, to explain that this isn't really you. Instead, you drive home, away from this outside world where things are no longer the same, and you don't fit in yet.
Your husband tells you his aunt called. They drove all night and decided to stay at his mom's house instead of a hotel as planned. They're already there—used a forgotten spare key buried years ago in the planter by the gate. He says it without emotion; you know you have to tread carefully.
You know now is not the time to voice your opinion. After all, it is his family. But you’ve heard the stories of why his aunt and uncle were no longer invited to holidays, and about the things that have mysteriously gone missing whenever they came around.
You can't help yourself. You have to ask if this is bothering him, if he's troubled at all about his aunt and uncle alone in her house. Of course he is, he answers, but he doesn't want to start a feud before the funeral. You point out that after the funeral everything worth anything will be gone. He tells you that if it is, then it is. He doesn't care about any of it. He's not yelling, but he is mad when he leaves the room. You know better than to follow.
You decide you can be the one that fights for what’s rightfully his, even if he doesn’t want to. He won't always feel this way, you tell yourself. Someday, when the shock subsides, he's going to wish he had those heirlooms, those tangible tokens of intangible memories to pass down to the boys. Remind yourself you aren't interested in the value of those possessions, just preserving them, when you need to quell the feeling of pettiness that takes root.
You notice your five-year-old staring at you. You aren't sure how long he's been standing there or how much he has heard. His face is tight; he's a worrier. You force yourself to smile, hoping to erase whatever is causing that expression.
"How are you doing, buddy?" you ask.
He wants to know if you're still mad about the mud. You tell him no and realize that he's still wearing the same jeans, now a crusty, dull brown. You smile again and suggest it's time for a bath. He stares back at you with his anxious brown eyes; then, without so much as a flinch, projectile vomits across the carpet. You gag and try not to do the same while sweeping him up and running him to the bathroom. He's coughing and crying.
You fish your phone out of your pocket. Speed dial: pediatrician.
You yell for your husband. You're on hold for the nurse. You've never seen one child vomit so much. You're panicking that your son has swallowed something poisonous. You yell for your husband again, wondering what's taking him so long to respond.
He finds you on the bathroom floor with the phone pinched between your cheek and shoulder, rocking your sobbing child, wiping sputum off his chin with a festive holiday hand towel; the one with a smiling snowman on it that had become an everyday towel after you forgot to repack it with the rest of your Christmas decorations; the one you’ll throw away but that will always remain emblazoned in your memory after today.
The panic has subsided. The nurse is explaining how your son is most likely manifesting physical symptoms to deal with his grief. It will pass in a couple days. Keep him calm. Help him talk through his feelings.
Your husband offers to clean up the living room, but you tell him you'll do it. It's getting late and the funeral home needs the burial clothes before five. You suggest that he look around for a will while he's picking up the dress.
"The navy dress with the white collar," you call out after him as he's leaving. "She always loved that one," you add, only now you’re speaking softly to the water filling the bathtub.
You finish bathing your son and are drying him when your oldest comes in. He's hungry.
You've forgotten about food. With this relentless knot in your stomach, you doubt you'll ever feel hungry again. You tell him you'll make him a sandwich soon. You're pulling a clean shirt over your little one's head when he makes that face again. You are able to turn him toward the toilet just enough to avoid getting any on yourself, but it doesn't miss the shower curtain or the floor. He begins crying again.
You see the pool of fresh vomit, and you think about the rest drying into the living room carpet, and how you've neglected to feed your children all day, and your youngest crying from the fear of being sick again. You realize you are crying, too.
You'll still be crying when your husband comes home to find you scrubbing the floor with a scarf tied around your mouth and nose to block the smell.
So many flowers. So many fragrances combining in their wreath-shaped bouquets, vertical sprays, potted plants with large unfurling blooms, and, of course, the horizontal spray that blankets the closed lower section of the polished cherry casket. Whites, reds, purples, yellows, vibrant oranges, and deep magentas—a sea of colors and scents that overpower the senses in the airless chapel.
That heavy, sweet smell will eventually develop an acrid, rotting characteristic that will fill your home for days, causing you to develop a permanent aversion to cut flowers.
Many people have come; you are glad. No one wants an unattended funeral. Friends and family, many whom you've never met, file in and find seats. Strangers approach and offer condolences. You smile and thank them for coming. Then you wonder who will be there when you're the main attraction. Sadness sets in again but for an entirely new reason.
As next of kin, you arrived early to greet guests and meet with the pastor. Now, time is dragging and you are anxious for the service to begin. Enough waiting.
You feel like an eternity has passed since you carefully dressed yourself in your most conservative black dress this morning. You run your fingers along the strand of pearls skimming the flat neckline of your dress, the pearls she gave you to wear as your "something old" on your wedding day.
Finally the pastor begins to speak. You try your best to listen to what he’s saying. You know you should find comfort in his words. But all you can do is think about not letting your eyes fall upon the casket as you stare straight ahead. Why, you wonder, why did we agree to an open casket?
Last night's viewing was harder than you anticipated. Seeing her motionless, wax-like, lifeless was more than you could bear. It was her, and it wasn't her. Now you are both shells: your body drained of feeling, hers of life.
Her living face flashes into your mind again: she's telling you a joke and laughing—she was always laughing. You don't remember the joke now, only touching her arm and laughing with her. Then, a couple glasses of wine later, she tells you a fantastic story from her youth (carefree days she'd never tell her son about), followed by the challenges of raising a family—not so different from yours, she's quick to add—and about losing her husband to cancer all those years ago—wish you could’ve met him. She tells you how glad she is you married her son—always wanted a daughter—and how much she enjoys your visits—just us girls. You feel guilty because those visits didn't happen as often as you had promised. Life always seems to get in the way.
The pastor invites your husband to come forward and deliver the eulogy. You know it as well as he does. You sat together drinking coffee and reminiscing until the break of dawn. The best of those memories were transcribed onto the notecards he is now holding but not looking at. He knows what to say.
Your heart swells with compassion and admiration. You look at your boys, dressed in suits, sitting attentive and stoic, and you see (not for the first time) the remarkable resemblance they have to their father.
And, somewhere lost in his words, you hear her toasting her chardonnay to you, saying with a hint of conspiratorial mischievousness, "Here's to the Wilcox women!" Because you—the two of you—are the women raising, loving, and cherishing these men. As you hear the memory of her words woven tightly with your husband’s, you begin to tremble.
The awesomeness of that responsibility—of being the matriarch that turns boys into men—now fully on your shoulders, settles in. You, with all your business savvy, just got promoted to CEO of this family. But you don't want this job. You aren't cut from that cloth. You were content deferring to her for holidays, family disagreements, peace-making, rumor-telling, and setting non-crossable boundaries.
You are not that woman. You’re the woman who lost her cool in the middle of a parking lot and cried when her kid puked. How are you going to fill those shoes?
You shiver, and perspire, and smile encouragingly at your husband even though you don't hear his words. You wrap your arms around your sons, pulling them closer to you, hoping they don’t know how inadequate you are.
They know you are perfect for the job.