Author's post-publication note:
I came across this picture earlier:
From left to right: Aunt Holly, Dad, Mom (at her Glenn Closest), and Gloria in the Florida Keys for my folks' wedding.
Thought it might be nice for those of you following this to have some 1970s faces/wardrobes/mustaches to put to names.
I've never been in a funeral procession before. The only one I can remember was the one for Katie's dad. With that, it was less than a mile's drive from the church where the funeral was held to the funeral where he was buried. That was the strangest day; I remember how mad I was that a bunch of people that didn't like Katie showed up to the funeral, turning it into some macabre social event, somewhere to be "seen" and wear that pretty black dress that was far too short for such an occasion. I remember how mad I was at Gabby, who hadn't said more than ten words to Katie in the last year and here she was, texting and chatting like she was in social studies. And, in my natural tendency to take impersonal things personally, sat next to Nic in the second-to-last pew, wringing my hands with a rage that wasn't my place to have. My teenage bluster and naively righteous indignation distracted me from what I have been told was a lovely service. You know what they say about the more things change.
I'm in the backseat of the Ford Taurus that Kelly and Nathan rented at the Pensacola, FL airport. I had assumed we were going to stay at Gloria's childhood home in Opine, AL, but the six of us--now including Corey, who flew in the same night we did--end up staying at a hotel about an hour outside of town. It's probably for the best, I think, considering the memories associated with that house. I spent a number of Thanksgivings there, and despite Gloria's only bi-annual returns to it, her smell and the smell of the house were completely interchangeable.
I wonder if the house smelled like her and she took it on during her youth, or if her natural presence ended up leaving an olfactory imprint in the drywall. As a youngster, it was fascinating to watch that house evolve in the way that a home holding host to large holiday gatherings often does. The new screen doors one year, the repaired bathroom heater another, and the pinnacle of home improvements: the satellite dish that Uncle Alan brought. No longer did Thanksgiving mean repeated viewings of While You Were Sleeping, Murphy's Romance, or Mrs. Doubtfire, the only VHS tapes you could find in the house. You didn't have to do silly things like read books or take walks in the gorgeous southern forests or go chat with the 90-year old neighbor I knew only as "Baby" and his equally elderly wife, Vera, who always offered you iced tea that you felt bad turning away (but hey, you were raised Mormon, so it takes about eight years for that stuff to actually taste good--and now, it really, really does).
As should come as no surprise, the central commercial outpost of the greater Opine, AL metropolitan area was a Wal-Mart. And this was no ordinary Wal-Mart, mind you. In a town this small, Wal-Mart isn't just a place to buy tennis balls or ketchup. This was one of two social hubs in nearby Thomasville, the other being an Arby's, the basement of which became a dance club on the weekends (not joking). And as Kelly, Nathan, and I are driving on a backwoods road to the funeral home where Gloria's viewing is being held, I wonder if that dance club has a bar.
The sun is bright in the south on nine days out of ten, but today is gray, like God's flying the sky at half-mast. Kelly and Nathan aren't saying much, and I have nothing to contribute, so I turn on my iPod. I feel like using technology like this at a time like this is a vulgar, disrespectful gesture, but I can't help it. I need something. The best way to avoid one's own thoughts is to replace them with someone else's.
But I don't know what to listen to. Despite its grand insignificance, I can't help but feel a sharp pang of guilt for having a radio-friendly Steely Dan song stuck in my head when she took her final gasps of life. This is important, I tell myself. This matters. But I can't decide. I wrack my brain for about five minutes before I remember how sad and lonely the unwrapped present sitting on my nightstand was. For her Christmas gift, I had gotten Gloria a CD by the Jayhawks called Rainy Day Music, a personal favorite, a nice blend of country blues, southern folk, neo-gospel, and road songs that can speak to the soul of anyone that's ever found themselves behind the wheel. Since she didn't get to hear it prior to her passing, I figure that this is as good a musical tribute as any.
Kneeling at the altar in a church, praying desperately that someone up there is listening.
We're going down the road and chugging right along. The trees are taller than I remember them being, which seems to be the opposite of how perception of size changes with time. They make me feel smaller and I feel a hint of claustrophobia, like I'm trapped in a death-filled rainforest where all I can see is the canopy and the only way out is this road that will lead me to this funeral home, a place that exists only because death does.
Don't let the world get in your way.
Kelly gasps at something. I tear my headphones off, terrified that some bizarre deity of thematic connection has brought death into our lives yet again, as if we didn't notice what was already there. But no, Kelly's not scared or startled, she's grateful; the car in front of us, seeing that it is being trailed by a funeral procession, has pulled off to the side of the road and allowed us to pass. Kelly's in tears now, repeating "Thank you, thank you, thank you" to these roadside angels that have given this drive a quiet dignity that may have been difficult to acquire otherwise. As we drive past their car, I try to see what human decency looks like as to better recognize it back home. They're an older couple, probably early 60s, and I notice that the man is even saluting. The woman driving the car has a small frown on her face and her brow is lowered. These people look genuinely affected by the passing of someone that they never knew existed. They have made a connection to this single-file automotive line of bereaved drivers and passengers and they have acted accordingly.
I pray that there is a heaven and I pray that these two will make it there. I cannot imagine a thing that either of these people could be capable of doing that would preclude their entrance therein.
Make your mistakes. Go on your way.
Half an album later, we arrive at the funeral home. Kelly and Nathan get out of the car and as soon as they can, their hands are magnetically drawn to each other. Their fingers intertwine like yarn in a cat's cradle and the second they do, both of their faces light up. They walk straighter, they step stronger. Within about four paces, they're stepping in line with one another like a drill team. It's fascinating to watch these two, the way that their natures automatically, reflexively bring them together and set them in line with one another.
I'm about twenty steps behind when I see my Aunt Holly, my mom's sister, Gloria's youngest. She and her husband, Uncle Bob, are both wearing their trademark Dansko clogs, and such a sight brings me a welcome smile. If you can't rely on footwear, what can you rely on.
"I'm so happy to see you," I gush to Holly before I'm even aware of what I'm saying. "I'm so happy you're here." Then the tears come.
Holly's a total hippie. She's definitely my mother's sister, and looks it. It's as though my mom sent Janis Joplin to rehab back in 1970 and got wardrobe advice in return for the detox. There is no discernible difference in the sound of their voices; you have to tell the difference based on what they say, rather than how they say it. Holly, like both her sister and Gloria, converted to Mormonism. After about ten years in the church, she left it, taking issue with certain aspects of the surrounding culture and its passive reinforcement through doctrine. And, as she once told me, anything that keeps you away from a martini can't be good for much.
Holly and I have always been close, and I really am happy to see her, but there's something different about this. This time more than ever, I'm haunted by how much she looks like my mom. I can't help but notice a heap of parallels between them. Besides the obvious vocal and physical connections, both went to Catholic school, later converted to Mormonism after a period of agnosticism, both married good men named Robert (again, the name of their shitheel of a father), and both are about as understanding and sympathetic of people as could exist.
I've never been terribly close to my mom. There's always been a sort of impasse at which we so often arrive, this strange communicative barrier through which neither of us can seem to pass. Any discussion of a topic even beginning to broach the boundaries of relevance ends up offending one (or both) of us, so we've sort of stopped trying. We stopped fighting, too. But Holly once told me about a conversation that she had with my mom about me.
"She really loves you, you know," Holly said.
"No, Andy, I don't think you do."
"No, I do. I really, really do," I protested.
"She knows how much you hurt sometimes," she told me. "She knows how tender that soul in there is and sometimes it hurts her to know that she can't just make things better." That made the dam behind my eyes burst on the conversation and it was quickly over. But it's never left me.
And maybe that's what's affecting me so much about seeing Holly. It isn't that she's the Bizarro version of my mom, with scarves and jewelry and a job as a massage therapist and a vote for Obama: it's that, in every way that matters, they are the same. They both came from this wellspring of goodness and compassion whose death has reunited us at its point of origin. There's your goddamn thematic connection right there, I think.
Funeral homes never smell like anything but death. Maybe it's psychosomatic; after all, "death" is a little abstract to have a concrete smell associated with it. It's like saying that "horny" has a smell. (Okay, bad example; it sort of does [kinda like bourbon, if you're wondering]). But it's tough to assign a sensory stimulus to a concept like that. I look around the entry room of the mortuary and wonder if the scent of physical defeat is coming from the lilacs in the crystal vase on the small table in the corner, or if the amount of bodies that have been rolled through these doors have left their odorous mark, or if the formaldehyde and embalming fluids have slightly evaporated and wafted their way up from the basement into the air on the main floor.
Uncle Bob stands by me. I don't know him very well--he and Holly got married about six years prior--but I like what I know of him. He's a freelance handyman that runs a department at the Home Depot near their home in Annapolis. He works hard and not only loves, but cherishes my Aunt Holly. And the first thing I ever knew about him was that he made Holly go with him to see Blade 2 in the theater. Sixteen-year-olds are easily won over through their prospective uncles' tastes in genre film, so Bob's never been anything but adored by me.
We don't say anything, Bob and I. When people pass and express their condolences (we grandkids aren't "grandkids" in the south, but "grandbabies"), I smile and thank them for their kindness, while Bob smiles in support. After about the tenth co-mourner begins to clearly wear down my emotional resolve, Bob puts his hand on my shoulder, which manages to chase away about 2/3 of my anxiety.
About fifty feet down the hall is the viewing room. People keep passing me in the entry room, and eventually, people who have passed me coming in are passing me going out. I'm not moving. My feet have been planted and have taken root. I'm not going anywhere. I see Kelly walking out of the viewing room and coming toward me.
"Andy," she says gently, "you should come in here and see her."
"That's not happening," I tell her.
"You don't have to if you don't want to," my mom says.
"It'll be good, Andy." Kelly takes a deep breath. "It'll help. She looks just like she did the day she died."
"I know what she looked like."
Just like she did the day she died? I don't want to see that. I can see the open casket from here, and I imagine wires and tubes going in and out of it. I imagine pageant makeup on a Star Wars robot designed to look sort of Gloria and I shiver in disgust. This whole thing is a farce. Open casket? Viewing? What do we need this for? What does this offer us? Closure? Fuck closure. I was there the second she made the jump from Alive to Dead. The nurse pronouncing the time of death was enough goddamn Closure for me, thank you. I'm all stocked up on Closure. You want some Closure? Because I've got extra I'm not using. It's all yours.
Of course, if I don't need closure, I think, there's no harm in seeing. Mom worked really hard to make sure she looks nice, I tell myself, and I should respect that. And this is all psychological, anyway, right? It's not like I think she's going to be alive and then when I see her, her stillness will somehow shock me. New information will not be provided. There's no reason I can't do this. I'm an adult.
So I walk across the carpet, slowly and confidently, to the casket. I get in the short line and I'm quickly at the front of it. I see her face. She looks alive. I stare for a minute, waiting for her to say hello or offer me some jelly beans or ask me to feed her cat or fluff her pillow.
It's too much, though. I'm not an adult. I'm a fucking child in a 6'2" frame that biology has hoisted upon me and I want no part of this. I can't do this. Let other people be strong enough. Dad and Bob and Corey and Uncle Bobby can be the pillars. I'm the youngest. I sob for hours after watching Babe or The Iron Giant. I paid good money for four seasons of Batman cartoons on DVD. I still laugh at fart jokes and when people say "testicles." I am not equipped for this sort of thing.
I borderline sprint from the viewing room, the wind resistance being the only thing keeping tears from forming. I leave the building, dart to the small garden on the side, and throw up the omelet that I had that morning from the greasy spoon we found on the freeway. I feel better until I remember that the reason we stopped at the restaurant was because it was called "Gloria's." I dry heave after the food and the bile have been evicted from my stomach.
I sit in the car until the viewing is over. I feel like I've had an "episode," like a character in a Tennessee Williams play. Great, I think to myself. I don't even get to be Willy Loman. I have to fucking be Blanche. What a story for the fucking grandkids.