Outside, a persistent breeze loosens clinging clouds, setting them adrift.
Inside, Mom moves away from her four children, steeled to take her turn.
Adjusting her veil, she steps forward. She grows smaller and, as she does, her children grow quiet.
It’s 10:30 AM. As the clock sounds a single chime well-meaning cousins, aunts and uncles begin to recede, drifting from our modest huddle toward the back of the room. They float away, outside, to join the loosened clouds under morning’s dull light.
The initial crowd was small; 10 or so immediate family members. No one asked them to step outside. They just left. As if each one privately sensed it was time for Mom to be with her children.
Following a hug, a squeeze of the upper arm or a stroke of the cheek they left behind words of encouragement, like pebbles stacked on Mom’s shoulders, before turning to take their place outside. Upon exiting the room some step a respectful distance from the low slung stoop and walk about, dazed. Some huddle together. Some pray. Some draw courage from smoke.
Some stand alone, totems in a barren field, spying in the distance a hole in the sky.
From inside, as the clock chime is silenced, I hear the actions of one of the recently departed. She simply cries.
So, one by one, they left. And with each departure the room’s atmosphere grew more burdened, more labored. As if each of the departed had taken with him or her their allotted portion of oxygen. My breaths grow short.
Now they wait outside, letting the bloom of time fill with what might have been.
I look around for Liz. Where? ‘Oh, right. At home with Gee and DJ.’ I wish she was here. So I could hide in her brown hair. But, no. We thought it best for the kids to skip this part of the day.
Now it’s just us; Mom, my brother KJ and my sisters, Katy and Caitlin. We stand together as a reconfigured family, a family with a missing piece.
Among our reconfigured circle, KJ is first to take his turn. Stoic and steel-faced he wears a mask I have only recently discovered. He breaks away and, stepping forward, he kneels and bows his head. He stays there just the right amount of time required to say what he wants to say and finishing his conversation – with whom I do not know – he stands and crosses himself. Turning on his heal he returns to the rear of the room. I watch him and his looming strength roll across the horizon. We hug. He hands me his mask and, as we embrace, I fumble and drop the mask before placing it upon my face. Without it I waiver. Eyebrows bend and lips contort as if twisted with a torturous corkscrew. Seeking to recover I grab the mask and shove it in place. But it’s too late. The corkscrew has done its work and tears leap forward.
Mask slightly askew I take my time in reaching the front of the room. Thick and meaty, the room is as if filled with heaviness. This heaviness slows my steps as I wade forward. Walls close in, increasing the weight of the moment. Reaching the front of the room I avert my eyes from the loitering cross and kneel, using two hands to steady my decent.
And just like that I’m alone with him. I reach out and feel the coolness of polished wood.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
“Thank you for staying with me. Thank you for driving me to hockey all those years, and for playing catch with me and KJ in the yard and for sending me to that math tutor – what was his name? – Mr. T. when I was little. Thank you for driving me to Lowell and pushing me to go to school. Thank you for teaching me never to give up, never to stay down. For showing me how to stay calm in a storm and for showing me the people around me are as important as me.”
Drawing a breadth I continue, “And thank you for helping me – as best you could – through the worst times; the horrible times. And for welcoming me back when I righted the ship. And for being my friend when I grew up.”
I smile and I feel ashamed for doing so. “Thank you for getting down on your hands and knees to play with Gee and DJ and for being such a great grandfather to them; for giving them Tonka trucks and Legos. And for loving Liz. And for all those calls from home with you and mom and from your car when you were driving home from work at night.”
I look away, picturing him on his car phone blurting out all he can before telling me he’s gonna lose me ‘ because I’m heading into the tunnel’.
I pause and wonder where I am.
The room tips forward and the weight of the atmosphere collects around me, pooling to lift me and set me adrift. I grow nauseous. Covering my mouth I gag but don’t throw up.
Through broken fingers I lumber on, “You know, you, you didn’t just tell me what to do. You showed me. You showed me what it means, what it means to give someone your time. So, thank you. Thank you for giving me and Liz and Gee and DJ and, over these last months, Mom, so much of your time.”
I wipe my eyes before leaning forward, “I miss you. See you on the big job. I love you.”
He remains quiet and, though he doesn’t respond, silence feels compelled to fill the void. She steps forward and places an invisible hand upon my shoulder.
Warmed by her show of tenderness I stand up and, wondering if mom is watching, I feign the sign of the cross by jutting my right elbow out and moving my right hand across my face and chest in a circular motion. From the back of the room I hope Mom sees the motion as the sign of the cross.
It’s not the man on the cross I’m scared of offending.
So I let the other four people in the room think I have crossed myself. Now is not the time to call attention to god’s place on the list of the missing and dead. Disgusted, I wonder if they’ll find his remains in the rubble.
Anger rushes forward and, like a jealous lover, shunts sorry to the side. Captured in her embrace I seethe. Blood pounds through broken arms and a chest filled with lead, surging up my neck to fill my head with a molten anger. Shaking I do all I can to keep from grabbing a chair and smashing it against the wall, against the cross and against polished wood. I force myself to stop and, standing still, place a hand on the back of the nearest chair. From the rear of the room tired eyes drift upward and register my lack of motion. Sensing a pending loss of control, KJ steps forward, hugging me from the side.
“You all right, bro?”
With the loss of my tongue I simply nod. He senses my unspoken answer and walks me to the back of the room. There I step from my seething stupor to find mom sitting, back straight and eyes focused on my mask. I hug her, noting the stain of her cheeks.
Taking a seat next to her I hold her hand.
Through her veil she turns to look ahead. Today she hopes to avoid collapse. She hopes to remain strong as she knows the weight of a thousand lines of sight will be draped from watered eyes to her. The lines of sight will sag, weary and frayed like old electrical lines drooping between bent poles. She is the center pole, responsible for holding all the lines above ground and, though she does not know it now for now she is fearful of breaking and sending all those lines to the ground, she will hold firm; holding high the lines of sight as they reach toward her center beam.
KJ rubs my back. I lean in, struggling to stay composed. Looking up I catch mom’s eyes. They’re filled.
Her expression waivers but does not crack. “I love you,” she whispers.
“I love you too, Mom.”
She sits, waiting for her turn.
She’ll go after the girls.
From my right I hear Katy break. She sobs as she steps forward. Caitlin is beside her, the steadier of the two. Moving without steps they drift to the front of the room and kneel together, holding hands. What happens next is so painful, so brutal, I look away. With my index finger and thumb I press into my eyes hoping for a burst of jelly and wondering at what point I will dislodge an eye from its socket. Searching for a physical pain to replace what I now feel I squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until, finally, Mom places a hand on my arm. Firmly she pulls my hand down and holds it in hers. I force myself to watch as the girls complete their visit to the front of the room. My father’s favorites – and rightfully so I may add – fall into each other’s arms as words lose their ability to reflect the weight of an unforgotten moment.
Katy shatters before us, spraying the floor with a slivers of anguish. As KJ and I step forward Caitlin bends gracefully to collect the pieces, pieces now mixed with a pair of silver waterfalls. She can’t recover all the pieces but she tries. The pieces she can collect are secured in a delicate bag. Together the girls stand. They return to the rear of the room.
The pair falls into Mom’s arms. Snorts and sobs and wails are magnified, bellowing and, with a lancing blow, silencing those waiting outside.
Mom draws a breath.
She moves away from her four children, steeled to take her turn.
KJ walks her to the front of the room and, five feet from her destination, she pushes off; an ocean liner jettisoning a never complaining tug, saying without words, ‘I’ll walk these steps alone.’
KJ steps away and adjusts his mask.
Assuming the position of the Virgin Mary she prays in silence. Leaving the girls in a tangled wail, I move from the rear of the room toward a side wall to better monitor Mom. Looking up I see KJ take a step toward her, ready to catch her if the center should break.
She stays frozen. From my vantage point I watch as tears fall in slow motion only to splatter against a black veil before tumbling to the cushion upon which she kneels. Some tears make it to the floor to mix with the forever lost pieces of Katy. Some do not. Hands held tight, her rosary dangles, swaying in time to sorrow’s steady beat.
My eyes narrow at the site of the rosary. ‘Some fucking help you were.’
Disgusted at my rising anger, I close my eyes. “One of your greatest believers,” I whisper. And as silence steps forward in an effort to soothe me I cannot help but ask, “Happy now? Is this your ‘plan’? Or a ‘test’ of one of your devoted servants maybe?”
And as silence begs me to remain quiet I seethe.
“If you’re listening I have one thing to say to you. Drop dead.”
Witnessing the horror in silence’s eyes and wondering about my mumbles KJ looks across the room. He questions me with wrinkled eyebrows. I waive him off as this is a private break-up.
Anger wells and I reel. I fight it, focusing on a pinpoint of darkness. I return my attention to Mom. Her outer shell remains firm, but inside she melts. I watch as the invisible parts of her melt away, pouring from under her black dress to cover the floor and the unrecovered pieces of Katy in a shallow pool of dreams. Radiating from her station at the front of the room those dreams vanish, leaching into the hardwood floor.
KJ steps forward to scoop her and her leaking dreams into his arms and I follow suit. We guide her back to the bench but she refuses to sit.
“No. I’m ready.” She stiffens her spine. “Let’s go.”
We accompany Mom and the girls to the room’s exit. Upon entering morning light we are enveloped by the waiting aunts, uncles and cousins. I watch as glistening petals huddle ‘round the tender bud.
Looking to KJ, I raise eyebrows. In return he purses his lips.
Stepping forward I whisper into Mom’s ear, “We’ll be right back. We have to touch base with the director. Logistics. Nothing for you to worry about.”
As hands reach out and stroke her arms and shoulders she nods, numb.
My brother and I return to the front of the room and are quickly intercepted by Mary, our liaison and Sherpa through these unknown lands.
She places her hand on my arm, “Are you two OK?”
Her eyebrows bend, “What can I help you with?”
I look to KJ for reassurance and, mask in place, he prompts me forward.
“Mary, we want to see him. To see him before we leave.”
She blanches, her skin now contrasting sharply with her black jacket and skirt and aligning more with her white shirt.
Withdrawing her hand and touching her lower lip she waivers. She’s caught off guard – not our intent – and for the first time our Sherpa falters. Hearing a distant rumble she looks over our shoulders, fearful of a looming avalanche.
“I, I think it best if we not view him, Beasley.” She nods a curt nod, “It’s best to leave things the way we are.”
I let silence respond on my behalf.
She pauses before steadying herself. She shifts, facing my brother, “Please, KJ. Don’t ask me to do this.” Her eyes dart from KJ to me and back to KJ.
KJ shakes his head, “We don’t want to ‘view’ him.” He swallows hard and tilts his head toward Mary. “It’s to confirm… it’s to make sure it’s…”
He stops and as if choking on a large candy he swallows hard. He looks up toward the ceiling as silence begs us to stop.
Pushing silence aside I complete KJ’s sentence, “It’s to make sure it’s him; our father.” My breath quickens, “We want to – we have to know our mother is burying the right person; her husband, our father.”
As the pace of our conversation quickens, KJ jumps in, “So my mother never wonders; never asks if it was really him. So, we never wonder. Please, Mary. That’s all we ask.”
Mary doesn’t answer. As shoulders droop she sighs, resigned. As silence takes her hand she turns and walks toward the back of the room. We follow her, stopping as she reaches for polished wood. I watch as her hand greets a flattened specter slithering across the gloss of the polish. Palm to palm, her hand and the reflected hand push against each other in a battle of wills.
Mary begins to cry. She too wears a mask. Now though, tears leak through and slip from blinking eyes and unmoving cheeks. She composes herself and speaks with dignity, with grace, “For 20 years I’ve helped untold number of families through their greatest sorrows, through their most trying of times.” She looks over our shoulders, toward the past, “And I’ve seen everything. Every form of loss you can imagine. And I’ve made things right, in the end I made things right, for each and every family.” She looks down, “Every family, but, but yours…”
She stops and covers her mouth with the back of her right hand. I stare at the softness of her palm; at the blooming redness of a delicate hand as it blocks my view of a raging battle.
She continues, “Yours is the only family – the only one – I’ve been unable to satisfy. To help all the way through. To be able to view…”
I cut her off, “Mary, all we’ve got to go on is that coroner matched the serial number on his hip with his medical records. And that’s not enough. We want to make sure it’s him.”
I stiffen my shoulders, “We want to see him.”
Softly she stamps her foot, “Please. Don’t make me do this. This is not the way you want to see your father; not the way you want to remember him.”
With silence as our partner we stare at Mary.
“You don’t know. He’s … he’s been severely traumatized. Please, I’m asking you not to make me do this for you.”
“Well, did you check his fingerprints?”
She closes her eyes.
“Did you check his dental records?”
Her eyes remain closed.
Her face twists, contorts, as if crushed between stones. She answers slowly, painfully, “I couldn’t.” She stops and draws in a long slow breath. She stands straight, readying herself to do what she does not wish to do as she slips into a factual presentation, “There was a massive laceration across the torso and, and I was able to confirm the serial number matched the records from Hackensack Hospital. I confirmed every digit; personally.”
“That’s it? What are you saying? No fingerprints? No dental?”
I grow scared, “I mean, how much of him are we burying?”
She glares at me before softening, broken, “In addition to the laceration there was, there was, significant trauma and, and … he was burned … and his hands and face… they, they…”
Mary’s mask falls to the floor. Tearing at her hair, silence falls to the floor as well.
KJ ends it. “Shh…” he whispers.
“I’m so sorry,” she covers her face before retrieving her mask. “So, so sorry.”
She clears her throat as KJ takes her hands in his, “Mary, thank you. Thank you for doing what you think is best for us. And for trying to protect us.”
She nods and, steeling herself, stares ahead, “I know what you’re looking for but, please, for your sake, don’t do this.”
KJ looks to me and, without words, we make our decision.
I place my hand on polished wood and am soon captured by the torrent of time. Carried far from that funeral home in New Jersey I am deposited on the shores of today.
And today, with so many years separating me from that morning, separating me from that mourning, I gather memories of Dad into a bouquet of wild flowers; jumbled and varied and mixed with weeds. Among my jumbled flowers are the last words Dad heard from me. I remember his lovable awkwardness at hearing my declaration and I remember the last thing he said in return as he hung up the phone on a crisp Monday evening in September.
And I remember smiling at those last shared words.
I remember the last thing he asked of me, reaching from his place or rest, and I remember how very hard it was to do.
And now as memories fade and flowers sag, washed by the torrent of time, I pick up the phone to call my brother for one of our many weekly calls.
Today we speak of dad.
And I remember the last time I saw him.
I remember as if no time had passed between that morning and this.
And I don’t wonder if we made the right decision.
I close my eyes and see him and I know without a doubt.
It was him.