In the three and a half years that my husband and I have known each other, we’ve attended three funerals. Our fourth is tomorrow.
As awful as it may sound, death is slowly becoming a regular acquaintance, like a strange, but well-meaning neighbor who stops by for dinner when there’s nothing in the fridge but cheese and stale saltine crackers. Where I used to picture death as a faceless reaper, floating in a black shroud, I’m beginning to see it more and more as an apologetic neighbor in a pink apron, burning cookies and trying so desperately hard to fit into a neighborhood that doesn’t want it there.
I mean, as a couple, my husband and I are getting to the point where it’s become almost formulaic. Death knocks. I dig out my pantyhose and rant about how wildly inappropriate it is to wear black at a funeral. Black is a lovely color for daily wear, but a funeral is meant to be a celebration of life. It should be colorful and vibrant! Or, if funeral clothes are meant to reflect the hideous truth of life — that it ends — then maybe we should all be wearing orange. There is no color more emotionally draining than orange. It takes all and gives nothing back.
On funeral days, my husband always tells me he doesn’t care what I wear, as long as I make sure he’s properly dressed. But he doesn’t even own a blazer, so how the hell am I supposed to manage that? In the end, I always iron khakis and a dress shirt, and I make sure he has clean underpants. Usually, I put him in blue for funerals. It’s a calming color and it helps people remember to breathe.
But tomorrow, he’s a pallbearer. Tomorrow, I don’t know what to do.
Maybe he can wear his wedding suit.
The first funeral, my father-in-law’s was the worst. Actually, he wasn’t even my father-in-law yet. We were still four months shy of our wedding when Jack died unexpectedly. He was only 59 and left behind three kids, two of whom were still in high school.
Less than a month later, my husband’s maternal grandmother passed, and the following September, his paternal grandfather.
In some ways, funerals have become routine. We get a phone call, we drive to Maine and crash wherever there’s an empty bed or couch. We go to the same funeral home, where Father Rice gives a homily. He’s French-Canadian and at least 110 years old; and whenever English fails, he switches to French. “I’ll be with you . . . toujours.” “Viens, all of you who are weary, and I will give you rest. Viens, viens.” Then, cousin Mark prepares the eulogy. It’s always beautiful — so thoughtfully written — and delivered with the utmost care for those left behind.
There are always clusters of sea lavender in the flower arrangements.
But tomorrow, I don’t know what will be in the flower arrangements. Tomorrow, the funeral isn’t in Maine. Tomorrow, I’m not an in-law. Tomorrow, I’m a grand-daughter. I’m a cousin. I’m a sister. I’m a daughter.
Tomorrow, my role isn’t to fetch tissues and offer condolences, it’s to receive them. And as much as I hate giving condolences, I hate receiving them even more. They’re always so forced and void of meaning. It’s like walking up to someone with a broken arm and whispering, “Pineapple.”
What good is that?
I wish people could just speak with their eyes — or their bodies — and keep their mouths shut. It would relieve the pressure to perform like little circus dogs, spitting out rehearsed lines because we’re all too uncomfortable to say what we really feel.
We’re too uncomfortable to say the truth.
The truth is, I haven’t cried yet. And a part of me is afraid I never will. What if I stand stone-faced at my own grandmother’s funeral?
What if my whole family thinks I don’t care?
But I do care. I care deeply.
Somehow, I’ve just come to terms with death. I don’t avoid walking to the mailbox just because death is watering the lawn. I don’t run inside when I see death going for a jog. As a neighbor, I don’t mind giving death a friendly wave from time to time, because death is nothing to fear.
Most people say the fear of death is a fear of the unknown, but I disagree. I think it’s the fear of knowing the inevitable truth: That we’ll never see each other again.
But that doesn’t mean we won’t be with each other again.
Even if we lose all sense of consciousness, even if our souls dissolve away into nothingness, we will be together again. We’ll simply melt back into the earth — into the universe — to feed new love and new life, and there’s nothing to fear in that.
But in the end, I think Philip Pullman said it best:
“. . . when we do find each other again, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll tear us apart. Every atom of me and every atom of you . . . We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams . . . And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one, they’ll have to take two, one of you and one of me, we’ll be joined so tight.”Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass