Authors: Barbara Clanton
Tags: #Coming of Age, #Fiction, #Lesbian, #General
“Thanks,” I said when I finally found my voice. “I should get back. My mom’s probably wondering where I am.”
“Okay.” Rebecca’s expression softened. “I, uh, I’m sorry for your loss.”
She said it so sincerely with just the right amount of sympathy in her voice that I truly believed she was sorry for my loss. She’d probably spoken that phrase a thousand times in her life, but I think she truly meant it when she said it to me.
I turned and went back up the dark and narrow hallway. By the time I reappeared into the well-lit room with the casket, I felt ready to tell my grandmother goodbye.
AFTER WHAT SEEMED like forever, we finally got to go home. I ran upstairs and kicked off my dress shoes before flinging myself on the bed. My head sank deliciously into the pillow. Yeah, wakes sucked, and this whole thing wasn’t even over. In less than twelve hours, I’d be back at Washington’s funeral home trying to keep it together again for the actual funeral. What fun. At least I would get out of school for another day, and being absent would give me an excuse to ask Rebecca for the French notes I missed.
As I lay on my bed, I figured I should at least get out of my dress pants and shirt, but I couldn’t make myself move. Missy had ironed my clothes for me before the wake, and I knew I should get changed, so they wouldn’t wrinkle again. I’m generally okay with wrinkles any time, but she insisted. She didn’t even give me a hard time about it, either. She just took the shirt and pants and ironed them. That’s how I knew she wasn’t her usual self. She always lectured me about stuff like that.
Missy and I shared a room, so it was a little cramped. On her side of the room, the bed had a flowery bedspread, ruffled trim and never looked slept in. My bed stayed in a perpetual state of undress with my clothes on the floor. We didn’t always share a room. She had to give hers up when Grandma moved in five years ago, after Grandpa died. Grandpa’s passing was kind of hard, too, but I think I was too young to really get it. I mean, I cried and all, but back then my eleven year old self was devastated at how sad my mom and dad and Missy were. And Grandma, too. She cried all the time. She tried to live on her own for a while, but my dad went to get her after a couple of months, and she moved into Missy’s old room.
I didn’t mind. Not really. I liked my big sister. With four years between us, sibling rivalry hadn’t bothered us too much, and, besides, she was off at college now. Missy came from a different planet than me, anyway. She loved to fuss with her long hair, while I just threw a rubber band around mine to keep it out of my face. She loved to go to the gym. She’d do all those fitness classes twenty-four seven if she could. I liked running, but not in front of people. Not in a gym on a treadmill or on a sports team. I liked to be outside, so I could breathe the air and see the trees, even when it was snowing.
Missy’s side of the room had pictures of hunky guys. She even had the New York City firemen’s calendar on the wall. God, there was no question Missy was into guys, but my side of the room screamed gay, gay, gay because my pictures were girls, girls, girls. I had pictures of Serena Williams with her sister Venus, Pink, Melissa Etheridge, Beyoncé, and Ellen Degeneres with her wife Portia de Rossi. Jessica Alba hung on my wall, too. Okay, to the untrained eye, they were magazine pictures of the Fantastic Four from those movies, but as far as I was concerned, they were pictures of Jessica Alba.
Even though Missy and I were as different as night and day, we did have one major thing in common—journalism. Missy wanted to be one of those talking heads, one of those pretty news anchors who read from a teleprompter. I thought she was wasting her talent, though, because she was such a good writer, but as a junior at Plattsburgh State, more than halfway to her Bachelor’s degree, she should know what she wanted to do by now. I wanted to write, and I’d probably end up at Plattsburgh, too because Missy told me about some cool courses in environmental and nature writing they offered there. That was right up my alley. Save the planet and all that. By the time I got to Plattsburgh, though, Missy would have graduated. I think Sunnybrook Elementary was the last school we attended at the same time, but I couldn’t remember it.
I looked at the bright red numbers on my alarm clock. Nine thirty. Too late to go for a run. I sighed and made myself get up. I needed to hang up my clothes, so Missy wouldn’t yell at me and, more importantly, so I could wear them again for the funeral.
I pulled on a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt. My mother hated the fact that I wore sweat pants and a t-shirt as pajamas, but there was no way in heck I was going to wear some girly nightgown. No way. She used to buy me one for Christmas every year, but that stopped a couple of years ago when I got to high school.
I turned out the overhead light and crawled into bed even though it was still kind of early. I pulled my plain boring blue comforter all the way up to my neck and wriggled down into my nest of flannel sheets. What else could I do? Sit around and talk with them downstairs about Grandma? No, I’d had enough of that at the wake. I decided that I wasn’t going to have a wake when I died. I’d have to let someone know that, though, wouldn’t I? How did you go about doing something like that? Did you sit down with your children and tell them how you wanted to be buried and stuff? Did you tell them what you wanted to wear in the coffin?
I felt my chest tighten up again. Did Grandma sit down with Dad at some point and tell him how she wanted to be dressed? Did she know we were going to have the wake at Washington’s Funeral Home? Did she see me crying in the bathroom? Did she see Rebecca help me? Does she know I’m gay now? Now that she’s in heaven, can she see everything?
This time last week, Grandma was alive and here in the house. She died on Sunday. Would the twenty-fifth of October become one of those dates that would make me cry out of control every year?
I wondered about the last thing Grandma had to eat. I couldn’t remember what we had for dinner that night. Spaghetti maybe? I couldn’t remember much except the sudden commotion downstairs that jarred me from the newspaper article I’d been writing about global warming. I leaped out of my chair at the shrillness in my mother’s voice asking Grandma over and over, “Are you all right, Mildred? Are you all right?”
I knew Grandma wasn’t all right because I heard Dad call 911. Missy wasn’t home. She was in Plattsburgh. I crept down the stairs and saw my grandmother on the floor of the living room with her eyes closed and her hands clutching her chest. I couldn’t make sense of it. I watched my mom kneel down as if in slow motion and lean her ear over Grandma’s mouth. Reality came crashing in when I recognized this from those films they made us watch in Health class in ninth grade. Horror filled my veins as Mom tilted Grandma’s head back to give her CPR. I found myself on the bottom stair, even though I didn’t remember moving. Dad took over the CPR while Mom leaned back and clutched both hands to her chest. At first, I thought she was having a heart attack, but then I realized she was just panicked.
When I heard the sirens, I found a purpose. I rushed over and opened up the front door. Flinging on the outside light, I called back, “Mom, I’ll tell them where to come.”
Mom nodded her head, and I fled out the front door. I couldn’t watch anymore. I knew my mom and dad were doing all they could for her. Later, after the ambulance took her and Dad away, Mom told me that Grandma probably had a heart attack. The doctor down at Grasse River Hospital said the same thing later, that my grandmother died of a sudden heart attack.
I got jittery and tense all over again as I remembered that awful night, so I clenched my jaw tight and willed myself not to cry. When I heard Missy’s steps in the hallway, I rolled onto my side and faced the wall.
HIGH COTTON CANDY clouds drifted across the brilliant blue sky. Funeral weather should be cold and rainy not bright and sunny. Sunny skies made you want to fly kites or go swimming in the Grasse River, except for the fact that it was forty degrees. It definitely didn’t feel like a funeral day as we walked into Washington’s Funeral Home.
Rebecca was probably at school, but that didn’t stop me from looking for her during the service. Her parents, along with Rebecca’s older brother Reggie, kept events running smoothly. Reggie had the same regal look of authority as his dad, and would probably take over the family business when Mr. and Mrs. Washington retired. It looked that way, anyway. Mr. Washington was a distinguished looking man with a touch of gray in his sideburns and temples. Mrs. Washington was as beautiful as Rebecca. Her skin was a bit darker then her husband’s and she kept her hair pulled back into a tight bun low on her neck. She even had a chopstick in it to hold everything in place. Missy would know what that hair style was called, but to me she looked elegant. I could see where Rebecca got her amazing looks.
During the service, I barely listened to the minister. We weren’t a church kind of family, and none of us knew him, so I felt okay not listening. When I did listen, it only made me cry, and since I was trapped in the front row, I couldn’t sneak out if I lost control. To take my mind elsewhere, I thought about Rebecca and her family. Did they live upstairs? That would be creepy. I’d have to ask Rebecca some time. I almost smiled when a warehouse of things to ask Rebecca filled my mind.
Occasionally, the minister’s words penetrated my tough outer shell, and I felt myself getting weepy again. I didn’t want a repeat performance of my hysterics from the night before, so I scratched myself raw on the inside of my forearm. My head almost believed that the physical pain was more important than the emotional pain. Almost.
This time I didn’t mind so much when all those people told me that my grandma was “in a better place,” or they were “sorry for my loss.” I didn’t mind because that meant the service was o-v-e-r. I didn’t even mind when Mrs. Bordeaux gave me another one of her smothering hugs.
The pallbearers surrounded the casket, lifted it gently, and then inched toward the hearse. Missy was one of the pallbearers, but I was glad I didn’t have to be one because I probably would’ve started crying again and dropped my side on Dad’s foot or something.
Mr. Washington’s cousin, a policeman, turned on the flashing red lights and sirens on his motorcycle and led the hearse and the whole procession through town to the cemetery. All the cars turned on their headlights, and we got to run the red lights. That was kind of cool—a little parade for Grandma.
I had been to the Greystone cemetery once before when we went there for Grandpa’s funeral. He had died in January, and they stored him in this outdoor mausoleum place because they couldn’t put him in the frozen ground yet. They buried him in the spring, but never told us when, so thank goodness I didn’t have to witness that. The ground wasn’t frozen today, though, and as we pulled up to the burial site, the first thing I saw was the deep dark hole waiting to be filled.
I got out of the backseat of the car and waited for my mom to get out of the front passenger side. We didn’t talk. I wouldn’t have been able to because tears choked my throat closed again. I looked everywhere except at the deep hole in the ground waiting for Grandma.
Missy walked toward the hearse with my dad. Uncle Joe, my dad’s younger brother, began pulling out the bright blue casket. My dad went to the other side. Missy grabbed the gold handle next to Dad, while the other pallbearers grabbed their respective handles. I could tell the casket was heavy by the way they carefully picked their way over the grass. Mr. Washington gave them soft but precise instructions for placing the casket on the metal structure over the open grave. Mrs. Washington directed the rest of us to the rows of white chairs. I wanted to stand in the back, so no one could see me cry, but Mrs. Washington ushered me to the front row, the family row, next to my mom.
The metal structure had this big turn crank with gears used to lower Grandma into the ground. I tried to think of the whole thing with a journalist’s eye, but reality kept crashing in because this was way too personal. My grandmother was in that stupid wooden box, and they were going to turn that stupid crank and lower her into the ground. There was no way I was going to throw dirt on her casket. No way. I didn’t care if it was tradition or something. My mouth turned into a frown all on its own. My eyes filled with tears, and I couldn’t breathe. I looked down at my uncomfortable shoes and ignored my sister when she sat next to me. I squeezed my eyes shut as the tears spilled over. I didn’t wipe at them because then everyone would know I was crying. Missy knew because she grabbed my hand. I couldn’t look at her.
The minister addressed the crowd. I thought we were done with him, but apparently, we weren’t. He started talking again about Sister Mildred and her return to God. I might have lost it if Rebecca hadn’t suddenly appeared behind him out of nowhere. She stood with her family off to the side. Her look of compassion would have tipped me over into hysterical land if not for the fact that she mouthed the word “breathe” to me. She took a deep breath of her own as if to show me what to do. I took a breath and held it for a second. The mud in my brain receded a little. I wasn’t going to blow at that moment.
The look of relief on Rebecca’s face sent my heart soaring. Through my bleary eyes, I could still tell that she was beautiful. She wore black pants—Missy would have called them slacks, I guess—and an orange shirt. Okay, blouse. Her brown sweater matched her dark skin, too. She had such smooth skin. At least it looked smooth from here. The urge to touch Rebecca’s cheek became overwhelming. My heart began beating faster, and my hands got sweaty. I hoped Missy wouldn’t notice, but she’d think it was from the funeral, anyway.
I took another deep breath and apologized to my grandma again. Missy squeezed my hand. She must have thought I was crying. Actually, I was just trying to get my priorities straight.
After an eternity, the minister finished his speech, sermon, or whatever, and then Mr. Washington thanked us all for coming and informed the crowd that they would lower the casket once everyone had gone home. I loved Mr. Washington at that moment.