I sat in front of the coffin, trying not to laugh. But it was a mess. Half the town had shown up, to celebrate the life of a very special lady, and they were still showing up, fashionably late, slamming doors and shushing each other as they huddled around the tent where it was share-your-story time. Friends stood, dabbing their eyes and trying to speak over the wind, emotion, that baby screaming like a demon.
It seemed everyone had a special story to tell about Mom. Funny stories, tearjerkers, tales of strength and courage—standard fare for this sort of thing. I could have really embarrassed my mother right then, had I wanted to be a part of the show, which I did not. And neither did Uncle Robbie, sitting next to me, silent and stoic as the gusts picked up, ruffling hats and plastic flowers, sending the world’s tackiest wreath cartwheeling down the hill.
A group of little boys took off after the wreath, hurdling headstones and giggling. All of this went on as a girl with a guitar took her place and plowed into a Joni Mitchell song. The latecomers found seats, wept along in chorus. By then it was like a hurricane out there. The tent snapped and fluttered at the edges, cups and trash scraped down the curb. A faraway windchime clanged like a dinner bell.
Mom would have laughed, had she been there. And through the confusion I thought I noticed a hint of mischief lurking beneath her pretty smile in the picture frame. The smile sitting on the casket, cutting through the distractions. The smile speaking to me like a secret.
Watch this, Chloe.
The frame landed at my feet. Guitar Girl jumped and nearly broke a string. She looked around like something was wrong as Grandpa sprang from his seat, igniting a gasp from the congregation. I bit my lip to keep from cracking up, but it was all so ridiculous, watching the old man scurrying about, tie flapping and glass crunching, muttering to himself about that goddamned baby as he collected the mangled flowers and tried to fix Mom’s cracked picture frame.
Guitar girl had it right, this was all wrong. We shouldn’t have been there. Mom was too young and pretty to be dead. The casket was too new and shiny to have dirt slung onto it. None of it seemed real. And don’t get me started on Grandpa. How people must have thought it was grief that made him snap. Thought the anguish of losing his only daughter had left him irrational, angry, lashing out at the world. Truth was, he was just the sort of prick who’d get embarrassed at his daughter’s funeral.
Things got back on track, eventually, after Papa Vanderbrooke had chased off both baby and singer. The boys returned with the wreath and the preacher stood and spoke to me directly. He made sure everyone considered the poor girl without a mother or a father. They launched into a prayer. They consoled me. They smothered me with fragrant hugs and sticky handshakes. It was like they wanted me to break down, to prove how much I loved my mother.
I could’ve told them I was glad it was over, that the ravaged body in the casket didn’t match the pretty face in the frame. How the last year of Mom’s life had been a wasteland of waiting rooms and insurance battles. That we’d done our crying, in private, together over scan results and treatment plans. At least now there was no more hope.
Hope had done us no favors. Hanging around, lurking in the corner of my thoughts, whispering how this time the cancer was really gone and after some reconstruction, Mom would be as good as new. We’d have a story to tell and celebrate her life as a survivor. A big party at the awareness garden, with real flowers and no plastic wreaths. We’d eat cake and make jolly. They’d be looking at Mom, not me, and there would be no hurricane gusts, only a gentle breeze that would sweep back her hair—it would grow back—and carry the clink of our glass flutes as we said a toast, because damn it all she was alive.
That kind of hope is exhausting.
We didn’t stay at the reception. Long enough for Uncle Robbie’s annoying wife Glenda to have a glass of wine and make her rounds. On the way back, Uncle Robbie drove, I cracked the window to escape the secret smoker stench, ducking his worried glances in the rearview mirror. Glenda went on about the beautiful ceremony. Beautiful, just beautiful. She must have said beautiful eleven times in three minutes. And when it wasn’t beautiful it was lovely or breathtaking. Anything besides what it was, a shitshow.
We were on the way home. Their place. Where I’d spent the last few days. And up until that moment—the moment Glenda whipped around, gripping the seat with one tiny but ferocious hand—it had all felt more like a visit.
“Chloe, just remember, she’s in a better place.”
I avoided her eyes and gave her my best grimace/smile, slow blink-of-the-eyes combo as I stored the little gem with the rest of my cliché collection. Although, honestly, the better place one didn’t bother me. She was right, Mom was in a better place. If only that could have been the end of it. If only Glenda would’ve cranked up the Dave Matthews or whatever they were into, maybe things could’ve been bearable. But she didn’t. Glenda was incapable of restraint. So she plunged right ahead the only way she knew how.
“You know, if you want to talk about it, I’m here for you, okay?” She stared at me through an entire traffic light. Okay? Okay? Okay?
She was only trying. But her giddiness irked me. And yeah, okay, I didn’t expect the world to stop with Mom’s death, but Glenda was almost overjoyed by it. Like she’d won a raffle drawing good for one teenage daughter at a charity event. Finally, I turned to the window just to get her scraping eyes off me. Wasn’t happening.
She offered me a stick of gum. “We’re both here for you, right sweetie?” she said, tossing the support-baton to Uncle Robbie, looking suspect up there in his jacket and tie, recoiling at the thought of sitting down and swapping stories with his niece about his dead sister. But there we were, caught in a snag of traffic. A pickup truck rumbled to a stop beside us and two hicks sneered at the well-dressed people in the car. Us. People must have thought we were a family.
Finally, Robbie cleared his throat and popped up in the rearview. “That’s right Chloe, we want, um, we want you to know that we are here for you, okay?”
I nodded, more out of respect for him getting through his lines than anything else. For months this thing had been planned out, mapped and navigated every step of the way as Mom faded. Before that even, when we first started making arrangements. When Mom and I would drop by Uncle Robbie and Glenda’s house for dinner. And by dinner, I mean the four of us sitting at the table balling our eyes out discussing Life After Mom. LAM as I called it.
Robbie and Glenda lived in this old gothic-type, house overlooking downtown. On Madison Street, in the historic district, where it’s all cobblestone streets and wrought iron fences, bronze plaques and such. They’d been restoring the place for as long as I could remember, and that house was like their child. There was always a saw or hammer or tools lying around where Glenda had Robbie on a project.
Of all the shit times in my life, those little sit-down dinners took center stage. Mom and Glenda holding hands and sniffling while Robbie stared off at the wall like he was just itching to get back to the crown molding. I sat at the table, like an invalid, unsure what to do or say and wondering how I’d ever survive being Glenda’s new restoration project. But it was important to Mom so I went. And now here we were, fully prepared with nothing to do.
Robbie was a few years older than Mom. He used to be cool but now had the look of a guy in between naps. I loved my uncle, he’d done more for us than anyone. He’d lent us money and even cosigned for Mom’s car loan a few years ago. Even this move-in thing had been his idea. So yeah, Robbie was solid. But Glenda was too much. She’s a realtor, and even before we got Mom’s body in the ground I’d heard her talking about selling the house on Dorchester. The one Mom and I had rented from them.
When we got back to Madison Street, I went to start unpacking. It had to be done, and after being watched and coddled all day I needed to be alone for a while. My room was right off the steps, beside the bathroom. Not that it was a bad spot, but any room in the world would have sucked because I wanted my room, across the hall from Mom, where I could hear her shuffling around in the middle of the night, even the sound of her pee or coughing, something to let me know she was still there with me.
I stuffed my clothes into someone else’s drawers, eyeing the unfamiliar faces in the unfamiliar frames. Everything was so neat and sterile, the house was old but posh, with all these high-tech gadgets, stainless steel and shiny hardwood floors that lit up in the sun. And right out back there was this matching carriage house at the end of the driveway. It would have been the perfect spot, but it was being remodeled or something.
So began my new life. On a strange bed with a gloomy funeral hangover. Mom was gone. Dead. Buried. I wanted to forever erase that day from memory, but it was there, vivid and bright, even the sound of the wind dragging in my ears. All those people paying their respects. That preacher staring down on me. My emotionless grandparents. I made a note to make sure my own funeral would be a party. Not a soggy, celebration-of-life deal but people dancing and laughing, getting faced and making bad decisions.
I lay back, clutching our phones, Mom’s black and mine white. Our shared plan, shared data, our lifelines—now disconnected. The walls blurred. My nose stung. A big, fat tear drop hit the comforter.
She was really gone.