I’d had another post planned for today. Two possible ones, actually. But at the last minute, I decided to push them back.
Because today is Bill’s memorial service.
It’s been years since I’ve had to deal with the death of someone even moderately close to me. Betty and I have been lucky that way. I’d forgotten the little things that comes with it. The way you forget, for a minute or two, and then the reminder comes like a sucker punch and you almost want to lean over and clutch your chest it hurts so bad. I’d forgotten the way you reach desperately for disbelief, the way grief makes you almost childlike in that you find yourself wishing for impossible things. That it’s all a big joke, everyone is playing a joke on you, and they’re gonna suddenly pop up or call and you’ll want to be mad, so effing mad, but their laughter ringing in your ear is too much of a relief to hold on to any anger.
I forgot the way it aches. It gnaws at your bones and settles into the pit of your stomach and the place where your heart is feels hollow. That your sinuses will suddenly start burning and it’s hot tears assaulting you and you want to let them out to scald your cheeks but you hold them back and they make your throat thick and tight. I forgot the way you berate yourself for all of those moments. You tell yourself all the party lines, “they’re better off,” or “their suffering is over and it’s selfishness that wants them back.” Or if you’re like me, you tell yourself you have no right to your grief. That there’s other, sadder, people who were closer or more involved or been around longer and you’re not allowed to feel that way now that they’re gone if you weren’t in one of those positions when they were here. And then you’re sadness turns into guilt and you ache with both emotions at once.
I forgot how you lose them in pieces. That it’s not all at once, it’s not like ripping off a band-aid. You’ll have a passing thought, “Maybe Bill will know” and then you remember you can’t ask. You remember a random memory but suddenly you’re questioning if that’s what their voice sounded like, and you remember you’ll never hear it again. You hear yourself saying something you got from them, “I have boots older than you,” and it’s like someone has punched you because God, that had almost irritated you once upon a time, and now all you want to do is call them up and laugh about the fact that you’re saying it now.
You wonder if they knew. If they knew that even if you didn’t always say it, maybe didn’t say it much at all, you really honestly did care. You tell yourself they did. Of course they did. But you quietly wonder and you hate that you’ll never have the chance to make sure.
I’m not there right now. It’s up in Michigan, where Betty and I grew up and he and I decided it would be better if the boys weren’t there. They aren’t ready to be confronted with death yet. While our oldest is probably at the right age to learn about it, his autism, and the anxiety that goes along with it, makes it to where we’re not entirely sure he could handle it. Death is a foreign concept to him. He knows, vaguely, what it is, but for him, it’s something that happens in movies or video games. He doesn’t grasp the finality of it. We don’t think he’d handle the knowledge of it very well. It wouldn’t be mere sadness, or even an aching hurt. For him, if we were able to get it through to him, it would become something he endlessly obsessed and worried over. We’ll tell him eventually, of course. Maybe even soon. But right now, right at this moment, he’s just not ready to know and he’s certainly not ready to know that his grandpa, the man who always got on the phone with him and talked cars, isn’t coming back.
But at the same time, I wanted to do something, somehow, to tell them. Or maybe I just wanted to talk. Maybe I wanted the opportunity to do what those left behind normally do at memorials, and that’s just share. Share your thoughts and memories and your sadness and have someone listen rather than screaming them silently at an impassive sky. That’s what funerals are for, I think. Not just to mourn the loss of a loved one, but to be with the living loved ones and know that your grief is shared. You’re not alone in it. Because while you may know, I certainly do, that what you feel is echoed two and three times over, there’s comfort in the touching and the speaking, of having someone listen and then talk about theirs with you.
So since I couldn’t do that, and since my boys couldn’t know, last night when I put them to bed, I did the next best thing.
I told them a story.
Once upon a time there was a girl. She was a pretty enough girl, but she had a heap of insecurities that no one ever seemed to notice. They saw her laughing and they saw her quiet and they never realized the laughing was forced and the quiet was her listening to the demons in her head that danced and chanted and told her she’d never be good enough.
Though she didn’t understand it at the time, and sometimes still doesn’t, the first time she fell for a boy, a gloriously handsome boy, he fell for her too. But their relationship wasn’t easy. Because he was the baby and his mom loved him fiercely and she was scared of the day he would leave their house and never come back.
The mom tried with the girl for the boy’s sake, but the closer the boy and girl got, the more scared the mom became. She wasn’t ready to let go. A lot of moms aren’t. She knew, somehow, the girl would be the one who took her last child away.
One weekend, not very far into their relationship, the boy invited the girl to spend the weekend at his family’s lake house. And it went okay. The girl was nervous, but the girl was always nervous, so she no longer judged things based on that. The mom seemed to try harder than usual and the girl was grateful. The weekend was full of laughter and stories and the girl started to ease, started to feel comfortable in her skin around the boy’s family. That didn’t happen much. Normally she only felt okay when she was home around hers. Maybe, for once, that would be different. Maybe she would have another place, away from home, that she’d feel like she could be herself.
Until the last day they were there.
The girl sat on the small porch, nervously chewing on the cuticle around her thumbnail. Inside, the boy and his mom were arguing. That alone would have made the girl uncomfortable, but somehow she knew that even though what they weren’t arguing about her out loud, that’s really what the mom was so upset about. She wasn’t sure how she knew this, but she did. Her grandma would say it was because she’d been born with a gift. A kind of intuition, a sensitivity, which was just a fancy way of saying the girl knew things she maybe shouldn’t. The girl didn’t know if that’s what it was, or that she simply paid attention, but either way, she knew the mom was angry at something she’d done, or hadn’t done, or maybe just at her presence. The girl was filled with a desperate kind of homesickness, because there, at least, people would tell her if they were mad at her. Granted, the boy wasn’t there, but neither was her twisting gut, filled with a sick kind of anxiety at knowing she maybe wasn’t wanted and couldn’t really do much about it. Had it happened later in her life, she might not have cared so much. Probably wouldn’t have. She later grew a thicker skin about not being liked. Possibly because she learned that no one could ever say anything more awful than what she already thought about herself. But back then, she was so self-conscious. She wanted to be liked and she was sick with it when she wasn’t.
Just as she was about to close her eyes and try the Dorothy approach, maybe wish herself home, the dad walked around the side of the house. The girl’s eyes latched on to him because she felt like she was drowning and a drowning person will reach out for nearly anyone in their desperation. The dad climbed the porch, slowly, but still determinedly, he always seemed to walk with an air of determination and purpose. He stood there for a minute, arms crossed over his chest and he stared at the door to the house with a scowl. The girl watched him closely, trying to think of something to say, maybe make a joke, but her tongue felt thick and foreign in her mouth.
Finally, the dad looked over at her and made a noise between a sigh and a laugh.
“Come on. I’m hungry.”
That was all he said, but the girl didn’t hesitate. Together they got in the mom’s car and they drove a while. The girl wondered where they were going, but didn’t ask and the dad didn’t seem in a hurry to tell her. Instead he turned the radio up, it was an old song, one the girl vaguely recognized. A little while later they pulled up to a restaurant, one she hadn’t noticed on the drive up there, even though it was set right off the main road. The dad didn’t speak much throughout their meal, but the girl wasn’t uncomfortable with the silence. In fact, she was kinda glad. And for once, she didn’t feel weird eating in front of someone, the normal self-consciousness that made her want to cover her mouth with her hand every time she chewed nowhere to be found.
As they were leaving, he remarked, “she’ll come around.” The girl wasn’t sure she believed him, but she wanted to. Something about the way he said it made her want to.
He’d been right. The mom did eventually come around. It took awhile, kinda a long while, but the girl and the mom finally found a middle ground and from there, a while longer still, they finally started toward a relationship both the girl and the mom enjoyed. The dad and the girl had their ups and downs too, sometimes the girl knew why. Sometimes she didn’t. But even when there were downs, even when she wasn’t entirely happy at having to go visit her now in-laws, because she still liked being home the most, every time the boy and her made the drive up to that lake, her eyes searched out that restaurant. And she smiled. If the boy ever noticed, he didn’t ask. If he had, she might have told them the food was good there. It had been. But what she was really remembering was how, for once, someone noticed her drowning in her insecurities, God, they’d really been so awful back then, and went out of their way to quietly save her from them. Maybe it wasn’t much to the dad. Maybe he wouldn’t have even remembered it unless it he’d been reminded. But she’d never ever forgotten. She probably never will.