I cringe every time Dad touches her. He compulsively straightens the Blue Jays pin my brother attached to her favorite blouse, the yellow one I bought her in the States last summer. He rearranges her crossed hands, over then under, then back over again. Her fingers are chalky and stiff and I imagine them cracking and breaking off, Monty Python style. Her signature bob isn’t styled the way she did it every morning; today it’s brushed back off her face making her seem manly and slightly confused. I notice a few silver grey roots, which haven’t been allowed to appear for decades. Don’t they include dye jobs in their astronomical fee? She would have hated this. All of it. If I had insisted on a closed casket as she wanted then Dad wouldn’t be nervously touching her, last touches. But I couldn’t do that to him. Once the dead are gone, it is all about the people left behind.
I’m impressed that Jennings Funeral Home is at standing room only, but I already knew she touched a lot of people. Mum wouldn’t care about attendance numbers. She always said “The British don’t have funerals; don’t ever put me on display!” All the things she loathed are happening today: the gaudy flower arrangements; the gossipy Vincent Price undertaker who keeps track of who has had work done and who hasn’t; the minister who struggled to remember her name and probably doesn’t know she was Catholic anyways. I’ve failed her once again. The guilt suddenly consumes me and I struggle to keep down the scalding Tim’s Earl Grey I grabbed on the way over. I am proud that I stopped myself from blurting to the perky coffee lady that no, I would not be having a great day. Or maybe mum would have finally let me have one misstep, a rude drive-thru outburst warranted by the gravity of the occasion? I’ll never know.
I notice one of Jennings’ dark suits is finally closing the lid as Mom’s twin starts his reading. Uncle Frank struggles for words, gasping and hiccupping like a little boy, a bubble of spit appearing as he rushes to get to the last sentence. I should step in and save him but I’m numb, mildly annoyed that he can’t hold it together for her. Trapped in the front “VIP” row with Dad and Mom’s three sisters, I can’t avoid the train wreck that is her brother. I’m glad that Mom can’t see what is happening at the podium, and then I realize she can’t see anything anymore, lid open or closed. I zone out and reflexively start to count eyeglasses, a habit perfected in lectures over the years. I guess eye surgery and contact lenses must have come down in price as my quick scan of the crowd comes out at 10 with glasses and 34 without. I make a mental “note to self” to look into lasik eye surgery again.
Dad nudges my knee with his. My turn. Uncle Frank has finally retreated to his seat, a blithering mess. My partner leans forward from the row behind and pats my shoulder in support.
“You can do this, Susan. She’d be very proud.”
He loved her so much I was almost jealous. Maybe more than my brother and I did? He didn’t experience the early years, the lean years, the sky-high expectations and crushing guilt when I always fell short. His memories of her will include fun scotch tasting nights, holiday parties, generous gifts and trips south. I push the bitterness back down, plant my feet behind the podium and put on my teacher face. I am not Uncle Frank. I have three degrees, I am a successful (ish) published author and I laid the old me to rest long ago when I moved west. I killed off that chubby, wallflower with the half-Coke-bottle glasses and one good eye. Reinvented myself, started over. So how does that girl rise again from the ashes whenever I fly “home”?
My tribute is brief, highlighting Mom’s culinary talents and professional accomplishments. I add in a few quips to lighten the mood, like the time she was banned from life drawing class for pointing and giggling and the way she carried on intense one-sided conversations with her SUV.
“Come on old girl, you can do it, just 30 more clicks to the gas station!”
I’m rewarded with nervous twitters from the old guard and a few belly laughs from the cousins who got together for a cold one before the service. My mind wanders again, a product of my unique ability to zone out while public speaking. I catch the eye of Principal Dodds, Doddering Dodders, a friend of my parents. One of those Benjamin Button types who is born looking old, except he never grew younger. Dodds lectured my entire sixth grade class on breasts when he noticed the boys snapping my bra at recess.
“Breasts are not for fun, breasts have a purpose. They are to feed with, like a mamma cow.”
There is no recognition from Dodds. I assume he is unaware of the mental scars that remain from that day. I notice Mom’s former friend and secretary, the woman who filed a grievance when Mom chastised her for returning to work stoned after morning break. Feeling guilty, here to make amends, or just curious? Pointless now.
I am unsuccessfully trying to conjure up a tear for my last anecdote when I notice his chestnut cowlick out of the corner of my eye. He sits half hidden in the shadows, beside the door onto the parking lot. Strategy in case he needs to make a quick exit? I don’t recall seeing him in the receiving line before the service. Tribute complete, knees suddenly gelatinous, I scurry to my seat. It comes over me in a wave. The smell of his stale cigarette breath. How my scalp burned as he yanked my ponytail back and forth, in and out.
“Shut up Susie, you know you asked for this.”
I close my eyes but can’t erase the image of camouflage painter pants puddled around his high tops. I ghost-feel the pinch of my unicorn bracelet embedded in my wrist as he held me in place.
“No one will believe you if you tell. And who could ever love you if they knew what you just did?”
I can still hear the wall phone ringing upstairs, in Mom’s kitchen, all those years ago. The clock ticking in the background as he zipped himself up and ran out the backdoor. An eighteen year old could not be seen with a thirteen year old. I know that I was able to rise and shuffle to the phone, desperate to feel like nothing had changed. It was the neighbour calling to say our dog was loose again. Funny the details that stick with you. The scab now peeled off the last three years of therapy. Does he know that I’m Susan now, Dr. Susan to my students? That I had the mole removed from my chin and I always keep my hair cropped close? Is he noticing how I’ve changed?
Dad takes my hand to lead me up and out of the funeral home. I notice that the service has ended. People are standing, some sobbing, others solemn and stoic. The lilies are being gathered to take to the cemetery; their overwhelming scent fills my nostrils. My partner is chatting with old bald high school friends, barely recognizable with their plaid dad shirts and beer bellies. Our VIP row is lead cattle-style, to the right, towards the parking lot exit and the waiting limos. I escape left, hoping mom would understand. I never told her about cowlick. The guilt would have killed her.