For reasons of inattentiveness, disinterest, and lack of experience, I assumed pallbearers were hired help until I was asked to be one. In China, pallbearers are volunteers, and it’s considered a blessing to be one, though it’s still polite to tip. Westerners put it on the friends and family, or you can pay the funeral parlor for extra help.
I sit in the third row, to be available, but out of the way. I came for Leah. To the rest I am an acquaintance, if not a stranger: the boyfriend of their daughter, sister, niece, or cousin. I also chose the third row because I left my glasses in the car, and, from this distance, the figure in the casket is a human-shaped blur instead of the remains that might remind me of all the remains I’ve avoided seeing in my life.
Leah’s mother is running around distracted, unable to focus. She’s trying to find two more people to help carry the casket. If I’d known what she was looking for, and known the only other guests capable of bearing the weight were me and Leah’s sister’s boyfriend, I would have offered. I’m trying not to interfere with anyone else’s emotions, so I sit quietly and think to myself until she asks me. When Leah first told me her grandmother died, I did the same thing until she asked me to come with her. I want to be there for her, but sometimes being there for someone means shutting up and being somewhere else.
My family has given me a pass on funerals, partly because I’m not close with much of my extended family, partly because I was all but alone in the room when I held my grandfather’s hand and told him it was okay to die. So I’ve only been to two in my whole life. The other was five months ago.
“Did you talk to Ria?” asks Tall Paul. We called him Tall Paul until we discovered Big Paul was taller, so we gave up and called him Asian Paul for a while, and later settled on Ethnic Friend.
“No?” I expected something having to do with the pool team, or a party, or a surprise for one of our friends, or advice, or a story sitting somewhere between gossip and a life lesson, or even a scolding for something I’d done and hadn’t yet realized was wrong. These are the kinds of things that I expected when someone told me to talk to Ria.
I find her in the back. She gives me a wide smile and a hug, then puts me in front of her and says, “I have lung cancer.”
This is the first time I cry. She gives me another hug.
“I know, and I just quit smoking. Little too late, I guess. It’s okay. I’m going to fight it. I’m starting the chemo this week, and I’m gonna beat it.”
We talk for a while, and once she’s calmed me down, I sit with Tall Paul and other friends, and we relax. We’re worried, but none of us actually expect her to die. It’s Ria, for fuck’s sake. Nothing can beat Ria. Ria’s the one who helps all of us. Ria has the energy of ten five-year-olds and a will to live that could raise the dead. This is the woman who can make a dozen strange dogs sit at once, who nursed a pigeon back from a broken wing, who makes more art than an art school, and who I guess ran this bar on the side.
She didn’t tell us it was stage IV. That her chances were fifty-fifty of being alive in eight months. Less after that. I guess I’m glad she didn’t admit she could die.
In the beginning, a pallbearer just bore the pall, the sheet that’s laid over the casket, while other and presumably stronger men carried the actual casket. Since a sheet is not a difficult thing to carry, it’s fitting that the bearer of the pall should take over the rest of the duties: nowadays, the hearse does most of the grunt work, followed by the cart, which can be guided and steadied by two people. Our actual physical work is moving the casket between the cart and the hearse, and, finally, from the hearse to the grave.
I sit with Leah for a while in a room away from the wake. When I’m not with Leah, I’m keeping my brain busy trying to figure out the logistics of a time-travel novel, and smoking more than usual.
People introduce themselves to me, and ask who I am. Hi, I’m Peter, Leah’s boyfriend. My singular identity gives me anonymity. The conversation rarely goes past the introduction: I think meeting me is a moment when they can talk about something else, for a few seconds.
There are eight wreaths, one for each pallbearer to carry. There’s a small bench in front of the casket, to kneel on while saying goodbye to the dead. There’s a crucifix in the casket, and a picture.
The funeral directors are polite, calm, and firm in every direction they give. At first it seems brusque to me, but I realize that they are doing exactly the right thing: being professional and calm and telling people who don’t know what to do what to do. Leading the lost.
They make a last call of sorts, asking the friends, then the family, to come forward and pay their respects. When the rest have filed out, and only the family and the pallbearers remain, the director and his assistant prepare to close the casket. The director turns a silent crank to lower the woman’s head. They tuck her in. The director asks if they would like to take the crucifix and the picture out, or leave them. The family takes the crucifix but leaves the picture. The director stands back and looks over every detail. “That’s perfect,” he says. “I’m going to close the casket now. There’s going to be a little noise when it latches.” He informs us of every step.
As the family goes to their cars, I wait with six strangers and the other boyfriend. The director first tells us to each take a wreath to what seems to be the wreath car. Then the casket is wiped down, and we lift it onto a cart. It takes all of us.
On the way out, we pause at the top of the ramp while the hearse is prepared, and I look down at the closed casket, containing the final repose of a woman I never met.
The first chemo treatment didn’t work.
Then the second chemo treatment didn’t work.
Whenever Leah is forty minutes late to get home, I start to freak out. There’s no incident in my past that explains this behavior, I’m just always quietly paranoid that I’ll lose someone.
When I reflect on losing someone, I wonder how I’ll feel, since it’s different each time, and it makes my brain snap. I wonder how many people will feel sorry for me, and for how long. I wonder what sort of behavior I could get away with. Quit my job? Leave the state? If my whole family died, I could do pretty much anything, as long as I left a note. Less for one parent? A friend? The question of what to do after the hypothetical loss forces its way into my mind, blocking the horror of what could be lost before it hits me.
Ria takes a turn for the worse two weeks before she dies. An infection. She seems to recover from it. Most of us still don’t believe she’s going to die. When I see her in the hospital, she’s still laughing between coughs. I realized afterwards how shocked and quiet I was, sitting next to her hospital bed.
A few days later, she takes another turn for the worse, and goes to hospice care. The next day at work, I sit through an all-hands meeting for my company. I sit in the back, and for an hour, nothing goes through my head except for the endless repetition of, “I don’t give a fuck. I don’t give a fuck. I don’t give a fuck.”
That night, I write an email to a few coworkers telling them what’s going on. I tell them I’ll be at the hospital for the next few days, and that there’s no need to write back.
I meet Ria’s family at the hospital, and her sister’s voice nearly starts me crying, because its lilt is the same as Ria’s used to be. Ria can barely speak. I listen to her family speak Dutch as Ria slips in and out of morphine sleep in the next room. I fold origami cranes, because when somebody asked Ria what she wanted, she said a thousand cranes.
In the mornings, I can’t stay in bed. When I open and close my eyes, my mind tries to pretend I’m her. She drifts around her medicated consciousness, her heart racing to make up for a lost lung, awake long enough to see a few more of the people coming in and out. A line of hundreds who love her.
She keeps winking at us when we see her. She tries to speak, but we can’t make out anything except our own names. We can tell she’s smiling by the crinkles in her eyes. We file in one and two at a time, to grip her hand and say hello.
We fold cranes for hours in the hospital and at the bar. Hundreds of them. At some point, I realize nobody has told my ex-fiance, so I tell her, and she comes to visit. While waiting, she folds with us. Abruptly, she says, “I’m folding these because I don’t know what else to do.” The rest of us look down. There is nothing else to do. I think that’s why Ria told us to do it.
Ria sees me standing next to my ex and seems ecstatic, since we were one of the catastrophes Ria tried to haul back from the brink, and she loved seeing us together, not screaming or throwing things at each other. My ex leaves her new children’s book for her.
Outside, my ex and I say goodbye. We don’t touch, and we don’t say anything to hurt each other.
It’s beginning to rain when we put the casket into the hearse. We ride in the limo for about a block, and stop in front of the church. In the first hiccup of the day, we’re left in the limo for the next ten minutes, waiting for the hearse, and the air conditioner is broken. Even as the least dressed-up person in the car, it gets uncomfortable, and I lead the way out to stand under the half umbrella of a tree.
The director instructs us that we’re supposed to walk next to the casket, each of us with one hand on the pall, as the director’s assistant pulls the cart along. I keep my eyes straight ahead, staring at the giant picture of Jesus on the cross painted on the wall. When we get to the front, the family is told to sit in the front righthand pews, the pallbearers in the left. A couple of the pallbearers go over to comfort their relatives or spouses on the right. I don’t want to be disruptive, so I stand there, wondering if I should go over, until the priest starts to speak.
I’m told later that the priest was good and didn’t drag it out too much. The extent to which this astounds me is indicative to how little I know of Catholicism. Between the prayers and hymns, I want the guy to shut up a full hour before he actually does. I have to stand sometimes, and all the standing and sitting is so confusing I have to sneak peeks over my shoulder to try and follow the crowd.
The prayers and hymns are mostly dictated by the church, and it immediately angers me that most of it is propaganda for God-fearing. Saving and serving and Jesus pound down on my ears, but I try to ignore it, because it’s the ritual, the director, and the tradition that’s giving everybody here a place to start. At some point, I think the casket is moving, and I realize I’m about to have an anxiety attack, so I tune out the priest and start trying to do multiplication in my head. It turns out to be harder than I remember, and I have to write some of it out on my hand. I recall that autism is on a scale, but I know I’m not autistic, and I realize that I’m writing on the hand that will have to be on the pall on the way out, so I try to rub it off during the next prayer.
Eventually, Leah reads her eulogy. Now I tear up, because I’m watching my girlfriend cry. This is the last official goodbye. The part where you accept that a person no longer is, only was.
As I help Elisabeth fold her second crane, Alex comes to the table, takes my hand and says, “She’s gone.”
Elisabeth looks at me, her mouth open. I let go of Alex and pull her to my shoulder as she starts crying. The words are sinking into me, the tingling shock spreading. We clutch each other for a minute, until I pull her up to find others. We go to Tall Paul at the bar. His face is a mask except for the tears streaming down his cheeks. Then I start to sob. I sob until it hurts, then catch my breath and ask nobody, “Where’s Diego?” I find Diego in the backyard. I grab his hand across the picnic table and we hold each other until the shaking stops.
I notice what looks like a couple sitting behind me during this. They’re halfway through their drinks, looking around uncomfortably. I half laugh, imagining what they’ll write on yelp: “Drinks were fairly priced, lot of crane decorations. Atmosphere was good until twenty grown men burst into tears all at once. Bar didn’t look Irish, not sure if that happens a lot.” Then another sob hits me and I can’t breath.
The next day at the crawfish cookout that we’d hoped Ria might see, people come in unrested, some somber, some antsy. It speaks to our closeness that what would go unspoken is spoken. If everyone waited until their tears were spent, nobody would come back for months, so there are bursts of silence and turning heads. There’s a note from Ria somewhere that people keep telling me to read, but I can’t find it.
Everybody feels on their own schedule, moving to find each other, moving to be alone, stepping into the bathroom and locking it for a few minutes.
“Ten-minute distractions,” says Tim, choking up as we share a cigarette. “Ten-minute distractions.”
We set the casket holding Leah’s grandmother above the grave, then stand next to it, across from the family. We all talked through the ride here. At the end of the ceremony, leading up to this moment, it seems to get a little harder. Everyone has walked the prescribed paces to one last moment.
There’s more speaking. When it’s done, everybody walks by and throws a flower beside the grave. The pallbearers are instructed to throw theirs last, then walk away. We’re done. The family says goodbye.
We all head back to the cars. Leah is still tearing up, but less now.
Everybody seems relieved, still quietly sad, but ready to deal with the next thing, and maybe the thing after that. I see the emptiness I don’t share; here, I’m only assisting in the ritual of beginning to fill it.
When people in the bar business die, the funerals are not small.
There are hundreds of us. I’m surprised by how many I recognize, surprised even more by how many I consider friends. For the first time, I realize the extent of the family that collected around Ria in her life, and how careful she was in attracting the best and kindest parts of the world around her. There is no wake, no open casket, and there are no speeches by anyone not close to Ria. We drive the cars close to the grave, then walk to where the plain wooden box is suspended above it. We are an ocean of black on the grass, beneath a blue sky.
Harold reads his eulogy. When he says sun, the sun breaks out from the clouds. When he says breeze, the wind picks up.
And then, because Ria would have the last word at her own funeral, her sister reads her note:
Ah … I wanted to write poems about my parting. I wanted to write you all individual notes and letters but it appears now that I may run out of time again. Lately that seems to be the case. I asked for a couple of months at least. Well that was not happening. Then I said all I need is a couple of good weeks. A couple of weeks they gave, just not the good part I asked for. And now they cannot promise me a week. Ha! So I’ll have to skip the poems, consolidate the notes and letters, and get straight to the point.
To all my dear friends. I have thoroughly enjoyed sharing my life with you. The laughs, the tears, the fun, the fights, the ups and downs. You’ve made my life colorful! Each of you being so different from each other. I truly appreciate all of you. And I will continue doing so from the other side.
P.S. If I’ve ever hurt you, know that it was never on purpose and I apologize. And if I put a smile on your face, know that it was my pleasure.
I love you.
Leaving, I hug Diego and Holden for far too long. It’s not a moment we want to keep, but we want to stop any more time from passing.
Sunday, the butterflies come. They seem to think they own the sidewalks, and are annoyed to have to flutter over our shoulders as they fly to food and friends. In that respect, there was nothing unusual about them as butterflies or New Yorkers, but a butterfly by the BQE in Brooklyn is usually something worth pointing out, not something you have to wave out of your face every two minutes.
When an Italian grandmother dies, there is food. I know from Leah’s eulogy that food and love were woven close in her grandmother’s heart, and the gathering is almost festive, once the wine sinks in.
We’re sitting at the kids’ table, or the everyone-between-thirty-and-forty table. Everybody seems okay, but I try not to get too drunk because I know the kind of thoughts that seeming okay can be covering. I fail, because I’m trying not to think about Ria and be there for Leah, and proper numbing is the only way to accomplish that. I end up having a protracted conversation with Leah’s cousin, trying to help her figure out how to get a date. The demands are extensive: over six feet, enough money to raise a family, emotionally available, and not a dick. I tell her she’s too short to make under six feet a deal breaker. She says I may be right but she’s still shooting for it.
Another cousin wants to make a speech, but never finds the moment.
We get back to Leah’s parents’ home, and I think we’re going back to the city, but there’s a dinner to be had, so I pass out on a chair until Leah puts me to bed. Later, she wakes me up and we go to a teppanyaki restaurant. They don’t have a liquor license, so I bring in the bottle of Jameson Leah and I picked up the night before, and convince her brother to take a shot out of a sauce bowl. Later, the cook squirts sake from a ketchup bottle into the mouth of anyone who can catch a bit of avocado he tosses off his knife. I catch the avocado easily, but wait too long with the sake, and end up spraying a couple of shots’ worth on my plate. It’s the most fun I’ve had at a restaurant in years.
On the train home, Leah and I all but sleep, spent from the day.
2012 has been a year of death for me and mine. So much so that half of us just wonder who’s next. It started before Ria, and it’s still happening. I’ve said aloud, “Fuck it. I hope the world does end in December.” I say life is a fight we cannot win, and the point is the fight. This fight is getting too hard and confusing, but even when I can’t do it anymore, I just take the next step, and do the next thing, and wait for instruction. A little Turing machine flipping bits to keep itself alive.
I don’t understand what happens to the brain when it grieves. Thoughts you’d think belong to other emotions spring to mind, stripped of context, and they feel like madness. Sex and rage and fear and selfishness attack with equal ferocity. Explanations and excuses compete to explain and excuse the inexplicable and inexcusable. Sense and reason give way in the face of ultimate loss. The human being is a motion between other human beings, and when one is gone, there’s no movement that can get it back.
Some days I wake up and it doesn’t seem real. Realizations come in as if slowly translated from a foreign language. Ria will never play pool again. Ria will never come to a party again. Ria will never kiss me goodbye again. Ria will never laugh again. Ria won’t stop by. Ria is gone. One by one, I remove expectations and routines, trying to close up or fill the holes so I won’t stumble in them tomorrow.
I like living with cats because I can blame all the noises in the night on them. Now I want all those noises to be Ria’s ghost. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’ll spend the next four years talking to the reflection of her she built in my thoughts. Sometimes it will feel real enough, which is a tribute to her, and perhaps schizophrenia.
The dead don’t care what we do, because there’s no they anymore. Mourning their deaths and celebrating their lives, through whatever means, is just how the living find ways to go on. Stripped of tradition and superstition, I have found other rituals. I go to the bar. I cry. I speak to my friends. I work. I get coffee at Starbucks every day at three. I eat my lunch alone, with a book and a glass of wine. They are the same rituals I always follow. They are rituals of life, but serve well as rituals of death. I practice them because they are my map of what to do when there’s nothing to do, and there’s no place to begin not doing it.