My father took over dealing with the business end of death. I would have had no idea where to begin, but he was Emma’s trustee and could talk to the lawyer downtown and the bank and the mortuary with ease. The funeral was set for the following Friday, and I spent the week in a quiet haze. Nothing was demanded of me. My mother was pleased to baby me, and I accepted it as I had accepted her care when I was a child. After the building months of tension and watchfulness, it was a relief to release all responsibilities for a time and allow myself to be provided for. Mom was full of schemes for my well-being and emotional health, ferrying me around to the salon for a hair cut and a facial, or to the mall for a dress for the funeral.
“This looks like something you’d like,” said mom, plucking a black sheath dress off a rack and inspecting the fabric. “You can get a lot of wear out of it after the funeral, too.”
Mom was surprised. “I thought you preferred black.”
“I’d rather get something with some color.” I was firm. “Black makes you look dead.”
Phones rang all week with updates from relatives making travel plans. Uncle Larry, Dad’s brother, planned to come in with some of his grown kids; some distant cousins were making the trip. Everyone was planning to stay at Mom and Dad’s hotel. It was turning into a big family reunion, and of course everyone wanted to kick back and catch up. “We’ll all be meeting up at Emma’s house following the graveside service,” Dad told anyone who called. “It’s empty.”
Of course, there was the issue of Emma’s empty house. It was held in trust now, but it would have to be sold before any inheritance could be realized. No one really wanted to live in it: Mom and Dad had just settled in Florida and had no plans to move back; Uncle Larry had his own place; Stacy and Brad liked New York and were already babbling excitedly about the quality of the local school district. And I, even if I could have afforded to live there, didn’t want it either. It was a house filled with memories, but they were Emma’s memories, not mine. Of course there was plenty of work to be done before the house could be sold, and short of other plans, it seemed natural that I would stay on and oversee the fix-up and cleaning out of the house.
By Thursday funeral preparations had assumed a festival atmosphere. Uncle Larry had blown into town with a few of his adult children, and after the rosary and vigil at the funeral home they had pulled up to the house with a stack of pizzas and a 24-pack of Bud Light. Mom had poured her ferocious energies into clearing out the cabinets, and a trove of lost and forgotten items were assembled for the amusement of the company. The basketball game was switched on, and the cousins who weren’t crouched in front of the TV, pizza in hand, were helping Dad clear furniture from the front room to the garage so Mom and Jocelyn, Larry’s second wife, could vacuum and rearrange and keep themselves busy in the way that in-laws do at big family occasions.
I helped out a bit, but eventually my mother urged me rest up. “Don’t worry about all this, sweetie, we’ll take care of it. Go lay down before you bite someone’s head off,” she ordered, escorting me to my room. I flopped on my bed and stayed there for the rest of the evening. The laughter and commotion and shouting of the sports fans drifted into my room even through the pillow I rammed against the crack at the bottom of the door. I could catch snippets of conversation from the front room where Mom and Jocelyn were hiding out from the boisterous mass of Trapnel guys working themselves up to a lather over the game.
“...Still in shock, you know....been a hard week for her...living with Aunt Emma for six months would be enough to drive anyone crazy...seeing anyone?...nephew of the lady next door, he has a little girl...did you want to look at those dishes now?”
I rolled over and looked at the clock. It was 9:30 PM, and the crew in the living room might not leave for hours. I had retreated as far as I could get without having to walk past everyone and leave the house. Martin wasn’t answering his phone, doubtless because he was out somewhere having a better time than I was.
Ten bitter minutes later, I received a text from the man himself: Coming home a day early for funeral. Brief layover in Charlotte NC. Get in after midnight. See you tomorrow.
We arrived at church early the next morning. I sat with Mom and Dad, clutching the rosary with the clear green stones, which I’d taken off Emma’s bedside table and claimed for my own, to no protest. I had also taken a black lace chapel veil from a drawer in Emma’s room, which did occasion some complaint. My mother had asked pointedly, “Don’t you think that’s a little dramatic, Emma?” as I pinned in on before Mass. Now I parked defiantly in the front pew, daring anyone to challenge me on my right to wear Emma’s veil to Emma’s funeral.
As it turned out, no one was particularly interested to talk to me about Emma. Old friends and visiting relatives were chattering around the nave, catching up on years of gossip in what were intended to be hushed tones, and the cacophony of their murmuring filled the large stone church with whispering echoes. I stiffened my spine and let the beads of the rosary slip automatically through my fingers as I waited for Martin. Peggy and John were already there -- she had caught my eye and smiled encouragingly as I craned around to watch the door -- but perhaps it was unreasonably early to expect him. My dad gave my hand a consoling squeeze. “Not too much longer, hon,” he said as he rose to gather with the other pallbearers in the back.
The congregation rustled to its feet in waves and turned to watch as the priest began by blessing the coffin in the back. I turned as well, but I didn’t see at the coffin. Martin was standing next to Peggy and John, looking exactly as when I’d first met him at Christmas, in suit and tie with his fair brown hair falling over his glasses, and his eyes were fixed on me.
The Funeral Mass proceeded apace. Few tears were shed; Emma had been old and ill, and though her death was sudden, it had caught almost no one but me by surprise. In short order we were following the casket out of the church and preparing to join the procession to the interment. I wasn’t able to speak to Martin on my way out, but he smiled at me past the press of people as I followed my parents to the car. The motorcade was not very long, and all the way to the cemetery I watched his silver car in the rearview mirror.
My dad parked the car behind the hearse and the gathering mourners observed quietly as the casket was carefully unloaded. Again the pallbearers took up their burden. My mother asked me, “Are you coming?”
“You go ahead,” I told her, watching Martin making his way past the line of cars. “I’m waiting for someone.”