I am 41 years old, and my experience with death of loved ones is remarkably scant. My parents are still alive. My grandparents’ deaths were long ago and I was mostly shielded from whatever rituals were executed after their passing. I have a relatively small family and a small group of friends, and the fortune of not having lost anyone from those circles in adulthood. Until my ex’s father died, I had never been to a funeral. (I tell people that and they think I’m exaggerating or joking. No, really. The first funeral I ever attended was for my then-father-in-law, and I had no idea what was going on, and being forced to spend several hours in a room at the wake with an open casket about did me in, because DUDE THAT IS CREEPY.)
In a sense this week is easier, because this time I know what to expect, and also because Otto’s family holds both “alcohol” and “inappropriate humor” in their arsenal of grief-coping mechanisms (neither were acceptable in my former marriage), and these are methods I can get behind. Although there have been tears, of course, there are also toasts and a lot of laughter (both of which are frequently followed by someone adding “cue the lightning bolt!”) and I think Otto’s mom would mostly approve. Even if she didn’t, I think she would shake her head and chuckle.
Still, it all feels fairly surreal.
I don’t know if it would be less weird if all four of us were here. Maybe. Maybe not. But we discuss logistics and schedules and hymns and Monkey runs around with his cousins and I drink tea and do the things I am supposed to and pretend I am not missing Chickadee or counting down the days we have left with her. The wake is today, the funeral is tomorrow, we leave the following day and go straight from the airport to the hospital to have Chickie discharged. Then we have less than two days to finish packing her up before she leaves us.
So we talk about pallbearers and who should do readings and I try to keep my head in the moment, but then I check my email and have to deal with custody paperwork and insurance transfers and our current school district wanting to know where to send transcripts and files. I respond to emails. I laugh at the stories being tossed back and forth of the memories we’re trying to hold on to. I try to stay in this moment. And then more family shows up and eventually someone looks around and comments that Monkey has gotten so tall and is Chickadee here somewhere? And Otto and I exchange a look and say no, she’s not here, she’s in the hospital. This is followed by a few questions and answers, and then there’s an awkward silence. It ends when someone launches into another story about Otto’s mom, and all I can think is that Chickadee was her only granddaughter and she’s not here and that would’ve made her so sad. A part of me is relieved that we never had to tell her that Chickadee is moving; she would’ve been so worried about all of us if she’d known.
We defrost casseroles and set out boxes of tissues and clothes are being ironed even as I type. The dress shoes I ordered for Monkey just hours before we left Georgia arrived here via overnight shipping, but didn’t fit. So today after we went out for a late breakfast and gulped cup after cup of coffee, we detoured to a local strip mall and I tossed black shoes at my son until we found an acceptable pair. I chuckled to myself while I paid, because they were more money than I’ve ever spent on a pair of shoes for either child, more money than I generally spend on shoes for MYSELF. They were not on sale. And it didn’t matter. This is how I know we are in Serious Times. I pay full price and it doesn’t matter.
Monkey is tearful and Otto is by turns animated and unusually quiet. I can’t tell if the Chickadee-sized hole in this experience is making it easier or harder; I know if she was here, she might be a comfort to Monkey. Having the distraction of paperwork and logistics is keeping my mind off the fact that we’ll be facing an open casket in a few hours and in a few days my daughter will no longer live with me. I also feel like my mother-in-law would pat my arm if she was here and whisper that I should do whatever I need to take care of my babies. And then she’d follow it with a doting remark about Otto and what a good father he turned out to be. She’d be right, of course. I am really going to miss her.
Just now there was a joke about wearing chaps to the wake. You probably had to be here, but it was funny. We all laughed. And even that was not enough to break through what feels like this giant wall of water I am moving through. Sound is dulled, everything feels a little slow, and no matter what I do, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I can’t swim fast enough to stop the people I love from drowning.