I Saw You Standing At The Funeral
She rested her hand upon his chest, leaned over his body, a mannequin of who he used to be, and whispered something to him.
I knew I should turn away, and allow her that moment, that one private moment amidst the boisterous gathering, a couple hundred people on a frozen February evening crammed into the quaint funeral home just outside of Chicago. We had driven six hours to attend your uncle’s funeral. It was rowdier than a bar at happy hour, which, once I got past the initial shock of that, as my family was more reserved, especially when they died, and considered it, was probably what your uncle would have wanted. I only knew him through scattered visits over the years, and things you would say, and the anecdotes people were sharing – the one about him showing up at that wedding in Louisville with a Styrofoam cooler full of booze because a proper reception merited more than beer and wine especially if there was going to be dancing. I had my own conversation with him when we were here for Thanksgiving, our turn to spend the holidays with your side. I had never spoken to any of the relatives beyond your immediate family for that long, or that easily, the introvert I was, your uncle anything but.
We talked about everything that night, in no particular order, with no particular relevance, while you sat in the dining room with your cousins sipping Woodford from your grandfather’s antique Glencairn whiskey glasses and rummaging through shoeboxes of sepia-toned photographs: the Bears and the Bulls and the Hawks; his remodeling of the bathroom that had become an endless undertaking and a running gag; the origin of the word Arctic from the Greek word for bear that he assured me would come in handy someday to know and he was right; how Jeopardy had been dumbed down because the country as a whole wasn’t as smart today as it was “back in the day.” We swapped war stories about our ailments and illnesses and hospital stays, both of us with our fill of life-or-death experiences. He kept saying “God bless you” when I told him what I went through because he wasn’t aware of the details, heard I had been sick but not the extent, and he seemed genuinely concerned and moved and slightly embarrassed for only sending a card. “Jesus, had I known kid.”
I tried to turn away, but found myself looking back up there, at the front of the room where your uncle was lying, uncharacteristically solemn, and still, in that extra-large coffin, an extra-large man, neatly pressed suit. I wondered what he would have thought of spending eternity in a tie since most of the pictures that were set about on poster board collages showed him in shorts and a t-shirt and he surely never wore a suit working the rails. I could not turn away for very long from that tiny pocket of heartbreak and grief within the SRO crowd of family and friends and neighbors and anyone else who had learned of his unexpected passing and come in from wherever no matter the weather to pay their respects and join in the chatter and the banter and the recounting of tall tales. We had gathered to carry on once more in your uncle’s presence as he held court, like always, although not really because he should have been the one carrying on. I could not turn away because it was so simple, and so pure, and so beautiful, and so sad. And it reminded me of you, of us.
You leaned over me when I nearly departed suddenly myself a few years earlier – in the ICU and after the surgeries and during the home healthcare visits from those nurses with the cold hands. You leaned over me, to care for me, to change my bandages, to make sure I was eating, to read to me, to pray for me when I was angry at God for allowing that to happen. You touched me on the chest just like that to tell me it would be alright even though you were not sure, confessed months afterwards to not being as strong as you had led on, merely put up a good front because I needed it. You were afraid, breaking down alone in the empty back stairwell of the hospital, that I might leave you too soon. I told you then, and I meant it, that I would never leave you.
I could not turn away, not completely, as it occurred to me that your uncle had no doubt said something like that to your aunt. He revealed that night, while you and your cousins were guffawing over grainy pictures of long-forgotten kin at the beach, how she had saved him, how he was blessed. “The right woman will make you, the wrong one will break you,” he commanded, a thick index finger in my face, “remember that.” I promised him I would even while pondering if those were lyrics from a country song and if not they needed to be. I was certain your uncle had told your aunt that he would never leave her. Yet there he was anyway, gone.
I saw you standing across the room, consoling your cousins, and I caught your eye, and you looked at me like you looked at me when I woke up in the hospital, like you looked at me the first time I saw you when you were singing in the choir loft at that church I happened on into one stormy Sunday morning partly hungover, as I often used to be, on a whim and a hunch and because I just thought I should be there. You looked at me like you always looked at me, as if to ask “are you okay?” I nodded, and I was, now, and I went to you.