Sunday, February 10, 2013

Breathe



The weeping of our widow snuffs all sound aside from the drawing of dry tissues from the cellophane lips of cardboard boxes. Beside the coffin she kneels, stroking his buttoned coat. Her tailored shoulders shake; mine crank to their tightest settings. I check in with my scuffed brown boots…same as they ever were, but my mouth inhales as if to suck the dust from their clenched brass zippers, which hide like turtle heads inside the cuffs of my slacks. 

When my aunt Kathy stands and turns, her children flock around their wounded mother ad cluster her with familial flesh and cooing cries. 

“They really do shield her, don’t they?” My mother says. 

Within the room of disregarded landscape paintings, velvet chairs and antique table lamps, the brittle prattle of long dark coats withers. Behind the wool, cotton, buttons, hems and shiny polyester linings; bellies become busy with breathing. Crowds of clouds push into diaphragms where they bounce swirl and stutter before colliding into connected train cars ad zooming up tunneled tracks of bronchioles to clot tracheas and rattle larynges.  Eventually it drains like rain from chapped nostril spouts and swollen eye ducts. Shredded tissues catch what they can, while the rest seeps into the swirling personal prints of our cracked January palms. It feels like boasting, this breathing, before my uncle’s dead body. 

Up the cement cathedral steps, the pallbearers carry the coffin. With little to no practice, they try to be graceful, but the box is heavy and the steps are quite steep. Such a vulnerable responsibility it is to walk down the center aisle, with occupied hands and glistening cheeks, holding the reason everyone is weeping. 

Inside the church, Kathy sits in the front row, leaving the two seats on her left empty. She is unaccompanied and as vulnerable as a queen with a downed drawbridge and to our horror, the filthy, scary world, headless of her heartache, looms all around her. Outside the church, the world, has been meticulously packed with impatient drivers, malicious storms, flippant waiters, unwavering cold symptoms, ignorant telemarketers and callous tax collectors. The world has the face of a folklore villain: twitchy trickster winks and false smiles and it threatens to storm and flood, soaking her scabs with its deep blue oceans. I want to saw the pews apart and build a great wall around her. I want to build her a cape from fire blankets and fishing wire. I want to set a mold around her heart with graham crackers, hot fudge and honey. I want to send her, the children and our entire family to summer where we could sit under umbrella shade, singing all the songs we know, playing cards, keep away and ping pong and dancing on weathered docks beneath navy-blue nights. 

“I hate this.” She told her four sisters while shopping at the mall for something a widow might wear. The days after a death are dense with such pitiless decisions, duties and dreaded happenings as these. Telephone calls to the funeral home, Elks Club, coffin company, the church and the cemetery must be made. The flaking Christmas tree in the front room should be dealt wit along with the ice on the front porch steps and the cold laundry in the dryer. An eulogy and newspaper obituary must be written and would somebody please retrieve the mail. Packs of pocket-sized tissues should be purchased and the box with the shoe polish in it needs to be found. I would like to turn this last month into a long tedious nightmare for my dear aunt to wake from in a screaming, crying, sweaty fit beside her startled, soothing, sleepy husband. 

“Someone should go sit with Kathy.” Mom and Grandma say. 

“I’ll be no use.” Grandma says, the white creases of her old eyes glister. 

With bended back, to not poke into the peripheral view of any parishioners, or to be small and unnoticed, my mother hurries down the pew. This haste, however, causes her to kick her sister, Ann’s leg (which is stiffened straight and sewn full of stitches from a recent skiing accident). Paul, Ann’s husband, catches Mom by her arms.  

“Just what Kathy needs.” Mom whispers, a pending sob peeking through her sarcasm. “Do you want me to sit with you?” She asks Kathy, plopping down beside her. 

“Sure, but you can’t sit here during the service.” 

“Oh, OK… We didn’t want you to be alone.” Mom says before, “Mom made me come.”

“Mom is always trying to control everything.” Kathy says, inviting giggles in a rejection of tension. She’ll be alright, her fleeting smile says. Mom presses her lips into her sister’s cheek and I feel it somehow. As she stands for her return trip, Mom leans on the back of the pew, distrustful of her own feet. Ann points to her leg, a warning label on her lips. Later Ann will make us all laugh by re-telling this story, explaining how when Paul caught Mom, Ann (in an angry fit of pain) ordered her husband to, “DROP HER.” 

The funeral mass is delicate, healing and memorable: a bible reading pronouncing the greatness of love; a spirited and sincere sermon; alleluias and refrains; prayers and responses; a tender eulogy by Jennifer, the eldest of the four; handholds, hugs and kisses for peace; and the clicking chain of the thurible as it sways, steams incense and blesses the body. One significant moment is when Kathy, a Eucharistic Minister of the church, stands before a long line of loved ones, lifting consecrated wafers from a shallow golden bowl. 

“The Body of Christ.” She offers. 

“Amen”, we reply. 

“She humbles me.” My mother weeps, her chin dimpling and the sides o her mouth pointing down in a bit-lip frown. “She humbles me.” 

Later, above the sniffling and shuffling of private prayer, Kathy’s sister, Aunt Amy’s voice, soulful and solo, is heard. 

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, 
That saved a wretch like me. 
I once was lost but now am found, 
Was blind, but now I see. 

Kathy turns to her sister singing in the balcony. 

Amazing---

Amy’s body becomes too busy breathing to belt. Kathy’s voice appears before us like a line of wet red ink on a smoothed paper map. Lighting lanterns and feeding hope to our hearts, our widow leads us through the unchartered final chorus. 

I once was lost but now am found, 
Was blind, but now I see. 

At the back of the cathedral, we walk past the white clad priests and basins of holy water to step into blue sympathetic sunshine. I slide my arm around Grandpa’s elbow. 

“Are you holding me up?” He asks. “Or am I holding you up?” I smile and squint below to where lines of uniformed police stand at solemn salute.

Like tourist traffic on sandy beach streets, cars stop along the cemetery road. We get out to walk. Sheets of layered hemp cover the muddy path to the gravesite like a boardwalk. Our feet start to sink where we stand, our eyes behind sunglass plastic. Up a slight knoll, three bagpipes wail into a harbored harmony. With swanlike necks swaddled in scarves, we say a final prayer. After a collective sign of the cross, the Color Guard raises their flags. Just then, the breeze blows by with the most benevolent bloom, flapping the flags like damp beach towels, drying teardrops into fine salt and filling our bellies with fresh merciful breath.