“I’m not going!” I say, stamping my foot on the linoleum floor.
“Yes, you are,” my mother replies calmly from where she stands in the middle of our kitchen. Both hands are on her hips, her eyes unwavering.
“We’re not even friends!”
“It doesn’t matter. His mother died and he’s in your class. You’re going to pay your respects. That’s the end of it.”
I can’t believe she’s making me do this. David Gilbert is one of those extremely average boys who blend into the sea of faces in the hallway at our middle school. I think maybe he mouthed off to me to once during gym, but I can’t be sure if I mistook him for some other boy. He’s that forgettable.
But me, with my big mouth, had to mention how his mom died of cancer earlier that week and now my mom is insisting I attend the viewing at the nearby funeral home, Sullivan & Sons.
She’s got that tight expression she gets when she’s adamant I do something difficult and I can already feel I’m going to lose this one. Other kids get to enjoy the thrills of disobedience – screaming, slamming doors, tossing things – but, for me, when my mom’s like this, I have no choice but to obey.
So I guess it’s not all that surprising that about an hour later I’m packed into the passenger’s side of our old Chevy Impala, arms crossed and angrily staring out the window at a glorious 75-degree day. School is going to be out soon and I can’t believe this is how I’m spending one of the first days of summer.
“Honey, you’re going to have to learn to do things like this,” she says with a sigh. We’re three blocks away and I’m still trying desperately to think of a way out of this. “Funerals are part of life and it’s important you get used to going to them and supporting people when they need you.”
“I don’t even know him,” I repeat under my breath.
“You do.” Both her hands are gripping the wheel at ten and two o’clock. “He deserves to have a friend there.”
None of it makes any sense but we pull into the parking lot anyway and she stops the car.
I scooch over, put my hand on the door latch but notice, out of the corner of my eye, that her hands haven’t moved.
“Aren’t you coming in?” I ask, feeling an uneasy flutter creep into my gut.
“No. You’re doing this yourself.”
“Honey, I mean it.”
“I’m not going in there alone.” The panic rings in my voice. Why is she doing this to me?
“You are.” she turns, staring me down. “I’ll be right here when you come out. It doesn’t take a lot to show others you care, Elizabeth. Now, open that door and get in there.”
There’s nothing left to say and I can see she’s getting really pissed – which is not good. I’m so angry myself, I can’t even speak. But, as usual, I do what she says.
Just those few steps up to the front door with the heat on my shoulders and the cornflower blue sky above makes me wish again I was doing anything but this. I pull open the heavy glass door and the dread hits as I enter and adjust to the gloom and perpetual hush of the funeral home. Somewhat fortunately, I know my way around. This is where my family has all our services. The last one was my great-grandmother, Mary, who lived all the way to 98. The next one will be my uncle, my mother’s brother, Rich, who is presently wasting away from Lou Gehrig’s disease in an upstairs room at my grandmother’s house. Hastily, I shove the ugly thought away and hang a right down a hallway.
On the left, just outside one of the viewing rooms, is a sign for the Gilbert family. I look inside and see there’s no one anywhere and all is completely quiet. I would gladly turn on my heel and skip back outside to tell mom they’re closed, but I know she wouldn’t have any problem marching me right back in here to make sure no one’s available before taking me home.
I take a few tentative steps in and say, “Hello?” And then again, ”Um, hello?” It still looks vacant but then I see him, sitting in the front pew by himself. He turns, recognizes me immediately and stands up self-consciously, raising a hand. He’s a skinny kid with light freckles and sandy brown hair, wearing a pair of carefully pressed khaki trousers along with a crisp short-sleeved white dress shirt and even a tie.
I grind my teeth and curse my luck.
I wave back and plod toward him. When I get there, I say Hi and then he says Hi and then nothing else comes out of either of us. It’s a stupefied staring contest as we both try to figure out, with mounting alarm, what to say or do next.
With experience, adults get good at developing a protective and exhaustive battery of acceptable exchanges, especially during funerals, like: “How are you faring? How is your family doing? How are the kids handling it? Do you need anything? Is there anything we can do?”
But David and I don’t have any of that – or even classes, sports or friends.
Finally, he shrugs his shoulders and says shyly, “Um, well, would you like to see her?”
Surprisingly enough, I’m so focused on him and being tongue-tied that I don’t even realize the coffin is just over against the wall. However, now that I see it, I know the last thing I want is to see her. Still, I nod and sickly follow as he leads me over.
He gives me the prime spot and takes a place at my right. We look down on her together – and everything gets very quiet as if someone turned the volume way low on the whole world.
The fist thing I notice is she looks too old to be a mom. Her face is thin and taught and withered and the dark hair that frames her face is dull and brittle. Though it’s clear someone with a deft hand applied makeup, her sallow skin stands out against the pretty blue polka-dot silk dress they put her in, which is buttoned up to her neck and tied with a bow.
My uncle, Rich, pops to mind again. He already looks like this now: someone who is waging war against a badass disease and is about to lose, just like she did.
My throat is hurting. I swallow and feel a painful lump there but my eyes are still glued on her. I feel David standing sadly next to me. He is utterly still. In desperation to say something normal, I squeak, “She was sick?” which I immediately regret, but the words are already gone.
He nods, never taking his eyes off her, and whispers, “Yeah. She was real sick.”
And then my throat closes up for good as I start to see her through his eyes: Mom. With her smile, her rules, hugs and kisses. On good days and bad days. At Christmas and Easter, BBQs and beaches. She’s gone and he’s never getting her back.
What did she do to deserve this? Was there a reason for anything?
I’m still fighting the tears with all I have, swallowing, blinking, but they’re coming on like a freight train or a tidal wave and I can’t get out of the way. I’ve got to stay mute because, if I say anything else at this point, I know I’m going to completely fall apart, sobbing uncontrollably and making a fool of myself in front of this boy I don’t even know and over a mother that isn’t even mine.
Worst of all, I hurt so badly for David. I feel my heart just breaking apart right there. I can’t believe he had to deal with this alone. I can’t believe this happens to people all the time.
But I already know that, don’t I?
Rich had been sick my entire childhood and I never really knew him when he was well. Apparently, he’d been funny, charismatic, and a successful lawyer who had just married when he first came down with Lou Gehrig’s – a disease that slowly disables your muscles and motor functions. In the first few years, when his illness was somewhat manageable, he stayed with his wife and actually had a couple of kids. But pretty quickly, they couldn’t handle it all on their own and my grandparents suggested Rich come home and live with them where he could be cared for full time. At this point, he was losing his mobility and his speech was slurring.
When he first came home, I didn’t fully understand what was wrong with him. After all, to a seven year-old, a man who is tottering around and jumps (and then laughs) when you scare him is funny. Plus there was all the stuff that came with him: the strange upright wheel chair with the headrest, the white chair that always stayed in the shower and the high-tech Mr. Spell thingy that spoke robotic words after you typed them in on the keyboard.
However, the fascination didn’t last. My family took him to clinics and special treatment centers with tense but hopeful smiles on their faces that were gone by the time they returned, carrying his nearly-limp body back in the house.
One day I saw the wheel chair in a neglected corner of the living room and it seemed to stay there for months. Then it was gone altogether and Rich stopped leaving his bedroom. My mother, aunts and uncles kept trying to get me to come and visit him, like the rest of them did, to read or watch basketball, but I found every time I walked in and had to face his skeletal body and his hollow moans, I wanted to run away as fast as I could – and usually did. He couldn’t even speak, for God’s sake. He was dying and in the worst way I could imagine: unable to talk or cry or even laugh with the people he loved.
Was there a worse nightmare?
But, despite all this, after seven years, my family was still fighting alongside Rich. By now they all could translate his moans without Mr. Spell or feed him without making a mess. Strangest of all, none of them ever seemed repulsed or scared. They just kept on kissing, hugging and laughing with him, as if nothing were really wrong. Maybe it was their way of hanging on to him.
“Death is a part of life,” I would hear one or more of them murmur at any given time. Sometimes it was something about “God’s will”. If only I could accept it as placidly as they did. Part of me was quietly waiting for someone to finally break, maybe smash a coffee cup into the wall or shriek hatefully at God for smiting Rich so cruelly. It’s what I wanted to do, besides just wanting him to die already so the shame would go away.
But now, standing with David Gilbert, in front of his mom’s coffin, I’ve got nowhere to run.
I have to face that bad things happen – and that they will happen to me and the people I love.
I have to face that life is just not fair.
I have to face that I’m going to hurt someday.
That I’m going to die someday.
That there are no answers.
This is the tidal wave I’ve been running from.
Just as I feel whatever self-control finally crumbling and the tears rolling down my face, I feel it: David’s hand on my shoulder.
“It’s Ok,” he says. “It’s gonna be alright…”
And that kicks open the floodgates for real. Sobs, snot, the works start pouring out – and not a tissue in sight.
But he keeps patting my shoulder, inching in a little closer, leaning his head in compassionately, repeating softly again and again that things are going to be Ok. Really they will be.
I turn to him and see he’s smiling reassuringly and I want to shake my head and tell him nothing will ever be good again. But he stays with it, repeating calmly that it’ll be all right. I want to hide my face so he doesn’t see how hideous I look crying all over myself, but he doesn’t seem bothered at all by my looks or hysterics. Is this what my family’s been doing for Rich all along? How can he be so calm when I’m such a mess?
After a while, a man and women, who are clearly part of David’s family, enter the room and we awkwardly break apart. This gives me a chance to brush away my tears and say goodbye to David, who is still smiling softly. I run to the parking lot – still crying – and jump in my mom’s car, which is idling at the front steps.
“I’m proud of you, honey,” she says as we pull away. “I know that wasn’t easy but I’m glad you did it.”
I’m still hating her, refusing to speak but, in the years that followed, I’ve had a lot of time to think about why she sent me in there alone.
Looking back at her, I see a woman who had already faced a few tidal waves. The sun is glittering off her short red curls as she slowly turns the wheel and heads down our street, toward the little red house she bought for my sister and I. She’s just over forty and there’s a first child, a girl, she gave up for adoption and a divorce from my dad in her rear-view. Next up is the death of her dear brother, and coming on quickly. Sitting in the passenger seat is me, sensitive and intense, and just entering my teens, with a lot of life and even more surprises ahead.
Was she trying to temper me against the future by making me face what I had been avoiding for so long? Did she need me to somehow understand what she was going through? I don’t really know.
Whatever I learned, it’s David that probably taught me the most that day.
In my mind, I go back and see him again, standing in the viewing room, with his hand on my shoulder. I look into his soft green eyes over a smattering of early-summer freckles and, inside them, I see the future, but I also see my mother and our family coming together around Rich, around me.
I know there’s no cure for what’s coming and no way to side step the tidal wave. All you can do is hold on to one another, for comfort, for dear life.