I am the worst person I know. The worst one. Yesterday I sat in a packed church, at a funeral for a very kind man. Prayers were said, and I prayed along, and was careful not to cry because I hadn’t known him very long, but the whole time I sat there feeling grief but trying not to feel too much, do you know what I was thinking?
A few things. First, the guy in front of me. He did not for one minute ever stop messing with himself. First he rolled his white shirtsleeves all the way up to his triceps. Then above his triceps. Then he rubbed his beard and his neck and the top of his head, symmetrically, with both hands, like he was rubbing in some magic ointment that would make it not 90 degrees in the church. He was with an older couple and I decided that he probably had something going on, maybe his skin was itchy or he had a mental challenge or maybe he was more upset than I because he knew the deceased better, but do you think that stopped me from being all snobby and needing to stand even more perfectly still, to prove that I was better and more holy than this guy who was probably doing his best to stand as straight as he could in this church of heat and strangers and mystified sorrow? Of course it didn’t.
I stood as straight as I could. When we kneeled down, I kneeled as straight and still as I could. I sang like I meant it. The uncomfortable feeling of half-pretending and half-believing in what was being said in the mass was comforting. It reminded me of being a kid in church, back when I thought that looking holy and reverent was going to get me somewhere. The only thing it ever got me was sort-of picked up once at a Christmas Eve midnight mass I went to with my dad. I know I must have started flirting with the guy next to me because at some point I was showing him my ID to prove “I am SO eighteen,” and my dad looked over and I realized the priest was talking. After that, I stood super straight again, like I was standing now.
The only thing that made me move was the woman behind me. I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was looking at her phone, so I turned a few times, just now and then, as if to say, “I cannot believe that you are looking at your phone in a church, so I have to physically turn around in order to check. Yep, that is you looking at your phone right now. You see me looking at you? Good, I’ll turn back around like I don’t want you to see that I was staring at you because I have such good manners. Maybe you can learn something from me.”
You can just imagine what I did when she started accidentally playing a voicemail message on speakerphone. A VOICEMAIL MESSAGE! On SPEAKERPHONE!
To my credit, I held it together when I noticed that the woman two rows up, a stalwart-looking Russian grandma type with white hair gathered in a clip on top of her head, was wearing the exact same vest I got at Target that I wear all the time. For some reason I’ve always thought this vest was so cute and special that Target only sold one of its kind, the one I have. I thought it looked kind of handmade and chic, but seeing it stretched across the back of this woman over a peach top that did not need a knitted vest because it was 90 DEGREES IN THE CHURCH, I felt rather ill.
Are all my clothes this bad? Certainly the sundress I was wearing which is at least 15 years old but I think looks great because it hides my waistline, that dress is okay, right? I mean, the purposely-uneven hem that is short in the middle and longer on the sides is coming back in this year, right? And the knotted straps that show my gray bra straps, those are cute, right?
Let’s not even talk about my hair.
Afterward, we walked to Lincoln Square and bought an air plant. We didn’t get ice cream from the vendor outside the church because it didn’t seem appropriate.
Today I cleaned out the back closet because I got a new shelving unit that is going to change everything back there. I saw a box of photos and inside was a picture of my mom and me, just a few days before she died. She is smiling at the camera—or maybe at my cousin Liz who took the picture—in a way I don’t remember ever her smiling. Probably she only had this smile for a few days. Her smile is as wide and toothy as her normal smile, but her eyes are different. They look rueful, which I just had to look up to make sure that’s what I mean, and I’m glad to see that its flavor of regret is “slightly humorous,” because that’s exactly what I see in her eyes. It feels like she’s living somewhere else other than in that room with us, but she’s stepped back for the picture. She’s slightly sorry that she forgot about us for a second, like “oops,” but she really does love us and wants to give this picture all she’s got.
I did not open that box because of the funeral. I opened it because of a shelving unit from Home Depot that allowed me to reorganize the closet and this box of pictures had to be moved and the picture of my mom happened to be on top. Grief is random and cyclical and not affected by petty or grand or judgmental or kind thoughts. It’s just there, first an affliction you can’t get rid of, and then a balm you are grateful for because it brings back for a moment the person you have lost.
I would so have taken that red phone. That’s a vintage item right there. And you put into words something that resonated immediately as I read it. Something I’ve believed I knew unconsciously even if I’d never thought about it that way- that first grief is an affliction, but we learn to be grateful for the remembrances it brings later. Well put.
Thanks, Chuck! we gave it a lot of thought. If it were a rotary instead of push-button, it would be in that closet by now.
I LOVE your writing style, so “stream of consciousness!” I just found your site today, but can’t wait to read old excerpts. Congrats, you are very talented.
You are a one-of-a-kind writer. What a voice. Extraordinary.
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