I was having a difficult time.
I was standing in my newly purchased navy blue suit, my hair coiffed and my feet in heels. I could hardly see my own reflection staring back at me in the funeral home bathroom mirror. My mind was turned inward, and spinning. I wondered how long it would be alright for me to hide out in here before I had to go back out and face the guests as they arrived.
I had to get through this. My sister was better at this sort of thing. She was the one who had manned the phones throughout my mother’s illness. She liked to be the ambassador, the news giver, the point of contact. Me, I was better with the work behind the scenes, taking care of things, keeping things humming along. I knew I was going to have a hard time today comforting others when I felt that my grief was so much greater than theirs. My twenty two year old self was not ready for being everyone else’s rock right now. But I knew I would have to today. Today wasn’t about me. I would be able to grieve my mother every day as I lived in our home, as I disposed of her clothes and belongings. Today was for everyone else, and I needed to push my own grief down enough to allow everyone else theirs.
I walked out of the bathroom and back into our designated room. I tried hard to not cry when I saw the single vase of regal calla lilies just in front of the podium, just as my mother had asked for. Over in the corner was the poster board we’d made of photos of my mother, placed carefully on an easel. My sister had added her framed photograph of my mother from her wedding. I could almost hear my mother singing “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus” in the back of my head; the thought of it made me smile and laugh for a moment.
The service went quickly, according to the protocol we’d decided upon with my mother just a few weeks before. One by one, as each person spoke, as each item was fulfilled, it was as if I could feel my mother there with us, even though she was gone. The social worker was right; it was a nice feeling to know that my mother’s wishes were being played out just exactly as she’d asked them to be.
On the one hand, I felt wonderful that so many had turned out for my mother. She would have been stunned to hear the words that people used to describe her: strong, hard working, courageous, inspirational, a woman of conviction; I knew that in her dark moments, those words would have been so helpful to have heard. On the other hand, I wished more of the people here that day had been visitors and told my mother those things in person while she was still alive. I couldn’t even count how many times early on in her illness that my mother had told me how alone she felt and how much better off the world would have been if she’d died on the table.
By the end of the service, when my sister got up and thanked everyone for coming, I could feel my emotions raw and too close to the surface. I had held them so tightly in check during the entire service, offering a hug or a squeeze to everyone I saw struggling. They needed to share their grief with me, and I took it off of their shoulders as I had done for my mother, because that was what they needed. But as the crowd dispersed, and they headed over to the restaurant where we would toast my mother, just as she’d asked for, I could feel everything rise up and bubble just below the surface.
I sat down dumbly in the empty folding chair next to me and put my head in my hands. I knew I shouldn’t break down now. There were still people shaking my sister’s hands, my father and grandmother were quietly in the back of the room getting Zachary’s winter coat on before taking the short drive down the street to the restaurant. I should wait until later, until I was at home alone.
I tried hard to breathe, coaching myself in my head in the same, stern voice I’d used with my mother in her final hours: “Focus, focus, focus. You can do this. Think of nothing but your breath, going in and out. In…slowly…and out.” But it wasn’t working. The more I coached myself, the more it reminded me of my mother, and the more I could feel myself wilt. She was really gone.
I felt a presence next to me, and an arm around my shoulders, gathering me in. It was Dennis, my former high school teacher. His arms were warm and safe, and suddenly the terrible abandonment I felt was momentarily pushed away.
“It’s OK,” he said. “You can let it out now. Nearly everyone is gone.”
I leaned in and let the storm come.