Chase lay curled up on his side, watching Tanner as he slept. The kid actually looked peaceful tonight. Safe in the assumption that he would rest serenely, at least for a few hours, Chase carefully got up and went outside to have a smoke.
He sat outside, leaning forward, with his arms on his knees, puffing away. He looked vacantly at the stars without really seeing them. As he thought about what Tanner had said, he felt emotions rupturing in his heart, like a dam about to burst. All these years Chase had been plagued with guilt and grief, never really allowing himself to feel it. The tears came of their own accord; driven from some hidden place of regret and yearning. There were no sounds to accompany them. No shuddering of the body. No contortion of the face. Just cleansing tears, opening up from those old wounds, and releasing themselves to the night.
It was raining. Greg loved the rain. Good fishing weather, he always used to say. The church was small, neat, cosy, and cold. Dark wooden pews lined the floor like a military regiment. White and red roses in bundles marking the ends. Candelabras mournfully glittered – softly, not too bright. They were respectful of the dead. A podium stood on the right. A serene white presence waited beside it, book in hand. Classical musical wafted in, filling the harrowed space.
Hope appeared at the door and looked upon all within. She saw black shadows clinging to one another, silently moving to fill the pews. Rows of black. Greg’s immediate family were hunched over in the front pew. They were instantly recognisable – appearing as tight human balls of pain in a unified row. A tissue was going up to Laura’s white face. She has lost her husband, Hope thought, as her heart broke for her. Agnes, Greg’s mother, an old withered statue of grief, sat to the left of Laura. She was looking at the ground, clenching a handkerchief in her frail hand. Hope was immobile with compassion.
A couple of black mourner’s shuffled past, jilting Hope out of her reverie. Where was she supposed to sit? She wasn’t family. She felt awkward. She and Dean weren’t even a couple anymore. Dean was coming in the car with the coffin. He was a pallbearer. He would obviously sit with his mum. Hope decided to sit in the row behind the family. Wearing a loose fitted baby doll black dress, she slid into the pew and took a seat towards the wall, to leave room for other more important people, whoever they were.
She turned and watched more people filter into the chapel, heads held down, mouths tightly shut, eyes wet with tears. Facing the front, she tried to imagine the coffin sitting there, so she could prepare herself. The image sent a shudder of fear through her. She didn’t want to be here. She didn’t want to have to do this. And if she felt that way, then she could not even begin to imagine what the people in front of her were feeling. Her heart ached for them. They should not have to do this. It wasn’t right. He wasn’t old. He wasn’t sick. He was unlucky … that’s all it was. It so wasn’t fair. She felt sick. She told herself to hold it together, and to stop being so selfish and self-absorbed. Shaking herself to muster her strength, her eyes drifted to the picture that stood on a table on the left side of the central altar. It was a big, vivid, smiling picture of Greg – happy and healthy … and alive. She bit down hard on her lip to stop herself from crying.
At that moment the music stopped. Silence pulsed through the room like a heartbeat. Then a beautiful, haunting melody began to play. The congregation stood in unison, each member pulling their gaze to the entrance of the chapel, emotions trying to break through stony faces. A black car had pulled up outside. Attendants were briskly and professionally organising everyone. The coffin was emerging – dark wood with red and white flowers spilling over the sides. A group of men got out of the car and stood hovering. Taking position. Dean was at the front. The coffin was rising, being placed upon shoulders weighed down with soul devouring grief. They were walking slowly, carrying the burden of being left behind. There was a look of complete and utter devastation emanating from Dean’s eyes, but his face and body were tight with resolution and false strength. As he walked past, Hope felt a burning desire to go to him. She clenched the pew until her knuckles went white, stuffing her rising emotions down into the pit of her stomach.
The coffin was placed carefully on the altar. Men scattered to their seats. Dean sat beside his mother, and reaching out for her hand, held it with masculine tightness. The serene priest began speaking words. He had a calm, collected, respectful voice. They were beautiful words. But Hope didn’t really hear them. She could not tear her eyes away from the people in front of her, who at the commencement of the event they had been dreading for the past few days, had curled up into smaller units of crumpled pain, all desperate to hold it together. Some moving tributes managed to catch Hope’s attention for short periods of time. There were even some funny anecdotes that made the black, seeping crowd titter with momentary beams of lightness. She too found herself smiling, as she got out a tissue and dabbed lightly at her eyes.
The priest said it was time to pay tribute; to think about your time with Greg, what you shared, and what he meant to you, and to place some petals on his coffin, as a sign of gratitude for his life. Hope felt a wave of nausea swish in her stomach. Two attendants walked to the end of the aisle and collected two wicker baskets filled with petals. They stood at either side of the altar with composed faces devoid of emotion. A classical piece of music that seemed strangely familiar began to play. The family would go first.
Without hesitation, Agnes leaned forward and stood with effort, her old hand clutching her walking stick so hard that it shook. She moved to the coffin with purpose, rejecting the attendant’s offer to help her up the single stair. Reaching the box where her son lay, she moved to the right side of it, and ran her hands greedily over the polished wood, as if trying to get one last feel of her child. As her face came into view, Hope felt her heart somersault painfully, and drop to her feet. This mother – an old, old woman now – stood hunched over, trembling, her hands resting on the part of the box where her son’s head lay. Hope knew she would never forget the look on Agnes’ face – that it would haunt her for the rest of her days. Her face, lined with the stories of her past, was a picture of silent torture, pinched in desperate longing for this simply to just not be. Her eyes – the eyes that had watched her son grow – were now misty lakes of grey agony. Pushing herself upright with resolve, her hand shaking with the violence of her loss, Agnes placed a white rose on the casket. She closed her eyes tightly and murmured something inaudible, dragging her hand along the wood, as if stroking her child to comfort him. Hope covered her mouth with her hand as tears silently dripped down her face. She too was trembling, with the sheer pain of just having to bear witness to a mother fare-welling her child. Agnes drew herself up to her full height and shuffled back to her seat, with a hauntingly beautiful air of deep reverence.
Laura took Agnes’ hand, as she turned to Dean and nodded. Laura and Dean stood together. Dean went to move forward, but his mother grabbed his arm; she seemed unable to make herself walk. This was awful, Hope thought. It was worse than awful. Dean placed his hand on his mother’s back and whispered something in her ear. With resignation Laura nodded her head, took a deep breath, stuck her chin out, and walked with her son to the coffin, taking a red rose on the way.
As Dean led her to the left side of the coffin, he quickly placed his white rose, his face firm with inner strength. Laura moved her hand to place her flower, then hesitated and pulled it back. Her eyes filled with tears, and her body suddenly broke into shaking sobs, her resolve shattering at the point of her realisation that this was it. Her emotions ruptured, as her body fell into the side of the casket, unable to support itself any longer.
Her sobbing became louder, as she finally allowed her hands to touch the casket. She ran them along it, as the tears she had tried so hard to keep in, burst free of her broken face. Dean placed his hand on her back and rubbed her shoulder. He bit his lip with the extreme effort of having to keep it together, but Hope could see that his eyes too had begun to involuntarily release their pain. In a heartbreaking display of deep love, Laura slowly let her head fall onto the casket. She lay her cheek on the wood, her hands palm down upon it. Though she could not hear it, Hope saw her utter the words, I love you, I love you. She closed her eyes and sobbed on the casket – the sound of a heart forcing itself to say goodbye to its soul mate.
Dean wiped his eyes, and placed his hands on his mother’s shoulders, as he leant over to whisper something in her ear. Laura stood up. Dean rummaged in his pocket and withdrawing a tissue, wiped his mother’s eyes with such tenderness that Hope thought she too might break, just from watching them. Laura took the tissue and wiped her nose. She grabbed at her only son and held him to her. Only then would she allow him to lead her back to her seat. Once seated, Dean placed his arm around his mother, and she let her head rest on his shoulder.
Other family members and close friends began to make their way to the coffin, each placing petals. Some were crying, some uttered final words, and others were cold with stifled emotions. Hope was nervous. She didn’t want to break down. It would seem such a hideous display of disrespect to the grief-stricken people that had made the journey before her. She was determined to hold it together out of respect for them. She stood up and joined the line forming in the aisle. It was moving slowly. As she passed Dean, he raised his head to look at her for the first time. She gave a half smile of desperate empathy, and she saw his eyes fill with fresh tears as he tore his gaze away. Hope accepted a white rose and walked to the coffin. As she looked upon it her heart clenched in on itself. She thought about the time she had spent with Greg as a flurry of lovely memories pattered through her mind. Tears fell onto her cheeks as she gently placed her rose, and said a silent thank-you. As she walked away she uttered a prayer for the strength to get through this time, and to do whatever she needed to do to help the ones left behind.
People floated in and out of the wake like ghosts. It was a surreal melding together of strangers, all painted with familiar faces. Hope barely spoke to Dean – he was being the dutiful son, the welcoming host, the pillar of strength. She mingled with the people, some she knew, some she didn’t. They were all trying to mask their confusion about the current status of her relationship with the son of the deceased.
Seizing upon a rare break in conversation, Hope went to get herself a much needed glass of wine. As she was walking back out of the kitchen into the fray, she noticed Agnes, sitting in a dignified brown armchair in the corner. She was alone. But still, there was that haunted look of torture glimmering in her frail old eyes – eyes that had seen too much – eyes that had endured looking upon her dead son. Hope downed her glass in one and considered if she should go and talk to her. She had always been very fond of Agnes. What the hell would she say? What could she say? Everything seemed so futile. There were no words for this. But she couldn’t just leave her sitting there like that.
Hope was about to walk over, when she saw Dean approach his grandmother and kneel beside her. He lovingly handed her a plate of tiny sandwiches and placed his hand on her shoulder. Her eyes lit up with love for her grandson. Hope’s face softened into a meek smile, as relief made its welcome presence within her for the first time in days.
That day, as Hope stumbled through the grief of Greg’s funeral, Tanner slept soundly. He slept all day, and even Chase was finally able to find some rest.
But, as always, his sleep was far from restful. He had sat thinking about his mum all day, as the kid had slept. He played it all over and over in his mind, and all the images came flooding back into his reality. He pushed them back down again, telling himself that he had to keep it together for the kid; that it was his job to take care of him. He let himself slip in and out of slumber as the memories swirled …
Chase stood outside the chapel, looking at the ground. People were beginning to leave. Some said a quick farewell and others, not knowing what to say, simply patted him on the back as they made their departures.
Chase could barely respond to any of them. He had held it together for the funeral, but now the emotions had begun raging inside him. He had so much anger. It burned through him, stifling the other emotions that burned in him.
After a while, his father cautiously approached him. He stood beside him and hesitated, not knowing what to do or say. Richard furrowed his brow and took a tentative step closer to his son, placing his hand lightly on his back. Chase flinched, startled from his private reverie of anger.
‘I’ll take you home,’ his dad offered.
Chase flicked his father’s hand off his back and stepped away from him, a look of puzzled anger on his face. ‘I’m not going anywhere with you’. Chase took another step back, ‘You think you can just show up here and everything is fine? You’ve got no right to even be here!’ Chase angrily lit up a smoke.
Richard ran his hand over his mouth and sighed. ‘Look, I know you’re angry, and I get it Chase. But you’re still my son and Nina is your mother’ –
Chase could not contain his anger, and yelled, ‘Don’t give me that! Don’t pretend like you care. You fucking left her, and left us to pick up the pieces. And now look – she’s fucking dead. And it’s your fault.’ His voice started to break off. He looked away abruptly, unable and unwilling to voice the deep pain he was feeling.
‘Just fuck off dad,’ he said coldly, as he drew back on his smoke …
Darkness had taken over the sky. Putting a shawl on, Hope felt that this cool darkness was far more appropriate to the morbid occasion that they were all trying to get through. She rubbed her arms and shivered. Yes, death was cold and dark. The world should accommodate mourning in this way – with the sun dimming its light in respect.
Hope went into the kitchen and fluffed around with some of the dishes, arranging them in neat piles. She looked out the window and saw Laura, sitting huddled in a white blanket outside. Hope stopped tidying and poured two glasses of red wine. Taking them quietly outside, she handed one to Laura and sat down beside her. She didn’t know what to say, any more than she had to Agnes, but somehow she felt comfortable enough with Laura to just sit there. Her quiet presence was enough, and hopefully, in some small way, it offered a scrap of comfort in this woman’s hellish nightmare.
Laura sipped at her wine, staring up at the stars. The silence enveloped them with a haunting tranquility. It stayed with them for some time.
Eventually, Laura, still looking at those giant, far away suns, softly said, ‘I loved him my whole life. I loved him for over thirty years. And then, poof – gone … forever. No warning. No illness … no goodbye. No … nothing.’ She looked down at the ground, with big, disbelieving eyes. ‘How can someone you’ve loved for that long suddenly just not be there?’
There was such agonised confusion in her trembling voice. Hope, knowing there were no words, put her arm gently around Laura and held her.