I checked my lipstick in the mirror and smoothed my black dress. You always knew what color to wear to a funeral, but no one ever taught you what to feel. Women trailed in and out of the church’s ladies room as it got closer and closer for the ceremony to start. I watched as a young girl of about eighteen stood at the sink next to me, her angelic brown eyes were red with tears and two crooked black mascara lines ran down her porcelain cheeks. It was silly, I know, but I felt guilty for not crying- wondering if it was impolite to not at least carry around a token crumpled tissue in my hand and smear my eye shadow a bit, just to blend in. As I grabbed a few Kleenex I remembered that I didn’t know the man in the coffin, had never met him, and when I reminded myself why- I stopped feeling guilty. The girl was staring at me now, on impulse, I dabbed at my eyes and she smiled because somehow that made me a comrade.
“I’m Kara. God, they say the funeral is the hardest but somehow I think it’ll be going home afterwards, knowing he’s not there.”
I leaned one hand on the sink as I shifted uncomfortably in my heels and nodded gravely, feeling like a spy whose cover might be blown. Kara went on.
“So, how did you know my Dad? Were you one of his medical students?”
I froze. Splashing a tiny bit of water on my face to stall for time, I suddenly wondered if it was a sin to lie at a funeral. Then I remembered it was a sin to lie at all.
Oh, well, I was never one for church.
“No,” I said, “But he had a hand in my birth.”
I struggled not to smirk at my own cleverness in the innuendo, but as I suspected it sailed right over Kara’s head.
“Oh! Well, Dad delivered so many babies… I suppose half the people here were brought into the world by him.”
Maybe, in more ways than you know, honey- I thought bitterly, as I struggled to think of something to say.
“Right. I’ve read so much about him in the paper. He was very…accomplished.”
She looked away as an older woman, heavyset in a garish too tight black and gold dress, beckoned to her with a fistful of white roses from the doorway.
“Well, it was nice meeting you but I better get out there. I think it’s starting.”
She waited for a response but I was sick of pretending. I forced a weak smile in her direction as she sailed through the door and for the first time since I got there, when I looked in the mirror I didn’t have to fake tears.
I didn’t sit through the ceremony. I had planned too, but as the lights dimmed, a projection flickered on the white screen, set over the altar. In just fifteen minutes, I watched a Wedding Day, the birth of two children and snippets of the kind of silly home video scenes that make up the hum-drum moments we call life. My eyes scanned the first row for Kara, and I recognized the long brown hair tied with a simple black ribbon instantly, the tilt of her head towards who I could only assume was her sister and mother. When her silhouette turned, her eyes locked mine for one moment, but I was already standing, excusing myself as I passed knee over knee, accidentally kicking a Bible that someone had sat on the floor. Back in character, I wiped away a nonexistent tear as a kaleidoscope of faces watched me walk out of the room.
The church was one of those quaint New England models where the cemetery started in the front lawn and curved to take up the valley behind it. I strolled briskly up the hill, crossing my arms to shield myself from the cold morning air as I scooted around the maze of in-laid tombstones. Although, I may not believe in church, I was still superstitious enough to avoid stepping on gravestones. The sky was paper-white and drops of water splashed my nose from the bare limbs of the overhead Oak trees, relics from that dawn’s lazy rain.
There was a white tent pitched at the site for the grave side service. I stared into the open ground where the casket would soon lie. The tombstone was simple. His name, birth and death followed by three words. Husband, Brother, Father.
I took out a folded, nearly grey, piece of paper and smoothed its wrinkled edges with shaky hands. I had planned to read it after everyone had left, just me and him, but this was better. After all, I reminded myself, he had never been around when he was alive, so what was the difference?
I read the letter aloud and by the time I got to the end, I had to force myself to lower my voice. What’s the point? I asked loudly to a crow in a nearby tree. He can’t hear me anyway.
I remembered reading somewhere that birds were supposedly lucky in graveyards, that the families of those who had passed believed, if they chose, some souls could come back as birds, watching their funerals play out before deciding to go back wherever it is one goes. It didn’t seem lucky to me.
But just in case, I threw the note into the open grave, my glaring brown eyes nearly mirroring the crow’s black ones.
“This is for you,” I said. I wanted to yell, scream, though only whispers escaped my lips.
“This will be the only thing to read to pass the time, so read it slow… and remember who wrote it, that way you can’t pretend I don’t exist anymore.”
I just stood there, a million things to say and nothing.
The Church bell rang, sending birds into the sky, flying back to wherever it is they fly.
I turned to watch the pall bearers in the distance. A gaggle of floating hands under a shiny box.
I kept my eyes down as I walked past the casket, but couldn’t help but glance up as I noticed Kara watch me pass her. I looked back and once again our eyes locked, her mouth opened as if to speak yet she was silenced by the tug of her mother’s arm. White roses fell from her open hand.
I walked down through a small inlet of newer graves, noting messages of love and more fresh flowers. One marked only as Daughter caught my eye, and I found myself wondering if he would have come to my funeral if it had been the other way around. Suddenly, I didn’t want to know.
I waited in the distance, staring at statues of milk white maidens around the frozen Madonna. Caught forever in one lost moment. Eyes shut. Just like everyone else here.
I had the hot desire to tell Kara and everyone else there who I was, stealing their last moments with him for myself. After all, they had everything else.
As I walked up the gravel path, beyond the turf, I watched another funeral procession start as visitors began trailing in. Just before I made it past the church, I watched a woman lift a small child out of a car seat.
“Where’s Dad-dy?” she asked as her mother wiped her face, “Where’s Dad-dy?”
I had been asking myself that question my whole life.
Whether hers was alive and well away from her or someplace else entirely didn’t make the answer any easier. I glanced back at the pall bearers on the hill and watched them disperse, still wondering if I should go back and talk to Kara.
Where’s daddy? I thought, repeating the little girl’s words. Where’s daddy?
I glanced at the ground and noticed the small, crumpled form of a crow, it’s eyes open towards the sky.
Looking upwards, I answered her question.
I don’t know, honey, I still don’t know.