Leading a funeral is like trying to corral a flock of stunned birds who have all just flown into the same window.
I wanted to enjoy knowing something my sister didn’t know. The envious little sister in me should have relished being the only one who knew that my brother-in-law smoked cigarettes before he met my sister. I sat on the curb outside the fluorescent yellow hospital and watched him ask one of the EMTs who’d carried my sister’s body hours earlier if he could bum a smoke. I wanted to feel trusted with this secret, chosen, not simply a witness.
Later, when he told me he’d started dating someone, I thought about that cigarette and that whiskey he drank the first night after she died. For a second, I hated him because his way out of this grief seemed so much easier than mine. I can’t just pick up a new sister at the bar one night. And when I sat on that curb and had to concentrate on how to breathe, I missed my chance and never asked the EMT for a cigarette.
They were a gift from the divemaster for getting my scuba certificate.
I shared them with my sister on the beach before she went on another dive without me and didn’t come back alive. They were her favorite, and so worth more to her than me.
“Did she eat anything before she went on the dive? She could have choked in her panic.”
In a convenience store, while my mom paid for sandals she forgot to pack because she was never supposed to be in the Caribbean in January, she asked me if I wanted anything. “Peach rings?” She saw me staring at them on the end cap. I shook my head and knew I wouldn’t eat them again.
The woman at the funeral home thought we’d be fooled into thinking they were the tissues she didn’t have when my mom asked for them. She pulled them from the bathroom dispenser and filled a metal napkin holder with them, then handed them to my mom. We weren’t fooled. They were scratchy and left my mom’s nose more raw than it had been when we walked in.
Black Ballet Flats
Pair #1: Especially aromatic, frills tearing around the seams, tattered pale blue inner soles, never put away, occasionally shoved in a purse for office use, almost always on my sister’s feet.
Pair #2: Pointed-toed and crisp, stiff-edged; emitting a clicking sound when crossing the tile floor of the funeral home; scent (if any) masked by cleaning solution and air-conditioning in the funeral home; loose on the heels of a woman who “prepared the body.”
It’s the part of funerals, of death really, that I never expected. There’s a reason no one tells you about all these periods of time in which there are no tasks to complete: all you can do is fill these empty hours with painful noticing. I noticed my mom cried the most in this waiting, and she seemed to know this about herself, too, so while we waited for the memorial to start, she cupped her hand over her mouth, holding her sobs.
I noticed my brother-in-law didn’t look over at me while he talked to his family. There was a difference now, a gap between my family and his family. I realized in the noticing that marriage had only temporarily bridged this gap. It wasn’t the gap that bothered me. I had accepted that death had dissolved that link between families. I did mind that he’d stopped looking for me across it. He’d not only accepted the gap. He’d allowed it to widen.
There are two names and two dates that label each stone on a mortuary wall. We lock our loved ones away behind them and call them cremains. I stood crying in front of a wall of etched timelines and I noticed that if any one of these timelines surrounding my sister’s were made into string, most of them could sew a life together, while my sister’s could maybe sew a button. I envied the families who’d stood here before me, crying in front of an etched timeline so much longer than the one on my sister’s plaque. It wasn’t fair that so many of the other cremains had been given the privilege of aging before they were put in an urn and then behind a wall. When their families look at these tiles, they can think about Grandma and laugh, even though she is gone, because at least she had time to tell the same story a hundred times, no matter how they groaned. They were given time to be annoyed. They can berate themselves for not hugging her enough, saying no when she asked if they’d take her to the dentist. They’d been given the time to be attentive, to prepare, to celebrate their mother’s “forty-ninth birthday” fifteen times.
People don’t want to talk about getting old. People don’t want to get old. My sister and I used to joke about getting matching wheelchairs for when we’d become old women together. My sister celebrated her twenty-ninth birthday only once, though I might celebrate mine forever, because to grow older than my older sister would be to deconstruct myself.
We were asked to approve the flowers, but nobody had asked us if we wanted them there at all. There were an overwhelming number of lilies and roses and hydrangeas, neatly contained in mail-order vases with enormous, gaudy ribbons tied around them. I saw them as evidence of the cheap attention people give when someone they don’t really know dies. As I stared at them, I decided there are people who know how enraged you are, and how blinded you can be by that rage; how quick you are to judge others’ attempts to comfort you when you are grieving. And, there are people who don’t—these people send flowers. I understood ritual. I understood compassion. I didn’t understand why I had to care about any of these things on a day when it was all I could do to keep my grief from dissolving every part of me.
In deep grief, we rotate inside of a funhouse. We look at ourselves in mirrors that distort our features, make us reach up and touch our own cheeks. About ten miles away from where we buried my sister’s ashes, we gathered at a pub for the reception. The lighting was dim, and a partition ran through the middle of the building, between our room and the rest of the diners, suggesting that we were part of something that didn’t want to be witnessed. But the self-serve popcorn cart, which seemed to mock me with its carnival colors and gluttonous buttery aroma hovering around the chicken wings and chips and salsa and crying people, was on our side of the room. There is no right food to serve those who have just come from a memorial, I knew. But there is inconsideration. The grieving do not want a fairground next to the cemetery where they go to cry.
Sending people whom you have met only once pastel sympathy cards is like expecting a bird to come eat out of your hand before you have taken the time to memorize its colors through the tree branches.
“I’m so sorry, Hannah,” my professor says when I tell her that it has been one week since my sister died, but I will turn in all of my assignments on time.
“I’m so sorry, Hannah,” says the guidance counselor I have been sent to because I am not to be trusted with my tears.
“I’m so sorry, Hannah.” My sister’s best friend can barely say this to me as she sobs, and suddenly I am the one holding her.
“I’m so sorry, Hannah,” the airline clerk says to me when he asks if I had a good trip and before I can lie and say, “Yes, fine,” my father says, “No actually, we’re only here because her sister just died.”
I’m so sorry, Hannah. I’m so sorry, Hannah. I’m so sorry, Hannah. I cannot hear one more apology that clatters like plastic. I know this kind of person apologizes because they cannot stand the empty air. They saw that I was grieving and they did not know how to dig me out. Those who have not grieved think apologies to be shovels, but I know they are made of styrofoam. To avoid these, when people ask if I have siblings, I tell them, “Yes, one brother,” because I am the only one around to know this is only half-true.
An Abrupt Halt
I expected them to peter out, drop off slowly. But it was like every person who’d suddenly become concerned with my well-being in the days immediately after my sister died agreed when their “just checking up” texts would stop. They decided how long it would take for their “I’m here for you” messages to cure my grief. They decided that was approximately three weeks.
My apartment smelled like espresso beans on the day my brother-in-law labeled my sister “survived and remembered by” him on social media. There was no warning, no prior knowledge of this setting even existing on Facebook to prepare me for this possibility. Next he would delete her Goodreads account, and then her Spotify, which the two of us used to share. That first social media change inspired a series of her closest friends to set their profile pictures to photos of themselves with her. Some of them posted about her death. Most of them, luckily, did not. I was furious, seeing those mocking, gimmicky, cartoon crying faces and hearts under a post about “remembering and missing” my sister. I look at her page sometimes, at the “survived by” title under her name now. I think of the woman my brother-in-law is seeing, and I think his name shouldn’t be there anymore.
Sometimes I let myself think about how the blood dripped out of her nose in a single streak and clung to her upper lip while she lay there, paling and bluing, with the top arcs of defibrillator paddle scars creeping out from under the sheet pulled up to her chest, and about how I couldn’t stop shaking and asked the nurse if I could touch her and when I did she was cold and hard like something frozen and I screamed. When I can’t help but remember that, I sit down and write my sister a letter, because if the letter is addressed to her, I can watch my tears smear the pen ink, catch in pages that will permanently warp to preserve my pain, and I can tell myself it is my sister’s hand that’s catching them instead of paper.
When I inherited her Kindle, I also got her emails. Etsy would like to give her twenty percent off and free shipping on her next purchase. Once a month, I get an alert for her “Best Deals” on Groupon. The Colorado Chiropractic Association keeps me in the loop about changing standards. The place she used to take cooking classes “misses her and wonders when they’ll see her again.” In the communication age, there is a button that says, “unsubscribe,” but there is no button that says, “My sister is dead, and your reminders that she should still be here shopping Amazon’s best deals and pinning this recipe for butternut squash soup take tiny winds out of me.”
My Sister’s Closet
Where I learned the intimate, feminine process of “getting ready.” Where I learned this is best done with someone else, i.e. not alone. She kept “extras” there, “just-in-cases” there. She took an extra pair of gloves from there when she came to visit me in Maine, just in case I needed to borrow them. As if I wasn’t the one who lived in a place with seven months of winter. Before I packed her closet up, I stood before it, hopelessly lost because I hadn’t packed a black sweater for her memorial. I was waiting, I realized, for her. I wanted her to brush past me and root around in the hangers, emerging with a sweater that was perfect for me. “I’ve been meaning to give it to you anyway,” she would say. Reaching into her closet and performing this sacred “getting ready” without her would be to admit that I would have to do it alone for the rest of my life. It took me nearly an hour to find the right black sweater. I wore it for the first time without having to ask her if I could.
Nobody wants to talk about the money made off of dead people. We’d like to pretend it’s all loss, but the profits a store will make off of my dead sister’s clothes can’t be ignored. It’s not that I didn’t want all of her stuff, as my brother-in-law bluntly put it. It’s that there was so much. My sister was someone who’d claim to hate shopping while ordering new clothes and organic shampoo every month. I now have some of that shampoo and some of those clothes, but I couldn’t take it all. Cars weren’t invented to fit an entire life within them. Maybe whoever buys all her blue dresses will also buy them because they have a sister who can wear red and they envy her for that, though they look beautiful in blue.
The blue carpet in her bedroom I’d rub high heel marks out of when I wore her shoes and pretended to be her. The Caribbean blue waves—the paint swatches don’t lie—that rolled under the boat, the last place I saw her smile, wearing a blue wetsuit, and she didn’t wave at me. I didn’t go with her. The cabinet of a harsh teal-blue hue that hurt my eyes, in that room where they took me and I knew it would be bad news because good news doesn’t ask for privacy. But I didn’t know how bad the news would be. Unprepared blue. The blue paramedic uniforms I wasn’t used to seeing. Her blue eyes. She looked the best in blue until I had to pick a dress from what she’d packed on vacation to give to the funeral home, to dress her “for viewing,” and the only clean dress I could find was blue.
Presents Never Wrapped
“She must have bought them for you,” my brother-in-law told me, handing a pair of green square earrings to me. They were lighter than the cardboard they pierced and wrapped only in weak tissue paper. Gold paint whisked out from the center of each thin metal square, little rotating suns. She would have wrapped them poorly, taping the corners down, a bit of the white underside of the wrapping paper protruding like vulnerable flesh. But I don’t know if the paper would have been decorated with Christmas trees or balloons, and it’s the concreteness of this ignorance that pains me when I pull the earrings out to wear now. She did things like that. She planned. She used to buy gifts months in advance, expecting, as we all do, to have plenty of time to wrap them.
Learning to apply my eyeshadow with a brush and not her finger, alone and not with her, is like perching on a telephone wire in the middle of a hailstorm and being asked to look up and watch the ice fall without damaging your eyes.
“I’ll be your brother forever,” my dead sister’s husband told me on a beach, and I dug my toes into the sand.
“Whatever you need, let me know.”
“If you ever need to talk about this, I’m here.”
“This brought me closer to you in a way I’ll never be to anyone else.”
“I keep hearing Sara’s voice telling me to make sure Hannah’s okay.”
I cautioned myself not to believe most of these words, because he said them to me when he was drunk. But so much of what he said after her death smelled of alcohol, and I had to believe something. To believe him was to believe that even though my sister was gone, there was someone in the bird’s nest with me still, watching the world below.
When he told me that her car was mine if I wanted it, I didn’t realize check-ins on its upkeep would be the only time he talked to me after the memorial. It’s been eight months, and now I find myself looking forward to when he sends me new car insurance cards. There is no blood in marriage, though we tell ourselves otherwise, and he left me alone in my sisterless nest because he had the freedom to build a new one.
License and Registration and Death Certificate
I now warn people about driving through Ohio and Pennsylvania with out-of-state plates. Authorities are on the lookout for drug-smugglers and will tail you for miles, looking for an excuse to pull you over. They got me three times between Colorado and Maine on account of the Colorado plates on the car I’d just inherited. On the side of three highways they interrogated me and one of the questions was, “What’s in all the boxes in the back of the car?”
The first time I was asked this, I held my license and registration in my hands and stared at the officer on the other side of my window and silently pleaded with him not to make me explain why I was there. This was not information that belonged in the open. There was a reason I sealed the boxes. Death is too private, grief too intimate to be sprung loose on the side of the highway. The second and third time I was pulled over, I greeted the officers abruptly. I threw the indecency of this situation right at them and watched them try not to flinch.
“I am driving home to Maine. This is my dead sister’s car. There are no drugs in the boxes, just my dead sister’s clothes.”
Soon enough I’ll have worn through her pair of orange Converse. I used to have a pair that matched. The two of us would wear them at amusement parks so that when roller coasters pulled us skyward, our mother could see our feet all the way from the ground.
I worry for them. The rubber sidings are already peeling and the bottoms are bare of tread. They can’t withstand this second life I’m demanding of them.
I could pay $49.99 and have a new pair delivered right to my door. No one would know that they were the incorrect orange shoes. But they would not be the ones my sister wore on her wedding day.
It doesn’t deserve the burden or resentment I’ve asked it to bear because it so dutifully, so daily, does what I demand of it. Its full, wooden drawers and hanging space bulge from the pressure of holding the most obvious evidence of my sister’s death.
I shouldn’t hate it for being full of all the clothes I begged to borrow, waited to be handed down, envied, and no longer want. But I do.
“I love your shirt, where did you get it?” The girl at work asks. I can’t tell her I inherited it. That’s an old word for estranged great-uncles and grandmothers, for scarves or tea-sets we don’t want. For the obsolete and dusty. You don’t inherit things from a twenty-nine-year-old. You don’t tell your peers, other twenty-year-olds, that you’re dealing with death. You’re grieving. If they haven’t done it themselves, they won’t know what to do with that truth.
I tell her, “It’s a hand-me-down.” And she smiles and says, “I just love getting those.”
Expecting someone to “return to normal” after the person they loved absolutely has died, is like ripping a wing from a bird and saying to them, “Now fly; and do it the same as you did before.”
Rumpus original art by Lisa Marie Forde.