A city, old and damp, stiffened like the last car on an elderly train, slithering over mossed cobblestone streets, its rails rusted but still moving. It’s a place that’s certain, unvarying. A sun rose from a bay each morning, its beams overflowing onto jewels of sleeping cars, onto lofts of homeless pigeons roosting on wooden fences. And it unfailingly fell every night, to be swallowed whole by groups of tired trees, their mullioned limbs stretched out like long brown tusks, silent and waiting. But I wanted something unnatural. I wanted a sun that sat in the sky forever: A moon that never came. My mother said she felt it too, the need, and I believed her. I accepted her truth as my own, entirely, while listening to her stories of the extraordinary, my hands wringing in wonder.
My mother died when I was 18—
I knew solemn well: the shackles of grief, the days spent beneath a black veil, my heels digging into the soft ground of graveyards crowded with the mourning—I knew the feeling of it; the view. I thought there was freedom in loss, liberty felt in the absence of someone you love. The strain of empathy is gone, and no feeling is prohibited. I felt that way after my mother’s funeral, when she was swallowed by the earth, orphaned in a wooden coffin, her brittle bones finally at rest on a stretch of red velvet. It was unrestrained release, like a swollen dam breaking, the consequent flushing of blue and white waves crashing over a raw whip of grief that had struck my skin for years. She’s in a better place, Evelyn, they all said to me. She can hurt no more.
The cemetery was on the rind of the harbor, away from the strings of shops and bars that pulsed with bright lights and neon signs, while practicing alcoholics bobbed in and out of their open doors. It was quiet that morning, no sounds to listen to but the gentle hum of boat motors and the soft chatter of men and women on their way to work at the financial district across the street, their bodies donned in shades of blue and gray, their necks heady with designer perfume. I’ve been there, too, dressed in polyester blends, walking to work at the local bank, my thoughts flat and ordinary. But after my mother died, I felt my dreams swell and contract, their edges limitless and expanding. Her death made me feel alive. My brother, James, however, felt differently.
He was five years my senior, with tufts of premature gray hair sitting atop a folded, desolate brow. Our upbringing was not easy. In our teens, our parents wandered like drunk pagans, quizzically, finally finding solace in liquid gods: the sentinels of whiskey, the divinities of vodka. After that revelation, their marriage grew diluted, fragmented, split cleanly down the middle. It was no longer a bond united, but a sottish rope frayed at opposite ends, continuously unfurling into two lives lived separately. Alcohol, to them, was a dimple in an ancient vow, a shared catch of breath in the throat of a partnership that had spanned twenty years. The result, it seemed, was my mother’s death. Cancer riddled her body, her liver, unwavering, and her heart ceased its beating two years after her diagnosis. Her eyes closed for the final time on my birthday, when I was too young to know the difference between what could be gained and what could be lost, or the danger of a secret kept and of a truth standing still. To me, at that moment, the suffering was over, but my brother’s was just beginning. It started on that day, the morning we laid her to rest.
That morning, the acoustics of my heartbeat were strained underneath a low-hanging sun, below an awning of shadow stretched beneath a dark green canopy. Thin dragonflies were carried by small buffets of wind, their wings beating a cadence of sorrow that echoed in the half-lidded eyes of God’s unclaimed children, of forgotten wives and of husbands left with wedding rings that were suddenly unpaired. The expansive, never-ending lawn was lined with rows of white plastic chairs that had borne the weight of widows, of concentrated beginnings of heartache. The ghosts of their feelings brushed the seats; restless spirits of loss and grief settled on my heart, inside my veins until I was cold with their emotions. I was full of a sadness that was not my own. I felt as if I was not such a mourner, that I was instead a lonely castaway both elated in the loss of my mother and glad that the bonds her sickness were released from my arms—I knew I didn’t belong among them.
Sitting in front of me was a minister, dressed in black robes of cotton, its cloth stitched together with the experience that comes from holding the many hands of white-faced dowagers, lacing fingers with matrons, their pale eyes shining with grief. His face was bored next to my mother’s coffin, a deep capsule of rich mahogany wood and white lilies. He spoke to me listlessly:
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Evelyn.” He fingered his collar and fanned the heat away from his face.
“Thank you, Reverend.”
“How many guests are you expecting?”
“A fair few,” I replied, adjusting a knot of white roses on a plinth next to us. “She had a lot of friends, but our family is not that big.”
To the left of us I then saw my father exit his car, and his stumbled gait told me he’d been drinking. A silver flask caught the light of the sun and shone silver in his hand as he deposited it into his pocket. His thin hair was damp with sweat, his eyes fringed with adolescent tears. I recognized the sadness in his features, the irresistible pull of depression in his body. He smoothed a crease on his black pants, adjusted his ill-fitting blazer, and walked towards me.
“Evelyn,” he said to me, drunkenly stretching out the syllables in my name. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and smiled languidly. “There you are.”
“Daddy, how are you?”
Suddenly, without meaning to, I realized that my father was also a widower, that he belonged in these chairs next to me, that the words of his wife were now impossible to be heard or found. Now he was as alone as he started, his hands holding onto nothing, his body next to no one. After my mother was puckered with illness, when her bones were wrinkled and fragile, I imagined my father to be a descendant of life itself, as if her sickness gave him health. It never occurred to me that he himself could also be afflicted, as if vigor was weighed out on an ethereal scale, its temperate brass cultivated from life’s deepest wounds.
“I’ll live,” he replied, sitting in a chair next to me and glancing at his watch. “Is no one else here?”
At this the reverend left us, gathered his robes and picked himself off of the chair to retreat behind the pulpit next to my mother’s coffin, as if he’d heard our conversation before, from a myriad of mournful lips, full of words that had been said before: loss, God, an unbound soul soaring to Heaven. It was a tenderness felt before, a heart that had already spread wide open. I was ashamed at how flat everything seemed. While the similarities were inevitable—the white flowers ribbed with sage leaves; the yellow sashes wrapped around a picture of a smiling face—I knew my mother deserved young sentiments, hearts yawning in emotion, private soliloquies issued from throats too constricted to feel. In that moment, I felt as if I had nothing to offer her.
“No, it’s just me— “
“—I spoke too soon!” he interrupted. “James is here—look.” He gestured to the parking lot, at my brother’s red truck, his eyes seamed with excitement.
If my words were thin, my brother’s were the opposite—always. He could speak from the very arteries of his heart, translating blood to a balance of syllable and song. When he spoke to me that morning his speech was swollen with grief, his eyes red at the margins.
“James, how are you feeling?”
He glanced at my mother’s coffin, then at my father’s drunken hand wrapped around the silver flask in his pocket. His pain seemed to emanate off his body, expelling waves of anguish to halo the hair that hung lank around his meek face.
“I’ve been better.” He sat down on a chair next to me. “Is no one else here?”
I looked up at the sun, at its hungry beams that searched for wild plants to grow and eyelashes to warm, and in its presence I was set adrift into a memory of a man, brawn and brilliant, wide in laughter, his rough, callused hands holding onto my own—my father, chilled in cold sobriety. The man in front of me that morning was different; he was blurred at the edges, wilted in loss, surviving with the ghost of a sentence brushing his ears: Don’t let them forget me, my darling. My mother, like my brother, could thread love into the simplest of words, breathe meaning into the smallest feelings. I knew I never wanted to forget her—her last wish—but I knew I needed the license to leave her memory behind. This was it.
“No, it’s just us so far.”
The heat that morning was powerful, as if the sun itself rode the air, like Zeus atop a feral ox, his knees clenched together to buck its violent rearing. The warmth seemed to permeate my skin, billowing through my pores, expelling the chill that had settled on my heart since my mother’s death. Time seemed to slow; the wind appeared to thicken. Every minute we waited for the eulogy felt stretched, endless and unapologetic. In the interim, I thought of my mother, of an instant’s impatience and of death’s inevitability—I thought of all the things that had to happen but were waiting for their moment to arrive.
Above us, their wings sweeping the edges of trees that stood up like ancient masts, a flock of pigeons flew. Their feathers were tethered to their bodies, but their souls soared freely. Outside their delicate formation, a brave vagrant fluttered to sit on my mother’s coffin, nestling into the groups of flowers that lay there. Its dark eyes searched for fallen food; its slender beak opened and closed, like it wanted to add to the reverend’s gentle words that would praise my mother’s achievements in life, and her presence in death, but couldn’t find the words. I felt the same. I watched it hungrily and wondered if my mother’s spirit ascended just as openly, if her expressions were just as irretrievable.
“Shew!” my brother said, sweeping his hands back and forth in front of the bird. “Go!”
The parking lot bulged and thinned as I waited for my family: grief-stricken groups coming with the strength to mourn and leaving with the stillness of saying goodbye. I watched one such cluster huddled in a pack next to a long, black hearse. Their sadness was palpable; it filled the air like the thickness before rain, the crowded antecedent of a storm. I saw a small girl clutching the hand of an older woman, her head bowed to the ground, and I recognized the meter of her sadness, one I’ve felt myself when I was her age, attending my first funeral, a heartache still irremediable.
Silence settled around us, its weight felt on our hearts, its words spoken in a whisper. As we waited, I could hear thunder lumbering in the distance, thick sounds that travelled to us on the breadth of the heat, to rest on our shaking knees and on our hands that clung together like lovers in our laps.
“Almost time,” my brother said, glancing at the parking lot and the families that clustered together there.
The minutes crept by, groups of seconds indifferent to our restlessness, hushed on the soft edges of this final valediction. My father settled back in his chair, taking furtive drinks from his flask, and my brother stayed white-lipped, his mouth a thin line, his grief beyond words. I felt separate from them, as if I was in a detached fishnet of feeling, my heart struggling in ambivalence of emotion: Beats euphoric in loss, pulses desolate in loneliness. For the first time, I felt hot tears in my eyes.
Suddenly, as if waiting for this brief weakness, the sky began to spread, and thunder rolled overhead. It peeled apart its sheath of clouds and poured portly raindrops on the grass, on the canopy above us, and on the huddles of mourners in the parking lot. Clumsily, the groups dispersed, men and women scattering into cars and under half-opened umbrellas. With their hair hanging in thick ropes that stuck to their faces and the hoods of their jackets, they filled the air with chokes of noise, yelling and saying quick goodbyes, their heavy tones shaking my father into an impervious sobriety. His eyes lost their glaze; his pupils thinned.
“Was it supposed to rain today?” he asked, his voice swelling over the noise.
I imagined him at home, alone, the guest of an empty chair’s attendance, wandering in a house full of empty rooms. I could see him turning away from the news, from the weather report—There’s rain in the forecast today, Pete—and from his life altogether. I felt a surge of pity for him.
“Yes, I think so,” my brother replied, looking at the pools of muddy water in front of headstones, before groups of people knotted together underneath black umbrellas, their hands clasped together in prayer, their eyes looking to God.
“It’s like she’s watching us,” I told them both, listening to the modulation of the beads of rain on the roof above us: An incline of sound both sloping in pitch and falling in song. I tried to mirror their sorrow, shoulder a sadness I didn’t quite feel when I said, “Like she’s crying.”
“Do you think they ever really leave us?” my father asked. “When someone dies?”
My honest answer was yes. I thought of my mother, bare in her coffin, her eyes an heirloom of death, her thin skin sunken and cold. There was no soul there, no eyes in heaven; they both had gone just as they came: a spark, a swell of molecules devoid of thought a feeling—plumes of birth and entrails of an ending that came too soon. I knew she was gone.
I looked at my watch. The service was to start in ten minutes, yet no one else was here; we were alone, just as my mother was when she died, when her soul was born, and her spirit was released. I could tell my brother felt solitarily uneasy. He kept his eyes on the batches of families, on their shoulders shaking in grief, their hearts pulsing as one. We were but fleshless skeletons compared to their bulging bodies, the shaking bones of a flower next to their lush gardens of sadness. Somehow, I knew this was it. No one else was coming.
“Did they say they were coming?” my brother asked. “Everyone?”
“Yes, they all did,” I replied, as I stood up to get a better look at the parking lot, which was now empty save for two hearses. “Maybe I should start calling them.”
“Let’s give it a few more minutes. Maybe there’s traffic.”
While my mother was not perfect when she was living, with her loose insobriety and her thin costume of parenting, I knew she deserved more than being forgotten so soon. I imagined her berthed on that stretch of velvet, alone in death, unaccompanied to Heaven, her mouth slightly open in surprise, and I was suffused with indignation. I hated my family and the legion of my mother’s flighty friends that could live without knowing how it ended, without undressing a final farewell.
The minutes inched by, seconds spent in anxiety and anger. I finally spoke two minutes before the service was to begin.
“I—I don’t think anyone is coming.”
“That can’t be right,” my brother said, squinting at the street that attached to the parking lot. “There has to be an accident somewhere on the way here.” His voice wavered when he said this, and I knew he agreed with me: Although we were together in this place, joined in tandem sadness in front of my mother’s coffin, we each were alone in our journey to moor a last ship of goodbye. We were ready to let her go.
My mother taught me the strength of friendship, the imprisonment of an unshared feeling. Through her life she stitched herself to family, to the swells of love and to the conceptions of intimacy. Now, at the very end of her life, those feelings were corroded, left to attach themselves to no one. And then, at that moment, glancing at the rows of empty chairs, I knew that we leave this world as we enter it: Alone, bound only to ourselves. I looked up at the sky, at the flocks of birds tranquilly flying away from me, and I felt my sadness go with them, a feeling broad and unconfined.
The hands on my watch reached the hour and the minister walked toward us, his robes swishing against his ankles. He looked at the three of us, with our legs crossed and our eyes looking towards Heaven, and he asked us calmly, “Is no one else here?”
Leanne Holtzner is an undiscovered writer living in Annapolis, MD, where she writes underneath a smudged bay window, flanked by two cats, her hands warmed by a cup of strong tea. She is currently pursuing an English degree at the University of Maryland.