I drove down the familiar street near my house, trying not to think about where I was going, yet searching the side of the road for the familiar sign. Funeral homes are those places that we pass by and see every day, but we try hard not to know exactly where they are. We try hard not to need to know where they are.
I finally parked the car and stepped gingerly through the door. A friendly-looking man leapt from an armchair and directed me toward a guestbook, which I signed a little awkwardly before accepting the card with her name on it and a passage from the Bible. I had only met Bobbie once, in passing, but she was the mother of one of my best friends. I stepped quickly into the main viewing room and my eyes searched for my friend, finally landing on the back of her head.
I almost didn’t go that night. I wasn’t sure I should, since viewings and wakes seem so personal and intimate, and I really didn’t know my friend’s mother. I thought, perhaps, I should just go to the funeral mass the next morning. But earlier that day, I decided I would go. My friend might need to see my face. This seemed like one of those moments when I needed to show up for her.
I have been lucky in that I haven’t been to many wakes; as a result, they still make me feel very unsteady. My eyes were drawn to the video slideshow of pictures of Bobbie and her life, then to the huge, beautiful flowers spilling everywhere, all over her casket and onto the floor. The room felt bright and happy and warmer because of the flowers. In one corner sat an oversized picture of Bobbie in profile, laughing almost coyly.
I found my friend, and when she saw me, she turned and hugged me, hard, and she cried. I held her with both arms and let her cry. Her mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer just a year before, and it had been a year of knowing, a year of fighting, a year of lasts. I could feel her exhaustion.
Still, before the young, handsome priest stood up to speak, it was easy to laugh, to smile, to pretend we were not actually there to begin the process of saying goodbye to someone. We shook hands and talked about our kids. But once the priest began and we were sitting in the pew facing the casket, the pictures, and all those flowers, I could feel my friend begin to quietly lose her composure. I could feel the reality creeping up her back, making her sit straighter, her eyes well. I put my hand on her shoulder. I knew that this moment, this exact second, is when it began to sink in for her. After a year of saying goodbye, suddenly this felt like someone was shutting the door in her face. I know — because I have lost someone I loved to metastatic cancer — that even though you know it is coming and even though you know your dear one is ready, when actual death finally comes, it always feels sudden. It always feels like a slap, like an ambush, like a rug has been yanked from under your feet.
While the priest spoke, I watched the pictures flash by on the slideshow, and they made me cry — a reflex as sure and certain as a rubber mallet to my knee: there was her mother as a toddler, as a young woman, as a young mother, as a grandmother. They were glimpses of a life — a life now completed. There in the images of a woman I didn’t know I saw so much familiar to me, both as a daughter and as a mother. They were the moments that flash by so quickly even in real time, gathered in one place, telling the story of a woman that is no longer here and all she left behind.
My friend turned to me. “This isn’t happening,” she whispered quickly, almost desperately, her eyes a little wild. “This isn’t my mama. This isn’t real.” I clung to her hand hard, a little scared that she might bolt from her seat. I didn’t blame her; suddenly, the room felt small. Though it was not my mother, all I could think was that I was glimpsing things to come I didn’t want to see — realizing how it would feel to lose my mother, my people. My own mother and I don’t always see eye to eye, but she still makes the world make sense to me. Just the thought of losing her made me feel the same desperation that I saw in my friend’s eyes and felt in her restless hands.
In that moment, sitting there by my friend’s side, watching her lose her mother, I felt it — the turn of the tides, the ineffable spinning of the world, how fast this all goes. How fast this all goes: that in one picture we are children, in the next, young women, then if we are lucky, mothers, and then if we are luckier, grandmothers. Then our family members are standing in a foreign room, telling stories about us with tears in their eyes and cracks in their voices, because our stories can all be told. They all have endings.
I did not need to ask for whom the bell tolled that evening. I wept alongside my friend — for all of us. I wept for the beauty of life, for the journey, and for the certainty that it will end. I mourned both because I will be left someday and because of who I will leave. And I realized that in the next chapters of my life, the people walking beside me, literally and figuratively, are the ones who are going to get me through some of the hardest moments of my life. Loss in inevitable; I know it is coming for me too. I don’t feel ready for it at all — is anyone ever ready for it? — and I’m not ready to see my children experience it.
Again, the message came to me: in the end, all we have are our people. They are all that matter. I left that wake wanting to go hug my mother, but also wanting to go hug my friends, my husband, and my children. We said goodbye to Bobbie that night, but with her, I think I said goodbye to more. I felt the big chill, and I have been trying to shake it ever since. Does it ever go away once you have felt it?