It begins with knowing, because knowing is the half of battle that engages you, that tells you what the sides are, the stakes are, and what you can realistically expect to take out of the whole mess by the end. So you know she's ending, and you run through the apologias of a death now, of a stretching on until the wedding; of a going in peace, of getting to say everything that twenty-three people could possibly say to the one person they've all known as long as knowing's been an option. These aren't alternatives like in the sense of choosing one and pushing it forward, they're stacked contrarily in your palms so you can grip them all together, smooshed, ambivalent and opaque. Like literature. Like a defense mechanism.
Everyone attends her. Brings her water, exhibits varying degrees of worry about her chapped lips, stares at her cheek bones and her forehead and her wrists. At her walls and then her breathing. Speaks; is whispered to. Comes back out into the living room with everyone else, with the other people who will go in later or who just can't go in anymore tonight. Who all together watch college basketball on mute and talk about each other, about buying houses or finding jobs or keeping them, about rivalries and psychologies, about choosing majors and spouses, and about making her funeral plans. About the symbolism and the practicalities. About the finances and the aesthetics. And asks someone who just got up, to check the mail or bring in beer or order pizza or pull out the roast. Everyone must eat and sleep and check their email and finish lesson plans, and they can do all these things while keeping to a schedule of dosing her with roxanol and advil cream and oxycodone. You eat cookies and you take her temperature. You check the score and then you roll her body to a new side, hold her tightly so she knows you won't drop her, clutch her not in love but in caretaking because these are different and she knows it and she feels horrible for changing all that, and angry at you for not hiding it better. Or for other things. But she breathes on and then she's sleeping, and you watch that for a while and then you reconcile it to yourself, and trust that she's doing the same; and you go back to the living room and the processing and the beers.
When she stops breathing, the one's nearby put whiskey in glasses and they drink toasts over her, in the quiet of a room without an oxygen machine. Her room is quiet and they drink like her children and grandchildren: noise and wit and the drive to communicate. Like mourning that is another half of battle, equal parts action and unknowing. They call everyone else, reach them in college or at home or on a business trip. They call the funeral home. They rub their foreheads and the edges of their glasses. They call everyone else again, or wait to be called. Phones are funny, absent presences, promises of bodies to come.
She was Catholic, so they are. Catholic enough to know what they can't remember anymore. To plan a funeral mass with a priest they've either never met or not seen in a decade. But they pick hymns and readings, and choose readers and eulogists and pallbearers and eucharistic ministers. Catholic enough, some won't take communion themselves because they won't take confession. Won't ask the Father to schedule it. They are sacramental and lapsed and familiar.
Everyone comes to the rosary, and almost everyone needs it explained. The rosary beads are plastic, made in Italy. Each comes with instructions which they follow along, and when the woman at the front misses a 'Hail Mary' everyone notices and looks at each other all, "dumbass," but they are still impressed at how quickly it all goes. At the rhythm and the hum. The people who speak next were friends and neighbors, loved her. They are sappy and intrusive if they aren't family, but they also make you sob brokenly and honestly, and it's a relief. And then you look in the casket, and the embalmed body has her teeth back in, and looks like artistry. There is spackle where the wrinkles were and the chapped lips are waxed for eternity and decomposition. Everyone was crying before, but this sight stops it. There are jokes and tissues, and then cookies and coffee and the greeting of everyone else who came to be sad and respectful with you. And then everyone extricates themselves, ends up back at the house where she died with cases of wine and plates of macaroni and they sit in the living room again, college ball on mute, and every chair, including hers, full of someone, and everyone else on the floor with their backs against someone's legs. And everyone is drunk and/or full, and everyone knows what to do at the church tomorrow.
At the church everyone is in blacks and whites, and red necklaces and blue neckties. Thirteen grandchildren stand by the casket, walk with it on its rollers into the church, and eventually up to the altar. They sit with their families, they open their hymnals, they sing. They sit and stand and kneel slowly, when someone tells them to. Some of them walk up the aisle, genuflect, read at the lectern, genuflect and return to the pew. Some of them almost cry, some of them shake a little. Some of them tell jokes, anecdotes and gestures towards (here) unrepeatable stories. They exit the church, walk the body to the hearse and step back. Six children take the aspergillum from the priest and send its water over the distance to her casket. Then everyone disperses, greets everyone else they didn't notice before, then get in cars and find the cemetery, the gravesite, the casket again. They bury her with flowers and pageantry and unknowing. She is, among all the other things, a body in a box on a hill.
After the cemetery there is a 'wake' of sorts (a tradition handed down, handed over; suited to its times). There are tables and countertops of bread and ham, tossed salads and cooked carrots, pastas and casseroles and rice dishes. There are coolers in the backyard of bottled beers and canned sodas, a table with rows of wine six, seven bottles deep. Everyone is toasting and talking, but eventually everyone else begins to leave. The thirteen grandchildren toast in the garden with Bailey's. More people leave. It is only the family, and they meet in the kitchen, perched and leaning and standing. They each take a plastic cup of Jameson and they toast her, all of them, and toast each other. Toast to toasting. Toast to whiskey. Toast to stories told all the way through now, that were gestures under church ceilings. She is a memory and a body and a battle and a battler. They are in food and drink and reminiscing. They are a group without her, that is without her.