I was able to attend the funeral for my friend’s 18-month-old daughter last week. On the plane while flying home I wrote this in my journal.
* * * * *
I entered the church with more confidence than I felt. I’d been there only once before, and never into the sanctuary. I clutched my three packages of tissues and threw my gaze around the room. We moved quietly down the side aisle, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. My friends followed, and we slipped into a pew by ourselves. I dare to glance down at the program in my hands, tied at the top with a tiny pink ribbon. It’s short and concise. As I skim over the words my brain comes to a screeching halt at the word “eulogy.” I look up.
An old man sits in front of me, a deep plum-coloured shirt complementing what little grey hair he has. The wrinkles on his neck shift and twitch, disappear and return, every time he moves. From time to time he dabs a handkerchief around his eyes from under his glasses, then they resettle on his nose and the salt and pepper whiskers on his upper lip do the wave.
Across the aisle a row of young people sit, probably a bit younger than me. Hair perfect in a stylish cut, a young woman sits quietly, her head bowed and her hands clutching a well-used tissue in her lap. Her tan knee angles toward me over the top of her other leg.
Next to her, friends (sisters? cousins?) sit, unmoving, one with a red face and liquid eyes, the other holding a tissue to her nose.
I hear sniffling, snuffing, and snorting from different parts of the church. Even the guy two rows ahead of me with a pierced ear and eyebrow, dressed in black, is wiping his eyes. He’s probably 26, maybe 27. Tough-looking kid. Even he is broken.
On the other side of the church, in the front row, sit a young couple. The parents. He’s on the aisle, his brown curls especially tidy today. The suit he’s wearing is perfect – impeccable. The dark blue square tie is, well, perfect. His wife has her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, a few strands dangling down onto the collar of her little black sweater. Underneath, the golden yellow dress suits her skin tone beautifully, and her brand new black shoes are eye-catching and just her style. On one finger of her right hand she boasts a large dark blue stone set in a silver ring. A Christmas gift from her ever-doting husband.
Their shoulders touching, they sit in solitude. He leans forward, holds his head in his hands, rubs his nose, sits back. When he leans forward his wife gently places a hand on his back, still facing the front of the church with a stony expression. She has resolved to hold it together and it seems effortless, though I’m doubtful if it really is.
Down the row from them, and in the two pews behind, sits family. Parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, nieces. All are motionless except the children. They’re much too young to know what’s going on. To them it’s just another day in church.
But it’s Thursday.
At the front of the church, in front of the pulpit, is a small, round table, covered in a white lace cloth. On it sits a single wooden box, cherry in colour. The beautiful box screams at me from its place on the table. It doesn’t move; it doesn’t speak. But I can’t tear my eyes away.
Violin music, and piano accompaniment land softly on my ears. Debussy’s “Beau Soir.” Beautiful evening. Mournful, resigned notes string from the violin, while solemn, quiet tones from the piano lie beneath.
Hymn 92 – This Is My Father’s World.
I rest me in the thought…
Two quiet men in suits – broad-shouldered – approach the table at the front. One lifts the box, carefully and confidently. Solemnly he carries it to the back of the church.
“What’s that?” I hear a woman behind me whisper to her seatmate.
Her ashes! I want to scream at her. HER ASHES! But I am silent with my tears.
The family files out. We follow closely behind, and while the general attendees meander toward the refreshment table, close friends and family head to the cars to accompany the ashes to the cemetery.
There’s nothing right about this. No parent should bury a child. No father should place flowers on his daughter’s grave. No mother should give up holding her baby forever. No grandfather should outlive his grandchild.
The cemetery is far away. So are my thoughts. We cruise through red lights, hazards blinking, a line of ten cars following the shiny black limo with the flashing red lights on top and a flag that announces:
How can the other people on the road just whiz on by? Life cannot just go on – ho-hum! – as usual, can it? In that shiny black car with flashing lights – in that perfect, solemn car – are the ashes of an 18-month-old girl! That is not usual! And that is far from perfect.
But yes, life marches on around us. Fast food runs, complaints about coffee, soccer games, rush hour, FAXes, field trips, fundraisers, broken printers, last-minute assignments, deadlines.
It’s just a word, right? An awful, nasty, thoughtless, hurtful word. So much inexplicable emotion caught in one four-letter word. It should be used for elderly, pet fish, and Oregon Trail pioneers, not 18-month-old girls.
I cannot hold it together. Her parents are stronger than I. They squeeze each other’s hands, smile through their pain, and quietly endure.
I, on the other hand, cannot be so brave. Before the service started, listening to violin and piano, tears splattered on my lap from underneath my chin. My eyes blurred; I couldn’t read the program. I blinked, squeezed tears out, cleared my throat, took a deep breath.
Three minutes later I can’t see again. One single sob escapes my throat; my body hiccups. Slow, deep breaths. It’s like giving birth. Calm, focused, determined.
If there is only one thing I remember about Ryann, it will be her easy smile. No matter what mood she was in, no matter what the situation, all I had to do was look at her funny, make a strange noise, or poke her nose and say, “boop!” and she’d be laughing. In her short life, Ryann experienced and expressed more joy than many adults do in decades.
The pastor read my words from the platform and his voice cracked while he read. He paused a moment, pulled himself together, and continued. I squeezed my eyes tight closed and remembered Ryann’s smile.
We’re at the cemetery. It’s so green. So ironically alive. We wind our way through the grounds, passing shrines and mausoleums, broken headstones, military graves, and brand new plots. Flowers scattered around the place brighten the grey-sky day. Memorial Day wasn’t too long ago. Only the day after she died. And we remembered her. Oh yes. Who could think of anything else?
We stopped in Baby Land. Too many lives snuffed out way too soon. Like Ryann’s. One month. Three days. Two years. Lives should last much longer than that. Eighteen months. Yes…much, much longer than that.
A warm breeze blows across the grave site; the trees whisper their sorrows, mingling them with ours.
The mother lays a single pink rose next to the wooden box. The father clutches a bouquet – white and purple flowers, tied together in a bunch. No one wants to speak aloud. The trees, they whisper for us. We’ll watch over her, they promise then. She’ll rest here peacefully, and we’ll spread our arms around her. Don’t worry…we’ll watch over her. Shhhh…
Wind chimes hung near other too-small graves tinkle, softly, in the wake of the trees’ whispered promises. Though sad and solemn, their voices add a new tone to the tree song. Music.
Hope, I think…and