It would be interesting to attend an entertaining funeral. You know the ones where everyone is smiling, telling stories, having a drink and celebrating the life of someone who has lived well and moved on. Maybe something akin to the cop funerals you see on shows like The Wire-if you haven’t seen one, you might want to grab a season; they’re quite lively, even the departed has a beer in hand. Unfortunately, I rarely hear about these celebrations of life beyond television. Things are typically quite the opposite. I guess then, my experience with this particular funeral shouldn’t be surprising.
I went numb. I hadn’t felt anything since the day I was told that she died and I had no anticipation of feeling anything, ever again. I remember saying that I preferred a memorial of sorts, no visuals, no pomp considering the circumstance, no strangers. A grouping of people who knew her well enough to miss her when she was gone. People that actually knew she was missing before the funeral, outside of the whispered conversations of country folk over coffee.
No weeping and wailing, no Mahalia Jackson soundtracks, no Imitation of Life breakdowns, just quiet; a lost concept for Southern black church folk, something that puts a check mark in the column for Catholic stoicism.
My muddled thoughts wouldn’t allow me to take in the detail of highway signs traveling to this out of the way place, “somewhere in Alabama”, that I had little familiarity with and no interest in returning to. She was no celebrity but these small town people had the same base curiosity of LA paparazzi . I felt eyes on me as I walked in the room and I tried to return the favor by taking in their faces, quickly giving up. Some distant relatives that I wasn’t aware existed, elderly people who unwittingly made sport of attending funerals of those they didn’t know under the guise of paying respect, this time muttering about “the young leaving this world early”, childhood acquaintances who hadn’t seen her since her New York exodus 33 years before, and church members offering support to her mother and perhaps looking for an opportunity to experience Holy Ghost fever. Yes, I am as cynical today about the event as I was in that moment.
I made my way forward, unsure of what to expect. I hadn’t seen this person since I was an 11 year old girl; perhaps the pain would be dulled by lowered expectations or love that had lessened with the passage of time. Maybe anger would prevent me from caring. Maybe. She lay there, changed, and I instantly felt it. Changes that time didn’t protect me from now or then. There were differences that I knew only I felt, greater than the transition from here on earth to the other side. More significant than just breathing or not. Imperceptible to those who had probably never known their impact. The way she squinted even when she had her glasses on, her beautiful brown hair with the halo of red, tinted by the sun, the same shade of my own little girl’s. The swaying manner of a walk that could compel people to follow. She would no longer speak in that adopted tone of the people that she loved most. Her fingers that used to work deftly to prepare Fried dumplings and fresh carrot juice on Saturday afternoons in our city apartment were sedately intertwined. Her spirit was broken.
The mouth that blessed out those who crossed her or sang the melody of Dennis Brown reggae tunes was silent, the smile lines in the corner were gone, a simple threaded line that didn’t properly convey who she was. Gone was the broomstick skirt that enhanced her hips and narrow waist. The tank top and gladiator sandals, popular in the 80’s only to make an appearance again in the 90’s….were replaced. This outfit was too staid, too proper, not her. This woman wasn’t the product that she had chosen to be but rather what they had wished she would have become. Restrained, God fearing rather than Jah loving, rooted in one place rather than following the path her spirit led her down. She was finally a product of the worn out, Bible thumping south that she feared. There was no one I knew in this polished brown box. I turned away. The distance was greater than it had been when I didn’t know where to find her.
Camera flash. Someone took a picture of the prodigal daughter being greeted by her lost child. Camera flash. Another picture for a macabre photo album that would be left dusty under coffee tables of strangers to pass on to future generations. My reality set in, someone was taking pictures. Someone was actually taking fucking pictures. I felt sick but bolstered by anger. “No pictures. I want it to stop”. I thought I was yelling forcefully but later realized that I was a picture of frailty bordering on hysteria, hoarsely making demands. “How can you take pictures? Put those cameras away!” My maternal grandmother was obviously prepared for and accepting of this sideshow aspect of things at her daughters funeral but willing to help me by pleasantly guiding the spectators away, asking them to put the cameras away.
And then, a different voice, “That’s enough! Get a hold of yourself and cut it out. You know better, Stephanie“, she spat my name. I turned, surprised. This bitch, a paternal relative that had known me my entire life, was indignant with me at my mother’s funeral. She stood there supporting her own mother at the arm and glared at me. There is great irony to telling someone to get over something that they would be forced to live with for the rest of their life, but this, this was overstepping boundaries to the nth degree. My mind raced but I could only utter the words of a hurt, petulant child, “Do not tell me what to do”.
Years later, I laugh at this retort. The thought that someone who expresses her feelings through the written word and has built a career around sales presentations and seminars, couldn’t find a more fitting reply is both laughable and a testament to the mind blowing destruction of pain.
I walked away with that moment, the most memorable part of my final goodbye to my mother. I have replayed it often, visualizing myself ready with a witty retort or the questions that I so simply want to ask today. “Is it fair to stand there gripping your beloved mother’s arm while telling me that I am reacting irrationally at the death of my own?” “Is the love that I have for my parent so insignificant because you judge her so harshly for her humanity?” “How do you, mother to two children of your own, suggest I get a hold of myself?” “Seeing as how this is my first and only possible experience mourning my mother, what should I know better?” “Did you hear those words in some Lifetime Movie and think it was appropriate for the occasion or are you really fucking serious, right now?”
I didn’t. I sat there through that funeral hating her more than I hated the universe for forcing this experience on me. I glared at her with a side eye and promised that I would never forget this, a promise I wish I hadn’t made considering my long memory that doesn’t allow me to forget much anyway. The level of anger that I experienced made me recall all of the times in which I thought this particular relative was too opinionated but could never tell her because of my “trained respect”. My disdain for her in that moment allowed me to live through a service in which the pastor eulogized my mother as Sharon, Sheila, and Sheena….her name was Shivet.
Years have passed and I use the quote, “It’s impossible to pick anything up when you’re holding grudges”, as a reminder to release the events that you can’t change and the negative feelings associated with them, if for no other reason than making room for opportunity. I’ve been told by my significant other that holding a grudge doesn’t help because the other person moves on while you bear the impact of it, and he’s right. Interestingly enough, I realize from other brushes with the same individual that she wouldn’t have found her behavior questionable that day, not surprising, people who know so much rarely know when they are wrong. Years passed and we didn’t speak to one another until a family event, at which we were cordial and I behaved as though nothing happened. Although, there is a life scar from the blow dealt that day it is not as significant as the lessons I’ve learned and put in place as accountability measures in my own life:
1) Being older doesn’t make you immune to being wrong or create the immediate right to respect. This allows me to be remorseful and apologetic when I verbally or emotionally injure my children, something many adults could learn from.
2) Opinion and truth isn’t the same thing. Truth is a necessary part of communication but opinions can often be left out in order to salvage or maintain relationships, particularly with loved ones.
3) Grief can be a paralyzing, gripping ball of emotions and is best dealt with as the person who is grieving sees fit. When I know that someone is hurting whether it’s over the loss of a loved one or a broken relationship, I offer my ear and seal my lips so that they are able to process their pain in the manner that works best for them while still having access to my support.
I wish that all funerals were a celebration of life, an opportunity to demonstrate the love and compassion that you had for the person who has moved on. If they were, I would have thrown a block party in Brooklyn on E 29th and Nostrand, played her favorite Reggae music, Michael Jackson and Mary Jane Girls albums, had a shave ice vendor giving every kid free cones with condensed milk, and been surrounded by her family and the FRIENDS that loved who she chose to be. Since it wasn’t, I walk away with guarded memories of her eating rum raisin ice cream on sunny weekends as we took the train to the main library in NY and the evening ride back when she would tuck Violet candy into my hand as I gripped my Cabbage Patch in the other. That’s all I have as I choose to celebrate my vision of her life.
(Impact Post #2)