I was emailing a friend this morning about the first funeral, and then the second funeral, but both times I typed “first wedding” and “second wedding”—only when I was proofreading did I catch my mistake. Certainly these ceremonies felt celebratory, not at all the lugubrious affairs that most funerals are; the second funeral had only close family and a couple of close friends in attendance, and all but one of us went out to an Italian restaurant together afterward. We laughed and reminisced for almost two and a half hours; the restaurant was good enough to give us a big table in their banquet room, so we could carry on by ourselves without being disturbed.
The family matriarch is now Mom’s sister, my Aunt Shirley, who at 84 is not in terrific health herself. But yesterday, though she was a little frail and unsure on her feet and her words no longer tumble crisply from her lips, her mind and her great wit were sharp and delicious. Her two children, my cousins Julie and Chris, are sharp-witted themselves, and their banter has always engaged the whole family. We all talk over one another constantly, and we talk too loudly because no one is really listening to one another and everyone wants to be heard, but enough gets through that we choke with laughter on our iced tea and drink our fill of the affection being flung to and fro.
Chris and I say we were switched at birth, because our mothers always seemed to call the other’s name before our own. In my case, when I was growing up, Mom would often shout, “Dale! Darryl! No, Chris! Wait—CRAIG!” when she was trying to get my attention at the other end of the house. I’d say, “I can understand you calling out my brothers’ names before you get to mine, but how did my cousin get in line before me?” Stranger still, I never lived in the same house as any of them; I was raised an only child. Once she actually called out the dog’s name before mine.
Chris has become his mother’s caregiver as I became mine. The two sisters would frequently compare notes over the phone about how wonderful their sons were, how lucky and blessed they felt.
My brother and I leave this morning to head back south. Two more days until I get my comfy bed back. Two more days of long drives. Two more days of every other conversation starting, “That reminds me of something Mom used to say. . . .”
Aunt Shirley never reminded that much of Mom. When they were together, it was all about contrasts. Shirley is deeply, vocally religious. Mom’s spirituality was strong, but very quiet and not always as orthodox as she pretended. Shirley is tall, Mom was short-ish. Shirley had a laugh that sounded like bells ringing, while Mom had a quiet little chuckle and a more sarcastic sense of humor. Both kept lovely homes, but it was Shirley who had all the elegant flair in entertaining, while Mom worried constantly about everything being in place, and whether everyone was comfortable—an approach I inherited.
But yesterday afternoon, after the second “wedding,” it was as if Mom were sitting there, speaking through my Aunt Shirley. Even my friend Jim remarked on it. It was a little uncanny, but quite wonderful. I’d have been crying if I hadn’t been laughing so hard the whole time.
I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so close to my family as I do now. My friends have always been my family, and my family have always been “relatives.” Family gatherings were never terribly comfortable for me; I always felt like an outsider, interested in things others weren’t, with different rhythms and sensibilities. Now it seems as if we’re all much more in sync, and it just feels amazing.
My friend Kate, who was also at the funeral, was in a horrific car accident a number of years ago; she was badly injured, and her fiancé was killed. After his death, she felt his presence keenly, and even likened his passing to a wedding of sorts, a union of their souls. Mom’s death feels similarly momentous, a joyful new time of life for us both. She feels alive again. And so do I.