Cover yourself in a black suit of armor. Present yourself with class, and look “put-together.” Don’t look too sad, but make sure your outer expressions convey some of the emotions you have quarantined inside. Paste a faux-smile across your face as you make your way down the aisle turning from right to left to witness the sea of blurred faces in the crowd. Take your seat and focus your attention on what will take place in front of you. Hold your mother’s hand on one side, and your grandmother’s on the other, support them, and show your strength for them. Remain calm, this will be difficult and is tearing you apart, but you can do it. You have to.
Focus your full and utmost attention on the minister in the pulpit. Get caught off guard when you see flickers of red in the stained glass windows to the left. Snap your head forward again as the organist comes to a halt. Attempt to stay focused, but gaze at the shiny red casket in front of you and imagine it as a chariot coming to take you away from this hell you are facing. Don’t think of yourself. You are the last one who needs taking care of. Think of your heartsick mother, your seemingly prosaic father, and your brother who is aching right along with you. Think of him. He would want you to be joyous. Don’t feel numb. Don’t feel anything at all.
Listen to the words of the minister and your loved ones. Some of these words you wrote, and yet to hear them spoken out loud is deafening. Listen to the descriptions of your brother’s character: loyal, loving, legendary. Have the words the others speak about your brother leave an impression on your heart and commit them to memory. They will be important later when you’re asked about what kind of person your brother was. Listen to the sobs floating through the audience like lilies, peaceful yet sorrowful. Sob. Go through at least two boxes of packaged, grainy tissue, which is more of a hindrance than an aide for your tears. Wish they could flow freely; wish your mind could as well. Offer these tissues to your family in the form of condolences. Grasp your mother’s hand tighter. Contemplate her eyes and notice the pain she is feeling expressed through the blue rivers she now views the world through. Rest your head on her shoulder and think of the last time you sat in a pew with her. Close your eyes, just for a second.
Try to grasp the concept that has been floating around about celebrating your brother’s life on this day. Listen to the songs that are played, so specific to him, and attempt a pleasant thought. Fail, and sink back into the grief you feel. Start sobbing harder as you hear your brother’s voice come through the speakers of the recording. Think about how buoyant it sounds and how joyful you feel when you hear it. Think about this being the only form you will ever hear it in again: muffled, mundane, malicious.
Watch the photos flash by your eyes on the screen positioned in front of the audience, photographic evidence that 25 years have passed. Look at the faces in the photos. Some are you, some are your brother, some your mom, some your dad, grandparents, cousins, friends. Detach yourself from what’s happening on the screen; you have already seen all these photos, you have lived them. Instead, look at the expressions of others around you, misconstrued conceptions of what your brother’s life was like. The expressions on their faces are captivated as they discover things from the photos they didn’t know before. Eagerly await the end of the slideshow, for this will also mark the end of this seemingly-forced production that has been put on in front of you for the last hour. Jump back into action as your duty of pallbearer has arrived. Take your place in line and feel the sleek texture of the handle as you join forces and lift the casket from its resting place in the church. Walk slowly. Don’t rush this meaningful march you were given the honor to take, but don’t let the faces in the crowd see the urgency in your step as you feel the exhaustion this physical task has impaled your emotions with.
Feel the sting of the February wind as you continue your duty through the double cathedral doors. Make your way to the car that waits, warm and inviting, the opposite of your feelings towards this day. Tighten your grasp and with all your strength, free the casket from your hold, be careful, and don’t let your mind wander too far into the logistics of this operation. Watch as the doors are closed and the car begins to leave, a horse trotting away with its rider. Feel the embrace from your remaining brother, cousins and friends. Hold them. Cry with them. Don’t speak. In this moment, there are no words to exchange.
Reflect on the events that have made today a reality as you silently ride to the committal. Hear the pounding on your door at 5 o’clock that morning followed by the low buzz of your grandfather’s voice as he tells you the news is bad. Reflect on how you felt in that moment and how your life was forever changed with those few words. Dig deep and try to remember the details of the scene, but try to forget them at the same time. Retract only the image of the orange cones and caution tape you saw on the interstate and immediately you knew this was where it had happened, this image now holds permanence in your mind. Shy away from these thoughts as you approach the cemetery, and prepare yourself for the production that lies ahead. Listen once more to the words of the minister, a man you have known for years, but never in this context. Gaze at the solemn faces around you and notice through the sobs that the rose you placed on top of the casket matches the shiny red metal. Touch the casket and silently pray. As a single beam of sunlight glistens on the casket, start to envision heaven and feel a microsecond of relief.
Talk with the people who are there to support you and your family when you get back to the church. Realize that the sea of faces has separated, and begin to recognize people who are here for you. Appreciate their words of encouragement, “It will get better with time,” “I am here for you,” but still feel the throbbing, abrasive emptiness. Hug them. Feel grateful for the outreach of your community. Trust your friends, they have been here from the beginning and they will be there in the end. Know that they are hurting too. Greet people you barely know. Pass by your grandpa and give him a hug, just because you know he needs it. Find your brother and ask him how he’s doing, tell him you love him. Make your way to the food that has been prepared and fill your plate. Take a few bites but then stop when you decide the food tastes about as satisfying as the plastic plate it rests on would taste. Help clean everything up and eventually go home. Be with your grief-stricken family for a few more days. Try to enjoy this time.
Dream for the next few weeks about the exact events of this day in the exact sequence they happened, but in a different setting every time. Wonder why this happens and ask questions about it. Remember the details of these dreams better than you do the ones from the actual day. Decide that these dreams aren’t real and what you were feeling that day felt unreal too.
Remember the years you had with your brother as you attempt to get back on your feet. Rejoice in knowing that you were such a significant part of his life, and cherish that. Develop a deeper understanding of why things happen and have faith. Laugh again, but continue to cry sometimes, the hole in your heart can only be mended, not fixed. Never forget, but continue through the ever-changing cycle of healing that is now your life.
Focus, listen, try, watch, feel, reflect, talk, dream, remember.