The giant oak door moaned on its hinges, protesting being opened. The gentle scuffle of shoes dragging through overly-plush carpeting caught my attention. And without even breaking my gaze from the brown, flowered, bad-memory-of-the-70’s-esque wallpaper, I knew that my mom had entered the kitchen. I could tell she was opening the refrigerator and grabbing a water bottle and one of the pre-wrapped subs just from the familiarity of my current environment. I knew this place, the sounds, the smells, the sights, like the back of my hand. Like a child knows their home. But this was not my home.
It was a funeral home.
See, my grandpa on my mom’s side died (or as he would have said, “kicked the bucket”) just before Christmas. And without her stubborn, lazy, no-good true love, my grandma died soon after. The whole dying process was a routine for me. I nearly had it down to a science, a 6-step process. The Phone Call, the parents’ 24-hour sporadic comings and goings, more phone calls and arrangements, visitation, funeral, huge family dinner. Lather, rinse, repeat. And this place they call a funeral “home?” Well I knew this place better than any 13-year-old should. There was the small room with the kitchenette for “close family” to escape the “not-so-close” relatives who always found the absolute wrong thing to say, and the bathroom with the cardboard Jumbo-Pack of Kleenex Boxes, and the godforsaken carpeting, that felt like you were wading through a herd of dead sheep. It was funny, really, such soft and cushioning carpeting in such a cold, heartless room.
If only it could absorb grief they way it absorbed my cousin’s spilled drink.
Sitting on a cushioned bench, lost in the nauseatingly familiar intricacies of a place my body knew and my mind hated, I reminisced. Funerals have that effect on people, making them remember things. Curiously, mourners only remember the best of people after they’re gone. It’s a comforting thought, knowing you’ll be remembered as sweet no matter how much bitterness you may leave in the world. But unlike the 50 or so other assorted family members wandering this “home”, my mind wasn’t on the dead. Well, the most recently dead. I was trapped in a memory that not even the loudest creak of the door or scuffle of shoes could not break.
I was seven, and the first person I knew passed away. That time, it was my grandpa on my dad’s side. Pop, we called him. I must have been six, almost seven, maybe five? Age doesn’t matter, I was too young to understand, and that’s what mattered.
Why was daddy gone for so long? Why wasn’t he talking much anymore? And was that crying I heard from Mommy and Daddy’s bedroom that one night?
Nothing held the answers to my questions. Not the books lying oh-so-subtly on the family room table, with titles like “Everyone Dies” and “It’s Okay to Cry”. And yet a certain instinct kicked in for the first time, one that would become too familiar to me in the next several years. It was the instinct that locked emotions away and allowed me to operate efficiently while everybody else flitted around like butterflies fresh out of their cocoon, lost and temporarily useless. My five, or six, or seven-year-old brain sensed the need for someone to be ok.
And so, I was.
Coincidentally, the tragedy aligned perfectly with another challenge in my kindergarten life, learning to ride a bike. It was that time and age where one was expected to be competent on a two-wheeler, and I was determined to figure it out. But after numerous scrapes and bruises, despite Daddy holding on to the back of the seat, the battle was nearly lost. Or at a standstill anyway. But the day Daddy was gone for so long, before the night there was crying from Mommy and Daddy’s room, the day Pop died, I needed to do something. Perhaps this was the first time I felt the need to be out of my home, my real “home”. But a five-year-olds options are somewhat limited, and at this point, the little metallic green bike seemed perfect. So I buttoned up my spring jacket, Velcro-ed my shoes, and buckled my helmet, and walked out the door withal the determination I could muster. Over my shoulder I heard a string of words, a sentence, that I will never forget. Even though Mommy probably thought her baby didn’t hear a thing.
“Maybe you will bike for Pop. He’s watching from Heaven…”
But I for once, I was listening. Oh, I heard. I heard it, and I believed it, like only a child is capable of doing. Whole-heartedly, the words becoming rules, and the rules becoming a way of life. I knew he was there, my own little cheering section up in the clouds. As I pushed off a little, I felt the tiniest burst of energy, of strength. I could do it, simple as that. I could handle the death, I could ride a bike.
Did I get it on the first try?
I fell a hundred times. I tried a hundred and one.
And on that one hundred and first try, I most certainly learned how to ride a bike. So today, as my attention crawls back to the creaking door and the plush carpeting and the brown wallpaper, to the death I’m currently dealing with, I know it’s time for me to go into the visitation room. To make conversation with the “not-so-close” family, to point people towards the bathroom and the much-needed surplus of tissue, and to mourn over someone not as perfect as remembered, but who was beautiful all the same. Although this time I’m trapped in a home of sorrow and loss, it’s just time for me to ride my bike again.
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