"I'm sorry to pull you away from the rest of the family, hon, but I just wanted to get away for a little bit. I swear if one more person tells me how sorry they are, I'm gonna scream." She paused, seemed to collect her thoughts. "I'm so glad you came. Your father would have been glad, too."
I just listened, not really knowing what to say. It came to mind to say something flippant about the likelihood of anything pleasing my father, but on the heels of that thought came a memory of the night before, and my promises to myself. I didn't want to make things harder by starting one of our old fights. I suspected that Mom didn't know what to say to me either, as she suddenly became fascinated by the hideous local artwork adorning nearly every surface in the room. So, we sat staring around the room, avoiding eye contact, surrounded by enough people to afford an unusual kind of privacy in the little coffee shop. I gazed in fascination at the iced tea glass in front of me, beads of condensation flowing steadily into my fingers. I glanced back at my mother; she seemed to have found a favorite of the many orange and avocado paintings on the chipping walls. By that time the coffee shop had begun to annoy me in earnest, its efforts to deliver a ramshackle, bohemian air to a Yuppie coffee shop on Stevens Creek were giving me a bone-crushing headache.
"How are you?" she asked, trying to sound unaffected and casual, as if minutes hadn't passed since we last acknowledged each other. She sounded small and beaten. I pitied her then, for the first time in years. Poor Mom, always trying to keep it together.
"I'm fine. I'm fine." Even to myself, my voice sounded lifeless, as if unconvinced by my own statement. I looked up at her, found her looking at me intently, and looked quickly back down at the glass topped table.
She glanced at her glass as she raised it to her lips. I watched her take a sip, lower the glass, and delicately touch the corners of her mouth to check her lipstick. Same as ever, she was keeping her best battle face on.
"I just didn't know who else to talk to , Brenda...," her voice cracked, and she visibly checked herself. Straightening up, and brushing imaginary lint from her expensive lapels, she started again. "It's been so hard, you have no idea. He was so weak, and I couldn't help him. Towards the end, there was just nothing left. I don't know what I'm going to do now."
I measured my words carefully. "I'm very sorry, Mother." It was nearly a whisper, but there was nothing appropriate to say. There was nothing I could say to make her feel better, and she just couldn't help herself, at least not emotionally. I knew that she was devastated. She had barely managed a curt hello the night before when I saw her at the viewing. She looked small and lost next to my father's casket. He had managed to look strong and imposing, and impossibly stern even in death. I hadn't stayed for long.
Later, leaving the viewing, I had decided to accept her breakfast invitation. Back in my hotel room, I had taken a faded family picture from my suitcase. It was the last real family picture. Looking at it, I was amazed that I had been able to leave only months after the sixteenth birthday party where it was taken. I looked so young, and small and weak like my mother. The sweater I wore in the picture had been a favorite; I remembered wearing it to hide the bruises, it's high neck the perfect cover.
I had grown tired years before of wondering why my father was so angry, why my mother stayed, why nobody did anything when it seemed like everyone knew. It was all that either of them knew, I think. To him, it was love. I still don't know what it was to my mother. I wanted to forgive myself for leaving them to each other, but I knew that in order to do it, I was going to have to let go of all the shit I'd been carrying around since I was a teenager.
"He was a good man, Brenda. I know that the two of you had your differences, but he was a good man, and he always loved you, even after you left us. He was really hurt, but he still loved you." I hadn't really caught up with her words until halfway through, and when she met my eyes, I must have looked confused. "You know, he missed you terribly, especially at the end." Her voice quavered, but her face remained expressionless.
I took a deep breath. Was this going to be it, then? Were we going to have the same old conversation? I knew that she couldn't face up to my father, she never had. I doubted that she would suddenly be tempted to confront the past, just because he was dead. "I'm sorry, Momma."
"It's really a shame that you never got to know him, Brenda. If you could have only known him the way that I did, you would have seen..."
"I did." It was only a whisper, maybe not even that; something that I mumbled to myself.
"I'm sorry, what, honey?"
I said, "I know Momma, it's a real shame."
We drank our bitter tea in silence. At 11 o'clock she stood up. I offered to drive her to the funeral, but she went on about something having to do with flower arrangements for the cemetery, and we departed separately.
The service was almost majestic. There were red roses everywhere. The casket was up two stairs and on a pedestal, as if my father was the overseer of the proceedings as much in death as in life. He had an enormous family, and the pews of the funeral home's small chapel were filled to capacity. My brother-in-law, the severe looking man with the beady eyes who was taking over the family business, delivered a glowing eulogy of my father; all of his contributions, his generous love of his family and friends, his dedication to honesty and principle. Finally, it was time for the family to say their last goodbyes.
As I stood by the casket, I looked at my father's face, finally peaceful, lacking all of the anger I was accustomed to seeing there. I touched his hand, and brushing away unexpected tears, I tucked into his coffin a letter I had written him years before, just before I ran away from home. Around it I had wrapped another letter written only the night before, my letter of letting go. "I'm forgiving you, Dad. I have to go on with my life now." There was nothing else to say. It was harder than I had ever imagined it would be to let go of that letter, to face the fear that without anger to hold me together, I wouldn't know how to define myself. Anger at him, at them, had fueled me for so long, I was afraid I would disappear without it, as though its weight didn't hold me back but kept me grounded in this world.
I lingered for a moment, remembering all the night he had come in drunk, all the lies he had told my mother, all the times I had been hurt and afraid. But for the first time in years I also remembered how he had laughed when he was teaching me to ride a bike, and the clear summer night that we had spent on the back porch, when he taught me that even the stars have names. There were people waiting behind me. It was time to move on.
Stepping down off the platform, I saw my mother huddled in a small, clucking group of old aunts and distant cousins. I looked at her expensively tailored dress, and remembered all the times she had tried to patch her torn and faded thrift store clothes after he had torn them half off of her. Maybe some things are too painful to remember, especially if you depend on other people for your strength. She looked up and caught my eye. I walked over to the group.
"I'm going to head over to the cemetery. Does anybody need a ride?" They all looked at my mother. She in turn looked at me pleadingly. "How are you holding up, Mom?" Her eyes were wet, and to my shock, her eye makeup was running. I couldn't remember ever having seen her without her face being perfectly made up. She had always told me makeup could hide anything. "You don't look like you're up to driving right now. Can I give you a ride?"
"Thank you so much, Brenda." I couldn't shake the feeling that she was beaten by him again, broken in a new way. "I'm sorry to do that to you, are you sure its alright?"
I stared at her for a moment before realizing that she was apologizing for needing a ride. "It's okay, mom. Let's just keep moving. It's almost over now."
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