by Katie Zurich
The funeral home smells like cheap perfume, and the crowd is so thick that I’m certain my air quality is severely jeopardized. My two older brothers stand next to my father, one on each side, operating as his guards. I stand them behind them, glad to be hidden from the unending line of those who came to pay their respects.
My mother looks beautiful. We decided to dress her in the bright blue dress she wore to my brother Josh’s wedding. Her hair is curled and her signature pale pink lipstick has been perfectly applied. While I normally loathe open caskets, it was mom’s request to be laid out and presented to the world one last time. “Let people see me. It helps with the goodbye,” she had told my father.
I wanted her to be wrong about this, but per usual she’s right. Whenever I feel a tear or tremble I look toward her and I find instant strength and solace. It’s odd to be at her wake. I imagined it differently. I guess in true Mom fashion I pictured a dirty martini, chocolate, and a few songs from The Drifters. But, here we are in Spring Lake, New Jersey, bidding farewell to Dotty Matthews, beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. “Katherine, stop hiding and come stand next to us,” my father hisses. Reluctantly, I step forward, grabbing the arm of my brother Michael.
At Michael’s 10th birthday party he issued a statement to the family that “Mikey” was no longer an acceptable nickname. As a consolation prize he offered us “Mike,” but my mother never recovered from this event, especially because she had given him his nickname. However, for the most part, mom always abided by our requests and we lived with “Mike” until his 21st birthday. It was on this occasion he announced a more formal name, Michael, as well introduced us to his boyfriend, John. I’ll never forget dad’s face, Josh’s inappropriate laughter, and my mother’s tears. I chugged cheap wine while no one was watching. Michael was so nervous, but he had no reason to be. He was accepted and loved beyond measure.
“Kat, stop fidgeting.” Michael always bossed me around and today was no different.
“I can’t help it. I lost patience for this about two seconds after it began. I’m 34 years old, but at least a dozen of mom’s book club members continue to pinch my cheeks.
Josh whispers into my ear, “You think the book club is bad? Wait until the Ladies Auxiliary Committee arrives. Last summer Mrs. Donovan grabbed my ass at mom’s Labor Day party, I’m sure of it.”
Michael and I stifle our laughter just as my Aunt Gennie makes her way toward us. My father groans, loudly, at the very sight of her. “There’s not enough scotch in the world to stomach what’s about to come out of her mouth.” Dad says the words painfully, as if she’s already committed a crime of conversation.
“Oh Lou, Josh, Michael, Kat! I can’t believe she’s gone. She was so beautiful, and, she was wonderful because…” Her voice momentarily trailed. I braced myself for what would come next. “What in the hell is she wearing? For God’s sake Lou, blue? Her favorite color was green! I knew I should have come over yesterday.” Aunt Gennie’s words are not as offensive as her volume. Everyone looks up at us, and once again, I’m crimson from the glares of well-wishers.
“For Christ’s sake Gennie! Don’t start with this nonsense, please!” The desperation in my father’s voice is palpable, but per usual Aunt Gennie is too self-absorbed to notice.
“My only sister, displayed in a recycled outfit. And blue?”
“She’s not a damn mannequin, Gennie, so kindly refrain from speaking about her like one.” My father’s tone has changed. It went from a plea-like state to punishing.
Aunt Gennie stops, looks at him, and meekly utters “of course.” Michael escorts Aunt Gennie to the casket, while Josh steps beside me.
“Carol and I bet she’d say something within a minute of her entrance. I bet she’d focus on the makeup, but Carol called wardrobe.” Carol is Josh’s wife, and the sister I never had. She joined our family eight years ago, and gave mom and dad their greatest thrill, grandchildren. For this, and for many other reasons, we call her “the perfect one.” I catch Carol’s eye and she winks at me. Carol lost her mother a few years ago, and I know she’ll act as a guide in the months to come. Carol is seated next to John, Michael’s husband. While Michael is serious, John is not. For this reason, he and Josh get along famously. I love John for loving Michael, but most recently, I love him for his hugs. It was John who was with me when I received the call that mom had passed. We had taken a break at the hospital and sought refuge from hospital cafeteria food at a nearby coffee shop. I remember dropping the phone, and feeling my knees buckle, but I also remember John catching me. Up until an hour before the wake started, he had barely let go of my hand.
“That woman has driven me crazy since the day I married your mother.” Dad loves a good Aunt Gennie rant, and he seems intent on another one.
Michael rejoins us and per usual, softens the mood. “Dad, she’s mom’s sister and her closest confidant. Giver her a break, just for today.” Dad rolls his eyes at Michael’s request, but abides.
The four of us stand by mom’s side for another hour. I hold myself together the entire time, but as the last visitor leaves I find myself unable to fight back the tears. Sadness floods over me and despite being surrounded by my family, I feel very alone.
I can hear her voice as I close my eyes. “Kat, it’s almost done. You’ve been patient. Get a glass of wine, take off your heels, and toast to me.” Mom has been the voice in my head for years. I look around. The room is almost empty. The wake is over. I glance at her lifeless body and take a deep breath. I pull up a chair and place it next to her coffin. I’ll sit beside her for a little while longer. After all, she’d do the same for me.
A native Buffalonian, Katie Zurich is proud of her roots but loves that her branches extend into the Garden State. She is a social media fanatic and lover of modern British literature. She loves to write short stories and finds joy and inspiration with her husband and daughter in Robbinsville, NJ.