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Her face burned as she scanned the black-donned crowd that resembled, all too well, the large, muddy hole that her uncle and dad were now lowering her grandfather’s traditionally ornate coffin into. She shivered unintentionally, partly because it was late autumn and she, directly disobeying her mother, had not brought a jacket, and partly because she had just come to the sickening realization that she was the only one who wasn’t crying. She shifted uncomfortably, pulling her ugly, ostentatious hat (a gift from her similarly characterized grandmother, no doubt) further down her reddened face, hoping no one would see her blatant lack of emotion. She thought it ironic that she so desperately wished she could conjure up some authentic tears when, just two weeks ago in the dimly lit halls of her lackluster and suffocatingly crowded high school, as guilty eyes intuitively tried to avert themselves from her face, she had wished with the same unrepressed desire anything but. Her boyfriend, Alex, had, in the opinion of all her friends, abruptly broken up with her, and she had spent the entire rest of the day on the verge of hysterics. But now, as her last remaining grandfather was being buried in the cool, chocolate brown abyss, she found it impervious to summon even a single tear.
Her uncle blew his shiny, red nose into a hanky that obviously needed to be retired some time back, and Brennan pretended to fail in an attempt to hold back a sob. Her mother patted her hand and handed her a tissue, which Brennan balled into her palm until it began to fall apart. The silence became deafening and her heartbeat reverberated in her ears. As the crowd shuffled impatiently into the eggshell-white church angst imprisoned her frail, panicked body as the priest made his slow, deliberate descent down the aisle, scanning the room, daring anyone to meet his inconspicuously judgmental gaze.
Though her fingers and nose had long ago turned numb and frigid, her feet were sweating profusely in her inappropriately dressy heels, which she promptly discovered were too small and made her wobble. It had taken her twice as long to get to her seat because she had to, inconveniently, take irregularly tiny steps and frequently stop to catch her breath. She hated how the heels echoed off the church’s cold, uninviting walls and she couldn’t help but feel as if she was disturbing something private that she was not a part of. All eyes on her again. She could see them in her peripheral vision but dared not look up. Along with the unavoidable fact that she needed all of her effort and attention to maintain her balance, Brennan didn’t have the pride or confidence it took to look like a fool and not care. She stopped, supporting her weight on a vacant chair, while a decrepit, cardboard-skinned woman in a walker impatiently passed her. Brennan forced a smile as mean of an apology but instead was met by a hard, archaic glare that illustrated the women’s complete dislike of Brennan, as if she has purposely held everyone else up. The women dislodged a histrionic sigh that was far too melodramatic and loud to be real. That’s right lady, keep moving, Brennan thought. She harbored a suppressed desire to trip the woman, who seemed to choke on the overpowering air of her own audacious manner; and had Brennan been a person of crueler or more spontaneous disposition, she would have. Brennan was exhausted, hungry, and her body kept shifting in an awkward limbo of overheating and freezing; she had neither the time nor patience to deal with her. She felt numb and prickly with oversensitive perception simultaneously. Worse, however, Brennan was acutely aware of the wave of sickness encompassing her, and if her stomach hadn’t been completely hollow at the time, along with the fact that she hated, more than anything, attention, she would’ve puked right there in the aisle.
The nauseating smell of her aunt’s perfume made her instinctively gag. Brennan loved her aunt, but did the women really have to bathe in her cologne? At a frugal, minute amount perhaps it would have been acceptable, but not the gallon Aunt Eloise had, once again, dosed herself in, especially if it resembled the cheap, artificially manufactured aroma of lavender that Brennan had become all too familiar with and reminded her, non-nostalgically, of Eloise.
“Bren Bren!” Aunt Eloise’s nasally voice pierced the silence, startling everyone who, up until then, had been quietly making small talk. Auntie Eloise was as conspicuous as a thunderstorm. And while she had good intentions, she had possibly the worst people skills that Brennan had ever encountered, and that included the hypochondriac child with the stutter in Brennan’s third grade class who sat alone in the corner and ate paste. Eloise talked in a habitually loud monotone that was often mistaken for arrogance, added to her equally booming commentary to every movie Brennan had seen with her, and, while Brennan was sure Eloise really did think she was being quiet, had yet to master the tact of whispering. Brennan plastered on a smile which she distressingly realized would not be the last time today and faced her aunt who, like always, wore an outfit that was as a loud as her voice and bright, coral-colored lipstick that left unwanted stains in her wake.
“Auntie Eloise,” Brennan gasped, caught off guard by the blindingly blue mass of curls that was attacking her aging Aunt’s hair.
“Wha…oh, this?” Eloise giggled delightfully, as if she hadn’t initially been able to decipher what her favorite niece had been gawking at.
“Don’t you just adore it Bren? One of the interns at my hair place did it. At first I thought, blue? Now that’s ridiculous, even for me. But then I figured, I’m only alive once! And it matches my nail polish so well, don’t you think?..,” Eloise obliviously trailed off and Brennan was left to marvel at her ability to talk in an unending stream of syllables without pausing for air. Brennan responded appropriately and politely, nodding occasionally and answering in the mindless, one-word acknowledgment that, anyone but her Aunt, would have recognized as someone who’s bored with the current conversation. Just then, a pang of guilt and shame surged in Brennan’s unsuspecting body. She knew that her aunt seldom had guests, and even fewer friends. In her old age, though she hadn’t readily admitted this to Brennan, Eloise had long ago recognized her incurable incompetence and had resolved to simply emphasize her pretentiously unorthodox disposition, in order to hurry along the initial shock of everyone she had come into contact with. Brennan determined to try to be more invested in the communion and, at least, feign interest.
Scanning the dismal room for an excuse to leave, Brennan caught the eye of her mother, whose face resembled a water color painting that was intentionally left out in the rain. Recognizing a familiar face in the mass of unknowns, her mother shot her a look that told her, wordlessly, she should say her goodbyes. Lamely excusing herself and returning a limp, unenthused hug, Brennan stumbled over to her mother. Shaking her head, as if Brennan was purposefully holding up the show, she sat down slowly and deliberately, as if her joints were modeled from some rudimentary skeleton that can maneuver in only primitively simple movements.
The funeral ensued like all funerals do. Friends, colleagues, and family members were forced to stand up in front of hundreds of people as they tried to stifle down sobs and paint up the deceased like some hero, telling lies that everyone knew were lies, afraid to tell the truth, good and bad. Half-way through the service, Brennan’s feet fell asleep, as did most of the elders in attendance, and, though she told herself it was wrong, she couldn’t help feeling bored and feeble.
They continued to parade around and draw out the funeral tediously while, though no one would admit it, everyone had lost interest. At the end, grateful for being released, the plethora of people who had been packed in the miniature church said the customary apologies to the widow, and left.
The car ride home was eerily silent, as if everyone was holding their breaths in anticipation. Someone needed to say something, someone needed to break down and cry, someone needed to scream or shout or yell. But nothing happened. Just suffocating silence that everyone was choking on. Brennan couldn’t help but feel a nagging at the words of a man who had introduced himself as one of her grandfather’s lifelong friends, but whom Brennan didn’t recognize. Then again, Brennan had never really known her grandfather at all. He said that the thing he most enjoyed about Mr. Bailey was his smile. This had caught Brennan off guard. Never once had she seen her grandfather smile, not even in one of the candids his widow insisted on lining the wall with. Despite her best efforts to please him, Brennan never was able to obtain her grandfather’s approval. Unlike normal grandfathers, Brennans’ never let her sit on his lap or took her fishing or spoiled her with ice-cream or told her of his war stories. He kept the same, mundane expression on his face and nodded apathetically as she told him of all the things that little girls believe to be important. He would respond with an uninterested acknowledgment, forced by innate obligation and the pleading glares given to him across the room by his children, who credulously thought Brennan had not seen or understood. Brennan would stop her story, expecting some sort of praise that children soon learn does not exist in the real world. Sometimes, just to test him, she would conclude her story mid-sentence and discover, sadly but with anticipation, that he hadn’t really been listening at all. Returning to his television that he never, even for a second, turned away from, Brennan would leave on the verge of tears and with a burning chest that a child perceives as a tummy ache, but an adult knows it to be a broken heart. She wished she had tried harder and she was overcome by a strange limbo of envy, hate, and admiration for the man who was granted a rare smile by the perpetually unpleased being who she called grandfather. But even as she thought this, glaring at the speaker with tears that burned with unforgettable regret, she knew she had tried her hardest, and it was too late anyway. Images of her deprived, bitter childhood flashed through her mind like a sporadic slideshow. Her mother naively misunderstood her lachrymal for sadness, and not for pain and long-suppressed loathing, as most people do.
The car ride home resembled very closely to what Brennan perceived the coffin her grandfather now resided in to be- frigid and speechless. Everyone was silent, as if holding their breaths. Brennan was uncomfortable and wanted someone to break the eerie nothingness that was suffocating everyone in the car. She wanted someone to cry, someone to yell, someone to scream or whisper or laugh. But the car was in immortal muteness. Everyone’s mind was racing but no one was talking, a most dangerous predicament indeed.
At dinner the quiet persisted. Brennan shivered at each agonizing scrape of fork upon plate. Every little noise was illuminated by the silence. She jumped at the sound of her father’s voice. It squeaked slightly from lack of use but resumed to its usual thunderous glory, like an old car refurbished and resurrected after a century of abandonment.
“I wonder if he knew…”trailing off at the last word as if he was scared that if it was spoken, the Reaper himself would manifest in the middle of the tiled dining room.
“Of what?” Brennan’s mom asked, though she, like everyone else in the room, knew full well what he had been talking about. Brennan felt embarrassed and freakishly large, like someone who is suddenly in the middle of someone else’s fight.
“No one is really ever afraid of death itself,” the words spewed out recklessly, like the way water appears to move extra fast after a dam breaks, and it took Brennan a second to realize the words had been spoken by her.
“What was that, darling?” Her mother asked, remembering her daughter’s presence.
A lifetime passed before she resumed.
“We don’t fear death, we fear that we won’t be missed when we’re gone.” Her parents looked at her as if she had said something deep and profound, but Brennan knew that it was quite simple. She excused herself as the wide eyes of her parents followed her to the kitchen and then up the stairs to her room. Tired and with nothing else to do, Brennan got ready for bed. Plunging her frozen feet into the thick blankets, Brennan closed her eyes and tried to convince her mind to rest. Her heard her parents talk, but couldn’t make out their words. She heard them climb the stairs and perform their bedtime rituals. She waited until the whole house was dark and then, when she knew that everyone else was asleep, she climbed out of bed and kneeled.
She prayed for the first time since she had broken out of her childhood naivety and faced the realities of the world. She did not ask for the gifts or frivolous luxuries that she had in that oblivious age of innocence. Instead, she thought of her grandfather, a stranger that had made an appearance in every chapter of her life yet had no significance. She forgave him and asked, in return, for the serenity and tranquility that she felt had always been missing. She laid back in her ocean of a bed and fell asleep. And, for the first in her life, she knew he had listened.