Chris’s trembling hand hovered over his mother’s casket. He couldn’t bring himself to touch it, as if feeling his mother’s coffin would make it real. The last embrace for either of them.
He felt no discernible emotion. Anger replaced sorrow replaced confusion within the space of a breath. And then peace. A calm that only comes from detachment. The anger wasn’t a part of him, it was merely happening to him. He wasn’t experiencing sorrow, rather, sorrow had made its home upon his shoulders. He was fine. And yet, he couldn’t touch the casket. His mom would want him to touch her casket.
“Chris,” Beth whispered, resting her hand against his arm. Her eyes were concerned, her lips pulled downward as she peered into his eyes. “We’re supposed to be welcoming the guests.”
Chris glanced back toward the pews, taking a moment to watch the stream of acquaintances file into the church. He felt no responsibility for these people. There wasn’t enough room for them. “You should rest,” he told her.
“I’m fine,” Beth said, her eyes searching the crowd for their father. “I’m not in danger.”
“That’s what mom said,” Chris hissed, involuntarily glancing at her casket.
Beth stiffened, visibly swallowing her emotions. “Chris,” she whispered, taking his hands in hers. “I promise I’m okay. What happened to mom was a freak thing. It’s not gonna to happen to me.”
Chris exhaled, distancing himself from the anxiety building inside. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to be okay,” he said, holding her hands tighter. “You’re sick.”
“Yes,” she sighed.
“And you’re going to need help,” he pressed, holding her gaze.
“I know,” she said, shooting him a rueful smile. “That’s why I have you and dad… and medicine.”
Chris allowed himself to smile back. “Good. So you can let me help you right now by taking my advice. You don’t need to welcome people to mom’s funeral.”
Beth rolled her eyes. “Okay, Chris, I’ll find my seat.”
Chris nodded in relief. For the moment, there was one less weight on his shoulders.
And just as Beth turned toward the pews, Pam appeared out of the reverent crowd, shuffling her way toward them. “You know, sound carries pretty well here,” she said as she pulled up in front of them. “You two might want to talk more softly.”
“Pam,” Beth said, her voice betraying her surprise. “Thanks for coming.”
“I just wanted to support you,” Pam said, her eyes heavy with burden. “All of you,” she added as she made eye-contact with Chris. “I know I can’t fix what happened to your mother, or change the fact that you’re sick, Beth. But I can do what I can do.”
Chris fought down the lump in his chest, surprised at the anger that accompanied his sorrow. There was compassion in her eyes, along with pity, which reminded him of his pain. And that’s all anyone here was going to accomplish. Every single one of them would look at him with that same pity, each time a reminder of why he should pity himself as well.
“Thank you,” Beth said, smiling at Pam. It’s what Chris should have said, what he would have said if he hadn’t been so wrapped up in his head.
“Well I’ll go take my seat,” Pam said quietly, watching Chris with a knowing frown.
“We’ll join you,” Beth said amiably, reaching for Chris’ hand in an effort to guide him with her.
“I um, I need to do something first,” Chris said, pulling away, darting for the doors along the side of the church before Beth could object.
He couldn’t sit yet. There was too much happening inside of him to be still. He needed to move. To process the thoughts barraging his mind, like a thousand wires disconnected. He could sort it out. He could make sense of everything if only he could just escape for a while.
No one followed him as he pushed his way through the side doors. It was empty outside. Space enough so that his mind could process without distraction. The chilly air cleared his mind, providing a wave of relief as he became more aware of his senses.
The goosebumps on his arm. The brush of wind cutting through his jacket. They brought his mind into focus, temporarily dulling the unresolved thoughts in his mind. Then he pulled out his box. The carton was half-empty, the rest of it burned to ashes that morning. He didn’t want to smoke… and yet it was all he wanted to do.
His hands shook as he lit his cigarette. He told himself it was the cold. that it was the wind happening to him. The anger happening to him… then the smoke hit his lungs, providing a wave of relief. The nicotine happening to him. None of this was who he was.
And then he exhaled the smoke, and with it, the tiniest amount of burden. For the moment, the weight was lightened. It would come back heavier when he was done, but that could be dealt with then. This was now.
“Son,” Steve said, stepping through the doors. “What are you doing out here?”
Chris let out another breath of smoke, holding up the cigarette in reply.
“We’re about to start,” he said, his eyes heavy with disapproval.
“I just need to finish one, dad,” Chris said, pulling his eyes away from his father’s.
Steve hesitated, biting back a response as he watched his son take another drag. “Why?” He asked instead, his voice soft. Questioning.
Chris eyed his father, surprised at the question. “I just do.”
Steve nodded as if that made perfect sense, looking intently into his son’s eyes. Then, with a sigh, he leaned against the brick wall next to him. “I’m sorry, son,” he said, shivering through a gust of wind. “You don’t deserve this.”
Chris shrugged. “Neither do you, dad.”
“Maybe,” Steve said, his eyes laden with tears. “But it’s part of the job. You don’t know what it’s like to have children. To love someone so intensely… it’s not something you can know without being a parent yourself. I imagined all the things I would do for you both. All of the ways I could provide for you or fail you. But what I thought about most was how painful your life would be. I thought of every cruel possibility this world had to offer, and imagined that I would be there for you through it all. I thought if I could love you well enough. If I fought for you strongly enough…”
Chris looked Steve in the eyes as he trailed off. “Dad, this isn’t your fault.”
Steve nodded. “No, it’s not. And yet, every moment of suffering that you and Beth experience is my fault. And your mom’s fault. Because we brought you into this world. And in this world there is suffering… and there is love. And son, when you run from one… your run from both.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about…”
“Chris, it’s okay if you’re not ready to feel anything right now.” Steve pressed. “You don’t need to be ready. But, eventually, you’re going to have to let yourself feel what you’re feeling.”
Chris’s lips trembled as he pulled the cigarette away from his mouth. He couldn’t bring himself to respond. He knew that if he said anything in this moment, he would break. And then he broke anyway as his father pulled him into a hug, and he couldn’t hold it in any longer.
Chris dropped the cigarette as his father pulled him in tight, and then they both sobbed into each other’s arms. There were no wires. No weights. In that moment, there was only freedom. Freedom to feel and to love.
Minutes passed, and Steve didn’t let go. He held Chris until he was ready to move on. Until his son could stand on his own once more.
“I’ll give the eulogy,” Steve said once they’d wiped away their tears.
“Dad, I can give it,” Chris said, feeling lighter than he had in some time.
“I appreciate that, son, but your mother would have wanted me to give it. I was just… I was running from it. I’m done running.”
Chris nodded his understanding. “Me too,” he said eventually, stomping out the embers of his cigarette.
And, together, they walked back into the church. Wherein, Chris, without hesitation, embraced his mother’s casket.
He cried again during his father’s eulogy. As did Beth. And Pam. And Louis. And they were tears of sadness, but not just sadness. They were also tears of hope. Of remembrance. Of love.