Son’s button up white shirt is too small, but if I cover it with a sweater vest, we might get away with it. He is okay with the dressy clothes because it gives him a chance to wear the clip on tie he got for his Aunt’s wedding. He sometimes puts the tie on his t-shirts, until I make him take it off so we don’t lose it. He pretends to be the President giving a speech in his regal attire, the blue-green geometric pattern over the top of his My First Hard Rock Café t-shirt from San Antonio when his daddy was on a work trip. But the sweater makes him mad. “Don’t cover up my tie!” he shouts at me. I try to assure him that we can still see his tie and it looks nice, but he pouts and sulks and declares, “Fine! I’m not going!” I have no patience. I grab his chin and force him to look at me.
“You are going. You are going to be respectful. You are going to remember not to run or yell or act happy. You will behave. And you will do what you’re told. You don’t want to wear this sweater. I don’t want to wear these shoes. And I’m sure that Nate’s* mom and dad don’t want to bury their son. But we have to.”
Son’s face crumples. He is scared and upset, and not over a sweater, but they don’t teach the vocabulary of death and loss and funerals in Kindergarten. There, it’s all play grounds, swings, hats, and balls. Pink and blue and green. Not black. Not death. Not bury.
I sit next to his covered face and try to pull him to me, but he resists. I say as carefully as I can, “This is important. We’re going to say goodbye, and it’s important we do so. Some things hurt. Some things are awful. A sweater covering your tie isn’t one of them. Not right now. Think of Daddy. This is his second funeral this weekend. Yesterday, he went to one for a baby that didn’t even get the chance to live outside her mommy’s body. That’s hard on Daddy. So for his sake, and for mine, please, be a good boy. You’re a big boy, and you can do this.”
He cries for a bit and then goes quietly to his room where he lays down and falls asleep. A nap might do him good, so I leave him to sleep while I finish getting myself ready and start thinking about Daughter’s outfit. She has one dress with somber colors. Everything else is cheery bright pink and purple and blue. Stores aren’t in the habit of carrying a lot of funeral clothes for toddlers and babies. A gray and black striped t-shirt dress with black leggings will have to do. Her cuteness in the dress is like an antidote to the weight of the task we go to do. A careful ponytail in her hair will complete her look, and I make sure not to make it too jaunty. I don’t know why I think that her jaunty ponytail of normal days might offend someone, but I still go out of my way to make sure all the bases are covered, all the feelings are considered.
Entering the funeral home, there is a heartbreaking mix of young and old. Some teenage girls stand huddled together crying. Nate’s classmates. They are beside themselves with grief, one in particular catching my eye. She’s miserable. I wonder briefly if she was his girlfriend. Is his girlfriend, I remind myself. She’s still alive. I’m glad to see her ring of friends with her, all of them teary and sad, but touching her back, holding her hand. She breaks away from them to give Nate’s mother a long, sobbing hug. It is a touching moment, one I hope never to see again.
We find our own family, stand around for a few minutes, comment on the surroundings. I make sure to sign the guestbook. Of course, Son has to use the bathroom as soon as we get there. I’m forced to take the tour of the funeral home in search of a bathroom when I would have preferred to scope out the place quietly, slowly. This ocean of somber faces hurts in too large of a dose, so I look at my feet. We find the bathroom and Son is, as usual, too loud and too interested in playing in the water as he washes his hands. I spy a box of Kleenex and swipe a bunch. I’ll need them. I steel myself to usher Son back through the throng, the quietest crowd I’ve ever walked through excepting church. As we return to the sides of Mike and his family, I look him in the eye with a question on my face. He ignores me. He follows his brother in law to a room with more chairs, leaving our kids with their grandparents. He’s talking about winterizing our camper. I tell him we should go talk to Nate’s parents. He looks at me in despair, “I don’t think I can.” His voice is flat, quiet, scary. I nod. “You can. Talk to them. So they know we’re here for them. We’ll talk to them together.” I take his arm and lead him to the room where Nate is laid out. We see Nate’s aunt, his mom’s sister, a friend who was indispensable in helping us set up the benefit we threw for Mike’s sister last year before her brain surgery. Mike heads to her, hugs her, and surreptitiously looks around. He sees Nate’s mom talking to a large group. She hasn’t seen us yet, but that’s okay. I think we need a minute to shore up our reserves.
“How are they?” Mike asks the aunt. She nods. “She’s keeping busy and hanging in there. His little sister doesn’t understand. But he’s not doing as well,” she inclines her head to Nate’s dad. We see him with some family, nodding solemnly. An air of despair clouds around him, and his eyes have a far away glassy look. They are ringed red, and who could blame him? He’s lost his first born to an illness they spent 13 years fighting. They’ve become used to hope and optimism because they’d beaten the odds before. This grief is a new jacket he must don, and he’s unsure of how to wear it. So his shoulders slump under its weight. We hope for him that he will grow strong beneath it, so that maybe it won’t feel like a straight jacket and will instead seem less oppressive as time goes on. Knowing how I would be for my own kids I know that as parents, they will always grieve. What was lost, what will never be, what could have been.
Nate’s mom sees us and breaks away to come say hello. I hug her tight, fighting tears and saying the forever inadequate words of sorrow. But I try to pull it together. It is her son in the casket, not mine. I shouldn’t hug her for my own comfort but to offer it to her should she need it. She lets go, hugs Mike, whose jaw works as he tries to control himself and say the things he wants to say. We talk quietly for a bit, and I don’t know how she’s capable of her level of poise. She is in the role of comforter at this point, accepting sorrow graciously and keeping herself in check. I don’t know if this is the result of having had years of the word ‘terminal’ hanging over their heads or if she’s just this strong. Regardless, I let her know our intentions to make them dinner some night in the future, when all the casseroles and pies have dried up and been eaten, when the well wishes have slowed in frequency, and the silence in their home starts to reveal the hole left in Nate’s wake. We will be there, with pork chops and mushroom wine cream sauce. We will bring over bread, and steamed broccoli. Some homemade mashed potatoes. The good kind, with the lard in them. We will not skimp for the instant no matter how well we like the brand we found. They are our friends, and worth the effort. She thanks us, chuckles a little that she hasn’t eaten yet and we’re making her hungry, all this talk of food. The conversation begins to lag. We ask her to convey our condolences to her husband, who is still talking to family. We don’t wish to intrude.
“Deep breath,” I say as we both turn to look, finally, at the casket, the large elephant in the room. He nods, clenches his jaw, and grabs my hand. I assure him that he can do this. We walk over, stopping about three feet away. This is the closest Mike can come to the mortality that stole over the bright and vigorous boy who we knew as Nate. Mike grips my hand harder. We stand in silence. Nate is wearing a Yankees cap, and his baby blanket is draped over the lower half of his body. A teddy bear and picture are propped up in the corner, the things he wanted with him. Incongrous, child things, man things, in between things. He’s in a full sized casket, but he’s not a full sized man. He was robbed of that opportunity when he was three, diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that he danced with his entire life. We note his lack of a tie. Of course no 13 year old wants to wear a tie. The smiling face of the large picture next to him will be forever frozen in wry, thirteen year old humor.
We cannot bring ourselves to stand there long, each in our own way saying goodbye, turning to the easel containing pictures of his life, and then we leave the room, incapable of withstanding the weight bearing on us any longer. Standing next to our family, I ask Son if he wants to go say goodbye. He nods quietly. He once played with Nate, running around and having a good time, not realizing Nate was sick. He didn’t look sick. Mike looks at me with bleak eyes and I assure him that I will take Son in myself. He doesn’t have to go with us. So I do. I bring Son to his friend, pick him up so he can see, so he can say his own goodbye. And then I show him the pictures, turn one more time and we whisper together goodbye. Son doesn’t cry, but he looks like he’s seen a ghost.
Soon, we leave, and in the car on the way home, we cry. It’s not fucking fair.