My hand slides my safety belt over my lap and diagonally across my shoulders. The movement is involuntary. I don't want to strap myself in and go anywhere unless it is home.
My mother's words echo through me. You're not coming home. It's not an option. So that was that. I am not going to my grandfather's funeral. I am going river rafting. No flights home, she had said.We can't get you there in time. The funeral is tomorrow. Her hot, mourning breath traveled through the phone piece. I caught it in my mouth and swallowed it as my own guilt.
I curl up into a ball in the van. I let friends rub my back, bringing the remorse stirring inside of me to a low boil.
My parents arrived back at their childhood home by catching the last flight to Texas. Texas seems smaller each time they visit, their circle of family and friends closing in on them year by deathful year. The great plains of the South aren't so great anymore as strip malls and hamburger joints take over childhoods. My mother takes deep breaths as the car turns into her own mother's driveway. It is her turn to stay strong.
The van is suffocating us. Its boxcar shape closes in on us every minute. I'm relieved when we stop, but then turn angry as we step out of the vehicle and into the very definition of beauty. Today is not supposed to be about beauty. Today is supposed to be about death. I had been determined to be tetchy during this trip, but the view here has swiftly told my heart that tetchiness will not be allowed. There are trees taller than the sky, a river longer than life. Death and beauty are not allowed to collaborate. They're not supposed to even coexist.
I cheat. I tell myself Papa would want me to have fun. I succumb to the river's call by putting my hair in messy pigtails and letting the fresh water wash over me, turning my blood my favorite shade of periwinkle-blue. I hate myself for the pigtails and periwinkle-blue and for a moment abandoning my contemptuous mood for contentment.[p. 14]
My older brother arrives at Grandma-ma's. Together they fish through Papa's dusty closet, trying on his forty-two inch waistband pants and crushed blue velvet zip-ups that he had been wearing since the seventies. Grandma-ma howls with laughter, forced to take off her gaudy gold-rimmed glasses to wipe her eyes with a knuckle. My brothers have always been the entertainers. For a moment, Grandma-ma forgets her husband is dead.
We finish preparing for our trip down the river tomorrow. Our leader, Davidoh, tells us it's not a trip; it's a journey. I huff at his corniness.
I sit on the blue tarp writing a letter to Grandma-ma, trying to describe my feelings without revealing any true sentiments. This letter is for her benefit, not mine. As I conceal my feelings with words, the remorse in my stomach bubbles again.
Mike looks at me over his comic book. All the kids wonder what's wrong with me. I haven't told them. The boys all shrug and blame the unexpected moodiness on PMS. But Mike is more mature than that. He took the time to ask, so I told him.
Mike beckons me to the tree stump he is sitting on. He slaps his hands against his thighs, hard enough to make them tingle, inviting me to sit there. I don't sit, but drop down on my knees in front of him and bury my head in his lap. He takes the elastic out of my pigtails and runs his fingers through my hair until my mind becomes numb. I am so ashamed. I promised myself to never be embarrassed of my tears. I was always told that crying is a sign of strength. And here I am, hiding my face, using his swimming trunks as a Kleenex. I don't deserve to be among all this beauty.
I grind my raw and naked knees hard into the gravel beneath them, making them bleed. The stones imprint my skin.
It feels good, my punishment for being bad.
It is a short procession from the funeral home to the cemetery. It is hot outside and Grandma-ma forgot to order a canopy to cover heads; they are hot as the eulogy begins. Each member of my family takes a handful of soil and releases it over Papa's coffin. Grandma-ma lets go of eight forgotten anniversaries. Out of fifty-two, that's not so bad, she thinks. Rachel, my mother, his daughter, lets go of the prom date she loved, but whom her father did not, because his last name was Smith and not Goldstein. It's okay, she says. That lost love led me to a greater one. Michael, my father, his favorite, lets go of the pressure of being the son that Papa's drug-addicted son could never be. David, my uncle, his son, isn't there, like me. I hate that. I'd like to say let that be our only connection, but that's not fair. David is on his own journey now, and one day he'll remember that he was supposed to be there. And he will get there. He will. And then maybe he'll let go. I'm not there, but my brothers are. Aaron lets go of the day Papa was supposed to take him to see the Harlem Globetrotters, but something at work came up. Jacob lets go of the day Papa called him a fag because he is an actor, a really talented one at that. Not all of the dirt leaves my family's grasps; some stays trapped underneath their fingernails.
We set off into the South Fork of the American River in our big yellow rafts with sleep still in our eyes. We smoothly meander and glide until finally reaching a sandy opening for lunch. The six girls sit in a line, each one of us draping our arms over the knees of the one behind us. We lounge unprotected and burning in the heat, letting the sun bleach our arm hairs blonde and our skin a salmon-pink. I feel empty and good.
After the funeral, Grandma-ma's house becomes half-filled with family and Papa's former employees. They sit in fold-out chairs against the walls Papa painted the color of roses, the color of Grandma-ma's name. Papa never had many friends. That's what made him, him. He was hard. Uncle Ziggy gives a hearty, smoker's laugh about the time Papa stole his milk money. Cousin Drew remembers the day Papa walked out in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner. We hadn't even had pumpkin pie yet. Gotta go to Shreveport, he said. My employees better be at work tomorrow. I don't give a shit if it's Thanksgiving.
Before we re-submerge ourselves in the river we do an appreciation line. We all get in a line and give compliments to each other. I've always hated this activity. My friends are beautiful, but sometimes it's really hard to tell them that out loud, with my own breath. I'm surprised by the compliments we give and receive. My heart inflates with each word of acknowledgement. I feel better about releasing all the thanks I've wanted to give to my dearest friends for so long. Ryan, the girl with the skinned knees from handball, told me we could be friends the day we met on the bus when we were eight. She tells me now I don't know what I would do, or who I'd be, [p. 15]
without that day. Andrew, who used to be gawky and shy, is now handsome and confident. I need him to know that I looked up to you then, even with the dinosaur shirts and head-gear. These people all played such an important part in forming who I am today. I needed an outlet where it was acceptable for me to tell them. So I tell them, in our appreciation line, and it is okay.
If I were at Grandma-ma's, I know exactly which story I would tell: one night we went out for Chinese food. I was twelve and had gag-reflex problems with my new braces. Consequently, as we pulled up into my grandparents' driveway, I bolted inside and made it to the kitchen sink just in time. I threw up all of that night's yan-yan noodles and wontons, my vomit covering the whole surface area of the sink, at least two inches deep. Grandma-ma shrieked. I screamed. I ran into the bathroom in tears, horrified by the mess I had made. When I emerged from the bathroom I was disgusted to find that Papa had his hand immersed in my murky vomit, trying to unclog the disposal. He laughed a rough laugh, loosening some of the mucus lodged in his throat. I don't really think he was fishing for the partially chewed piece of orange chicken clogging the drain. I think he was searching for my love. I wish I had told him he had found it, but instead I only showed him an upturned, wrinkled nose.
Now we hit the real rapids, where everything actually begins.
Right forward, left back.
Front, back, back, back!
We row ourselves into a dizzy delight. The water is rough, pushing us into rocks that cut and bruise. I am dirty. The water is hard. Everything is pure. I crave the river's power as I feel the strength and truth of nature, man, and God vibrating in my bones. I am closer to my grandfather than I have ever been. I feel him most vividly in rapids named Satan's Cesspool and Hospital Bar. They are harsh, uncertain, and beautiful like him. This journey is Papa's funeral. I don't need his casket in front of me to say good-bye. He is with me now. On a day I've devoted to death, all I can think about is life.
Grandma-ma got my letter today. My parents were walking to the car, about to go to the airport after a long good-bye with inter-locked fingers and promises of visits when Grandma-ma went out to get the mail. Grandma-ma hadn't cried at the funeral, but she cried now. My letter made the funeral complete. In solitude, Grandma-ma sat on her rose couch, against her rose walls, crying out of relief, not sadness. She had the house to herself, but this was the first time in years she did not feel lonely. She could live again.
It's Friday evening. The sun sets, allowing the first stars to peek through the indigo-pink sky and moody trees, their appearance signaling the end of the week. It is time for the world to rest. It is time for me to rest. It is time for Papa to rest. I ask if we can say the Kaddish. It's been so long since I've said that prayer that I have forgotten the words. Yeetgadal v' yeetkadash sh'mey rabbah. B'almah dee v'rah kheer'utey...I mumble along, trying to follow those who actually know. But in truth, remembering the words doesn't matter because the meaning hasn't changed.
Oseh shalom beem'roh'mahv, hoo ya'aseh shalom aleynu.
He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us.
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