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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Funeral Faux Pas

My sister is almost nine years older than I am. We are opposites and often refer to ourselves as the "country mouse" (her) and "city mouse" (me). We've always gotten along, mostly because I'm affable and forgiving and this allows her to be her grumpy revolutionary self. And I love her, just as a crotchety old man's character is often more lovable because of its rough edges, because of what they hide. We all know that underneath that roughness is a soft sensitive pulp.

My sister recently brought up something that happened at our mother's funeral 26 years ago. My mother had lived out most of her life between two cities, and the plan was to have the funeral ceremony in Houston, Texas where she and I lived, then bury her in Fort Worth, Texas near her parents and other family.

I was eighteen at the time and devastated because my mother had been a troubled soul, in and out of my life, and I was very protective of her. My love felt as much like longing, as if she were a lover always walking away. In her last few years I felt she'd finally returned for good and I left Fort Worth to be with her, to enjoy her presence as the mother I always knew she could be.

Her death was a blow it would take a long time to recover from, and the thought of watching her body placed in the ground was more than I could handle.

I followed the other mourners from Jack Rowe Funeral Home to Interstate 45 which led straight through to Fort Worth. About 45 minutes into the drive I decided I couldn't do it. I couldn't see my mother buried then leave her there and come home, to the city that had been "our" home. I turned around.

Several hours later I got a call from my sister's husband asking why I hadn't come. I couldn't put my reasons into words at the time and felt terrible because my absence not only hurt my sister but disappointed her. This moment was what my sister wanted to remind me of recently, because she's never forgiven me for it.

I'm long past eighteen now and looking back, I'm embarrassed at my immaturity then. I also understand that the girl I was then had lost her mother many times over the years, had watched her hero fall victim to depressions and suicide attempts on several occasions. That girl wasn't ready to see the person she loved most in this world dropped in a black hole and covered up forever.

My mother's body wasn't found for more than twelve hours so her casket was closed which meant I hadn't seen her face for three days. As mourners often do, I fantasized that she was still in this world, maybe as a conscious spirit or an angel. I'm not sure I gave my wishes words, I just felt she was more alive than dead. How could it have seemed any different? I'd loved her for 18 years and she'd been dead for only 3 days. I wanted to argue the matter, deep down, change roles with my sister and be the revolutionary, albeit a passive one. I would deny the death had happened, put off its reality a little longer by avoiding its visual finality.

I don't think I could ever make my sister understand these feelings. She's a take-charge, no-shit girl, a practical warrior who occasionally fights for fun. I feel too much, think too much, and she would consider my excuses soft and selfish. She'd say I need harder edges, a stronger shell.

Of course, I'm older and wiser now, and I would make different choices. I would go to the burial and I would stand there and watch. I would hate it but it's what we're supposed to do and there are others to think about, support. I've been seasoned by other funerals and I know how fragile the dynamic is, how so many are barely holding on and often times our roles are reversed. Maybe that's why my sister is still angry; maybe she needed me there at that moment her soft pulp was exposed.


  1. There's much I could say here, but it seems to me that you have, as a thinking person, matured further than your sister.

  2. Oh Teresa this is very poignant. Hindsight is a strange and distorting thing, but if (god forbid) you were in the same situation without it's benefit now, you would still act the same and so would your sister; because of the people you were then & the choices you had made until that time.
    There's a bit in Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett is deliberately distracted to take her away from the sound of the earth dropping on her fathers coffin; out of kindness so that she doesn't hear the finality of that sound.

  3. We can only be what we are, at a certain moment in time, if the roles were reversed would you have been angry, or understood, if you had been there and your sister not? Maybe your are right Teresa,some people express fear as anger....but everyone reacts differently to extreme loss. Pain is personal. Your words are gentle but the message has great strength.