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The Funeral

Funerals would be the death of me.

Especially this one.

People wearing vaguely familiar lined faces shuffled past my “make like a statue” pose on the stoop of the funeral home.

“I’ll save you seats,” my sister said as she headed inside.

She walked beside one of our cousins. Second or third. I couldn’t keep all that straight.

Can I stand out here the entire time?

Waiting for my youngest son gave me an excuse to avoid the guest book and coming face-to-face with some relative who knew my name. Why did they call it a guest book at a funeral?

“I was a guest at your mother’s funeral” said no person ever.

It felt awkward for the daughter of the deceased to be signing page two of a guest book. Didn’t immediate family enter through a different door? Sit in a special room?
I imagined my dad’s second wife and her children and grandchildren would get that honor. Which was fine with me. It’s not like he had ever been a father to me anyway.

This family divorced me, my mother and my sister when my parents’ marriage had been dissolved. It irked me that they would ask about me as if they cared. I didn’t want that idle small talk. Especially not today.

Although it had been a decade since we’d buried my mother, the scents and emotions of that day hovered near the surface in my memory. Thankfully, her memorial service had been held at our church rather than in the sterile funeral home.

I tried to remember the last time I’d seen my dad alive. Maybe three years ago at my Uncle Dan’s funeral? We exchanged perfunctory hugs. I asked how he was doing, to which he gave his standard reply of “fine.” And that was the end of our conversation.

I’d learned long ago that I would have to ask questions and pester him if I wanted communication. Or I could babble on about my life—as if he cared—because he ask about my family. His grandsons. His great-grandchildren.

After a particularly cold shoulder given to my youngest son at a family reunion the year after my mother passed, I’d washed my hands of Robert Vance Wale. My children mattered more to me than attempting to manufacture a relationship with someone who’d walked away from his twelve-year-old daughter without a backward glance.

Jason rounded the corner and lifted his hand. I returned the wave, stepping out of the shadows. Just then, Uncle Dan’s ex-wife and her sister came up the steps, my aunt leaning heavily on a cane and her sister’s arm.

“Carrie. I figured you’d be inside.” She held out a hand to me. I leaned down to hug her. A whiff of drugstore perfume set my head spinning.

“I’m waiting for my son.” I held up my arm and Jason walked closer. “You might not remember Aunt Dorothy.”

He shook his head.

I gestured for the older ladies to go ahead and hung back with Jason. I soaked in warmth as I hugged him in the sideways fashion many younger folks used. His hand squeezed my waist.

“Thank you for coming. It surprised me.” Especially since the dismissive way your grandfather acted the last time you saw him.

“It was my day off. And I didn’t want you to be alone.”

Since my sister would be available for moral support—if I decided I needed some—I told my husband not to bother taking a vacation day.

“What a thoughtful son. Your parents must be proud.”

He shook his head and pressed his lips into a grimace that might have been intended as a smile.

We walked inside. I signed our names in the guest registry and shuffled into the chapel. A tri-fold presentation board displayed at the front of the room had photos of my father from childhood through recent years, even one with my mother, sister and I from a huge Wale family reunion years before.

It hadn’t hurt my feelings to take my husband’s last name. People stopped asking me if I was related to this Wale or that Wale. The answer was always yes; it was a big family. But if they didn’t want to claim me after the divorce, why should I claim them?

Jason clutched the memorial flyer bearing his grandfather’s birth and death dates as we threaded through the narrow aisle and joined my sister. She stood, letting us pass so we could be seated toward the middle of the row.

A man moved to the front of the room. His polo shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots seemed a bit informal for a funeral director. He introduced himself— one of the many nephews I hadn’t seen for decades.

Surreality enveloped me. An obituary of someone I vaguely recalled was read. A cousin I recognized gave the eulogy. No one opened a Bible. No one mentioned God or the afterlife. It couldn’t have been more different than my mother’s service. There wasn’t even a slide show of pictures from Robert Wale’s life.

Just the dozen or photos up front next to what could have been a tree stump but must be the urn for his ashes.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Goodbye, Dad.

If I had passed first, he probably wouldn’t have attended my service. Or maybe my sister would have pried him from his hermitage.

Emotion swelled in me as we stood to file past the photos, flower arrangements and urn. It wasn’t grief or sadness.

As I drew even with the urn which said, “Back to the natural world he loved” and had a magnificent buck engraved into its side, the wash of feelings made sense.

Relief.

I would never have to shrug when someone asked how my father was again. I wouldn’t have to pause by the greeting cards in June, debating whether to send him something on Father’s Day.

Now I could be an orphan indeed instead of one for all intents and purposes.

And I didn’t have to attend another Wale funeral. Ever. My last connection to the family was gone.

It’s wrong to leave a funeral with a light step. So I won’t say that I did.

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