Last night I went to a viewing. It was a friend of my family's since I was a little girl. Actually since my Dad was a little boy. But the death was not his generation. It was mine. The widow is forty years old. It was awful. Except for a sort of lovely awareness that this was a good man and he had loved deeply and had been deeply loved.
But I do not wish at all to sentimentalize the tragedy of this man's death. This husband of eighteen years. This father of a ten and thirteen-year-old. I looked them in the eye and saw trauma. Pure and simple. Absolute fear and pain. I'm not sure I've ever seen it in a rawer form than looking that boy, that ten-year-old son, in the eye.
When I walked by him in the receiving line my father was just ahead of me. Dad held the boy's hands up, "See these big hands? He's got man hands." And all I could do is cover that man/boy hand with my own. As if somehow a power of motherly God-ness would flow through me into him. I guess I thought maybe that was the hand that touched his father's cold dead arm earlier this week? I didn't know what else to do but sandwich his sweet hand between my father's and my own.
Later my mother and I were sitting in the middle of the room watching all that was going on around us in that uncanny ritual of people parading in front of the casket. I looked over at my girl-hood friend and then at her mother and grandmother standing further up the receiving line. "A family full of widows." I said this to my mother. Really, I think, no family should ever see three generations of widows standing together in a line.
I remember a decade ago when Brian and I sat together in church on a Sunday morning and heard the report that one of our church's respected leaders had cheated on his wife. It was a horrible morning. We were new to the church and really didn't know the people involved. But I remember well the shock of recognition swirling in my gut. That this had happened to this kind of couple meant this could happen to us. To me. To Brian. I looked at him strangely for days afterward. Like the power of someone else's tragedy inserted itself between him and me. Like a thick, blurry wall of glass. That I had to look at him from a distance in case someday I'd have to separate myself from him and needed to get an idea of what he'd look like that way.
That's the same kind of cold, clammy shock that creeped through me while I stood in front of that awful, lovely casket. I looked at the forty-year-old man, sun glasses perched on top of his head -- as was his custom. His thick, made-up lips, not yet old enough to be wrinkled or drawn, even in death. The fresh scrape on his house-building man-hands. The sliver of dirt still under his fingernail. I found myself trying to picture what Brian's lips would look like in a casket.
You might expect I'd gone home to love on him, be overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that he was healthy and full of life and trying to fix the leak in the upstairs bathroom. But I was cranky with him instead. As if the knowing that he could die at his age was his fault. That re-inserting a plate of protective glass between us, looking through with a disapproving squint would somehow protect me from being as vulnerable as the forty-year-old widow slumped on a stool, teary slits for eyes.
Like: how dare he take apart the bathroom plumbing when he could die any day now? If he really loved me he'd have called a plumber and not leave me behind with this mess.