After gently placing the telephone receiver back in its cradle, Thomas closed his eyes and stood in silence offering a prayer for Barbara before going to tell Evie the sad news that she had passed away. “She’s free from pain now Evie,” he drew her close as her tears fell offering all the customary comforts, the platitudes that served to cover those moments of life that no one could make easier or better or give real sense or meaning to, because there was no meaning or sense, death was death, an ending that those still alive had no real ability to understand except in terms of loss and emotional pain and worse, fear for their own inevitable death.
“She wanted to live Tom, she wanted to live so much. Poor Barbara, its not fair.”
“Poor Lucy and Paul. They’ve still got a lot of pain to face. Its the living who feel the pain of death most.” Thomas wiped her eyes gently.
Evie nodded, she knew how true that was.
“What’s the matter mummy?” Martin wandered into the sitting room, still muzzy with sleep. He gazed anxiously at his parents. Something important had happened, he could tell. They each held out a hand, drawing him in, explaining that his aunt Barbara had died and that she was in heaven now. The concept of death meant little to Martin, it was a black edged word that he didn’t really understand because he had yet to come to recognition of his own mortality let alone anyone else’s and heaven, well, heaven was a misty place far away that no one ever came back from. He gazed at his mother, “does that mean that Paul won’t see her anymore?”
“Not in this life darling,” Evie spoke gently, unsure about how much reality a child should be exposed to.
Martin’s face crumpled, “but who will look after him when he’s poorly, or cuddle him when he’s sad?” He began to cry, “I don’t like God. I don’t like him. He takes people away before they’re finished with.”
Evie and Thomas exchanged sad looks, how could death be explained to a child when adults could barely comprehend it.
Martin clasped his mother’s hand tightly as they walked slowly down the church aisle following in the wake of his aunt’s coffin. His big cousin Lucy walked ahead of them holding Paul’s hand. His daddy and uncle Edward were helping carry the coffin on their shoulders. Martin stared up at it; it seemed to float down the aisle like some tragic ship covered in flowers, which sent out tendrils of cloying scent. He was supposed to be at school today, but he was here instead saying goodbye to his aunt Barbara. That’s what a funeral was, his parents had explained it to him, it was a way the living had of saying farewell to the dead. Martin shivered looking up at his mother’s face, she was crying again, so was his grandmother; he could hear her, just behind them. Martin was glad when his father took his place with them. He felt a little safer standing between both his parents.
Paul was cold; goose pimples peppered his body like icy bites. He had felt cold ever since he learned that his mother had died. Everyone kept telling him that she was at peace now and free from the terrible pain of her illness. She had gone to heaven, they told him, but she hadn’t, they had lied because she was there in the coffin that stood on the trestle at the front of the church. Paul stared at the flower-decked box, which contained his mother. He wanted to shout to her, mummy, mummy, but she couldn’t hear him, because she was dead and dead people couldn’t hear anything, that’s what being dead meant, it meant you couldn’t hear or see anyone, a boy at school had told him. Paul wasn’t sure he believed the boy at school, he wasn’t sure that he believed anything that had been said to him about his mother’s death. He felt sure that at any moment she would be there, smiling at him, asking him about his day at school, cuddling him, it was a much nicer thing to believe. He missed her; he hadn’t seen her for almost four days now. Surely she’d come back soon. He stared dumbly ahead, hands clasped in front of him.
Thomas watched his brother closely. Edward’s face was unreadable, eyes staring straight ahead, hands clasped in front of him. Paul stood in silent imitation, glancing up at his father from time to time as if looking for reassurance. Lucy stood on his other side her face wet with tears of grief, her body shaking with emotion. Her paternal grandparents comforted her. They had attended the funeral of their one time daughter in law, out of respect for Lucy and as a kind of memorial to their dead son, re-living their goodbye to him rather than participating in the farewell ceremony of his once upon a time wife.
‘Put your arm around him man, hold his hand, touch him, do something’. Thomas silently urged his brother to reach out to the little boy who stood frozen by his side.
In the Churchyard the pale April sun sent long fingers down to stroke the brass plate on the coffin lid, making it sparkle. Paul fidgeted his black tie was uncomfortably tight around his small neck, his father had fastened it that morning; he always fastened his tie tighter than his mother did. The sparkle of the sun on the coffin lid reminded him of the way the light hit the crystal beads his mother used to wear. He suddenly pictured them lying on the dressing table in his parent’s bedroom. He kept wandering in there hoping to find her sitting in front of the mirror. If her favourite beads were lying there, surely it meant she was coming back. He pictured her fastening the row of small crystals around her neck, the sun, shining through the bedroom window, bouncing playful sunbeams on each pretty bead. Paul knew she wouldn’t have left her necklace behind if she weren’t coming back. Someone stepped forward. The Minister said some more words and suddenly the coffin was being lowered into the deep black hole in the ground.
Paul stared in horror. What were they doing? “Mummy,” his voice rose in a scream, “that’s my mummy!” He started forward.
Lucy grabbed him, heaving him up into her arms feeling his tears seep into her neck.
Martin burst into tears, reaching out to his father, who swung him up into his arms.
Edward stood immobilised, isolated within the walls of his own grief. Walking away from his children he stood by the open grave staring down at the box that held his wife’s remains: ‘One more time, if only he could have held her one more time.’
Thomas comforted Martin watching as Lucy tried to comfort Paul. His heart ached for his brother’s loss, but it bled for Paul and Lucy. Too much like their father, Edward had always been too much like their own father, holding back instead of reaching out. He whispered a few words to his son, handing him over to his mother and grandmother. Taking Paul from Lucy’s arms he held the boy against his shoulder, draped an arm around Lucy and walked them across to where his brother stood by the graveside. “Your children need you Edward,” he said quietly. “And you need them.”
“Daddy,” Lucy wrapped her arms around his waist, Edward gazed down at her, and then took Paul from his brother’s arms.
Thomas walked away to rejoin his own family leaving the three of them together in the still hush of a sad spring day.