My parents meet us downtown to collect Nick. Although it was our plan to take him along, I made different arrangements after he whispered, earlier, "I don't like funerals, mama. I get sad and then I get hot and then I cry. I don't want to get hot and cry."
He waits to cross the street with grandma and grandpa as we walk away, toward the entrance of the building where the memorial will take place; I glance back and feel my breath hitch as I say a silent prayer that neither he nor I will ever have reason to host an event such this.
On each table, a pair of Hailey's shoes perch. The menu includes her favorite foods and drinks. The dessert table is largely covered with candy, at her young daughter's insistence. Her dad, my friend, talks to the packed room in a loving, heart-wrenching, peaceful manner. I flash back to Dara's memorial; cancer cut her life and Hailey's life short when they each were the tender age of 35. That day, four years ago, I felt tears prick my eyes but I kept it together, mostly. Today, not so much. My shoulders start to shake after just a few sentences are spoken. I stare at the family and at nothing. I sense people all around me but I feel as if I am standing on my own island. No one touches, talks to, or looks at me.
Stories are shared, a microphone is passed, and tears fall. Soon, the formal program is complete and mingling resumes. I hug Hailey's cousin and say that I know how hard is to lose the equivalent of a sister and also how hard it is to be the one still alive. I watch bodies move toward and away from each other. I see hugs and tears and deep breaths. Before long, we say our goodbyes and work our way out of the room. I feel a sense of relief. I made it through another one.
Once we're in the car, I open Facebook on my phone. I scroll for a few seconds before seeing a reference to a high school friend's death. I mutter something about how it can't be. She turned 40 not long before me and I just saw her at my 20th high school reunion. I knew she was fighting against medical challenges too big for someone her age but I had no idea they were big enough to kill her. I double-check to make sure (while hoping for exactly that) it wasn't one of those posts designed to freak people out. It is real. Kelsie is dead. A big, ugly cry explodes and I silently howl as I rock forward and back, feeling the pain shoot through my soul.
We were not close - I won't pretend the size of my grief is the result of a dear friendship. During the last few years, though, we formed a bond. She complimented me on my writing and I thanked her for her blunt, real words. When she arrived at our reunion, I felt my face light up and we hugged a big, strong, real hug. I told her how glad I was she decided to come and we shared a moment that made all of our differences, and the years, melt away. We were women, moms, friends, mellowed by years and our knowledge that people are doing the best they can even when they fuck up time and time again. Our eyes shined with forgiveness and understanding for ourselves and for each other.
Each time my breathing slows to a more normal cadence, I think about Hailey's daughter and Kelsie's daughter. I wonder how many details they will remember about the women they called mom. Will they be able to recall the feeling of being hugged so tightly it hurts? Are there enough photos that captured the look of love, in case the girls don't remember? My imagination spins out of control and I start to write.
I squint as I type, eyes aching after a couple more crying jags. The car lurches a little and I glance up and out of the front windshield; the gigantic full moon glows a buttery yellow and I sharply inhale, trying to bring the beauty inside. Headphones press into my ears, the strains of Miranda Lambert's heartache songs try to drown out Bill's favorite before-I-was-born radio station. Normally, I tolerate the grating sounds but, tonight, I just can't. I press the volume buttons on my phone twice more. The maximum output is not ideal for my eardrums but it is necessary to separate me from the world.
I feel as if I am standing on the deck of a boat as it cuts through roiling waves; no matter how familiar the sensation, I hope it never becomes normal.