As Mrs. Brewer entered the room, we held our collective breath. We knew she wasn’t going to show up at the viewing until the last ten minutes, she had said that much to one of us, who then told all of us, and we didn’t fault her one bit for that because who wants to sit around and receive people’s condolences at her own son’s funeral. That may come off as bitter, but we really aren’t—we understand. Because of that understanding, we decided to receive each other, to do what she could not, to nod when one of us said, “So young” and another of us said, “Such a tragedy.” We nodded and wept and rubbed each other’s backs and gave hugs and introduced ourselves and shared vague recollections we transformed into full-blown memories and gazed at an enlarged picture of him in his high school baseball uniform, such a champ just a few years ago. We didn’t really know him all that much other than that he was her son, the loner, the kid who kept to himself, the one who certainly none of us thought was to blame for breaking his poor mother’s heart. We tried to manage our sadness, to look sad enough but not so sad as to be self-indulgent. We weren’t competitive in our sadness, which can so often happen at funerals, perhaps because the mother wasn’t here and there was nothing to prove, no one to show off to other than each other and when that’s the case, what’s the point?
Our collective breath held, the air quickly stagnated with the dense smell of lilies and other flowers, and as Mrs. Brewer moved slowly, we could see the floral scent waft around her, enveloping her, pushing her forward and inviting her to the front of the room. There had already been a bare path for her to walk—we knew she was coming any minute, and we all took our places—and our only movement was the slow turning of our heads as she walked forward. Her walk was at once tentative and determined, scared and fearless. She was a stout woman, barely reaching five feet high, but decidedly breaking that distance around her midriff. She wore a pale pink wool suit, bucking the customary dark colors, which was so like her, something we privately admired but publicly derided, her tendency to do the exact opposite of what everyone else did. The trim around the skirt, which reached just past her knees, was black and her heels, into which her ham hock feet were stuffed, were also black so perhaps that was her nod to tradition. She had the air of someone who was unsteady, and we all watched her feet to make sure that they weren’t buckling under the weight of her body and her grief. She didn’t cry, which was a blessing as she seemingly had more make-up on than the corpse of her son. Oh, don’t judge us, you don’t know her and this is how we talk to one another anyhow—no one, certainly none of us, is immune to our collective judgment, and perhaps this bitterness was just a defense mechanism because we have sons, brothers, nephews, neighbors, coaches, and friends who are his age, who do what he did, and this catty bitterness was a way for us to fight off what we all knew—that any one of us could be her. We are interchangeable when death and grief come calling and the arbitrariness of who gets selected, of who gets that boney finger pointed at her, is frightening.
She wobbled and wiggled, the super plush carpet comprised of wool and the tears of hundreds of mothers who came before her threatening a fall, but promising a soft catch if the probable became possible. She was held up by our collective stare and phantom hands pushing the air around her. When she got close enough to see his nose sticking up out of the coffin like Everest, the tears gathered at the edges of her eyelids, but she fought them back, determined that we would not see her cry. She was right to be concerned—we would use her vulnerability against her later, perhaps unknowingly.
The gossip had already started, the wafting smell of brown liquor emanating from her doorway when we made our visit but were refused entry. Who could blame her? Though, we all knew this wasn’t the first time the brown liquor was retrieved from the yellow and lime green cabinet above her refrigerator. We all knew that it didn’t take a family tragedy for the tart odor to envelope her—it barely took a broken nail. That was why he left and got involved with the wrong crowd, we whispered to each other. That’s not to say that we think she caused this, no. We just can’t help but point out a certain sequence of events.
The peak of Everest became but one part of the landscape of his face and, as she moved even closer, his brow and lips pushed up and created a small mountain range. Within a few more steps, she was unable to fight back the tears, letting her vulnerability crash into the room, into us, into the flowers, into him. It was his hands—laid delicately across his abdomen, the left over the right, the thumbs crossed—that got her, that made her lose any control. Those hands. The little hands that grasped her single finger when he was an infant. The hands that drew that picture of her in red and blue crayon that still hung on her refrigerator. The hands that first wrapped around a baseball bat and the hands that caught a homer. The hands that did homework, sitting at the Formica kitchen table every night while she looked on, pretending to do the dishes. The hands she saw cuffed together at his trial. It was the hands that got her.
Down she tumbled. Out came the wail. We held back for half a second too long, then all lunged to her, scrambling to be first to catch her. But, even if all of us had reached her in time, the weight of her grief (not to mention her body) would have crashed to the ground regardless. Abandoning all hope in the catch, we extended our hands to help her up off the floor, but she didn’t—or couldn’t—take them. We had to spend what seemed like the longest three minutes of our lives with her writhing on the ground, wailing and crying, rolling all around like one of those toys you can’t knock over. We were embarrassed for her. If only she had let herself cry, if only she had some earlier, if only she hadn’t created such an unbearable build-up of emotion.
Later, one of us will hypothesize that this build-up, and the literal downfall, was no accident. She wanted us to see this, to be a part of her drama, that somehow this . . . this scene was a part of her grief. While she risked revealing a great amount of vulnerability that was our own personal manna from heaven, she also accomplished something else. She was now the grieving mother, the one that broke down (and fell down!) at her own son’s funeral, and we were all standing there waiting for it to happen, the witnesses and gossips that would make sure everyone who couldn’t make it would know. She had that power over us now, that excuse that would go on to excuse everything she would ever do wrong, because all she had to do now was utter his name—no, the first syllable of his name, the remaining syllables choked back with tears—and all would be forgiven, excused, understood. The hypothesis will be meet with feigned doubt, but we all know that she’s capable of this kind of calculation.
When she did get up off the floor, refusing anyone’s hand for help, she walked over to the casket and knelt. We tried to look concerned and touched, but the drama that had just occurred, so drastically juxtaposed against the calm grief now displayed before us, had been tiring. We just wanted this to be over already. After all, she had arrived ten minutes prior, but we’d been there for hours and it wasn’t like we could have left right then, no, that would have been rude. So we stood, waiting, watching her pray for a self-indulgent amount of time.
Finally, she crossed herself and looked up from her pensive pose and stared at her son. Our hearts began to break for her again. Yes, Mrs. Brewer, you use this for as long as you need to. We will forgive you, excuse you, and try to understand the pain of losing a son twice—once to his law-breaking ways and second to a stabbing in the prison to which he had been sentenced. We understand it all.