A Wedding and A Funeral
On the long (painful) flight from the U.S. to Auckland recently I was remembering some people from my long ago, and penned this little semi-autobiographical story...
In his three days in America Brad Anders attended first a wedding and then a funeral, the marriage of one relative and the burial of another, neither close to him but reason enough to pry himself out of his going nowhere life for a short vacation. Both experiences left him in somber mood, the wedding for its unsettling sense of something lost, his long ago unrequited loves still tugging, the funeral for it’s stark reminder of mortality, his nineteen year old niece Annie lying almost ludicrously dolled up for all to see in an open casket, quite radiant though definitely not breathing and shortly thereafter reduced in the undertakers furnace to a small mound of grey ash, a portion of which was later placed ceremoniously in his hands, a small unmarked casket, for keepsake or scattering.
In an almost empty funeral parlor Brad contemplated his departed niece. Rigor mortis had begun to undo the mortician’s careful toil, the cute final smile tightening at one corner into an almost quizzical grin, the portrait of a happy exit betrayed by sagging flesh, a drooping eyelids half wink. A single tear of brown fluid stained the mascara’d cheek; and partially visible, one milky blue eye, a dead cod’s stare. Trussed up though in her prettiest finery, a red dress to counterpoint the pallid laced hands and sleek golden hair. Staring at her as though to memorise her face or wrest some close-by secret, some answer to his own incomprehension.
Later, wandering, he purchased a book on North American Indian folklore, brooded over a chapter that leaned heavily in favour of a deterministic universe, each person assigned so many breaths in their lifetime, though by whose decree or what the author did not say.
Brad did some touristy things, visited galleries, beaches, malls, embarked on a city bus tour patronized by elderly silver haired retirees, his niece’s troubling ashes all the while in his carry-all. At Laguna beach while the entire bus competed for the single roadside restroom he strolled along the sand and scattered Annie’s scorched and elemental remnants, pitted grey granules like tiny meteorites, a little furtively with so many strollers around, placing their small plastic container respectfully in a rubbish bin and here severing all further connections with his kin.
Next day the wedding – and reunion with an entirely forgotten uncle. Under a huge marquee his father’s brother slumped at a table littered with wine bottles, a carnage of leftovers, wedding cake gored by sated guests then tossed aside, dismembered poultry. Brad smirked at a sudden fantasy, his distended host visibly widening at the girth as though inflated by an invisible bicycle pump, gape-eyed in merriment like a bloated frog; better still, envisaging him as a drunken medieval knight carousing at an oaken table, swilling coarse wine and tearing flesh from the drumsticks of slain huge fowl, tossing these to snarling wolfhounds, half beast himself in his rancid matted deer hide and pleasured grunting. Smiling at his uncle, though in collusion with his own pleasing imagery.
Out on the dance floor a relentless local band ran Elvis hits, the wedding guests a melee of jostling revelers, ties and jackets surrendering to too much lunch, shrieking wives and predatory husbands liberated from their marital shackles and intent on misbehaviour.
Now a huge hand clamped onto his shoulder and he turned to greet another drunken relative, a blast in his ear “Bradford, stone the crows! Long- time-no-see! Remember your cousin Jay?” Almost smothered in a hard embrace of dark suit and alcoholic breath. Cousin Jay weaving his way to the bathroom. “We’ve gotta lot to catch up on. Be right back!” Brad escaping out of the marquee mayhem and narcotic dreams of happiness into sunlight, real air, a calm suburban street.
On the long-haul flight home Brad scanned his book of North American Indian myths and legends, made plans. Shortly after takeoff a sound like a cricket ball hitting a wall was heard – the captain shortly after announced a rare collision with a large seabird. Nothing to worry about – everyone relax. A tea trolley wheeled along the aisle then he dozed, a troubled half sleep. Dreamed of a vengeful and battered seabird tearing open the exit hatch, passengers sucked out of the stricken jet, the plane falling like a shot duck trailing feathers, a rain of plastic frozen meals, carry-ons, drink trolleys, seat cushions and dollar bills, the slow parabola of confetti trash hemorrhaging out of the doomed plane like detergent bubbles streaming from a kid’s plastic bottle.
Other images and feelings floated up like debris from a shipwreck, mostly absurd, his uncle’s pink bald head; his own shadow striding before him across the wrinkled wasteland and yellow sunset at Laguna Beach; himself in grey shorts as a school boy, holding his dead mother’s cold claw hand under her blanket; the triumphant, vengeful seabird steering the holed jet down into the sea; then Annie’s dead blue eye and knowing smile. Had she simply used up her allocated quota of so many breaths, her departure ordained by some implacable Destiny?
He marveled at the brevity of her life, the surprise of it, remembered her on a farm gate aged ten, her unkempt yellow hair swinging across the green backdrop of hills and sky, a swathe of luminous silk as she teetered, dared herself, twirled on the wooden fence. Fallen now as though in slow motion across the short span of ensuing years, into this cheap plywood box despite the mother’s upraised supplicating hands. The images swelled in his mind, these two reference points of her life, the gleeful pirouettes of her childhood and now this last cheerless valediction, the remembered halo of golden hair now ceremonially gelled into an unlovely perfection, hard and brittle as spun glass.
Over Sydney, uninterested in views of shoreline petrol bunkers, storage silos and sprawling suburbs, Brad watched a ‘Welcome to Australia’ video until the wheels thumped hard, ran the gauntlet of immigration, then upstairs sat in the unyielding plastic chairs and gazed out through acres of window at take-offs and landings, other lives in flight, saw past this the cheerful indifferent blue of sky, felt his own years flying away against the matrix of emptiness.
He wondered what he could honestly say if some judging, censorial God asked him what he had achieved or learnt in his life, felt overwhelmed by a big nothingness and answered nothing, nothing. Sat bolt upright now and tried to keep his mind still, watched his slow breath and wondered if it was true what they said, that you have a finite and predetermined number allocated to you, only so many in-breaths and out-breaths to circumscribe your life.
His onward flight was called and he walked to the gate, empty as a hollow reed, pondering what he could do if he had only five hundred breaths left- something heraldic, final? – counted upwards and searched his thoughts desperately, mind surging ahead of the ebb and flow of flesh, a race to find something definitive before the air flowed slowly out of his lungs for the last time.
On the crest of his 500th breath, they were still hauling out over the dull grey sea, banking east into sunlight that splintered golden cabin light, last leg home, and he let the counting carry him beyond his last breath to wherever it was he would go. Far below an arrowhead of gulls moved slowly over the sea and something of himself stirred in beauty and hope. Beneath the wedge of wandering birds the long skeins of ocean moved against the land and broke. I wish I could sit at a window and watch the sky all day he thought. I wish I knew how many breaths were left and what to use them for. Then suddenly, strangely, at last wept for his niece Annie, remembering the mascara’d cheeks and gelled hair, the lonely blue eye seeking kinship or tenderness, feeling in his pockets the last granules of her, Annie’s cruel and hard remains.