I spent the better part of the morning of my mother’s funeral trying to get her to go back and pick up her eulogy.
“It’s on the kitchen counter…” I started
You’ve said that before.
“Because it is!”
About my prescriptions. Your homework. Remember when you called me fifteen minutes before Mr. Rodger’s history presentation and you’d forgotten your diorama of the Battle of the Bulge? The one I’d helped you make all weekend. Remember how I got it there on time? And the drive itself was at least ten minutes…
“But this is different. I’m sure it’s right there. Next to the phone, I think.”
See, you’re not sure.
“You have all morning!”
And you don’t?
“No. I’ve got to talk to the caterers. And make sure the string quartet leader gets the check for the music. And to go through the flip of the space as we go from the service to the reception part of the day. Christ, Mom! That sounds like a goddamn wedding! Why did you want this thing, ‘to be like a party, I just happen not to be at?!?’ Uggh. Nevermind.”
I could help with some of that.
“No you can’t. But you could go get that damn eulogy.”
Someone from the catering team came up. Did I like the way the cold cut station was set up? I eyed it warily. “Yes. Everything looks fine. Thanks so much.” I surveyed the other goings’ on and straightened a bunch of chairs. I went up to the mic and did a brief sound check. After the obligatory, “check one, two, check, check” the family friend acting as AV guy and emcee asked if I wanted to try out any part of my speech. “I’m still working on it,” I said. He laughed and told me I sounded just like my mother. I wandered the space hands steadily becoming clammier and then as convinced as I was going to be that nothing was going truly catastrophically, I went outside the venue. I found her looking at a small garden. She was flicking the Black-eyed Susans as they veered East and around the building in the morning streaked sunlight.
“So, are you going to go, or what? Is this one of those things that I need to sweat for a while so that I appreciate how good you are, because I’m sweating. And I definitely appreciate you. So, can you, like, go now?”
“Can’t or won’t?”
Well, the guests will be arriving shortly, and someone might need me.
“That’s exactly why I need to be here! And don’t you think we’re not really gonna start without you?”
Where is it again?
“On the kitchen counter. Or maybe in my bathroom? I was editing in there this morning.”
Remember how sure you were, it was in the kitchen?
“Okay, fine. New plan. Just get me my laptop. That’s definitely on the couch. It won’t have my notes from this morning, but I can read it off the screen and I know for sure it’s on your desk in your office.”
I’m sorry, Honey, I can’t go
“And what would you have me do?”
If I were you, I would take 15 minutes, collect yourself and try to figure out what you want to say on the back of a bar napkin. No one will blame you for not saying hello to everyone just yet. It’ll sound better coming from the heart, anyway.
“But why can’t you do it?”
Well everyone is here to say hello to me.
“I guess that makes sense. Why don’t you go stand by the guest log and make fun of the people being too saccharine about you? Isn’t that something you joked about near the end?”
I don’t know if she did. I never seemed to see her move anymore, it was more like she was either there or she wasn’t and I never saw her come and go. For me, I ended up doing exactly like she said, and like a thousand times before, I did it cursing her. That she was right. That she wouldn’t help me. That she wasn’t here.
People spilled in. Lollygagging in my grief, as I had for the last week, it was easy to forget how many other people loved my mother. I still didn’t see where she went off to this time. I began to feel the familiar slosh of my stomach five inches north of its ideal location. Glad hand. Hug. Stroke wrinkled yet tear-smoothed cheek. Repeat. Smile pained, but winsomely, and know how strong I am. Retreat. Definitely retreat to a corner.
You always did hate public speaking.
“There you are! Fuck, you scared me. Find anyone good out in the crowd?”
You know, the old art crowd. I can’t believe Jeffrey got a tattoo at his age…How are you holding up?
“Please don’t ask me that…everyone can’t stop asking me that. Also, I think you saw that tattoo before? In the hospital maybe?”
Oh it’s all a blur. Morphine does that.
I didn’t have anything to say. Morphine does that. Grief does that. Exhaustion caring for a dying person does that. I can’t remember what I did yesterday…right, picked up the ashes and talked to the foundations people about the named fund in her honor. No wonder I forgot that damned eulogy on the counter.
“You should sit down.”
She was already gone.
“I was just going to do that, but do you need any water? A shoulder rub? Wine?” It was my mother’s best friend.
“No no no. I’m fine. Would you believe I’m still tinkering with what I’m going to say?”
“It’s understandable. How do you summarize a life in five minutes? Especially one like Gina’s? Leaving a grand vacancy like she did.”
“Actually she won’t go away.”
“Yeah, places still remind me of my husband. Anyway it’s time”
I paced the staff kitchen that was standing in as a back stage area a few last circles. I strode out towards the podium, my heels slapping the concrete floor just a little too emphatically. I was alone. On stage, I cleared my throat. “I started today,” I faltered, “trying to convince my mom to bring the copy of her eulogy I forgot on the kitchen counter. Everyone who knew my mother knew how stubborn she was, and probably knows where this is going—you’re all going to have to bear with my thoughts off the cuff…”
A melancholic chuckle coursed through the audience in slow sputters, each person appreciating in his or her time some time they had wrestled with the woman who wouldn’t stop grappling with me, oblivious to how literally I meant it.
I looked down at the napkin and up and out to the back of the room where the faces blurred into a friendly impressionist swath of empathy gathering the energy to keep going. From the last row, she shrugged her shoulders, like, “What did you think was going to happen?”
Miranda Paley grew up in Denver Colorado, and thus misses both snow and skiing. She attended Denver School of the Arts for Creative Writing before taking a hard left turn into science with a biochem major at Grinnell College in the cornfields of Iowa, including a semester abroad in Denmark studying their health care policy. After graduation, she worked at a research assistant at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics at University of Colorado Boulder. She has been a PhD student in organic chemistry at UC Irvine since March 2010 and will graduate in the next year, Science willing and the crick don’t rise. She hopes to pursue a career in science writing and communication and is currently an intern with Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical communications division. She always forgets some important piece of paper or other.