Amanda wound up wearing her leather pants to Dad’s wake. I wore my gray Gunne Sax dress and sat in a folding chair, cocooned by seven or eight girlfriends who had pulled their chairs around me. Their eyes were fixed on me, but mine were set on the coffin, only ten feet away. Mom thought I was too young to wear black, but I guess she figured I was old enough to help her pick out Dad’s coffin.
Just the day before, I sat in the undertaker’s wood-paneled office listening as Mom answered a series of questions. A man in a dark suit and white starched shirt sat behind a large desk and wrote her answers on a clipboard.
“Do you want him cremated?” the man asked.
“Do you have a funeral plot?”
“Will it be a religious wake?”
“How many people do you expect?”
“Do you want an open or closed casket?”
Mom sat straight up in her seat, cocked her head to one side confused and I understood why she brought me along. This man might as well have been speaking Cantonese. This was a new role for her: Dad was the one who handled practical things. He paid all the bills, filled out all the forms, hired the handymen. And so she answered each question hesitantly, with a shaky voice, her bottom lip quivering.
It hadn’t stopped quivering since Dad died. I had seen this expression before, but mostly on TV. It was her trademark: she’d bite her bottom lip, wrinkle her forehead and then her chin would shake. It always irritated me and I never once thought it was sincere, until now. I wanted to reach over and hold her face between my hands to steady her chin, to wipe away her tears. Instead, I just sat there, feeling useless. I was no help at all.
But then, this man asked, “What type of coffin?”
Mom stared at him and shrugged, prompting him to pull out a three-ring binder filled with glossy photos, which he placed in front of us. I flipped through until I saw a shiny, deep purple-y red mahogany casket with royal blue velvet lining.
“This is it, Mom,” I said. “This is what Dad would want.”
In a way, it felt like we were shopping for a celestial car, one that would zoom Dad to Heaven. He had only ever driven a Mercedes Benz as long as I could remember, so mahogany with brass hardware and royal blue velvet lining seemed fitting. It was the Mercedes Benz of coffins.
Nodding his head, the undertaker agreed and said, “Your daughter has excellent taste.”
Mom sighed, and said, “She gets that from her father.” Then she asked for the price and I felt instantly ashamed. How could she be thinking of money at a time like this?
The figure he quoted was high enough to shock Mom out of her sad stupor. “That’s ridiculous,” she said, then softened. “It’s more than we can afford.”
She continued flipping through the book, her hands shaking along with her lower lip, tears splashing onto the laminated pages and I wondered if that was why they were laminated. She finally settled on an oak casket with no lining—a waste of money as, even the undertaker agreed, Dad’s face and body were so badly smashed up that a closed coffin was the only way to go.
Sitting in the funeral home staring at the casket, I wished it were mahogany. But then I saw Mom, standing an arm’s length from her husband’s body, thanking people for coming, nodding her head as they told her how sorry they were and agreeing with others about how awful it was. I realized it just didn’t matter.
I spent most of that night comforting my friends, especially Adrianna, the girl who addressed all notes to me throughout seventh grade as MBF, short for My Best Friend, and signed them, YBF. We were no longer close friends, but Adrianna was crying so hard that her face was slick with tears and snot, her wailing mouth webbed with saliva. “It’s going to be okay,” I told her, over and over. I didn’t mind though. It gave me something to do.
My siblings were like zombies. Dan stood with two friends, his hands shoved in his gray flannel slack’s pockets, kicking at a spot on the floor. Amanda sat with her best friend Anna in one corner, stony-faced. And Diana stayed home. Mom thought she was too young for such sadness and instead brought a photograph of her and Dad to place on the casket. It had been taken the summer before: Dad standing in the shallow end of our pool, waist deep in water, with Diana on his hip, her pale arms wrapped tightly around his neck, her freckled face smashed against his as if she wished she were clay and wanted to mold into him. They were both smiling so hard, it was surprising the frame could contain the happiness of that moment, surprising that it didn’t shatter into a million pieces, floating all over the funeral home like dust.