How do you decorate for a party you never wanted to attend? How do you fill a room with cheer when no cheer can possibly be found?
“What would he want?” we asked ourselves over and over again, as if it mattered, as if he’d care. The reality is he wanted this party even less than we did.
“There has to be something on the tables,” I said, my sister agreeing with me. “I don’t want floral arrangements,” my mother interjected, “it’s not a wedding.”
“Photos?” I suggested.
“No,” my father replied emphatically. He had two requests for the whole event: no photos in the main room and an open bar.
“Orchids,” my sister advised, “on every fourth table.” She went to school for this type of thing, she had the eye.
Orchids it was. On every fourth table. The rest could simply be empty. We put photos in the entrance and on the dessert table in the side room, but none in the main room. Everyone drank for free and ate from an Italian-inspired buffet. There were hundreds of jokes told, speeches given and an ex-UCLA cheerleader even taught us all the 8-clap, my brother’s school’s cheer.
“Amazing tradition.” Jeff Goldblum’s character says in The Big Chill, “They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can’t come.”
Andrew would have hated all the attention, but he would have loved to have all of his friends gathered together, eating, laughing, drinking, cheering on his Bruins.
It’s been five months since my brother died, five months since those orchids were placed on a table where we, his family, held court, greeting the over 400 people in attendance.
We had just been there, months before, and yet, too soon, we were back there again, this time a different centerpiece, a different loved one dead. Three funerals in eighteen months. Three great parties we couldn’t enjoy.
Enjoying things used to be so easy. Natural. Now my life is the antithesis of lighthearted, every happy moment a reminder of who is no longer there to share in it.
Drinking used to be fun, now it just exacerbates the sadness. Everything exhausts me, so even the smallest event is difficult to attend. Sleeping wins every argument within myself of what to do. I don’t want to travel, I don’t want to move. I don’t want to stay up late.
I can’t even enjoy sex anymore. This thing that defined me in so many ways professionally and personally, that helped me both escape from and journey into myself, is now overwhelming, the vulnerability it requires impossible to endure.
The only people I can handle being around are the closest of friends who will ask me the right thing or absolute strangers who will ask me nothing. It is impossible to pretend I am enjoying myself anymore. I can no longer fake it in a crowd.
The orchids we fought so hard to keep alive, are black and brown, their soil full of mold. Yet, they sit there still, on my sister’s back porch, none of us able to throw them out, to accept that the party is over.
We are not ready to get back to our lives.
I want to go back there, to that room full of distractions. I want to sing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” with my cousins as we all surround our grandfather, Poppo, dancing with him, showing him we will keep him up as the weight of the death of his wife of 65 years attempts to bury him.
I want to stand in the bar in the middle of a circle of my closest childhood friends, laughing about my brother’s ability to say the most inappropriate thing at the most appropriate time.
I want to go back to that same bar and mix a Poppo special – Beefeater gin on the rocks with two olives and a cocktail onion – while a group of us debate which of his paintings was our favorite.
I want to go even farther back, to the day we danced on that bar celebrating my sister’s wedding, all of us together, singing, telling tales, drinking. A family. Whole. Happy.
I want to go back to when this club used to simply be that, a place to go for social events, not somewhere I’d spent three of the worst days of my life. In a small town with little entertainment and even less places to eat and drink, I will be back at that club for everything from lunch to weddings, parties to even more funerals.
With nowhere else to go, I cannot simply avoid everything that reminds me of my loss.
We cannot let those dead orchids rot on the back porch forever.
“Maybe, if we replant them in better soil, they’ll come back,” my sister says to me, desperately.
“Nothing is going to bring them back,” I say, hugging her tightly, both of us shaking.
Nothing in our lives is going back to the way it was. Everything has been uprooted and no amount of healthy soil will change that. We will forever be a truncated family tree.
This is the new normal.
It is impossible to comprehend that my brother will not see his beloved nieces grow up, will not have children of his own, that my grandparents’ home will no longer be the place of our infamous prime rib Christmas dinners, that I will never paint in my grandfather’s studio again. My life feels uneven, my family tree an unsteady, wobbly thing, its roots grasping for control while a shit storm rages around it.
Yet, there’s beauty to be found in this deformity, fresh hope growing out of our amputated limbs. Strong winds force us to grow stronger roots, and I can pinpoint the exact moment when life made sense to me, when it all was clear, the moment I knew what really mattered and everything else faded away.
My brother was lying limp, covered in his own blood, the paramedics saying they feel no pulse, my father fainting, my mother crying, chaos as strangers were scrambling to save a life that was already gone. And there I was, the eye of the storm, peaceful, serene, calm.
It lasted only a second, but it existed. I felt nirvana. I saw the light. The meaning of life presented itself to me and I grabbed it, held on to it, cherished the millions of years of knowledge I learned in the whir of that moment.
All that matters, glowed. All that doesn’t, faded away into oblivion. And to this day, I can close my eyes, think of that moment, and separate my worries into the glowing light of love and the rest, the things that I then let fade away into darkness.
For the first time in my life, I am grounded.
I wish my brother hadn’t died. I wish my grandmother and grandfather hadn’t joined him. I wish cancer didn’t exist and life was easy. But a part of me is also thankful for the peace, the glowing love, the deeper roots. I’m happy to be grounded, to have life spring out of death.
When I die, I don’t want pictures of me at every table, I want books. My books. Stories I’ve written, my stories, my adventures, my tales. When I leave this world, I want to leave behind as many stories as my head and hands can create. And I want everyone to tell stories of me, things we’ve done together, happy and sad stories, adventures taken, laughs given.
Because that’s all a funeral is, that’s all life is really, stories. And if there’s one thing all of these funerals have taught me, it’s that I want to live a life full of good stories.
Just like Gramma, Andrew and Poppo all did.