Everything That Came After
Laying in her room, I suddenly realized I didn't want to be alone. I certainly didn't want to be in her bed without her, so I went downstairs and curled into the couch opposite my dad. His phone rang.
"Hello?" he said softly. He winced. "Yes, you're right. Hopefully we caught it in time." He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. "I'll take care of it. Thanks for calling."
I watched him, this man I knew so well, behaving in a way I couldn't reconcile with his personality.
"Who was it?" I asked.
"Your mom." His chin was still tipped up, eyes closed, head resting on the back of the leather couch.
"What'd she say?"
He blinked his eyes open, meeting mine across the room, his chin quivering. "She just remembered Aleisha's an organ donor." He looked out the window at the brilliant blue day on the other side of the glass. "It's almost too late," a tear fell down his face, which was so contorted in pain it made my stomach ache.
From the Will Smith movie Seven Pounds I knew you have a very small window after someone's heart stops beating to preserve their pieces. Aleisha's heart stilled more than five hours ago. Dad dialed whomever it was you dialed to deal with things like this and lay down on the couch, tears spilling from his eyes. He told them what he needed from them. And then their questions began.
"Yes, I consent," he said. He paused, listening. "Yes, I understand. Yes, I consent," he said over and over again.
Later I learned what they were saying to him. They were reading a list of body parts, which he had to approve one by one. As they read, he crumbled.
Her eyes? Yes.
Her stomach. Yes.
Her intestines. Yes.
Her kidneys. Yes, yes, yes. Take it all. Just take it all. He sobbed.
Nancy stopped me in the kitchen. The house was full of people I didn't know who walked from the front door to the back porch where Dad was sitting. Their trails blurred. I couldn't distinguish one from the next. They were all the same. Tight hugs, pity eyes, "one day at a time" speeches, armfuls of food.
I didn't want them there. I didn't want them to leave.
She pushed the hair out of my face and set her hands on my shoulders. "Everything is going to be about Aleisha right now," she said wiping the tears from my cheeks. "But you have to promise not to forget how special you are to us and how much we love you. We all love you so much. Don't forget that, okay?" She looked into my eyes to make sure I was hearing her.
I nodded. I wanted to say, "Of course, of course, I'm not that selfish. It never crossed my mind." But I realized it would have been a lie. I had thought it. I cringed at my own vanity. Was it vanity? Or self-absorption perhaps? How had she seen that in me when I hadn't yet seen it in myself? And how had she found space for that in her own grieving heart?
Only weeks earlier we had gone to a funeral together, Al and I. Bob's mom passed away, and though we'd never met her, we loved Bob, so we went to stand by his side. We stood out of the way as the pastor spoke, not part of this family, not quite belonging in this circle. We stood so close our shoulders touched. After the words were spoken and everyone began hugging, Mom turned to us.
"Can you girls run to Hannaford? In case Bob wants to have some family over. Get eggs and oj and breakfast stuff?" She pronounced it "break-frist." I smirked.
"Yeah, sure. We'll take your car, and you go with Bob?" I asked.
"Funerals are weird," I said to Al as we walked away, arms linked, strides matching.
"What do you want your funeral to be like? Hypothetically."
"P.S. I Love You," she said.
"Irish music in a pub?"
"Just not so sad."
I nodded. "Me too," I said, slamming the car door.
"She wanted it like in P.S. I Love You," I said to my parents. "She told me." We were sitting around a conference table in the upper floor of the funeral home. There were two boxes of Kleenex in front of us. I set my forehead on the thick, polished wood, my head too heavy to hold up.
"Her funeral isn't going to be a happy thing, Chelsea. We can't pretend it is a happy thing," Dad said. "And we can't have it in a bar. She's a seventeen-year-old girl." Saying it out loud, just how young she was, made all of us quiet.
"Can we call it something else?" Mom finally asked. "What do they usually call it when it's for a child?" Her eyes were puffy, her face red, clutching wet Kleenex in a trembling hand.
"A Celebration of Life, I think," Dad said.
"Celebration…." Mom trailed off. "How can they call it that?"
"I guess that's what we're doing though. Celebrating her. Right?" Dad said.
"Missing her," I said avoiding eye contact, sinking. "Can we have Skittles at least? And music. She'd want that." I was still advocating for her, always advocating for her.
"Yes," Dad looked at me with warmth in his eyes. "We can do that." He put his arm around my shoulder. The weight felt good.
They walked to the other side of the room with Walker as he pointed out the variety of wood finishes on their caskets. Did we want the heavy cherry wood or something a bit darker in color, a walnut perhaps?
He was gentle and held himself with a quiet dignity. You could tell he had spent many-a-day consoling fragile people, broken families. But even so, it felt as though they were shopping for a new piece of furniture to round out the dining room. They picked the expensive one, as most parents, who could afford it, would, and we returned to our posts at the table.
"I've heard so many wonderful things about Alyssa," he said gently, trying to offer us a bit of solace. But Alyssa? Who was Alyssa? It felt as though the one beacon of light guiding us through this storm flickered out. We were in the dark, alone.
"Aleisha, you mean," my father said quickly before we'd moved too far from the moment.
"Right, of course," Walker said, backpedaling. "I'm so sorry. Aleisha."
How many of these meetings does he conduct every day? I wondered. How many names of those recently gone must he remember? How many families must he hold up? Perhaps I should have been angry with him, but I wasn't. Not at all. He devoted his life to this work, to being there for people in their most agonizing moments as he was right now for us. The man deserved a little forgiveness.
When the song began playing at the funeral, I started singing softly, nuzzling her casket with my nose, covering the top in kisses. The casket was closed, of course. For, as I said earlier, only in my imagination was she not mangled. Only in my mind did her little body make it through all this intact. I never saw her afterward. My parents asked if I wanted to, but they advised against it. Both of them. And I couldn't bear it. I couldn't stomach seeing how much pain she'd felt.
Al's boyfriend, Davis, stood beside me, one arm on the shiny wood, too shiny. "Why do you build me up, buttercup baby, just to let me down and mess me around," I whispered.
Davis joined in. "And then worst of all—you never call baby when you say you will, but I love you still." He put his other arm around me, and we stood there—a strange little trio. I rested my head on his shoulder and let my tears drip onto his shirt as I pressed my hands into the wood.
The chorus began again, and we sang louder this time, funneling our ache and our love right in. "I need YOUU more than anyone darlin', you know that I have from the start. So build me up, buttercup, don't break my heart." Soon we were singing as loudly as we could, shouting almost. Smile-crying. Singing to her. Celebrating her. Missing her. Loving her. Being alive.
After the funeral we all drove back to my mom's house, a small caravan of cars. There was my family in from Iowa, my group of friends from high school, and my friends from college. I was thankful they hadn't left straight after the funeral. I wasn't ready for silence just yet.
As soon as we got home I took off the black dress I'd been wearing, Aleisha's—all the good dresses were Aleisha's—wiggled into my yoga pants, and put on a pot of tea for the lot of us. It had been a long day, and we were all ready to collapse. I made seven cups of tea and began handing them out. I gave Davis a smaller mug that said, "Reading is Sexy" on the front.
"Uh Chelsea?" he said. "The hole is too small. My finger doesn't fit."
He said it at a particularly quiet moment, and everyone in the house heard him. My friends, all sitting around the kitchen table, looked at each other smirking, biting their tongues, holding back their laughter. But I slid onto the kitchen floor, doubled over, holding my stomach I was laughing so hard. When they heard my laughter, everyone stopped suppressing theirs. We all howled. Davis blushed something fierce as he realized the connotation of what he'd said. And then he too began laughing so hard he was crying.
We wouldn't stay silent and grey-faced forever, I thought. If something was funny enough, we would laugh. We would laugh so hard we cried.