I went to a funeral last weekend. I always get really nervous before I go to them because they are, for lack of a better description, an extremely draining experience. In this particular case, watching a woman hold her head up after losing the partner she had for the past 65 years was nearly unbearable. (All the more so when her main concern was making sure that all of us were well-fed and comfortable. Sometimes people are too wonderful to even fully comprehend, and all you can do is think about how selfish and petty you can be in your own day-to-day life.) The whole family was there, though, and everyone was eating well and giving long, wordless hugs, and you could feel how lucky everyone was, even in their loss. Some people have no one to hold onto when they’re crying.
It reminded me about a funeral I attended a few years ago, one held in a different Catholic church that was far more grand and, naturally, far more impersonal. I cried more because the deceased suffered so greatly before death, and everyone could feel this strange tension of not knowing how to make sense of something so profoundly bad. When someone dies with minimal pain, in bed, at the age of 90, surrounded by loved ones — like this weekend — people say to each other, “There is no good way to go, but if there was one, this would be it.” When someone dies after years of brutal suffering, you avoid prolonged eye contact for fear of bursting into tears.
This past weekend, I felt I erred more towards the “adult” side of the mourners (teenagers never look more like children than when their cheeks are ruddy from crying and they’re wearing a suit jacket just slightly too big for their shoulders). But at that funeral a few years ago, I was most definitely a kid. Everything was occuring around me and I felt completely impotent, just a sheet of paper floating in the wind of other, more mature people’s grief. I cried so much that I couldn’t feel my face anymore, but only part of my tears were easily understood.
The son of the deceased, who at that age felt very much like a kid as well, sat in the front with his family. I couldn’t see him, and it was probably for the best. I am a sympathetic cryer (as we all become at funerals), and to see his handsome young faced contorted in a pain too great to verbalize would have drained my already-tenuous composure. But I do remember looking to the back of the church, where a few of the mourners were standing, and seeing a few of our mutual friends. Four guys, who until that point had always seemed to me like the very definition of boys, were undoubtedly young men that day. With their tailored suits, their side-parted hair, and their somber expressions on their wrinkle-free faces, they had become adults who were silently supporting their friend who had never needed it more.
There was something so beautiful, so wonderful, so important about seeing them back there. All at once, the thing that we always find so scary about funerals became incredibly clear to me. There is an undeniable aspect of moving up when someone passes away. We are forced, regardless of how ready we might be, to move into a place of understanding and responsibility that used to be reserved for someone older than us. Children become orphans, wives become widows, grandchildren become children. Those boys woke up that morning and put on their best black suits. They combed back their hair and understood that their place was to be strong where their friend was unable to be, to remain stoic and provide a stable shoulder to the people who needed to cry more than them. They were men, maybe a few years before they would have wanted to become one.
I watched a teenager crying this weekend and, when he looked up from his tissue, I could feel that he looked at me as though I were one of the adults. We were only separated by a few years but I had come, in my black shift dress and shiny black heels, to resonate “grown-up” in a way that he imagined light years away from where he was at that very moment. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him that I was proud of him. And when I was passing appetizers at the wake, a few people mistakenly referred to me as the “wife” or “fiancée” of my boyfriend. When I corrected them with a pleased little laugh, a woman who had been married for more than fifty years told me, “Oh, that’s just a label. You know what you really are.”