Anna had piano playing fingers, soft and dappled with freckles, smooth and very slow. The kind of hand that would caress my cheek, pat my hand, or drop upon my shoulder and rest there.
Hundreds gathered for Anna’s memorial in the largest Protestant church in the area. The building looked like a Roman Catholic Church with marble floors, statues, and stained glass windows two stories high.
“Deb,” Suzanne said rushing in, “Will you please wrap this?” She handed me a plain cardboard box and a roll of gift wrap along with ribbon.
I had already been downstairs with the family creating picture boards of Anna. I was glad to have something to do beside fight the grief trying to explode from my throat. “Sure,” I agreed as she transferred the box and paper to me, “but I think the service is about to begin.”
The box was quite light for the ten inch cube. The paper Suzanne brought was birthday paper, a royal blue background covered with balloons in red, baby blue, yellow, green. I finished the last curl of yellow ribbon and handed it back to Suzanne. “Who is this for?”
“Oh, it’s Anna’s ashes!” she said triumphantly as she ran out of the room with the package.
I was tired. I pushed forward my palm and grimaced. “Oh, God. Are you kiddin’ me? That’s awful. You should have told me. Birthday wrapping paper. Really?”
“Well her birthday would have been in three weeks.” Suzanne murmured.
“Oh, I get it. Anna lived a good life and is now in the arms of Jesus, and I’m supposed to be okay with that? Well, I’m not! I’m not ready for Anna to be dead.” I was screaming at no one in particular.
A college graduation party—now that was a celebration more suitable for balloons. While the kids played bags in the yard, the mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles chatted quietly in the garage where we attended the food tables. Out in the yard the college grads laughed, jeered and rewarded each other in their drunken attempts to land a ping-pong ball into a cup, the 21st century version of Bozo’s Buckets. They all had to tie up some loose ends to move into the workforce, hopefully in their area of study, but for tonight they were just having fun.
“Remember that football game against, who was it? Nebraska?—“I started as we watched the kids.
“Yea, and we froze our asses off!” interjected Kyle’s mom.
“What about all the band concerts and theatrical productions?” asked Wendy.
Phil chimed in, “Well the best one was when the kids were still in high school. You know, the night the cops called us to come get our kids ‘cause they were caught watchin’ stars on the roof of the funeral home?” Everyone laughed.
“And now, they’re all graduating; where did the time go?” I finished.
“Remember when we used to come up with the games for their parties?” Jenny said melancholic. So we just watched. On a college campus, somewhere, our children had become adults. We were just beginning to realize we were only visitors to this land of young adults—it isn’t our party anymore. Right now, our only function was to make sure the food tables were full of chips, sub sandwiches and hot dogs.
Hey mom!” John called out as he grabbed a plate and headed for the hot dogs. Tall and straight, John walked without hurry, the limp from his spinal surgery barely perceptible now. An exercise in Basic Training required him to jump out of a moving truck. He had slipped a disk and impinged a nerve—plenty of reason for discharge. But his commitment to the Army National Guard was another sign of his new maturity and he refused to quit.
Anna had been John’s piano teacher when he was nine. He played by ear and Anna’s blue eyes danced as she watched John discover new melodies. She would often place her hands on the keyboard next to John and play with him. But John’s interests moved on, as children are apt to do, and he quit piano. Anna struggled with the dichotomy of John the soldier and John the tender-hearted pianist. It was hard for me to accept, too.
A fist and wings on a large tattoo were teasingly visible beneath John’s army camouflage shirt, and over that he wore a very white t-shirt that read “Change Sucks” in red and blue. It was a juxtaposition of the Obama campaign logo. This was probably the last time for a long time he would be able to assert his political opinion—he was leaving in four days for Advanced Individual Training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, a heat-saturated, hell hole of an Army base.
The memorial service had begun and Anna’s daughter Michelle was speaking from the pulpit. Behind her, an ornate marble altar held nothing but the brightly wrapped box with yellow ribbon. Her hands rested gently on the edges of the cherry podium. She spoke of her mother and my heart broke again—but it was Michelle’s hands, so much like Anna’s, that captured my attention. Michelle was a teacher, and I’d seen her hands gently adjust the pencil in a student’s clumsy grasp, her hands skimming over her children like water. And now her hands were peaceful as Michelle told us Anna-stories.
I clenched and unclenched my hands trying to release the storm of emotions pushing their way out of my body. How could they put Anna in that box? She was always a think-outside-the-box kind of person. Putting festive paper on this cardboard box full of dust and bone and tying it up with a curly yellow ribbon didn’t make Anna’s death pretty. Change sucks.
At the end of the Service we hold hands in prayer, petitioning that Anna have a safe journey to the other side. One of my sweaty hands entwines with John‘s, and I hold on tightly praying my son doesn’t come home from his deployment in a box.