Dear All of You,
Despite my controlling streak, there aren’t too many rules, so far as the funeral goes. Do it as soon as you can, won’t you? Good to get it over with. Lisa knows about the music, if you can bear to go with what I’ve chosen. We’ve talked about the committal --- you know I only want you lot there, and you know which coffin, and which fabulous outfit. I’d like this poem --- which, by the way, I love. Thank God for insomnia and the Internet --- I’d never have found it otherwise, and you’d be stuck reading something yucky. It should be read by whoever thinks they can do it without crying, because that is my biggest rule. No crying, please. If you can manage it. Oh, and no black. Wear the brightest thing you can find in your wardrobes. Both are clichés, I know, but better the colorful one than the somber. And try and make the sun shine (although I recognize that this last one might be outside of your control). I’m not saying anything mushy in this letter --- strictly business --- but I daresay there will be other letters. I have other things to say --- she says ominously --- if I last long enough to write them... (don’t you just love terminal illness humor?).
I’m sorry you all have to do this. I really am.
So, never- ever- ending love, as always . . .
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond light on snow
I am the sunlight on the ripened grain
I am the gently falling autumn rain
When you wake in the morning hush
I am the swift uplighting rush
Of quiet birds in circling f light
I am the soft starlight at night
Do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there, I do not die.
(Isn’t that perfect for a funeral in a field?!)
Lisa lay back gingerly in her deep aromatherapy bubble bath and looked at the eight- by- ten- inch picture she had taken from the top of the piano. She’d propped it behind the taps so that she could see it clearly from where she lay in the steamy water, and now she was trying not to splash it. It was a black- and- white shot of her mother, Barbara, taken on her sister Jennifer’s wedding day, eight years earlier. Mum looked desperately glamorous, with her salon- fresh hair and artfully artless outfit. No mother-of-the-bride peach suit with matching hat for her. Lisa remembered the hat --- three- feet- wide, floppy- brimmed, espresso- colored straw. No one sitting in the four pews behind her saw a thing of the ceremony. You couldn’t see why, and she no longer remembered, but Mum was laughing her big, loud laugh. Her head was thrown back, the ungainly hat long abandoned, the auburn waves of her hair blown messily across her face by the summer breeze. Her large, expressive mouth was open wide, so that you could see a filling on the top row of her teeth, and her hazel eyes had almost disappeared into the crinkles of her face. It was an especially great picture of her mother, although Barbara had always been photogenic. Lisa could almost hear it when she looked at the picture, deep and throaty, and so, so alive. It was Mum’s raucous laugh she would miss the most. That and the smell of Fracas.
She thought about the last big belly laugh they had shared. It was the day Lisa had helped her mother plan her own funeral. She couldn’t bear to do it with Mark, she had said. He would keep crying, and she so badly didn’t want to cry. She was almost obsessed by not crying, toward the end. Hannah was too young, obviously. Amanda wasn’t around --- off doing... what ever Amanda was doing right now. And Jennifer... well, Jenny Wren wasn’t exactly the person who sprang to mind for the task, she said, making a stupid grimacing face and rolling her eyes. No, she wasn’t --- Lisa could see that. Part of her was horrified. And part flattered, of course.
She hadn’t expected it to be hilarious, but now that she thought about it, she didn’t know why not. The two of them had done a great deal of laughing together throughout Lisa’s life. Mum had been quite well that week. She was thin, and a bit of a funny color --- a sort of translucent pale lavender --- but she was still mobile, and almost energetic. She’d had a bunch of brochures and computer printouts spread across the dining room table. Coffins, hearses, wreaths. She always said life was a retail opportunity, but now, obviously, so was death. The last great party you got to go to, if you planned it right. It was macabre and weird for about the first twenty minutes, and then they both just got silly, because that made it easier. Mum had even got prices for those horsedrawn affairs --- but they decided that people weren’t really ready for a purple crushed- velvet Kray- style East End send- off . She’d planned the clothes, though. She wanted to wear her Millennium Eve party dress, although it was a bit big for her right now. Which was a minor cause for celebration, and almost the justification for an open coffin ceremony, since she’d eaten cabbage soup for a week and had one of those ridiculous lymphatic wrap things in order to squeeze into it on December 31, 1999, and it hadn’t been near her since January 1, 2000, when the wrap wore off and all the cellulite flooded back. Lisa remembered the dress --- it was emerald green, lithe and silky, and her mum had looked amazing in it. The kind of good that almost makes adult daughters a little bit resentful. There’d been an underwear issue --- she’d talked Mum into the first and last thong of her life, convincing her it was the only acceptable option under the dress, bar going commando. Mum had rung, on New Year’s Day, to say it was so uncomfortable she’d taken it off after about an hour and seen the New Year in knickerless. With a magistrate, and a headmaster at the table, if you please. More laughing.
“Isn’t that a bit of a waste of a perfectly lovely Ben de Lisi? I was hoping I might have that,” Lisa had joked. Actually joked. Jennifer would have been fulminating. “Too bad,” said her mum, winking. “There’ll be a bit of money. Use it to buy one of your own.” What really did them in was the music. Mum said she couldn’t bear to have something miserable --- no “Abide with Me” (“no one can ever make the high notes; you can always hear the tear in their voice”), no “Nearer My God to Thee” (“too Titanic”). “Lord of the Dance” was eighty-sixed because it reminded her of Michael Flatley, and who the hell wanted to think of that daft prancer as they were shuffling off their mortal coil? And “He’s Got the Whole World” was far too tambouriney. She’d had a fondness for “Jerusalem,” which was more wedding than funeral, but who cared? And definitely, definitely “Be Thou My Vision,” although preferably the Van Morrison version, piped in, even if it sounded tinny in the high-ceilinged church. She had also, however, surfed the Net for a website recommending popular nonreligious music choices, and it was this list that finally had them shedding tears of mirth. Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” (“As if dying at sixty would ever be my way!”), Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” (“Well, I suppose it’s more appropriate than ‘I Will Survive,’ ” she spat out through the chortles, “but who the hell are these people, and why have I never been invited to one of their funerals?!”). Imagining the coffin being carried out to the saccharine strains of Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” made their ribs hurt, and the idea of quietly listening to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” sounded like the funniest thing ever to the pair of them. When they’d regained their breath and dried their wet faces, they’d settled on Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World.” But the moment her mum nodded decisively and wrote it down, in her round, girlish handwriting, on the A4 pad, Lisa heard it playing in her head, and imagined the scene, and had to turn her face away so her mum didn’t identify the fresh tears she refused to see.
Now that day --- the day that they had meticulously planned, but that somehow found her so very unprepared --- was here. Van Morrison and Louis Armstrong were lined up in the portable CD player and the organist had his sheet music open at “Jerusalem.” Just that now it wasn’t funny anymore. Lisa sank down into the hot water, so that it splashed around her nostrils, and squeezed her eyes shut. If only, if only, if only Andy were here.
Stephen said he was parking the car, but he’d done that. The driveway was full, with Mark’s car, Mum’s Polo, and Lisa’s VW Beetle --- she’d said, when they’d spoken the previous morning, that she was going to stay the night. So he’d driven a little down the street and expertly parallel parked. She could see him, for God’s sake. He’d switched off the ignition and wound the window down a little. Now he’d picked up his BlackBerry and was staring at it intently. Today was terribly inconvenient for him. She’d gotten that message. He had these clients, passing through London on a trip from somewhere. They’d only had today to see him. They were important. He’d made sure she understood that. Not more important than her, obviously, since he was here, and not there. But it was close. And he hadn’t been gracious about it. She hadn’t needed to know, after all, anything about any clients, or meetings, or power lunches. She was burying her mother today. It shouldn’t have mattered. He was her husband. Everything about his demeanor, all the way here, had been irritated. The reception got fuzzy on the radio. He’d switched if off viciously. The line for a coffee at the service station was too long. He’d sighed dramatically and bought a Coke. And now it was too hot. He’d hung the jacket of his black suit on the hook above the back passenger door, but he’d unbuttoned the neck of his shirt and loosened the black knitted tie. She stood at the end of the driveway for a few minutes. She realized she was embarrassed to go into the house without him. They should be together. He should want to be with her, shouldn’t he, today of all days?
Stephen hated funerals. He’d confessed to her once, long ago, that coffins terrified him. He couldn’t stop thinking about the body inside them. Wondering how it looked, how it smelled, how it would feel to the touch. He remembered losing it completely, when he was about eight years old, at his grandfather’s funeral --- having to be taken out of the funeral home, screaming.
He was right about the weather, at least. It was too sunny for this. It was what Mum would have wanted, but it seemed wrong to Jennifer. It was like the day those two planes flew into the World Trade Center. The sky behind them as they made their final descents into hell was too impossibly, perfectly blue. It wasn’t the right backdrop. She wanted a slate gray sky, and drizzle. She wanted to shiver with the chill. Not this beautiful day. Not today.
The door opened, and Mark stood on the doorstep. “Jen?” Jennifer shuffled from one foot to the other, feeling like she’d been caught out. She waved, gestured toward Stephen. “We’ll be in in a minute. Stephen’s just . . .” But Mark was coming toward her. He wasn’t dressed --- not for the funeral. He had on a pair of linen shorts, and a scruff y pink T-shirt, and he was barefoot. He didn’t speak when he got to her, just opened his arms and drew her into a tight embrace. Jennifer felt herself stiff en momentarily, then relax and lean into the man who had been her stepfather for the last sixteen years. God knows she needed the hug.
When he drew back, he put his hands on either cheek and looked into her face intently. He smelled of soap and coffee. “How are you doing?”
“I’m okay. You?”
“I’m trying.” He shrugged his shoulders. “She got the weather she ordered, hey?” Jennifer nodded and smiled weakly.
Mark looked behind her, at Stephen. “He coming in?”
“He’s just got to check a few things... there’s a lot going on, you know, at work, and...”
Mark took her hand and the squeeze said, “Don’t explain him, don’t defend him.” Out loud, he just said, “Don’t worry. No hurry. Amanda’s not here yet. Show doesn’t start for a couple of hours. Come on in --- I’ve got some coffee going, and muffins and croissants...”
Jennifer gave the back of Stephen’s head one more sad, reproachful glance and went into the house with Mark.
Excerpted from THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTERS TO KNOW © Copyright 2011 by Elizabeth Noble. Reprinted with permission by Harper Paperbacks. All rights reserved.
Things I Want My Daughters to Know
- hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow
- ISBN-10: 006112219X
- ISBN-13: 9780061122194