Something Bigger

by Brian Howlett

My mother and her sisters have been waiting for their Aunt Del to pass on for at least ten years now. “It’s no way for someone to live,” Mom would tsk-tsk upon returning from a visit to “the home.” Funny we call it “a home” when it sounds like it’s anything but. I have never met Aunt Del, so when I offered to accompany Mom to the funeral service, she was surprised. She certainly didn’t need my support.

“It’s just a funeral,” she said. “She had to die one of these days. And besides, don’t you have work?”

“Mom,” I replied. “She was your aunt. Surely that’s, like, a deal for you, no?”

“Mmm-hmm,” was all that I got in response. Which was all I ever got, actually. Assent. Agreement to whatever I said. Not pushback. Not counterargument. Certainly not escalation. Mom never pushed the conversation into what I might call an interesting place, where there might be some traction or grip on things. Nor has she ever shed a tear in her life, at least as far as I have seen. Remarkable, really.

Aunt Del’s burial was simply another item on the to-do list that she has had stuck on the fridge for as long as I can remember. Get her blood levels checked. Pick up bleach. Bury the aunt.

The viewing was in the afternoon. Aunt Del lived north of the city but Mom and her sisters insisted on having her service at St. Agnes, their argument being that Aunt Del ‘wouldn’t mind.’ The longer you live, the less of a vote you get in your own affairs, I suppose. I knew St. Agnes too well. Every pew, every confessional box, every statue, brought back its own memory. The Virgin Mary that greeted you upon entering bore the scar of the same chipped paint at the base for years. No one knew how it happened, but it certainly wasn’t a miracle. If this had been St. Eunice’s, they would have surely replaced it by now. It struck me that I had never been told the story of our patron, and how our Agnes might have earned her saint stripes. What had she been dreaming of when she was a little girl? Before she became just another statue.

The air inside was close and stale. I missed the incense of St. Eunice’s, which made you feel like you were entering “The Body Shop” or a cool new coffee shop downtown. The carpets, too, were sadly worn in the middle, having long ago lost the war against the countless worshippers being herded inside. I followed my mother into the small side chamber.

It hit me like a wave. Once again I was inspired by something I couldn’t explain, or worse, resist. Bagpipe music was playing low in the background. I had never heard pipes live before. They expressed a subterranean melancholy that thrummed across the room and into the soles of my feet. They were perfect.

The faces were less pinched by sadness, perhaps because Aunt Del was so much closer to her natural expiry date when she passed than poor Beth had been. And there it was; the same strange giddiness that had overwhelmed me at St. Eunice’s. It felt like I was coming to a party, not a funeral. And that no one else had received the invitation.

Some of the guests, as old as Aunt Del herself, tired in their bones, seemed almost jealous of her, as if they would prefer to be the one enjoying a final rest in that coffin instead, with their eyes finally closed, and their hearts stopped in a blessed farewell to this exhausting earth.

Why the family opted for an open casket with a ninety-three-year-old is beyond me, although I suspected that my mother and aunts had been part of that decision. Beth’s casket had been closed because of her accident. The makeup was slathered on Aunt Del thick and somewhat carelessly, icing on a lopsided cake. But it didn’t conceal the march of time that was scrawled deeply into her poor hands, face and neck. The most upsetting thing was her ankles, swollen in repose.

Yet no one apart from myself was actually looking at her. Photos of the living Del were all around the room and were winning the day. Large and small frames, all of them far too ornate, were arrayed without any sense of narrative order. Del as a schoolgirl stood beside photos of Del in her wheelchair playing cards. Pictures of her as a young woman at Christmas were beside shots of her with Great-Uncle Archie and the grandchildren.

The black-and-whites of Del in her youth were the most riveting. I trade every day in royalty-free stock photos, poring over hundreds of different images to find just the right one. But the people in stock photos are dead. I have never seen one that actually captures anything other than an attractive model posing, pretending to be a mom or a dad, or a retired couple in a park or on the all-too-ubiquitous sailboat.

Jeff prefers photos that are highly saturated in colour, and even then, he has me push those colours even further in retouching. In his mind, to reinforce a life’s value, and the need to properly insure it, no green tree is too green. No sunrise is too orange. No tooth too white.

There were other photos in the chapel, hastily peeled from photo albums and taped on bristol board. Some had slipped from their moorings and were hanging at precarious angles. I stopped in front of one, of a girls’ basketball team, apparently ripped from a high-school yearbook. Aunt Del was wearing the “C.” She was the only one not smiling. Arms crossed, she looked fearless. A woman among girls.

I moved along to a picture perched alone on a table beside the guestbook. Aunt Del looked to be around seventeen. She was sitting on a swing. She had long, lustrous hair. She was sophisticated in the way that all photographs from the 1930s and 1940s are. Film was expensive and cameras rare, so people were careful to prepare for what was a special moment. I noticed a tensor bandage on her ankle. It was out of place with her fancy dress, and she was trying to cover it up by crossing her feet. I thought back to the basketball photograph. Aunt Del was a jock. She was the leader, born at a time when maybe her friends weren’t looking for one.

We were signaled to enter the church. My mom was first in, perhaps in an effort to be first out? Given the family connection to Aunt Del, we sat much closer to the altar than we normally do.

There was no program for Aunt Del, as there had been for Beth. Just the familiar hymnal, which suddenly suffered in comparison to the rich leather book I had held at St. Eunice’s. Before sitting down we knelt to make our own opening prayer, and my knees missed the soft padding of the pews at the Cathedral. I noticed that my mother didn’t kneel all the way down, taking an awkward half-knee. I had to stop and ask myself how old she was, because a mother actually isn’t allowed to have an age. Fifty-eight. Shit. Her hands, caught up in prayer, were wrinkled. She had age spots. I had never noticed that before.

Church has always been a great place to think about things, because it’s not as if you have to listen to the scripture or sermons that you have already heard a thousand times. I was on the same journey as most of my friends; as we hit our twenties, we subtly transitioned from being weekly churchgoers to monthly, and then finally to the point at which most of us could be considered, at best, ‘holiday Catholics’. Easter. Christmas. Maybe Ash Wednesday if we weren’t too busy.

It’s the evolution of a Catholic, I suppose, although I hesitate to use that word in the same sentence as Catholicism.

It also struck me that this was my second funeral in a week. Another weekday service. Jeff had tried to challenge me on this latest request for an afternoon off but relented when I promised him I would catch up by staying late one night.

What are the rules around funerals? Can you make it a morning service if you want? Or night? Do you tip the altar boys and the priest, like you do at a wedding? Is there alcohol?

Father Edwin took to the altar. He was a fixture at St. Agnes, much like the chipped Virgin Mary in the lobby. Beth’s service had been a full-blown mass, so I settled into the next hour. Make that fifty-six minutes, actually. That was Father Edwin’s career average, not including the extraordinarily long Good Friday service.

He mumbled his way through the readings, fiddling with the microphone throughout, as was his habit. I glanced over at my mom, who was staring ahead like she was waiting for a bus, likely thinking about the egg salad sandwiches she would soon be pulling from the fridge downstairs. Worrying if they had gone a bit off in the warm car as we drove here.

Father moved into the sermon, and I assumed that this would be where the eulogy was to be delivered. But he didn’t invite anyone up, as had been the case at Beth’s. Instead, he re-opened the Bible and launched into what a stock summation of her life courtesy of the apostles. Had he even met Aunt Del?

He framed her life, predictably, in the terms of sin and salvation that we had all ignored too many times before. His words fell around us like arrows with no sharp ends. Even he seemed bored with the procedural of it all.

I thought about Aunt Del standing still in that stuffy high school gymnasium all those years ago, the smell of sweat embarrassing them so, staring stiffly into that camera that was surely such a novelty. Captain of the high school basketball team at a time when girls weren’t encouraged in any way to take up sports. I could feel her hopes and frustrations. I sensed how much she loved competition, and how that might have been the only time she truly felt alive, or at least, understood and free.

“Stop fidgeting,” Mom whispered.

“Excuse me,” I said, getting up without even thinking about what I was doing.

“Benjamin, where are you going, the priest hasn’t finished!”

I stood up, made my way carefully around her, and approached the pulpit. This time, I was really doing it. Heads turned slowly in my direction, confused.

“It looks like someone has something to add,” Father Edwin said curtly, staring me down in disbelief. But I continued my approach, giving him no other option.

“I suppose we can make an exception this time, and allow for a more personal account,” he continued. He stepped back, but just a few small steps, so I had to go around him to mount the steps. His steps. I may have brushed the heavy silk of his vestment as I did. I couldn’t be sure.

I looked down at the Bible on the lectern. It was massive.

I had no idea what I was about to say, but eagerly leaned into the microphone. I was surprised at how comfortable I was up here. I looked out upon the rows of the grey old people. I had their attention, save for the few who had fallen asleep, but my voice woke up even a few of them. My mother looked horrified, and I knew that she would be grinding her handkerchief in her fist.

“Thank you, Father,” I said, looking back. Was I supposed to thank him, or was that some kind of sacrilege? He said nothing, but nodded as if he were performing some benefaction for me; some great act of charity in simply sharing the sacred microphone.

“I never met my mother’s Aunt Delaware,” I began, and my mother involuntarily cleared her throat loud enough for the entire congregation to hear. I felt for her, but I was in no position to stop myself. My heart was beating fast. And the words came far too easily.

“But those photos of her in the chapel make it clear to me that her desire to win in sports was as strong as any athlete you could name today.”

Father Edwin coughed too loudly. Once. A warning shot. He was

not about to allow me much time.

“What must it have been like for her to watch the Serena Williams and the Lindsay Vonns of today, women who enjoy the world’s permission to strive to be their best, to train hard, and to think about nothing but wrestling their opponent to the ground, whatever the sport, or occupation, or injustice, for that matter?”

Even my mom was leaning in now. Her expression slightly softened. My two aunts took each other’s hands.

“Did Aunt Del wonder if that could have been her, alone atop the world?”

That was it. That was the angle. I had uncovered Aunt Del’s story, one that hadn’t been expressed until just right now. The best part was, she wasn’t around to either confirm or deny it. I was free to paint her innermost ambition, and in doing so, recast her life. I could see in the faces looking back at me that this was what they needed to hear.

But the initial exhilaration was gone, replaced with a ferocious concentration, every word and every comma coming to me precisely, as if it had already been written but the ink was blurry and I had to strain to read it.

“What must that be like, to regret your date of birth? To know deep down that you aren’t on the same page as everyone else? That you’re a few chapters ahead?”

What an idea! Even I had to stop for a moment, to chew on that last thought. Even Father Edwin had settled down behind me. I eyed his water glass beside the Bible. It was full. He hadn’t touched it. My mouth was dry.

“How must that feel, to understand that you were born in the wrong time? To have no choice but to go on living, only to wonder what might have been? Does a dream ever die?”

Father Edwin was making his way back to the altar, perhaps in awe at bearing witness to what was turning into a rare holy moment in his church. I looked at my mother. Was she born too soon, too? What secret dreams did she harbour as a young woman, and was she just remembering them again now? For the life of me, I never remember her even once confessing to any kind of ambition, nor me asking.

It was enough, I always figured, for her to be raising me. How selfish of me.

I was exhausted, and I couldn’t resist. I drained Father Edwin’s water glass in one long pull. I think a few drops hit the pages of the Bible. But still, Aunt Del’s story continued to pull me in.

“I wish I could have been in that gym when Aunt Del was tipping off at center court. I would have been proud to cheer her on to victory. To scream at the top of my lungs, ‘Go Del! You can do it. Beat them. Show no mercy!’”

I don’t know if Aunt Del was a good athlete. I don’t know if her team ever won a game, or if she even enjoyed playing basketball. If she had a crush on the quarterback of the school football team, or maybe the head cheerleader. That wasn’t the point. She felt real to me and to everyone else gathered here today.

I had brought her back to life.

I looked out at the crowd. The people seemed younger to me, somehow. Their eyes were sparkling, their backs straighter. I walked back to my seat, and my mother actually gripped my arm with a show of affection I had never felt from her before.

“Where did you learn to speak like that, dear?”

I just shook my head. I have no idea.

“Just don’t do it ever again. Aunt Del is watching us.”

I stared back at her. I wasn’t going to let her play that game.

“No, Mom. I don’t think that she is.”

Lately, I had been skipping out at mass before communion, but there would be no early escapes today. When it came time for me to open my hands to accept the host, Father Edwin just stared at me. The line behind me slowed, but he didn’t care.

“The body of Christ,” he said, slowly, with what I detected to be a hint of malevolence.

“Amen.”

I wanted to turn away, bread in hand, but he held my gaze.

“I will see you after mass, Clarence. My office.”

Father Edwin has called me by surname since kindergarten. I nodded, surprised to learn that he even had an office, and headed back to the pew to consider what kind of penance might be awaiting me. But even that couldn’t bring my feet back to earth. Something had happened to me up there at the pulpit. It was like sex, but not as fleeting. A double-cheese greasy pepperoni pizza coming to Craig’s garage at two in the morning, but much more satisfying. Maybe like watching a Game Seven, heading into the third period all tied up?

I didn’t have a comparable.

If I didn’t know I was in a church, Father Edwin’s tiny office could have been something at Cariboo. His vestments off, he was in a simple short-sleeve shirt, sitting behind his desk. There were two photos on his wall, both of golf courses.

“Welcome to my little sanctuary,” he began. He had a practice putting green behind him. There was barely room for it.

“Are you signed up for this year’s tournament?” he said.

“I can’t,” I said. “My company has asked all of us to take part in a Run for the Cure, same day.”

I was surprised at how easy it was to lie to him.

“What is that you do again?”

“Life insurance.”

“Right. You could say we’re in the same line of work,” he said, smiling. But just as quickly the smile was gone.

“We haven’t seen you much around here, lately, Clarence. And your mother, well she’s a marvel. Doesn’t miss a Sunday. Or a weekday, for that matter.”

It was true. My mother was famous for dutifully walking to the church six days a week, taking Saturdays off for some reason that only she knew.

“You know this isn’t Disneyland.”

“Pardon?”

“What you said today, about your mother’s Aunt Delaware.”

I waited, but he just left it out there. Priests and parents. Experts in the art of silence. He won.

“I’m not sure what I was doing, Father.” My second lie, but this one gave me some breathing room.

“A eulogy should be in God’s own words,” he said. “It is not a time to talk about dreams, son. But about preparing for the next stage in our Christian lives. Celebrating the sacrament of death, together. That is the biggest dream.”

It’s far too easy for priests. They can pretty much say anything they want, even if it doesn’t make sense, because who on earth has the green light to challenge them?

“Of course.”

“I knew you would see that. And perhaps something positive can come from this.” He got up and picked up his putter. He stood over the ball, thinking something through. He struck the ball softly, and it rolled directly into the hole as if on a string. “Yes, you might have done some good after all today.”

He went to his desk, and jotted something down on a piece of paper, wrapping his stubby fingers around the stubbier pencil normally used for a golf scorecard.

“You have given me the subject of my next sermon.” He wrote another few words down, and then stared at it, a little too pleased with his own creativity.

“And I hope we see you around here a bit more often. I know your mother would like that.”

About the Author

Brian Howlett

Brian Howlett's fiction has appeared in and been accepted in eighteen literary publications over the past three years, including Limestone, Queen's Quarterly, Sou'wester, Forge, Penmen Review, Sand Hill Review, Tulane Review, Adirondack Review, Exposition Review and Manhattanville Review. Something Bigger is his first novel.