Trinity United Methodist Church rests on the corner of “this is happening” and “I’d rather not”. The unassuming church building, with some brick maybe or concrete, is housed on a block where strangers cross the street indiscriminately against traffic. The parking lot is gated, and the community center in back creeps up like ivy against the building. Not regal, just there to hold the aging facade in place. Walking through the back of the building there isn’t a sense of ‘churchiness’. Not like when you enter the more opulent structures of the Catholics or even the Episcopalians. It appears to be just another building.
And inside, as you enter the sanctuary the simple altar almost feels out-of-place. There, on the side of the altar parallel to where the choir ladies practice, is her picture. The one you saw online for the first time on the Witches New Year. The smiling face of the ochre beauty, straight hair the color of obsidian. That freshly pressed and pristine curled bob of the 1980’s with bangs that rest on her forehead. A picture that screams someones’ someone. You stare at the smirking eyes, the straight white teeth that frame high cheekbones, traces of your family.
Your family. That world slips from your memory into the spatial and temporal. This is your family. The gentle nudge of your family pulls you forward. Somewhere towards the front, your mother changes course and instead waddles to the right side, stage left, where you count- one, two, three, four rows back from the altar. You sit pressed between the one who gave you life and the second last to be born by her. You’re everyone’s baby, last child. You stand than sit as the Pastor (not Priest) announces the order of the mourners processional. First the choir, next the Family, finally the Pastor. Your oldest brother asks if you’d like to go be with your family. You muster up the courage to stand, give up and sit. You sigh. Baby, by then the women of the choir who wear white traditional print outfits sway to the electric keyboard down the aisle.
You glance at the people who have come in their mourners’ garb to say farewell to your sister. They sit around you in the center and to the side in mahogany pews with red cushions. Out of your peripheral vision the sisters move like a gentle breeze. They glide slowly like musical notes on the page, left to right, towards the alter. A black parade of familiar faces amble past and you take a step towards them, then falter. The words “I can’t do this” spill out of your mouth and you feel it. Oh baby, last lost child of our father, how did you think you could walk in the processional on leaded feet?
The pastor starts by asking us “Why are we here?” To remember…
And after the benediction, he asks everyone but the family to stand. The family, the word dissolved against your cheeks- a drizzle/a downpour, a river/the ocean. And you see a white cloth slide into your hands. Staring at the peace-offering you clasp your unobstructed hands with the person who breath for you so that you can breathe for yourself one day. Oh, baby, you’re already tired. But there is still more.
“Amazing Grace… how sweet the sound, that” bellows out of the speakers. The tinny sound of your mother’s voice reverberates against your ribs. Her sharp soprano brings you to flashes of other mo(u)rnings in other pews with clasps, in another New England town. You open your mouth to join the choir. “I once was lost…” Baby, you brave the first note to sing and a soft nothing emerges. Then the tears. Your brother clasps your shoulder because you’re so weak. The new birthday boots feel heavy as you try to gather your stilts on a wobbly foundation. You lipstick smudges the handkerchief, and you sign again. How are you so bad at keeping things clean?
There are moments, sharp crystalline pieces of what you’d imagine this would be like. The backdrop always seemed so much more opulent in your mind. The simplicity of the place is a garish eyesore to your wild imagination. You didn’t imagine this feeling though. You didn’t imagine the bubble that would rise and ride through you as each moment passed on. You laugh at your own dark sense of humor; everything passes on in the end.
There are prayers, there is an entire worship section where an excitable and obviously fervent servant of the lord hops on the drum set and throws down a 2/4 that reminds you that you are equatorial and sun-kissed. That you are ocean made and forged from two sides of the same Atlantic. Through it all, your resolve oscillates between “I should have gone to sit with them” and “I’m so glad I’m sitting with my family”. My family, a fortress you’ve built around your fragile heart made of other people’s intentions and wishes for a life you’ve fought hard to keep- even when you didn’t want it, even when you did.
Baby, the sermon begins and you ease your head onto your brothers’ firm shoulders. Glance sideways at your mother’s visage- her fuchsia lipstick, her umber skin, the cool indifference she wears. Sermon, and sermon, and invocation. You meet your nephews for the first time as they eulogize your sister, their mother. And then, you hear it “375 Columbus” and your world cracks, then rumbles. Because you calculate how far in Boston minutes you lived from each other. How your father’s flesh lived a mile from your 18-year-old self. How you spent your first year in the city at the Boston Public Library, 3 blocks from her house. How during the 7 years you called Boston “house”, then “home”, then “farewell” your family roamed streets beside you. How you drank the best tap water in these United States together. And now, how on your first introduction to the family, you’re sitting in a pew in Rhode Island watching your great-niece and nephew stumble over the word ‘prepared’ a-la The Lord’s Prayer. Oh Stephen, what a mess you’ve made. To to give us so much and not be here to see it.
There are moments of reprieve. The groan your mother makes when the Pastor returns to the pulpit to say farewell during the remembrances. Your brothers laughing when a friend of your sister drops the word “shit” in the church. The sermon, where the Reverend (not Pastor or Priest) screeches Edwina. You chuckle, shoulders shaking while you cover your lipsticked mouth (the maroon color named fearless to lend you the strength you were sure you could hold on to). There is levity, even in the haze of shallow breaths and tears. Moments that you’re a fully actualized body, not a thinking machine that has to compartmentalize, or theorize, or make connections.
But nothing prepares you for the last hymn. Nothing can prepare you for the truth that many of these people sang the same song at your fathers’ funeral. So you cry, and the tears are ugly and wet. They feels like a fog resting on your chest and a fire burning in your belly. Your alto carries on thermals as your mouth forms the words “oh, my soul”. The exasperation of this moment. Oh, my soul! But then the refrain comes and asks you to accept it. It is well– it asks, it demands, it soothes. There is nowhere to go now but through, nothing to do now but endure. Oh, my soul!
In an anticlimactic petering. Your sister relays the directions to the Repass. She tells the other parishioners about the absence of other sisters not present, and she calls to you. “Zean, are you here?” and you awkwardly wave and say “I’m here”. But you’re mostly lying. You’re present, not here. And she follows “why are you sitting over there?” and you chuckle because you don’t even know how to explain, so you shrug. Even so, it is well, you think as you rise from the pews- four from the front, stage left. Gingerly you grab your bag, glance at your mother and two brothers. You say “guess we should go meet them”- your sisters, for the first time. Your family…