The Night Before
“I remember you.”
Sylvie, if you were alive to hear it, you’d probably hate that ending. You despised the clichéd, the trite, the predictable – in everything you touched, saw, smelled, and heard. No salad dressing was left untasted; when you’d had your fill of ranch and raspberry vinaigrette, you begged me to sneak you a bottle of Thousand Island. No one was safe from your screams during movie nights at the shelter. Die Hard 2 was especially difficult to sit through with you. Goddamn John McClane saves the day again?!
The mirror doesn’t lie. I see no tears streaming down the face of my reflection, nothing to give color to the eulogy I’m lifelessly reciting to myself before your funeral. The tears will come later, I think. I hope. I just wish there was a way to tell you that what I’m saying is the truth: I can’t do anything but remember you.
I know there will be exactly five people coming to the service tomorrow, so maybe I shouldn’t be so worried about flubbing up a few words here and there. This isn’t something I necessarily want to become good at.
Morris certainly won’t care; he’ll point and laugh at my tie, cry a little bit, and sit quietly in his own thoughts as I speak. He might recount the time you danced with him on the sidewalk. I have no idea how the two of you figured out how to shift your feet to the tune of Autumn in New York, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. Everything moved in rhythm when you crooned at the moon and the night and the cold air. You had no intention of letting him fall in love with you then, but he did. I address him directly:
“In that moment, you became more of a home to him than the shelter ever could be.”
You never got along with the Hudson sisters, but they’ll be there too, at 10 a.m. sharp, and you’ll be too dead to do anything about it. Before I started working for them, I saw you sleeping at the bus stop almost every night on my way home. They were the ones to drag you off that bench and into a bed. They were the ones who did not merely watch you boogie violently across busy intersections around town, peering into cars waiting at the stoplight as you went. They immediately saw someone they could help.
There are still five holes in the drywall near your bed. Five times, the sisters found the bottles of whiskey you’d tucked under your mattress. Five times, I watched you punish the wall and glare at them with the fury of a thousand suns.
“They wanted the best for you, Sylvie. I promise.”
Father Lemon will be the first one there, making preparations for the service after morning mass. I’m sure he’s baked a litany of lemon-flavored desserts for us – a spread altogether inappropriate for a funeral, and one that will seem oddly self-promoting to anyone not in the know. But we get the joke.
Where and how and when did you get so many? The handful of coins that got tossed at you every now and then… did you spend them all on lemons (and the occasional lime, just because)? We know it was just your way of rewarding the man for coming in to help hand out meals. That’s his name! That’s his name! you giggled uncontrollably, every time you handed him one. By my math, that’s four or five days a week of uncontained laughter. Eventually, he thought it was funny, too. I don’t know if there’s a lot to laugh about when you become a priest.
He was with me when we found your frozen body in front of the library on Wednesday morning. As we lifted you off the steps, he sighed more painfully than I’d ever heard him sigh before, as if to say this one hurts the most.
“This one hurts the most.”
Why did you leave, Sylvie?
Why did you do it?
I know you liked the cold. Maybe it got a little too stuffy for you in the shelter. Maybe you wanted to feel December’s bite without supervision, without anyone else there to ruin your fun. That navy green jacket you left behind speaks numbers.
You had a bed, though. You had me. You had us.
I actually squirm when people try to talk me through my issues. It’s not that their advice isn’t sound, most of the time. It’s not that I’m helpless, or deaf to words that could help me get past things, process them, and become stronger and better in the process.
Sometimes, I just want people to listen. I like feeling heard. Does that make me selfish? Egotistical? A stone-cold, bleeding narcissist? Sure. Whatever. This isn’t about me.
That day, that painful two o’clock, we sat on the steps of the library. That goddamned library. I’d just lost my job at the grocery store, my dad was counting his days in the infirmary, and my other friends had all moved on to greener pastures. I felt alone, and I felt terrible for spilling my emotional guts to you, Sylvie. Sylvie, homeless, recovering alcoholic, daughter to two gravestones, mother of two daughters lost in the womb.
You looked at me with your tired eyes, your goddess-given cheekbones, and you managed to curl up your thin lips into an all-knowing, all-loving smile. You didn’t need to say anything, and you didn’t.
“We just sat. We sat for ages. She sat, she existed, she breathed with me for what felt like a warm, comforting eternity.”
Tomorrow, after I wake up, I’m going to practice reading this thing one last time. I think it’s going to be okay. After the funeral, I’ll have to run a few laps to burn off Father Lemon’s meringue pie. I’ll go make sure the Hudson sisters have everything under control at the shelter, and I’ll try to remember to give Morris a visit as well.
There’s just one part of the eulogy that needs changing. I feel like it’s an important change to make:
“We remember you.”