By the time I stepped outside the leaves were on fire. It was a good time of year for a funeral. Dad had died Tuesday after a long battle with throat cancer, so I had flown in on the red-eye from California to Rhode Island.
I got to TF Green at seven a.m. and went straight to Dad’s house. I guess now it was Beth’s house now. Beth was my younger sister. She moved in a few months ago to help Dad when he got too sick to care for himself. Mom had died several years ago and I moved away after college. She had recently gotten divorced and her kids had all moved out so it made sense for her to move in. I came back as often as I could, but it wasn’t as often as anyone would have liked.
When I pulled up to the house Kate was sitting on the front steps. She stubbed out her cigarette and stood up. Her smile was the same but that was about it.
She’d been through a lot since I moved away: financial issues, an ugly divorce, raising two kids alone, not to mention being Dad’s sole caregiver. It had all taken its toll on her. I couldn’t help but feel I abandoned her, them, when I moved away.
We were close growing up, but as we got older we grew apart and went down different paths. I did everything right. I finished college, traveled the world, and bought a house with my fiance. She, on the other hand, turned to alcohol to cope with her divorce, was single and always bouncing from one job to another.
“Kate. It’s you,” she said, smiling as I made my way up the gravel driveway. The sound of the gravel under my tennis shoes acted as a conduit, taking me back to happier times
“It’s me.” I walked up the creaky steps of the porch, past the railing where we used to hang our wet bathing suits. I remembered stumbling up these same creaky steps one night with Beth after drinking too much at homecoming and breaking my toe. Beth had taped my toes together in the kitchen, while we drunkenly shushed each other, careful not to wake mom and dad with our laughter.
“What do you think? Does it look the same?” She asked holding her arms up.
“Yes, it even smells the same.” Years had put not only time, but distance between us. If it had been twenty years ago, we would be braiding each other’s hair right now. And I would be telling her how I had kissed the boy from next door under the oaks, how are hands fumbled, not sure what to do. And how we kissed so long our lips were raw. And how awesome it all was.
After a nap, I got myself cleaned up and went to the kitchen. Our cousin Megan was there now too. Megan’s mom and my mother were best friends so we spent a lot of time with Megan growing up. After I left, Megan sort of took my spot.
“Hey look who it is. What’s up Hollywood?” Megan said.
“Hi Megan. It’s nice to see you,” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder as I walked by.
“We were just about to play rummy. Want to play?“ Beth asked. This was the scene every Saturday night of my young life, except it was my aunt and mom playing.
“Sure. I’ll play.” I said, and Beth scooted over.
“Megan, remember the time you stole tobacco out of my Dad’s tin and threw up all over the living room?” They both started laughing and continued recalling events about my father that I didn’t remember. Apparently I’d missed out on a lot. This place was foreign to me now, and Beth noticed.
“So how is California? Have you met any movie stars?” she asked.
“Nah I’m in southern California, it’s more beach towns.”
“Isn’t that where LA Is?” Megan asked.
“No that’s about two hours north,” I said.
“Oh. Well you got a nice tan anyway. And it’s October, so it must be pretty nice there.” Beth said.
That was the thing about living in Rhode Island. Six months of the year it was cold and grey. If you didn’t ski, you stayed inside. Everyone here had bad skin, not to mention drug and alcohol problems. I think it was the absence of vitamin D and seasonal affective disorder. When I moved to California I’d never felt happier in my life. How could I be expected to leave that? Not that anyone ever asked me to.
Megan had seemingly had taken my place in my house, in my family. I wondered what my friends were doing back home, probably out paddle boarding or heading to one of the trendy bars in Hillcrest.
I excused myself and went to bed on my twin size mattress. I hadn’t cried since my father died. I yearned for the salty release, but it never came. Maybe it was because none of it felt real. I felt so disconnected here. Maybe it was because he was sick for so long. Maybe it was because Megan had taken my spot and none of them needed me like I thought they did. I just knew I wanted the whole thing to be over and to go back home. Real home.
The next morning was the funeral. I told Beth I would drive us. I didn’t even cry at the church. We pulled under the canopy of orange trees into the cemetery. We watched from the car as they finished setting up the chairs. I saw Megan, in all black, motioning for us. Then I saw Dad’s casket hovering above the hole in the earth. And that’s when it came. Suddenly it became very real. Dad was gone. My childhood had officially ended. Besides Beth, I no longer had any ties to this place. Suddenly, all I was, was sadness. No other emotion existed within in me. I wanted to curl up in my hollowness and disappear. My whole life I had wanted nothing more than to leave this place. But in this moment I wanted to stay forever, to belong, and for Beth to need me.
Beth turned and saw me crying.
“Oh Kate. Oh no, I’m sorry,” she said and put her hand on her arm. The tears streamed down my cheeks without abandon, and now she was crying too.
“It’s ok. I’m ok. I‘ve just missed you all so much,” I told her.
“Aww honey, us too. I’m so glad you’re here. I couldn’t have done this without you,” she said and hugged me over the console.
“Yes you could have,“ I said as I reached into the back seat to grab the box of tissues. My left arm hit the car horn and it blared. As if we were saying ‘Hurry up, let’s get this show on the road.’ Stunned, we both looked at each other, our jaws open. The mourners and pastors all stopped and looked to us. Megan put her arms up as if to say ‘are you nuts?’
Unsure of what to do now, Beth and I turned to each other. Then she snorted with laughter, spraying a fine mist of tears into the air. I laughed so hard I had to lean forward to keep my stomach from cramping. After we caught our breath we fixed our faces and became solemn again.
“Oh I missed you, Kate,” she said.
“I missed you too. Now let’s go say goodbye to Dad.”