“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
If I hear that phrase one more time, I think I’ll melt into a puddle of tears. I accept the proffered hugs, the promises to help, and the acknowledgements of loss with a forced smile, clenching my teeth through the burn of tears, my voice now far too choked to string together full sentences. The line of friends and family and acquaintances who have come to support me streams around the corner, and I vow to speak with them all. My father would have done it; now, I will in his place. He was only able to reach celebrity status in our small town by attending every festival, visiting every home, and opening his doors to every inhabitant in town for Thanksgiving, Diwali, and Tamil New Year; I can’t imagine continuing those traditions now without him. But the least I can do is this. I shove back my emotions and plaster a polite smile on my face, letting the hollows under my eyes communicate the depths of my grief. He was my guiding light, my compass, and the source of my sense of humor, the source of all my laughter. I can’t even comprehend going home without his bulk on the couch chuckling at the television. I can’t even imagine attending any town events now.
As I reach the end of the receiving line, hoping that now, I can finally go home and get some quiet for myself, an elderly figure approaches from the crowd and joins the line, out of breath and flapping her hand furiously in front of her face.
“Sorry, sorry, so sorry, ma’am,” she says to the woman in front of her as she continues to flap her hands wildly about. “I probably shouldn’t have taken that last smoke, hmm, hon? But then again,” she continues on, grasping the tip of what I now have deduced to be a cigarette in her mouth and flicking a lighter close to it to relight it, “this is probably the best time of any to catch a break and get some fresh air, right?”
Her Southern drawl, her free movements, and the way she lights her cigarette with careless vigor catch my attention, and suddenly, I am able to place her.
I quickly greet the woman in front of her (yes, yes, thank you for being here today, I appreciate your concern, my father was a great man, yes, I miss him very much) and move towards Miss Nettie with a smile.
“Miss Nettie? I thought –”
“Oh, hon, come here!” She reaches her arms out to me and before I can react, pulls me into the warm confines of her body, my arms pinned at my sides, her cigarette smoking near my hair. She pushes me back and assesses the expression on my face before I can school it into something more polite and bland. Her eyes grow shiny as her brows furrow, and she pulls me in again, this time to whisper in my ear. “These people aren’t helping much, huh? Their ‘gifts’ aren’t good for anything.”
“My father would have wanted me to stay,” I reply quietly.
“You’re too polite, love,” she murmurs, pulling her cigarette from her mouth and raising her eyebrows at me significantly. “Your father knew his limits.”
I flush, remembering the last time I had seen her, at the neighbor’s birthday party, when she had dropped a cigarette into a potted plant, and my environment-conscious father’s anger had reared its head. “He didn’t mean—”
“Oh yes, he did, but that was why I liked him. That’s why I like the lot of you. Honest folk, kind folk, but fierce.”
I smile. “That’s why I like you back, Miss Nettie. You’re fiercely honest. I think maybe my father saw a little of himself in…in you.” I pause, my eyes filling with tears. “You were a great teacher. You helped me…make it.”
She winks and pats my cheek with her non-cigarette hand. “Now, now, no compliments for me, and no tears for you.” She pops her cigarette back between her lips and reaches into her purse. “Actually, hon, I have a gift for you.”
“Your birthday’s tomorrow, right?” She smiles at me sadly. “Your father gave this to me to give to you, in case he…didn’t make it.”
I hesitate. I can’t imagine why he would have done that, through Miss Nettie, of all people. They weren’t that close. “But I thought –”
Miss Nettie shoves a small, gift-wrapped box into my hands. I shake it, hearing something rustling inside, and tilt my head in confusion at her.
She nods. “Just open that tomorrow. All will be explained.” She swings her purse back over her shoulder and adjusts her cigarette that is tipping dangerously out of her mouth with an expansive gesture. “You remember that time you crumpled up that homework that I told you to redo?” I laugh, for what feels like the first time in weeks. “Your dad and I knew then just how stubborn and strong you could be.” She winks again and melts into the crowd without another word.
In an attempt to call her back, I move after her, but I am restrained by a cold hand next to me, one that sends chills down my spine. I look and see the owner of the funeral parlor grimly nodding back at me, his dark, clear eyes, sunken into his head, catching mine over his worn spectacles.
“Miss? It’s time for us to start cleaning up.”
I automatically look for my father, who would be carrying brooms and sweeping up and cheerfully guiding people out, were this any other town function, but of course, he isn’t here. Or, rather, he is, but he won’t be fetching brooms. I feel an acid ache in the center of my chest and suddenly can’t breathe. “Can you start cleaning up without me? I’ll announce a quick goodbye, but I need…to step out for a second.”
He nods. “I’ll take care of everything, miss. You just need to dismiss the guests.”
I walk back to the front of the center aisle, closer to the casket. Refusing to look at the wooden box before me, I turn around, face my guests, and clear my throat. The room’s din diminishes, and I repeatedly thank everyone for their time, offer them a final call on refreshments, and request that they visit me anytime. “Thank you again for your love for my father,” I add, and it’s over. The crowd murmurs in soft approval and understanding and recedes through the doorway and out into the grey parking lot. The sky is cloudy, leaving only a little weak sunlight to spill down onto the heads of the mourners, who disappear into cars and onto sidewalks in twos and threes. I stand and watch them go, waiting until the last guest has disappeared, feeling oddly empty. Clutching my present between my sweaty hands, I seek out the owner of the funeral parlor and the priest, who have waited for my return, and hash out the details for the Hindu death ceremonies and the cremation. My hands worry the wrapping paper, creasing it until it crumples at the corners – a nervous tick that my father would have teased me about. Today is just the preamble to a long, long process, but there’s really only me here to take care of it all until the rest of the extended family can get down here from Canada.
I walk out into the hazy, reddish, shadowy sunlight, the dregs of today’s light, and unlock my car.
Open it tomorrow, Miss Nettie had said. All will be explained.
All of what? All of my grief, suffering, and loneliness? All of the future that awaits me? All that could be explained by a box? There’s probably jewelry inside. Jewelry? Gold can’t solve my problems. I’m not a conquistador looking to make a quick buck. How could my father and Miss Nettie think that this—this thing-- would make it all better? I throw it down furiously and resist the urge to stomp on it, glaring at its shabby, tattered, and now dirt-speckled silhouette on the ground.
It feels good to hate a gift for once.
I fall to my knees and sob. How could I hate the only gift I’m ever going to receive from my father now? Of course, this is the gift I choose to throw down and reject.
Family is where you show your true colors. For me, my family has been one of the only groups that I could rant to, yell at, and learn from, and they would love me. My father always always did. No matter what horrors I did, no matter what a hellion I was, no matter how I yelled and kicked and screamed in frustration. Life wasn’t easy and my father let me let it out. All throughout my life but especially when I was younger, whenever I got mad, I would use my hands. The more upset I was, the more damage I would do to inanimate objects. Crumpling paper, ripping tissues, smushing stuffed animal toys, crushing cardboard. I had done it all, but my father had known exactly how to get me through these moments of non-restraint and reach inner peace. He had been able to talk me through it and told me it would be okay. Sometimes, though, he would just let me finish my tears and my fits first and then come find him when I was ready. He knew that that was the best way to deal with pain.
Let it out.
And suddenly, I know what’s inside the box. In case he didn’t make it. This was a post-him gift, and he had known it would be.
I rip the small box open, disregarding the strips of remaining wrapping paper that fall like little stars to my feet, catching the remaining sunlight in flashes of silver and gold. In a howl of rage, through a curtain of pulsing tears, I yank apart the cardboard into little pieces, letting my frustration out with each satisfying rip. I tear the box into pile of cardboard slices, my breath catching in my ribcage, coming in short little pants, drowning out all other sounds outside of my little bubble. And finally, sitting in the center of my newly-created trash heap, is a box of Kleenex.
I slowly tear off the cardboard top, exposing the snowy white tissues underneath. I tear the top ones to shreds and lift up one below them, reach up, and blow my nose with a satisfying honk. My tears drip onto my trash heap of concrete, wrapping paper, and tissues, and I dab at my eyes with another tissue.
I smile up at the rapidly fading sun and whisper soundlessly: