Staring into the mirror, she knew what she would have to do. It would get done and she would be the one doing it, just as she had 10 years ago. The seventh of seven children and a decade younger than the rest, she had felt like an only child since birth. Born into a so-called Christian family. They claimed it out of convenience. As a family, they never attended any house of worship or prayed together in all her days. Her political views were more progressive her family, even early on. She lived a life apart, almost as if she had never known this family at all. Her ideas of how the world worked left her outside the family sphere of influence. Eventually they led to her drifting off after college and rarely coming back.
Her parents could best be described as conservative hippies. Her father was a political columnist with the "devilish" democrats at the forefront of his political agenda. Her mother, home decorator, animal lover, and nature fanatic, owned a small nursery near the farmer’s market in town. She may have loved plants and animals more than her kids, well at least more than one of her kids.
By the time the seventh child came along, her parents were done parenting. She rarely saw them on any given day. Her four sisters were already mid to late teens while she was in elementary school. In her child brain, they were her parents. The sisters made the rules and to get along she had to go along.
The oldest two siblings were her brothers. They were late teens by the time her memories began to form. To her, they were like rock stars. They were like the band KISS, minus the makeup. They had long brown hair and wore it past their shoulders. Both had brilliant blue eyes, wore bell bottom jeans, and their shirts unbuttoned to their naval. They were 1970's rebels and gods. Rules were dumb in their opinion, so they didn't make or follow any that she could discern. Her brothers laughed in the face of chores and responsibility, and she thought that was cool. They treated her like a baby for most of her life, tossing her hair, pinching her cheeks, and carrying her around on their backs until they moved away from home to start their own lives.
The oldest sister cared for all the siblings. The second oldest sister was independent, strong, and already had a job outside of the family nursery. The family thought of her as a rebel and said so, just as long as she was out of earshot. Sisters number three and four were eight and nine years older than number seven. They were put out and whined anytime they had to do something for “the baby”.
Years went by as sibling after sibling left home. She rode to and from school with neighbors. The next door mom helped her with homework and sewed her costumes for plays, and encouraged her to join the high school band. Sometime before dark she would wander into her open style home which was increasingly silent. With no one there, she generally made her own dinner. Many times, it was peanut butter and olives, or mayonnaise sandwiches.
Her closest sister in age, number six, often told her that she was adopted. That’s why she looked different from the other siblings. It was true, she looked different. Tall and lean for her age, with wide set ice-blue eyes, sandy blonde hair, and a gap between her front teeth. Number six told her that was why she didn’t fit in, and why her ideas were dumb. Number seven really didn’t believe the adoption story because in order to adopt, you surely must want another child. And she simply didn’t see parents of six kids wanting a seventh. She could feel it in her bones. She was an accident, an unexpected child. She was different, yes. Adopted, doubtful.
After a time, she was the last child in the house. She was accustomed to waking up alone in the morning and coming home in the evening to an empty house on most days. She made it to high school on her own. She counted the days until she would move to college, far away.
She was shocked to see both her parents' cars in the circle drive when she arrived home. The house wasn’t quiet. She could hear her parents arguing from the kitchen.
Her dad was saying, “You can’t. You have a child to care for.”
“No, I wanted to get an abortion. You are the one that demanded we have the baby, so you can deal with it.”
“It”, being her, the seventh child. It dawned on her that she was almost aborted. Tears rolled down her face as she remained motionless, staring at the family portrait that hung on the wall. The children and parents were smiling. All smiling but one. Number seven. She was determined that these would be the very last tears to fall from her eyes for this family.
She never spoke of that incident to anyone. She did her best to make her footprint smaller. She planned her life around being invisible. She never spoke unless they started the conversation. She took her meals in her room if her parents were home. Anything to be out of sight and out of mind. If her parents noticed, they said nothing.In the final years of high school, she could count on one hand how many conversations she had with her mother. Her father, a little more involved, was closest to her but even he fell silent during her college years. After college, visits and conversations with her family all but stopped. She decided that work would be her family and poured herself into it.
Ten years ago, she received a call from number six. Their father was gravely ill and it was the last opportunity for goodbyes. She made the long trip home, despite having purposely stayed away, and ghosted every single one of them. But, goodbyes needed to be said, at least that is what her boyfriend told her. Saying goodbye was something she had to do. It would be good for her.
She held her father’s hand as he passed, while her mom and siblings sobbed silently in a semi circle around the bed. The ambulance came and pronounced him dead just a few short hours after her arrival. She watched as the body was loaded into the hearse and driven away. Then, she was numb. Tears wouldn’t come. In their place, calm and cold settled into her mind. No emotion. This was her identity. The entire family had tears on their cheeks. They were blowing their noses and hugging each other. But, there was no time for that. Things needed to be done and besides, she had no tears to cry.
Her siblings insisted that she lead the funeral planning. It hadn't been done and they couldn’t do it. They needed her to do it because she was emotionless and had a heart of stone. She was, and so she did. Every detail, from music selection, to the color of her father’s tie. Even the eulogy, she planned it.
This wasn’t the first eulogy she had given. In fact, it would be the third eulogy in as many years. She eulogized both paternal grandparents as well. And so, she sat alone with her thoughts, her short list of memories with her father, and all the things that she remembered about him. She wrote what she felt would be a eulogy that he would like, with humor, family, crazy stories he had shared with her about his youth, writing, and politics. She incorporated it all. Then, she stood before the congregation, in a borrowed church, and began to speak.
At the podium, she steeled herself. She willed her voice steady as she worked her way through personal memories of their fishing trips and camp outs. She had to stretch a little. Because her father was done fathering by the time number seven came along, some of the stories were about him and her siblings before she was born. Her siblings could have done a much more thorough job because they knew him longer, better. They knew him when he was young, passionate, and involved. But all six of them deferred to good ole number seven. "Do it. You’ll be the best at this.", they said.
Her eyes drifted up from the notes and found her mother staring at her. She wasn’t exactly looking for approval, but she certainly wasn’t expecting that look, rage. She was about 3 minutes from the end of the eulogy. She knew the timing perfectly. She had practiced in the mirror for hours the day before. Yet, her mother was piercing her soul with fury. She began to sweat. Was it hot up on the platform? She stammered. Where was she, which bullet point? Her mind raced, trying to figure out what she had done to cause such a reaction in her mother. The cold and calm number seven took over her obsessive mind chatter. Just look at the notes and get through it.
Staring intently at the bullets and clenching the podium so hard her hands were cramping, she heard heels clacking on the tiled floor in an otherwise silent space. The door to the sanctuary opened then slammed closed. She looked up. Her mother was gone.
She made it through the eulogy and the rest of the funeral program dry-eyed and with a heart of solid ice. She had channeled her professional self, the stoney, cold-hearted bitch that was the CEO of a multi-million dollar educational software firm, and powered forward. Shake hands. Say thank you.
No emotion, was the mantra on replay in her mind. She refused to think about the eulogy, about her mom storming out. The finish line was close ahead and she would make it.
Back in her car, she was finally alone. She sat with the sun beating down on the windshield, creating a much needed warmth against the chill air of the cemetery. She stared out the windshield, across the field strewn with graves both new and old, as cars pulled away one by one.
Her mind drifted. When would she ever come back to this place? If she had it her way, she would drive home and never return. She didn't belong here, and never had. Banging on the window startled her out of the daydream. It was her mother at the passenger window.
She rolled the window down and put on her bravest smile. She started to greet her mom, but was interrupted with a deluge of anger pouring into the window, filling the car just as sand would fill an hourglass. Her mother, face red and veins bulging, expressed with vehemence her displeasure with the funeral, the guest list, and most of all with the eulogy. She insisted that the entire speech was lies, that her memories were false, that none of the pictures that she painted of her father were real.
Seven was baffled. She tried to respond but was cut off with more anger, resentment, and flying spit than she could handle at that moment. In her normal life, she had zero tolerance for assholes, but this was the woman who gave birth to her. She tried to apologize to her mother. She said she thought her dad would have liked it.
Her mom emphatically said, “You don’t even know him. I hope you are not planning to eulogize me! I don’t want anyone to hear your made up stories and bullshit.”
Her mom turned then, and walked away from the car, never looking back.
Now, there she was 10 years later, back at the same funeral home. She hadn’t spoken to her mom or most of her siblings since their last funeral, dad.
Her oldest brother had died since then, without a word to anyone. She found out on Facebook about 6 months after his death. Could be that he didn't notify the family because he felt out of place, too. Maybe he wanted to vanish like smoke on the wind, without viewings, eulogies, or a funeral suit.
She spoke to her surviving siblings through text on holidays, and that was the extent of her involvement in their lives. The rest of the family however, remained as close as they had been. They had meals, went on vacations, and watched football together several times a month. She knew this because she was friends on Facebook with number six and her mom. She was not sure if they had ever invited her to join. She wouldn't anyway, due to the distance and her work schedule. But still, an invitation would have been nice.
The simple truth was that she was born to a family who was fully developed, who had routines and loose ways of caring for children that left her alienated and grasping for meaning. The oldest six children were stair steps. They went to high school together and were very close. What was one baby among a slew of older, bonded children?
She found herself though, found her niche in the tech industry, all the while her family insisted that the internet was the devil's work and "no way to make a living". She established a life that worked for her, far away from her kin. Yet, like a boomerang, there she was again.
She received the text while in the mountains on vacation. Mother is in the hospital, it read. It is best to come now, another text read. She dragged her feet, finishing the trip and then driving to her hometown prepared for what? She did not know.
Halfway there, texts came in rapid succession. Hurry. There’s not much time. When she arrived at the hospital, her mother was in the ICU. She met her family in the ICU waiting area, and it seemed that they were just as she had left them 10 years before. They were huddled together, tissues in hand, with eyes rimmed pink and tear stained faces.
They urged her into taking her turn visiting. The hospital had strict rules for ICU but even more strict due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only one visitor at a time. And, she was the next in line.
She walked towards the room where her mother was, slowly, deliberately. What will I say? Why didn’t I bring flowers? Are flowers allowed in ICU? These and a thousand other questions raced through her mind as she walked the short distance from the waiting area to the room.
Nothing could have prepared her for what was on the other side of the door. Multiple IVs, a breathing apparatus strapped to her head, catheter bag hanging from the bedside, and her mother’s hands strapped down and propped on pillows. A nurse came in behind her and warned not to loosen the straps because she had pulled out all the tubes and needles and demanded to go home just minutes before and several times since she arrived.
Of all the scenes in her imagination, this was not one she had considered. She expected that her mother would be as fierce as ever, demanding to get her way, and by all means getting it. The woman that lay in the hospital bed was frail, small, and too exhausted to speak. She looked into her mother’s eyes for the first time in 10 years. That is me, she thought. In 40 years, this is my future.
Show no emotion. You are calm as still water, you are cold as ice. She repeated this silently as she greeted her mother. She realized that she, number seven, was a horrible person. Who, other than horrible people, goes 10 years without visiting their mother, no matter the childhood? Who does that?
I do, she thinks. While all her siblings were as close to their mother and each other as ever, she had been far away, living a life that did not include them. Now, the bill was due for her choices and the cost was steep.
The last words she heard from her mother was, “I am sorry about your Daddy’s funeral. You did the right thing.” It had taken all her mother’s strength to get out those few words. Her body relaxed back onto the bed and her gaze drifted out the window. The nurse came in and asked number seven to step out so that they could provide breathing treatment. She walked back to the waiting area, numb, the reality of eminent death settling in. Her turn was over. She said her goodbyes and promised to return first thing the next day. A few hours later she received the call. Her mother had passed.
The siblings again appointed her to eulogize their parent. You did it last time, they said. We can’t without breaking down, was the choral excuse. So again, cold hearted and stone faced, it was her who would give the eulogy.
The hotel mirror was full length with a bright light fixture hanging just above. There were no shadows in this mirror. It showed every age line, every piece of lint, and every feeling that was being suppressed behind her frigid blue eyes.
She stood staring at her reflection as the sun came up on the morning of the funeral. Black dress, black heels, black purse, her eyes shining with a glimmer of hope. These are my mother’s eyes, she thought as she stepped closer to focus on the color and shape. I have her eyes. That was something she would take with her. As she stared into her own reflection, the number seven who was and the number seven who is, became one. She took a sip of water, then began practicing her mother's eulogy.
Number seven was older now. Still as cold and calm as ever, but older and wiser too. She may have grown in compassion for others. Hurt feelings and grudges are too heavy to carry. She would put forth effort to know her family. She would call more often. She would come back to visit now and again.
She stood staring into the mirror, practicing the eulogy that she always knew she would have to give. No emotion. Cold as ice. Calm as still water. Yet, hope in her eyes for what comes next.