Death of a Matriarch
Hailey Williams’ hands were clammy. If it were any other day she would have taken the small vile of baby powder – the one she carried for this exact situation – from her purse, sprinkled some on her palms and moved on. But she couldn’t move on. At that point, she didn’t know how to move on. She was huddled in a mass of aunts, uncles, and a batch of other relatives she never quite knew, awkwardly singing “Toora Loora Looral,” as an alleged clan. To the left of them, prominently displayed for the entire room to recognize, was a casket. Nana died.
The viewing-room was full with distorted fun-house images of people she’d seen a penny less than a nickel of times in the seven years since she left for college at 18. Flowers; blue, yellow, pink – all the colors Nan had liked – adorned the stage, creating a border of Eden-esque proportions for the woman prophesized as a saint by her sons, daughters, and virtually all those that had met her. Two columns of chairs, with oddly infinite rows for the tightened space, housed the bodies of second-cousins, in-law’s extended families, friends fulfilling social obligations, and the family members too catatonic with overwhelming emotion that they couldn’t bear to move around the hall. Just outside the door, the funeral home director handed out cards.
Before they were up singing, so their entire extended network could understand their unified pain, Nan’s sons and daughters stood with Papa, who’d been with Nan for more than 50 years, in the welcome line, extending proper thanks to the friends, extended relatives, and second cousins that had made the pilgrimage to bid her farewell. Hailey Williams watched the scene unfold from opposite the room, while simultaneously paying attention to the makeshift memorial video she’d constructed across the past week since she arrived home. Everything happening around her, as she scanned from left to right, right to left, felt fake. From the handshakes, the forced smiles, awkward hugs, and clichéd platitudes, it was all very abnormal, like something from another time. Was there a code to grieving that she never knew? It raked at her brain. In the moment, she wondered if she was deflecting, ridiculing everyone around her so she wouldn’t have to deal with the loss. But she couldn’t help feeling as if she were the only solid figure in a surreal painting. Or maybe it was the other way around. The thought weighed upon her.
As the afternoon progressed Hailey Williams made it a special priority to watch her aunts, uncles, and even her own mother, as they processed and interacted with the moment. Her aunt Janet stood at the front of the welcome line next to Papa, just close enough to recognize the divide between the two of them. Papa, a horrid drinker throughout Janet’s youth and early adulthood, consistently neglected and verbally abused Janet, in addition to the other children, time after time. Once Janet saved enough money, after coming home from a tour with the Peace Corps, she pleaded with Nana to leave the situation Papa placed them in. The way Hailey Williams’ mother would tell the story, Nan would look Janet up and down, and say the same thing every time: “Janet, I took a vow.”
Uncle Adam stood against the wall, next to a recently shined piano. His suit jacket hanged leisurely off of his chest and, if Hailey looked at him at the right moment, a glare from his hidden flask would highlight his position. Adam was the family tragedy, a drunk Irish cop unable to keep himself from pouring his heart out after the glasses had been poured. Hailey once saw a picture of Nan and Adam on the day of his academy graduation. She’d always remembered the way little Nan looked up at her son, with eyes spread wide by admiration. Hailey never saw Nan look that way at him outside of the picture.
Aunty Rachel darted around the room, with all the gleaming intent of a pinball struck from a righteous hammer, letting everyone know that it was all going to be all right. Up from West Virginia, she would co-write the eulogy with Janet, making note to emphasize the love Nana would show everyone she would meet. She also called the cancer, which ravaged her body over the course of Nan’s last twenty years on earth, “God’s long call to get his favorite angel back home.” Hailey Williams would throw up three days later thinking about it.
The Hugger, otherwise known as Uncle James, was much like Rachel. He would wrap up each attendee in his bulky girth and whisper grand clichés faster than a Sunday morning television preacher. James owned a chain of fast food restaurants throughout the middle of the state that played off of the pseudo-religious temperament of each town. When Hailey was eight years old she’d stopped at one with Nan while driving home from a family reunion. Nan got them two Heavenly Hamburgers and Saintly Strawberry Shakes. Hailey always remembered Nan looking to her, puffing upon a half lit Marlboro Light, and asking “Is it me, or do these taste like bullshit?”
The loudest person in the room, by far, was Hailey’s aunt Courtney. The likely fit to become the ambassador of the family, Courtney welcomed the large contingent of her colleagues there to pay respects from three towns over. Hailey watched her once-favorite aunt move from person to person and address them with the utter intimacy of old friends. It wouldn’t be until about a year later when Hailey would look back and recognize the calculations in Courtney’s actions. After losing out on a job, because of a phone call to a boss from her aunt, Hailey never trusted the person she once saw as a second mother. She would recall a comment from Nana, during a thanksgiving dinner, about the duplicity of her aunt: “Courtney always knew how to talk to her friends.”
The last of her mother’s siblings was her Uncle Robert, a no-nonsense executive from New York who struck it big off of some social media IPO when those things started becoming popular. Eventually, he was the one to take over Papa’s finances when it became clear Papa couldn’t manage his money without Nan. One day, after an exceeding amount of stressors from Papa, Robert would call Hailey’s mother to lament. Across the speaker Hailey made out her uncle’s words, “I really wish he died first.” After her mother hung up the phone, Hailey would wonder if Nan were the type to roll in her grave.
At the start of the third showing of her video, Hailey noticed her mother, Stephanie, checking in with her father and her brother in one of the front rows. The following night, after the funeral, the burial, and the impromptu yet fully stocked reception at Courtney’s house, Stephanie and Hailey would walk to the cemetery barefooted with two bottles of beer. Sitting along the tombstone and the newly sodded grass, Stephanie told her daughter about a time when Nan walked her to her fourth grade talent show, amidst a record-breaking snow storm, just so she could sing the song she had rehearsed for the previous month. Stephanie looked at her daughter and told her those were the things she was going to remember, because if she didn’t all she would be left with was a sinking loneliness that would drive her deep into a hole of depression and self-doubt. “Nan wouldn’t have wanted that,” Stephanie would say, gazing up at the stars.
Towards the end of the last verse of “Toora Loora Looral,” Hailey looked at her aunts, uncles, cousins, and immediate family members and saw the sinking loneliness her mother would speak of the following night. Glazed eyes and silent shudders harmonized with each note. It was as if this last song was their unified realization that they were not losing their mother, their confidant, their champion, their protector, their prayer, or their friend, they were losing the one thing that kept them connected. The bond, from one to seven, would never again be as strong as it was in that moment. The Irish Lullaby ended, in the eyes and ears and hearts and souls of those who listened, as a farewell to a woman who was strong enough to keep a family together. For everyone who tasted the words come out of their mouths, it was the parting verse to the people they stood beside.