|December 9, 2009
The wind howled around me, flinging cold rain this way and that. Frigid drops stung my face and hands. The vinyl awning overhead shook and rattled in time to the thunderclaps echoing from every direction. Energy crackled in the air as lightning splintered trees miles away. The resulting clamor forced Reverend Don to shout just to be heard above the fury of the storm. Even so, I only caught every third or fourth word of the prayer he offered.
I didn't need to hear what he said anyway. There were no prayers for raising the dead. I knew because I'd tried. I'd begged, pleaded, and prayed to every god I could think of over the last four days, and none of my efforts changed a single thing.
My mom still lay in the gleaming wood casket in front of me. And I still couldn't breathe. I'd tried that for the last four days, too, but my breath remained lodged in my throat. It burned when I inhaled. It burned when I exhaled.
Was that normal?
I wasn't sure.
I lifted my unblinking gaze from my waterlogged black shoes as Reverend Don continued shouting. He bowed his gray head over his Bible, his shoulders hunching against the driving rain pummeling us from all sides. The few mourners who'd braved the storm alongside my dad and me to attend the graveside service huddled in groups beneath useless umbrellas, soggy tissues clutched in their shaking fists. Mascara ran in rivulets down more than one face, but whether from the rain or tears, I didn't know.
I couldn't remember if I'd put on mascara before leaving the house, but any smudges beneath my eyes were from rain. I hadn't cried yet, and I didn't know if that was normal either.
I didn't think it mattered one way or another though. My life stopped making sense the moment I'd opened the door to the state trooper on Saturday, and every hour since had flung me further and further from normal. Who cared if I cried now or later?
My mom was dead, and tears wouldn't change that.
Besides, if I let myself cry now, I wouldn't stop. I'd keep on until I ran out of tears, and I couldn't do that. I needed to keep moving forward. One step at a time. Sprinkle dirt over her coffin. Thank her friends for coming. Pack my things. Transfer colleges.
The list seemed endless, but if I stopped long enough to think now, I'd fall apart. Eventually, I'd run out of things to do, I knew that, but I didn't know what to expect when I did. When I had nothing left to plan or store or do…is that when I cracked? When I shattered like Humpty Dumpty?
As a murmur of "amen" went up from Mom's friends and co-workers, I almost hoped I did get to fall apart then. Being strong and brave hurt. Especially when I just wanted to hit my knees and scream until I passed out.
But when do we ever really get what we want, anyway?
Dad's hand tightened around mine, and I glanced in his direction. He stared straight ahead, his brown eyes fixed on Mom's casket. I followed the path his gaze had taken, only to realize he wasn't looking at her casket at all. His eyes locked on the far side of the cemetery, at the line where the plots stopped and the trees started.
I squinted through the rain, trying to pinpoint what held his attention.
A lone wolf hunkered beneath the trees.
I blinked, certain I hadn't seen an animal at all, but I had. A wolf, or the domestic relation anyway, sat in the shadows of the trees, staring in our direction. Even from a distance, he looked as sad as I felt, and I wondered if he'd lost a loved one too.
Do animals feel loss like us? Do they grieve, too?
I hoped not.
As the wind picked up around us, the animal's eyes met mine. He didn't move for a moment. He just sat there with his sad, wolfy eyes locked on mine. And then he lifted his muzzle skyward and howled.
Goose bumps broke out along my skin as his mournful wail ripped through the cemetery. Reverend Don's voice, the sniffles and muffled sobs of Mom's friends, even the crash and clatter of thunder and lightning faded.
The lump in my throat dissolved, and I could breathe.
I didn't feel peaceful or better or anything remotely close to unburdened. I felt…wrecked. As if listening to his call shook loose a little grief that had been building for the last few days. Everything inside, all of the grief and fear I hadn't allowed myself to think about, expanded. Grief swept through me like a tsunami, leaving nothing untouched.
A tear slipped down my cheek, followed by another.
The wolf's howl lingered in the air around us for long moments before the storm renewed its assault. Lightning flashed in the distance, and the sound of his howl faded into the screeching wind.
The animal turned his head in my direction, looking right at me again. Yellow eyes locked on mine, burning through me, speaking to me.
My heart twisted painfully in my chest, the truth hitting me like a ton of bricks.
My mom was never coming back. Not ever.
My vision blurred until the wolf looked like little more than a watery spot far off in the distance. "I love you, Mama," I whispered, hoping she'd heard me.
The animal sat there for another moment, watching me, and then he slipped back beneath the shadows of the tree. I watched him go through tear-filled eyes, my heart aching in ways I couldn't even begin to describe.
Reverend Don loomed in front of me as I reached up to wipe my eyes, his wrinkled face a mask of sympathy and support. He extended one of his hands in my direction, his Bible clutched to his chest with the other.
I glanced over at my dad, but he had his eyes closed and his head bowed. A line of moisture worked its way down his cheek, and I knew that even if Mom hadn't heard me, he had.
I hesitated, not ready for what came next. I was only nineteen…why did I have to say goodbye to her now? How was this fair? I looked back at her coffin, and then at the broken expression on my dad's face. My hands trembled in my lap.
Dad reached over to squeeze my fingers. "Love you, Ari," he whispered.
I rose from my seat, a sob building in my throat.