The Dying Young: How Nora Would Be
Reviewing the events of some people's deaths makes one stop and reconstruct a different ending, re-positioning the deceased by a hair of an inch into a new trajectory which ends up "just fine, with a few bruises." Many soldiers enjoyed this luck, where the bullet grazed a shoulder, an ear-lobe, or the mine blew-up the pig instead of them. Still, the deceased are the unlucky, and they fall prey to the tenth of an inch. The bullet didn't graze, but lodged. If he would have just waited for the pig to run first, he wouldn't have stepped on the mine. Instead, the friend who lived took the pig home with him as proof that the deceased didn't die in futility, and lives on in memory.
In Nora's case, I want to go back to that ridge of road in the mountains of Alaska. I want to distract the guy in the car behind Nora and Charles, on the bike, and tell him to be patient, slow down, you have a motorcycle in front you. Or, if he does still knick their tire with his bumper and they go sliding, I would guide both of them to go off in the same direction where they would be "just fine, with a few bruises." Both would skid along the white line, and then veer off in their leather protection, sustaining only a slight road rash, smelling asphalt and heat, and living on deep into their 80s or 90s with grandchildren. The alternative was for one of them to be flung into a semi's path and be totally run over with all sets of wheels. The miracle, instead of a long life, would be the week Nora survived in ER. Doctors marveled that the soup of bones in her chest didn't kill her instantly and she even woke a few days that last week of her life.
Nora's sallow cheeks took a different shade of foundation in death than the lighter, paler base she bought at Walgreens, her no-nonsense choice of make-up, when she could have bought high-end, mall stuff. Nora's was the most tragic funeral I'd been to. She was my little sister's best friend. I've never sobbed and heaved for a person I hardly knew in my life. At 32, she had two children, who she put lots of time into and cherished. Her husband, she saw through drugs and rehabilitation. Truly, that in itself, is more than many can say. My sister, Sal, she supported with computers, groceries, hugs, late night Twinkie binges, and anything else that aids someone like my overwhelmed sister Sal, on food stamps, imminently teetering between bills, jobs and births. Nora's brother was Sal's first boyfriend and her first daughter's dad, so they were even family.
Nora would never rest her hands on her stomach with a flower like that, Sal said. She would want a sunflower. She would hate how they did her hair. We all laugh, then cry because we have to say "would" and "should." Sal says would all the time now. Nora would be thirty-three tomorrow. At Sal's daughter's birthday, Nora would have loved the ice-cream cake. The first religion with which Nora associated herself was the Mormon Church. Later, it became her parent's religion. Nora's Christian group became a family to her and were with her on that narrow ridge in Alaska, and some even strolled into the Mormon church that day. The burial matched her parent's religion, with an open casket in an oblong room, tan carpet, gauzed drapes pulled close, and an easel with Nora shots in computer-reprints taped randomly. The air conditioner, weaker in that room, weakened still with its overcapacity of tattooed and pierced biker family members and Christian friends, some with years of grease and cigarette smoke rising out of their psyches, clashing with the Mormons from her youth in tight-backed sweating suits and swishing, sweating panty hose. A war of Patchouli and White Shoulders rose slowly to nostril height. I left the sallowing, over-dressed and out of character Nora to sit with my nervous brother in the foyer, the same strange mix of family looming, groups smoking outside the church doors and under trees further on past the front lawn. When I went outside to search for my little sister, (she'd disappeared) I could feel the discerning stares asking, which one are you? Mormon or pierced? I couldn't answer.
Nora's estranged brother showed up, raggedy on purpose, trailing a high energy, a foreign look to him with newer fashioned glasses and a tight fitting vest. Soon it was whispered that he flew in from somewhere in Canada and was a singer. Also, a whisper was out that at first, certain people didn't see fit for him to sing with a guitar in church, it being disrespectful or something like that. That was solved somehow. He sang. Since his profession was singing, he wrote the funeral song in a classical style, and paused many times to overcome the tears that made it hard for him to see, that clouded his throat. The words were sung in Italian, and perhaps that was the original argument? I could tell it didn't matter, looking around at the pews, because now both groups and every one in between either looked into their lap, rubbed their face with hankies, or leaned into a sleeve to catch the tears that came too easily and often for anyone to overcome.
The singing, so sweet in a language professing deep love, issued out of the brother's skilled and masterful voice in confidence and then utter sadness, then swinging up again in confidence. Perhaps no one knew the words in that chapel. The brother's deft fingers on his soft guitar strummed a practiced restraint, but his face gave in to feeling without his control, his eyebrows swinging into E minor, and then to a major he wrote on the airplane, the six hours he had to match lyrics, grace notes and treble to his sister's shortened life. Later, at the grave site, a silver boom-box sat on a fold-up chair, sinking into new, wet grass. My sister had a cassette tape that she and Nora made in high school together. Back then they had a macabre sense of humor and actually recorded songs they would want played at their funeral. She was allowed to keep the volume at "two." Although, another Spinal Tap joke would have been that it didn't go to "eleven."
I know it's wrong to compare funerals. I know that every life is precious and treasured by the ongoing, living treasurers. I'm told so-and-so died of an overdose. I'm told so-and-so died in the nursing home. The funerals are set for a few days out. Mourners saunter into chapels filled with white lilies and they lean into their shirt sleeves, gather again to sob by the grave side and throw handfuls of dirt over the "wasted life," or the "long, full life." An acquaintance retells this over dinner and then I stop eating and can't participate in the conversation. I nod, yes. That's sad. But I'm not sad. I'm arrested. I pause and try to stop the sob, a shaking in my gut. I'm back on that ridge yelling, "Wait. Stop that car!"
I didn't know Nora. I think I met her a couple of times when I visited my niece, absconding with her to the mall. Or I talked to Nora when I called Sal. Her voice was light and laughy, matter-of-fact. My niece tells me, picking taffy from her braces, and then her mouth over-filling with saliva, her mascara dripping from her chin, My aunty was the bomb. She shouldn't have died. Who else do we have like that?
It's that unfair phrase coming up again deep in my memory of other friends who died sliding on ice during a high school date, or dying in their 26th year, heart weakened from Chemo. I can't say unfair. It won't help to say it. Instead, I say back, you know, I guess we don't have many like Nora. A tenth of an inch keeps me saying it. A tenth of an inch ends a lovely, short life, everyday.