It was ninety-two degrees outside, and the AC in my car was out. When I walked into the building, the cool air chilled my back, still damp with my sweat. My face was already flushed, so I loosened my black tie a little bit and tried not to look nervous. I slowly followed the stream of somber-faced strangers up the handicap ramp that led to the glass doors of the modern-looking church with large windows.
I hardly knew Mike, even though we both worked at Krate’s. While he was in accounting, I was in marketing. We were in the same Fantasy Football league the year that Peyton Manning lost a year because of his neck surgery. I remembered because I had drafted Peyton Manning. There was a Peanuts comic on the door of his office. At the last meeting, he had spoken up about using a less expensive adhesive on our slotted cartons. I sometimes saw him at the water cooler, but we rarely talked. No one would ever consider us close. I’d never met his family.
The mourners walked past me, not realizing that I did not belong. The only reason I had come was because there had been a flier in the break room, and I didn’t want to be the only person who didn’t show up. I saw Mike’s wife standing near the door talking with an elderly couple. She was dressed in black, and her fist was tightly holding a crumpled tissue. I only recognized her because of the flier and couldn’t remember her name. I started to go over to tell her something, but I stopped. What would I say? “I’m sorry for your loss.” That sounded cliché. Besides, she didn’t need a total stranger giving her his sympathies; “Hi, I’m Will, I work at Krate’s with your husband. What’s your name?” would be more appropriate, but I doubted she was in the mood to meet new people. Funerals are seldom socializing events. I didn’t see anyone around that I recognized. I had hoped that more people from work would be here. Maybe I should leave.
A hand clapped me on the back, “Glad you could make it,” a deep voice said. Greg, who also worked in accounting, let his hand rest on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. I didn’t know what to do, or say, so I just nodded.
“It’s always hard to lose someone so young,” I finally managed to say.
“Yeah, a cousin of mine nearly died two summers ago. It helps you to remember to make the most of the time you have with the people you love.”
“Yeah,” I didn’t know how to reply to that. Was I supposed to share my own dead family member story?
His hand stayed on my shoulder for a little longer, and then he patted it twice and walked on. I followed, since he was the only person I recognized in the room. He walked up to Mike’s wife, and gave her a hug, “I’m sorry for your loss, Jennifer” he said, holding her hand in his. Somehow, he made the stock phrase sound sincere; “I know you and Mike will miss her very much.”
“Thank you,” she murmured.
To my dread, she looked at me. Her eyes looked tired, and I suddenly wondered how much she’d slept the past few nights. I stared at her for a second before I thought about saying something. I struggled to find some words to give her, and couldn’t get anything out, so I just nodded along with what Greg had said.
“We have a card that we passed around the office that we gave to Mike,” Greg continued.
“Yes, Mike brought it home, it was very nice,” Jennifer said, almost in a drone. I tried to remember if I had signed the card, or even seen it. Greg patted her on the arm and then walked away.
As I followed, I felt the need to comment after not having said anything to her, “I don’t know, uh, Jennifer that well.”
“She’s great, one of the most cheerful people I’ve ever met. It’s so hard to see her like this.”
“Yeah, I imagine it’s been really rough for them.” I followed Greg and he stopped at a table that was decorated with various photos of Megan. It was the first time I had seen her. She had bright blue eyes, wavy hair, a gap in her two front teeth. Freckles dotted her cheeks. Her ears stuck out a little bit, like Mike’s did. She was cute, maybe around ten years old. I looked at the pictures of her swinging on a tire-swing, riding a horse, holding a rabbit. She looked happy and active in all of them. But she wasn’t someone I knew. She just seemed like a generic kid. What are you doing here?
I imagined Megan watching the guests come in. If she were here, she’d know, or at least recognize everyone. Everyone except for me. She would wonder what this obviously uncomfortable man was doing at her funeral. What business did I have here? Was I an old family friend? A good buddy of her father’s? A distant relative? No, I was a stranger. An intruder. I didn’t belong. Funerals were sacred, meant for friends and family of the deceased. People came here to mourn, and I had no reason to be sad. Death was a permanent severance of a relationship, and it felt irreverent to be here without being able to grieve. I could picture her staring at me accusingly. Who are you? What do you think you are doing here?
I couldn’t think of a good answer. I didn’t belong here. She was someone who I didn’t know. She was someone who I would never meet. Even if she had lived a long time, I probably would have never met her. I had no business being here. Greg made his way to a table where there was a jar with folded pieces of paper in it. Beside it were pads of paper and pens. On a purple sign, it read, “The Memories Live On: Write your favorite memories with Megan.” Greg stopped, and turned to me and said. “Purple was her favorite color.” I nodded, as if I had already known that. I hadn’t. Greg picked up a pen and scrawled something on a scrap of paper, then folded it up and put it in the jar. He then turned and handed me the pen, and like an idiot I took it.
I stood for a moment, wondering what to do with it, and gradually realized there was a line of people behind me, full of eyes that were waiting for me to do something. I grabbed a pad of paper and drew a line. What is your favorite memory of someone you never met? I didn’t want to leave the page blank. What was I doing here? I don’t know Megan, I barely know Greg. This
was supposed to be a time for friends and family to comfort Mike and Jennifer. Until two months ago, I wasn’t even aware that Megan existed, let alone that I would be at her funeral. My back was still clammy; I was probably still sweating, even though it was cold in the building. I felt like I was an intruder, like I didn’t belong. I imagined her there again, staring at me. Go on, I dare you to write something. What was your favorite memory of us? Was it when you found out I had cancer? Do you think that counts? Go ahead, make something up, you’re already a fraud, you shouldn’t even be here. I looked at the line I had already drawn on the paper. The ink was purple, like the sign. I folded up the paper, and put my hand in the jar. For a moment, I considered dropping the nearly blank piece of paper in, but I thought better of it and discretely put the scrap into my pocket.
Someone ran past my knees, and I saw a boy chasing another one through the crowd of mourners. I suddenly realized that there were a lot of children in the area. I realized I didn’t know how old Megan was. Were these her classmates? Cousins? Friends from the neighborhood? Here they were playing, did they even realize that Megan had died? I thought that the boys’ parents should control their children, but I realized that those children probably knew Megan more than I did. They probably had a favorite memory with her. A day on the playground, a game at recess, a birthday party.
I know them, but who are you? Will Reeves? You’re not supposed to be here.
She was haunting me. I could feel her breathing down her neck, as if I was intruding on a sacred ceremony. I wanted nothing but to return to my car with its broken A/C and drive away. Instead, I continued to follow Greg, who stopped at another table which was covered in purple candies. Another purple sign explained that they were dark chocolate Hershey’s Kisses, since Megan loved chocolate and the color purple. The two boys ran up to the table and each grabbed a handful of the foil-wrapped dark chocolates and scampered away. Greg respectfully took one up, and offered me another. I unwrapped it and ate it. It didn’t seem as sweet as I remembered or expected. I pocketed the foil wrapper
“They’re about to start the video. Her uncle helped put together a media presentation of her life.”
Greg led the way and sat down in one of the ash-grey folded chairs, I took my place beside him. The casket was placed in front of a small stage, open. I tried not to stare at the girl’s face, but I was curious. She was pale, and still. I couldn’t see her blue eyes or her bright smile, just a still body as it lay. A man walked onto the stage, holding a microphone. He looked to be in his sixties, with a shaved head, and thick, grey eyebrows. He was dressed in black, just like everybody else. I didn’t recognize him.
“Good afternoon,” he began, addressing his solemn audience; “I’m glad you all could make it. I know that Megan would be glad to see so many of her friends and family are here.”
But not strangers. Not you.
“I know we all have our favorite memories of Megan.”
“I remember the time she was baptized. She was only eight, and very excited, but very nervous. I remember she got into the baptistry and she was shaking and her eyes were wide, staring right at her parents the whole time.”
I glanced towards Mike and Jennifer. They were nodding, sharing in the memory. I was sure many other people in the crowd were also remembering that very moment.
“When I baptized her and brought her back up, she looked at me with utter astonishment, with water dripping from her hair and said, ‘Did I do it right?’” The audience chuckled. My mouth was too dry to fake a laugh.
“Megan was a beautiful child. A joy to everyone who knew her. Even at the very end, when faced with death, she had a bright smile that lit up her whole face. She was an inspiration to us all, and as hard as it was to watch her die, she faced death with courage. She was one of the bravest people I had ever known.”
He knew me.
“Max Richards, her uncle has put together a very nice video of her life, and I want to thank everyone who sent in pictures and videos.” The presentation began with a shaky handheld camera showing a baby girl lying on her belly. I could hear Jennifer’s voice cheering on the child to come to her. Megan slowly pulled herself towards her mother and then stopped and gurgled.
The video changed to a series of pictures, all accompanied by quiet piano music. They showed Megan’s first haircut. A day at the ballpark with Mike. A family reunion. Her first day of kindergarten. The face slowly grew more familiar to me, closer to the pictures of the freckled girl with the gap in her front teeth and the ears that stuck out just a little bit.
Then it showed a video of Megan in front of a Christmas tree. She was constantly moving, unable to contain her eagerness. She hopped from box to box, shaking each one, without even pausing to contemplate what might have been inside each one, “Daddy! Come on! It’s Christmas!” the girl said. It was the first time I had ever heard her voice. I saw Mike slowly walk into the room, purposefully taking his time. Megan ran up and pulled him to his chair.
“Open this one first,” Jennifer’s voice from behind the camera said, and the camera shook as she brought a gift over to Megan. Megan tore through the wrapping paper and shrieked with excitement.
“Megan, show the camera, show us, show the camera what you have,” Jennifer’s voice came again. Megan quickly complied and showed off a stethoscope to the camera.
“What are you going to do with that?” Mike asked.
“I’m going to be a doctor!” She ran up to her father and put the tips into her ears and placed the other end on her father’s chest.
“Do you hear my heart beat?”
“Now let me listen to yours.”
I didn’t know what I was expecting, but that was the first time I had seen Megan as a person. She wanted to be a doctor. She had a heartbeat. Her family loved her, and she loved her family.
Those are my dreams.
The video continued to pictures. Science fair projects, Halloween costumes, Easter egg hunts, playing the piano.
When the next video started, it took me a moment to find her, as the screen was filled with shouting kids around a birthday cake. The black-haired girl who was ready to blow out the candles wasn’t Megan, but Megan was right beside her. After the candles were blown out, the birthday girl’s face was smashed into the cake. The rest of the children went silent with shock, but Megan laughed, loudly. The camera jumped, and Megan’s laughter continued out of the shot. The audience laughed.
That’s my laugh.
The slideshow continued, and little by little I watched Megan grow up. Then came the image that I was waiting for. A black screen with white text saying, “At the age of 9, Megan was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.” The images grew even more grim. They showed different parts of the treatment stage, surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy. The smiling girl grew paler and thinner. One picture showed her in a hospital bed, surrounded by a group of people and a birthday cake.
This is my story.
I watched, eyes glued to the projected screen, oblivious to everyone around me as I watched her die. Occasionally the black screen with the white text reappeared, saying things like “6 months later, the cancer returned,” or “Survival rates for Stage 3 osteosarcoma are around 30%.” Others
talked about the pain Megan felt, in her joints and in her lungs. She was smiling in all of the pictures, I found myself wondering how often she smiled when there wasn’t a camera. I don’t know when I started crying.
Are you crying for me?
I used my hand to wipe my eyes. The music slowed to a stop, and the screen displayed the familiar black image and white text, “On April 7th, 2013, Megan’s suffering ended.” Another screen came up, “She is survived by her father Michael, and her mother Jennifer. We love you, Megan, and we miss you.”
The lights came back on, someone in the audience began clapping, and others joined in. Were you supposed to clap after something like that? I couldn’t. The man with the shaved head who had introduced the video came back on stage. He gave a message about pain and mourning, and how grieving is a good process. I didn’t pay very close attention. I was still puzzled by how moved I felt by this stranger. I barely knew her, but I felt empty, like I had lost someone.
“There will be an additional time for viewing, and then we will leave for the burial at 4:30.”
Everyone around me stood up, and I made my way over to the casket. There was a line, and I patiently waited my turn. As I waited, I thought about the girl who I’d just learned about this afternoon. It hurt to realize that I would never get to know her. I didn’t know what made me feel this way for someone who didn’t know, who would never know me. I suddenly wanted her to be alive so badly, so that I could introduce myself to her, so that I could hug her and let her know that I was sorry for what she was going through. So that I could tell her that I was sorry she was gone. I felt like it was too late to appreciate her life, now that she was gone, but despite that I felt like breaking down and crying again. When I finally got to the front of the line, I looked at her. The mortician had done his job. She looked just like she was asleep. I couldn’t see her bright eyes or the gap in her front teeth, but her face had become unforgettable to me. I felt like I should say something, but I didn’t want to speak to a corpse, “I’m glad I came here. I wish I could have met you.”
I’m glad you came.
A hand clapped me on the shoulder, and I turned, expecting to see Greg. Mike’s face was there, hidden behind his thick glasses. His wife was behind him, “Will! I didn’t know you were here, I’m glad you came here.”
“I uh, I just wanted to come and support you and your…” I trailed off.
“I’m uh, sorry for your loss.” I stammered. His jaw clenched and tears filled his eyes. He hugged me. I barely knew this man as I held him in my arms while he wept, “You and your wife raised a beautiful daughter. I wish I could have known her.”
“Thank you,” he broke the embrace and said, “Oh, Jennifer, this is Will Reeves, he works at Krate’s with me.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” she extended her hand and I took it gingerly. “I don’t know how we could make it without the support from all of our friends and family, you all mean so much to us.”
“It’s the least I could do,” I said. Another person came up to the couple and they began talking, hugging and crying together. I moved away. I didn’t see Greg anywhere, and I decided it might be best to head to my car.
When I stepped outside, the temperature hadn’t gotten any lower, but I didn’t feel the heat. I unlocked my black car, which I’m sure was as hot as an oven, but I didn’t notice, and I kept my dress coat on. I didn’t drive to the burial site, but almost mechanically I headed home instead. I pulled into my parking lot and walked up to my apartment. It was empty and quiet. I shivered.
I went to my desk to try and work on a billboard slogan, but my thoughts were elsewhere. They were with a little girl who would never grow up. She would never graduate high school. She would never fall in love. She would never get married. She would never have a family of her own. She would never be a doctor. She would never grow old. I didn’t know if I loved her, but I felt something. Was it possible to love someone you have never met? Someone you would never meet?
I reached into my pocket and found a purple candy wrapper and a counterfeit memory. I placed them in a desk drawer, which was already full of other things that I wasn’t quite ready to throw away or forget.
I’m glad you came.
Andrew Maust received his Master of Arts in English at McNeese State University. He teaches writing at Penn State University. He has presented creative and critical works at Sigma Tau Delta, The South Central Modern Language Association, and will present at The Northeast Modern Language Association in 2019.