The Funeral (WITHHOLD)
Book: Open Heart (Choices)
Pairing: Dr. Ethan Ramsey x MC (Dr. Zyra Lewis)
Summary: It is the day of the funeral without Ethan.
Rating: Teen+ (adult content, angst, discussion of death, language)
Previous Chapters: Open Heart Fic Archive (see Series)
Word Count: 4,875
There’s a gentle pat against my calf. I feel my leg hanging over the edge of my twin-sized, childhood bed. I’ve become used to my queen back in Boston. So as the patting continues, the lower half of my leg just hovers in mid-air, making it an easy target.
I hear my name being called in unison with the continued patting. I draw my leg back under the covers.
“Stop,” I sleepily say.
“Don’t speak that way to me.” Mama slaps my butt. Thankfully, the thick comforter provides some cushion. “Get up,” she demands.
I spring up and see Mama standing at the foot of my bed.
“Good. You can use my bathroom to get ready.”
Mama is already fully dressed. How long has she been up?
When she leaves, I notice my phone near my pillow. That’s right. I had been texting him all night. We were keeping each other company because we couldn’t sleep. But my phone is dead. I must have fallen asleep mid text.
I plug it in to charge it. The screen lights up and immediately turns on. I see that the time is 7:24 am. I scroll through the texts from last night. My last one was at 3:03 am. I’ve gotten about four hours of sleep.
I scroll back up through our conversation, remembering what we had talked about. I was surprised that Rafael had even texted me back. He couldn’t sleep because his suspension weighed on his mind. I couldn’t sleep because of, well, the funeral.
RA: Just have TV on. Watching Game of Thrones.
ZL: OH! It’s great until…
RA: Don’t tell me anything!
I smile at our GoT banter. He gives me commentary on the episode he’s watching, until the topic shifts to work.
ZL: Nothing yet?
ZL: I hope soon
RA: If Edenbrook goes under, what’s the point?
ZL: Raf… don’t think like that.
RA: What will u do?
RA: If it all goes under
ZL: Don’t know.
And I honestly don’t know what I would do without Edenbrook, my cohort, the diagnostics team, and my… my mentor. It’s not something I can fathom, but then again, I did just lose my father. And here I am about to attend his funeral. I couldn’t have ever fathomed this day.
Then I try to change the subject.
ZL: How’s Sora?
ZL: You enjoying that she’s there?
RA: Yeah. She likes bicycling in the park. But it’s too cold now.
ZL: 🤣 Poor Raf will need saving from hypothermia
RA: ha u offering?
ZL: Sure. Give me time and place
RA: tomorrow morning bike path near frog pond
ZL: I’m sure Sora’s got you 😉
RA: she does
ZL: Been to the gym lately?
RA: Bryce got me in a few days ago. Suspension and all.
ZL: That’s good.
I remember pausing here before I typed my next text.
ZL: Was Ethan there?
RA: Yeah. Seemed really focused.
ZL: Isn’t he always?
RA: Yeah but like he looked troubled. Maybe the hospital stuff is on his mind.
RA: U ready for tomorrow?
ZL: I don’t know how to answer that.
ZL: Don’t be.
RA: When do u get back?
ZL: Monday afternoon. Back to work Tuesday.
RA: We miss u
ZL: I miss you too, all of you
Reading back through the texts, I guess we came together at the right time. Talking to him last night helped distract me from today. But I go back to reread the part about Ethan. First Sienna told me he was annoyed by Zaid’s question about me, that he kept checking his phone at Donahue’s, and now he seems upset, trying to exercise through it. These pieces of information go through my mind like trying to solve a mysterious diagnosis. I can’t help but wonder if part of it has to do with me. Perhaps the diagnosis is heartbreak.
Not everything is about you, Zyra.
True. Just because I’m heartbroken, doesn’t mean he is. He hasn’t even reached out to me, as usual. I’m probably just projecting my own feelings and expectations onto him. I should know better by now. I should.
I scroll through the rest of the texts and see Rafael’s final one.
RA: You must have fallen asleep. Thanks for keeping me company. Take care tomorrow.
I text back a reply.
ZL: I did. So sorry! And thank you too. It was nice.
“Zyra!” I look up shocked by the booming and strict voice, seeing my mama standing in my doorway, her hands on her hips. “You’re almost 30. Get your act together and get ready. I’m not going to tell you again.”
I see Jacob run past behind her in his suit.
“Sorry, Mama,” I apologize.
Mama turns away from me and begins to follow and yell after Jacob.
“Don’t be running. I don’t need you having an accident out of all days.”
I place my phone on my nightstand to let it finish charging. I close my eyes and take a deep breath that feels heavy in my lungs, realizing that I have been only stalling the inevitable.
I begin getting ready. I take up Mama’s offer and shower and prepare in her bathroom. She’s downstairs with Jacob. I hear the shower running in the bathroom down the hall. Elliot is getting ready himself.
After showering I head to my room to change. I hear a ping and see a notification on my phone. It’s a new text from Sienna. It’s only a string of hearts. I reply that I will text her tonight after it’s all over.
But still nothing from Ethan. Not one word.
I don’t realize how hard I’m holding my phone in my hand until the pressure accidentally turns the screen off from squeezing the side button so hard.
I need to stop focusing on this need for him. Whatever there was between us, it’s done. I made sure of that.
I slip on my dress, the sheer material at my shoulders itch a little. I roll my shoulders, then rub them. That helps. After putting on the finishing touches, a belt and a pair of one-inch black heels, I take a look at myself in the full-length mirror in the corner of my bedroom.
I nearly gasp at what I see.
I couldn’t have lost that much weight, could I? It’s only been a week. But there I am, the seams of my dress no longer line snuggly along my curves. They are a bit loose and leave some fabric to bulge around the belt. Even my cheeks look a bit more sunken, my face a tad thinner. The soft roundness of my cheeks are no longer, but straight and hard. Even my arms have begun looking like their muscle tone is deteriorating. I can only describe what I see as chicken legs coming out from under the hem of my dress.
I think back to this past week. The stress. The constant work to help out Mama and Jacob. The lack of proper eating. It’s amazing what can happen in such a short amount of time due to tragedy. And I am seeing the effects on my body.
I then unwrap the scarf from around my hair, allowing my straightened locks to fall against my shoulders, and now past them. Without the curls and the kinkiness, I can truly see the full length of my hair. But the straighter hairdo only enhances my now skinnier frame. My luscious curls of hair and body curves have been replaced with straight lines that no longer resemble the person I was before I came here.
Who are you?
I take a brush to complete my preparedness, but stuck between the bristles is a clump of long strands.
Is my hair falling out too?
I feel around my scalp and feel a small bald spot near the nape of my neck. I can only stare at the lost hair in my brush in horror, my fingertips rubbing hard against the smooth bald spot as if trying to erase it and magically bring my hair back.
I search desperately for Elliot. Panic has now overtaken me. But he’s nowhere upstairs. I then hear voices coming from the kitchen. Not only can I hear Mama’s voice, I hear new ones, ones I’ve usually only heard over the phone.
Uncle and Auntie are here?
To try to abstain from anymore of Mama’s wrath this morning, I decide to go down. But before I do, I say a short mantra until I feel myself relax.
“Everything will be OK. Everything will be OK.”
I take a slow pace down the steps while gripping the banister, make my way across the living room, and finally enter the kitchen.
“Hey, baby girl,” Uncle Justice greets me and wraps me in a big hug.
My Aunt Nora does the same.
“Look at you. You’ve grown into such a beautiful woman,” Auntie says.
“And a doctor at that,” Uncle adds.
I give a small smile to them both, trying to hide the insecurities I uncovered just a little while ago.
Uncle and Auntie had arrived from Louisiana early this morning and came directly here. I think Mama wanted them here as quickly as possible for their support. She and Auntie are quite close, so I think Mama wanted her around. Mama’s only family is her own mother. But because of some health problems, she couldn’t come down for the funeral.
I see Artie, my cousin, eating cereal with Jacob at the table. I give him a hug and then let him continue eating. Jacob is quiet as usual, even after his outpour of emotions from last night. His Thor and Captain America figures are sitting on the table next to his cereal bowl. The only sound from him is the crunching of the Cheerios between his teeth, while Artie is going on about a Black Panther comic he recently read. I don’t believe any of it is registering with Jacob, as he just stares blankly into his bowl. Elliot is next to him, his arm draped across the back of our baby brother’s chair, a mug of coffee gripped in his other hand.
With them sitting next to each other in their similar black suits with basic black ties and the short Afros with the fades, one could never doubt they were brothers. And if Jacob were taller, they could even be mistaken for twins. The only true difference is that Elliot wears a diamond stud in his left ear with a small silver loop encircling the cartilage at the top. Mama never liked Elliot’s earrings. She always blamed his move to the more progressive Seattle for his change in appearance and for other things.
I go to pour myself a cup of coffee. Mama and Auntie continue a conversation about the food for the reception. Mama thinks the table should be moved more towards the center of the kitchen for easier access.
“We’ll get our strong men here to move it.” Auntie looks at both Uncle and Elliot.
“What about me?” Artie asks with a full mouth of cereal.
“Baby, no talking with your mouth full. And we’ll find something you can do to help. Don’t worry,” Auntie replies.
“Yes. Everyone will be put to work,” Mama adds.
Uncle gets up from his seat, setting his empty coffee mug on the table. “I’ll go bring in our luggage,” Uncle says to Auntie before he leaves.
“Do you need some help?” I offer.
“Oh, baby girl, I got this.”
Uncle and Auntie rented a minivan, so all of us could go together to the service. We leave after Uncle gets the bags and Mama gets them settled into the den.
There are a few cars when we arrive at the church. We ensured to get there 30 minutes before the service started so that we had a chance with Papa alone. Mama also had some questions for Pastor Ross.
When we enter, the double doors to the worship area are open, and I can see Papa’s casket already on display. It’s brown with an ivory interior. Papa’s head is resting against the pillow top. He doesn’t look dead. He looks like he’s just sleeping. Is that how he looked when he passed away, sleeping and never realizing that he was never to wake up?
Around him are an array of funeral bouquets with flowers giving a white and purple color scheme. His photo is propped up on an easel to the left of the coffin. He’s wearing his usual black New Orleans Saints cap, one he was usually not seen without. It’s something I thought he would be buried with, but I think Mama can’t ever let that go.
Uncle urges us to go first, and so we do. He, Aunt Nora, and Artie remain in the lobby, where Pastor Ross offers his condolences and some small talk.
Mama grips both my and Elliot’s hands as we take a walk that seems like the length of a New York City marathon. 26.2 miles. Time slowly passes as we approach the casket, my focus more on Mama than Papa, hoping that her strength doesn’t give out along the way. Jacob is near my side, not willing to hold on to my hand that I reach out to him. Instead, he just clings to his Thor action figure.
Each of us has shades on, hiding our pain behind the dark, tinted lenses. But then we stop. I turn to face Mama, watching her and ready to do what I must in case she needs me. I see her jaw tremble, her biting her lower lip, until she finally leans over and gives Papa a kiss on his forehead. Her hand rests on top of his, which are folded against his stomach. He looks peaceful, but he physically looks less like Papa and more like some clay sculpture that a graduate student completed as a masters project by giving his features a more abstract feel than a natural one, as if the student was trying to make some point about how creativity shouldn’t be objective, but should focus more on feelings of inauthenticity and independence. But by doing so, Papa’s uniqueness has been erased for the sake of art.
Ethan would be appalled.
I wonder if morticians see dead bodies as an artistic medium. They can embalm and apply make-up, but in the end, there’s an essence of my papa that is no longer there. Perhaps it left with him when he passed.
Mama reaches into her purse and pulls out the Ziploc bag with the broken pieces of the vase. The one I broke. The one that was so important to them. The one that symbolized their love and marriage.
I can’t help but feel an uneasy tightness in my chest when I see her pull it out. I also think she’s going to whisper to him, telling him what his dumbass daughter did. I know she forgave me, but I still can’t help shake the guilt.
She tucks the bag against his side, nearly hidden between him and the lining of the casket. Her hand lingers as she gives him a final look, one of a goodbye. She then turns and walks away, holding her hand out to Jacob. He just stands there, looking up at the casket.
“Do you want to see Papa, buddy?” I ask him.
He just shakes his head. I know he can see Papa’s face, propped up high above the opening, and for him, that is probably enough. He reaches his hand above the rim of the casket and drops his Thor in. He then takes off, running down the aisle past Mama and out the door. I see Uncle stop him, kneel down, and embrace his nephew who stays still in his arms. Jacob’s shoulders shudder against my uncle’s embrace, his face hidden against Uncle’s chest. Mama rushes to her baby boy.
Elliot and I continue standing by the casket, watching the events unfurl. Elliot then turns back around and repositions Jacob’s Thor in the casket.
“There?” he asks me.
I look at the figure.
“The breast pocket,” I say.
Elliot tucks the action figure inside and neatly against the white, decorative handkerchief. Thor’s head and shoulders are all that are in view, and he will be alongside Papa to wherever he may journey next.
I feel my brother take my hand and grip it tightly. It becomes so tight that it feels as if the bones in my hand are about to crack. I then see tears begin to stream down from below the rims of his sunglasses.
He releases my hand, straightens Thor one more time, and heartbreakingly whispers, “Love ya, Pops.” The vowel sound in Pops breaks in Elliot’s voice. I see him swallow hard, making his Adam’s apple quiver. He raises his shades and wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. Once his shades are lowered to cover his tear-filled, red eyes, he places a hand on my shoulder, continues looking down at Papa, and then leaves without a word. As he walks away, I see him take out a pack of cigarettes and head outside.
Here we are.
I take off my shades to meet Papa directly. I see his tie crooked and adjust it. I run a hand over his jacket, smoothing down any excess folds and wrinkles.
“There. You look sharp.”
I place my hand on his, my fingertips curl into the curve between his thumb and index finger. He’s hard and stiff, but a part of me hopes I feel his hand respond to mine. It never does.
I stand there, my thumb caressing along the tip of his index finger. My eyes study his sleeping expression. The way his lips are drawn together in a serious line, which contradicts the man smiling in the picture. The way his eyelids are closed, sealing his soul behind them and knowing I will never be able to see those chestnut eyes look at me ever again. I study the way his beard follows the lines of his always chubby cheeks but strong jawline. I begin to count each grey hair.
I feel my eyes sting with the urge to release tears. But each tear begins to slowly take turns falling when I see an edge of purple glass peeking out from his side.
“You know, I’m sorry about that.” I press my lips together, feeling tears roll across them and down my chin. “I can understand if you’re angry with me too. This wasn’t how I wished I had left things, leaving more broken pieces in Mama’s life.”
I can now taste the salt of my own tears as I speak.
“I know how much that vase meant to you and the tradition behind it. It’s something I’ve always admired about you and mom. Your love for each other. But I don’t think love is in the cards for me any time soon.”
I feel a hand on my back. It’s Uncle and Auntie. I turn around, my arms around them both, and I cry onto their shoulders.
I don’t head out. I just take a seat at the front pew where our family will be sitting for the service. The hardness of the wood against my back, it’s coldness against my exposed thighs, don’t even register. I feel as if I am sitting in a state of disbelief, where it has all finally hit me. I am here. Papa is over there. Dead. Uncle and Auntie are now crying over him. I hear Mama outside speaking to guests, in her calm voice.
I should be able to feel the thundering in my heart as it pounds itself against my chest. I don’t.
I should be able to feel the burning in my lungs while trying to breathe. I don’t.
I should be able to feel the goosebumps that have appeared along my arms. I don’t.
I should be able to feel the tightness around my eyes, as they try to hold back my tears. I don’t.
I wipe at my cheek. I should feel the fallen tears as their wetness marks the back of my hand. I don’t.
I am completely numb. Has every ounce of my emotions completely vacated this now scrawny vessel?
I hear the words I had often told him when I wanted him to know I supported him and gave a damn about him, but this time it’s in his voice.
Subconsciously, I reach to my side to grab his hand, but then I remember that he’s not here. I probably just did it out of habit since we’ve been through so much shit together. It felt natural to believe he would be right there by my side. But not this time.
I should feel my heart breaking, my guilt take over, my feeling of loss and loneliness consume my soul. I don’t.
What is wrong with me?
The pastor closes the casket, Papa forever gone to me now.
I should want to scream “I’m not ready” and beg the pastor to keep it open a little while longer through painful sobs. I don’t.
I sit there until the service begins. People file in. Some come to greet me. I go through the motions, stand up, hug them, thank them for their condolences, and sit back down. It becomes an endless, repetitive sequence of actions. It’s like hitting the replay button on a video, but usually you would do that because you want to see it again. Maybe the video makes you laugh. Maybe it resonates with you in an emotional way. But this just makes me feel none of that. I’m like some robot programmed for this very act, whose emotions have not been uploaded. Stand. Hug. Thank. Sit. Repeat.
I don’t know what happens during the service. Either I have spaced out or my mind is still stuck in this realm of disbelief that is trying to protect me from my feelings. I hear laughter at times during Mama’s eulogy, and crying. The singing is muted in the background. Elliot and Mama’s mouths are moving, but I cannot hear what is coming out of them. I see the piano player, her hands sliding along the keys with ease, but I don’t hear the chords or the melody. When Pastor Ross begins to talk, his voice is nothing but wah wahs, incomprehensible like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Then Elliot, Uncle, and Papa’s two friends carry the casket away. I had forgotten they were the pallbearers.
Mama rubs my shoulder, and I stand up following her, Jacob, Auntie, and Artie out. Her arm is wrapped around my waist as we walk, and my arm follows suit around her waist. We walk out to the lobby, our arms still around each other, but when we stop and see the hearse, we never drop them. We hold on to each other as if we are both waiting for the other to cave at the sight. I do feel Mama weaken against my arm, her knees slightly bend, but she remains balanced and upright.
The hearse is parked right out front, the back opened and right outside the church doors. We stand in the lobby, watching them put the casket into the back of the hearse.
It isn’t long before we are all back in the minivan. Uncle and Elliot finally join us, but the inside of the car is still and silent. I can’t even hear the sounds of my family breathing. Uncle hasn’t even turned it on yet. But he does once he sees the hearse begin to pull out.
I should feel anxious about going to the cemetery and seeing Papa being lowered into the ground. I don’t.
I just watch cars pull over to the side of the road to allow our funeral procession to pass.
I should feel thankful for the kindness and respect. I don’t.
Clouds begin to settle above in the sky, blocking the sun from carrying its warmth and hope down to us. Even if it was there, I doubt it would have made any difference. There is no hope on this dreary day. Where is hope in death? Hope in the death of family? Hope in the death of a parent?
I wait until the final ceremony and blessings are done, again not truly listening to what is being said. Mama wants me to say a quick word before they lower Papa into his grave, which is just a hole in the ground where he will only decompose and be eaten by maggots and worms and ants and any other insects that think my papa will meet their diets.
I take a few steps forward, slowly turning to face the crowd of mostly family friends. My shades are still on, hiding my truth.
“Thank you all for coming. Papa would have been grateful to have you all here. We are all grateful,” I state mechanically.
It’s all I can muster to say before I go back to stand with my family and listen to Pastor Ross’ final blessing. Then they lower Papa into the ground.
I should feel the loss. I don’t.
The reception isn’t any different. Lots of hugs. Condolences. Guests eating food. Drinking. Guests asking me questions or commenting on my accomplishments.
“Your dad would be so proud,” they say.
He already was.
“You have grown up into such a beautiful woman,” they compliment.
You’re only seeing the shell of me.
“Where’s your boyfriend? Are you seeing anyone?” they ask.
Nonexistent and no.
“Let me know if you need anything,” they offer.
Mama needs more than I do.
It all seems empty and rehearsed. I fake a smile, nod to show appreciation and that I’m listening, and hug back when they offer the gesture.
I make my rounds and see Jacob sitting outside with Mama and Auntie. She’s letting him watch something on her smartphone. Artie is sitting beside him, watching with him, but he seems more into the show than Jacob. Artie smiles and points to the screen, clearly commenting on what is going on. But Jacob has no response, not even a nonverbal one. It’s the same as this morning with him staring down into his bowl of cereal, but not truly seeing it.
Mama and Auntie have small smiles on their faces. Perhaps they’re reminiscing. Perhaps they’re talking about Jacob and Artie. Perhaps they’re talking about me and Elliot. Perhaps they’re making fun of some of the guests.
I leave the kitchen and away from the glass sliding door that has allowed me to see them sitting outside. I go into the living room. Elliot is speaking with one of Papa’s friends, Mr. Hensley. They seem to be exchanging fond memories. I then look around and see more people talking, smiling, laughing. Are they all thinking fondly of Papa? Why is no one more sad or upset?
I can’t deal with this weird, unsettling environment. I grab Mama’s keys and go outside to sit inside her car, which is parked in the driveway. Through the rearview mirror, I then see Laura coming out of her house, making her way across the street to pay her respects to our family. But I slide down in the seat and hold my breath in hopes that she doesn’t see me as she walks by. She doesn’t.
I recline the seat back and just lay there staring up at the ceiling. I reach above to open the sunroof and view the overcast sky. I stare long and deep, observing the clouds’ slow movement across the sky and framed within the edges of the sunroof. It’s like watching a moving painting on display.
My phone vibrates and I see that I have some messages. Some are ones I have missed throughout the day. But I also have some emails from work.
I quickly scroll through the emails first, scanning for a specific name that never appears. But I come across Dr. Banerji’s last email. I should probably confirm with him that I will be returning on Tuesday. I email him a quick update and then turn to my texts.
There’s a single one from Sienna:
ST: Thinking of you today. ❤️
BL: We’re with you in spirit.
JV: Take care today.
EG: Love you 3000.
AE: You and your family, please take care.
Even Ines. She must have learned about the funeral day from someone. Probably Sienna.
ID: From me and Zaid, we are sending our love and prayers to you and your family today.
RA: I wish I could be there for you today.
I wish you all could have been.
I should feel angry, guilty, confused, and utterly devastated.
I should feel all of the losses accumulating and hit me like a punch to the gut, knocking all of the wind out of me.
I should feel the need to hurl my phone against the dashboard and scream wildly until my voice shatters and tears flow down my cheeks like an unwavering waterfall.
And I do.