The funeral parlour is a short walk from the station. I grab one of the gold handle bars on the black double doors, then hesitate. The cold metal begins to numb my hand but still I cannot move. Hunter waits patiently, neither comforting nor encouraging me. I appreciate his silence as I grapple with my reservations. Eventually the fear of others arriving behind me overcomes my fear of moving forward, and I push the heavy door open.
A member of the staff greets me and, on being informed that I’m the daughter of the deceased, directs me into the room where my father’s body rests. It is bright and open, with chairs and small tables lining the walls for those who need them. A couple of large armchairs loom near the front of the room, close to the casket. They are presumably for the family. No one else is present. Well, except for my dad.
My attention is fixed on the oblong black box resting to the right. In front of it is a picture of my father, a recent one that I don’t recognize. Most people would see that easy-going smile as evidence of a happy, amicable man. Many had described him that way: a laid-back joker, the social butterfly, such a nice guy. Even now that smile makes me sick to my stomach and I remember how quickly it could evaporate, leaving nothing but hatred and disgust in its wake. I remember the veiled threats and demeaning jokes that often accompanied it after a couple of drinks.
“Should we maybe pay our respects before everyone arrives?” Hunter asks quietly, his voice still managing to echo in the empty space. “If you want to see him, I mean.”
I don’t reply, only swallow and take a slow step forward. It takes an eternity to walk the six steps to the casket. When I look down at his peaceful face I begin to doubt everything – my memories of him and the choices I made. Was he really that bad? Did I make his last days more painful because I wasn’t there?
I feel dizzy and I wish Hunter would reach out for me. I wish he’d wrap his arms around me, or hold my hand, or even just stand a little bit closer. I feel so alone with this flurry of emotions and memories that I want to scream out to any one who will listen. Instead, tears pour from my eyes and I find my breaths coming in ragged and shallow gasps.
I turn, surprised by this new voice. My mother stands in the doorway, a bundle of blood red roses balanced in her arms. She lays them carefully on one of the tables then rushes over and embraces me tightly, almost violently. Once I recover from the surprise I wrap my arms around her shoulders, sobbing into her neck.
“I’ve missed you so much, Mom” I manage through the tears, “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sorry too,” she says, “I should have called you back. I didn’t know what to tell you. I was scared you wouldn’t even want to come.”
“Of course I came. I love you Mom,” I pull away and begin wiping the tears from my cheeks. I notice Hunter standing a few steps away, his eyes respectfully downcast. His presence is so small I wonder if my mother has even noticed him.
“When he was in the hospital, I should have told you. You could have come and said goodbye. You would have done that, right? I wish you could have made amends at the end. Apologized.” The look she gives me is almost chastising.
“No, Mom. I’m not sorry about what happened. If I had come I might have caused him more pain at the end. And me too,” I gauge her expression as I speak, watching her brows knit closer and closer together, her lips pursing tighter.
“He was your father, you should have been there to hold his hand while he lay in that hospital bed.”
“Mom, he wasn’t a father to me,” I know I should stop but I feel the familiar anger and frustration rising, “It would have been a lie.”
She shakes her head and looks at me like she’s appalled, even though I’ve said the same thing on other occasions. “Well, I hope you don’t have to die alone knowing the child you love can’t even be bothered to say goodbye.”
“Bothered!? You never called me back!” There is so much I want to say, so much I want to express, but the pain and anger are blinding.
“Because I knew what you’d say anyway and I was too tired to fight with you. Too upset to see you turn your back on your family again.”
“I didn’t turn my back on my family!” I’m shouting now and I don’t care. I’m not saying my choices were flawless, but I refuse to be vilified over a half-truth. “I told you that I wanted to you to be a part of my life. I told you I’d do whatever I could for you, even if that meant getting you help…”
“You were suicidal and I’m the one that needed help?” Her voice is quiet, her tone deadly. I feel stunned, as if she has physically struck me.
“I wasn’t suicidal…”
“You were cutting yourself with knives,” she counters.
“To cope. Not to kill myself. And that’s not the point. I got help.” I can feel this argument slipping through my fingers, going in directions that I can’t control. I can see a few dark figures slipping into the room now, staying as far away from us as possible.
She lowers her voice, aware that others are listening in: “That’s good, but you’re still in no position to tell me how to live my life.”
“I never tried to, but Dad was abusive. It wasn’t healthy for either of us to be in that situation. I just wanted to let you know that you had options. You chose to stay, fine, but I couldn’t make the same choice!” I feel calmer now. She’s retreating because she doesn’t want anyone else to hear – she’s always been adamant about keeping everyone out of her personal life. For a moment it feels like maybe I’m getting the conversation back on track.
“You were the one who was abusive.”
The ground drops out from beneath me.
She’s my mom, of course she knows my weaknesses. It’s something my dad always said whenever I would accuse him of hurting us. He would find some twisted way to bring it back on me. Like if I had done something differently, then he wouldn’t have hurt us. At the time it made sense and it took a lot of therapy to see that I wasn’t the one responsible for him lashing out. But sometimes… I still feel guilty… like maybe if I could have just been better, maybe he wouldn’t have hurt my mom so much.
“You can’t blame me for the way he treated you, Mom. Even if I upset him. Even if I didn’t do what he wanted. He was still the one that decided to take it out on you,” I’m practically pleading at this point, but I already know that I’ve lost. She doesn’t want to listen. She never did.
“Get out,” she whispers.
I don’t argue, just turn and walk to the door. A number of people have milled in during our conversation and the once bright room is now filled with darkness. I try to put on an air of confidence in front of these people, most I’ve known since I was a child. I try not to wonder about what they think of me: the estranged daughter starting a fight at her father’s funeral. I want to scream the truth at all of them, but that would only be fitting myself into the mould they’ve cast for me.
I step out onto the sidewalk and choose a direction at random, trusting that Hunter is still somewhere behind me. Eventually he catches up and I glimpse his hands in his stupid pockets. It only adds to my fury and frustration.
“I’m sorry,” he says, hurrying to keep up, “I guess I should have tried to intervene back there.”
Cold air stings my lungs as I inhale deeply and begin to slow my pace. I give him a quick glance. “No. I could have stopped at any point. I am not going to blame you for my actions, Hunter. That’s something she would do.”
“Where are we going?” he turns his head back and forth, trying to catch his bearings in an unfamiliar city.
“I don’t know,” I force myself to stop walking and take in my surroundings. I grew up here in this small city and, though it’s changed a little over the past few years, I still know it by heart. At first I consider taking the next bus home, but then I’m overcome with an intense sense of nostalgia. Until now, this city has always reminded of the years spent under my father’s rule. Now that he’s gone, a strange sort of longing has stolen into my heart.
“Do you mind if we stay here a while?” I ask, wondering if there are any pressing matters I’m keeping him from. “I… sort of miss this place.”
He smiles and any misgivings I had about inconveniencing him are washed away. How are his expressions always so easy and sincere? “Not at all. Where to?”
I just wanted to drop in and thank everyone who has been reading Secrets and Skin so far! It means the world to me. Please feel free to leave some feedback in the comments below if you feel so inclined. I’d love to hear from you!