Home > I'm Fine and Neither Are You(13)

I'm Fine and Neither Are You(13)
Author: Camille Pagán


After much bargaining on Sanjay’s part, Riya made the drive from suburban Chicago to help us with Stevie and Miles for a few days.

“Don’t worry about me,” I said, imitating Riya as Sanjay plopped down in the driver’s seat of his car, which was slightly less battered than mine. “It would be sooo much easier if you had cable, but I’ll be just fine. You two go have fun at your funeral.”

“She came, Penny,” said Sanjay, turning the key to start the car. He was wearing a gray suit, and though his shirt was too loose and his tie was longer than it should have been, he looked as good as I’d seen him in months. “I’m not sure what else we can ask for.”

“We can ask your mother to not be a jerk,” I said. “We shouldn’t have to guilt her into spending time with her own grandchildren so we can go mourn my closest friend.”

“Whoa,” said Sanjay as he backed out of the driveway. “That’s not like you. I know you’re upset, but let’s keep our eyes on the prize, okay? Mom’s here and she’s helping us.”

Upset? Upset was realizing your best black dress was now several shades of maroon because you had entrusted the laundry to your husband, who had confirmed your long-standing suspicion that high standardized test scores had an inverse relationship to practical intelligence. Upset was discovering that your son had peed the bed yet again and failed to disclose that he had done so, and then learning that no amount of odor-neutralizing spray could rid his room of the smell of two-day-old urea crystals.

I wasn’t upset. I was irate.

“Maybe I’m not myself, because right now I’m thinking that if your mother makes one comment about Stevie not losing her baby fat, I will personally cut her,” I said, smoothing the fabric of my black skirt. I wore it to work twice a week; it didn’t seem right to be wearing it to Jenny’s funeral. But since my favorite dress had been ruined, it was either that, another black dress that cut off all circulation south of my stomach, or the bank-teller pantsuit. If Jenny were still alive and I were attending someone else’s funeral, she would have lent me a roomy yet stylish black shift and helped me put my hair up in a twist or braids that somehow didn’t make me look like Heidi. She knew how to do things like that.

Damn it, Jenny, I thought as I turned to glare at my husband. I need you right now.

I’m here, she said back.

My head jerked back. I had just heard Jenny’s voice clear as day—as though she, not my husband, were sitting beside me in the car.

Which could only mean one thing: I was officially losing it.

Sanjay, oblivious to my mental meltdown, sighed and gripped the steering wheel. “I’m going to remind myself that you’re hurting. And maybe a little nervous about giving a eulogy.”

Not nervous—just calmly watching my marbles roll right out of my head. Nothing to see here! “I’m fine,” I said through gritted teeth.

I had wondered whether Matt would ask me to speak at Jenny’s service. After all, he had just revealed that I didn’t know his wife nearly as well as I thought I did. Which made memorializing her a mite tricky.

But it had been Jenny’s mother, Kimber, who had called to ask me if I would give a eulogy. “I know you meant the world to Jenny,” she had said. “She was always talking about you—how funny you were and what a good friend you were to her. It would really mean a lot to Paul and me if you might say a few words at the service.”

Naturally, I agreed. Only afterward did I begin to panic about what I would say.

“Okay, you’re not nervous,” said Sanjay in a way that made it clear he didn’t believe me.

“Would you like me to cut you, too?” I said. “The steak knives are dull, but I’m told that the vacuum shop on Fourth Street can sharpen the whole set for less than the cost of one new blade.” I knew this because I had wanted to buy new knives last winter, but Sanjay had said he would bring our old ones to said vacuum place instead. I was still waiting to be able to slice through something tougher than butter.

“Self, she’s struggling,” he said.

“Now who’s being a jerk?” I said, but I had just spotted the funeral home in the distance and my voice lacked conviction.

Sanjay pulled into the parking lot and turned off the engine. Then he put his hand on my leg and squeezed lightly. “I love you, Penny,” he said.

When had he last said that? I looked out the window to hide my eyes, which were filled with tears. It had been a good long time.

“I want to thank you all for being here.” Matt was standing at a lectern at the front of the funeral home. He had just replaced Jenny’s father, Paul, who had spoken little but had shown a slideshow. The photos of the joyful, freckle-faced girl Jenny had once been had gutted me, and that was even before the Beatles’ “In My Life” began playing.

“I’ll never forget the day I saw Jenny through the window of a restaurant in San Francisco,” said Matt. “They say when you know, you just know. And I knew. I went in and asked if she was waiting for someone. And she smiled and said she was waiting for me. We were together from that day on. Jenny was the love of my life.”

Really? I thought. Their story, which I had heard many times, had all the makings of a New York Times Vows column. But Matt and Jenny’s beginning sounded a lot less like a fairy tale now that I knew the ending.

“Jenny was an amazing mother to our little girl,” said Matt, choking back a sob. “As fantastic as she was at connecting with people through writing, she always said her calling was being a mother. Cecily was her whole world.”

That, at least, rang true. My swollen eyes focused on Cecily, who was sandwiched between Kimber and Paul. With her perfect posture and straight-ahead gaze, she was so self-possessed. Would she remember this day for the rest of her life? Would Jenny’s death rob her of a normal childhood, if such a thing even existed?

“Jen brought joy to everything she did,” continued Matt.

Except maybe your marriage. But as soon as I thought this, I felt terrible. Even if their relationship had been a disaster for years, as he claimed, he must have loved her—a person couldn’t fake the way he had looked at Jenny.

Anyway, I reminded myself, the man had a right to grieve.

I glanced around as Matt continued, trying to muster up positive thoughts before I spoke. The funeral home made it almost impossible. The walls were decorated with cheesy nature paintings, and beneath my feet the carpet was a bland shade that Jenny had often referred to as greige. She would have hated this place. I hated Matt for choosing it.

In front of me, Kimber’s shoulders were shaking. Instead of holding his wife, Paul was looking off in the distance. They were good parents but bad spouses, Jenny had once told me. Was that how she had felt about her own marriage? And had her parents been told the truth about their daughter’s death? I wanted to assume so, but assumptions weren’t working out so well for me lately.

“There was so much I should have said to her,” said Matt, and now he was openly sobbing. “There was so much I should have done while I still had the chance.”

I was glad to hear him say this. But if only he hadn’t stopped there. I had been the one to call Sonia and Jael, and both conversations had been horribly painful—not only because of what I had to tell them, but also for all the things I could not say. I was glad I hadn’t had time to chat with them before the memorial service, because I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to lie directly to their faces.

Matt’s skin was the color of the carpet, and he looked like he had lost fifteen pounds in four days. The gravity of his new identity brought a new wave of pain. He would be a single parent now. He would have to learn to do all the things that Jenny had done, and even half of that was a very long list.

I thought about his constant traveling. I had every intention of telling him that would have to change—and that conversation was one I would not allow him to dance around. The pain of my father’s inability to talk about my mother’s absence was still fresh, even after all these years. Instead of trying to fill the hole she left, he created another one by making himself scarce. Matt might not realize it yet, but that wasn’t going to be an option for him. Cecily didn’t have an older sister to care for her. And she deserved better.

“Penny.” Sonia’s hand was on my shoulder, and I realized that people were looking at me. Matt had finished speaking. It was my turn to go up.

“Thanks,” I mumbled. I stood. I pulled down my skirt, which had hitched up around my hips. Then I walked to the front of the room. When I reached the lectern, I gulped and looked at the note card I was holding.

I had spent the past few days agonizing over what to say. How could I accurately portray my friend’s life when I was not allowed to concede the circumstances of her death? Every passing was a tragedy. But Jenny’s had shone a spotlight on the many things I thought I knew—and how very wrong I had been.

Borrowed wisdom seemed like a smart way to avoid flat-out lying or saying something inappropriate, but a Google search for “best funeral poems” left me wanting to scratch my inner ear with an ice pick. The titles alone were so clichéd that they verged on parody:

Gone but not forgotten.

We never said goodbye.

If you do one thing, remember me.

A life well lived.

Well, that last one had given me pause. Not the poem itself, which was a mélange of rhyming melodrama. But the idea had applied to Jenny . . . hadn’t it? She enjoyed writing and beautiful things, and she had combined the two to create an incredibly successful career. While her marriage had turned out to be a myth, she adored Cecily and had a circle of friends and family who adored her.

I ultimately decided I did not believe that Jenny’s problems had canceled out every good thing in her life or her ability to enjoy them. And so, while I would not recite the actual poem, I would steal its sentiment.

Except standing in front of more than a hundred people, many of them strangers who would stay that way, what I had written no longer seemed right at all. I could feel my underarms growing damp as my eyes darted back and forth over my note card. All I could see was what I had left out.

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