June 20, 1989
– Olive is still breathing.
Aunt Laurette announces this quietly over the coffin, with the conviction of
one who definitely saw a small boy kick a cat. Matter of fact, not necessarily
for inducing effect, but nevertheless causing some stir among funeral officials
and sober relatives. My cousins and I snort into our hands, desperate to remain
calm as the priest gently guides my aunt toward us and the door, away from the
– Olive is still breathing!
Laurette proclaims to all, suddenly outraged, a brilliant gust of righteous
indignation. The crowd parts before her, the little priest withers, suddenly
younger than his shiny head and his thirty-odd years.
– Olive will have something to say about this!
I am now pinching my own hand violently. No doubt she will.
The priest is visibly flushed, red creeping up his neck into his fleshy full
face, fervently patting Aunt Laurette’s white gloved hand, mumbling and
nodding and smiling while his eyes dart about for my more conventional aunt. Please. Please.
– Laurette! For God Sakes!
Aunt Teresa snaps. The cavalry appears from the ladies room beyond, but
there is no hope; Aunt Laurette has them now; even as they slowly move off,
she has them.
– Well I put my ear right down there and there was herself, as big as this,
and the sacred heart, and I said Old Girl what have they got you into this
time . . . Breath like the sign of the cross one two, three, in and out and why
they can’t be dealt with, I guess this is the question. This is the question. One
two three. One two three . . .
She has quieted somewhat, assumed a piquish look. She has clearly
communicated with those in charge and they have affirmed her worst
She is merely indignant now, as if Mother was gone for an interview with
her hem unravelled. Simply not done. Not done at all.
And then a lull in it. A question. She is staring at me.
Bottomless blue right through me, eyes of martyrs, the lives of the saints the
deaths of the apostles, innocent and dammed, bonfires and swords and
unspeakable tortures, newspaper print and brimstone and operatic thunder, last
words swirling like bits of breath between this world and the next, between her eyes and mine do I know do I know do I see
and in a motion this universe passes from her out to me and with a long sigh
back in again, withdrawn.
I cannot save her, and for this there is a smile from this rare world, all the sadness pulled back
into reflection, pooling back into the body.
There are no words for the words in those eyes.
And in the second that she turns away, defeated, the words that remain
swim out and back, alone in time and space without the usual boundaries
of perception, into the wondrous kaleidoscope and the stemless blue.
She stands apart, white polyester billowing in a self-made wind,
Clytemnestra gazing at the raging sea.
The entire room gone still. Even Olive. The gleaming, dark box closed at last.
And seizing her moment, Aunt Teresa springs. She grabs two cousins in
one sweeping motion behind Laurette, corrals the entire remaining crowd
as quickly as decorum will allow down the hushed thick carpets of the narrow
hallway, manoeuvring over and sideways, forward, always forward.
She is a sixty-year-old sheepdog in a solemn black pant suit, nipping the
last of the stragglers out the little back door and down the steps to the parking
lot, the waiting black limousine.
– In! Get in!
and in and in
The priest himself now breathing at last in another vehicle, escaping just
after us to the church, careening out in front of a Mac’s milk truck, blasting
the horn, the funeral procession torn in half across the main road of the
little town squealing into a parade Hail Marys all the way
god knows what next what next . . .
death itself dammed exciting
if you don’t stop breathing