Celebrating East African Writing!
I didn’t cry at my sister’s funeral.
I sat a few feet from her coffin, eyes dry as the dusty plains of Samburu and fixed upon the resigned face of Christ on the cross high up on the wall. My family had slowly made its way behind the pall bearers to the front most pews that an usher had eagerly steered us toward. We know where we should sit darling; I had wanted to point out. The choir had opened with a beautiful entrance hymn that echoed within the packed church. This might have been a typical Sunday Mass if it wasn’t for the symphony of sobs and blowing of noses and yes the small issue of the coffin at the front of the altar.
Light wood in angelic white with golden cross detail and silk padded lining. A salesman is a salesman even in the business of death. So what if it was light wood? It only meant that it would degrade faster and as for ‘angelic’ white, did the man have some sort of ‘in’ with the Almighty? Those buriedeth in angelic white -from said funeral home- shall entereth the Pearly Gates? The golden cross thrown in for good measure- or perhaps good luck – and the silk padded lining were all for the mourners benefit. We gave her a proper send off. Decent and honorable, they must have thought.
The priest’s opening prayer boomed from the speakers mounted on the rafters at the eaves in a very ‘voice of God-like’ manner. His oddly-sunny disposition came through as his baritone bounced against the walls and when the microphone squeaked a little he even managed to squeeze in a joke before he read out my sister’s name…the dearly departed soul we had come to mourn…Helen
This was the moment I was sure I would sport leaky corners but no salty waters gushed forth. It was weird standing there, not crying, as all around me not a dry face was in sight. Not even among the men folk did I have a partner-in-dry. But I couldn’t blame them; Helen was a darling and would be missed by many…the crying and the not-so-able-to-cry.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. Trust me I did. I mean this was my blood sister, my baby sister, the one who vacated our shared womb space a few seconds after me. It was incredible to think that she and I had lain like a dream within an egg that the fastest swimmer had come and split apart but still we had remained together, forming tiny toes and fingers in our aquatic abode. Now twenty four years and two months later, we were split apart more permanently.
Soon we would be six feet asunder.
It had been a standing joke between us that we were identical fraternal twins. Though I always secretly thought I was the bootleg version of her. She was the one with the high disarming laugh; me the awkward mousy squeal; her with the dark curly hair; me the dry and near non-existent in some parts; hell even my name was wrong… Helena sounded very exotic and mysterious but poorly executed; Helen looked her part, personifying the beautiful Greek Queen of Sparta, a daughter of Zeus no less!
A sharp nudge from my uncle Pat reminded me that I ought to walk up the altar and read the First Reading. I quickly got to my feet, genuflected before the altar and mechanically made the sign of the cross in the direction of Helen’s coffin. My eyes averted the sobbing congregation as I sped through the selected verse; it must have been so odd to see a near splitting image of the sleeping beauty walking and talking.
Afterwards I couldn’t bear to sit on the allocated reader’s bench and wait out the Gospel Acclamation when I knew everyone seeing my face felt all the more sad and probably puzzled over my dry eyes.
I dashed back to the pew and made my way past mum and dad, aunt Judy and uncle Pat and stood in the space between cousin Lucy and her daughter who had carried on her lap the big framed picture of a smiling Helen. Did I look like that? Even a little bit? I wasn’t in the habit of smiling and in fact choosing a black outfit for the funeral had sadly been very easy…though the veil thing unsettled me, weren’t veils for brides?
That was definitely up Helen’s alley. In fact I’m sure she would have made a better grieving sister than I ever would; showing emotions at the right parts, not making grim jokes or been sarcastic towards the whole affair, the works!
Fuck that drunken driver! (Helen would also probably not have cursed, even if it was in her mind and for a good reason, while in church)
One moment in time can carry such intensity. Within that tiny instance the balance of Fate rests heavy in the air yet the moment remains fragile, light and fleeting. One frame of time can change everything. It can stretch endlessly or flash incomprehensibly fast.
The moment Helen died I swear I felt it.
I was lying in bed working on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity…ahem… listening to heavy metal when suddenly I felt uncomfortable, like my body was itching and I couldn’t tell where. I closed my eyes to will away the feeling and suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my heart. It was a short but searing sting and at the end of it I immediately thought of Helen.
When dad later told me of her passing, the first thing I thought was that twins really did have that extra-sensory perception thing. My cousin Lucy cried enough for the two of us, my niece probably wished it was me who had gone. I mean I wasn’t friendly and hardly ever played with her. And I know we are not supposed to think this, but I think my parents felt a little of the same.
How many times had I gotten into nasty scraps on my motorcycle and walked away intact? How could it be that the beloved Helen in her eco-safety-always-seat-belt-wearing car goes on a simple errand that ends tragically?
The mass seemed to have blown past me because people were coming to the altar to receive Holy Communion. Some had their eyes shut and their lips trembling as they whisper a prayer of safe passage for their fallen friend. As they made their way back, they placed a comforting hand on dad’s shoulder and patted mum’s folded hands.
For the first time I really looked at all the mourners around me, at all these people who Helen had touched in some way. People from far and wide who had come to pay tribute to my amazing and truly better half.
As I stared at the glistering tears in their reddened eyes, at how mum clung and cried onto dad’s chest, the enormity of the loss finally dawned on me. Who would cover for me when I snuck out? Try to set me up with her boyfriend’s friends? Understand my twisted sense of humor? Who was the one person I had been sure would have cried at my funeral? It was my baby sister Helen who had loved me just as I was and who I had loved for it.
Just then I felt that sharp pain again…I smiled.
I didn’t cry at my sister’s funeral, at least not with my eyes…
© Wanjeri Gakuru 2010
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