Funeral PoinsettiasThis is part of my favorite chapter from my NaNo novel. Also the hardest to write. Enjoy.
"The message of Christmas is that the visible material world is bound to the invisible spiritual
world." * Author Unknown
I can see the snowflakes catching in Gail’s hair, glinting as the light from my Aunt Susanne’s
sleek black Mustang pulls in the drive. Our breath, rising in a steady mist, is the only thing to
give away our presence.
If it were anyone else, I would worry. But it is only Aunt Susanne. Gail gives me a puzzled look,
as I put my finger to my lips, indicating we should be quiet.
We both watch her over the hoods of the other cars filling the driveway. The light from the inside of her Mustang shows her re-applying a lip gloss and powdering her nose.
"Is that the one that got so drunk at dad and Charlotte’s wedding?" Gail murmurs to me, barely a whisper of a whisper.
Before I have time to confirm that, yes, she was the one who was drunk at the wedding; she
manages to confirm it for me. We are momentarily blinded by a flash of silver glinting in the
sparse light of the car.
"A flask? Did she just drink from a flask?"
I nod, and put my finger to my lips again. I glance down for a moment, tugging at my socks and
making sure my outfit is not getting wet. Gail’s legs are wobbling a little, and I put my hand on
the small of her back to steady her.
Susanne dabs her eyes with a tissue and opens the car door. In the quiet of the snow and the
outdoors, we hear her sniffling.
"Huh-huh-huhp." She visibly gulps as she reaches in to the back seat and pulls out three rather
large bags of presents. She sits them on the hood of her car, and reaches back down inside the
vehicle. She sits on the hood two boxes, which looks as if they have spigots on the ends of them.
I preempt Gail’s question.
She nods, and we turn our heads back to the scene before us.
She has somehow managed to get the bags and the wine all in one trip. She moves up the drive
with the slow shuffle, shuffle, drag –step of the half-drunk, half-reluctant at heart. She passes
close by, and I suck in my breath.
"Huh-huh-huhp. Mmmm." Her sniffles grow a little louder as she makes her way up the drive.
She leans against the door frame, resting her head there for a moment. Her chest rises and falls,
indicating a sigh. Possibly the resolution to go in and face the family. Possibly one last fresh
breath of air before the stifling warmth of the living room. Whatever it is, she is ready. She leans
against the doorbell with her elbow. A little longer than necessary, because even at my car I truck hear the Ding-ing-ing of the bell.
The outside is flooded with light and I see my uncle Jeff in the door frame.
"Hi there, Susanne. Its so good to see you. How are you?" He glances out into the snow, sees us,
and puts his arm around Susanne to lead her away from the door.
Before it closes we can hear her start crying in earnest.
"Oh Oh Oh How sweet of you. How sweet. Not well…"
The light closes behind her and we immediately stand up to stretch our legs.
"What is going on? " Gail exclaims in a stage whisper. "She could have used the help "
"Gail, I am not ready, just yet, to deal with her. It’s too much. It hurts so much still. And she
doesn’t make it any better."
"I don’t get it."
"James, Gail. She still isn’t over it. Most of us aren’t. But she lost it. She can’t keep a grip on
reality much anymore."
I can feel my own chest tightening as I think of it. It squeezes and pulls. I feel like I am running
out of air. My eyes prick up, like I’ve eaten something really sour.
"What about him, Barb?"
"He’s dead. He died two Christmases ago. He was her son."
Oh, God. I hate that word. Dead. Dead. Never going to come back. The memory is all that’s left.
I don’t want to cry. I don’t. I need to smile.
"We all loved him so much. All the best Christmas stories have James. He was so funny. Full of
–of-" Life. Say it, Barbara. Full of life that he no longer has. Its why you cry and your aunt drinks
herself into insanity.
"Shhh." Gail puts her arms around me and lets me lay my head on her shoulder. My cheeks feel
I was icing cookies on a pop up table in the corner of the dining room when he
came dashing in. His heavy black hair was falling in his face. His white shirt
was pulled out of his slacks and bunched up around the edge of his Christmas
sweater vest. He has pulled his tie loose and the knees of his slacks were
I looked at him, indignant. At 8 years old, I was trying to develop in to a
little lady. I delicately lay down the icing tool and looked up at him, trying
my best to look severe.
"What is it James? Grandpa is letting me ice the cookies. See?" I held up a
Christmas tree with sprinkles.
He was bounding from foot to foot on the balls of his feet. I could see he was
excited about something.
"I found something,. It was an accident. But I found something." His black
eyes were sparkling with merriment. He knew it was big.
I started to feel curious and a little excited myself.
"Come see. And don’t tell Moriah. She’ll let the secret out." He tugged on the
puffed sleeve of my Christmas party dress. "Come on "
I jumped up and followed him through the mud room. He ducked our aunts and
Grandma and Grandpa in the kitchen. He put his finger to his lips, telling me
to keep quiet. I crouched down behind the open pantry door, and waited.
He cracked open the door to the garage, careful not to make any noise. He
beckoned me to follow him.
I slipped out into the garage and had to stifle a squeal.
Three beautiful bikes were lined up next to each other, with bows tied to the
handlebars. He walked up to a royal blue one, streaked with red. This one was
clearly his. He ran his fingers over the handles and down to the seat. He
examined the reflectors at the top and back of the bike, and the horn in the
Next to it was my bike. I was sure of it. It was a beautiful jeweled green. It
has streamers from the handlebars. They were yellow and green and white. The
leather seat was white and looked quilted.
I was almost afraid to touch it. Even in the dim garage light I could see how
it sparkled, how pretty the paint was. It had that lovely new bike smell, of
leather and grease and the chains and the rubber of the new tires.
And Moriah’s bike was a vision of girlishness. I new she would love it. It was
pink, as pink as it could possibly be, with little purple and white flowers
all over it. There was a wicker basket attached to the front, and sitting
inside it was a beautiful doll for her to mother. Even her seat was a pale
I sighed at the loveliness of the three of the bikes lined up next to each
other. I looked over at James. He had a sly look on his face, one I had seen
many times when we played together.
"I want to ride mine."
"No James " I protested. "We are going to get caught. Grandpa is going to be
mad that I don’t have the cookies done yet."
"Oh, just a minute " He pleaded.
"You do it," I suggested breathlessly.
"I will." I backed up and watched him as he hitched up his little clacks and
went to get on the bike.
"Wheel these out of the way." He pointed to the other two bikes. I scurried
over and pushed them closer to the garage door, just a little.
I watched as he slowly pulled back, and made slow circles in the garage.
"Is it nice" I asked.
"It’s so much fun. Aw, come on Barb. You should do it too. You’re already out
I glanced at the door. Unsure. It couldn’t hurt, could it? I dashed over to my
bike and hitched my skirt up as I put my feet on the pedals.
"You better watch out. I am the best bike rider in this family" I claimed.
"We’ll see about that." He laughed at me.
We chased each other in dizzying circles. I felt the tickle of the steamers
against my hands. I started to laugh. James laughed too, wriggling his handle
bars quickly, as if he could not keep control.
Then he honked his horn. I stopped. He froze too. We knew we would be caught
now. Quickly, we jumped off the bikes and pushed them back to where they were.
"Do you think they heard?" I asked him.
"I don’t know," he looked up. And froze.
Grandpa was standing in the doorway.
"What do you two think you are doing?" he asked. We were in big trouble. I
could feel it.
"Um, well," I began.
"Its all my fault," James interjected. I brought Barb out here. I saw them and
I wanted her to see. "I guess I got carried away."
"I did too, when I brought them in. I honked the horn too. Well, don’t tell.
Not Moriah and especially not your Gran. Pretend to be surprised, and I won’t
get you in any trouble, okay?" We sighed. We were safe.
"Okay, Grandpa," we chorused, angels again.
"Good. Now, Barb, I think you have some cookies to finish. James, come with me
and we’ll fix your tie, or your mother will no we’ve been up to no good."
I went back to my cookies. James got his tie straitened. And we pretended to
be surprised. But, I remember, from that Christmas on, Grandpa never let them
hide anything in the garage.
When I see poinsettias I always think of James. They were everywhere at the
funeral. Everywhere. I always thought it was a cruel thing to do, to include
the flowers so associated with Christmas in his funeral flowers. Every
Christmas now, I see them everywhere and I think of him.
It had been a rough winter. It had snowed heavily, a lot more than it usually
did. We had all been staying at home, wanting to be careful. But the snow
turned to ice, melting during the day and freezing once the sun set. It would
snow again, and again.
We had a white Christmas that year. It was amazing. Mounds of snow in the
yards. The Christmas lights twinkled like stars through the blanket of snow.
James and I had brought our sleds to the Christmas party, and pulled the
children through the snow. Later, while they were playing with their new toys,
we went outside and played ourselves, tossing snowballs back and forth,
running around like we did when we were kids. When we had exhausted ourselves,
we pulled out our old blankets and set on the porch, drinking wassail,
smoking, and remembering old times.
It happened Christmas morning. He was driving home from seeing Aunt Susanne.
His car full of presents, he was surely going to go take his traditional
Christmas nap. I knew he would be over to see me that evening. We always got
together on Christmas Day to watch movies and bake cookies together. It was
one of my favorite parts of the day. It was always refreshing to have him and
his humor after mom and Moriah.
I remember that I was angry with him. When he didn’t show on time, I was mad
that he was late. He was never late, and he always called. I had the dough in
the freezer already. The kettle was boiling. And he wasn’t there.
When the phone rang two hours after he was supposed to arrive, I picked it up
with a fire in my chest.
"This had better be good." I had said into the phone. It had better be good.
But it wasn’t James. It was Gran. James had been in an accident. No, he wasn’t
okay. He was dead. No, he hadn’t suffered. It was quick. A patch of black ice
and a tree. His neck and back broken. The seatbelt couldn’t save him. That was
all there was.
I hung up the phone and ran directly to the bathroom and threw up. I lay
there, sobbing, in the floor. It felt like hours.
This was my fault. He was coming to see me. And I was angry with him. I was
angry with him. I had been working up my speech about responsibility all
afternoon. And he was dead. I had been mad at him while he was in his car,
I was so angry. At myself. At the weather. At everything. How? How could he
die like that? He was so young, so full of life. He had so much left to do.
And I had been angry with him over a few hours. God, what I would do for those
two extra hours. What I would tell him. More than the ‘see you tomorrow’ or a
joke about his cooking skills. I would tell him so much more than that.
He had looked so beautiful, the day of the funeral. His thick black hair still
springing from his face, as if alive all on its own. His best black suit, a
red tie – his favorite color. His long lashes were rested on his cheeks. His
hands were folded neatly. He had that look on his face I knew so well. The
look of innocence that I saw when we were younger and he was about to get us
into trouble. It was my favorite look.
I had this sick desire to reach in a try to see his eyes - his beautiful green
eyes that I loved so much. I could always tell what he was thinking by the
look in those eyes. I wanted to shake him and tell him that he needed to wake
up. I wanted to beg him not to go. I wanted to offer to swap him places.
I fought the urge to straiten his lapel for him, and stroke his tie. I wanted
to hold his hand and whisper all the things I meant to tell him. I had all
these things I needed to tell him. I wanted to tell him I missed him already,
and that I had so many things to tell him before he went away.
I wanted to tell him I was sorry I was mad at him. I didn’t mean it. I wanted
to tell him that I loved him. He was my best friend. I wouldn’t know what to
do without him. I wanted to bend down and kiss and kiss and kiss his forehead.
But I didn’t. I just stood there, looking at him. I looked at him for such a
long time. I didn’t want to leave him alone. They pulled me away, eventually.
They set me down in the front row. I could still see from there. I couldn’t
pull my eyes off of him. I felt like my heart was being torn out through my
throat. The tears were streaking down my face, I stayed quiet. But I was
shaking, and I cried until there were no more tears left. And then I kept
crying, even though I had nothing left.
When we went outside, to see him buried, I stood and watched with a terrible
feeling in my gut.
They had asked me to say something. I was his best friend, his cousin, I knew
him best. When I got up, I looked at everyone there, everyone who had eve
loved him. My throat dried up. I wanted to do him proud.
"James," I began, "was a truly unique man. He had an energy that was
contagious. He had a laugh that filled a room. He had the youthful wonder of a
child. He had the strength of emotion of a man.
Those who knew him best would say he was an enigma. He loved without reserve,
he gave without complaint and he lived without regret. His capacity for
kindness was astounding, his faith in the good of people unwavering.
I was fortunate to know James all of my life. He was the best of friends. He
was the loyalist of family. I have had the pleasure of seeing each step, each
moment, each year that he has grown. I was also lucky enough to have that rare
brand of friendship he offered, full of unconditional love and undying
When our Grandfather died, it was James who held me. It was James who gave me
comfort. It was James who gave me hope.
He told me to remember that death was not the end. That the ones we love never
really leave. He told me to instead of weep, laugh. To celebrate the wonderful
things that I had done with him. To honor him with the sound he loved most,
the sound of a happy grandchild.
Today, I will try to honor James with laughter at the memories we shared. I
encourage you to do the same. Remember the friend he was, the son, the family
member who was always there. Remember the mischief he got you into. Remember
the things he loved.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not cry a little. If I did not tell him
how much he was loved. How well. And how much my heart aches to see him again.
Today, honor James, with both laughter, and tears and remember what he said.
In time, we will see him again."
I stood there, watching my Aunt Susanne cry with grief. See her sobs, which
wracked her whole body, so that when she went to lay a lily on his casket, it
took three people to get her there.
I watched the snow fall, lightly, mocking the thing it had done. It danced in
the air and lay on the poinsettias and lilies that filled the wreaths and
flowers that were set about the area. They would melt, it was warm, and they
dripped down the huge petals of the flowers like giant tears. I watched the
wind shake the bright centers, each little piece quivering like the bits in my
chest, and fall, softly into the dying grass with all the swiftness of the
tears I was crying again.
My face hurt, I could feel the wind on it, burning it. But I didn’t want to
leave. As they set him in the ground I felt pieces f my chest leave, like they
were going in with him and I would never get them back.
I stayed late. Later than even Susanne, who had to be taken to the hospital
for her hysterics. I sat there, next to him, wondering what I was going to do.
Who I would talk to. Who I would tell my secrets to. I grieved for him, and as
I left I left him a gift. Something only he and I would miss. A tiny
gingerbread Mrs. Santa, who went with my favorite Mr. Santa. I had slipped
over to Gran’s and stolen it before the funeral. He would have her to keep him
company. He would remember.
And so would I. Every Christmas I would remember the missing, when I put my
little Santa on the tree. And I would remember our Christmases together.
"I’ll miss you." I told him.
I’ll miss you.