June 5th a year ago my Brandon was no longer with us, but his beautiful shell of a body was and a several-hour “viewing” was set for that evening. How do I explain the unreality of such a situation? It defies maternal contemplation. I vacillated between a state of zombie-like detachment to one of hyperawareness.
A week or more before, when I was struggling with the doctor’s one-to-six months pronouncement while observing Brandon’s obviously deteriorating health, the Jesuit priest/friend – the one who’d come to the hospital and anointed him - asked if I’d like to talk about it. On that May day, with no thought that Brandon had less than several months, we set an appointment time for the morning of June 5, 2012. At the hospital he asked if I still wanted to stop by on the 5th. I decided to go ahead, although I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get any words to come out.
The morning of the 5th was one of hyperawareness; colors seemed brighter, sounds more distinct and fragrances more intense. My mouth felt dry constantly. My skin literally felt as if it was crawling. I was shaking. I needed to do something physical, so I hopped on my bike and pedaled across the Ohio River to St. Xavier Church in downtown Cincinnati. Several times I heard Brandon’s voice cautioning me to pay attention as I cycled, as hyperaware is not the same as hyper-alert!
Father Eric and I talked of many things, Brandon’s death and funeral among them, but it was a question he asked that stayed with me. “What do you dread the most about tonight (the viewing) and tomorrow (the funeral Mass)?” So many things came to mind, but the one I dreaded most was easy-peasy.
“I most dread the hugs, the touching,” I said. “I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin. I understand why people will want to hug me, but I dread it. The thought of it creeps me out.”
“That’s okay. Let people know you don’t want them to touch you,” Father Eric said.
I laughed. “How do I do that?” I asked. “I know they’ll want to hug me. I understand their need to do so. How can I say no?”
“Their need is not your problem. It’s okay to say no to touching, to hugs,” Father Eric replied. “Ask your family to handle it. They can let everyone know that you don’t want to be hugged.”
We arrived at the funeral home for the viewing about an hour before the posted hours of 4 to 8 p.m. A closed casket was planned due to how thin Brandon had become over the last weeks. However, the funeral director had worked such magic, and Brandon looked so Brandon – right down to his lips curved in his inimitable half-smile, it was decided to keep the casket open during the viewing. Christina and her family sat to one side of the casket and I sat to the other.
I never moved, except for a few restroom breaks. From my vantage point I could look at the beautiful shell of my baby, which I would never see again after the next day.
On and off my husband or one of my adult children would come to sit with me for a while during that surreal evening. Then they’d go off again to greet one or more of the approximately 850 persons who came to pay their respects. My sisters made sure I always had a bottle of water and a small cup of chardonnay on a table next to my stool. Because of the crowd the viewing lasted well past 8 p.m., and I’m told at times during that evening the line wound through the funeral home and down the block. A few of Brandon’s friends and a couple of my siblings established an impromptu tail-gating “party” in a nearby parking lot, and many viewers stopped by to “party on” and toast Brandon. He’d definitely have approved!
Although I couldn’t say exactly where my husband, other children and their spouses were for much of the evening, I knew they were following Father Eric’s suggestion. Almost every one of the 850 persons who greeted me that evening said, “Your daughter/your son/Joe (my husband) told me I’m not to hug you tonight.” Only a few acted as if they intended to ignore my family’s directive. Perhaps some hadn’t heard or they had forgotten, but I simply put up a hand to stop them and explained.
It is difficult to express how freeing it was and how much I appreciated Father Eric’s “permission” to avoid what I most dreaded for that most awful evening. What a gift! Usually I’m rather good at saying “no” for myself, but I was (and in many ways still am) drifting in a fog on an uncharted sea and my body was in adrenaline overload.
I won’t forget his question, and I hope I remember to ask the next person who needs it, “What do you dread the most?”