My sister Eileen died nineteen years ago, after a very long, heart-breaking night.
My sister Chris and I followed my parents back to my parents’ house, arriving at 4:00 in the morning, feeling traumatized and restless. We sat down at the dining room table, Chris and I with bowls of cereal, my parents with a drink.
Realizing that the next few days were going to be exhausting, we decided to get some sleep. Every time I drifted off, I would be jolted awake with the thought, “Eileen died. How the hell did we let that happen?”
Grief is not exactly as you expect.
Finally giving up, Chris and I got up, made tea and sat in the living room staring at each other. There was a loud knock on the door, which I raced to answer, hoping to gain my parents a few more minutes of sleep.
It was my Aunt Nell. “Hi doll!” she said as I pressed my finger to my lips, as politely as I could. I’d never shushed an Auntie before.
“I’m just checking to see how Eileen is,” she said as I let her in.
She could tell by the look on my face that the news wasn’t good. “She died last night,” I told her.
Her response will go down in history as the best one ever to the news of a death. “SHIT!” she said, smacking the wall beside her. “I was hoping, since you weren’t at the hospital…”
At that point, my mother appeared, sleep-addled and cross. Nelly grabbed her by the hands, kissed her all over and made her sit down, making my mother even more cross. After a few more minutes of loving advice and with terse instructions to us to “Look after her!” she left. Her parting words were, “Ron and I are fixing dinner.”
And the day rolled on. Phone calls were made to relatives. Mum and Dad made a motion to go to the funeral home. “We’ll go with you!” Chris and I said, thinking they shouldn’t have to do this alone. We were forcefully turned down by my parents. “But…” They didn’t want us to go with, so we let them go on their own. Sometimes you just have to let your parents be independent.
As day rolled into evening, I found myself standing in the dining room, staring blankly out the window, as you do when you’re in shock. A very large car drove slowly by, my Aunt Nell in the passenger seat. “Aunt Nell’s here!” I announced as it drove right past the driveway. “Or maybe not…”
Chris joined me as the vehicle pulled to a stop and started backing up slowly.
Aunt Nell and my Uncle Ron were avid golfers, so their vehicles were always chosen with an eye to getting several sets of clubs in the trunk. And a trunk that big kind of requires the rest of the car to be huge to support it. We’re talking your basic land yacht. Slowly, majestically, Uncle Ron backed the car up the driveway before rolling to a stop.
“She said they’d fix dinner,” I suddenly remembered.
“Oh shit!” my mother wailed, knowing the size of Nelly’s generosity as compared to the size of her fridge. They’d down-sized it a few years back, but that’s a story for another day. Seriously, people fainted.
Chris and I looked at each other with equal parts glee and dread before racing out to help unload.
By the time we got to the car, Nell and Ron were in the driveway and the trunk was open. “There’s more in the back seat,” Nell said, handing us our first armloads.
She had cooked up a very large roast beef, several pounds of potatoes, a few gallons of gravy, unthinkable amounts of veg. And Yorkshire pudding! In the back seat was dessert (two kinds) and the most frighteningly big fruit platter I have ever seen in my life.
On one of the trips into the kitchen, my sister suggested that my mother set the table, just to give her somewhere to channel her nervous energy. Dinner filled up every bit of counter space and I stood with the fruit platter in my hands, gazing wildly around, before settling on putting it on top of the (thankfully downsized) fridge.
“Are you joining us?” I asked, somewhat desperately.
“No!” said Aunt Nell, giving us multiple kisses. A shy hug and kiss from Uncle Ron and they sailed away.
We returned to the now-silent house, my parents staring in disbelief at the mountains of food.
“Maybe she thought there’d be more of us here?” I hazarded.
“She always did like to feed people,” my mother muttered as my dad moved to open a bottle of wine.
“Um,” said Chris. “Maybe we should dish up in here…”
So we each filled a plate. Sat down and started to eat the most unmannerly dinner ever consumed around that table. There was no conversation. We barely stopped for breath. If we’d had two forks each, I think we would have used them.
When the first round was completed, we all realized that, outside of a slice of toast early that morning, none of us had eaten anything all day. We just sort of forgot…
“Who wants seconds?” Chris asked brightly. “Because I think if we do, we might just be able to put the leftovers in the fridge!”
So we all had seconds. And dessert. And it all got put away, except for that fruit tray. But as the rellies arrived the next day, they were met by their grim-faced baby sister and a platter of fruit. “Eat some,” I’d say. “No, you HAVE to,” as they tried to politely turn it down. And, by the time the funeral was over, we were able to chop it all up and make the world’s biggest fruit salad, which my parents ate for the rest of the week.