3.464 wordsA Swim in the Sunshine“What’s he doing at my wake?”The voice resonated in Carolyn Majors’ brain as vividly as the voices of family and guests she heard at her mother’s wake that evening. It was unmistakable; it was the voice of Maggie, her mother. Carolyn had not realized how much her mother’s death had affected her until now. The voice in her head sounded exactly like the voice of the person whose body she stared at that very minute in the overly ornate coffin, a coffin her sister Abby had picked out two days ago. Abby had gone through the motions of pretending to include Carolyn in the decision, something she was skillful at doing. Carolyn had suffered many unspoken, yet deliberately engineered self-serving moves, which included long, lonely vigils over their mother for the six-month fight with a failing heart and many one-sided tactics regarding the will. Carolyn assumed she had lost her sanity. She heard her mother’s voice as clearly as when she had spoken to her just a week ago in a hospital bed. The soft roar of the crowd diverted her thoughts from the voice. She stood in line and greeted the guests as they paid their respects to her, her sister, a distant uncle, and his wife. She had gone through this before when her father died twelve years earlier. “Why is my old boss here? He treated me like dirt for twenty-three years of my life,” Maggie said. Carolyn shook as if an earthquake were in progress, yet she was the only one shaking. She looked at her hands. They twitched as if electricity were passing through them. She blinked and shook her head. She bit her lips. Tears wanted to escape from her eyes but could not. Her aunt placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Carolyn? Hang in there, dear. I know it’s a cliché, but time heals all wounds.” “I’ll … be… all right. I’ll be right back, Aunt Helen.” Carolyn moved away from the reception line and the crowd to find a seat in the back of the room. She buried her head in her hands and closed her eyes. She was not expecting her mother’s death to affect her this way. Her father’s death had come as a shock, since she was close to him, but she had never heard his voice or anyone’s voice in her head before. She could not tell anyone, of course; however, if she did, it would be interpreted as temporary insanity caused by grief. Everyone would understand—everyone but her sister Abby, who would use it against her somehow. “Don’t be scared, Freckle Girl. It’s just me,” Maggie said. Carolyn flew out of the chair and turned in circles as an animal chasing its own tail. She hit a few chairs in the process, which brought a few people to her side to inquire about what had happened. There was only one person in the world who had called her Freckle Girl—ever. A gentleman unknown to Carolyn came to her side. “Carolyn? Do you need any help?” Three men who worked at the funeral home held her arms and inspected her at a close enough range for her to feel their hot breath on her cheeks.“Carolyn? I was a friend of your father. I’m Wilbur Masseli. I worked with him for many years,” the unknown gentleman said Carolyn did not remember Wilbur. She offered a weak nod and looked around the room for her mother. But her mother was not there; she was in the coffin wearing the satin dress her sister had picked out for her two months before she died. “I’ll be all right. Thank you all for coming to my aid.” Carolyn’s smile was not convincing, but the men walked away slowly as they stared at her. One of the funeral workers—the youngest one—remained close by. Carolyn sat and stared at nothing in particular. She faced toward the front where the crowd shook hands and hugged her sister, aunt and uncle. “It’s okay, Freckle Girl. You’ll get used to it,” Maggie said. Carolyn shook but not as violently as before. She must remain calm, even if she was crazy. Crazy people can be calm, she figured. That way, nobody would know she was crazy. Calm, calm; remain calm. She shifted her eyes from side to side but saw no one close to her except for the young funeral worker. “You don’t have to keep looking around, Carolyn; you won’t see me,” Maggie said. Carolyn’s heart felt like it had bounced a few times around her torso and returned gradually to its proper place. Calm, calm; remain calm. She gripped the arms of the chair until she could not feel her knuckles any more. The last thing she needed right now was to lose her mind. Not now; not now. Not at thirty-four years of age and with two little girls. Not now; not now. There was also an older sister to fight, and she was not convinced her aunt and uncle were on her side. There was much work to do yet. What would they do with Maggie’s house? And her furniture? Some of those pieces had been in the family for over two hundred years. What about her clothes? And her coin collection? It may be worth a fortune. There was also the matter of an old watch that belonged to Maggie’s great-grandfather. Should it be sold or should it stay in the family? And with whom? What about Maggie’s car and other personal belongings? “Carolyn? What’s the matter, dear? Just calm down. My body’s dead but I’m not,” Maggie said. Carolyn went to a back room to get her purse. She took out her phone mouthpiece—the type that fits over the ear—put it on and returned to the back of the room to sit in the same chair. “Mom? Are you really there? Mom?” “I’m here, Freckle Girl. I’m really here,” Maggie said. Carolyn almost fell out of her chair. She held on and looked around the room to see if she was being watched. The only person watching her was the young funeral worker, who was fascinated by Carolyn’s actions. “Miss? Are you sure you’re all right? Is there anything I can do to help you?” the young funeral worker said. “Thank you. I’m okay. Just a bit shaken by my mother’s … well … passing—sort of passing… I guess.” “Of course you are. I’ll be right over there if you need me. Okay?” The young funeral worker pointed to the front of the room near the casket. Carolyn nodded and waved. “Mom? Are you still there?” “Well, yes; of course.” Carolyn shook her head but remained in control of her senses. She felt less confused than before and could breathe easier. A strange calm came over her as she spoke. “Mom? You’re supposed to be over there. I hate to say it, but, well, kind of … dead?” “Why do you hate to say it? My body is, indeed, very dead. I’m not.” Carolyn noticed an unknown elderly couple passing by and adjusted the mouthpiece that was connected to nothing so they could see it. She had tucked the plug at the end of the wire inside her skirt. “Why do wear that contraption?” Maggie said. “It’s a mouthpiece to connect to my cell phone so I can use both my hands for something else. Mom? You can see me, but you don’t have eyes. How can this be?” “I don’t know, Carolyn.” “Mom? Why is this happening?” “I don’t know that, either.” Carolyn cried softly and shook her head. “I’m going crazy. Oh, my God. I’m going crazy. How could I ever explain to somebody that I hear voices? Oh, my God. What am I going to do?” “But Freckle Girl, you don’t hear voices; you hear only my voice. Is that not so?” Carolyn cried even harder upon hearing her mother’s signature phrase. “You always said, ‘is that not so,’ and you were the only one who ever called me Freckle Girl. How could this be happening?” “Well, you still have those beautiful freckles that go so well with your dirty blonde hair. You always did. You were the prettiest little girl in all your school years. Well, at least according to me. Is that not so?” Carolyn folded her arms on her lap and cried. “Okay, dear; enough of that. I’m not talking to you to make you cry.” “Why are you talking to me, Mom?” “Honestly, I don’t know that, either. And when I say honestly, I really mean it. When you’re dead, you don’t have any reason to lie, to cover up, or to be politically correct any more.” “Well, then. Who does know? Is God there with you? Can you ask him why I can hear you and nobody else can? I don’t understand this, Mom.” “I really don’t, either. It just happened. Nobody told me anything. It’s as much a surprise to me as it is to you.” “I find that hard to believe. Where are you? What do you see? Are there any other ghosts there with you?” “Ghosts? I don’t consider myself a ghost. You’ve been watching too many movies, Carolyn.” “Well, what about the other questions I just asked you?” “I don’t see much of anything other than what you see right now. I see phony people, false smiles, pretenses, greed, self-centeredness, viciousness, and more. Actually, come to think of it, you may not be seeing all of that. I guess I do have an advantage over you not being in a body. I see the real thing. Is that not so?” “How long does this last? Will I hear your voice forever?” “I have no idea.” “Well, I can’t go around talking to myself all the time. People stare at me even with this stupid mouthpiece thing I’m wearing.” “Let’s just go with whatever. We can’t predict what happens in life—or death, as I’m finding out.” “But, why do you say that? I can predict what happens in my daily life,” Carolyn said. “Can you really?” “Yes. I take care of my store and my employees, and I know what’s going to happen from day to day. I even know when Mrs. Eisner is going to come in for her yarn and when Mrs. Gardner is going to come in for her knitting needles. I know when Libby’s going to come in after school to help me out, and I know that Jackie and Tammy work on Saturdays because it’s my busiest day. I have a reliable babysitter, and I e-mail the kids’ teachers every Friday to get a progress report. We have pizza on Friday night and meat, chicken, or fish the rest of the nights.” “Well, that does look like a pattern that cannot be broken, doesn’t it,” Maggie said. “What do you mean? Are you being sarcastic?” “Yes. Was your father’s heart attack part of your predictable pattern? Was my failing heart and subsequent death part of it, too?” “Of course not, Mom.” Carolyn gazed unto the crowd who said their goodbyes in little clumps. “Well, there you go.” “So what does that mean? I shouldn’t have a daily routine?” Carolyn said. “Well, you can, but don’t assume you can control your future one hundred percent. There will always be an unexpected turn in the road or even a new road that is built for you without warning.” “So I shouldn’t plan anything and just sit there until life slaps me in the face?” “No, that would be twisting what I said. You can plan and carry out your plan, but don’t be surprised if the plan deviates; that’s all. Expect the unexpected. Is that not so?” “True. I sure didn’t expect Dan to leave me with two little kids. And Dad. And you. I know Dad’s death hit you hard. Mom? Is he there with you now?” “I haven’t seen him, dear. I don’t really know if I will, either. I still don’t know how this death thing works, to tell you the truth.” Carolyn looked up. “Uh oh. I see Aunt Helen coming over, Mom. What now?” “What now? I don’t know. I don’t have to hide, since she can’t see me. What do you want me to say?” “I can’t talk. She’ll think I’m crazy, Mom.” “Okay, then. Don’t talk to me for a while.” “Carolyn?” Aunt Helen said. “Are you okay, honey? Are you sick?” “I’m okay, Aunt Helen. Just grieving quietly, that’s all; just grieving quietly.” “Well, we need you up there. People are asking about you. Come join us? What are you wearing on the side of your face?” “Oh, it’s just a phone mouthpiece, that’s all.” “Were you talking with someone, honey?” “Well, yes.” “Come along, dear. Come along.” Aunt Helen dragged Carolyn by the arm and led her to the front of the room to greet more visitors. “Mom?” Carolyn whispered. “I’m here,” Maggie said. “What do you think of the dress and the coffin?” “Why do you think I care?” “Oh. Of course. Sorry.” “Mom? What should we do with your coin collection? You loved that collection. We’re having all sorts of high-blood-pressure arguments trying to decide what to do with it.” “I hear E-bay does wonders for unwanted things.” “But, I thought you loved that collection. You used to dust the case off every other day and polish those coins weekly for hours.” “Hours I should have spent with my granddaughters instead, yes. Is that not so?” “Mom? What should we do with your great-grandfather’s watch?” “Well, that’s not a watch, that’s a college fund for my granddaughters, dear. Is that not so? See those flowers over there? And over there? And all over this expensive place? Those should have been part of that, too. ” “I see,” Carolyn said. “No, you don’t.” Carolyn was so startled by the abruptness of the answer that she almost keeled over. Her uncle and aunt grabbed her arms. “Easy, honey. Easy. Do you want to go back there and sit for a while? Want some water? A cold cloth on your forehead may help,” Aunt Helen said. “You should also stop talking on the phone, dear. You’re being rude to our guests.” “I’ll be okay, Aunt Helen. I’ll stop talking on the phone now. Sorry.” “Don’t be sorry, Freckle Girl. You should never be sorry for anything you did not do,” Maggie said. Carolyn nodded. Carolyn’s sister looked at her with a puzzled look. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you nodding like that? You look retarded or something.” Carolyn glared at her 42-year old sister for the first time in her life. “Abby, keep your comments to yourself. I’m going outside for a breath of fresh air, and when I return, you’d better be nice to me. I’ve had enough of your stupid insults for a lifetime.” She turned and walked toward a side door that led to the parking lot. “I’m proud of you, Freckle Girl. Been a long time coming for that one. Is that not so?” Carolyn wiped a few tears with her fingertips. “Sure has. Thanks for the pat on the back, Mom.” “Pat on the back? That’s funny.” “Why is it funny? I don’t get it.” “Because I’ll never be able to pat anyone on the back ever again. If I had tear ducts, I’d be crying up a storm right now. Isn’t that sad?” Carolyn strayed away from the door and walked through the parking lot toward a tree. She sat on a large rock and wiped her brow with her hand. The midsummer blaring sun did not fit a wake. “Well, it’s sad in a way, but in another way, it doesn’t sound so bad to not be able to cry. I guess you have to look at the bright side in everything, even in …” “Death. Hard to get used to that word, isn’t it, Freckle Girl? I don’t feel the heat from that sun or the breeze on my face like you do right now. I can’t feel the rough texture of that rock you’re sitting on against my skin nor do I squint from the blaring sunlight. I would love to cry again. I would love to laugh again. And if I could, I’d cry harder and laugh louder than I ever did. I would feel that rock until my skin turns red, and I would swim in the sunshine.” Carolyn cried uncontrollably. A couple who were leaving watched her from their car and shook their heads. “Mom? What should I do about my friend Janet?” “Well, I thought you two would have come to your senses and stopped quarreling by now. It always sounded pretty stupid to me to not talk to someone for five years over some silly gossip.” “But I didn’t mean any harm when I told her friend about—” “It doesn’t matter what the gossip was, why she got mad, or whether you meant it or not,” Maggie said. “So what should I do? I don’t want to lose a twenty-one-year-old friendship.” “Go see her.” “Okay. I’ll e-mail her tomo—” “No, no. No, sir. No e-mail; no telephone. Go to her house.” “Well, okay. I will.” “Bring a dozen roses, and tell her this: If you’re entirely at fault, she keeps the dozen roses. If she’s entirely at fault, you keep the dozen roses; however, if you’re both at fault, you each keep six roses, and forget anything ever happened between you two.” “Okay, Mom. I will. So, tell me. Was it all worth it? Was it worth living life with all its uncertainties, fears and sorrows? Were all the tears and pain worth it all?” “Absolutely. Cry and laugh. That’s what constitutes life, dear. See that patch of grass over there? Get on your knees like a little girl and feel it.” “Well, okay. If you say so.” Carolyn walked to the perfectly manicured lawn, got on her knees and felt the moist, two-inch, recently cut blades of grass. She struggled to avoid ripping her dress and stockings. “And when you cry, feel the tears. Capture them in your hand and know that if you weren’t alive, you couldn’t produce them. And know that if you are alive, there’s always, always the chance that things will get better. Remember when the dog next door tore your doll’s head when you were five?” “What?” Carolyn stopped feeling the grass and looked up in puzzlement. “Mom?” “You’re proving my point, Freckle Girl. It was so traumatic for you then that you cried for two days because you thought your doll had died. What really happened was that your dear, old dad took it with him to work and fixed it for you during his lunch time. I still remember the surprise and the smile on your face when you got it back in one piece.” Carolyn put her hands on her face and cried. Two young women arrived, got out of their car and gave a casual glance toward Carolyn. They looked at each other, shrugged, and entered the building. They pressed their clothes with their hands and fixed hair that needed no fixing. “Mom? I’m concerned about something. I sense you slipping away somehow. I don’t know how that is, but I can tell. I can’t explain it, but I sense you slipping away. Will I ever hear from you again? Mom?” “I don’t know, dear. But know that I will always love you, regardless of what form we exist in at the moment. You’ll always be my Freckle Girl.” Oh, Mom. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.” “It’s not up to me, dear. Is that not so?” “Okay, Mom. I love you.”***Two weeks later, Carolyn visited he mother’s grave. She knelt and felt the grass and the flowers that had already grown by the tombstone, feeling the stone’s smooth, slippery surface. Carolyn stopped her hand to caress the irregular, bumpy areas. She felt the two-inch letters that were Maggie’s initials. She felt the dirt that surrounded the stone and picked it up, dropping it carelessly several times as a child playing on the beach. “Mom? I brought you my six roses. I thought you would appreciate that. Carolyn placed the six cellophane-wrapped red roses near the stone. She caught her own tears and rubbed them carefully in her hand. Her sister had questioned the saying on the tombstone, but Carolyn had insisted— without negotiation or compromise—that it would be in large letters beneath Maggie’s name on the stone. It read: Is that not so?