Third Lesson

I remember when I was maybe ten years old. I had walked out on the summer lawn in the evening in my long, frilly white night gown that I wore inside out. I wore it inside out because it had a princess appliquéd on the front, and even a ten year old knows princesses don’t have pictures of themselves on their dresses. I think I told my mom I wore it inside out because it was itchy, which doesn’t make any sense, but she accepted it anyway.

Anyway, I was out on the lawn, the sun was down and the sidewalks were smooth and cool, everything was still. I used to love twirling around on the front lawn with my sister, we would hold hands, lean back, and spin around until she was almost lifted off the ground, and then fall down on the grass and feel the lawn bob and bow like a sailboat. 

That night, though, my sister wasn’t there—I think she was inside watching television. Since I was by myself, I stuck my arms straight out at my sides and started to spin alone, and when I was impossibly dizzy I tumbled on the grass, rolled over on to my back, and lay still on the lawn looking up and thought, "None of this will last forever." I ran back into the house and suddenly everything there looked so small, like a playhouse full of toy furniture. Mom was peeling an orange at the dining room table and Dad was sleeping in his armchair with the TV Guide in his lap. It’s one of the things I remember now, and my sister wasn’t even there. 

I knew she was going to die then, but I guess I forgot. It was the biggest thing I had ever thought, I couldn’t hold on to it. Well, death is a lesson you learn and then you forget over and over again. 

My sister’s hair was orange at her funeral. Well, the tips were orange, the roots were unevenly dark. It looked like she had three different dye jobs going on in geologic layers. It looked awful.  The last time I had seen her, she was considering going back to blue. I told her to let it rest a month or two before more bleaching, to let the hair grow stronger. But of course she didn’t listen and now at her funeral her hair was brittle and clumpy, the broken ends in clusters like bristly little Christmas trees.

I thought, "She’s going to get tired of that color."

"She needs to fix her hair. She can’t wear that awful color the rest of her life."

She would be so mad, she would be so humiliated for everyone to see it like that. I wanted to take her away somewhere and dye her hair some decent color. Funerals are filled with people and officials, I think they are designed to keep grieving people from doing things like that. Like stealing a body and going and dyeing its hair.

Why didn’t they do something about that at the home? That is their job. That is what people pay them for. They washed her hair, they didn’t set it right, the side was all funny and flat. I don’t think they did anything, I don’t know what we pay people for.

I remember when my sister came and visited me in Brazil, when I was teaching math and English to indigenous women there.  I bought her a ticket, not only paid for it, but also found it and booked it and forwarded my sister the confirmation email.  I told her, "All you have to do is come. I’ve arranged it all for you."

Her boyfriend at the time was in a band and she didn’t think she could leave him.  She was afraid he’d sleep with some groupies if she went away.  I told her his shitty band didn’t have any groupies, but she told me all rock musicians do, even the worst ones.

I went up to the funeral director and calmly explained that my sister’s body had not been prepared properly and was not ready for viewing. I spoke in an elaborately normal way, like my sister used to do when she was high and trying to sound normal for our parents. I explained that yes, I understood that the viewing had already started and yes, I knew that the guests were already here, but it was a mistake, someone should have dyed her back to brown or at least some decent color like blonde or red. 

The director explained that it was not their policy to highlight, cut, and style dead people’s hair.  They had washed her hair, which they had to do anyway, because at that point she hadn’t washed it in weeks, and they pulled it partly away from her face, which only made her look worse, thin orange hair and her wide, flat, pale face, her cheekbones carved out like with an awl.

There was no one to talk to. My father was sitting in the second row staring at the backs of the chairs in front of him like they contained a secret code. My mother died four years ago. My sister’s boyfriend was sitting in the very back and wearing a cheap black suit with brown deck shoes. He didn’t even get up and say anything. My father got up and read some awful poem my sister would have hated, something that rhymed about a tree. Some people from Starbucks came down and a lot of random people – her old landlord, Mrs. Nelson from junior high, her first AA sponsor.

We didn’t have a priest at my sister’s funeral. She wasn’t religious. A secular funeral is the saddest thing you’ll ever see, I think now. I’m not religious either, but I know what I want. I want some music or some old-fashioned words or something, something other than a waiting room with brown linoleum floors and pamphlets and metal chairs, a room like all the worst rooms of my sister’s life: hospital waiting rooms, the DMV, the lobbies of courtrooms and treatment centers and Planned Parenthood and community clinics. 

The night before her trip, she called me to say she wasn’t coming. She was having a panic attack, she couldn’t get on the plane. She was crying and saying she was sorry. I spent $1400 on those tickets on a student credit card with a $2000 limit. I begged her to come and then I was angry and said, "Fine, don’t come!" I still went to the airport to meet her, and of course she came tumbling off the plane with all her mismatched bags. Her hair was jet black and cut very short. It made her look pale.

After everyone had a chance to speak an organist played a short piece on a keyboard in the corner and then they closed the box lid and that was it. We were all going to drive to the cemetery together in my dad’s car but I told them to go ahead and I would follow.

Then I was alone in the brown linoleum room. I was surprised anyone would leave me alone with the body, why wasn’t anyone guarding it? I didn’t go to my mother’s funeral; I had never seen a coffin before, I had no idea how big and heavy they were. I’d seen comedians on TV lie in a coffin and then fling it open suddenly, scaring everyone. But this lid was so heavy, I wouldn’t be flinging it anywhere. I was glad it felt so final, not trivial like the folding chairs and the keyboard and chrysanthemums.

We had a good time in Brazil. I wanted to show her what my life was like. I suppose I wanted to show off, too, to show her how tough I could be, and how selfless, sleeping under a mosquito tent and helping all the little villagers. 

Once I had the lid open, it occurred to me that I didn’t have any scissors. I looked around the room but of course there weren’t any. You can never find the most common things. I usually carry nail scissors in my purse but that day I was carrying my special small black evening purse and it didn’t have anything in it but my ID and keys and lipstick.

The funeral director’s office adjoined the linoleum room. I propped up the coffin lid and ran into his office and pushed things around on his desk, looking for scissors. I kept peering back into the room in a panic, thinking that any moment they could come for the body. I found a dull letter opener and surprisingly, a little stitch ripper with a blue plastic handle. Just when I was reaching the height of panic, I found a pair of dull plastic kids’ scissors in the bottom drawer of his desk, underneath a stack of doll magazines.

On my sister’s last day in Brazil, we hiked up to the top of a mountain in the humidity and wavering shade. My sister was pouring sweat, she was so exhausted, and sweat and dirt were running down the sides of her face. It looked like she was sweating out the black hair dye. At the top of the mountain, someone had set up a zip line, a big version of the kind you find in fancy suburban backyards. For a little bit of money you could skip the hike back down and glide down the whole way through the forest canopy instead. 

The ticker seller strapped us into two harnesses and gave them both a testing tug. He said something to us we didn’t understand, we lifted our legs off the platform, and he pushed us both, not unkindly, out over the platform’s edge.

The body was still in the coffin. She looked like she was getting some rest, but I wouldn’t say she looked "at peace." She looked temporary, like she might get up any moment, stretch, and complain because she didn’t have any cigarettes.

The children’s scissors did a shitty job cutting hair, so I focused on the split ends. I cut off all the broken pieces that framed her face, and I took her hair down from the ridiculous schoolgirl half-ponytail the director had chosen. I arranged it so her face looked a little thinner and more sophisticated. I also rounded out the edges of her bangs where they made a rough transition into the rest of her hair. The crappy scissors left chewed-up bits of hair all over her neck and chest, which I tried to brush off, but a lot of them blended into the ugly burgundy shirt she was wearing, a shirt I am sure she didn’t wear once in real life.

Once I had fixed the ends, I was left with the color. It already looked a lot better where I had cut off the most orange-y tips, but the roots still looked really bad. Now that I was up closer to her, I could see how much darker they were, at least two unmatched shades of reddish brown. I took my black scarf and tied it around her head, but it made her look like a Russian grandmother.  Then I had a brilliant idea. I wound up all her hair into the scarf together and then knotted it all up together in the back. Now she looked fashionable and bohemian, like Erykah Badu. A few stray pieces framed her face. The knot in the back of the scarf tilted her head up a little and made her look more awake and dynamic, like she was getting up to say something cheerful. To make a big change she would stick to.

We didn’t go as fast as I’d thought.  We sort of slid and floated. The tops of the trees below our feet looked very small. There were more trees above us. We slid down into the valley, disrupting the birds. At the far end, another vendor unstrapped our harnesses, we stumbled off the platform, and lay very still on the grass. The sky was wheeling overhead, we were brave and safe. I knew then that my life would go on forever, and that we would never die.

I couldn’t close the lid on her. Someone was going to close the lid, obviously, but it wouldn’t be my fault. I left it ajar and walked outside and got in my car and drove away.

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