Grief By Proxy

By Melissa Baron

          She cries for a man I spent the better part of my childhood hating.

          My friend, my flaxen sister of all these years, sits in front of me with her family, and I watch her thin shoulders shake. Her narrow shoulder blades jut with each bodily wrack, liken to cut through her translucent skin, and I wonder–

          I wonder who those tears are really for.

          I want them to be for herself.

          I feel my own throat close in a grief by proxy, but it is not grief for this man. My heartache is a puzzled, confounded thing as I try to understand why he deserves this kind of reaction from them. All he did was die. All he ever did as he lived was hurt them, in a million stinging ways. Sometimes with near-fatal wounds.

          “The Williamsons would like to thank everyone for coming,” the priest says. He looks mildly uncomfortable, like I feel sitting in the cold funeral home, dressed for the summer heat outside instead of the room’s February temperatures. I don’t know him; I know very few people in this room, except for Ava, her mother and sisters. And there are very few people.

          He leads the room into a prayer. Ava’s shoulders hunch as each supplication acts like the whip of a willow branch. I reach forward and twine my fingers through her hair, resting my hand against her back, hoping to ease some of the pain bowing her spine. She sniffles as her back subtly relaxes.

          “Henry lived a full life,” the priest tells the room of mourners. “He loved his wife and daughters.”

          Now I feel as if the willow branch has been lashed out at me. My back stiffens with disbelief, although I knew it was coming.

          “He enjoyed…”

          Terrorizing his daughters, my mind supplants in place of Henry Williamson’s favorite pastimes. As well as his wife. Sharon sits dry-eyed by the youngest crying William-son daughter, staring straight ahead toward Henry’s heavily made up face in the casket at the front of the room. The room that reeks of too many cold flowers.

          It took her years to leave him. After it became so terrible that she changed the locks while he was gone and called the police when he hammered at the front door and bel- lowed like a sick bear with its foot in a trap. And then she took him back when we were in high school. That was the first time I ever witnessed real anger from Ava. Ava, who possessed the sunniest disposition of anyone I know, much less someone from her background. Ava, who then left home, and floated from house to house until she met her future husband at my father’s fortieth birthday party.

          “…he had a weakness for sweet tarts…”

          If sweet tarts were an alias for cocaine. I found out about the drugs much later. Sharon called them “episodes” when we were kids. Ava’s house was a ranch, and the attached garage had been remodeled as an extension of the house. Her room was in the old garage, along with a small area for the computer, washer and dryer, a dingy little bathroom, and her mother’s sewing room. It was colder in there, but miles away from her parent’s and sister’s bedrooms at the other end. I hardly ever saw the younger girls’ room. Ava and I spent all of our time either outside or in her room playing video games as her hamster explored by our feet. I used to set that warm little body on my stomach and feel her tiny clawed feet tickle over my shirt.

          Sharon would come to the door sometimes and tell us to play outside. Build a snow fort, go down to the creek, ride your bikes to the library; Daddy’s having an episode. Be back before dark.

          “…sociable. Henry had a lot of friends over the years.”

          I never saw any. When I did see him, he had ambled his way out of his dank, cigarette hazed cave to the living room. He was the tallest man I had ever seen. He walked with an odd slump to his shoulders, his neck craned forward and down, encumbered by all that height like a tree with heavy fruit weighing down its limbs. He never wore enough clothes in the house. When he wasn’t in the living room, he was in the bedroom, hollering for Sharon or one of the girls like a bedridden tyrant king, ordering the servants to bring him sustenance. They scampered to comply, to please and placate, and then scattered like church mice, Ava sweeping me out of the house with her. She didn’t like to have me in a room near him for long.

          None of that makes it into the priest’s eulogy.

          My father met him once. Ava went away to band camp when we were in eighth grade. We both played trumpet in the school band – that was how we met – but a week- long stay at a camp spelled disaster for my socially inept, shy heart. Ava, though, desperately wanted to go, and saved every dollar she earned mowing lawns, delivering papers, and babysitting to pay for it. The Williamson brood was driving the hour and a half to pick her up, and I wanted to go. I could endure Henry Williamson to see Ava. Dad wanted to speak with him before they headed out with me as cargo.

          Dad did not want me over at their house any longer after that.

          I never went into great detail with my parents, how things were at Ava’s. Not when I was a child. I didn’t fully understand it when we were ten, eleven; nothing overt happened when I was there. He was good at what he did. Ava was always sparse on details, naturally cheerful, peacekeeping; she was a master at downplay. But my dad saw some- thing in Henry’s face that afternoon, heard it in his voice. Ava would play at our house – any time she wanted. She could stay however long she needed.

          Ava loves my parents.

          They’re not here for the funeral. We moved away when I was in high school, and Ava’s visits became sparser. She moved so frequently to avoid her home that I couldn’t keep up. She hadn’t emancipated herself, and she wanted to finish high school at the same school. I was relieved she was no longer at home, but I worried when I didn’t know where her temporary home was and with whom. She was so good at downplaying. Too trusting, sometimes, too willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and so pretty; but she wasn’t with the Williamsons. Ava’s ethereal beauty put her more at risk at home than anywhere else. We graduated, she found a live-in nanny job, and my heart eased. I knew where to find her.

          Every time I could see her then, and now as adults with different lives, the long weeks and months of separation fall away like little nothings. We’re children again, telling each other things no one else has the capacity to understand.

          Much less a priest with no idea of the sickness that lived inside the man in the casket.

          I understand why we feel the need to say positive things about those who have passed on. It has long been considered a crass practice to speak ill of the dead. But I was the only friend of Ava’s, or any of the girls, who had that much exposure to the house on Theodore and what lived in it. The only person Ava felt comfortable telling the things that went on when I was not there, when we were much older and she had the strength to say them out loud. If I were to go up there and speak, the message would be a little different.

          As a child, I could not stand to be in the same room with this man.

          Today, my fellow gatherers, is the only day in which I can comfortably share a room with him.

          “Henry would appreciate seeing those he loved here, wishing him well into the next life. Seek and receive comfort from one another as we mourn his passing.”

          The priest finally finishes delivering platitudes that set my teeth on edge, and the family rises to say their final goodbyes. I stay in my seat and only rise when Ava is done. She walks away slowly from the casket, toward where I stand.

          She looks far fresher than the dying flowers around her, despite the tear tracks running down her cheeks. When she meets my eyes, her blue ones well with fresh tears. I embrace her and Ava squeezes me tightly, her frame shaking as she buries her head in my shoulder. As I’m stroking her hair, she whispers something in my ear that opens the floodgates of my heart.

          “It’s finally over.”