I’m not good with dead people.
My first wake was for my 24-year-old cousin eight years ago, who died in a car accident. His mother had chosen a bright blue shirt for him, because she said he’d always looked so good in blue – not when you’re dead. When your made-up face hardly reflects natural skin tones, and your eyes have been shut so their blue can’t complement the shirt. The only part of him that seemed real was a bruised nail, as if he’d caught his finger in a door.
My cousin’s hands were folded peacefully. But he wasn’t peaceful. They’d had a hard time wiping the grimace off his face, a hint of the sharp pain perhaps he’d experienced just as his aorta burst when he was thrown against the steering wheel.
His devastated father had wanted me to go up and touch his body. Not something I wanted to do. His arm felt like a log. Rather, a freshly cut branch, the kind that might still show green inside.
The wake this past weekend for my husband’s best friend was only my second wake. In my family, we’ve never had open caskets. When my father died, he was cremated, and his little urn sat at the alter during the memorial service, draped finely in a simple white cloth. Then the little urn was dropped into a small hole in the ground, in a cemetery famous for being so large and meandering, even with a map no one is ever able to navigate their way back to their loved ones again.
My husband is more used to dead people. He was shocked to hear this was only my second wake.
“Just burn me,” I told him. I didn’t want to rot underground, wind up as a pile of bones tangled up in what might have been my best dress.
My husband’s friend looked far more peaceful than my cousin had. And healthier than he had in life; his face was painted a peachy tint. He looked exactly like a mannequin, a perfect wax rendition fit for a museum display. They’d even put back on his glasses as if he'd fallen asleep reading. But beneath those lids, those eyes I imagined were staring dumbfounded at what was happening to him when the embolism struck and he dropped to the floor. I looked for some part of him that was real, like my cousin’s bruised thumb. Ted’s ears. They were distinct, long and finely shaped.
Actually, it’s not dead people I don’t like. It’s the dead bodies. Rather, the dead bodies painted and dressed up to look alive and well, as if we’re stupid and can really be convinced that they are sleeping peacefully. When what we’re really left with is just that, a stiff waxed mannequin that has nothing at all to do with what is, was, real.
So to clear my head of the waxed image of Ted, I pulled out our wedding album today. I needed to see one of my favorite pictures of him, in the limo toasting us with a glass of champagne.
And then there’s my other favorite, of him holding our first born when he visited at the hospital: he cradles Ryan a bit awkwardly, as Ted was single and not particularly used to children. His smile is one of amusement, as if Ryan were a ferret or some other unusual pet. Ted was always funny, and I can’t remember what he said at the time, but I’m sure in all my post-delivery exhaustion, that he he'd been able to make me laugh.