Authors: Megan Nugen Isbell
She couldn’t help but make the comparison between casket shopping and car shopping. All the shiny new models lined the walls, polished to perfection, each doing their best to grab the attention of grieving family members. As the Bradley’s walked around the room, listening to the tall man in the navy blue suit, who Kathryn had learned was named Ken Stanson, describe the pros and cons of each casket, her fingers glided over the soft, glossy finishes. She stopped in front of a simple black one that reminded her of the limousine Ben had rented to take her to prom in their senior year. She gently patted the blindingly white pillow and gathered sides. Her stomach turned knowing this is where Ben would soon be lying…forever. She lurched forward and then felt a hand slide around her waist to steady her. She looked up at the face of Luke who was holding her up. Her heart ached as she stared into his eyes. She’d never really looked at Luke. She’d noticed the family resemblance between him and Ben. It was obvious they were brothers with the same dusty hair, except Luke’s was slightly darker. But now as she truly looked at him for the first time, she discovered Luke and Ben shared the same hazel eyes. The same brown and green flecks danced around the iris just as Ben’s had. She was certain she was looking into Ben’s eyes.
“Ben?” she said distortedly.
The hazel eyes began to dart away with confusion and concern before meeting Kathryn’s eyes again.
“Uh…no,” he said looking around, not quite knowing what he should do, but the sound of Luke’s voice immediately brought her back to reality.
“Oh my gosh, Luke. I’m so sorry. I’m so embarrassed,” she said looking away.
“I just…it was just…your…your eyes. They look so much like Ben’s. I…I guess I got…confused. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said reassuring her. He held her hand supportively and led her back to the group who were hovering around a casket.
“This one,” Sharon said, holding onto a glossy mahogany casket. “This is the one.”
“It’s a very
nice choice Mrs. Bradley,” Mr. Stanson said agreeably.
The family crowded into Ken Stanson’s office. He spoke softly going over paperwork and arrangements. Kathryn only heard bits and pieces though. Her mind was wandering, wondering where in this house Ben was. She wanted to go to him, to make sure he was okay. The thought of him lying by himself was killing her.
“And what will Ben be wearing?” Ken Stanson asked routinely.
“We have his gray suit in the car. He’ll be wearing that. He always looked so handsome in that suit, don’t you think so?” Sharon asked, looking around the room for support. Everyone nodded in agreement. “I remember he had to get that suit for Tracey’s wedding, remember that?” she asked, referring to his cousin’s wedding last spring. Again, she looked around at her family for support and then continued to speak in a quick, frazzled voice. “He complained about having to dress up, but he looked so handsome. And Luke, you got the black suit and my two boys looked so handsome that day. That was such…” and then she was quiet. Scott had reached over and touched her knee, drawing her back to the task at hand. And then she started laughing. The room grew silent and everyone stared at Sharon whose laughter grew louder and louder.
“Can you believe this?” she cackled in a voice Kathryn had never heard before. “Can you believe this? Here we are sitting around planning Ben’s funeral. We’re discussing his wardrobe,
choosing his coffin. Can you believe this Scott?” she said laughing to her husband. She began to get hysterical with laughter and cries. Scott stood up and eased his wife out of her chair.
“Excuse us,” Scott said, leading her out of the room, her laughter growing fainter as they made their way further and further down the hall. Soon, the room was eerily quiet.
Kathryn looked around at the faces of everyone else who were all staring at the ground. Mr. Stanson was shuffling quietly through papers on his desk. It remained silent for the next few minutes until Sharon and Scott reentered the room and they took their places in the seats in front of Mr. Stanson’s desk.
“I’m so sorry Mr. Stanson,” Sharon said. “Please continue.”
“It’s perfectly understandable, Mrs. Bradley. Take all the time you need. Are you sure you’re ready to proceed?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m ready.”
Has it really been five days?
Kathryn asked herself when she woke up after another drug induced sleep. Six days ago Ben had been alive and with her. He’d lain in bed with her, holding her and kissing her. Six days ago he’d proposed to her.But five days ago, Ben had died and today was his funeral.
She hadn’t left the house since going to the funeral home.She’d hardly spoken to anyone and barely left her room. Her mom had gone to Macy’s and bought her a new dress for the service. It was black, of course, with a shallow v-neck and mid-length sleeves and it hung down to her knees. She paired it with a pair of black pumps and around her neck she clasped th
e silver crucifix Ben had given her for Christmas last year. She dried her blonde hair so that it hung past her shoulders, sleek and straight to the middle of her back. She figured if she left it down she might be able to hide behind it and not have to face anyone.
She walked downstairs where her parents were waiting. Her father was in the only suit he owned and Kathryn couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen him in it. Her mother was wearing a black skirt and blouse and was doing her best to hold everyone together.
“Are you ready to go?” her mother asked.
Kathryn nodded and followed her family into the garage and sat down in the backseat of her father’s SUV. No one said anything as they drove to the church. The funeral started at eleven o’clock with graveside services following. However, there was a private viewing for family an hour earlier.
As her father pulled the car into the parking lot of St. James church, she still couldn’t believe this was all happening. It seemed surreal. She had no idea what to expect when she saw Ben for the first time. Part of her wanted to beg her father to turn the car around and go home. She wanted to remember Ben as he had been, not as what he was now. Would it even look like Ben? She tried to imagine what she would see and the thought frightened her. She immediately replaced the chilling mental image with one of Ben from their last night together, when he’d asked her to marry him, and focused on that instead.
She saw the familiar cars in the parking lot when they pulled in. Ben’s family was already at the church. She slowly opened the door and stepped out, her heels making a loud clanking noise on the asphalt. The November air was cool and crisp and still trying to make up its mind
between autumn and winter. She shuddered and pulled the black wrap her mom had given her before leaving the house tighter around her shoulders. She walked sandwiched between her parents into the church, stopping to dip her fingers in the holy water in the entryway and blessing herself with the sign of the cross before stepping into the chapel.
St. James was an old New England church, made with jagged, gray bricks. A tall square steeple towered over the grounds. Inside, it was lined with ornate stained glass windows and bare wooden pews. It seemed lonely this morning except for a few altar boys pacing quietly at the pulpit.
Out of the corner of her eye, Kathryn saw Ken Stanson from the funeral home approaching her. He looked the same as when she’d first met him, the same fake look and navy blue suit.
“Hello Kathryn,” he said quietly, although his voice seemed to echo in the huge church. “The Bradley’s are already in the back. Please follow me.”
Without words, she followed Mr. Stanson, her parents staying a step behind her. He opened a door a few moments later and led them into a small room. Ben’s family was clustered inside and they looked up when the door opened. Everyone wore the same blank look of grief and disbelief. She walked over to them and Grandma Val wrapped her in her arms and Grandpa Dom patted her on the back. She made her rounds hugging Ben’s family, but quickly noticed Scott and Sharon were missing. She looked towards the far end of the room and saw their backs turned to the group, standing in front of the mahogany casket they’d picked out at the funeral home. Kathryn’s eyes stared at the casket and at the hunched figures of Ben’s parents. Sharon’s head was down and Scott’s arm was wrapped around his wife. Her heart seemed to stop and all the breath left her. Her knees felt weak again and she grabbed onto the nearest thing to support her, which happened to be Luke’s arm. He held her up for a moment before she started walking towards Ben. Everyone seemed to part like the Red Sea as she made her way to the back of the room. She felt as if she were an inmate on death row being led to her own execution. She knew once she reached the casket her life would be over. She may still be alive, but she might as well be dead.
Her steps were slow and uncertain as she neared the casket. Scott and Sharon must have heard her coming because when she was only a few feet away, they both turned around. Behind them, she could see the lid of the casket was open. In just a moment she would see Ben. She closed
her eyes and made the final steps towards him. Once at the edge of the casket, she felt Sharon’s arm resting softly on her back. Kathryn took a deep breath and then slowly opened her eyes.
As they came into focus, she felt her stomach get queasy. She lowered her gaze and then gasped, holding her hands to her chest. A lifeless Ben was lying before her, his eyes closed and his hands folded on his stomach. She couldn’t help but think he looked like a wax figure. His skin was glossy and slightly pink. It was obvious they had put makeup on him to help him look more lifelike. She didn’t like it and she knew Ben wouldn’t like it either. The body in front of her was Ben, but it didn’t look like the Ben she’d known. She was certain he wasn’t in that body and she wanted to believe he was in a better place, perhaps even here with her.
Sharon began to stroke Ben’s hair, making sure it was just right.
“I think they did a nice job,” she said quietly.
“Yes,” Kathryn lied and began staring at his folded hands. She wanted to reach over and hold his hands in hers, but was afraid to. She felt ashamed at being afraid to touch him. She shouldn’t be scared of Ben, but then again, this wasn’t Ben. It was his shell, but not him. Still, she wanted to feel the touch of his skin once more. She nervously reached up, her hand hovering over the edge of the casket for a second before she finally moved it forward and covered his folded hands with hers. His skin was cold and hard, without any feeling of Ben left. When she’d last held his hands at the hospital he was technically still alive. His skin had been warm and moist and his fingers had been limp and moveable. Now his skin was the complete opposite and his fingers were hard and stiff. However, she didn’t jerk away. She kept her hand resting on his, treasuring the last few moments she would ever feel him.
“We’ll give you a minute,” Scott said and led his wife away.
The hushed voices from behind seemed to fade away. Although there were other people in the room, Kathryn felt more alone than any other time in her life. The only person that mattered, the only person she wanted to talk to, was lying in front of her in a coffin. She would never talk to him again, never hold him, never kiss him, or tell him she loved him. She closed her eyes and prayed that he would suddenly sit up and tell her this had all been some sick joke, but when she opened her eyes, he was still tucked neatly inside the casket. She leaned over him until her face was just inches from his and she began to whisper into his ear.
“I love you Ben. I hope you can hear me. I want you to know how much I have loved you and how much I still love you. I hope you’re not scared wherever you are. I hope you’re not alone
because that’s what scares me the most, that you’re all alone. Just remember how much I love you and I will never love anyone the way I love you,” she whispered as her eyes filled with tears that fell softly down her face and splashed onto Ben’s lifeless cheeks. She closed her eyes and leaned in, kissing him gently on his cold, dry lips. When her lips met his, she felt a sudden burst of warmth wrap around her entire body and she could’ve sworn she heard him whisper
I love you too
from behind her. She jerked around quickly, searching for the source of the voice, but of course, he wasn’t there. It had been her mind playing tricks on her, willing Ben to come to her one last time. She glanced one more time at him and hurried back to her parents’ side.
The church was packed when Kathryn followed Ben’s family inside. You could’ve heard a pin drop as they made their way up the aisle to the two rows of pews that had been reserved. She felt like a spotlight had suddenly appeared on her and the grief she had only shown in private was now on display for the whole world to see. She could feel their pity and all she wanted to do was crawl in a hole and hide.
Ben’s casket had been wheeled to the front of the church. A beautiful bouquet of white lilies was covering the top and more flowers than Kathryn had ever seen surrounded him. A large photograph of Ben rested on a metal easel off to the side. His parents had chosen one of his senior pictures and Kathryn could only look at it for a moment before having to turn away. In the picture, his eyes seemed so alive and it tore her up inside that she would never see those eyes again.