At the age of five, my parents took me to my first funeral. The woman was a friend of the family, though I do not remember meeting her. I think I wore a pink dress.
I didn’t know what death was. All I knew was that someone had “taken her.’ Then concern shifted to my increasing sugar habit because Diabetes might take me. I didn’t know who Diabetes was, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to like her. I definitely knew I didn’t want to go wherever the Lady in the Box had gone, because she had gone into the ground.
I saw her in the box. Someone tried to tell me she was sleeping, but she wasn’t sleeping. She looked weird, wooden. I watched my Daddy sleep and he never looked wooden. My sister sometimes smiled or frowned while she slept. But the Lady in the Box didn’t move. I watched her for a long time while Mommy and Daddy said prayers over her. She never moved. I didn’t like it. People were crying and I wanted to cry, but I didn’t know why, so I didn’t. My Mommy wouldn’t like it if she thought I was being silly or acting out. So I didn’t cry and I didn’t run. I watched the Lady in the Box and the Lady in the Box never moved.
After the funeral we went to the Lady’s house. It was a house full of light, warm, wooden floors and big windows. But her room was so small. It was smaller than my room at home. There was a single bed pushed along one wall of the narrow room. I wondered if she ever moved when she slept in the small bed, if she ever smiled or frowned. I decided she might not be too unhappy in the long, narrow box, because she had always slept in a long, narrow space. Maybe she liked it there.
We ate. Mommy and Daddy stayed for a long time talking about the Lady in the Box. Everyone kept saying it was a shame. I didn’t know what was so shameful. I just wanted to go home.
At the age of eighteen, my eldest brother died. He had suffered through a sad life of alcoholism, incarceration, and homelessness. At 36 he died from complications to pneumonia. It had been a cold winter in New York that year.
To me, his death seemed like some karmic gift for the destruction he had inflicted. I didn’t know how to feel. I could feel guilty, but he owed me. I didn’t really know this man, 18 years my senior. I didn’t know the man who drank at our table, tried to piss on the dining room floor, and chased us with a knife until we found safety in the basement. I didn’t know this man who once proclaimed I would be “one of those big fat women nobody wanted.” No, I would feel no sadness. He died for his own sins. God just gave me a pass because he owed me.
The timing was perfect. I stood on the brink of destruction, about to be thrown out of my Aunt Dreamy’s house months away from high school graduation. I had sinned and neither good grades nor college acceptance mattered. I had sinned. I had kissed a boy, worn make-up, skipped school for a museum exhibit, and come home 45 minutes late. My brother had pissed on my mother’s hospitality and threatened our lives, yet he was invited into our house again and again. But I had embraced the sin of being an attractive teenage girl. Clearly in Dreamy’s mind, the only proper punishment for such wantonness was expulsion, without benefit of degree or future expectations.
Then the phone rang. The news delivered, delivered me from my sins. I went to school that day, told to rejoice because I could stay and graduate. According to Dreamy, my mother could not be burdened with me, her evil child, now. She was too busy grieving for my brother who had suddenly attained sainthood. It was clear that the crime of being me outweighed my brother’s sins by far.
After college graduation, I met a man who offered me redemption. He said he loved me. The Man said I was a good person. I just needed to learn how to behave. Did I need to hang around with those friends? We were engaged and I looked forward to a life of wedded bliss.
Then I received a call about my Aunt Da. I must come home. Da was waiting for me. Waiting to see me so she could die.
He offered to drive, even though he did not want to make the trip. Didn’t we have enough worries without a trip to New York? Why was I being so sullen? Couldn’t I try to be more entertaining for him when he was driving me such a long way? Where would I take him in New York? What were the hot clubs?
I do not remember our stay in New York. I do not remember restaurants or clubs. I remember the sharp, anesthetic smell and florescent lights. I remember a small, dark woman lying in a hospital bed trying to squeeze a lifetime’s worth of love into my hand. She died before we reached home.
“She was waiting for you,” everyone told me. In that moment, I felt loved. I remembered this feisty woman, barely 5’0 in high heels, who was always pushing me to be a better person. I do not remember how she looked in the box. I remember her at my sixteenth birthday party, dancing and laughing in a blue dress with a pink, plastic lei around her neck.
The Man did not come to the funeral. I was glad for his absence. Da was gone. Da had died so I would know the true face of love and recognize the cheap imitation I was being offered—before it was too late. She had given me a precious gift, a glimpse of an idea that maybe I was more than I had been shown or allowed myself to see.
I have seen my grandmother in that long, narrow box. Dreamy had her own box two years later, her sister, Jean, after her. But this is not about their stories. It is my box that requires examination.
I have lived encased in toxic relationships—from family to friends to a husband to lovers. My box of physical and emotional abuse suffocated my own sense of self. I had effectively taught myself to be smaller, shine less, and avoid punishment. My self-worth, stolen in childhood, volunteered in adulthood could not be passed on to my children. And so I rise.
The work unfinished, the journey long, and the destination…maybe never truly attainable, though each stop bringing me “further up and further in.” I see me now. My room is wide. My bed King Size. My life, my own.