He wanted a nighttime funeral. We thought he was joking. Connor didn’t have a will. He wasn’t the sort to plan ahead. His days were fluid; he went with the ebb and flow of the hour. The note was as unsettled as his life. Words grasped from the firmament and placed in an order that only made sense to Connor. It read like Virginia Woolf. He loves her. He loved her. Postscript: “Bury me at night.” Mom believes we owe it to him, but she won’t acknowledge the accumulated debt of our relationship with Connor. So here we are. Nine o’clock on a Tuesday night. I didn’t even know this was an option.
I sit in my car in the dark and hope that Aunt Joan doesn’t notice me. She has no idea our politics don’t align, but that doesn’t stop her from bringing up obscure local legislations or editorials her high school friend shared on Facebook. This is not the time or the place for one of her rants. Or is it? What makes this day unlike yesterday or tomorrow in Aunt Joan’s world? I could welcome the distraction.
Funerals are strange fiction. I’ve effectively avoided them my entire life. Grandma was cremated, and we unceremoniously picked up her ashes and took them back to Mom’s house. She lives on the mantle above the fireplace, adjacent to some dusty picture frames and the preserved corsage from my senior prom. Connor always hated the urn. A few times he tried to steal it and find it a better home. When I asked where he was taking her, he said out to sea. Or to the Grand Canyon. Anywhere but this damn shelf. Maybe we should bury Grandma with Connor. She was his favorite. I guess it’s too late for that now.
My dress is wrinkled. I didn’t have time to iron it, and even though it is dark and no one will see it, I still attempt to pry folds from the fabric. It’s a fruitless gesture just like the cards and flowers and apologies. If Connor had died from a slow, painful illness like cancer, the sympathy would not be so hushed and polite. But he did suffer a slow, painful illness. We let our own waste away in their minds, silently screaming for normalcy while we walk 5ks and don tiny pink ribbons for cures that may never come. Hope is an asshole. Connor deserved better.
The last time I saw him, he was elated for no particular reason. I should have recognized it. We went to Jimmy’s Bar, and I watched in awe or disgust as he chugged beer after beer on an empty stomach. People tend to stare at a car crash as they drive by, helpless to its reality but also too lazy and too afraid to stop and help. That was my relationship with my brother.
He was a terrible insomniac. He once told me that every morning at 2 a.m. he would drive to the corner gas station, buy a hot coffee, and drink it in the parking lot of his work. When he was done, he’d chuck the cup deep into the woods behind the lot. He swore on the subsequent night that the cup from the previous night was always gone. His theories were varied—a ghostly janitor, a Styrofoam-hoarding bear, a secret sinkhole hungry for trash. Perhaps he wasn’t restless. Perhaps he was just a vivid dreamer.
Aunt Joan walks past my vehicle, aggressively gesturing to an unfamiliar face. I sympathize with her newest victim but am more so thankful I’ve escaped her rhetoric. Something deep within my gut gurgles. I skipped lunch. And dinner. There’s a granola bar in my glovebox, but the thought of eating anything makes me want to vomit. I grab the tin of mints from my cup holder and shake two into my hand. So small they look like pills. Helpless little tabs relaxing on my palm. I pop them into my mouth. If only Connor had the same ease.
He was my younger brother by two years, but I treated him like my older brother. I was his shadow; he hated it. When he left the house, I followed him for as long as I could before he noticed me. Connor would link his arm around mine and return me to the safety of our porch, abandoning me there a moment later. I was needlessly sad and intensely jealous of his outings. I wanted to make out with his friends. I wanted to be enough for him to stay home. I bribed him with things I thought he liked, hobbies and interests he used as a façade. I was a child desperate for his attention and oblivious to his truth. He needed a big sister.
I knew Connor was ill before anyone else. He showed up at my apartment offensively early one Sunday and implored me to go to church. “We’re not religious,” I told him.
“You know nothing about me,” he said. We went to St. Michael’s for service and sat in the pew and he sobbed. It was embarrassing, and he was inconsolable. I asked why we were there. His A.A. group met in the chapel twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays, and he fell off the wagon. He wanted to pray. His relapse was as unfamiliar to me as the rest of his life. Shrouded in elusiveness. I didn’t even know he had a vice to wane back into.
Under the bright streetlamps, I watch as estranged relatives and complete strangers flood the parking lot in a sea of handshakes and lean-ins close even though we just left the funeral home together. They’re meeting for the first time again. Thankful they didn’t die on the way to the cemetery. Thankful they didn’t end up like Connor. Death is absurd. It changes priorities temporarily until we descend back into our habits and hatred and tedium. The Ouroboros of existence.
When Connor was seven and I was nine, Mom picked us up early from school and took us to the beach. It was April and the sand was chilly and the water was frigid, but the excitement of playing hooky dominated the air. We watched the sun sway into passing clouds and made stupid cheering noises when it reappeared. Instead of castles we made sand creatures with seashells covering their boobs and butts. Connor wandered out of sight while Mom was in the restroom, but his shrill, sudden scream gave him up. I found him near the shallowest part of the water. He looked silly and cute, like a flamingo with one leg suspended at the knee. The bottoms of his khaki shorts dripped with salt water, and there was the tiniest bit of blood on his standing leg. He had stepped on a shard of glass and I explained to him that not everyone respects the earth, Connor. Sometimes people throw their trash in the ocean, so we have to be careful. He let me wipe his wound with the sleeve of my shirt, and I calmed him down before Mom returned. It was the only time I was his big sister.
I emerge from my car well after everyone else. From the back of the crowd, I observe the lack of contrast between the black suits and dresses and the dim of the night. We are undetectable. A herd of black cats serenading the shadows with our lullabies of mourning. I fall in behind the group and squint at the figure walking ten feet in front of me. My cousin Thomas reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. The brightness of the screen is jarring, and I watch with curiosity until I realize he’s using it as a flashlight. Connor’s friend whose name I can’t recall catches on, and a second phone lights up. I can’t see past him, but I know what is happening. The cemetery isn’t equipped for evening visitors. One by one, Connor’s grievers ignite the darkness with their portable devices. I fumble through my purse. We light the night sky like fireflies and stumble along the pathway together, all sniffles and whispers and heels clicking on the pavement. In this moment we are united by our sadness and our wasted love for Connor. Your nighttime funeral, brother.
Rebekah Reisig lives in Baltimore, Maryland and is a recent graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts program at Johns Hopkins University. She attended writing residencies at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where she read “A Night Funeral” at an open mic night. In January 2021 she will begin working toward her MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins University.