Her brittle knees creaked like the rusted hinges of her front door, which stood on the edge of fifty acres of pristine New Jersey wilderness—hard to believe, I know—for more than seventy years. She’d carried seven lives inside her while shouldering the weight of her own and her husband’s. Even at eighty-seven, she’d never felt tired in the conventional sense. It was always as if there never was enough time. In the summer of 1960, the world wouldn’t wait for her fourth daughter’s growing pains to stop waking her up, screaming in the middle of the night; or in the winter of ’58, for a third Chevrolet station wagon to materialize in the dirt driveway; or in the fall of ’39, for a Second World War.
Where had it all gone before this room? She plodded in, slumped like a fallen Roman arch over the bars of her walker, two sliced tennis balls making a quiet hiss on the high-traffic carpet. Similarly slumped, her husband shuffled beside her, his liver-spotted hand covering the bony flesh of hers. The air was oppressively floral and damp, filled with the clamor of dozens of Irish-American voices, pungent with repast beef and whiskey.
A sea of familiar faces buoyed the couple through the room, lapping over every chair, every inch of standing room. These geese, scattered from their home islands by famine, poverty, and boredom, squawked in a lament easily confused with laughter.
In the box with an airplane bottle of J&B beside his head was her sister’s husband, my grandfather, dead at eighty-seven. That’s twenty-seven more years than any doctor gave his half-drowned heart. Maybe forty-odd years of drinking to So-and-so McCrea’s health paid off.
She shuffled, first to her sister, her attentive husband bowed and assisting, carrying her gray, vinyl purse across his shoulder. From a distance, it was impossible to pick out any words they might have exchanged, but as is often the case in stories like this, a snapshot of a single moment, the deed outweighs any spoken word—especially in the face of insatiable time.
She wheeled, slowly, and tilled the carpet toward the coffin.
“I hope she doesn’t kneel,” an aunt whispered. “If she does, she might not get back up again.”
“Clara! Don’t kneel! Whatareya crazy?!”
She turned her head up toward her husband. Over my grandfather’s body, I swear I saw him grin at her before he grasped under her arms, lowering her tireless, bent body—one that carried seven lives—to kneel before my grandfather, her head nearly level with the casket’s rim. Great Aunt Clara’s husband, a man who flew more than forty bombing raids over Germany, joined her, kneeling there in prayer, as if getting up again didn’t matter. And in the back of the room, I wept, mourning my grandfather for the first time.