Ceremony

Phil Lofton
Porch Light Collective
11 min readMar 29, 2020

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Part of the 2020 Liturgical Calendar Storywriting Project.

A Lent Story.

cw: suicide, violence

Photo by Phil

Monica

Monica arrived nearly an hour before she’s scheduled to get to the funeral home. Doug would bring the kids later, or Mikaela would, or Jen would, or Titus would, and they’d show up blasting god awful music in the parking lot and come running into the place cackling like a bunch of fools. It didn’t really matter. The kids would get there.

She reached into the back seat of her car and pulled her mother’s black shawl up and buried her face in it.

While she tried to find some years-old lingering wisp of her mother’s perfume, she thought to herself that this would be a good day to have a mom. Then she thought of the half-opened door, and the hasty funeral and remembers that whatever she was hoping for from her mother, it was her job now. It had been for years.

From beneath the passenger seat, she pulled a bottle of Booker’s out and took a short, gingerly sip. She gagged as the drink hit her throat, and for a moment, she felt tears welling up in her eyes. Then she looked at her eyes in the rearview mirror and breathed.

She turned on the battery of the car, and on her phone she found Scott’s first album. The one that he played for her and the katydids, front to back, on his crappy Squier, under the porchlight when their lives were still unwritten books.

There were three of them left now that her older brother had died. Just her, Titus, and-. She stifled the thought. The last one of them had made her decision. She was gone. There were just two of them.

She took another, longer sip of the Booker’s.

Marrying Mark taught Monica how to redo her makeup quickly in the car. Marrying Doug gave her a voice in the back of her head that calmed her down when she needed it. Like now.

It was time to go in.

She pulled her mother’s black silk shawl around herself and got out of the car, fixing her dress along the way.

Before she closed the door, she leaned far into the SUV, took a last sip of the bourbon, and grabbed some sunglasses to stuff into her clutch.

There was a crate of things that Scott had said absolutely had to be included in the funeral. A weird shaker from Brazil. A flag from Thailand. Tchotchkes, basically. He wasn’t specific as to how, just what. Monica’s weight went out from her left leg as the sensation of just how exactly like him that was, and how she’d call him a moron the next time she saw him, hit her. There was no next time. The last time had come and gone.

She pulled the crate out, doing her best to keep the box of curios from his “farewell world tour” all inside by tucking it under her chin, shut the trunk, and trudged inside. That her mother’s shawl stayed wrapped around her was nothing short of a miracle.

Hunter was waiting inside for her. His pale face carried far more wrinkles than it had when he had buried their mother years ago, but they suited him well. They were kind, grandfatherly things, and if anything, they accentuated the knowing kindness that any good funeral home director wore.

“Hello Monica,” he said, gracefully stepping forward, arms outstretched, “let me help you with those.”

She nodded and smiled, happy to be free of the box. As it left her hands, she thought of the morning she dropped Scott and his family off at the airport. She wanted to go with him, to be with them, she had begged him. He had just held her and told her that it had to be this way and she was needed here. A day later, he was in Thailand, then Kiribati, the sinking country that had fascinated him so much, then Ethiopia, Antarctica, Brazil, Denmark, and back home.

The funeral home was all set up. Simple tables topped with silky looking fabrics were arranged with pictures, paintings, and the things she had brought the night before, when she and the real family had held their wake.

Hunter moved deftly around the space with Baysia, the two of them placing things into gaps in the arrangements, perfecting the space.

She wondered why he had told her to get here so early if he was going to take care of everything. The obvious answer escaped her until she looked at the open double door that perfectly framed her older brother’s casket, and she coughed as she choked back a sob.

She couldn’t enter the room. Not yet. And this was why there was so much time. Time to process, to steel yourself, and still be the first person in the room.

The door opened behind her, and Jen, her newly widowed sister-in-law, walked through it dressed in the chicest black suit Monica had ever seen. It was just like her, honestly. The worst day of her life, and she still looked like she could be on the cover of a magazine. Scott’s eldest child Mikaela followed close behind, hair pulled back in a low bun and dressed in something black and bohemian she had picked up on the tour. Monica caught them both in an embrace before the doors of the chapel.

Everyone who belonged here was here.

Titus was laughing with the kids about some stupid internet video, while his wife Ashley shushed him. It was a good thing, Monica thought. Let him keep the kids’ minds off this for a moment. Mikaela journaled off to the side of the room, resting her legs on some friend from grad school who was absently rubbing her feet. The Reverend had even found his place over in the corner, where he was nose-deep in some godawful crime thriller — present, visible, and contained. But the other one, she was not here.

Monica felt the anger of that long-gone day burst through her. She was there again, standing in the kitchen, looking at the blood on the checkerboard floor, screaming at her sister.

The doors clicked open, and Baysia entered the cramped room off to the side of the chapel where the family was gathered, quickly and quietly, like an apparition.

Behind her was a woman with long, black velvet hair, and her mother’s eyes. She was dressed in a charcoal colored boilersuit, and as the doors closed behind her and she joined the family, drawing the eyes of everyone in the room, one by one. Baysia began to speak, instructing the family on their roles, but Monica heard nothing. Her heart raced, beating a furious rhythm, and the woman’s bangs jostled for just a moment, revealing a pair of deep, parallel scars with a divot between them in the middle of her forehead.

Mikaela

Some family drama is addictive to talk about. Me and Aunt Ashley have spent our fair share of thanksgivings laughing in the kitchen about the time Aunt Monica found Uncle Titus blacked out in the empty hot tub. Somewhere, on one of my most well-hidden drives, I’ve got a picture of the night when Aunt Monica fell over the couch after the Steeler’s won the Super Bowl and her granny panties showed.

But there are two rules to family drama for us. And they’re only spoken when they’re broken.

You don’t talk about The Reverend, and, within a mile of Aunt Monica, you don’t talk about Kendra.

You don’t talk about the Reverend, of course, because if you talk about the Reverend, you talk about why his denomination split. Ultimately, you talk about the same thing that gets you in trouble by way of mentioning my dear Aunt Kendra.

You talk about his wife. You talk about my Grandma.

Hunter

The first fight of the day has come and gone, a quiet, seething comment from Monica to Kendra. None of the niceties that estranged siblings bring to funerals, trying to fake it for one day of obligation. Just one, bitter sentence: “You didn’t deserve to be here when you killed Mom, and you don’t deserve to be here now.”

It’s not accurate. Kendra didn’t kill her mother, though I’m sure it felt that way to Monica.

I was there back in 2009 at the auditorium when Kendra’s fateful powerpoint swap happened. I believed in Reverend Sam, and his God, then.

Kendra changed out some slides while the reverend was set to deliver his big state of the church address. He didn’t. He delivered facebook messages and pictures of himself with his music minister, a widowed pianist. En flagrante.

Not long after that, Miss Deborah hung herself. Poor Monica was the one who found her.

I was there for Deborah’s service, too. Sam and Scott did their best to manage all the affairs in a respectful way, but Sam’s black eye and Scott’s swollen hand made me wonder if that would really be possible. They pulled through. Scott was always good for that. He helped put the siding on my house after he got back from his first national tour.

Kendra wasn’t there that day. As I understand it, she wasn’t even in Tennessee.

She missed a quick and quiet service. One that barely got a mention in the paper. I always thought that was strange — the Times Free Press had been eager enough to pounce on The Reverend’s affair, but I suppose they figured the blood-price for the scandal was paid, and more attention would just make them look bad.

If I was thinking straight, I would’ve turned Kendra away today. But I wasn’t. All I could see was a girl who didn’t get to bury her mother.

She spent time touching the souvenirs and trinkets before she joined her family. At each one, she would chuckle, like she was remembering something. More than once she held one to her chest or pulled out her phone to check a picture while she smelled the trinket.

I understood from my instructions in Scott’s will that all of these things were representative of something to him. Then why did they seem to mean so much to her?

The Reverend

The only good part of this is seeing them all together.

Lord, even Mikaela and her friend, they even came back. I never thought I’d see them again. They’re precious together. I think they thought I was judging them the first time they came home together, as if anyone in this family gives a damn what I think anymore. And yet here they are. Scott could always bring us all together.

When they let us into the funeral parlor, I stayed to the back of the group. Monica didn’t need another reason to lose her temper today. But Doug walked beside her at the front, right where our rightful matriarch, my eldest living child, belonged.

Matriarch.

I swirled that word around in my mind, and old sermons began to come to the surface. Wives submit to your husbands, husband is the head of the household etc., etc.. My Deborah’s face follows them, and I see her in her casket. She’s not there now, though. My eldest is.

It’s not a real word, Matriarch. I mean, now it is, of course, but it started as just an abstraction of patriarchy, “The Men Who Rule”. The wise ones, the decisive, unemotional kings.

We would have been better off if Deborah had been leading us, I’m sure.

She would’ve made Scott go to the doctor sooner. They would’ve caught the cancer, he would’ve lived. She would’ve made Monica prepare herself a table in the presence of her enemies and turn them back to family. Titus wouldn’t have had to go through any of what broke him. Kendra would’ve never had to do what she did to me.

Not to me. I’m sorry. I must be mindful, I have to nip those thoughts in the bud, don’t I? My baby Kendra never did anything to me. She was a sad child who found this awful family’s skeletons, my skeletons, and she did what she thought was right.

God only knows she paid for it. Monica nearly broke her skull open. She hasn’t spoken with most of her family in a decade. And now my little girl Kendra’s here, in this awful little jewel-toned room full of tchotchkes and souvenirs from every corner of Gog and Magog that my dead son demanded we show off.

Why did he even take that trip with them? Why couldn’t he be here with us? Why couldn’t he have tried to speak to me one last time?

Kendra moves from bauble to bauble and it’s like she’s reliving Scott’s memories for him. She’s showing them to Mikaela and Jen, covertly, but I notice.

Titus keeps looking at her like he wants to say something. Nothing mean, I don’t think, and part of me wonders if I should nudge him, tell him to talk to his little sister.

I do nothing. I find my chair, I open my book, and I keep serving my time.

Mikaela

Taylor’s arm was wrapped around me as I stepped close to see my dad. I tugged it even tighter around me as I put my hands on the casket.

I swear Dad was smiling. They’re supposed to look peaceful, but he was smiling, like there was some big prank he had pulled on all of us, which was true, of course.

I looked from my Dad’s dead smirk to my Aunt Kendra, who was at the back of the group by the Reverend. He was saying something to her, or at least he was stammering enough that it was clear that he was trying to say something.

He never really has much to say these days.

She picked up a caxixi she had bought with us in Brazil — delicately, like it was made of spiderweb instead of reeds, and she gave it a soft shake, letting out a happy chuckle as she did.

Monica barely spoke to me when my dad died. The Reverend and Titus, either. I can’t fault them for that. They were there for me when I came out. They’ve been there for me a million other times. This had to be hard for them.

Kendra, though, the aunt I’m not even supposed to acknowledge I know, she stayed with me through the night, killing bottle after bottle with me.

Dad, are you sure you knew what you were doing?

If you were, why would you have made so certain we kept her out of our pictures during the trip? Our videos? Why not just tell Monica? Were you more afraid of her than of dying?

Kendra

I will always love you, big brother. For your stupid jokes, for your beautiful music, but most of all for your grace.

I might as well have killed Mom. I know that. I don’t deserve a family after that. I deserve the mark on my forehead that Monica gave me, and the wandering that goes along with it.

But you gave me a family back.

You should’ve called me sooner, but you called when you did. You gave me a ticket and asked me to come with you and your family. One last trip.

Before you called me, my nights were full of my mother’s face, and what Monica must’ve felt like when she found her. Reliving the moment she slammed the stapler into my head over and over, like it was some flagellation that would make me whole.

You gave me something different.

When I’m alone now, I remember the summer night in Kiribati, where we sat on the blanket on the shore and ate the palu sami. I hear the Carnivale when I go to sleep, and I feel the rush of the music as you grab some basket thing and stuff it into my hand to shake with the rhythm. I feel you hug me as we part ways at the airport for the last time, and I see the light of God in your eyes.

Mikaela reaches and wraps her hand around mine. I look at Titus. Seeing him anywhere other than following at Scott’s heels is strange. There’s not love in the nod Titus gives me, but there’s not hate, either, which is more than I can say about the flash of a look that I get from Monica. And Dad. Though with him, it could be anything.

I’m sitting here while Monica eulogizes you. I should be sad. But all I can do is smile at the life you gave back to me.

© Phil Lofton, 2020, all rights reserved. Republished with permission from porchlightcollective.com

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Phil Lofton
Porch Light Collective

Storyteller, Podcaster, Percussionist. Proud member of the Porch Light Collective.