The day before my Mimi’s funeral, I was volunteered to sing at her service.
The original pianist came down with the stomach bug last minute, but my dad and uncle didn’t panic – they had felt enough within a 48 hour timespan and were unable to worry about details like sick pianists, or sparse flower arrangements, or relatives who asked for a rescheduled service time because “a Tuesday afternoon isn’t convenient.” My mother worried enough for both, and said I would gladly fill in.
“Mimi would’ve liked that better anyway,” Mom said. “She loved hearing you sing.”
Mimi loved being invited to my elementary choir productions. It was an opportunity for her to get dressed up and wear her favorite rosy dress and pearls. “A night out on the town,” she called it, as if she had been transported back to her younger years when “movie palaces” were the up-and-coming craze. She was petite and slightly hunchbacked, which she shamelessly used as an excuse to sit front-row, in the handicapped sections, at all my performances. She hummed along during Grandparents’ Day celebrations, travelled to Branson for my musical competitions, and purchased dollar store circus peanuts — the squishy orange kind — for anticipated “jobs well done”—or jobs not so well done in some cases; even when I botched a few notes in “O’ Danny Boy” during my big solo in the seventh grade, she still presented me with a bag of circus peanuts (I never told her how much I hated those things).
During my high school years, she watched my musical debut in the Wizard of Oz. I was the Wicked Witch’s stunt double, but when it was my time to fly across the stage, I somehow twisted up the fly system and ended up riding on my broom backwards. (The lesson here is never show up to a high school performance on opening night.) Even while kicking my green-faced self, Mimi hugged me and slipped a spongy orange peanut into my right hand; the left hand kept a tight grip on my broom as if it were still performing.
“Such a good job done by such a good girl,” she whispered.
The song my dad and uncle chose for the special music was “Because He Lives.” Mimi’s tiny Southern Baptist church, located just off the downtown square of Thayer, Missouri, considered this a hymn above all hymns and, every Easter, my family sat in a back pew with Mimi, biting our tongues as the music leader lead the congregation in the most painfully drawn-out version of that song we’d ever heard. My brother and I leaned in and whispered snarky things to each other, like, “Jesus would’ve died and risen by now,” or Mom and I would take on Chandler Bing impersonations: “Could this song be any longer?” Dad rolled his eyes, but Mimi chuckled along. She never asked why we were laughing.
Someone from Mimi’s church offered to accompany me during the service with his acoustic guitar. The first rendition he played was high, and my voice cracked trying to reach the notes on, “be-cause I kno—oooo—oow.” The guitarist smiled and repeatedly asked if I needed a moment until I told him I wasn’t crying, I was an alto. He brought the song down an octave, and I hit the notes just barely but told him it was good enough and we didn’t need to practice anymore. I thanked him before he asked me – again – “You sure?”
Everyone else was busy with everything else, so I took the opportunity to take a bathroom break, where I did not relieve myself or hurl or wash my hands after shaking the hands of so many during family night. I just sat on the funeral home’s bathroom floor and stared. At the toilets, specifically. This was a one-roomed restroom, but two toilets were installed right next to each other without separating stalls. I took a picture of them and posted it on my Instagram (#toocloseforcomfort).
I ignored the first two times people came knocking at the bathroom door, but when a third person tried asking if I was okay, I stood up and swung it open in reply. I’m not sure who tried knocking before, but this time it was Mom. She didn’t have an Instagram, so she was unaware of my online humor. She mistook my bathroom isolation as something else.
“Family gets to see the body first,” she said.
My reply: “Could these toilets be any closer together?”
“The service is open casket. Might as well brace yourself.”
My mother and I had talked about this in immense detail before – the open/closed casket preference. We both decided, when our times had come, that we wanted to be remembered for who we were alive, not as the shell we left behind. Dad and my uncle felt differently.
“I heard you singing,” Mom continued. “Very pretty. Mimi would’ve–”
“I’m not taking all her circus peanuts back home.” (It needed to be said.) “They can stay in her pantry for the next owners for all I care.”
I waited for my dad, aunt, uncle, and cousins to finish up their private visitation. My mother and brother declined as I did, and we sat out in the lobby waiting for them to finish up so we could eat at Mimi’s favorite restaurant.
“Did you want to practice again?” Mom asked me.
I waved my phone at her. “I’ve got forty likes on this toilet pic. I’m practically internet famous.”
Mimi had always told me I’d be famous someday for some reason or another. For her memory’s sake, I hoped the toilet picture wasn’t that “some reason.” After three more people hit the “like” button, I deleted it from my page altogether and took comfort in its absence. Instead, I thought about the impromptu performances my cousins and I used to put on for Mimi in our Christmas Eve pajamas. “Such good girls,” she’d clap along with us. “My-oh-my, y’all make it big! Good job – good job!”
I acted in skits and small-scale productions ever since I was young – younger than young, really. I was the baby Jesus in our church nativity at four months old. So memorizing lines and spouting them off as different characters never fazed me.
Singing was different.
I had always been self-conscious about my voice. I wished my range were higher. I watched other girls in junior high take on soprano songs with ease, not needing to swoop in from one high note into the next; they nailed it on the first try. I liked to sing, but after the eighth grade, I knew just “liking” singing wouldn’t amount to much in the long run.
Avoidance was no longer an option. There was the open casket. There was the black-cloaked congregation. There was the finality, tangible, and I held its hand on my way up the stage to join the guitarist and the shell of my grandmother— dressed in her favorite rosy dress and pearls.
The guitar played a quiet solo, inviting me to join by the eighth measure.
“God sent his son. They called him Jesus . . .”
I swallowed back a laugh, and with it the desire to sit back down in the pew next to my mother and say something snarky, like, “Oh my gosh, apparently this song can be longer.” And I wanted to stop smack dab in the middle of singing and say something like, “Guys, you wanna know why this is so damn funny?” But this wasn’t a comedy sketch, so I kept singing. And even though I only sang the first and last verse, it felt as if five more had been tacked on, and then some.
But perhaps it wasn’t extended time I was experiencing. Perhaps it was timelessness. I hear that song performed at the church I attend now and it doesn’t matter how many people are in the choir, how many instruments are in the orchestra, how upbeat the tempo is, how many hands are clapping along in the congregation, or how many people record the song, post it on their socials, and type out captions such as, Oh, happy day—when we all see Him! or This song always makes me smile!
It doesn’t matter. Because I’m still grasping a spongy peanut in one hand, a broom in the left. I’m still singing a little too high and missing notes others could have nailed. I’m still sitting on the bathroom floor, wondering if I was a good girl who did a good job.