Returning to the chapel, I sit in the very back row of the folding chairs. At this point, I wonder if I should stay. I don’t know if I should be here for the services, but I gave my word and it keeps me here. There is still the slightest of chances Monica may look for me, and I told her I would be here. I realize the odds of this happening are remote. I know she is deep in her loss, and I am probably far from her thoughts. Still, if she does look and needs to see my face in the crowd, a face that is here solely for her, a friend who requires no comfort in return, I will be here. For this slight possibility, I stay.
Through an open door, I can see the main foyer and the tribute to Amber. I sit, looking at the books made to honor her memory and I feel driven to take one, but every time I think of it, I feel insecure and unworthy. I didn’t know Amber, and there are so many people here. I want to make sure they all have something to hold with their memories. I have no ‘real’ reason to have a book. It is not why I am here.
The family progress begins, and I watch as each person moves through the foyer and into the ‘chapel.’ I recognize a few of the people in Monica’s family, and eventually, see Monica as well. She is ashen and looks close to collapse. I can see the day is taking its toll on her. I wonder for a moment if she will be able to continue. Then, our eyes meet, and my hand goes to my heart. She mimics my movement. I gently tap twice upon my chest in a gesture of compassion, and she clenches her hand tightly to hers in response. Fresh tears begin to roll down her cheeks, and I understand. This moment is why I stayed. I stayed so I could tell her one more time, ‘You can do this. You can keep going.’
As she continues into the ‘chapel,’ I decide to relax and remain for the service. I know I can leave now, but I don’t. Initially, I am again afraid of drawing attention to myself. I admit I am arrogant to assume any of these people, deep in their mourning care, if I walk out of a funeral or take a book honoring Amber’s life. However, in places where standard rules do not apply, stepping outside of a comfort zone seems virtually impossible for me. I fear everything, particularly judgment, because I know it leads to rejection. In a million years, I would never be in this building if Monica didn’t need me. I know, if the majority of people in this building knew who I was, they wouldn’t want me here either. I’m like a pauper crashing the palace ball. I don’t belong.
Initially, I stay in my seat because of my fear, but as they honor Amber and her time here, my heart. It becomes an introduction to her life and the wonder of her experience. Within months, it will be one of the critical events of this day that I do not regret.
As each person shares today, they tell of her unique ability to love, and I recall the first day I met her. My experience is reflected in their words as I remember how she stopped what she was doing and fully invested her attention to our conversation. I cannot recall ever feeling so valued by another human being. I remember how I felt like she cared about the words I spoke, and I believed she wanted to hear what I was saying. Immediately, she was a person I wanted to know better. I am saddened as I sit here, knowing I will never have the opportunity to know her, and I find myself trying to comprehend the loss the people in this room must be experiencing.
Monica and Jennifer, her sister, stand before everyone and share the story of their lives. As I’ve watched Monica over the last few days, I have worried. She seems to have lost her love of life and even her desire to participate in it. It’s like she just does not want to be where she cannot see her sister. It is so difficult to watch and know there is nothing we can do but to allow her the process and hope she finds her way back. Today, her dam breaks. As she reads the story she prepared, she allows the wall to come down and feels the pain of her loss. I know this will help her in the end, but right now, watching her heartbreak, mine breaks with her.
Listening to all these hearts cry out their suffering, I decide I must know whether or not Amber has found peace. I try to allow the thoughts to pass, but like a hunger not fed, they return to me repeatedly, begging me to ask. Sitting here, absorbed by this moment, looking at the people around me, the question becomes all-consuming. For the sake of these people and even for myself, I want to know Amber is complete.
Slowly bowing my head, I close my eyes and allow myself to withdraw from the experience around me. I fade from one reality to the next, and gradually, as I shift, the person speaking and all those who sit in the chapel fall from my awareness. The words give way to a low hum and eventually to the sound of my beating heart. Now, the room is quiet. I feel myself alone as vast space opens all around me. Then, everything slows, and my head pulls slightly to the left. With this movement, the confirmation of safe communication is complete, and in my mind, the question asks itself, “Amber, are you here?”
Lifting my head, I become aware of the space near the table where her memories are honored. In my mind’s eye, I can see her standing there. She is different, but the differences don’t register. I don’t understand how significant the changes in her personality, not yet. It will several months before I fully recognize them.
Today, her hair is a tangled mane, not the managed locks I remember. Her energy is intense as she stares toward the pulpit, and even though it isn’t focused on me, I can feel its pressure. Like a bubble in the room, pushing everything else out, she consumes the space.
Then, everything shifts. The bubble collapses, and she turns her attention toward me, but just slightly. Like a dog obsessed with prey but also drawn by the call of its master, she senses the question has come from my direction. Still, she is captivated by what is occurring at the ‘pulpit.’ She has no concern over who might be asking. She is committed to hearing every word spoken.
I try again, “Amber?”
“Yes.” She is like an addict focused on her next fix, distracted, and agitated as she responds. She will not risk losing her connection to the people speaking. At this moment, I’m not worth the investment.
“Are you at peace?” I ask.
“Yes, I’m fine.” She is not listening to me. Irritated by the interruption, she is not even curious about someone suddenly communicating with her. She is hoping I will be satisfied with an answer and leave her to her family.
Looking to the front of the church, she screams emphatically, “All you ever brought me was joy. Don’t you understand? All you ever brought me was Joy.” She is suddenly soft and sad and full of angst. The people here don’t understand, and she knows she can’t do anything to ease their suffering. It is the worst possible scenario for her. She never meant to hurt anyone. Yet, everything around her is pain.
I stubbornly persist in my question, not accepting the possibility that she has already answered. I want to hear her say she is peaceful. For the sake of my friend and her family, I ignore the obvious evidence and beg for the answer I want. I’m much like her, though I don’t see it. She begs them, and I beg her. It is obvious she is not at peace. She is not reminiscent of someone who has passed to the other side. Still, somehow I am blind to this obvious fact and continue to press for the answer I need to comfort me.
“Amber, are you at peace?”
As if hearing my thought, she turns to me, full of rage and mourning, “I can’t be at peace until I know they’re at peace!” Then, she vanishes. It is as if she disappears entirely. Within a split second, I cannot sense her in the church at all, and then, I realize I didn’t feel her here before either, not until I asked for her.
My mind pulls me back to the casket, and I realize I didn’t feel her there either. It didn’t recognize her because she wasn’t there. I think of my truck and my first moments in the church, desperately trying to open an understanding of what was missing from today. Something within me tries to remind me of her absence in a place where she would be sure to attend. It says, ‘Amber would never abandon her family today. Where was she?’ But the voice is still and small, and I am only listening to the fear. So, I don’t hear what it’s trying to say.
I push the thought away, chastising myself for not thinking of her sooner. She must be attached to the people here because of concern for her family’s suffering. Perhaps I didn’t feel her earlier because of my selfish obsession with my own, selfish fear. Contrary to everything I am and have been, I decide to be satisfied with this rationalization and consider my job here done.
I don’t remember the last of the memorial. My attention doesn’t fully return until Monica’s family leaves to lay Amber’s body to rest. I am relieved and a bit disjointed. All I can see now are the exit doors of the church. More than anything, I want to breathe air and be over this day. Before I go, I think again of taking a book, but as I leave through the side door, none remain on the table, and I can’t force myself back to the main lobby to see if any are still there.
At this time, I cannot understand the regret I will have for not going back for a simple keepsake or how the day will come when I will have felt it worth the fear. There is no way for me to know today how much I really did belong and how I probably missed many opportunities by assuming I knew why I had come. For now, I simply continue out the door and to my home.
Today is not the day for me to realize what it means to take a day for granted. It will be another day, many days from now, when I fully understand how we never know what they might become.