The Funeral Bell
I remember the bell. It tolled slowly, like it was supposed to. I wasn’t ready for it. People crowded on the steps as they left the cathedral. I knew so many of them, relatives I hadn't seen for years. It was cold. I could see my breath, and everyone else's.
Outside, I avoided my father, though he and my mother must have come out right behind me. He would want to get out of the parking lot before it got all backed up, like at Christmas. I had come from far away and didn't want to leave. One of my sisters, who I hadn't seen since arriving the night before, came up to me and hugged me. “It's good you made it,” she said.
A thousand people had crowded into the cathedral. I counted eighteen white-robed priests around the altar, a testament to the couple’s long connection to the church, to faith. “Their bodies failed them,” the one said during the sermon. “They succumbed.” To the smoke, he meant, to the fire. One daughter rang out a hopeful prayer; another sang, “Taste and see,” her voice quivering. I'd thought it a strange choice and was embarrassed for her. But she sang so honestly, I never told anyone what I thought. (Later, much later, I sent her a letter and told her that she was brave.) Afterwards, the bell caught me by surprise. A single gong that shimmered from high atop the cathedral, and repeated its dread announcement when the sound went quiet.
My father saw me and nodded. I followed him and my mother to the car. She was sobbing. Neither my father nor I took her arm, something I still regret. We all walked quickly in the cold. He started the car and the CBC came on. Someone was being interviewed. “Can you turn the radio off?” I asked curtly. I wanted one of us -- one of them -- to say something about the funeral, my throat was so oddly tight, or to get out of the car and be surrounded again by so many people on the steps. I didn't want the outside world. I could still hear the bell, barely. The windows began to fog
up. I shivered.
I tried to prepare my Monday morning lecture on the plane on Sunday night. “I'm in bad shape,” I told the class. A few students chuckled, thinking that I was hung-over. I explained that after the last lecture I'd caught a plane to go to a funeral. The laughter stopped abruptly.
I remember the ache in my mother's voice
on the phone when she told me. My mother’s cousin and my father’s
friend from law school – they’d introduced my parents. Their house in
flames on the local news. One night when I was home, my mother quoted
her, “She always used to phone and say, ‘Come on over,’” as if there
was no reason not to drop anything and do exactly that. A moment
later, she pledged to say it too. I brought a bottle of scotch to the
house where the family was gathering and remember laughing over a
drink with two of the sons at the dining room table, and thinking
that’s how you get through. In the kitchen there was so much food it
still felt like Christmas. I remember, too, after years of handshakes
at the airport, finally, my father hugged me, an act that almost
consoled me on the lonely flight back. I even remember the awkward
silence in the lecture hall before I thought to ask, “Does anyone have
any questions from last time?” But when I think of these things, I
still come back to the bell at the cathedral, tolling slowly above,
tolling from far off, tolling as if it had for all time, for all of
us, and only then, for the first time, could I hear it.