by Kathy Conde
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Rita nursed her one-year-old during the sermon. She covered him with a light blanket and it looked like he was just sleeping in her arms. But she covered him for his own sake, not out of modesty. He’d seen her cry so much since her father’s death she thought he might overdose on tears.
Rita had entered the chapel before the others and saw her father’s casket in front of the altar. She walked towards it slowly, still finding it impossible to believe he was in it though she’d seen him lying there at the viewing earlier. Now it was closed, and his hat sat on top. It was wrong. He’d worn it so much it had his sweat, his smell. There was that crashing in her head again, the impossibility of reconciling the hat with her father never wearing it again. It felt as if her heart was pulling her under some terrible sea.
The chapel was full. Her father had many loved ones and friends. Rita kept her head down and focused on the bundle at her breast. He was a surprising source of strength for her.
As the sermon went on and everyone sat, dazed, she kept noticing the life in her own body and how strange it was. An itch at her earlobe roared like a shout of you are alive. Her toes tingled when she uncrossed her legs. She thought of her father’s toes inside the casket.
The preacher, an evangelical Baptist, asked if they had reserved their place in heaven yet, for when their turn came. Rita had been saved at a Baptist revival in her teens, but when they told her to renounce her unsaved family members she had returned to the refuge of the Episcopal Church, where they had never judged her father for not attending. She looked down at her son again. His breath was slow and even. Her world was safely sleeping.
The family filed out first for the graveyard. “Amazing Grace” flowed through hidden speakers and filled the chapel. Rita felt the words to the song rising from her feet, rushing toward her vocal chords. She almost let them go but was afraid that once unleashed, she might sing them out like Aretha Franklin, she might dance with the bundle in her arms. She was lifted by her father’s love of music, his blinding, churchless humility. It was a bright and glorious moment, as if angels were singing in her heart, or bodhisattvas, or even Buddha or God. She wanted to join them, if only they would have her.
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published 29 January 2012