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I am slowly, very slowly and intensely taking off pink nail polish from my finger nails as if it was the most important task in the world. I feel like a surgeon scrubbing in to make him/herself totally antiseptic. It feels like that to me but I don’t know why exactly. I don’t know the codes or rules for going to a wake but I know, for myself, I have to wipe away every sign of sunshine from my hands because that feels right. My hands look plain, wrinkled, weather-beaten and bare. I’ve stripped off every clue to color because my friend Dawn is dead and the world feels color-less and grim.
I didn’t know what to expect at the wake; I had only been to one wake before in my life and that was thirty-five years ago. We arrived before the official hours and already the room was packed. I saw her husband, John first, and I hugged him, then their oldest daughter who hugged me as if to comfort me. Her middle son sat tall and straight next to his friends and did not move, his eyes riveted to his mom’s casket. The youngest child was the most heartbreaking of all, he belonged to no one in that room. He was in his own world, going to the casket, returning to his seat, going to the casket and returning to his seat, his eyes on no one, alone in his private world. He sat neither with family or friends, he was in his own fragile bubble, looking younger than his years.
I thought in death, Dawn would look more like herself than she did in the last stages of her life. I somehow expected to feel comforted that I would see my friend as I had remembered her. I went slowly up to the coffin although I was terrified; I knew it was something I had to do. But, inside my head, like an unrestrained child, inside my head I was screaming with disbelief and anger “this is not OUR Dawn” I thought, “THIS IS NOT OUR DAWN.” In the coffin lay a woman I didn’t know, an old woman, with too much makeup. They had prayer cards with a picture of Dawn at her finest: natural, loving, with one of her great big smiles and that is what many people said they wanted to remember her by. Even though I felt the same way, the images for the next three nights when I tried to sleep were of Dawn in the open casket, someone I didn’t know, a stranger.
There were flower arrangements everywhere. A huge arrangement made from roses, dark, crimson roses that formed into a heart; it must have stood six feet tall. There were many other flowers, yellow, white, pink, every color you can imagine and as tall as one can dream.
Her husband John, then came over and put his arm around me to show me something. “I hope you don’t mind” he said but we used your letter to Dawn as our prayer.” In front of me, I saw a piece of paper with the words I had written FOR Dawn, many months before she died. It was called “Praying For Dawn” and somehow after writing it, I thought I would take a chance to drop it off at their house. It was meant for Dawn and her family, and yet here at the wake hundreds of people clutched the piece of paper that I had written.
Her family members wanted to meet me, they said they had all read it many times, I had no idea. I do remember that after I dropped it off I got a voice message in the back of my answering machine from Dawn, thanking me and telling me she loved it. I could barely make out her words but I never erased that message. I gave my condolences to Dawn’s mom and she said “Oh, do you like that prayer, one of her friends wrote that!!!” Somehow through my trembling lips and tears I managed to say that ‘I was that friend.’ I swear her eyes lit up and she thanked me and told me how often the family loved reading it. She asked ME if she could introduce me to Dawn’s father who had wanted to meet the friend that had written that poem. After the introduction, he hugged me, and then took my face in his hands and said “God Bless You” “Thank you for writing that about Dawn, you captured her the way she really was. ” He told me he had wanted to meet the person who wrote it and knew I was a neighbor but didn’t want to walk into the wrong house and be embarrassed.” I told him where I lived and told him that he and his wife were welcome to visit me at any time.
The emotional intensity for me was overwhelming. I was honored that they used my piece of writing at the same time I was in total emotional shock. People were complimenting me on something that I forgot about since I have written many pieces about Dawn in my blog. I looked at many of my earlier blog posts and I practically have a whole book about Dawn.
My husband practically had to drag me out of the door since we needed to get our daughter to her afternoon class. I saw an old dear friend that I hadn’t seen in a long time and we wrapped our arms around each other crying. “I feel so lost” she said, “I just feel lost.” We all felt that way, I think. Lost without a piece of sunshine in our lives, deprived forever more of this gift of a person who brought enjoyment to everyone she met. Dawn was our fighter, never giving up yet she still lost the fight to this horrendous disease. Dawn was our light, she was our strength, there was no one she didn’t like…..well, with the exception of a little dog in the neighborhood….We all laughed remembering that and it felt good.
Two days later I arrived at the church forty-five minutes before the service and again, there were many people inside. The church was beautiful, I had never been there before. The stained glass windows shone from the morning sun, the polished wood seemed inviting and homey. There were many new flowers, everywhere. So many people from our little community were there, every religion was represented, people from all parts of Dawn’s life were there to show their respect: sports teams, education, friends, family, neighbors, some of the neighborhood kids, friends and their parents for all three children and the middle school Principal. Our community sometimes gets a really bad reputation but when something happens to one of our own, we come together as one. Our little town becomes so protective and so loving of one of its own; it’s happened before. Many years ago when a young boy had cancer, the town rallied together as well.
Both Dawn’s daughter and husband spoke at the funeral. Her daughter is a young woman with the most grace and poise I have ever seen. This young woman will be famous one day, I guarantee it. Everyone was either wiping their eyes or just letting the tears stream down their faces like leaks out of a rusty, old faucet. After the service the pallbearers brought the coffin out to the hearse. I saw a random pink flower on the ground that escaped and as much as I wanted to pick it up and touch it I couldn’t. It didn’t seem like the thing to do, it belonged to Dawn.
One thing I did not know was the tradition of the hearse and all the cars attending the cemetery making a final good-bye to the house where Dawn lived with her family. We drove around the loop as well and all I could think of was Dawn’s enormous Christmas wreath that she was always so proud of, hanging still around the front door. It seemed to me so heart-wrenching to do that, to watch her family ride in the car passing their house where their mother would never again live. Maybe it’s for closure too, I can only guess.
After that, we all went to our individual homes, sighing, looking at the ground, crying, solemn and gloomy and still, feeling that we were in a different world, a new reality. I don’t know how long it takes before the death of someone really hits you and takes its toll but I do know that it does take a while. After the company, the distractions, the food and the flowers, the only thing that matters is that there will be an empty chair at their kitchen table that no one can ever replace. And, at all her children’s’ games, their mom will not be there to encourage them and support them. Whatever condition Dawn was in, good or bad, in a wheelchair or not, Dawn was always there for her children, rooting for them, happy for them until the very last breath she took to say a peaceful “good-bye.”