His mouth was all wrong.
Everything was wrong . Sallow skin and sunken cheeks. Over-slicked hair and the box he was lying in. But nothing was more wrong than his mouth, which had always, always greeted me with a grin, now severe and unforgiving, forever set by the mortician in a hard, unnatural line.
The funeral director was asking if we wanted him buried with his wedding ring – and did we want to donate his glasses? The slideshow was playing for the third time through and my most treasured childhood memories were on display, bizarrely accompanied by violins and kitchy lyrics. Visitors were telling me that I looked just like my mom and they were sorry for my loss. I would feel better in a month or so and we would see him again in heaven and 90 years is plenty long enough to have lived on earth, anyway.
“The things people say,” hissed my cousin, scowling beside me in the reception line. “Death makes people stupid.”
I couldn’t disagree, but I couldn’t share her anger either. I wasn’t really there. I was dreaming some surreal nightmare about a grotesque ritual that required me to nod and smile and play hostess while standing less than three feet from my Grandpa’s lifeless body.
“He looks so peaceful,” a distant relative remarked and so I looked again, harder this time, wondering if maybe I had missed something.
But I couldn’t find the man with the perpetual twinkle in his eye who always smelled like sawdust from his workshop and peppermints from his secret stash of candy, who drove me around on his lawnmower and read me to sleep at night and taught me how to use a charcoal grill; the man who dutifully pretended to be a student in my classroom during my teacher phase, a model patient during my doctor phase, and a long-suffering patron during my beautician phase, enduring scrunchies upon headbands upon hairspray. I couldn’t find the man who smiled through every insignificant recital, every mediocre play, every never-ending academic event in which I ever participated, who unfailingly laughed at my stories and always obligingly smirked at my insistence that we play just one more game of Candy Land.
Seeing the tears running down my face, my cousin followed my gaze to the casket.
“That’s not him,” she muttered. “He’s not here.”
I knew she was right, but I still couldn’t quite make the tears stop – because I knew it would grow hazy with time, the memory of the man with the easy smile who encouraged me in every silly little dream I ever had. And I knew it would be seared in my memory forever, the memory of this other man with sallow skin and sunken cheeks whose mouth was all wrong.