Through my tears, I can barely discern the words, “Ministry of Reunions.” My biggest problem right now, though, is that my nose is running, and I don’t seem to have a tissue, a decent sleeve, or even a bag through which I can perform a fruitless though hopeful search for something I could use.
These are neither tears of joy nor sadness, but rather, protection against the searing light that continues to assault my eyes, as I try to answer the questions of the titular functionary seated across the counter from me. Between us is a dark green, open-mesh metal grate, with a little opening in it at the bottom, just like an old-fashioned ticket booth. It doesn’t dawn on me to ask her for a tissue or a place where I might find one. She doesn’t seem to notice that my face is a soggy mess.
“OK!” she snaps efficiently. “Just walk through the black curtain to your right, and have a seat—your loved ones will be right with you. Remember, don’t mention death—if you do, the reunion will end immediately, but we’ll leave that choice up to you.”
Loved ones? What loved ones? In spite of my streaming tears, dripping nose, and dazed confusion, I manage to thank her. I grope my way through the curtain into what seems like a very comfortable and strangely familiar parlor.
No one’s there yet—just me—so I cautiously back up, grab a handful of the black curtain, and press it into my closed, burning eyes. Ahhh….that feels good! While I’ve still got the curtain, I mop up my slippery face, honk my nose as discretely as I can, and then rearrange the folds of the now-damp curtain back into some semblance of its former self.
And then…I hear the sweetest sound this side of heaven: my father laughing at me! In utter disbelief, I turn to see a younger version of my father—maybe his 50-year old self—walking towards me with one arm outstretched to hug me. I laugh when I see that his other arm is holding my mother’s pocketbook, something she’d trained him to do long after I’d moved out of their little bungalow.
We hug each other tightly as though the long years that separated us have melted away, just like they’d never happened–that unconditional love that I lost the day he died, now restored. Before I can catch my breath, I’m sobbing tears of gratitude. My father pulls a clean white handkerchief out of his pocket. “Here,” he laughs, “unless you prefer the curtain!”
I recover my equilibrium just enough to ask, “Where’s Mommy?” She bursts onto the scene, as big as life itself, and says, “Where the hell do you think I am–out in the ass-end of Carnarsie or something?” She gathers me in her big wild-woman arms, and says, “I love you madly…,” one-bone crushing squeeze…, “badly,”… two bone-crushing squeezes, “and gladly”… three bone-crushing squeezes.
I’m laughing breathlessly, sobbing again, overwrought by the sudden dissolution of my repressed, long-suffering grief. Oh, I’ve missed them so much! The utter joy of being with them just washes over me in a torrent of happiness, just like I’m whole once again, and God is in her heaven.
“You’re just in time for bagels and coffee, Glo!,” announces my father. “Let’s go into the kitchen.”
Ha! My mother’s old kitchen, full of kitschy, random knick-knacks, little maudlin poems in plastic frames, a three-inch day-glo magnetized Jesus crucified to the side of the refrigerator, and the vinyl, felt-backed tablecloth covered in strutting red roosters.
My father brandishes a rustling paper bag full of still-hot bagels while my mother pours the coffee and I set out the dishes, silverware, napkins and butter. The Staten Island Advance is on the table, folded open to the Jumble word puzzle where my father has already solved two of the four jumbles. I grab the pencil and quickly solve the other two. “How’d you do that, Glo?,” he says, marveling at me, as if I’m the most clever person in the world.
We dig into our bagels and coffee, and I’m just loving it, slathering more butter on a crunchy, chewy everything bagel. “Look at these nice bagels, Glo,” brags my father. “Tell the truth–you just can’t get good bagels like these in South Carolina, can ya?”
This is so surreal…here we are, eating bagels! I can’t get over this! We’re all so incredibly happy.
I put my bagel down and look at them. “I can’t believe how good you both look! So young! Ma, you look so beautiful! And Daddy, you’re more handsome than ever!” My mother looks wistfully at my father and says “Those ten years that I spent without Daddy were so lonely and empty. I was just going through the motions. I can’t tell you how good it is to be together again.” My father beams adoringly at my mother and caresses her hand. “Yes, Glo, I tell ya, your mother is the girl of my dreams.” He tilts his head and gives her that special look.
“You know,” I sigh, “I think about you two every day. I’ve always told myself that missing you would hurt less if I could just keep remembering all the things I learned from you about living a good and happy life. I had to keep reminding myself that I gained so much more from loving you than what I lost by losing you. Remembering all your jokes and funny stories always makes me laugh even when I really feel like crying. Every time I’m scared or I don’t know what to do, I see you both in my mind’s eye, and I imagine what you would tell me; somehow, it always helps.”
I could go on, but I stop as I realize that they already know all about it.
“We were always right there with you, Glo,” my father says reassuringly, “and we were always so proud of you. Even when the going got rough, you always seemed to do the right thing.”
My mother, keeping it real, adds, “Well, not all the time—I mean, let’s be honest! I did get a little worried sometimes, ya know, because once in a while, you got a little out of control, but hey, that happens—and, ya know what? There’s a lot of dirty frig bastards out there! All in all, you were a hell of a lot nicer to them than I ever would’ve been—you could bet your ass on that!”
I resist the urge to wisecrack “Bet your own—mine’s got a (add your favorite off-color characteristic here) in it,” and settle instead for a sigh of relief, glad that their final assessment is favorable, generously erring on the side of mildly laudatory.
As I happily reach for another bagel, I gratuitously add, “Who knew that death wasn’t final?” My parents both rivet their gaze upon my unsuspecting face and their eyes hauntingly convey what my mind cannot even begin to fathom. My very soul is paralyzed with the tragic sense of irrevocable loss.
Suddenly, there is no air, no light, no life, no hope–not even any bagel crumbs. I’m stricken beyond any grief I’ve ever experienced, flattened by the injustice of not being able to unring a bell, undo a deed, unsay a word.
“Mommy? Daddy?,” I croak. No answer. I stagger, lurch and stumble, waving my arms blindly around me, trying to figure out where I am. My hands clutch what must be the black curtain. A few more steps and my fingers are clawing at the open-mesh green metal grate.
My eyes are instantly assailed by that corrosively bright light and the tears begin streaming down my face once again, only now I’m crying hysterically.
The woman behind the counter pushes a box of tissues through the small opening at the bottom of the grate, and says, “Here…you’ll need a few of these.”
Trying to convey what has just happened, I choke out between sobs, “I … said … the … wrong … word!”
I couldn’t see her, but the last thing I ever heard was: “And I’ll bet that wasn’t the first time, huh?”