A Moment of Silence

Emma Piersanti

by Emma Piersanti

I am standing in a beige room. The walls are beige, the ceiling is beige, and the carpets are, yes, beige. I’ve never felt so claustrophobic in such a large room. If anything, the monochromatic theme gives the impression that it could go on forever, never-ending, and I can’t help thinking how stupid the people who designed this room must have been to make it this way. 

But maybe it wasn’t all their fault, because the concept of a room like this in and of itself is pretty horrifying. Four simple walls, all meant to showcase a box with a body in it. I have been trying to suppress that thought the entire time I have been here. And in turn, I have been avoiding the box the entire time. Giving it a wide berth, which hasn’t really worked, especially now that the room has cleared out to only close family members. 

It feels strange, to be one of those close family members. To be a person in one of these rooms, as if this doesn’t happen to every individual in the world. As if my brain, stuck in that developmental stage of a five-year-old, still can’t comprehend that people die and leave us—permanently. 

My family and I are standing on one side of the room. I have trained myself not to focus on the box, even though it’s in my view. Instead, my eyes search the floor and spot my black shoes. The only person with any splash of colour is my grandmother. A red scarf she picked out a few weeks ago rests gently around her shoulders. How strange that must have been; picking out an outfit you know you’ll never actually live to see yourself in. My mom told me she had been sitting in my grandmother’s room—during a lull between procuring large, pink pills and pureeing food so it could be consumed more easily while lying down—when my grandmother had suddenly said, as if it were the most casual request in the world, “Rita, go get my grey suit with the red scarf from my closet.” Maybe in any other context it would be a casual request. But my mom knew it signified the beginning of the end.

The funeral director standing by the doorway keeps my eyes from straying to the red scarf as he begins his speech. He speaks of my grandmother, who she was to each of us, what she lived for, and where she will go. To rest. To peace. But despite his kind words, I feel resentful. Affronted. Because he didn’t know her, not for a second, so why does he get to speak about her like this? Like whiplash, it hits me that he has done this for hundreds of other people—talk about their loved ones as if he knew them. Make them feel like death, in general and in that very particular moment, is meaningful. My resentment is washed away by sympathy because I know I couldn’t do what he’s doing.

“Now, we want to give you a moment of silence to pray,” he says.

I wasn’t expecting this man to say these words. I should have been though, because my grandmother was a deeply religious person. That’s not something I took much notice of before; it was never the first thing I would think of when she crossed my mind. But now, when conversations of rituals and proper ceremony are occuring it feels more prominent. In the funeral director’s short speech, he called her a devoted Catholic. It’s strange to hear how other people define her—describe her.

And it’s strange when I do it myself. Describe her in the past tense. It’s been an entire day of that. Back to back, I have been saying things like, “Yes, she was an amazing person.” “Yes, I’m going to miss her so much,” as if I’m some sort of personified condolence card spewing out the most cliché sentiments ever written in squiggly script. But it’s seemingly impossible to fit all of her grace and all of her kindness into a few mere seconds. Mere sentences. So that’s how it comes out.

In my peripheral vision, I see my mom raise her right arm. She touches her hand to her forehead, then the centre of her chest, to her left shoulder, and across to her right. I realize my whole family is doing the same and my hands scramble to follow to make the journey of the cross. Then there is silence. Silence that is meant to be used, but my mind flits away from me.

I’m supposed to think something, pray something, but I haven’t prayed in years and the practice, it seems, is not like riding a bike. Not something I can just do on command. It feels awkward and clumsy, like small talk with a stranger you just met. 

And isn’t God, this creator of divinity, a stranger? I mean, the only face I can put to the name is a masculine one with a long white beard and that just feels cliché. Disingenuous. Who does everyone else picture when they pray to this God? There’s something shameful about it—not knowing the answer to that question. There’s something shameful about it all. 

I have never been a religious person, but I grew up being ushered to church every Sunday until I was probably 10 years old and going to a school that taught me about the Beatitudes. When I was a baby, a man in a gilded garment poured a pitcher of water over me as my little body writhed and my cries echoed off the brick walls. My family looked down at me, smiling and soothing me. My grandmother was there, sitting in the pews. There are photos of her holding me softly in my frilly white dress.

And there was a time, years later, when I prayed every night. I clasped my hands under the blanket of darkness and recited a list of my hopes and desires. Calls for help and security. Every night, the same thing, without fail.

I know now that it was more of an anxious tick than an act of religious devotion. That’s probably why I stopped; it was a temporary attempt by my teenage brain to try and control the world around me. Protect it, keep it intact. And what was it all for? It still happened, and I’m still here, wearing black in a beige room where I can’t even bring myself to pray like I used to.

The shame that has been clouding my brain intensifies. I’m supposed to be saying goodbye. 

Goodbye goodbye goodbye

I repeat those words in my head with increasing force, like I’m rushing out the door and can’t find my keys, chanting the word as if it will help me find them. I can’t find it, though. The proper goodbye.

I realize maybe it’s because I’ve already said it—days ago. I’ve been saying my goodbyes for an entire month, just in case. Before I left her room, as she drifted into a fitful sleep from the medicine meant to suppress her pain, I would make sure she heard me say, “Bye, I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow.” That last part, upon reflection, was another one of those prayers. An attempt to control something over which I had no power.

Now, saying goodbye just feels like a farce. A formality. 

It’s shocking that this comes easily to others. That when they clasp their hands together it isn’t an anxious tick but a moment of faith; of unabashed belief and solace. Something to hold onto in an endlessly beige room.

When we suspected my grandmother had reached the last days of her life, we called a priest to give her last rites. I didn’t recognize him. He wasn’t the man I knew from middle school assemblies and Sunday mass. 

He entered my grandmother’s room and greeted her quietly. She was reaching incoherence; she could barely talk or stay awake. And yet, when she saw that man, her hands instantly joined in front of her in prayer. 

I remember thinking I had never seen something so sacred. It was admirable; my family and I couldn’t help but remark that even in her weakened state she could answer to a priest. Now, as my own hands are joined in front of me, I wonder what she thought about. 

I know there are the obvious things one must think about while lying on the bed they will likely die in. Wondering how. Wondering when. I once overheard my mom speaking to my dad in the kitchen, her voice on the verge of cracking, telling him that my grandmother had gripped her hand and asked, “When? When will it be over?” 

It was all so huge that it’s hard to imagine there could be room to think about anything else.

Maybe I can’t help thinking that this wasn’t all that could have gone through her mind, but ever since she left my thoughts keep drifting to everything that lies in between life and death. Wondering what else must have occupied her mind as she reached that critical point. Lying there, just knowing.

Did she think about Neapolitan ice cream with whipped cream on top? How when I used to come over after dinner she’d look at me as if she had a secret, and ask, “You want something sweet?” We’d sit on her brown leather couch, the floor lamp covering us in soft yellow light, and watch some Italian soap while eating our ice cream. Content sitting in a comfortable silence.

Did she think about the sound of oil popping in a pan? How on those rare days when I would try and learn her skills, I’d stand next to her at the stove and watch her transfer little balls of rice and sauce and cheese into the sizzling pan. “Here, take the fork and roll them,” she’d say. I would, and as the rice slowly fell apart while I tried to imitate her hand motions, she’d snatch the fork back and say, “Emma! Ah, it’s okay.” I’d laugh, she’d scowl jokingly at me, and in the next second, the rice would somehow be put back together in a nice, compact sphere. The smell of oil stuck to our clothes, but we didn’t mind. 

Did she think about the bird nest that appeared on her porch every spring? How when we’d walk out of her front door, we’d stop to watch the bird’s red feathers ruffle together for warmth before flying away at our approach. How, when I shortly followed suit and began walking down the street back home, every time I would look back she would be there. Standing on her porch, watching, waiting, until I turned the corner. Perched there, like a bird in her nest. 

Are these the things we latch on to? Does the sound of a full house, the feeling of the sun warming your face, the taste of chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream pop up in between everything else? Do they linger in our minds with any importance? If they do, then I cannot imagine it—all this missing. That underneath all the obvious things, all the life and love and wonder that exist in this world, there is the mundane. The almost forgettable—until you are lying there, on your deathbed. How did she bear it? I’m only imagining it, and I can hardly bear it. Can hardly bear wondering what she wondered about.

As I squeeze my hands together tightly, feeling the way my nails dig into my hands, I wonder if those thoughts were hopes. Hopes that she could do it all again. That somehow her body would magically heal, and she would simply get up so we could share another bowl of ice cream. Or, did she have different hopes?

When Catholics talk about death, there is this understanding of everlasting salvation that waits beyond the veil. That there is no need for fear surrounding the afterlife because it will provide immense peace that will surpass anything ever experienced in life. I once read some old story required for an English class, and while the main character was in extreme distress, she declared that her care for her life on Earth should not distract her from a future one in heaven. I remember my mind snagging on to that part. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. How could an idea of some hypothetical heaven compare to these small instances when life becomes so tangible you can grasp it between your palms? Those two things can’t coincide in my mind. They can’t inspire anything like hope. But maybe for my grandmother, they did. 

Or maybe, through a death that draws every last morsel of dignity from you, all of your hopes are stripped away along with it. 

The image of my grandmother’s hands joining in the presence of the priest enters my mind, and I know it can’t be true. Could a woman who can respond to a priest on the verge of death be without hope? I don’t think it’s possible, because I saw it in her until the very end.

Days before her passing, after the priest had gone and only left sprinkles of holy water in his wake, my grandmother further fell into a foggy haze. She was mostly asleep, or awake and not cognizant of her surroundings. I would spend a lot of time speaking to her, unsure if she could hear or understand me. But there were those rare moments when she would come out of that haze, that place in between, and suddenly she’d be aware of my face and where she was. I could see the recognition in her eyes, the hope, when she said my name so clearly. 

Sometimes, while I’m about to fall asleep or staring out of a subway window, I hear her voice saying my name like that—like I was some sort of saviour looking down on her. I can feel the way she grabbed and squeezed my hand like she understood that I was right there next to her.

It felt, and continues to feel, like wading into the ocean and being hit by a wave of freezing cold water: shocking, rejuvenating, painful, and fading. I would squeeze her hand back, make sure she could see my face, and say, “Hi, Nonna.” In those moments above water, I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone. But I know another part of me was trying to get her to hold on to that shred of life she managed to grasp. It was stupid, completely futile, and I knew it, but I think those moments were the closest I have ever been to true belief. To bare, raw faith. To hope. And doesn’t hope make you nothing if not stupid? 

A grumble erupts softly in the room, and my eyes, which I realize have drifted shut, open back up. The funeral director has sneezed, and suddenly, I’m on the verge of laughter. Now that my eyes are open and I’m taking in my surroundings—the ugly carpet and the matching ugly couch, the abundance of flowers lining the walls and the man with his face still half-scrunched from a sneeze—the absurdity of it all becomes amplified.  

The funeral director’s eyes lift, and our gazes meet. I feel caught for some reason, as if I had been overheard swearing in the Lord’s house, so I snap my eyes shut. 

Goodbye goodbye goodbye

I still can’t find it. I’m so desperate that I’m tempted to just say a prayer I learned in elementary school and call it a day. 

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee

I can’t remember the rest. The words break off and scatter like a glass bowl smashed to the ground, and that urge to laugh becomes an urge to cry.

I haven’t cried in public in years, and I don’t want to break that record now. The image of my grandmother’s face, peering up at me through that foggy haze, takes over my mind, and I remember how I tried so hard to make it look as though I hadn’t been crying. She had always said that she didn’t want to see tears. Didn’t want any pity or sorrow to linger in that room with her. 

It’s too much. The memory—all of it. It pushes me too close to the edge and I’m squeezing my hands together so hard, as if that will keep me from falling over it. Because it hurts in a way I don’t think I’ve ever felt, like some shit I only thought happened in movies or stories, and I can’t stand here for one more second with my head bent solemnly downwards in this fucking room trying to think the thoughts I’m supposed to think. Because I was wrong to think shit like this is only make-believe. And I was wrong to think I could deal with it gracefully. 

I can’t do it. Think the right thoughts. Grasp that perfect goodbye. All I can grasp is Neapolitan ice cream and oil-stained shirts and a red bird settling in a nest. The bright sound of her laugh and the way she would reply to “thank you” with “okay” instead of “you’re welcome.” 

Maybe that’s all I’ll ever be able to grasp. Make sense of. Maybe these aren’t the things we latch on to, but they are the only things I can handle latching on to right now. Maybe in 10 years, when I think back to this summer and all the seasons that came before, this is all I’ll allow to surface. 

There is movement beside me, a restless rustling, and I don’t know how long we have all been standing here, but I realize our moment of silence is coming to an end. As I peer sideways, I see it in the way my dad’s head is slowly moving upwards again; I hear it in the sigh my mom releases beside me. 

I want to tell them all to wait; that I need more time. Maybe I need this beige room to truly be never-ending because I feel unfinished, like a question that has never and will never be fully answered. My eyes flit to the funeral director with the urge to ask him for a do-over. As if he has some sort of overarching authority over my prayers.

But I know he can’t give me any of the answers I want. No one in this room can. Whether or not I’ve done this right. Whether or not there’s a point to any of this, or if I’m just thinking thoughts that will never be heard by souls in the great beyond. If there even is a great beyond. 

They’re tempting questions. I could probably stand in this room for several hours just spiraling over them. 

Against all my instincts, my eyes drift to that box across the room—that red scarf. And her face, when it was alive with a smile, or maybe even a frown, just alive, is in my mind again. 

There’s the possibility that she could be in that place of eternal salvation, and that’s a nice thought. My grandmother relaxing on a beach of white clouds with Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. She could be somewhere else—somewhere more abstract where bodies are forgotten and souls become integrated into the fabric of the universe. Or she could be nowhere at all. Gone. My instinct is to run with the last option. It seems the most realistic. Even still, I hope it’s not true. I hope she’s somewhere nice. And I hope that she can hear me. Hear the stream of scrambled thoughts bouncing around in my mind from wherever she is. It’s pretty stupid if you think about it, completely nonsensical, but hope makes you nothing if not stupid, right? 

To my left, my family has all done the sign of the cross again. I follow suit, a beat behind, even though the gesture doesn’t really mean anything to me anymore. 

For a moment, I’m drowning in the sea of beige within this room. The next moment, the funeral director is gesturing for us to exit, and the beige finally comes to its unexpected end. As we walk outside the front doors, the wind caresses my face and I am comforted by the colours of the world. The green pines on the right side of the parking lot sway in the wind. The blue sky takes on a goldish hue as the summer sun slowly sets. Pinkish clouds pass by slowly.

A bird dashes across the glowing sky. It perches in its nest that is burrowed into the sign of the funeral home. I watch as it ruffles its red feathers together. 

EMMA PIERSANTI is a fourth-year English and Professional Writing student at York University. In her writing, she often focuses on the tension-filled, yet beautiful changes young adults experience and how they can shape a person. In the future, she hopes to become an editor and publish her own fiction.