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Funerals

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As a child, lively and sullen and hairy, I’d stare at my feet as I entered the Greek church. Both dreading the ache in the eyes of Jesus (is Greek Jesus different to Jesus Jesus, I’d wonder, did they all love lamb?), and the fact that, on Easter at least, I’d be forced to share a single spoon, filled to the brim with sweet wine, with the entire congregation.

Insisting my mother went before me, by the time I arrived at the front of the line I’d comforted myself with the knowledge that the most prominent saliva on the spoon was, in the very least, related to my own. The priest held a white cloth under my clumsy chin.

I’d heard people go to church because of love, and mom, smelling of Issey Miyake and possessing purifying spit, was proof enough for me. Plus, there was the perfectly cubed piece of just-turned-stale bread included in the deal. Who doesn’t love bread?

Many years after I stopped going to this church (you can’t make me), I found myself there, in my early twenties, twice in the same month.

As my pappou’s coffin stood, wooden and looming in the exact place where two weeks earlier a priest had dipped the head of an ex-boyfriend into a plastic tub that I believed unbecoming of a rebirth, the questions I’d been nursing around the nature of love are tinted by the stained glass. They are sharper than nails and more romantic than they’ve ever been.

How can I be angry that falling out of love not only exists, but will continue to insist upon it? How do you politely turn down an invitation to your ex-boyfriend’s christening, when your leaving him is the reason cited for the arrival of Jesus into his heart in the first place?

Death breeds sentiment in the cruellest way. I consider the stories that are being buried with my pappou.

There is enough room in his coffin for his childhood in the South of Johannesburg; his teenage years working in the corner café owned by another Greek; his adulthood in his very own laundromat. Under his left elbow are the occasions the horse he’d bet on actually won the race. There, by his feet, you’ll find the Tuesday evenings of his arranged marriage to my yiayia. Behind his generous earlobes are his favourite sayings. Too much sex makes you deaf. Keep left, pass right. I see, said the blind man.

I wonder, as ex-boyfriend’s hair is slicked back with olive oil, if he feels better now. I think he looks quite lovely in white linen. I think I recognise that curl falling wetly over his forehead. I think I used to wrap it around my index finger while we lay in bed. I wonder if he knows my pappou is dying. I wonder if he’ll come to the funeral.

I wonder then and then again as I make my way in a black car to the cemetery, with spanakopita and tiropita in my handbag, where huge love goes when it dies. I watch the dark men of my family lug the heavy wood and thin bones of my pappou out of the hearse. What grudges can be held when you’re lowering a coffin into the grave?

I have always been too sentimental.

Five thousand tears have been shed thanks to a lost ring gifted to me by my mother. Four hundred to finding my childhood teddy bear, Lenny, in storage after many years. More hundreds, crashing onto my round and happy cheeks, when pappou begins telling the family the same story we’ve heard countless times before at Sunday lunch.

More tears than I care to recall when I stare at the painting my first love created for me, before he began to leave me every few months to experiment with a newer love, always a paler girl.

I am the first person to have broken in this way, I tell myself, as I lie on my back, José González blasting, at 16, at 17, at 21. This is the freshest wound born of the greatest and biggest love.

My mother walks into my room. She consoles me about the ring. It’s just a thing. She asks me to turn the volume down, I cry harder. She waits for me to catch my breath. She stares at me, clinging to Lenny. She tells me that one day I’ll wake up and it won’t hurt to love him anymore, because I just won’t love him like this anymore. 

She tells me we all have to bang our own heads against our own walls.
One day you’ll wake up and you will simply be fine.

A week after the christening, a week before the funeral, I am driven to the Hospice by my cousin, John.
Don’t get a fright when you see pappou, he tells me. He doesn’t look good.
I roll my eyes. I saw him two days ago. I say. He’s fine.
My pappou dies, lovely skin and bones on day one at the Hospice, and I can’t look John in the eye.

As I stand on the lawn outside the church I make a mental note to buy incense soon.
I light a cigarette.
I tell the cousins we’ll toast to him with a whiskey back at the house.
I curse myself for not having researched what one says to their ex-boyfriend on the day of their christening. I consider ‘Mazeltov’. It seems to delight my new Jewish boyfriend whenever I say it.
I wonder if I should apologise to the priest for saying 'shit' during the eulogy. 
But you were quoting pappou, cousins console me.

When he hugs me hello and goodbye, I sniff the olive oil in his hair and crave a caprese salad. I mumble my congratulations. I bury him near the mole on my top lip which he once – years before his rebirth – told me was god’s finishing touch in creating me.

I lay him to rest gently under my leg, that skin on the back of my thigh that he was the first-ever to touch.

With clenched eyes, chanting he’s fine, and he’s fine, and love doesn’t ever really die, I never thought I’d come back to this church. 
Then, at the christening, and then, at the funeral, my mother walks down the steps towards me. And I know that today is one day, that huge loves simply go, and then we are simply fine.

And I think I spy a stale breadcrumb on her shirt, that her breath smells of sweet wine.

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