The Church

By Grainne O’Brien

“You don’t have to go.” Ciara’s husband entered their bedroom dressed in a navy suit with a bright yellow tie that he was managing to pull off. “Everyone will understand.” Stopping short, he surveyed her unusual stance. 

“What are you doing, Ci?” His tone was even, but his expression was alert and his eyes fixed on his wilted wife. His face had looked like that for the last few days. Ciara caught him watching her whenever she was in the kitchen making toast for the girls or when they were watching television. She had glimpsed him through the kitchen window the night before when she had been sipping a glass of wine in the garden, trying to take some pleasure from the feel of the evening sun on her skin. That look on his face. Like she was a valuable vase about to tip off a table and Conor was expecting to need to leap forward at any moment and catch her before she smashed.  

Ciara had her hands around her throat and was squeezing it. She had been doing this on an off all morning. When the feeling became too uncomfortable, she coughed, dropped her hands to her sides, and took several deep breaths. Each time, she pulled her hands away just as she began to feel the tightness overwhelm her. She couldn’t bear it for more than a few seconds.

“I just wanted to know how it felt for him.” Ciara looked at her reflection in the full-length mirror that hung on their bedroom wall. She looked old.

Conor came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist as Ciara took in their joint reflection. The shock was starting to ebb away. In its wake, grief was slithering through her to set up camp. An uninvited, permanent houseguest, squatting in her bones. It was taking over. Soon there would be nothing of her left. 

The sudden need for a funeral outfit meant the navy, knee-length dress that hid all her remaining baby weight, so carefully selected months ago for her sister-in-law’s wedding, had its debut a few days early. The dress she wore now was one she’d bought before the children. Much less forgiving. She was almost positive she’d worn it to a wedding in the past, but she couldn’t remember which one. She had fastened a choker around her neck, but the restriction around her throat made her panic and she had ripped it away. It lay broken at her feet, but her curiosity about that feel had gotten the better of her, so here she stood, her hands digging into her throat, imagining what it must be like to hang. 

Though her reflection was the same, she felt different. She was an only child now. Her place in the world had been rearranged. Her identity as the eldest, the older sister, wiped away with one swift kick of a stool.

“You have one job,” her mother used to say when they would leave the house in the morning. “To mind your brother.” Setting off to school, Ciara would always clutch Brian’s small, sticky hand. Ciara loved the responsibility of that one job. Her one job. 

“I mean it Ciara.” Conor said once again, “you don’t have to go.”  

“Do you not want me there?” Poor Conor. No longer married to a whole person. And Niamh and Aobh were now the inheritors of a dead uncle and a fractured Mammy.

“Of course I do. But it’s a lot. All the small talk. And you’re exhausted. The babysitter’s paid for. Send the girls off and go back to bed. Whatever you need. I can go solo. It might be nice to go without you cramping my style for a change. I can flirt with the bridesmaids.” 

In her reflection, Ciara could see that she gave Conor a smile, but she couldn’t feel it. 

 Conor had been overjoyed when his younger sister announced she was marrying a man he actually liked. After the catalogue of tattooed, unemployed, pierced louts she continuously brought home since she was in college, this one was a keeper. Michael was a guard. 

How could Brian have done this to Conor? The men had loved each other as if they were actual brothers. Brian knew what Conor had been through with his sister, what happiness the day was bringing to his whole family. Brian had been invited, they had all been invited. 

The viper of anger rose up in her. All their lives Brian could barely get a moment to himself. They were always watching him, always minding him. And look what the little shit did when they all relaxed a bit, finally convinced he was in a good place. How could he have done this to Conor? The anger was followed by an onslaught of pure, gut-wrenching guilt. It seemed like anger and guilt would form a partnership in her for the rest of her days. And it hadn’t even been a week. 

Conor was right about another thing. The back of her calves were still aching from her ill-fated decision to wear high heels in the receiving line. A giant blister on her left foot was causing her to limp. Her right hand bore the evidence of thousands of handshakes—a slightly inflamed wrist and an aggravated knot in her right shoulder. Her throat hurt from acknowledging the repetitive “sorry-for-your-loss”. The words and sentiment unoriginal and yet each time they found a different way to cut her. Her lips were chapped. 

“Maybe we should consider cremation?” her aunt had suggested as the they’d clambered out of her tiny car. One look from Ciara’s mother had silenced the poor woman before she finished, the sentence slipping away into an awkward silence. Brian would be laid down in the cold, anointed ground, Ciara knew, not scattered into the wind like some heathen. 

She remembered fighting the urge to burst out laughing as they went into the place, a strange combination of welcome and foreboding overcoming her as they stepped over the threshold. The whole situation was so ridiculous. The director went about giving the full sales pitch to her mother, pointing out the perks, pros and cons of each coffin option, like he was a second-hand car salesman, like nobody had died. 

Eventually her mother settled on a ‘top of the line, varnished to perfection, built to last’ wooden cell. She always did have expensive taste.

The funeral queue had been vast. They’d had to take a break for twenty minutes, step away from the front pews of the same church where Conor’s sister was about to stand and make her vows. Conor’s family would stand in the same pew where Ciara had stood, their future ahead of them, the thrill of not knowing what lay ahead of them or what their future held. The unknown lay out in front of Ciara too, but it was dark and thick, like syrup that she would have to drag herself through with no map to guide her. 

The family had escaped into the vestibule for a breather at the priests insistence. Hastily made cups of tea and biscuits had been handed around to give those in the line a chance to sit down. Her mother, of course, refused and chose to remain standing, an unsipped cup of tea clutched in her steady hands. Ciara’s father stayed standing too. Neither of them had cried. 

Ciara had sat, swallowed warm, milky tea and stuffed a handful of custard creams in her mouth, while fumbling to feed the baby, the tears dripping down her face unacknowledged by anyone but Conor. Aobh had stayed quiet all day, the dote, not even a squawk as Conor wiped her mother’s tears from where they fell. Niamh was overjoyed to be around her second and third cousins telling them all that she was now five years old. Ciara watched her laugh and play. 

“You did everything you could Ci.” Her cousin had kissed her, tears in her eyes. “There wasn’t anything more you could have done. At least he is at peace now.”

What could they have done for him? As if they hadn’t spent years of their lives battling this as a family. Waging wars on his behalf. They were his champions. Her mother, their master and commander. She led the charge, fighting with GPs, counsellors, psychiatrists, and staffers from the HSE. She’d written impassioned letters by hand to the Minister for Health, begging to get Brian bumped up waiting lists. 

At peace. They all kept saying that. At least he was at peace. Did they really think that he was at peace? That he found salvation at the end of a tightened belt? That at that critical moment, alone and terrified, the world crushing him, he reached some level of Zen? Were they that naive? That blind? That stupid?

“Ciara.” Conor called her back to today, away from the memory of those hours she had spent on the cold, unforgiving pew. How could it have only been two days ago? It felt like she had been missing Brian for a lifetime.

“Do you think I can get away with flats?”

“Go back to bed Ciara.”

He was right. It didn’t matter anymore. The decision was made. No one would miss her.

Ciara kissed her husband and children as they went out the door, their small, high pitched voices a mixture of protest and excitement.

“Mama, are you going to bed? Why are you going to bed? Is Daddy coming with us? Why aren’t you coming with us?” Left in the silence, Ciara immediately craved their return.

She clambered into her pyjamas, rubbed moisturiser onto her stinging face, and clutched the hot water bottle that Conor left on the kitchen counter. Heavy-footed, she limped upstairs; sliding under the duvet, hoping for, rather than expecting, sleep.

Dead on Monday, buried on Thursday. It seemed to Ciara that by getting the body into the ground before anyone can comprehend what was happening their family members were less likely to object to the absurdity of the situation.

Ciara was just drifting off when the doorbell rang. She ignored it and buried herself deeper into her duvet. Then knocking on the door. Incessant knocking. She threw back the covers and made her way limping to the front door. 

In the doorway stood her mother. Stoic and formidable. Immaculate. Makeup and hair professionally done, a tall, red fascinator banded to her head. 

“Maggie text and told me she didn’t see you when she was at the house dropping off the flowers.” Ciara said nothing. Even if she had been able to respond, she did not know what she was supposed to say.

“You sent your husband to his own sister’s wedding alone.”

“No mother, my husband encouraged me to stay home from his sister’s wedding.” Ciara may as well have been standing in her parents landing, cowering at the threat of a wooden spoon to the hand. 

“He understood. No one expects me to be there.”

“I expect you to be there.” Her mother pushed past her into the house, and went straight to the kitchen. She put on the kettle, slipped two slices of bread into the toaster, and turned to face her only remaining child. 

“You’re going?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I’m going. I was invited. We were all invited”

Ciara was incredulous. Her mother did not attend weddings. Her weekends were better spent on golf courses. She sent cards stuffed with money, of course. That’s what was expected of her. 

“It’s their day. We’ve had our few days Ciara.”

 “Where is Daddy?”

“Daddy is at home, sulking.”

“Sulking? Grieving Mammy. He is grieving.”

Ciara couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She was disgusted with her mother’s indifference, her obsession with keeping up with people she barely knew. 

“I don’t care what they say about me. I’m not going.”

“Don’t make this about you. And don’t kid yourself into thinking if you don’t go anyone will even notice except your husband. You think this is still about you and me and your father and Brian but it isn’t. They won’t be talking about you or pointing at you or looking at you. They will be looking at the bride and her new husband. This is her day. It’s their day. They have moved on. Life has moved on. We have to move forward. I’ll make you some toast. Lord knows it will be after seven tonight before we get fed. Get dressed. And do not wear flats.”

Ciara didn’t move. She couldn’t believe that her mother was here, pottering around the kitchen, pulling at tea bags and pouring milk into a jug, in a fucking fascinator. 

“How can you stand it? How can you even consider going? Don’t you know what they’re saying about him? About us? The talking and the whispers. The assumption. How can you bear it? Don’t you care?” 

Ciara’s mother slammed down the knife she was using to butter Ciara’s toast and turned to look at her. 

“Let me tell you something Miss. Don’t you, for one second, think that because you haven’t seen me weeping in public or making a show of myself in front of this whole town that I haven’t cried for your brother. I have been crying for him since the day he was born. I’ve cried so many tears for him, for my little man. I don’t have any left.”

 “It was my job Mammy,” she said, her voice small and quiet. “It was my job to keep him safe. To keep him alive.”  

Her mother put the two buttered slices of toast on a plate and put the plate on the kitchen table on a placemat. All that was missing was a glass of flat Seven-Up. 

“It wasn’t only your job love. It wasn’t only yours any more than it was only mine or only your father’s. It was everyone’s and no one’s job, to keep him alive.”

Ciara sat in front of the plate, and tears began to tumble, uncontrolled, from her eyes. She couldn’t look up. She wiped snot from her lip with her hand, before dutifully eating her toast. 

“I need someone to blame Mammy,” she whispered. “Please. Who do you blame?”

“If you need someone to blame. Blame me. I was…I am his mother. And I should have protected him, but I was never able to figure out how.” Her mother took a piece of kitchen roll from the counter and held it to Ciara’s face. The movement was as natural and it was absurd. Two grown women unable to shake their roles. 

“Blow.” Ciara did as she was told.  

“I don’t think that I can bear their happiness Mammy.”

“Other people’s happiness is what is going to make this life bearable for us Ciara. We need to get out there. You and I will go first and Daddy will follow us, I know he will. We have to be brave, we have to be able to find happiness in the world the way Brian never could. And he tried Ciara. He tried so hard. But he couldn’t. His poor broken brain wouldn’t let him. But we can Ciara. Do you hear me? We can. And we have to.” 

Ciara looked into her mother’s eyes and saw the glimmer of a tear swimming in her eyes. It would not fall, Ciara knew, but it was there. It was always there, just on the edge, refusing to fall. Having Ciara and Brian hadn’t completed her. She was whole before they came along. But now there was a piece missing from her mother as well, a piece that could never be replaced. Ciara allowed herself, just for a moment, to think what it would be like for her if one of her own babies died and she was made to watch their coffin lowered into the ground. The very idea made her feel like she had been ripped in two. Ciara understood now. Her mother was not staying strong for everyone else. She was staying strong for Ciara, her one remaining child. She may be fractured, but she refused to be broken completely.

“Now. Get dressed. We have been invited to the wedding of your husband’s sister, and we are going. And we will not be late.”

Her mother drove as Ciara tried to put on enough makeup to keep her satisfied. Finally, a nod. She had passed the test. She texted Conor to say she was coming, but received nothing back. He was hardly checking his phone on this day. 

Ciara felt her heart race as they pulled into the packed car park. The church looked different than it had. More welcoming somehow, as if the building was adaptable based on the events that were taking place within its white-washed stone walls. 

 Never one to concern herself with rules or other people’s inconvenience, her mother mounted the curb of the church’s small lawn and made Ciara walk through the grass. The heels her mother picked out for her sank into the soft earth; her calves screamed in protest.

Organ music was playing, but the casual stance of the photographer, leaning against the wall, reassured her that the bride was not on her way yet. Her mother pushed past her and made her way down the aisle, her head high. A few heads turned and some sides were nudged. Some looked as if they were whispering at her mother’s appearance. But nowhere near as many as Ciara had been expecting. Her mother was right. Of course she was. 

Conor saw her mother’s arrival, and shifted up the pew as she took her seat. She brushed away his concern but accepted a kiss on the cheek. He grinned at her. He did not looked surprised to see her. He had gotten Ciara’s text. He had been looking for it. 

The priest stood at the altar. The same man who had shown her family such kindness and understanding. Who has spoken about Brian so beautifully He looked the same as he had, but this time he wore a bright and welcoming smile. It made him look ten years older. He saw Ciara, and beckoned that she come forward.

Three days ago, she stood at the same spot, and steeled herself, looking at her brother’s top-of-the-range coffin. Only the best for him, even at the end.

Ciara allowed herself a moment to linger, her hand resting on the deep stone basin of blessed holy water. The same hand that had clutched Brian’s clammy one as they walked to school every day. The same hand that shook the hands of thousands of friends and strangers. The same hand that heard so many times how sorry they were all for her loss. 

Ahead of her, inside the church, her mother settled, and looked dead ahead, her eyes on the altar. It was impossible to know what she was thinking, but she would not turn to look at her daughter. This was Ciara’s own path to walk. Her mother had gotten her here. Now Ciara was on her own. Their lives would never be the same without Brian, but it was a comfort to know that for Ciara and her mother, some things would never change. Ciara let go of the basin, straightened her dress, and walked through the heavy wooden doorway.

With one foot in front of the other, she walked to her seat, towards her smiling husband. With each click of her heels on the church’s rough, tile floor, she heard her mother’s words in her ears. 

“It’s their day.” 

“It’s their day.” 

“It’s their day.” 

Learn more about Grainne in her bio on the Featured Authors page.

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