“He won’t look like you expect. You can go in and we’ll give you some time alone with him. But, I have to warn you…” the funeral director said with an eerie calmness, “his head is covered. It was mutilated beyond recognition. It’s a natural temptation to want to see his face and I can’t stop you. But, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I encourage you to not lift the face covering.” Giving me key instructions for navigating this new turn in my life, this stranger reached out and touched my shoulder, then peered into my eyes and said, “Honey, trust me, you don’t want that to be the last image you have of your brother.”
I walked slow, steady, and stern into the sterile lifeless room where Bill lay on faceless display. I stared at the long tan fingers on the hand that took 27 years to form and would never wear a ring; the hand that punched my upper arm 20 times in a row just for being the little sister; the hand that unclasped a simple gold chain from his neck as his voice said, “Here, it’s yours;” the hand that stuck its thumb out for a ride while the other hand pushed me to follow; the hand that hid under winter gloves while carrying my skis and poles; the hand that power-shifted a green Vega while “Give me two steps and you’ll never see me no more” blasted through open windows; the hand that held the phone while girlfriends giggled on the other end; the hand that slammed a courtroom door good-bye; the hand that slapped Mrs. Sharp in ninth-grade English to signal the secret, “Bill can’t read;” the hand that held cigarettes like an actor; the hand that carried our two-year-old nephew while walking in Juarez; the hand that videotaped my wedding bash; the hand that held a beer and rested on the passenger door just 24 hours ago. The hand was undeniably Bill’s: sporting small scars from long days doing construction and fixing and fiddling with a thousand car parts, yet still soft from youth and running through dozens of girls’ hair. I held the hand, caressed and kissed it, then cursed it for being cold, for being there instead of with my mother.
I moved my focus up to the covered face I saw clearly in my mind. Death did a little dance and I could watch if I was willing to pull the curtain. I froze. The funeral director said the wrong thing to the wrong girl. He didn’t know just telling me not to do something lit a fire in me to do it. And the temptation to lift the sheet started in my stomach and moved into my chest. A crowd of instigators chanted in my head, “Do it! Do it! Do it!”
I let go of my brother’s hand. I needed to see his face. This is my brother. My one chance. I’ll look if I want to look. Nothing can change the fact. This situation cannot be different. Looking under that sheet is looking at the truth, of which I am not afraid. My hand pinched the corner of the sheet. I heard my mother whisper from the hallway, something I couldn’t understand.
I turned and ran, pushing past my mother, falling onto the bathroom floor, sobbing like a teenager taken over by hormones. “Why’d they have to smash his fucking face?! Why his face?!” My mother and sister comforted me with strokes on the arm while my father, stepmother and stepfather gawked from the doorway. Now, I was the accident.
I flashed back to a ski accident on a run called “Big Mama.” I’d gone over a five-foot jump because Bill had called me a wimp. He stood at the bottom of the hill, daring me down. I leaned too far back and immediately popped out of both skis upon landing. My anger at my stupid brother blocked my tears. And then there was his hand, pulling me up, as he said, “You did it! Are you ok?”
“I’m ok now,” I said to the gathering as I rose from the bathroom floor.
“Are you sure?” my mother asked.
“Yeah, I’m sure. You can go in now.”
I watched my mother walk towards her son, his body and a temptation worse than the alcohol that had once weakened her. Although my brother’s hand would be cold and could no longer hold my mother’s, the images of it would forever hold me and give me the strength to hold my mother’s hand.