I leaned against the wall in the small hallway outside the door where my brother’s body was waiting. The wallpaper bordering the walls was covered in hideous intensely colored petunias in shades of pink and purple, and I wondered if it was intended to brighten my spirit.
My parents were the first to view Steve’s body and my brothers and sister were growing anxious. Patrick paced in a small circle with his hands shoved deep in his khaki pockets, Molly held her arms tightly against her chest with a trembling bottom lip and Jack, the youngest, sat cross-legged tracing the designs in the olive green carpet.
My parents finally exited the room and my dad held mom tightly. My mom’s face was flushed, her eyes swollen and moist from the tears that streamed down her soft cheeks forming a wet pool on her gray shirt. My dad was doing his best to hold himself together, but his mouth was pulled down at the corners, his brows furrowed and his dark eyes had tears on the rim of his lid. He nodded at me the sign for us to go in. It was nearly impossible for me to witness him in this state. My dad was a rather quiet and introverted person, but despite his best attempt to keep a brave face, the fear, anguish and grief was apparent. It made me want to be strong and brave. Not necessarily because I felt I needed to in front of my family, but I didn’t want to go into that room, face my brother and fall apart. It was after all, a new first impression, meeting of sorts. The body on the other side of that room was someone unfamiliar.
I pushed off the wall and stuck my chin straight out and smoothed my hair. My hand began to shake and I pinched the seam of my pants with my thumb and index finger to gain control. My legs felt unstable and I wanted to collapse to the floor, but tightly holding the seams gave me a sense of control and balance that went unnoticed, almost as if I was holding myself up barely by the fingertips. I was the oldest now and I had to be strong for my siblings. I took Jack’s small hand in mine, inhaled deeply and opened the door.
Inside, the small room looked like a hospital. The walls were white, and the floor was made of concrete, and the fluorescent lights overhead made me squint. There was a long metal counter with metallic tools that I couldn’t name and everything smelled of antiseptic. It was peculiar walking from the hallway with flowered wallpaper to the cold atmosphere of this room. The bare interior of the room matched the cool temperature. As the flowered wallpaper seemed to be decorated that way to provide comfort and life, this room made no effort to alter the stark reality of what we were there for: to identify a deceased human being.
I laid eyes on the smooth black casket centered horizontally in the room. It was lifted to about my waist on a wheeled hospital gurney. The top half open revealing Steve’s body.
I gasped and my hand flew over my mouth. It been almost a year since I’d last seen Steve alive and I never imagined our reunion would be this way. Until this moment, my siblings had been numb with fear, and the sight of my brother jolted them to reality. Jack pressed his head into my hip and held onto my waist tightly. Molly and Patrick stood beside me and Patrick’s mouth dropped open and Molly began sobbing. Fuck, I thought. Fuck you, God. Of all the people who were stationed in Iraq with my brother, God had chosen to take him. It wasn’t as though I wished this on anyone else, but if it had been anyone else I wouldn’t be here. I would probably be sleeping in on this freezing morning in February.
Steve was dressed in his olive Army Class A dress uniform and his hands were covered with white gloves folded across his abdomen. His black tie was centered and everything was crisp with sharp seams. His uniform was adorned with colorful ribbons and shiny medals he had proudly earned over the course of his short military career. His polished black nameplate was positioned over the right pocket, and in bold white letters, it read SHANNON.
I was surprised at what good condition his exterior appeared to be in. His face was still bronze from the days spent under the blazing sun in Iraq. I noticed a lighter spot from the corner of his eyes stretching to his hairline where his sunglasses had been.
The mortician was positioned in the corner of the room in a white lab coat with his hands folded staring intently at the floor, his bottom lip overlapping his top. It was hard to believe that this was my 21-year-old brother. The time he had spent in war had obviously changed his appearance from boy to man. His jaw line had become very square and his facial features, especially his nose and chin, had become very prominent. Steve had an athletic build and was naturally stockier, and yet he looked so fragile and still.
“You aren’t going to put too much make-up on him are you?” I raised my eyebrows and glanced at everyone’s faces, surprised by the bluntness of my own question. He responded, “Uh, no. No, of course not.”
Growing up with Steve was fun. He had an infectious laugh that once you heard it you couldn’t help but laugh yourself. It was higher pitched and came out in quick, short sequences. He was playful and loved to chase and tackle me to the ground at random. For some reason he hated it when someone touched his hair. He would bark at me for trying to touch it, and my hand responded quickly by retracting to my side. Now I was presented with the opportunity to. No one, especially not Steve, would be able to stop me.
I stood with my body up against the casket and slowly inched my fingers towards the crown of his head. My fingertips ever so slightly connected with the ends of his sandy colored hair, and I was astonished at how soft it was. I moved to his forehead and cheek and his skin was abnormally hard and cool which I knew was a result of the substances within his veins preserving his body. I wondered where they’d drained his blood from his body. A deep lump formed in the back of my throat thinking of his blood, his life, being completely drained through narrow tubes into a vat for disposal. Molly and Patrick took their turns to touch Steve and whisper to him.
Jack, the youngest sibling, was afraid to go near Steve’s body and I explained to him what was going on in simpler terms. Steve had loved Star Wars. His love of Star Wars was inherent in the rest of us siblings because he could often be found reading a Star Wars novel, drawing the Death Star or Millennium Falcon on homework assignments, or re-watching the films and so I said, “This body was his starship Jack. He lived inside of it and used it while he needed to on Earth, but now he doesn’t need the starship.” This is only his human remains. His spirit is somewhere safe. He agreed to touch Steve’s hand, so I picked him up so he could reach. He didn’t speak but gently placed his hand on Steve’s and then ran his fingers over his nose, ears and hair.
My parents entered the room and mom asked us to circle as a family by joining hands. We interlocked our hands and bowed our heads. “This is it now,” my mom said. “This is what our family will be from now on. Steve will always be a part of this family, but not in the way we would like. We’re all we’ve got now, and we have to rely on one another to get through this.” I looked at my family member’s faces and knew what a long road ahead of us we had. Although I didn’t know what the future for us held, I knew that we would get through it together. We had to. I touched Steve’s hair again once more and said goodbye.
We left my brother’s body and put our coats, hats and gloves on to leave the funeral home. I opened the door and was hit with the sharp, frigid air, and it burned my lungs as I inhaled. I squinted my eyes in the bright daylight. I began to cross the street when suddenly my feet slipped from underneath of me on thick ice. I landed hard on my back. For a moment, I lay there unable to move or speak. Then I smiled and looked up at the clear blue sky. I started to laugh. I heard my family begin to laugh behind me. We shared a laugh in spite of everything. My mom looked at me and said, “You know, Steve probably did that to you for touching his hair.”
Kathleen Wopat resides in La Crosse, WI with her husband, Larry, and their precocious three year old son, Jonas. When not writing, reading, creating art, watching films or spending time with her family and Chihuahua’s, Penny and Pablo, she works full time as an Employment Specialist Extraordinaire. Kathleen was raised in a family of readers and writers, including her mom, Joan, whom she considers her creative inspiration and biggest supporter. Joan has taught her one of the most important lessons in her writing and more importantly, life, and that lesson is, “Get out of your own way.”