The worst part of swimming was always when they pulled the trigger.
She knew intellectually this was about making a sound so loud everyone could hear it, above all the family dins on the sidelines, and all the private anxieties echoing at the starting line. She knew it was about making sure everyone had possession of the same moment, about making absolutely sure they could all start at once, together: Dive in, swim safely across. Focus on the absence of the sound until the sound came, and they could begin. She knew that. But did it have to be such a scary, awful sound?
The day they put Marlene in the ground, next to Eddie, nobody wanted to admit why they were there, because they thought it was a tragedy. That disease lurked in her house and the shadows and eventually came for her; that she was swallowed by the abyss. They thought that her illness had finally betrayed her. Tomorrow was the last day of summer and the days were getting shorter, and nobody wanted to admit that Marlene died because something sick and scary and unimaginable forced her to pull back the hammer and press steel to her head and squeeze the trigger. Forced her.
Only Cathy understood that Marlene was the victor, that night. She didn't get killed by the disease, she killed the disease. It was her last act of will and a testament to that will that she chose the moment for herself, after she could no longer trust the world. Marlene sent a letter to her daughters, it arrived the day after she died, and what it said was that she wanted to go, now, because she couldn't trust herself not to do something stupid. Marlene was mostly pride, they thought, because they couldn't imagine that much strength.
Marlene arranged her funeral for herself, in those days leading up to everything. Balloons and polka music, lottery scratch-offs passed like appetizers. Cathy thought it was wonderful, because Cathy saw choice. Everybody else saw defeat. Paul saw his wife dying in slow motion, refusing treatment, letting hope poke out its head every now and again -- as a tree, sometimes; sometimes it took the form of a hive of bees -- but standing still when she should be running.
"She shot herself in the fucking head, this is not beautiful."
Maybe he was right.
The daughters smiled out at the congregation, and took their measure, and explained that Marlene hated polka music. That those who knew and loved her knew this was a lie: "She said the only way to dance to it makes you look like an asshole," they laugh. Her daughters loved her, but they knew what she was about. They couldn't imagine her strength, until they saw it. Her harshness, for what it was; her love that never looked quite like love. "But every time my dad pulled out his accordion, it always brought a smile to her face."
Cathy wondered about her own funeral, tested it like pushing on a bruise. Maybe she would have a band. Not polka, maybe a marching band. Souza and circumstance. Paul didn't want to think about it, he thought she was just running. He didn't understand how much Marlene had given his wife. He didn't understand that Cathy never saw options --that if she looked at them all, she'd be paralyzed -- so he thought the option she was learning was death. It was the act of choice itself. Pulling the trigger.
Paul and Cathy, after the service, eschewed the scratch-offs. Paul because it was inappropriate; Cathy because it wouldn't help. But when an old woman threw her ticket in the air, she was happy for her. She was able to be happy for her. Adam sat far away, texting with Mia, feeling nothing; it made Cathy afraid and a little hurt. She'd thought he loved Marlene as much as she did. But there he sat, unwilling to talk, insensate to the mourners. He had no questions and no remembrances. She prepared herself to worry at him until he exploded and knew it would probably do no good, but she gave him permission to go to the movies later with Mia. And when he asked her for twenty bucks, she stared at him and he left. Perhaps to find a scratch-off.
Sean was a mess, at the funeral, in a borrowed suit jacket and a semi-clean white v-neck, repeating a mantra again and again. Don't like death don't like death thinking good thoughts thinking good thoughts, he repeated. And Cathy knew he wasn't pretending. She saw him fall to it, on the banks of the Mississippi. "I know you hate this. Marlene tried to make it nice..." she said, but he was too far inside.
"Yeah, I should never have come. My palms are sweaty, my chest is compressed. And it feels like a spirit keeps running its hands through my hair." Cathy thought it was bad, but not as bad as Adam's complete shutdown. "Marlene pulled a gun on him, and then shot herself," she reminded her brother, but Sean said it would be fine. She knew how her son worked. It would take a while.
When Rebecca appeared, Sean's shivering redoubled and he hid behind a tombstone. The last time he saw her, she'd called him a cunt and thrown a coffee mug at his head with a terrible cry. "If she murders me, you throw me on top of Marlene. We're running out of room to put people." Everywhere the people were scratching off their lottery tickets, shouting with delight. Little moments of joy, over the polka music, and tomorrow was the last day of summer.
Rebecca was late, but she came. She went into the supportive friend routine that always looked, on her, like an ill-fitting dress just back from the cleaners, but Cathy didn't mind. She'd spent so much time ignoring the things she didn't love about the people she did, it was nice to look at them and see: Just them.
"It's hard to be sad when every five minutes someone wins $20 in a scratch-off," Cathy smiled, and Rebecca sighed a quiet laugh. "It's quite an affair," she said, Sean watching them from behind a stone. "I am so glad it's a closed casket. My grandpa had an open casket and I have this recurring dream now about his death face trying to kiss me..." Rebecca spotted Sean and came for him, in her stilettos on the grass, but he ran. She called his name, arms spread wide, horrified. But he kept running.
The daughters didn't love her, when they met her. She said her name and their faces settled into wariness. She was the daughter Marlene would never let them be. They had no idea how hard Cathy worked, to get inside that house. Barging in, for weeks, to curse at Marlene or bring her gifts, to take her places and have drinks with her. Becoming friends, with a single-mindedness they don't understand yet.
Lorna was taller and more severe; Gina was shorter, with a wife named Buttercup. The wife smiled, spacey, and told Cathy her hair was like a waterfall. They seemed like nice women, all together. Hard and a little unhappy. But Marlene seemed the same way, for a long time. Until she learned to love her.
"Your mom, she talked about you all the time. She was so proud of the two of you!"
The daughters smiled mordantly; she was talking Cathy language to Marlene people. They shook their heads. "Mom was a lot of things, but she was not proud." When Gina would call she'd say, "Hey, Bulldyke! How are things in Atlanta?" And for twenty-five years Marlene called Lorna's Jewish husband "That white witch you live with." Cathy nodded: "So we are talking about the same Marlene." They liked her a bit more, after that.