The old stone chapel was filled with familiar faces. There were faces from Skywalker Ranch and other Lucas parties, faces I had photographed in my studio, faces from my bridal shower, my wedding, and Tatiana’s birth.
I kept my head down.
As the pregnant widow, all eyes were on me, but I did not want to be seen. Direct eye contact would break me open in a way that I would not be ready to be broken open for years.
Dressed in an ankle-length maternity skirt, long-sleeve black shirt, and the comfortable three-inch heels that had taken me hours to find just the day before, I sat in the front pew.
My brother, Troy, and his wife, Jen, sat next to me. Only ten feet separated us from the blanket of red roses that crawled down the sides of Erik’s casket.
The four days since his death had swarmed me. There were so many things to do and I couldn’t believe I was doing any of them.
I had not been prepared to spend hours on the phone with Organ Donations while we figured out which organs Erik would want me to give away. Nor had I been prepared to think about a lawsuit against his cardiologist.
Then there were the service arrangements.
The trips to the florist, the funeral home. The careful selection of the perfect casket, the stainless steel urns that Erik would have liked the best.
Going through all of our music. Listening to every lyric. I wanted the songs for the funeral service to have meaning. I wanted the words to make sense. But how could anything make sense?
The endless sorting out of photos from our Florida State days. Photographs from our first months in California. The two of us stepping in dog poop in Paris. Erik’s tearful joy while holding Tatiana for the first time. Our days as a family. At the beach. Tatiana, dressed as a Halloween kitty cat, in her little wagon. Bundled up hikes to Tennessee Valley.
I wanted the photo collages to show us as we were: silly, in love, blessed. And they did.
All of the running around had paid off. Everyone had rallied. The generosity and support from hundreds of people was overwhelming.
The chapel looked beautiful. Erik would have been pleased.
My grandfather’s cousin, Stephanie, stood on the chapel’s stage, behind a podium, in a long black robe. A tall powerful presence, with brown and grey hair, she was a minister in the Church of the Healing Light. She was a believer in the continuation of spirit. A believer that we could talk to spirits.
Was it possible that I could talk to Erik? That he was there?
I didn’t know what I believed.
Stephanie fiddled behind the podium, arranging the tape recorder.
I had asked her to make sure that everything was recorded for the girls so that, when they were old enough, I could let them hear each word that was spoken about their father.
The chapel hushed as Stephanie cleared her throat.
She began to speak. “Many of us are saying how can this be? I was just with him. I just waved to him, down the hall, at the office. Just gave him a hug. Just kissed him goodnight . . . and yet, here we are.”
There were sniffles all around.
“Death is a tragedy,” Stephanie continued. “This death is a great tragedy. But we cannot say that Erik’s life was a tragedy. It was a joy. It was beautiful. It was love. And you all, who are here today, are the living proof of that.”
Our “first dance” wedding song played softly on the overhead system. Mariah Carey’s voice sang up to the chapel’s red and orange stained glass:
“I will never be too far away to feel you. I won’t hesitate at all, whenever you call.”
She leaned into the podium, her hair swaying from side to side. “The thing about Erik was the intensity in which he lived his life. His intense love for his family. For his friends. For his wife. For his child . . . and his child to come.”
I felt a hand squeeze my shoulder from the pew behind mine and I turned to see my grandmother’s 81 year-old face flushed with redness.
Erik, Tatiana and I had just been to visit her in Tucson two weeks before. We had just been in my grandparents’ swimming pool, splashing around. Erik had just bought her that exquisite purple orchid and written them a thank you note for being the grandparents that he’d never had.
I cried, quietly.
Stephanie went on. “There are so many things to say about Erik, so many wonderful things, and we’d love to hear now, from those of you who would like to speak.”
There was silence all around.
“Come on up,” Stephanie said. “Don’t be shy.”
Jen stood up first. She walked up the steps, her small frame coveted by a black dress. She held the podium with both hands.
"I’m Jen. Erik’s sister- in-law. The minute I first met Erik, we hit it off. It didn’t take long for him to become a brother to me. He was, is, and always will be . . . a beautiful man, inside and out . . . and I am honored to have spent so much time with him.”
She shifted her weight back and forth, trying to keep her composure. “At the hospital, I could feel him all around us . . . and I could feel him looking into my eyes . . . and saying ‘you have to take care of my family now.’”
Jen’s voice shook. She looked right at me. “And I will, Hyla. You know I will.”
I gripped my belly and sobbed.
I thought of Tatiana, how she looked that morning when I dropped her off at daycare. She pressed herself against the metal gate, clenched her little hands around the bars, and screamed, “Ma-ma, Ma-ma, Ma-ma,” through the two inch openings.
I did not want her to be at the funeral, to have to see Erik made-up and stiff when we opened the casket.
I hadn’t been able to tell her about her daddy’s death yet. What could I say?
The night before, I had rocked her, in the dark, while I cried on the shoulder of her soft purple pajamas. She knew I was sad. She knew the house was full of people and chaos. But I had to tell her something. I wanted to pretend that Erik was away, on a trip. That he’d be back any time.
And Keira, our unborn child, how would I tell her that I felt too overwhelmed to take care of her? That I had thoughts of not wanting her?
This was the beginning of a guilt that would hover over my life. The guilt from not being able to handle my own children. Guilt from not being able to handle myself.