Following the reception, Grandma waited for her ride home with the flag from Pap's casket in her lap.
This was a strange day. I was out 'til midnight yesterday having beers with Dad. After I got home, I was up until 2 am rewriting the eulogy Mom had put together for this morning's service. It was too emotional, too personal, and had no ending. Mom never would have made it through the thing without breaking down at the pulpit. Our family does great things in helping others develop their works, but we're terrible at editing our own. (See also: this very website.) Mom, who had more than once coached teams of her students to national championship levels in forensics, could somehow not edit her own speech for the eulogy. When it came time to read my version, she made it to the very last sentence before she broke into tears. I consider that a major success.
Aside from tearing up when I saw mom crying, something I've learned I can't control in the few times I've seen it happen, I made it through the service with maintained composure. The finality of this event only hit me as we unloaded Pap's casket from the hearse and lined it up with his slot in the mausoleum. I snapped out of a protective daze at that moment. "Oh shit, this is happening," said a voice, other than the one I was using to speak to people today, to me in my head. The image of the casket at that moment was then affixed to the lid of the mental box I'd been assembling for all the day's memories of sights and sounds.
The reception was held in the St. Alphonsus school cafeteria, where I ate lunch every day through the eight years I went there. While we cleaned up the trays of cookies and packed leftovers, she sat patiently, silently. I've never been to an event with Grandma where she didn't help clean up afterwards, whether or not she was involved in making the mess.
Did she understand fully what had happened, that her husband was dead now? I did not see her weeping today. It wouldn't be her style. But it would also be the style of someone who had no idea of what was going on. Maybe she's holding it together because she wants to. I get that. I was doing something similar, because I wanted to avoid losing it in front of people. Pap's death is a major emotional trauma for me. When people asked how I was holding up, I gave them the Obi Wan line. "He may be gone, but he'll always be the blue hologram in the corner for me. This is totally true, in that advice from Pap will guide most every decision I make from here to eternity, but it's also a joke, and telling a joke is a good way to not cry like a baby in front of your cousins and a room full of other people you've not seen since childhood.
After I took the photo of Grandma sitting alone with the flag, I went over to talk with her.
"How's it going?" was the best thing I could think to ask. In a controlled but slightly trembling voice, she said only "he lived a good life" with the intoned confidence she usually employed to declare incontestable observations like "them's the brakes." She formed maybe another sentence or two while we sat, but I was too busy then trying to figure out where she was in this moment, if it was something I could possibly understand, to hear what she was saying.
I wondered if I'd have to remind her to take the flag with her when she got up to leave. She managed it on her own. In spite of the effects of Alzheimer's, which seem to get in the way of her remembering details for any other thing at every other time, she didn't let the flag out of her sight.