My Deepest Sympathy

By Katharina Bendixen

Translation Helen MacCormac

I couldn’t stop laughing when we buried my mother, but there was nothing funny about her death. She got ill all of a sudden, lay in hospital for a few weeks and then one night she died, before I had time to say goodbye. We’d never been best friends or anything like that, but we always got on in our own sort of way. Sometimes we’d go out shopping. She used to ask me what everyone was wearing and then she’d splash out, buy herself a nice top and a dress for me. We used to talk on the phone for hours, and now I can’t remember what we talked about. Sometimes, we didn’t hear from each other for a week or two, for no reason.

My father, my grandmother and I stood in a row in the car park; the gravel had dusted our black shoes white. We shook hands with the mourners and they all mumbled the same words, ‘Sorry for your loss,’ or ‘my condolences,’ or, ‘you have my deepest sympathy.’ I don’t know if it was the endless repetitions that got to me, or the hushed voices, the sameness of it all. I started to grin when the priest gave the homily. I giggled when the organ played. When we left the vestry, I actually laughed out loud. Luckily, it wasn’t the kind of funeral where all the mourners walk to the graveside behind the coffin. After the service, we drove directly to the reception. I laughed when the car stopped at a red light. I laughed when I ordered a cup of coffee with plenty of milk and after every bite of lemon sponge cake.

‘It’s just nerves,’ everyone said, and people kept hugging me before I could fend them off. But I knew it wasn’t nerves. It was something else, something hiding deep inside me. I was really worried that it had nothing to do with my mother’s death; that it had been there all along and had simply decided to show its face for the first time now.
During the next few years, I often dreamt about my mother. She’d be sitting at the kitchen table in front of a chopping board loaded with cheese and tomatoes and grapes. Dad was still at work and she was making sandwiches for when he came home. ‘I might be going to die,’ she said and buttered a slice of bread. I didn’t say anything. ‘You might not get to say goodbye,’ she said and topped it with cheese. I didn’t say anything. ‘You might have to laugh at my funeral,’ she said and put the cheese sandwich onto a plate with all the other sandwiches. I always wanted to ask her why I had to laugh. I wanted to know if she minded. But I couldn’t say anything. It felt like someone was holding my mouth shut.

At some point the dreams went away. Though my father didn’t stop dreaming about her. ‘Last night,’ he’d sometimes say, ‘I saw your Mum again.’ We never talked about her much, but when we did, we were always honest. My father wouldn’t give up the flat he’d shared with my mother for thirty years. In the beginning, I couldn’t stand being there, even for an hour. But I got used to it after a while. I met a couple of men, I got promoted. A lot of things turned out better than I’d hoped. Some even seemed easy.
It took me four years to realise that something was wrong. A good friend asked me to accompany her to a funeral. Her ex-boyfriend had been killed in a motorcycling accident or out on his bike, I can’t remember. But I know she was having a bad time. It was a nasty separation and they hadn’t been able to forgive each other. ‘Write a letter,’ I told her, ‘write down everything you wanted to tell him.’ My friend laughed in a weird sort of way and I realised that my advice was stupid. Stupid and hurtful because it was just something to say.

The mourners stood around in the car park waiting for the two or three closest relatives to line up ready to shake hands and listen to the same old words. ‘Sorry for your loss,’ or ‘my condolences,’ or less often ‘you have my deepest sympathy.’ I felt something start to flutter deep down inside. I bit the inside flesh of my cheek, pinched the back of my hands, curled up my toes tight inside my black shoes, tried to disguise my laughter as tears. Then I turned my back on everyone. I could feel their eyes watching me. No doubt they thought I was the ex-girlfriend, a sister, a cousin maybe. The fact that even the closest relatives were so easily fooled made me laugh even more. My friend touched me on my shoulder. ‘Is everything all right?’ she asked. And when she realised that I wasn’t crying, she said, ‘What are you doing? What’s wrong?’
After that funeral, I started dreaming about my mother again. I dreamt we were back at the kitchen table and she was making more sandwiches for my father. She said the same things she’d said before, and still I couldn’t speak. But when I woke up I felt drained, rather than sad. I told my father and he shrugged his shoulders, and looked away as if it was all his fault.

Some things did get better in time, but the anniversary of her death was always bad. We both hated going to the graveyard, so we bought flowers instead and put them in his flat. We’d have coffee and cake, and talk about the illness, about her final days, about the funeral. Sometimes we’d look at old photos. If one of us got sad, we’d hug each other. One time, we tried to ignore the anniversary. We didn’t meet up or phone. But that didn’t make it any better.

***

I haven’t been to another funeral since. But today my father phoned to say that his aunt, my great aunt, had died. ‘The funeral is next week,’ he said, ‘I can’t go on my own. What am I going to wear, anyway?’ ‘I’m very busy at the moment,’ I answered, ‘I don’t think I could take a whole day off.’ We talked about the garden, about the fruit he wanted to pick at the weekend. I promised to look up a recipe for blackberry jam.

I’m seeing someone. Last weekend we went for a walk. This time we meet in a restaurant. It was his idea. He’s a slow eater, his manners are nice and he’s really good with the waiters. There are some men I like talking to about my mother, and some I don’t. The ones who are brave enough to ask about her usually last more than a couple of weeks. This one asks. He actually asks the most moving questions anyone has ever asked me. ‘Do you look like your mother?’ he wants to know and, ‘do you get your cautiousness from her?’ We sit talking for a long time, but I end up going home after the last glass of wine.

During the night, I see my mother again. The dream is the same as before, only this time no one is holding my mouth shut. I can’t think of anything to say, so I watch quietly while she makes sandwiches for my father.

I have never told anyone that I laugh at funerals.
The telephone rings again. It’s not the man, it is my father. He wants me to help him buy a black suit. We decide to meet at the market square.

‘Is it for a sad occasion?’ the shop assistant wants to know. My father shakes his head and says, ‘For a wedding, black seems easiest.’ The assistant is charmed by my father. He’s a charming man and he tells her all the little jokes he used to save for my mother. I stand back and watch his reflection in the mirror. Since my mother died, he has lost two kilos every year, so of course he looks great. I can’t think of any father who wouldn’t.

‘We’ll take in a tuck here,’ the assistant says holding a bit of cloth between two outstretched fingers. ‘We’ll need a day or two.’ I stop listening to my father’s jokes. The pale blonde woman in the mirror is me.

‘What about you?’ My father asks as we’re leaving the men’s department. ‘What shall we get for you?’ ‘I still don’t know if I’ll be able to come,’ I say, ‘and I’ve got enough black clothes, anyway. Let’s get something to eat.’ Our favourite Chinese restaurant is only a few streets away. We order the same dishes as always. We don’t mention the funeral. I have no idea if my father liked his aunt, I don’t know if she used to play with him when he was a child, or if he ever phoned her when he grew up. I only met her once and remember her having a huge neck. ‘It’s a goitre,’ my mother told me; and I was surprised that something so scary could have such a silly name.

I wish I knew what to ask when I see my mother during the night. I used to want to know why I laughed at her funeral and whether she minded. But somehow, it doesn’t matter anymore. And I don’t think it matters to my mother either. Maybe there’s a different question that is more important.
‘Are you going to go or not?’ my father wants to know, on the phone. The funeral is tomorrow. And he has already phoned three times so far, today. But I was out, working, meeting the man. When I don’t answer straight away, he says, ‘We should both be experts at funerals really, but we’re not. I haven’t even picked up the suit, yet. It’s odd, isn’t it?’

Last night I stayed with the man. We didn’t make love, but we lay very close together. Usually, it takes me months to get that close to someone. I didn’t tell him that I laugh at funerals and I’m not going to tell him. But I told him other things, things I normally keep to myself for much longer. How I used to get annoyed when I was a child if people said that I looked like my mother. How I sometimes didn’t want to hold her hand because of the shape of her fingers. We stayed up half the night talking about my parents and his until we fell asleep.

I woke up just before dawn and saw my mother. She was sitting on a chest of drawers, eating all the sandwiches she had made over the years. A great pile of cheese and tomato sandwiches and she had only managed to eat half so far. I knew that she was going to stay until the plate was empty. I had all that time to ask the right question. But I didn’t need much time because there wasn’t a right question. There was just this one last meeting. So I said, ‘Those sandwiches are ancient, are you sure they’re okay?’ My mother looked up and nodded and then I knew it was all right. I knew that there are people who laugh at funerals and people who cry when someone is born. Some of us are terrified of thunderstorms and others fear the sun. A lot of people run away when they see a spider, but some of us keep them in terrariums and even give them names. Everyone has something hidden deep down inside. It’s just that most people don’t let it show.

‘I don’t really want to be that sort of an expert,’ I tell my father on the phone. ‘Two ordinary people should be able to do this, too.’

We’re going to fetch the suit tomorrow morning and then we’ll set off. Perhaps we can get a cup of coffee somewhere on the way. It’s an early start. The funeral is out in the country, in a little village about a hundred and fifty kilometres away. It’s the village where my mother and father grew up. We used to go there for walks sometimes. Then they’d tell me about the olden days. About the village pond where they used to play all day long until their parents came and dragged them out by their hair, about the old carpenter who had lost a finger and an eye. And about the September day when they kissed for the first time.

Translator’s Note

What I love about all Katharina’s work is the way she uses everyday situations and a deceptively straightforward style of writing to generate an unexpected sense of something that is definitely not quite right. In ‘My Deepest Sympathy’, a young woman laughs at her mother’s funeral but apart from that she seems to be ok…. You watch as she comes to terms with her grief, and then all of a sudden you’re overwhelmed by her sadness. The concise wording and the gentle rhythm are central to the story, and form the basis of this translation. I found that if I could get the words right, the rhythm would come, too. Sometimes it felt more like translating poetry than prose, so I was especially pleased when it started to gel.  

From  Gern, wenn du willst © poetenladen 2012