By Ross West
My beloved, crazy, generous, funny, bawdy, loopy, glamorous, tragic Aunt Ruth died and was buried at a Vancouver cemetery in a downpour. Most of the gathered mourners huddled beneath a canopy erected for the graveside service. I was among the two-dozen or so who didn’t fit under the shelter and stood nearby clutching our umbrellas, a patch of black mushrooms. To the sound of the drops popping on the stretched fabric of my little protective dome, I craned my neck to take in the rite—the solemnity, the mumbled words, the rain-bright colours, and most of all Ruth’s body, once so vibrant, now lifeless, inert, boxed up for eternity.
The memory from many decades ago, my twenties, welled up recently while I was in a department store shopping for a new umbrella. The one that caught my eye throbbed with a tie-dye pattern of swirling rainbow colours—a wink of whimsy to bring a little cheer to our soggy struggle with Oregon’s ceaseless rains and oppressive monochrome skies.
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Umbrella in hand, I took my place in the long line of customers waiting to check out. My mind began to wander . . . what if I’d had this umbrella at Aunt Ruth’s funeral? The rebellious young man I was would have delighted in popping it open, delivering a technicolour manifesto of my individuality, freedom, and style, loudly advertising my unwillingness to conform to colourless convention.
How anxious and uncertain I was about my identity in those days so long ago. How desperately I tried to carve myself a face.
The line moved, and I shuffled forward one place closer to the cashier.
Today when I look in the mirror, I see my face and its many familiar flaws, but I also see the faces of a hundred others too—family, friends, colleagues. We stand together, temporary survivors, protected from the rain under our flimsy nylon domes. We play out for one another our parts in the rituals we’ve created to salve the pains of our inevitable loss. We remember, we mourn; we howl with grief for the one whose number has been called.
And we’re damn grateful we have not yet moved to the front of that inescapable line.
Ross West has placed fiction, essays, journalism, and poetry in publications from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. His work has been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest, Best of Dark Horse Presents and elsewhere. He served as senior managing editor of Oregon Quarterly magazine and as a text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.