At the Mercy Meal

Lindsay Starck

At the Mercy Meal, the servers clear plates of hummus and tabbouleh while your cousin Edna clutches memories of your Aunt Kathy in gnarled hands. (Four years ago, it was Kathy who pushed back her chair in this very restaurant and thanked the assembly for their memories of her mother.) The cold November light pools in the parking lot and glimmers silver through the windows. We flew one thousand miles last night, landed in the smallest, darkest morning hours, and slipped briefly into an unfamiliar bed together. We have spent the day swaying on our feet. I can feel your gaze on me, here at the table; I know that you see me cup my forehead, briefly, in my palm. I’m so tired. I’m sorry. 

The faces turned toward your cousin Edna are heavy-browed, jowly. Four long tables lined with descendants that have sprouted from a single branch. (Six months from now, when we are disinfecting our doorknobs and canceling our trip to reconnect with your extended family in Beirut, I’ll wonder if I will ever see the holy grove of cedar trees before they vanish.) I’m watching your Uncle Jack, sitting low in his chair at the end of the table nearest us, his gray knit cap pulled to his ears, the cancer cells blooming through his brain. I can’t be the only person in this crowded room who is silently tallying the months, weeks, hours, minutes that he has left.

We applaud your cousin Edna and the salads arrive. Iceberg lettuce, wilted carrots, a bumpy pepperoncini. You slip down from your stool and vanish while I poke wearily at my tomatoes and listen to the murmur of your mother and your sister. (Two hours ago, through clouds of incense in the Maronite church, I watched your mother and your father speak together with the ease and wariness of strangers who used to love each other.) When the servers return, bearing white platters heavy with baked fish and chicken kabobs, you are still gone. Circulating between the tables, probably, clapping suited shoulders and kissing withered cheeks. As I look for you, I catch your Uncle Jack’s eye.

If this scene—these baskets of bread, this mediocre rice, that parking lot awash with light—is familiar to me from all the other funerals we’ve attended here, how much more familiar is it to him? He drags his fork across his plate and the room seems to collapse. When the walls steady again, we’ve all slid one year into the future. The meal is the same, my black dress is the same. Your sister is still here alone, and your father calls your mother by the wrong name again. But Uncle Jack is gone, and the speeches are for him. 

Your warm palm on my forearm pulls me back to the present. Exhaustion thunders in my ears, throbs inside my aching head. When my vision clears, you are handing me a paper cup of espresso, steamed milk, and vanilla. I sip it reverently, deciding that you’ve never looked more handsome. (Four hours ago, in the perfumed funeral home, you held me close and promised that I wouldn’t have to see the body.) After a while, the servers shuttle the plates away again. Your cousins slip into their wool coats and stack pieces of baklava on paper napkins for the drive.

 I carry my coat and my bag to an empty corner booth to wait out the extended Lebanese goodbyes. (Nine months from now, when Uncle Jack collapses in the shower, the government will not permit us to gather.) I watch you as if from a great distance, your words a low buzz, the whole dining room shimmering with clear white light. How terrifying it feels to be missing you now, so long before you are gone.