Blunders: Over coffee and coffins

A heartbreakingly beautiful day in June; the sky a piercing blue; the breeze so gentle it hurts. My grandmother’s red rose bush stirs, its delicate petal-heads nodding in accordance against the blinding white wall of our house. We are choosing a coffin for my father, her son. Wherever he is now, she is already there.

I am sitting on the terrace with my boyfriend, Sam, while my mother is inside with a representative from the funeral home, preparing coffee and cake for us to share over this daunting task (perhaps in an effort to make it seem a little more palatable). Sam and I are looking at a catalogue the representative has brought; a catalogue depicting the various coffins available: mahogany or metal alloy, velvet-upholstered or cotton-padded, engraved or unadorned. Life-sized boxes to bury the dead. My father died a few days ago, and I can’t imagine putting him under ground in a box, gold-plated or otherwise. This is surreal, like watching the film of your life unspool, your character’s part unrecognizable and dis-inhabited. I am hurt and infuriated that time won’t stop for me to process this colossal loss, that I am supposed to sit here and “move forward,” which apparently means glossing over the impossibility — literally, picking a lacquer for the box containing the person — and burying it. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream, but no matter what I do, I can’t undo this.

My mom rounds the corner carrying her edible/drinkable offerings, the salesman of coffins trailing behind. She sets the tray down on the table and pulls up two chairs for herself and the man to join us. Sam and I are huddled together on the bench, more like one creature than two. We haven’t met the coffin representative yet, although we’ve been surveying the goods in his catalogue. By way of introduction, my mom gestures towards us in turn, mumbling in German “meine Tochter” — my daughter — and “Sam Beebe” rather indistinctly. We raise ourselves to shake Mr. Zirngiebel’s hand, then sit back down, close as Siamese twins. Zirngiebel’s gaze remains fixed on us, preoccupied. He twists his neck and squints at our laps and the crack between our bodies, as if something were hidden there. Finally he asks, somewhat perplexed: “Wo ist das Baby?” (“Where is the baby?”)

The hilarity of this fells me. The poor man has been misled by Sam’s unusual English name — Beebe — and is looking for a baby, which surely has to be wedged between us. The absurd tension of the whole scenario cracks, and ricochets through me, released as rippling sound waves. I can’t stop laughing, although and because I am keenly aware of Zirngiebel’s embarrassment and confusion.

******

I’m not even sure if it was his blunder — a ridiculous misinterpretation in a somber situation — or mine — inconcealable, prolonged mirth in the face of an understandable, uncomfortable mistake — or no blunder at all. Whatever it was, it alleviated the atmosphere of dread and despair, and, for a few minutes, shook me with impish glee. The memory still makes me laugh, although it might not be as inherently funny as I thought, and perhaps does not translate or travel well. I think blunders are often the result of a situational comedy that resists re-creation. I suspect that blunders occur more frequently in particularly charged, important-seeming moments because we are so determined to “get it right,” and therefore more likely to screw it up. The thing is, screwing it up can be for the better, alleviating the burden of upholding a perfect version of reality. Blunders throw us out of our scripted roles and planned scenarios into the unpredictable, messy scramble of day-to-day living and dying, to which there are no rules.

 

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