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Invitation to the Funeral

Ruth Z. Deming

Pastor Diana Wright was delivering the Sunday sermon at Hope Church when an idea flitted through her mind. She paused but a moment, licked her lips, and continued speaking from Jeremiah 6:16.

The one hundred people seated in the blond-wood pews were used to her Yankee accent as she intoned, with feeling, “This is what the Lord says: Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Her congregation was very fond of her, often visiting her office for wise counsel. Many was the marriage she had saved, and many young people gave up their wayward ways when she founded “The Rebels With a Cause.” Who would ever believe that teenagers like Bobby Ives and Mary Ann Stokely gave up using cocaine and alcohol in order to visit prisoners in the state penitentiary and read them verses from the Bible.

Donning her jeans, a light spring jacket and sneakers, Diana drove over to Janet Brickman’s house. The church had helped her over the years to pay her rent and do the many repairs necessary so the house wouldn’t collapse upon itself.

Diana walked up the steps toward the small unpainted wooden house, knocked several times, and walked in. She never knew how she’d find Janet. She might still be in bed or lying on the floor or nowhere to be found.

Diana passed through the sparsely furnished living room and then walked into the bedroom, which always reminded her of van Gogh’s colorful bedroom, though Janet’s illness was nothing like the great artist’s mental illness with suicidal thoughts.

Janet lay in bed in her clothes, a short black skirt and red tank top. Her face, arms and legs glistened with sweat. Diana pulled the cord for the ceiling fan which was right above the bed.

“Thanks for coming, Pastor Diana,” said Janet, in little more than a whisper. “I knew you would.”

It was all Janet could do to speak.

She had a rare disease she learned about only three years earlier when she passed out while driving her old model Escort. The tree she drove into barely had a dent, but the red Ford Escort was totaled.

Janet, forty-nine, stayed in the hospital nearly two months. Tests showed nothing, so, with funding from Hope Church, the cardiologist, Zina Azmajian, sat beside her bed, and took a complete history.

Janet, who breathed through a tube in her nostrils, answered laboriously. Yes, she had been an alcoholic for maybe two years after her boyfriend left her, but that, said the cardiologist, had nothing to do with her final diagnosis.

Eisenmenger syndrome was a rare and fatal genetic disease of the heart. Possibly Janet’s mother, who died of unknown causes at age forty, had it, too. Her mother’s death was classified as a “heart attack.”

Janet was spared the “clubbed fingertips,” which were enlarged at the nails. She did, however, possess the purple tinge of skin, from perennial high blood pressure.

Though Janet was horrified by the symptoms, she also found them fascinating.

“Doctor Zina,” she said. “Thank you so much for coming to the hospital. What’s my prognosis?”

The doctor told her she could die the next day or live until eighty.

“It looks, though, that your version of Eisenmenger’s is encroaching rather quickly on your life. We will keep in touch.”

* * *

Pastor Diana, sitting at Janet’s bedside, fanned herself with the morning’s sermon.

“Have you eaten today, dear?” the pastor asked.

Janet shook her head.

“He…Jack should be coming…later. To help me eat.”

“Good!” said the pastor, in the chipper voice she used on this parishioner. “You need to sit up.”

She grabbed Janet’s sweaty shoulders and sat her up. “Be right back,” she said, fetching a cold washcloth from the bathroom.

Before the pastor washed her down, she opened two windows in the bedroom. Immediately cool breezes floated inside. Two paper napkins fluttered off the bedside table and skittered across the floor.

"I´m saved," laughed Janet, breathlessly.

The pastor sat back down in the green chair.

“Your time here on earth is getting shorter,” she said. “Do you have any questions you’d like to ask me?”

Janet, who still had the black hair of her youth, threaded with only a few strands of silver, said, “I don’t know if I’m afraid to die or not. Doctor Zina told me I could die tomorrow or live until eighty.”

The two women were silent a moment.

Breathlessly, Janet reviewed part of her life for the pastor. It was none too happy. No long-term relationships, no children, no family.

The only thing she was proud of, she said, was her ability to dance.

“Never knew that, dear!” the pastor said with enthusiasm.

Janet swiveled her torso and raised her hands slowly in the air.

“Always makes me smile,” offered Janet. "The next Ginger Rogers!"

The pastor excused herself and walked around the house, her feet creaking on the floor.

When she returned, she said, "I’d like to propose something to you, my dear."

In low tones, she explained her idea to Janet.

Janet smiled. "Yes, I´d like that. I´d like that very much."

* * *

It was a typical hot day in Lexington, Virginia, part of the Shenandoah Valley.

Cars and trucks - many with gun racks in the back - began arriving early for the funeral at Hope Church.

A lemonade stand was set up outside, run by the young McNeal Girls, who wore matching red-checkered outfits. As overweight Mrs. Sidney helped herself to three Styrofoam cups of lemonade, she commented, “That pastor of ours, whatever is she thinking!”

“Oh, she’s all right,” Maggie Hunter commented. “In fact, she’s the best one we ever got. That old wrinkled one we had before her, what was his name, Pastor Anderson? I don’t think anyone really liked him atall!”

A dozen whirring fans were set up inside the church. The sunshine shone through the stained glass in front of the church. The melancholy Christ was there in his accustomed place, candles were lit on the stage and flickered merrily, and the elders sat in the chocolate-colored chairs on the dais, adjusting themselves and walking about.

A magnificent casket, dark mahogany, sat in the middle of the stage. The elders would walk over to it, nod their heads and go back to their seats.

At noon, the bells rang from the church tower.

Pastor Diana, with her lively mind, remembered one of her favorite movies, Vertigo, with Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. Ironically, Novak had fallen to her death from the church tower.

The pastor chose beautiful vestments for Janet’s funeral. She stood regal as a bishop in satiny black and maroon, her hands clasped together, as she welcomed the congregation.

The church was packed.

“We are here on behalf of Janet Brickman," she began. “Few people even knew she had a last name!”

The audience laughed. “Many of you have come from out of town to remember one of God’s children. We thank you for that. I will tell you now, our Janet had a rare and fatal genetic disease called Eisenmenger syndrome. Don’t worry, it’s so rare, not even fifty people a year are born with it.

“One of Janet’s most proud accomplishments was her ability to dance,” she said, looking at the congregation.

“Miss Julie, will you join us?”

A blonde woman in a calf-length flowing dress and ballet slippers danced up to the stage.

“Miss Julie Walker is a retired dancer from the Mark Morris Group in New-York-City! Thank you so much, Julie, for joining us.”

Julie had blonde hair tied in a French knot atop her head. Had anyone gotten close, they would have seen her blue eyes, and known that her three-year-old son had the very same eyes.

With tremendous energy – and she must be in her forties - Miss Julie danced, sometimes going so fast, she was simply a blur. The audience hooted and cheered, proud they had their very own ballerina.

“For you, Miss Janet Brickman,” said Julie at the end, as she sashayed off the stage.

A black-haired man ascended the stage.

“Janet. I always had a crush on you in high school. I never married. Now it’s too late. Am gonna dedicate my life to you, doing some sort of community work. You’ll help me, won’t you, Pastor Diana?”

The pastor nodded and pointed to the back of the church.

A stir was heard. Light shown through the side windows, blinds drawn to protect the celebrants from the heat.

A bed was rolled up the ramp to the pulpit. Jack and Maria, who came every other day to feed Janet, placed the bed on the space where Miss Julie had danced.

And there was Janet Brickman, herself. Jack and Maria helped her sit up. Looking pale but contented, she blew kisses to the audience. She was dressed all in white, a lacy gown that looked remarkably like a bridal gown.

The applause went on and on.

Three days later Miss Janet Brickman passed, without any pain. Her tombstone lies in the church’s graveyard behind the church.

The gray tombstone is inscribed with a saying from The Psalms: Let them praise His name with dancing; Let them sing praises to Him with timbrel and lyre.

It´s a popular picnic spot, where blankets are spread out, lemonade and iced tea poured, and finger sandwiches served. After which, the dancing begins.