Inside Joke

“Did she say anything?” I ask. 

“No, she was very quiet at the end,” the nurse tells us. 

“Really? My mom, with nothing to say? Doesn’t sound like her,” I say, laughing 

“Goodness, Paige, your mother just died. Why are you making jokes?” Shelby asks me.  

Shelby looks stunned that I would say something like this because Shelby is a very nice person who does not make jokes in front of a dead body in a hospital room. I always knew my little brother would marry a woman nicer than me, just maybe not so rigid.  

Kevin cries, instead of making jokes, because he is not emotionally stunted like I am.  

Dad looks right at me. He tries not to laugh and works very hard to make sure it does not look like he is trying not to laugh, like the idea of laughing in this moment has not even occurred to him. But of course it has, because it’s a funny joke, and I’m very funny. Our mother who never stopped talking in her seventy-seven years now has nothing to say. It’s funny, because if it is a joke that she stopped talking then it means she never really did stop talking, which means she isn’t dead. If she isn’t dead, then the nurse didn’t send my dad and brother away last night to pick me up from the airportinsisting my mother had at least one more day in her, which means we didn’t all miss the moment when my mother died—alone in a hospital bed less than 48 hours after she was admitted—because that wouldn’t be very funny at all.  

“So, what are the next steps?” Dad asks the nurse.  

The nurse stares at me like I just sprouted a tail. She, like Shelby, must not have liked my joke.   

She says, “Well, we’ll prepare her body to be taken to the funeral home of your choice. There is some paperwork for you to fill out, Mr. Chianni, but then we’ll take care of the rest.” “Okay, thank you, then,” Dad answers. 

He is good at handling things. He does not need to ask more questions. He knows he can and will take care of everything Mom might need the same way he has since he married her fifty years ago, almost to the day. Their anniversary is six days from now. She always talked about how in their first years of marriage they never spent anniversaries together because he was always on work trips. Now she’s the one missing their anniversary. Joke’s on her. 

Kevin, Shelby, and I go down to the hospital cafeteria to wait while Dad fills out all the paperwork. He insists he can take care of this on his own. Kevin and I have no idea what to say to our newly widowed father, so we let him. I sip some watery coffee and eat a cinnamon roll that came out of a cellophane package.  

Sitting next to each other and opposite me at the table Kevin and Shelby look more like brother and sister than he and I do, with their matching dark brown hair and dark brown eyes, though his is more Hershey’s chocolate bar and hers deep wood like the furniture in their tasteful home. He got all his coloring from our dad. I have my mom’s blue eyes and light hair, her hair that has never grayed and is still as glimmering as it was when she was a teenager.  

“I’ll call family, I guess,” I say.  

“Alright,” Kevin answers.  

“How are you going to tell the kids?” I ask him. 

“We had a talk with them when your mother was admitted into the hospital, they know something is wrong. We’ll have a gentle discussion,” Shelby answers for him.  

They have five kids and live in a big house, big enough so a playhouse for the kids can fit inside the basement of the real house. The playhouse has its own set of stairs and a box for fake flowers on the windowsill. Outside of their basement, this playhouse would owe property taxes.  

“Okay. I’m sure Dad knows which funeral home we should go with. I can start looking into flowers,” I say.  

“A friend from church works with one of the best florists in town, I’ll get those arranged,” says Shelby.  

Shelby and Kevin know where everything good in town is because they bought a house close to our parents six years ago, in the kind of suburb where storefronts change every few years with another new chain establishment. So I can’t keep up with which grocery store might have the best flowers anymore. Instead of settling down close to family, I had moved to California to continue “building my life.”  Twenty-four years later I am not sure what that life is, only that I tell myself I worked very hard for it. 

“Okay. Thank you. There should be plenty of gerbera daisies, Mom’s favorite,” I say.  

“Yes, pink and orange. She liked those best when we sent them for her birthday,” Shelby says. This memory makes Shelby cry. 

I nod and pretend like I didn’t just hear her refer to my mom in the past tense.  

Shelby lost her mother when she was only seventeen years old. Cancersomething long and tragic with plenty of warning. She has many sad memories of her mother and the depressing aftermath of a woman who lost her life too soon. It’s probably why she didn’t like my joke. She’s been through this; she knows what to do. Kevin and I are helpless in her eyes but, I think, no more helpless than anyone else would be in our situation. I don’t like her looking at us this way.  

Dad comes down with a pile of paperwork and says he’s ready to go home. Kevin and Shelby will go meet their kids, who are being babysat by some of the caring, thoughtful neighbors who surround their pleasant suburban enclave. I will go, on my own, with Dad.  

Kevin and I don’t have to say it out loud, but we are not surprised that Mom died before Dad. It’s morbid, but we knew it would happen like this. Not because he has any sort of secret to longevity he’s been practicing, but because he never seemed like the type of person who’d die. He’s a man who has traveled the world, met presidents in his years working on Capitol Hill, and in his retirement, collects fine wines. He will not die; rather, one night he will go to sleep and as he drifts off, he will realize there is nothing to do the next day that he has not already done before, so he’ll be finished with this world and not need to wake up in the morning. That will be it.  

He sleeps well and easy. I do neither of those things. I fall asleep like I watch a bad movie: miserably, unable to look away and ignore it—the movie, the sleep—but unable to do anything else either because like the cliché jokes and computer generated explosive scenes of a bad movie, my lack of sleep is too distracting. 

I knew Mom would die because she always had something going on and someday that thing would have to be death. Organizing book club, planning a board meeting, baking cookies to take to a friend’s birthday lunch, trying out Bridge at the insistence of a neighbor and hating how old she felt when she realized she enjoyed the game. These were things she did until Dad drove her to the hospital with a quick stop to refill the car with gas on the way. I did not imagine her with a bad case of pneumonia shutting down her lungs and leading to a terminal infection. I imagined one day she would have so much going on that she would decide to take a break and sit down and read a book with a cup of tea, maybe some lemon cookies too, and for the first time in her entire life she would read the book and feel no guilt, no nagging thoughts of all those things she should have been doing instead. At that moment her body would say Aha! Now that you’ve decided to let yourself rest, we’re not letting you stop. We gotchya! and that would be it. I thought, hoped, I might die the same way and could watch someone else do it first.  

I call my mom’s sister Lacey on our drive back to my parents’ house and tell her the news. She is shocked because she too thought we had at least one more day and we all agree to blame the nurse instead of my mom. Once we get back to my parents’ house, I ask my dad what he wants to do. He says he’s going to go take a shower and maybe lie down for a bit. I tell him that I’ll ask Aunt Lacey to come over and help me call the family, and he agrees it’s a good idea. He does not come downstairs to say hi when Aunt Lacey arrives and she does not ask if she will see him today. She doesn’t know how to talk to her brother-in-law as a widower either. 

“Our family is too big. This is miserable,” I say to Aunt Lacey. I have made 15 calls already and they all sound the same.  

I’m sorry, she was so lovely. How are you doing? they ask. Your sorry” won’t change anything. Yes, lovely but she did always hate her thighs. How the hell do you think? I don’t respond. 

“I know. I remember having to do this when our mother passed away. It’s the worst part,” she says.  

“Most of these people won’t even come for the funeral. Can’t we just wait until this year’s Christmas card when they notice she’s not in the picture anymore?” I suggest.  

She laughs, because she is my mom’s sister and they, unlike Shelby, know how to laugh.  

“Come on, ten more calls, five each. Those ten will tell everyone else. It’ll be okay,” she says. She squeezes my shoulder.  

“How long was it after grandma died until you cried?” I ask.  

“What do you mean?” she asks.  

“You know; did it happen after you left the hospital or a few days later?” I ask.  

“I cried when we were at the hospital, and when I saw her close her eyes, and the whole day after. Have you cried, Paige?”  

I shake my head no.  

“It’s okay, we all have to do this our own way,” she says. She smiles, and in this moment she looks so much like her own mother, my grandmother. Tight lips, crows feet, a soft nose, and Irishblue eyes. My mom looks like their dad, my grandfather, with a sharp nose, defined cheekbones, permanent wrinkles in the forehead, and red freckles on the nose. Right now, Im glad to be comforted by someone who does not look too much like my mom.  

I have not cried about my mom’s death because it has only been a few hours and I am still in shock but, really, I have not cried because I used up all my tears three weeks ago at a mental wellness center in Lake Tahoe. Its not an asylum or a mental hospital or an institution. It’s a voluntary place for people like me to go for a few days when we are depressed and our medication is not doing what we need it to anymore and we feel a desperation to retreat away from the real world and spend a lot of time with a therapist. We are also people who can afford to go to a place like this and use PTO to do so because we have jobs with good salaries and benefits.  

I was depressed because a chemical imbalance in my brain disabled me from developing the neurotransmitters needed to feel joy and satisfaction. I do not say this to explain my illness in a way akin to a sore throat, to make myself feel less embarrassed; I say it because there is no other reason for me to feel depressed. Three weeks ago my mom did not have pneumonia and was healthy, alive, happy, and fine. I still have the job as a financial analyst that I had three weeks ago, the fourth floor condo with a view towards the pier, the car, the wardrobe full of pastel colored designer items. I have a reason to be depressed now, a reason to cry. But three weeks ago I had no reason to cry and this void made me so sad I was teary eyed for all five days at the treatment center and even a little bit more when I got home.  

Maybe I cried because I realized a whole year had passed since I had to break up with my ex-boyfriend for the very last time and finally confront him about his alcohol problem. Maybe because I was so busy with my job, I had not taken the time to do anything fun outside of work in months. Maybe because when I was sitting on the edge of my bed at four in the morning without sleep for the sixth night in a row, I couldn’t forget that I had no one to talk to about it the next day. Those tears were all wasted on nothing and now I need to find new ones.  


Shelby comes over to the house that evening with a baked chicken and green bean casserole. I don’t eat meat anymore and my father who grew up in a warm Italian household would rather starve than eat a casserole full of canned items, but we say thank you and put it into the fridge.  

“Kevin is staying with the kids for a bit. What else do you need for the arrangements?” Shelby asks. She is saying and doing everything right, everything she must remember being done for her and her father. It is generous and I hate her for knowing what needs to be done. 

“Nothing,” Dad says. “It’s all taken care of. Really. You can go back and be with Kevin, if you’d like.”  

Shelby nods and looks confused because she is an in-law and not a real member of my family. My brother and I know that my parents have had every last detail of their funerals designed since I was seven years old and Kevin was four. Said plan was updated every time they got on a plane together without us and after their retirements it was updated once a year. I know my parents are the type to do that, but Shelby does not and I want her to leave because of her ignorance.  

Dad excuses himself to go down to the basement, maybe to his office, or to the bathroom, or to watch TV, or to stand in the laundry room and stare at my mother’s hang-dry clothing that is draped around the space. Shelby and I are left alone in the foyer.  

“Really, Paige, anything you need at all, just let me know,” she says. “I, of course, remember what this was like when my mother passed and it’s just awful. There’s no way around it. But I know what you’re going through and I’m here for you.”  

Shelby and I have never bonded over anything. I don’t have kids like her, I didn’t end a career to stay at home and raise kids like her, I don’t live in a suburb or belong to a book club or any of the things that seem to bring Shelby joy. I didn’t know her when her own mother died. Maybe she was different back then. Maybe we were more similar as teens and would have been friends. But I only have her as she is now, trying to bond with me over our dead mothers, and I can’t think of a worse commonality to make a friend over.  

“Okay, well, great. We’ll see you tomorrow then, with the kids? And when did you reserve the wake?” she asks.  

Day after tomorrow,” Dad answers, returning to the foyer.  

He loves his grandchildren and Kevin and Shelby, but I know he does not want to see them tomorrow. Kevin and Shelby’s kids cannot do anything productive, only remind him of youth and the fleeting nature of our lives in the shadow of death. He and I will probably go see a movie instead.  


We walk out of the theater in a heated discussion about all the reasons we hated the film. It gets dark early this time of year. When we entered the theater it was daylight and now its nighttime and our whole day feels wasted by a terrible film. 

“I don’t get why they had the woman so much younger than her husband and didn’t acknowledge it. I mean, in real life that actress has to be twenty years younger than him. And they didn’t even make it a part of the story,” I say.  

“It just wasn’t funny. Is it just me who doesn’t find that kind of humor funny? Make fun of conservatives and make sex jokes and call it funny?” he adds.  

“You’re right; it wasn’t funny. And the New Yorkers had bad accents,” I say.  

“Terrible fake accents. Just say they’re from somewhere else,” he says. We picked the movie because it had no award season buzz so we figured it must not be about anything very serious and neither of us wanted to be more serious than necessary. We were right about the movie, but still felt unsatisfied.  

We continue our discussion over a nice bottle of Sangiovese and a meal that is not casserole. We’re seated in a booth toward the back of his and Mom’s favorite restaurant. I order the risotto because it is vegetarian and full of carbs and cheese to comfort me. He orders the beef carpaccio and a roast pork tenderloin with fried potatoes as the side because his wife just died and I imagine eating lighter to please his cardiologist feels less important tonight.  

“Are you ready for tomorrow?” I ask.  

He takes a sip of his wine and nods and asks me the same question.  

“Yeah,” I say with a shrug.  

I think about telling him I was at a treatment center less than a month ago but decide he does not need something else to worry about. It wouldn’t surprise him. I’ve had depression for years. My parents saw me get on medication in college and checked in once a year with a phone call which would seem random and pleasant at first, but was actually their annual inventory of whether or not I needed electroshock. Another jokethey werent that old. But they were worried.  

Maybe Dad would be proud of me for checking into a program to get the help I need. Help to finish crying and pick myself back up and apparently never be able to cry again, ever, even in the event of something horrible.  

We sip our wine and share a dark chocolate mousse for dessert because Mom hates dark chocolate, so we’ll treat ourselves while she’s not dining with us.  


Kevin and Shelby and their brood of children come to the house before the wake. This way we can all drive over together and arrive at the funeral home at the same time which is important to Shelby for some reason 

“You’re not dressed yet,” she informs me. We stand in the kitchen while her kids run up and down the stairs of my parents’ home. I sip tea. I’m wearing an old college sweatshirt with some leggings. My hair is blown out and I have a tasteful amount of make up on.  

“I’m still deciding what to wear,” I say.  

Shelby is in all black, so is Kevin and each of their kids. They are the image of death itself, which is important because people might forget about death while they’re at a wake.  

Dad walks down in khaki trousers, a light blue button down, and a navy sports coat. He is not in black because the only black he owns is an Armani suit and a tuxedo.  

“Okay, well, decide? I mean, the rest of us are ready, we need to leave soon,” Shelby says. She is trying to keep me and the day on track the way someone else must have done for her years ago. I do not have the benefit of being a teenager to explain my sulky nature. Even as a teenager, Shelby must have been kind and gentle to everyone on the day of her own mother’s wake, I think.  

I put down the cup of tea and take a deep breath like my counselor at the treatment center told me to do whenever I am tempted to say something that will not serve me best.  

“I’ll walk and meet you there. It’s a nice day, I need some fresh air,” I say. The funeral home is a twenty-minute walk through the main street area of town and Shelby will not want me to arrive so much later than everyone else.  

Alright,” Shelby says in a moment of grace.  

I want to thank her but also give her the silent treatment because I’m mad that she hasn’t given me something else to complain about. She gathers her kids and Kevin and Dad and tells them I will meet them there.  

“You’re sure?” Kevin asks me.  

“Tell them I got confused and was still on West Coast time,” I say.  

My dad laughs, not because this is a particularly funny line but because he knows it will be enough to lighten the mood at an otherwise somber event and he is happy to have something good to say when people ask where I am.  


I go up to the guest room where I’ve been staying since I arrived. I didn’t think before I packed and threw in a few of every type of clothing I owned. It wasn’t originally necessary when I was coming for a few days to help dad out with mom’s transition back home from the hospital. 

can wear a black pair of jeans and dark top to look like Shelby. I can wear a navy dress and light blue cardigan to match Dad. This would be a nice coordinated look for that Christmas card I was talking about, the one with my dead mom not in it.  

I think I read a poem once about a woman who wears her mother’s clothing to her mother’s funeral. I’m pretty sure it was a true story; a real woman wore the real clothes of her real deceased mother. Mom is half a foot taller than me so any of her clothes would be entirely out of proportion. Not to mention, she’s an autumn and I’m a spring. 

I pull out of my suitcase a red sweater dress. Not a cherry convertible red, but a sweet ruby red. Mom loves red. I bought the dress to wear at Christmas this year for her to obsess over. People might not look highly on someone wearing red to their own mother’s wake. If Mom ever saw that kind of thing she would’ve called me about it later.  

“She wore a red dress! To her own mother’s wake, can you believe it?” she would say.  

“Like a bright red? Like a cocktail dress?” I’d ask.  

“No, it was more modest, but still. It’s not like they told everyone red was her mother’s favorite color so they should wear it or something. She did it all on her own. Bright red, at her mother’s wake. I think it’s weird. Don’t you think it’s weird?” she would ask.  

“It’s a little weird. Unless there was some reason she didn’t tell everyone about,” I would say. 

“I think it’s weird. People shouldn’t wear red to their mother’s wake.” 

“Yeah,” I would say, “At least save a saucy item like that for a wake with a cute new widower hanging around.”  

And then she would laugh at my crude joke and I would laugh at having made her laugh. And we would laugh and laugh.  

I pull the red dress off the hanger and tug it over my body. I don’t love the way my thighs look in it, but who ever does? I want to make my mom laugh, and it looks perfect on me for that.