I was numb as I sat in the chair between my husband and my father. I could hear the funeral director talking, I could see his lips moving, but nothing was registering in my mind. Even breathing was difficult. In the past twenty-four hours, life as we knew it had ceased to exist. Our oldest daughter, twenty-year-old Elizabeth, had died of smoke inhalation from a fire in her duplex just a few blocks from the University of Minnesota, where she had just begun her sophomore year. Two of her roommates also died with her.
I was too shocked even to cry.
How can this be? Liz is gone? It just can’t be true. How can I go on without my precious firstborn daughter? I had so many emotions running through my mind and I couldn’t deal with any of them. I was too shocked even to cry.
Question after question had to be answered. What is her birth date? Where was she born? What year did she graduate from high school? I answered each question without any thought, more like a robot than a mother. It was instinctual; it was rote; it felt void of emotion.
Part of me—no, all of me—wanted to scream and run out of the office, go home and find my beautiful, precious Elizabeth safe in her room. She would look at me with that coy smile of hers and say, “Oh Mom, you just worry way too much! Nothing is going to happen to me! I’m just fine!”
I had to sit and question by question try to acknowledge what I just couldn’t believe was my new reality.
Why couldn’t this be a horrible nightmare or some cruel joke? Please God, please. But, no … this was real, and I had to sit and question by question try to acknowledge what I just couldn’t believe was my new reality.
When the funeral director left the room for a few minutes, the silence was overwhelming. We each sat like statues, staring blankly into space. Conversation was impossible. The silence in the room was deafening. Each of us was trying so hard to keep it together, but it was an impossible task. My husband put his head in his hands and sobbed. Then he got up and said, “I’ve got to get some air.” My dad and I barely acknowledged him as we continued to sit in stunned silence with tears streaming down our faces.
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The funeral director returned and gently told us that we would need to bring in clothing for Liz to be buried in. There was no hurry, he said, but in the next day or two. As his words began to slowly sink in, I mentally scanned Liz’s closet—and it was empty. There was nothing left—she had taken everything with her when she moved into that duplex just three weeks ago.
The harsh reality was that I would have to go out and buy Liz an outfit to be buried in—one last, final new outfit. She always loved to shop and she loved new clothes, so it seemed fitting that a new outfit was needed for this occasion as well. But how could I shop without her? We never agreed on clothing, and now in this difficult, painful state of mind I had to pick out her final new outfit?
My sister drove me to the mall—I knew I would go to a store where Liz used to work, as she had always liked the clothes there. As I pulled open the door and stepped inside, I whispered, “Liz, you have got to help me here! I have absolutely no idea what to pick.”
I slowly walked around and began to peruse the racks. It didn’t take very long before I found a pair of khaki pants and a light blue sweater. I showed my sister and said, “I don’t know if this is what Liz would want, but even if I don’t get this right, does it really matter?”
A day after the funeral my sister-in-law came to visit. We sat in my kitchen drinking coffee and talking. The grim reality that Elizabeth was gone had begun to sink in.
“I was going through pictures last night," Karen told me, "and I found one of Liz taken last Christmas. I thought you might want to see it." She reached into her purse, pulled out a picture, and laid it on the table in front of me.
There she was—my Elizabeth, smiling and happy sitting with her cousins. But ... suddenly my breath caught in my throat and I couldn’t speak—for you see, Liz was wearing a pair of khaki pants and a light blue sweater.