We Love You, Francie
by Rachel Lyon
It’s taken a while for Francie to tune back in.
There was the moment itself: a series of quick, stealthy spasms. As the day’s first light was beginning to give shape to the trees outside her window, she tried to grope for Alv beside her—though, because of the Parkinson’s, that haunting drag, her limbs hadn’t obeyed her brain for over ten years. The minutes passed, and as she lay still Francie found that she was able to separate from her self—though rather drippily, like egg white from yolk. So long unable to get up on her own, now, giddily, she rose—rising seemed an apt word—and kissed Alv easily on his open, snoring mouth. She was mobile at last!, could stretch!, turn!, even sort of hover!—and yet she was immobile, pinned to the mattress below. Two somewhat contradictory thoughts dawned on her simultaneously: one, that she was not breathing; two, that she was light and bodiless as breath itself. Death—the word brightened to a glare. There was one final flash of panic, bright and wild as the sun suddenly filling the room, and then, at last, a slow, cinematic fade to black. Fade to black? That’s rather clichéd, isn’t it? she thought. But the thought dispersed as she herself dispersed, like burnt paper on wind, and Francie found herself in free fall somewhere beyond gravity, beyond light, where it was neither warm nor cold.
Now that she has become aware again, Francie’s been dead for who knows how long. In life she was a person who kept track of the date—she’d call each of her three children and, later, the older of the grandkids without fail at daylight savings to remind them to turn back their clocks—but in death her alacrity has dimmed. It’s not that she’s lost track of time. It’s more like she’s outside of time. Come unstuck like… somebody. Like who? She finds herself unable to summon well-known literary references that, in life, would come easily. The unpleasantness of confusion is far outweighed by the relief of having left her body behind. The palsied body, the cumbersome body, which never did what she wanted it to do. In death Francie is less than weightless; she is wind, she is light.
So it is that, as nothing but breath and draft, Francie finds herself among the mourners at the First Unitarian Church in Bedford on a cold, bright day in late fall. This is her church, a kind of second home. She has attended it since the very first week she moved to Massachusetts from Los Angeles to make a new home with her second husband, Alv, and the kids from her ill-fated first marriage: Barbara, Lisa, and Todd. She volunteered in the church’s soup kitchen in the bitter winters. Summers she joined the community theater troupe and put on productions in the sanctuary. Everyone told her she should have been an actress. Everyone said her voice was just like Kathleen Turner’s. She knows the whole building, from the rafters, where she hung crepe paper the night before Lisa’s disastrous wedding in ’98, to the broom closet, where she walked in on Todd, not yet four, kissing Sally Ann Temple in ’75. Memory after memory twines around and sticks to Francie’s present moment before coming untangled and floating away again.
Todd comes in, nearly forty and beginning to grey, his friend Sonny’s arm around his shoulders. Sonny, tall and broad with an easy smile, a psychiatrist at Mass General, came to Christmas these last several years at Francie and Alv’s. Francie’s glad the two bachelors found each other. She’d given up on Todd finding a wife—he was always so introverted, could never meet people, would cringe when she brought it up—but Sonny is good company. At Christmas, Francie wanted nothing more than to interrogate him about his opinions on Freudian analysis, but of course she could only sit beside Alv in her wheelchair, point, and groan.
Where is Alv? Francie whirls and settles. Delightedly she finds she can be everywhere at once, like a mist. She finds her husband hunched over in the front pew between Barbara and Lisa. He is wearing his nice jacket and a tie. His shirt is buttoned unevenly, one side of it squinched at the top. Sweet, dopey Alv. She feels a swell of tenderness and attempts to surround him. He pulls up his collar. Chilly in here, he mumbles. But Barbara is looking over a small stack of notes on three-by-five cards in her lap, and Lisa is reaching a hand out to squeeze Todd’s, so nobody hears Alv but Francie.
Lisa’s badly behaved kids are still running up and down the aisle—totally inappropriate—and Barbara’s boy is playing some game on his phone in the back—at a memorial? Please—but despite the chaos Barbara gets up and turns to face the pews. As she addresses them—All right, I think we’ll get started—Francie hovers among the faces, taking them in. All the guests make Francie so giddy she barely registers when Alv takes the dais.
He taps on the microphone, and the speakers deliver a baritone thud. He clears his throat. We don’t need this, do we? he asks the room, and there is a general shaking of heads. He flicks the microphone off and speaks to them at a normal volume. Thank you for coming, he says simply. Francie would be so happy to see all of you. You’ve all been so good to us. So good to me, in these last difficult years. Alv’s expression is pained as he looks up through his overgrown eyebrows at the stained glass in the back. This time has been difficult, as most of you know. Thank you for all of your help, your good company. I’m glad for you. Francie was glad for you.
Alv drifts off as if into memory, his eyes glassy. In the decade since Francie got sick, Alv has gotten old. She wants to fill him like liquid, wants to get inside his pores and soak into his skin and mingle with the blood that circulates in his veins. But even in her shifting state there are limits. She cannot slip inside him. His breath—sour, with a hint of coffee and egg—and the very carbon dioxide that emanates from his skin seem to stop her. Francie contents herself with beating beside him, swelling and contracting like a heart.
Barbara rises to take Alv’s arm as he shuffles back down to his pew, then turns around and returns to the dais herself. Hi everyone, she says, and the congregants nod back at her. Can you hear me? Someone in the back calls out: Louder! She turns on the mic. How about now? That’s better! the voice calls back. She looks down at her three-by-five cards, looks up at the group, looks down again. Barbara was always such a safe girl. Smart but humorless. Foolish about certain things. Francie had high hopes for her, early on. Barbara was valedictorian of her high school class, even if it was a small class. She played the cello, though she never had much of an ear. Now she is a thin woman approaching fifty, dour from being made fun of by her family all her life. Instead of achieving greatness, she’s ended up good. She works at a nonprofit that arranges gifts for children with terminal cancer. She has long grey hair that never seems to stay brushed, and a strange teenaged son, and a husband who studies bugs for a living. Francie used to take a certain pleasure in that when they had their spats. If Barbara started a sentence Gordon thinks, Francie would interrupt her with: Gordon studies bugs. It wasn’t as cruel as it sounds. Though Barbara would try not to laugh, Francie could tell she found it funny. In fact, Barbara has always known Francie better than the other two. Lisa and Todd avoided visiting during those last, slow years, but Barbara seemed to take special pleasure in caring for her ailing mother. She came twice a week to wash the clothes, make lunches, and keep Alv company.
Now she talks about the good old days. Trips in the Winnebago to Indian territory. The way Francie would blare opera over the vehicle’s tinny speakers, roll all the windows down, and belt along with vigor. When I try to describe my mother, Barbara says, I always come up with the same word: vivacious. Life was so rich for her, and there was so much life to live, and she wanted us to live all of it. When we were young, instead of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or Goodnight, Moon she read us Yeats, Whitman, and Wordsworth. I remember going over to friends’ houses and being jealous that for dinner they got chicken nuggets or mac and cheese. My mother made bouillabaisse and beef bourguignon. She was never less than excellent.
Francie drifts upward and outward, swelling with love and pride. Sweet Barbara, smart Barbara, what a good girl. As a child she wanted to be an archaeologist or an explorer. Why, in adulthood, has she lived such a timid life? In the back pew, Barbara’s wayward son scowls. He is not even wearing black. He is wearing jeans. Francie finds herself distracted by this needless affront. She eddies around him busily. You were such a sweet baby, she accuses. What happened to you? The boy shifts with discomfort and leans his elbows on his knees, hiding his head in his hands. At the dais, Barbara, having finished her eulogy, steps down and takes a seat.
Lisa is next. She’s always been the pretty one, and now, in her mid-forties, pretty she remains. Blonde and fine-boned, she is one of those women whose attractiveness issues from a kind of frailty. She has had a hard time of it: depression, divorce, a couple of layoffs. Francie always counseled her to be resolute, to look misfortune in the face without fear like an opponent and battle it head-on. Instead, Lisa’s misfortune seems to have crawled inside of her and made a home in the deepest part of her identity. She stands on the dais holding one of her children on her hip—the youngest, who at seven is far too old to be carried—or to be sucking his thumb, which he is also doing—and she seems at once mournful, confused, and eager to please. Of course, she doesn’t have a speech written out. She hasn’t brought any notes. It has always been a quality peculiar to Lisa that she can show up entirely unprepared for any occasion and still be beloved.
As most of you know, she says now, without ceremony, my relationship with my mother wasn’t the best.
Here we go. Another sob story from Lisa. Always the victim. Let’s see what she has to say.
It’s true that, as Barbara says, my mother was never less than excellent. I guess it was partly because of that that I’ve often felt less than adequate.
Or maybe it’s because you never applied yourself.
In high school I got into trouble. I was the black sheep. A pain in the ass, I guess. My mother didn’t know what to do with me. She tried to engage me, but I didn’t want to be engaged. She tried discipline, and I just rebelled harder. I think those years took a real toll. I don’t know if our relationship ever recovered.
The boy is scrambling down from Lisa’s arms and climbing off the dais. Her speech is surprisingly self-reflective. She’s taking more responsibility than Francie might have expected.
There was this thing my mother used to say. She used it in all kinds of situations, no matter their magnitude. Maybe we didn’t put our napkins on our laps at dinner. She’d say, What if you read a story about a girl who didn’t put a napkin on her lap at dinner? Wouldn’t you think she was dumb?
The congregation laughs. Francie bristles. Lisa tries another one:
Or maybe we’d failed a test. There she’d go: What if you read a story about a girl who knew she had a test coming up, but never studied? Wouldn’t you think she was dumb?
They laugh a little more. Francie’s bristling becomes more acute. She loses track of herself, experiences only a diffuse prickling against the walls and the windows. She never meant that saying to be funny. She meant it to give the children a little self-awareness, a little perspective on themselves. Some much-needed dignity.
When I was in high school, Lisa goes on, I started hanging around with what my mother would call a rough crowd. We partied, you know, we did drugs. Things got a little out of hand. We started breaking into cars. We weren’t trying to steal the cars or anything. We’d just break in, hot-wire them, drive them around, and then park them back where we found them—if we could remember where they’d been. Anyway, one night we were driving around, and the cops pulled us over and brought us all down to the station. I was tripping, actually. I don’t think my mother ever knew this, but I was tripping on acid at the time.
Francie did not know this. Until now.
So they lock us up and I’m freaking out, like the walls are closing in on me, and I’m really itchy? And it seems like hours are going by. Eventually a cop comes in and tells me my mother’s there to pick me up. And now I’m really freaking out. I’m like—to the cop—I’m like, no, no, it’s okay, I’ll just stay in here. I’ll just spend the night here and you can let me out in the morning. Like, I’d rather stay in jail than face my own mother. Because all I can think is she’s going to march me out to the car and sit me down in the front seat and turn to me and say: What if you read a story about a girl…
—The congregants are really laughing now.
...Wouldn’t you think she was dumb?
As if this were some kind of stand-up routine. As if it weren’t a eulogy. And the laughter is opening Lisa up, loosening her up. She’s responding to it like a true performer. Showboat Lisa. Irreverent Lisa.
But of course I do go with her, and we do all the paperwork, and, by the way, she’s dressed to the nines. I mean, she was in bed when the police called her, but she put on heels and lipstick and mascara to come down to the station and pick me up. And I can’t even meet her eye, because for one thing I’m so guilty, so embarrassed about what I’ve done. But for another thing I’m still tripping, so the paperwork is like flakes of skin coming off the cop’s desk, and my mother’s face is like, shimmery? Like a, what do you call it, a kaleidoscope? It has these facets like the eye of a bumblebee. Anyway, we get outside, and it’s really early morning, the sun hasn’t even come up, and I’m bracing myself for her little speech, just gritting my teeth, right? And she turns toward me, and takes both my shoulders, and I feel this immense pain coming from her. I don’t know if it’s the drugs or what. But she just looks me in the eye and says to me: Lisa. What do you need? Tell me what you need. And I just break down.
Lisa is breaking down now. There is snot seeping out of her nose. As sure as she is forty-five, Lisa’s seventeen again too, and Francie is collecting around her like rainwater in a drain. Don’t cry, Lise. Don’t cry, sweetie pie. Francie never would have thought that moment would stick with Lisa all these years. Distant Lisa, self-absorbed Lisa, screw-up Lisa. All these years she’s been holding onto it.
Whatever I needed, Lisa says, wiping her nose, I didn’t know. Whatever I needed, I honestly don’t think she could have given me. But she wanted to. She really wanted to.
Lisa steps down and her three children stick themselves to her like magnets. A wave of nauseating envy moves through Francie like a current through water. Her own children never clung to her. She comforts herself with the long-held conviction that simpler people make better parents. Francie might not have been the perfect mother, but her children knew Wordsworth by heart. All Lisa’s kids know is the goddamn Berenstain Bears.
As they break into a hymn, Francie settles near the floor among the mourners’ shoes, which are still pristine from summer storage, not yet scuffed or salt-stained by the winter weather to come. Distracted by the shine and smell of them, the echo of animal heartbeat in the leather they’re made of, she begins to fade into the rhythm of the familiar song. She loses her bearings somewhat. She is nearly gone when, at last, the hymn finishes, and Todd takes the dais. In his black pants and crisp white shirt and black suit jacket he snaps things back into focus. The youngest of Francie’s three children, his face is still round and mostly unwrinkled, his gaze shy. Francie waits in receptive stillness, stirring just slightly here and there as the mourners shift and cough.
Hi, everyone, he says. Thank you for coming. So much of what we tend to share on occasions like these are. You know. Good things. Meaningful memories. The details that make a person who they are. And my mother was such an outsized personality, there are so many details to choose from. I came prepared with a speech that just about wrote itself. I mean, not to toot my own horn, but it was pretty good. I was going to talk about Francie’s excellent fashion sense. You remember that enormous hat she used to wear to the beach? And that sort of ruched, black, halter top bathing suit? She had a pair of boots she’d wear in the fall when we were young, these brown suede boots, with a square toe. A square toe! I was going to talk about what a terrific hostess she was, too. Everything I learned about how to throw a party I learned from her. Those tiny quiches I make? Her recipe. You always put an extra roll of toilet paper on the back of the toilet. You put two stacks of napkins and two sets of silverware on either end of the buffet, instead of one in the middle, to encourage circulation. And if you’re going to ask people to take off their shoes, you’d better have a place to put them. You don’t want people digging through a mountain of shoes to find their footwear at the end of the night.
Francie swells. Dear Todd. Her pride, her sense, her son.
But I’m not going to talk about any of that, he says. On our way over here, I was thinking about how we always talk about the details. And the details are lovely, but. You know. There’s something else that feels more important right now. So I’m going to break with tradition, I think. I’m going to do something Mom might have found a little uncouth. I’m going to talk about regret.
Francie begins to shrink again.
He takes a breath and lets it out. Those of you who know me know I’m gay, he says.
Francie wavers haltingly, suddenly thin and feeble as the oxygen where the atmosphere meets space. Her boy, her only boy.
Hell, he says, those of you who don’t know me probably know I’m gay, too. I mean, listen to me!
The audience chuckles and Francie spins, dizzy, drafty, a whirlwind infuriated. Why would he say such a thing? Is he making some kind of joke?
I wasn’t one of those kids who struggles with his sexuality. I never had, like, any big realization. I was gay from the outset. Sonny likes to say I sashayed out of the womb.
Francie settles before Sonny’s face, inspects his laughing mouth, his loving eyes. If she had a head she’d be light-headed. If she had a mouth she’d say, What are you laughing at? What do you know about my only boy that I can’t know?
I never felt the need to come out to anyone because most people just assumed, Todd goes on. It was an open secret, if it was a secret at all. But Mom, bless her. To the end of her life—or, at least, until she couldn’t anymore—she was always trying to set me up with some woman or other. For all her flamboyance, the woman had zero gaydar, I swear. I used to think it was funny. Or I used to pretend I thought it was funny. But you know what? I didn’t think it was funny at all. I thought it was cruel. It just seemed bullheaded of her not to see it. Or to pretend not to see it. It seemed like she was challenging me to bring it up.
Sonny smiles up at Todd encouragingly from the front row. Todd lifts his hand toward Sonny. The gesture is ever so slight, ever so tender.
If Francie had a brain, perhaps she’d be able to begin to unravel her own hard-nosed denial, the ferocious protectiveness she felt, all those years, the—admit it—disgust. The crippling fear. Perhaps she’d be able to acknowledge to herself that, yes, of course she knew, of course she knew, she’d have had to be blind and deaf not to, but remembering that boy she’d grown up with—what was his name?—the blond boy with graceful hands and beautiful, deep, well-kept nail beds who was so badly bullied he grew up missing two teeth—remembering the way he would cover his mouth when he spoke, self-conscious about his toothlessness, afraid he’d be laughed at—remembering, for that matter, her own uncle, and the ruthless way he was whispered about in the years before he was found by his ten-year-old son, Francie’s cousin, one fragrant April day, hanged by his own belt from his kitchen doorframe, God—how could she ever have let her one boy, her one son, meet a fate such as that?
She gave me so many opportunities, Todd goes on. Knowingly or not. When she said, Todd, there’s this new young woman in my book club, recently divorced, I could have said, Oh yeah? I hope she finds a nice heterosexual man to rebound with. When she said, There’s this cute young thing in my swim class! I could have said, What does he look like? When I finally brought Sonny to Christmas—finally, after eight years!—I could have called him my boyfriend, instead of using her words, and referring to him as my friend. But I didn’t. I never said a thing when she was healthy, and when she got sick I told myself it was too late. I regret not telling her for so many reasons. I regret the conversations we never had. I regret not being able to really bring Sonny into the family. But what I regret most is that I never told my mother who I really was.
Todd stops talking suddenly and shuts his eyes and puts his hand over his mouth. Sonny reaches toward him from the front row. Francie, agitated, swells, swirls, drops, and rises. If she had arms she could reach for him. If she had eyes she could cry. If she had words she could say, I hear you now, I hear you! She could say, I’m frightened for you. She could say, My son, my joy, I’m sorry. But Francie is nothing but wind and mist.
Todd descends the podium. Sonny clasps him to his chest. The congregation stands. Some of them clap. Francie rocks back and forth, waves and undertow. Sonny gets up and joins Todd at the podium. The two men kiss as old lovers kiss and Francie is amazed. She has never witnessed her son kiss anyone, not since Sally Ann Temple. She wants to reach out to him, to ask him: How does it feel? How does it feel to kiss someone like that? With no pressure, no pain, no expectations? How does it feel to have known yourself so well for so long, and never have let me see you? The men pull away from each other, and Sonny leans down into the microphone to address the space above him:
We love you, Francie.
Barbara joins her brother and his lover at the mic to address the mourners over the sound system: We’ll be gathering at Alv’s house in an hour, she says. You’re all invited to join us. The information is in the email I sent you. If you need directions, you can ask any of us.
The congregation makes its way toward the door and spills out into the parking lot. The sun is bright and the air is cold and among them there’s a general feeling of resolution. Francie is desperate, churning like hot water tumbling into a tub. To say she wants to hold her son, to kiss her daughters, to fill her husband’s heart, would not be quite right. She has become the want to hold her son, to kiss her daughters, to fill her husband’s heart. She has become a kind of homesickness. But as her youngest walks out, his beloved’s arm around him, she finds she cannot follow them. The doorway of the church is something like a slide or mirror, something like a turnstile. When she tries to pass through it she only slips, slides, and ends up back inside. When she tries to bash against it she breaks into a shower of particulates, a zillion infinitesimal shards of thought and feeling, wish and memory.
Eventually she gives up, and rises into the eaves. Through a dirty window in the roof she watches the mourners get into their cars. As one by one her family and friends depart, she begins to lose her bearings. It is as if each of them were holding the string to a hot air balloon, and now that they are leaving, the balloon is coming untethered, rising into the sky. Already she is beginning again to fade, though she wants desperately to stay. When the last car has pulled out of the church parking lot, and Francie has evaporated again into the stillness beyond the shadows, her longing will be all that’s left.
Published July 21st, 2019
Rachel Lyon is the author of the novel Self Portrait with Boy, which was long-listed for the Center for Fiction's 2018 First Novel Prize, and is in feature film development at Topic Studios. Rachel’s short work has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Longreads, Joyland, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is cofounder of the reading series Ditmas Lit and Editor-in-Chief of Epiphany.
Meghan Hedley’s work is a commentary on the full spectrum of aliveness and is influenced by her lifelong research into healing. Her process is a celebration and a contemplation, and as she is regularly informed and inspired by colors and rhythms within nature, her work may be experienced as abstract landscape. Her titles often arise out of studies into Celtic thought, philosophy, nature writing, and East Asian thought such as the I-Ching and The Dao De Jing. While she is influenced by these and other sources, she encourages viewers to be open, flexible and creative when spending time with the artwork, drawing out their own unique experiences and resonances. www.meghanhedley.com On Instagram at @meghanehedley