Mary Claire

Fiction
Mary Ann McSweeny


Photo Credit: Ashley Rose/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

My brother-in-law John is a funeral director. When he calls me about a new case, as he did this morning, he always goes right to the point. “We’ve got a baby. Mary Claire Stewart. Died during open heart surgery.”

“Ohh,” I said. “How sad.”

“Marie and Greg Stewart are the parents. Marie is the daughter of René and Odile LaFleur. LaFleur’s Jewelry Store. Do you know the family?”

“Marie… and Mary Claire. Yes. Yes, I think I do. I met Mary Claire and her mother a few weeks ago.”

In a supermarket bathroom.

“What a beautiful baby,” I had said, admiring the baby in the carrier. “Look at those rosy cheeks. What’s her name?”

“Mary Claire,” her mother said, proud and delighted. “She looks healthy, doesn’t she? But she has a problem with her heart. Can you believe the doctor wanted me to have an abortion? He said she wouldn’t live to grow up. Even my husband pressured me to have the abortion. But I said, ‘She’s my baby. I love her. I won’t give up on her.’” She smiled at her tiny daughter and touched the pink cheek with a gentle fingertip. Then she looked at me. Her eyes widened and darkened. “She’s having surgery in a few weeks. There’s a hole in her heart.”

I am accustomed to people confiding in me, although not usually in a public bathroom, but this outpouring seemed to wash away my intelligence. I managed to say, “I’ll pray for you.”

Her smile took the shadow out of her eyes. “Thank you,” she said. She whirled out of the bathroom with her baby. I hoped and prayed her love would heal that hole in Mary Claire’s heart.

John said, “I’m meeting with the family at ten o’clock. Do you want to be there?”

I don’t usually sit in on arrangements, but meet later with the family to plan the funeral service and provide grief support. But I thought I heard a plea for my presence in John’s invitation. “Sure,” I said.

Since my husband Mike died, John has rented me the apartment over the funeral home, so it was a quick walk to work that sad morning. Marie was no longer shining with hope. Her hair was tightly drawn into a messy top-knot, her makeup a valiant attempt at normalcy. She sat on a couch next to her husband, an athletic-looking young man, arms firmly crossed, legs spread wide, remote, sulky. Her mother sat close to her on the other side and kept touching her shoulder, arm, leg as if to be sure her daughter was safe. There were two opinionated aunts and Marie’s father, lanky, sharp-nosed, bald-with-fringe, who looked as if he were prepared to keep expenditures in check.

Except John never charges for a baby’s funeral.

I stayed unobtrusive while they decided on the tiny casket lined with pink velvet. Marie wanted a wake, but her husband said an immovable no. Marie insisted on a two-hour period before the funeral mass for people to pay their respects. Her husband’s mouth tightened into a lipless line. He moved to the window, his hostile back turned to the room. Marie’s mother clucked and the aunts raised their eyebrows. Marie’s father asked about limousines. The aunts put their attention back on the prayer card book. They favored the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Marie and her mother preferred the Guardian Angel.

“Could we put her picture on the other side?” Marie asked.

John nodded and made a note.

“The one with the pink bow around her head?” That was Marie’s mother.

“Oh, no, no, the one in the car seat where she looks like she’s waving,” one aunt said.

Marie shook her head. “I was thinking of the one—”

“—in her Baptism dress,” the other aunt finished. She and Marie exchanged nods and trembling smiles.

Marie’s husband looked over his shoulder at the group. Silence descended. The family stared at him. Marie made a small gesture, an invitation, a plea. He turned back to the window. She took a breath.

“And I want the passage where Jesus says let the little children come to me…” Her voice failed and tears leaked. One of the aunts pulled out a packet of Puffs and handed it to her.

“I’ll be in the car.”

A sigh flitted through the family as the door slammed behind Greg.

Les Anglais,” said Marie’s mother with an eye roll.

The aunt who had favored the car seat photograph pursed her lips. “His mother hasn’t even shown up yet. No feelings.”

“Of course she has feelings. So does poor Greg. They just can’t talk about anything important. They stuff all the real stuff.” Marie’s mother sounded New Age knowledgeable.

John cleared his throat and gathered the papers together. “I think I have everything for the moment. I’ll write the obituary and email it to you before I submit it to the papers. Penny—” He nodded at me. “—will help you with the details of the liturgy: readings, hymns, who you want for readers, that kind of thing.”

We arranged an appointment for the early afternoon to give them some time to think about their choices, and then the bereft group drifted out the door, down the walk to the car, talking, gesturing, touching, with Marie protectively flanked. Greg’s stern profile and the stiff set of his shoulders were just discernible through the car window.

“I give that marriage six months,” John said.

“You think?”

He ducked his head and got busy putting the papers in a file folder. “You ever want to talk about Mike?”

“What? Where did that come from?”

“Speaking of stuffing,” he said with that bold grin he thinks is charming.

“I’ll let you know what they decide for the liturgy.” And I went back to my apartment.

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Mary Ann McSweeny holds an MFA from Fairfield University. Her work has been published in The Merrimack Review, Highlights for Children, Queen of All Hearts, and Pastoral Life. She is the co-author of a series of spiritual meditation books published by Liguori Publications. “Mary Claire” was inspired by a true story. Email: mamcsweeny[at]verizon.net