It was called The Wail House. At the time, I didn’t understand the concept and had mistaken the Wail Room for the girl’s rest room. However, what I endured during my time on the throne was unusual but extraordinary. I would be lying if I didn’t say it was weird, and I would be further from the truth if I said it didn’t resolve my grief.
I had just suffered the loss of my grandfather. It was a sudden loss that sent shock waves through our entire family. In a way, we all knew it was coming, but the signs were muted by my grandfather’s joyous spirit and a belly that wiggled each time he laughed. Grandpa Benji loved food. He was a connoisseur of rich aromas, soothing textures, and palatable flavors. For all of their married life, my grandmother never once cooked a meal a meal for the family. Masterpieces were always concocted by my grandfather’s chubby fingers and fat hands. Ironically, it was a box of cookies and a glass of warm milk that created a satisfying smile on his face before he resigned to his bed for the last time.
When the news finally made its rounds, I didn’t cry. I would like to think I was being strong. I even convinced myself that I was doing it for my mother. In truth, I was in shock and could not accept the words that were ringing repeatedly in my ears. I should have had a meltdown when my car wouldn’t start in the parking lot at work. My boss came to my rescue and offered me a ride home before the tantrum even had a chance to build for the floodgates to open. When I called for a tow, I learned that it would take the mechanic two weeks before the part needed to fix my car would come in. It was another stumbling block to my grief, but Dave overheard the conversation and offered another lift to the funeral.
David Vanderhaven knew grief. He became widowed a year prior when a drunk driver slammed into his wife’s vehicle at an intersection. The loss of his wife took its toll on him, and he was never the same, again. Dave was once a self-centered, selfish kind of guy. He would snatch up the spotlight, taking credit for other’s work while making lewd comments about what you wore and how you walked. I had been with the agency for only 3 months and decided to resign when Dave suffered the tragic loss.
Karma was cruel to Dave, but he was a different man when he returned to the office. It was as if by losing his wife he had become a kinder soul with a sadness that draped the office like a dark rain cloud as he entered. I couldn’t bring myself to leave the agency and be the cause of more grief in his life.
Turning his jeep off a long stretch of highway, Dave exited miles harvested soybean fields and entered a small village that was my grandparent’s home for the last 30 years. Some of the neighbors were already getting into the holiday spirit by donning skeletons, ghosts, and masked figures in their yards while Crazy Alice clung to her yard full of dancing gnomes and pink flamingos in leg warmers performing yoga poses.
Grandma Betty warned our family that the funeral services were not a traditional funeral. There would be no showing of a body, no pictures and no burial. My first thought was cremation until Mom confirmed otherwise.
“Then, what the fuck are we doing?!” I was angry because this was not how I would have wanted it down. In fact, I didn’t even want to accept my grandfather’s death.
My mother reassured me that we were still having a funeral. Then, she calmed me down with encouraging words like “celebrate his life” and “it will be good to be with family at this time.” It came as no surprise to me that the parking lot of the church was full with relatives and friends of the family.
Dave drove around to the restaurant next door to search for an empty parking spot. Except for the concrete barriers surrounding a flooded section from the storms we endured overnight, there was no available space. We had to park the vehicle on a side street a couple of blocks from the church. When we walked passed the restaurant, there were five open spaces. It seemed that no matter what I would do or where I would go, when it came to the event of my grandfather’s death, I was met with adversity. But, that didn’t break me, and I still didn’t cry.
We finally entered the building that use to be a holy place for Christians to convene every week. As time moved on, its flock did, too. The church became abandoned and was sold to a non-profit that specialized in death, dying, grief and loss. In other words, The Wail House. It was a strange name, and in my own grief, I was oblivious to the signage.
I had allowed Dave to guide me in the direction of those who gathered for their grief and was led into a converted Sunday School room. It still had a poster of Noah’s Ark with its brilliant rainbow hung on one wall, and there was a shadow of dust where a cross once hung on the opposite concrete wall. There were people sitting in a circle at the center of the room. A pretty blonde waved us over to a couple of empty chairs next to her. When I took my seat, I took a cursory glance around the circle. No one from my family was there, and it sent a panic to ripple through my body. I looked to Dave, and he nodded his head to assure me that I was supposed to be in this room among these strangers.
“Good morning, everyone, my name is Sandra,” and the crowd responded to her greeting in unison. “I would like to thank you for gathering today as we celebrate the life of Mr. Benjamin Foster. A ceremony will immediately follow after each group session is complete.”
I wondered where my grandmother, my mother, my siblings, and my cousins had been. They could not have all been late, and I couldn’t be the only one participating in this strange funeral.
“For those of you who may not be familiar with this ritual, allow me to enlighten you,” Sandra continued as she glanced toward my direction. “Each of the grieving family members have been assigned to a support group in another room in this building. In your group, there may be some people that you may know. Everyone in this room has suffered a loss at least once in their life, but mostly we are all here to guide you through your grief process. Anna, this is your support group.”
Sandra waved her hands out in front of the circle. She continued to explain that the group’s purpose was to discuss what they knew of my grandfather’s life. I was to listen, and when I was ready, then I would share my own thoughts. The idea was to separate those closest to my grandfather and give them a safe place to share their feelings without upsetting others who were also grieving. Sandra explained that this process would minimize upsets among the family and allow each of us ample time to grieve appropriately after we have shed all of our negativity. Then, loved ones would gather together to celebrate the life my grandfather in a positive and uplifting environment. On the surface it seemed legitimate, but deep down I felt unsettled.
Introductions began, and I soon discovered that I knew of another person in the room besides my boss. His name was Timothy Stevens, and he was my high school sweetheart. Of all the people to attend Grandpa Benji’s funeral, it had to be him. Timothy broke my heart at prom. We had been dating for a while and were necking pretty heavy in his car after the party had ended. On the cusp of adulthood, my body wanted more but my head wouldn’t let Timothy have all of me that night. I was on the verge of freedom from my repressive parents, and wasn’t going to allow some high school boy influence my future decisions. True to form, Timothy was quick to take me home and never speak to me, again. Now, he looked as hot as ever, but I was in no mood to flirt my way back into his life just to play cat and mouse with him, again.
“Hello. I’m David Vanderhaven.” My boss stood up as he spoke. “Anna is my assistant. I have gotten to know Anna in the last year and a half that she has been employed with our agency. I know loss, and I understand that with time we no longer feel the sharp pain of the immediate absence of our love one. Time is a healer, and it also desensitizes us to that pain. However, for those where the pain is still fresh, it’s like the sharp edge of a knife cutting into your soul. I would like to remind everyone of the need for sensitivity. Anna has suffered a great loss and the pain is still new to her.”
My heart softened for Dave as he spoke. I didn’t know that he had cared so much about me, and I felt a deeper kinship to him as we now shared the agonizing pain of loss. After Dave took his seat, another person spoke his thoughts; then another and another. Each person knew of my grandfather either from eating his food from the restaurant next door or attending various small town events where food was the centerpiece. Grandpa Benji was famous in his small village, and my heart swelled with pride as my eyes threatened to flow.
“Anna,” Timothy, taking his queue from Dave, stood as he spoke. “I just wanted to say that your grandfather was one hell of a cook, and I am ashamed for what I did to you on prom night. I haven’t stopped thinking about you since, and I need to do this now before I lose my nerve.”
Timothy walked up to me and knelt down on the floor. My heart raced inside my chest as fear gripped my soul. Warning bells were screaming like sirens inside my head, and I wanted him to stop talking.
“I want to make this right and take away your pain,” Timothy began. “And, the only way I know how is to love you forever. I know I don’t have a ring, but Anna, would you marry me?”
Everyone around the room gasped, and I was mortified. I had not spoken to this man in over a decade, and here he was kneeling in front of me and making a promise that he could never be able to fulfill. I was so angry that the tears just spilled down my cheeks. The chair scraped against the tiled floor as I stood and ran from the room.
“Timothy! That was uncalled for,” I heard Sandra hiss as the door slammed shut behind me.
I searched for the nearest ladies room and pushed the door open with so much force that it echoed in the small room. I did not pay attention to the sign on the outside of the door. I just saw shadows of two women in blue and assumed that it was girl’s rest room. Apparently, I had entered the ladies Wail Room.
The restroom had been converted in the strangest of ways. There were four stalls where toilets still remain, but their lids were welded to the base which allowed for a more comfortable seating. The handicapped stall’s door was ajar and was occupied by a heavyset woman. She had decorated her stall with colorful linen, overstuffed pillows, and fairy lighting. She sat cross-legged on her throne with her hands in a prayer position.
The next stall was not occupied except for school supplies that spilled out onto the floor. The owner of that stall was picking up rulers, notebooks, and pencils off the floor. She was having a passionate conversation with what appeared to be an exhausted nurse sitting at a pink vanity table. I ran to the stall farthest away from these women. When I opened the last stall, I was discouraged to see two welded toilets in close proximity. The wall between the two toilets was removed, and there was a window in the stall with all of the school supplies. It looked like a confessional for two, and there was no privacy to wail out my frustrations and tears.
My humiliation and desperation to let the grief out of my system increased my suffering. I agonized over my pain and allowed the tears to trickle down my cheeks, pool at my chin and make their final descent to the floor; creating a small puddle that filled the groves in the tile. Just when I thought I couldn’t be more humiliated anymore, two men walked into the ladies Wail Room. They discussed my dilemma with the women at the vanity table, and to my relief, they turned on their heels and exited the room.
The woman with a notebook and ruler in hand opened her stall door and took a seat among the school supplies, and the nurse sat next to me in the open stall. Neither of them knocked or even asked if it was okay to come in. They just assumed their positions as if to confront an unruly teenager.
“What a jerk,” said the nurse. “Rita, ex-boyfriends should never be allowed in the Wail House.”
“I agree. That was improper. No one in their right mind would propose to a grieving woman,” said woman as she slapped the ruler in her hand.
“I know, right?!” I declared. We looked at each other, and the absurdity of the situation finally settled in, or maybe I was just going mad. Laughter exploded from my mouth and squeezed out the last remaining tears that I had left. The women looked at each other and a giggle bubbled up from deep within their souls. I could even hear the praying woman in the handicapped stall fight back a giggle or two!
Once the laughter had died, we talked about our adventures and what had led us to The Wail House. I learned that the praying woman’s name was Kiri. She lost her husband in a plane crash on his way home from India. Kate was the nurse who had lost another patient in the Emergency Room that morning, and Rita was a school teacher and the moderator of the Wail Room. Her stall was constantly overflowing with school supplies for grieving families with children.
Once I felt revived in the Wail Room, I rejoined the circle to find that Timothy was banned from my session. They had stopped talking while I found my healing in the Wail Room. It must have been strange to be silent for so long only to resume my session upon my arrival. I felt comforted listening to the good things about my grandfather and what he did for his community. When my session was over, they guided me to the Sanctuary of Joy where I met up with the rest of my family. Each of us were revived, renewed, and ready to share the good times we had with Grandpa Benji. We shed tears, we hugged, and we laughed.
The Wail House was a strange and unusual place, but its healing properties for the grieving was unlike anything else you could find on this earth. I will always remember it in the weirdest of ways; mostly, when I sit on the throne to do my business. The memories of that place will always come back to me, settling my mind and wrapping my heart up in a warm hug.