Carina had her first panic attack at her mother’s funeral fifteen years previously. It had been a traditional open casket, Roman Catholic funeral. Carina never wanted to go, but her father insisted that she be there. They both knew even then that her father needed to have her there. His wife’s sudden death had shaken his world with so much force that nothing remained unchanged. He saw everything around him in a different, darker light. He had locked himself in his bedroom upon hearing of her death and it took the tearful pleading of his children and his sister-in-law to haul him from his hiding place some thirty-six hours later. For the next week, he sat looking from his bedroom window at the peaceful suburban street on which they lived. The same image they woke up together to for eight years only looked vaguely familiar to him. It was like a forgotten photograph of a forgotten friend. He sought his solace in silence and isolation, as if none of anything happening outside of his room involved him. He joined his wife in being a ghost in their home. He spoke only single words to only his children and waved off all other attempts at communication. Funeral arrangements, death certificates, will consultation and the duty of taking care of Carina and her brother were all left to his sister-in-law and her family. All he had to do was turn up to the funeral and wear his brave mask for the sake of his distant children.
After begging not to go to the funeral, Carina’s wishes were overruled by her father’s simple, familiar , “No.” He had led her and her brother into the church and slowly along the long burgundy carpet towards the coffin. Carina stood with her hand on the side of the wooden box and peered in on her tip toes. Her mother looked at peace but Carina knew that was a lie. The pain and confusion her mother must have felt moments before her death were suppressed in her calm expression. Her paper thin eyelids were shaded a greenish-blue, gently closed, as if she were smelling fresh flowers. Her hair had been perfectly made up to resemble a family portrait from six years before, giving her a dated, expired look. The blood had receded from her lips and an unnatural deep scarlet lip-stick had penned the line of where her smile used to sit. The signs of aging her mother fought desperately to hold off were now on show for everyone to see. The wrinkles from her eyes were now deepening lines eroded onto her skin. The line where her loosening skin ended and her perfect, sprayed hair started was graying over, as if it had been back combed with ash. Her hands held the loose skin that rose like waves over her once pulsing veins. Her expression was one of someone bathing in the sun, deep in an afternoon nap. The agony of grief was worn on everyone’s faces except hers.
As Carina took all of this in and tried to stop herself from imaging her mom continue to quickly age in a box, she felt the air rush from every pore on her body. Her heart started to pound at an irregular beat and the moisture from her mouth and throat dried like a desert well. Her breaths were rapid and short. Carina felt like Max, their cocker-spaniel, locked in the car during summer, panicking, feeling like she’d been left forever and that each breath was one closer to her last. She felt her hand clutch around the oak wall of the coffin against her will. Her grip was so tight that the tremble from her hands moved all across her body. All she wanted to do was run as far away from this place as she could and never come back, but every fiber of her body routed her to the very spot she stood.
She felt her father’s hand come down on her shoulder.
“She looks so peaceful,” he said as his grip tightened around his daughter’s boned shoulder. Carina could feel the pressure from his hand, but no pain. She could feel it tighten more before it started to tremble. “We’re going to be okay angel, I promise” he whispered into his daughter’s ear. She felt a soft tear in her hair as her father kissed her head and sniffed, trying in vain to pull the emotions back into his body and hold them in until he was alone. The thumping in her chest grew stronger as her mouth got drier and her breathing faster. She felt like she was having a heart attack. She thought that maybe if she died at this moment, maybe they would put her in the coffin with her mother and they could rest, eternally in one another’s arms.
“Are you okay Carina?” he father asked, noticing how still and unresponsive his daughter was. “Carina? Are you okay darling?”
She stood still, routed to the spot at her mother’s side, her back turned to her father. Her breathing had all but stopped but for rapid, silent pants and the pressure in her chest made it feel like her heart would explode at any moment. Her father grabbed her other shoulder and gently turned his daughter around to face him.
“Jesus Christ, Carina! Alice? Alice!? Can you bring some tissues please? Alice!! Tissues, please!” he shouted to his sister-in-law. Carina’s eyes were damp and swollen and a river of blood ran from her nose, down either side of her dried throat and into her dress. The moisture of the blood gave her black dress a darkened gleam. Her breathing stopped and a single tear rolled down her cheeks to the tip of her chin, mixing with the blood from her nose.
Her aunt Alice quickly led Carina out by the hand to the entrance area of the church, leaving her father sobbing next to the casket with Jordan. Most people had made their way inside the church and assumed their seats, so they had the area to themselves. Carina sat on a folding chair, her legs hanging limply a few inches from the cold concrete floor. She gazed down at her hands and saw the streaks of dried blood along the edges of her fingers, more orange than red. Alice was hunched down in front of Carina, trying to tempt her to make eye contact.
“Sweety, your mom is in a better place now,” she started, “she’s with god and he’s going to take care of her. So don’t you worry. She’ll always be with us in our hearts and,” she paused as she sniffed back her emotions, “Sorry darling,” she said, gently dabbing her eyes to keep the tears from pulling her make-up down her cheeks. “We’re all having a hard time, but it’ll get better. Your dad is having a tough time with everything right now, so what we need you to do is to be is a big strong grown up. Can you do that?”
Carina nodded, still looking at her bloody hands.
“Good girl. Your dad is going to need you to help around the house, Jordan needs someone to help him with his homework and you, well, don’t tell anyone I said this but,” she leant in to her, “you’re the strongest one of us all and we need you to be strong for us. Okay?”
Carina nodded again.