This is set between seasons one and two, so this work is officially out of order. My apologies. *nervous chuckle* (Also sorry to post a funeral fic on Valentine's Day.) No beta, so all mistakes are mine.
This chapter is for guest reviewer Amy. I don't think this is exactly what you had in mind, but I hope it's a step in the right direction. :)
No one expected Todd O'Dwyer's funeral to be a small affair. The esteemed judge and former Air Force pilot had made many friends over the course of his life, and he was survived, as the priest needlessly reminded the crowd, by five sisters, twelve nieces and nephews, his wife, and his daughter. Even without a stranger in sight, the combined breaths and hot tears could negate the chill.
The crowd dwindled as the procession traveled from the church where Todd was baptized to the cemetery, where he would rest next to his parents. By the time the naval officers folded her father's flag, Sharon could more easily spot her aunts, cousins, and family friends. Sharon squeezed her mother's hand until the young man presented her with the flag. When Arlene O'Dwyer only blinked at the offering, Sharon prayed that the dementia would not choose this moment to rear its merciless head.
Whether she realized what was happening or not, Arlene clasped her husband's tribute. She did not reach for her daughter's hand again.
The commute to the house for the reception was nearly silent, despite the packed limousine. Emily rested her head on her mother's shoulder, sniffling occasionally, Todd's sisters alternated between holding hands and wiping their eyes, Ricky, after being denied his grandmother's hand, sat with his puffy eyes trained on the floor, and Arlene stared straight ahead, her usually vibrant blue eyes blank. When Arlene had woken up that way, Sharon immediately knew that this would be one of the "bad days" her mother's neurologist had warned her about. In the year since Arlene's diagnosis, her father had become the most qualified to discern the good days from the bad. Hundreds of miles away, Sharon could only fear the worst every time she noticed a drastic difference in her mother's vernacular or idiosyncrasies. The first time Arlene called Sharon demanding to speak to one of her father's former secretaries, Sharon wept for an hour. Her father had always been made of sterner stuff.
Sharon squeezed a couple of tears out of her eyes, her father's voice in her head as it had a million times before, when he was still here. You're stronger than you think.
Sharon used that strength to socialize at her father's wake. Her parents' living room housed another montage of familiar faces, and Sharon wondered if her mother recognized any of them today. Amidst brief conversations with mourners, Sharon made her mother a plate of finger food, asked her aunts if they needed anything nonalcoholic, and hugged her children. Even as she comforted her father's mentee, Sharon expected him to join them in the kitchen, pour himself a tumbler of scotch, and quiz her on airplane mechanics. Faced with such a bleak reality, Sharon buried her own pain by setting to the impossible task of healing others, one gesture at a time.
"Mom?" Sharon knelt down next to her mother, seated in her favorite recliner, spine straight as a rod. "Since people are starting to leave, how do you feel about lying down for a few minutes?"
Todd's youngest sister, Jenna, sat on the recliner's arm. "I may have to join you, Arlie. It's been a long day for all of us."
Sharon knew they sounded condescending, but they didn't know how to communicate with this stony woman, who didn't exist even the night before. Last night, her mother had been waiting for her in the front hall with open arms and words of comfort. With her face buried in her mother's neck, Sharon realized that her mother's gray bob smelled of the same Pantene shampoo she'd been using for years. The same robe she donned when she cooked Sharon breakfast every morning sufficiently hid the weight loss. Despite the chilly weather of early spring, her toenails were painted blue, because she shuddered at the sight of naked toes. Even through her crippling grief, Arlene had been present, compassionate, lucid. Then the sun dawned this stranger.
"Who killed my husband?" Gone was Arlene's sweet, melodic voice, replaced by the rasp of an angry, paranoid woman.
Sharon and Jenna locked eyes. Why today?
"Arlie, Todd had a stroke," Jenna said, resting her hand on her sister-in-law's shoulder.
Ignoring Jenna, Arlene glared down at Sharon. "Was it you? Your father was so worried about you taking a job with the LAPD, of all places. He stayed up all last night pacing."
Sharon dug her fingernails into her biceps, redirecting her anguish. It's okay. She doesn't realize what she's saying. She's just confused.
"He begged you to just let us help you, so you could go back to school," Arlene continued. "Don't you remember? Begged. Your own father!"
Sharon, it's just a loan, he'd said. I know we raised you to be independent, but there's no need to reject help when it's offered.
"Arlene, that's enough. That was years ago." The gentleness had disappeared from Jenna's voice, and Sharon would rather endure her mother's delusional censure than her aunt's conscious brashness.
"Jenna, it's okay." Another person had materialized, speaking for Sharon. Sharon always meant what she said. This person didn't believe a word. "Mom, I'm sorry. I told Dad I was sorry. Let's talk about this tomorrow." When she reached for her sweet, gentle mother's hand, Arlene's separate being retaliated, slapping Sharon's hand away.
"You won't be here tomorrow." Arlene's eyes blazed blue as the hottest flame. "This isn't your home anymore. You've made a home in Los Angeles, with your broken marriage and a job where everyone despises you." Arlene was trapped between the past and the present now, events and emotions disjointed from their rightful order.
She doesn't mean it. This isn't even her.
"Granna, you can't talk to her like that." Ricky, indignant and protective as ever, stood in the doorway of the living room in which he and his sister had spent countless holidays in the arms of a woman he no longer recognized.
Sharon shook her head. "Ricky, please—"
"She's not so far gone that she doesn't know right from wrong," Ricky said, sounding more like his father than he ever had, like the defiant and defensive man Jack had been when they first met.
By now, Arlene was thoroughly flustered, her hands clutching her pink cheeks and her eyes closed. Sharon couldn't bear it. "Mom, please. Let's go lay down for a while. Things will be better when you wake up, I promise." She said it with none of the certainty that her mother never seemed to run short on.
Emily, who had barely spoken the whole day, swallowed the seemingly perpetual lump in her throat and strode into the space between her brother and mother. "Granna?" Emily pried her grandmother's worn, baby soft hands from her cheeks and guided them to her own.
When Arlene finally opened her eyes, the only remnants of the fury were tears. "Emily." At last, the certainty and recognition that had been missing since dawn spread across her face.
Emily didn't have a second being to emerge, to erase her puffy eyes and damp cheeks. "I don't want to be by myself, but I'm so tired. Would you lie down with me for a while?"
Arlene nodded, but when she noticed Sharon kneeling so close to her, she winced. "Sharon, I—"
Shaking her head, Sharon shushed her mother softly. "It's okay, Mom. Go help Emily." How she wished she'd thought of giving her mother an occupation. Her whole life, Sharon had watched her mother bustle and fuss and mend, and now she understood. It helped to do something, anything.
"Sharon?" Her Aunt Sheila's pack-a-day husk never failed to make Sharon sit up straight. "The kids are going to make themselves useful and help us clean up. Why don't you rest? I bet Jo's got a Valium with your name on it."
When Todd's oldest sister plucked a prescription bottle from her handbag and shook it like a bag of dog treats, Sharon guffawed. "Thank you both, but I think I'll settle for a cigarette." As Sheila slipped a cancer stick and a lighter in Sharon's hand, Sharon resisted the bitter thought that slithered to the forefront of her mind. Daddy never smoked a day in his life. Sheila's here. He's gone.
Sharon's hands shook as she struggled to light her cigarette, and after a third failed attempt, she uttered the worst curse word combination she could conjure and tossed the cigarette and useless lighter onto the wooden patio table.
"Hope you're ready to say a rosary or twelve," Jenna teased, sliding the patio door closed. "If you share, I'll light it for you."
Swiping at a tear, Sharon nudged the impertinent items closer to the opposite side of the table. Instead of sitting there, however, Jenna dragged a chair next to Sharon and fell into it, flicking the lighter to life. After taking the first drag, she handed the cigarette off to Sharon and draped an arm around her shoulders.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that."
Determined not to choke on a sob or the smoke, Sharon held her breath. "I can't imagine how many times Dad had to go through that. And poor Mom." She sniffled and brought the cigarette to her lips as Jenna pulled her closer.
"It's not as bad as you think," Jenna said, resting the side of her head on top of Sharon's. "I've been coming over more and more since they found out, and most days are good, Sharon. Today was just…so hard." The quiver in her voice prompted Sharon to give Jenna a minute for recovery before she responded with another hard truth. Todd had already turned fifteen by the time Jenna was born, so she didn't truly get to know him until she grew up. For a long time, Jenna was closer to Sharon than to Todd. After a lifetime of fulfilling ephemeral obligations, Jenna moved into a house fifteen minutes from Todd and Arlene's, and for the next twenty years, Todd and Jenna tried to make up for the time they lost. They caught up just in time for his death to gut her.
"It's going to get worse now, isn't it?" Sharon asked.
Jenna sighed and squeezed Sharon's shoulder. "A drastic change in her environment is going to take its toll, yes."
"She can't be by herself," Sharon said, watching the smoke dissolve in the spring air. "But I can't bear the thought of disrupting her life even more by putting her in a home, Jen."
"I've already thought of that." Whatever her faults, Jenna had always loved to play problem-solver. "I wasn't going to bother you with it today, but if you're just gonna fret over it—" She sighed, as if she was still trying to convince herself to speak. "The girls and I were talking, and since Jo is already living with me, we figured we'd move in with your mother."
Sharon pulled away to look her aunt in the eye. "Jenna, I can't ask that of you."
Jenna cocked a manicured eyebrow. "You're not." When Sharon opened her mouth to argue, Jenna held up a hand. "I don't want to argue about this. You know your mother has always been an O'Dwyer sister. We love her like we love each other, some days more than that. You've got that major murder squad—"
"Major Crimes Division—"
"—and that boy that you're taking care of. Give me a more beneficial course of action, and I'll consider it." With a huff, she snatched what remained of the cigarette from Sharon, who couldn't help but smile at her aunt's reaction. This is what's happening, and you'll like it had always been Jenna's philosophy.
"I don't suppose you'd accept any kind of compensation?"
Jenna snorted. "I didn't say that." Sharon giggled, and Jenna kissed the top of her head. "I just want to make this as easy for you as possible. You know how hard it was for everyone when your grandfather died."
Sharon hummed. Her grandfather, rest his soul, resembled Jack in that his addictions ruled his life, including his finances. His grieving wife and children couldn't grasp the magnitude of his problem until the men he owed pounded on the door.
"Thank you," Sharon whispered, and she felt the tears pooling again. "I don't know how you can have so much foresight. When I got the call…it's like nothing made sense anymore. I didn't know what to do. Rusty had to help me buy a plane ticket, for God's sake."
"You were in shock."
"Maybe. Maybe Mom was in shock too, when she woke up this morning. She got so confused." Sharon paused to take a few shuddering breaths, leaning forward onto the table. The hush of the neighborhood had seemed reverent at first, but it seemed more eerie now. "Or maybe he was the light in our lives, and now everything's dark, and it's going to be like this forever." Suddenly furious and confined, she jumped to her feet, pacing the patio with her hands on her hips. "I should have come home more, checked on him more. Why didn't I do that?" Here was yet another person putting words in her mouth and uttering them, but this person wasn't a stranger. She recognized this one, this irrational, broken, aching being. "I should have listened to him when he told me to go back to school. Then maybe I could have come back home to take care of them. Why didn't I do that?" Yes, she remembered this; it first arrived when Jack left the first time. Blame, blame, blame. Why didn't you prevent this? Why didn't you see this coming? Why weren't you enough?
Sharon wasn't sure when Jenna started holding her, rocking her back and forth like she had when Sharon was small, but there, in the cocoon of warmth and peppermint, she could hear her father. She could almost see him.
It must have been hard for him, explaining to his seven-year-old daughter that a family friend had been killed in a car accident, that before it happened, the other driver had been drinking what Daddy drinks sometimes. Knowing that Uncle Charlie was in heaven hadn't been enough.
He was too young to go to Heaven, Daddy.
He'd bowed his head, studying the pink tennis shoes that Charlie had only just given her. You're right, Sharon. He was too young. But everyone is too young to go to Heaven. There will always be people who love someone, who wish that person could have more time. Some things, like death and sickness and pain, happen, and there's no way to stop them. There's no way to be ready to say goodbye. The only thing you can do is give everyone as much love as you can possibly give. They remember that love, and they try their best to give it back when you need it most.
When Sharon felt another set of hands on her back, she squeezed her eyes tighter, clinging to the memory, to the place where her father lived, where it was possible that those hands could be his. Finally succumbing to reality, she opened her eyes to find her mother there, truly there, eyes brimming with all she wanted to say.
There was that love.