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June McFadden died of pancreatic cancer on a Tuesday morning. It was stage four when they found it and she didn’t last long once they did. She was fifty-three.

About a week later, everyone who knew her received a very simple invitation to her afternoon memorial service in the mail, with the address to a local community center. On it, in large print, were the instructions: “PLEASE WEAR WHATEVER YOU WANT TO WEAR AND BRING WHATEVER YOU WANT TO BRING.”

Mourners showed up in droves at the appointed time and place, looking confused and watching each other for cues. At the door of the community center there was a large whiteboard which read, “JUNE MCFADDEN MEMORIAL SERVICE. PLEASE STAY AS LONG AS YOU WANT TO STAY AND DO WHATEVER YOU WANT TO DO.”

Inside was a very large room with a bunch of folding chairs all stacked up against the walls. And that was it. That’s all there was to June’s memorial service.

People flooded in and stared around. Attendees were a bit taken aback by how many mourners had turned up; June was a pleasant enough lady, but she’d never married or had kids, or been a teacher or church community organizer, or anything that might cause one to expect a large sendoff. She’d worked from home and accomplished nothing noteworthy.

Many were also surprised by how literally their fellow attendees had taken the instructions to “wear whatever you want to wear and bring whatever you want to bring.” There were guitars, a beach ball, a frisbee, a bubble machine, games, a full magician’s act in a child’s wagon, snacks, lots of booze. There were top hats, propeller hats, kilts, bright suspenders, Daisy Dukes, full gothic makeup and dress, a light-up flashing bowtie, a suit covered in Jeremy Corbyn’s face, a drag queen.

The mourners milled around a bit, and, with nothing else to do, began talking.

“Hi I’m Steve!”

“Alice.”

“Dianne.”

“Rocky.”

“Alan.”

“Roxanne.”

“Dominic.”

“I’m Pete and this is Rosie.”

“I’m Lulu and this is Max.”

“So I guess you don’t know anyone here either, huh?”

“No! It doesn’t look like hardly anyone does.”

“What is this, anyway? What’s going on here?”

“I don’t know, the sign said do whatever we want to do.”

“That’s weird.”

“Yeah, she set the whole thing up herself though.”

“All by herself? How is that even possible?”

“Well her niece helped. She’s over there, she just told me.”

“Did she say if there was going to be any kind of, uh-”

“Nope, no ceremony. This is it.”

“Wow. Ha! Okay. Uhh, want a beer?”

“Sure.”

People got tired of standing around and started grabbing chairs. With nobody officiating and nothing to look at there was no set direction to face, so everyone just set their chairs up with whoever they happened to be speaking with in pairs, circles and semi-circles around the room.

“So how did you know June?”

“She helped us set up our business.”

“She did graphic design work for my business.”

“She designed my company’s logo a few years ago, and we just kinda stayed friends afterward I guess.”

“We used to work together at A-Space, back before she started working on her own. Been friends ever since.”

“Do you know the Black Lab pub over on Vine and Main? I’m a regular there and she’d come in for a drink sometimes.”

“From the pub down on Fifth Street.”

“From the pub.”

“Ha! Me too. I never saw you there though? Finnegan’s?”

“No, the Back Door over in Ellenvale. We had a conversation one night and stayed friends.”

“She was such a dear woman.”

“Yes she was. I was surprised how devastated I was to hear she was gone, you know? I mean, we only spoke once in a while, but I feel like I’ve lost my best mate.”

“Me too! Oh my god I was crushed. I haven’t been so affected by a death since my parents died.”

“Oh you lost both parents? But you’re so young!”

“Yeah, it’s a long ugly story.”

“I don’t mind. Unless you don’t want to talk about it?”

“No, it’s okay. Yeah it’ll be eight years ago next month, my parents were on holiday…”

People, united in grief and a somewhat awkward social situation, began talking to each other, first about June but very quickly about everything under the sun. Drinks were passed around, and after while people were starting to loosen up.

“Is that a bubble machine?”

“Yeah, I dunno I just kinda thought it would be appropriate for some reason.”

“Well come on man, let’s fire that sucker up!”

“So when are you gonna play your guitar for us, Abby?”

“Oh man, I don’t know, I just wasn’t sure what to bring and-”

“Guitar!”

“Gahhhhhh. Really?”

“Yeah! Plays us a song!”

“Guitar!”

“Go Abby!”

Music and games began to be played, and laughter started filling the air. The beach ball got smacked into the air, and the whole room started collaborating in keeping it from touching the floor. A man and his wife performed a whole children’s magic show for a small crowd after showing them the business card that June had helped them design for their act.

Meaningful conversations were had all around the room, and people began sharing stories and ideas that they’d never shared with anyone else before. Life and death featured prominently in many discussions due to the setting and situation, and after surprisingly deep dives into people’s ideas about dying and what living is supposed to be about, conversations kept surfacing for air on the memory of June McFadden. Whenever this happened, things got a bit awkward.

“Christ, I’ve been babbling about myself for like half an hour at someone else’s funeral.”

“Oh shit I forgot we were at a memorial service!”

“Okay, well maybe should we talk about our memories of June and our favorite things about her and stuff?”

“Yeah, that feels about right.”

“Who wants to start? Adam?”

“Uhh, okay, well… I dunno, she was just really sweet is all. I don’t really… like I don’t have any stories about her doing anything wild or hilarious or anything. She was just really easygoing and easy to talk to.”

“Like what would you talk about?”

“I dunno, myself mostly I guess. Kind of like I’ve been doing here. Fuck I’m such an asshole.”

“No you’re not! You’re right, she was really easy to talk to. I would sometimes — beach ball! — I would some times wind up just babbling at her about stupid nonsense, but she was always nice about it.”

“I feel bad I can’t think of anything to say about June. She never gave me any mind-blowing advice about my life, or any advice at all actually. She never saved the day or made me laugh real hard or did anything that really stands out in my memory. And I’m still absolutely gutted that she’s gone. What the hell, man?”

“Yeah I don’t really have any amusing anecdotes about her or anything either. She was just good to talk to and I never felt like I was being judged by her or pushed into being anything other than myself. I’d always feel really good after talking to her, and feel really okay about myself, which was always rare for me, you know? That’s actually when I finally started dressing in drag in public, come to think of it.”

“Hey you’re right, I did always feel really good after talking to her.”

“Me too.”

“Me too, yeah. Like, happy. For days. I never really thought about it before but that’s totally true.”

“Yeah, same. I guess we don’t really notice when we feel okay, just when we don’t, but yeah. I always felt really okay about myself after seeing her.”

“She was like if a hug were a person.”

“Exactly! That’s exactly it! Like her whole everything was always saying ‘You’re okay. You’re fine how you are,’ and saying in a way that you really felt it, without ever actually saying it with words.”

“That’s what got me comfortable singing in front of a crowd, actually.”

“That’s what made me feel entitled enough to file for divorce.”

“That’s what made me realize I need to stop talking to my mother and cut her viciousness out of my life.”

“That’s what gave us the courage to quit our jobs and start doing our magic act full-time.”

“That’s what made me stop hiding the fact that I like women and finally come out of the closet.”

“That’s how come I started my own online jewelry business, just like I’ve always wanted.”

“That was when I started painting.”

“That was why I decided to take the trip to the Amazon rainforest.”

Conversation by conversation, everyone in the room began to realize what June was and had always been to them all.

“She was like a big open space. A space that just let me be how I am without trying to fiddle with me or fix me or make me be different. And I think… I think maybe that’s the single most loving thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

“Oh my God, June was the most loving person I’ve ever known and I didn’t even realize it until she was gone.”

“I just hate the fact that — beach ball! — the fact that that’s gone from my life forever, you know? I finally get it now. I get why I’m so devastated about her death. It’s because I’ll never get to experience that space ever again. That feeling is just completely over. The last time I spoke with June was the last time I’ll ever get to be in that place where everything I am is just unconditionally okay and I’m fine however I show up.”

“Well, not the last time.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look around you man!”

“Oh. Huh. Ha! Hahahaha! Well fuck me dead. God damn, June.”

These realizations hit home around the room in different ways, some spoken and some unspoken, as people kept eating and drinking and playing and talking late into the night. Close friendships were made. More than a few people fell in love. Some people cried until they felt like there were no more tears. Some people laughed until their sides and faces ached. Some people did both.

The room was filled with the din of people peopling, exactly as they showed up. It echoed off the walls of the community center, and it echoed within the hearts of everyone who attended, for the rest of their lives.

And that was June’s memorial service.

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I write about the end of illusions.

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