Nam, you are right. The "what?" was bad. It was not my intention. I genuinely did not understand what she had said at first.
The family is actually Buddhist. I had tried to prepare. Interrogated a Buddhist dad at the bus stop in the morning. Were the black sequins on the collar of my black blouse ok? Were the hounds tooth pants ok? Or should I go home and change into solid black? The bus-stop dad seemed to think my concerns were trivial, and said that the most important thing was to feel with my heart.
I didn't know the little girl well. I work with her mom. On weekends, I occasionally ran into the family at the local science museum, and we exchanged greetings as we shuffled our respective kids between the ant farm and the Mars rover. We are Facebook friends as well, and we frequently "like" pictures of each others' children doing adorable things, and we "like" each others' linked articles about the Common Core Standards and various issues of importance to the community.
They had just moved out of their urban apartment into a suburban house with a lawn and a good school district, just in time for the big boy to start kindergarten. In August, they took a last minute road trip to Pennsylvania, to bring the kids to the aquarium and to see horses and whatnot. I covered for her on a project we were working on together, so she could have this time with her family. But they came home early because one of the kids, (I forget which one) got an ear infection.
I really like this family. This beautiful little girl was growing up in a loving home, with parents who were so invested in her happiness and her well-being.
I've wept for days since the accident. This was not the reality that they deserved.
I wanted to do the right thing at the wake. I considered bowing, but then decided that there were so many protocols about bowing that I did not understand, and the parents are younger than I am, and I didn't want to make a mistake or do something that seemed really unnatural and false. The majority of non-family members at the wake were Christian or Jewish I assume. A Muslim guy from the IT department had taken the day off work to spend Eid with his family, but he showed up as well to pay his respects.
There were pleasant recorded chants playing unobtrusively over a speaker system, and a monk was in a corner of the room burning pieces of paper. Some attendees made the sign of the cross on their foreheads and chests as they waked by the open casket. Elderly Asian ladies pressed their palms together, elbows extended, and bowed to a small altar that displayed some flowers and a folded cloth and other random items whose symbolism I did not understand. In the polyglot of our community, any heartfelt gesture seemed appropriate.
I wanted to do the right thing.