The One & Only

by Emily Giffin


I should have been thinking about God. Or the meaning of life. Or simply grieving the fact that my best friend was now motherless and my own mother without her best friend. Instead, I found myself gazing into the sleek mahogany coffin lined with generous folds of ivory silk, silently critiquing Mrs. Carr’s lipstick, a magenta with blue undertones that subtly clashed with her coral dress, the same one she had worn to Lucy’s wedding nearly five years ago.

More problematic than the shade of lipstick, though, was the application. Someone, clearly low on the beauty-industry totem pole, had colored just outside the lines as if to create fuller lips. It was an optical illusion that never fooled anyone and seemed wholly unnecessary given the circumstances. After all, there would be no photos taken today. No professional albums filled with various combinations of family and friends, posing with Mrs. Carr, horizontal but front and center. In fact, the entire custom of fancying up a corpse for an open-casket funeral seemed suddenly ridiculous. Cremation was definitely the way to go. It was the way I wanted to go, rather than risk the possibility of going out on a bad-hair day. Without a husband or sibling, I made a mental note to convey my final wishes to Lucy after some time had passed. She was really the only person it made sense to tell. Besides, Lucy got shit done. She was like a decisive committee with no dissenting members. At least none who dared speak up.

“Do you need anything?” I whispered to her now, breaking into the endless line of friends, family, and virtual strangers offering condolences. I had never seen so many people at a funeral, and, combined with everyone who had come to the wake the night before, it seemed that most of our small town had made an appearance.

“A Kleenex,” she whispered. In contrast to the past three days, she was dry-eyed, but looked to be on the verge of a fresh breakdown, her blue eyes glassy and round. I handed her a tissue from my purse, once again conjuring her wedding, when I had vigilantly shadowed her with mints and a compact of powder.

“Anything else? Water?” I asked, thinking that it felt good to be needed for once, and it was a shame that it took a major rite of passage to turn the tables on our usual dynamic.

Lucy shook her head as I returned to the second pew, where she had instructed me to sit, along with my parents. She had all the details covered—from the seating to the hymn selection to the white orchids on the altar—which was why it was so surprising that she hadn’t noticed her mother’s lipstick last night at the wake, when there was still an opportunity to fix it. At least I hoped she hadn’t noticed it, because as a corollary to her efficiency, Lucy was cursed with the crippling capacity to dwell on even the most trivial matters for weeks, sometimes years. Like the grudge she was sure to hold against Angel, her mother’s hairdresser, who dared to be away this week, on a Caribbean cruise no less. If not to return to do her mother’s hair, Lucy had ranted, then at least to pay her respects to her best client. Secretly, I thought Angel should have been afforded some slack; surely her vacation had been planned for months, and logistically it must be pretty tough to get off a ship on such short notice. But it wasn’t Lucy’s style to cut anyone slack, especially when it came to a slight to her family, whether perceived or real. As her oldest and closest friend, I was also a beneficiary of her extreme loyalty and had long since memorized her bright-line rules. There was no gray area and no second chances, even when I could muster up my own forgiveness or indifference. That didn’t matter to Lucy, who stood by her creed: You’re dead to me.

There it was again. Dead. I shivered at the finality of it all, cursing the cancer that took Mrs. Carr’s life in ten months flat, not a single symptom until it was too late. Recognizing that praying wasn’t at all like riding a bicycle, I bowed my head and formed silent, clumsy words, doing my best not to question God’s existence while I asked Him for favors. Please help Lucy find a way to be happy without her mother. It felt like an impossible request, and the fact that she had her own daughter, just-turned-four-year-old Caroline, who was too young to attend the funeral or one day remember her Gigi, seemed to heighten all the emotions of loss. A new generation was a constant reminder of everything Mrs. Carr was going to miss. Birthdays, benchmarks, all of life’s momentous firsts stretched ahead without her.

I turned my gaze and prayers to Lawton, Lucy’s brother, a carefree bachelor but still a mama’s boy to the core. He was standing beside his sister, mopping his face with a handkerchief, likely one Mrs. Carr had pressed for him in anticipation of this day. She had made a flurry of arrangements and plans over the past few months, including a morphine-induced request for Lawton and me to marry. Kill two birds with one stone, she had said, not exactly a flattering or hopeful description. That wasn’t going to happen—Lawton wasn’t my type and I was even less his—but I had smiled and told her I’d work on it, while Lucy made a joke about every couple needing at least one grown-up. I looked up at the sun streaming through the stained glass behind the altar, wondering if Mrs. Carr was somewhere up there watching us. And if so, could she read my mind? Just in case, I said a final goodbye to her, my throat tight and dry. Then I closed my eyes and mouthed Amen, aware of the glaring omission in my prayer: Coach Carr.

When I looked up again, he was directly in my line of vision, walking from the opposite end of the casket toward the pew in front of me, his hands clasped behind his back, the way he paced the sidelines of a game. I heard him exhale as he took his seat, close enough for me to touch his shoulder if I only extended my hand and leaned forward a few inches. But I couldn’t so much as look at him, hadn’t been able to in weeks, even when I dropped by the house with store-bought casseroles and six-packs of Shiner Bock. I knew he was devastated, and the mere notion that I might glimpse him in a vulnerable moment was unbearable, like looking at those award-winning photos of soldiers or firemen, holding babies, weeping after a catastrophe. I firmly believed that it was always harder to be the one left behind, especially if you thought you were on your way to happily ever after.

Coach and Connie Carr’s story fittingly began at Walker University, the school with the same name as our small town in North Texas, where he was the star quarterback and she the prettiest cheerleader. Except for the one season he played for the Colts, just after Lucy and I were born, the Carrs never left Walker, as he worked his way up the coaching ladder from quarterbacks’ coach to offensive coordinator to the youngest—and now the winningest—head coach in Bronco history.

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