Excerpt from “The Pursuit of Happiness”

I first saw her standing near my mother’s coffin. She was in her seventies—a tall, angular woman, with fine gray hair gathered in a compact bun at the back of her neck. She looked the way I hope to look if I ever make it to her birthday. She stood very erect, her spine refusing to hunch over with age. Her bone structure was flawless. Her skin had stayed smooth. Whatever wrinkles she had didn’t cleave her face. Rather, they lent it character, gravitas. She was still handsome—in a subdued, patrician way. You could tell that, once upon a recent time, men probably found her beautiful.But it was her eyes that really caught my attention. Blue-gray. Sharply focused, taking everything in. Critical, watchful eyes, with just the slightest hint of melancholy. But who isn’t melancholic at a funeral? Who doesn’t stare at a coffin and picture themselves laid out inside of it? They say funerals are for the living. Too damn true. Because we don’t just weep for the departed. We also weep for ourselves. For the brutal brevity of life. For its ever-accumulating insignificance. For the way we stumble through it, like foreigners without a map, making mistakes at every curve of the road.

When I looked at the woman directly, she averted her gaze in embarrassment—as if I had caught her in the act of studying me. Granted, the bereaved child at a funeral is always the subject of everybody’s attention. As the person closest to the departed, they want you to set the emotional tone for the occasion. If you’re hysterical, they won’t be frightened of letting rip. If you’re sobbing, they’ll just sob too. If you’re emotionally buttoned up, they’ll also remain controlled, disciplined, correct. I was being very controlled, very correct—and so too were the twenty or so mourners who had accompanied my mother on “her final journey”—to borrow the words of the funeral director who dropped that phrase into the conversation when he was telling me the price of transporting her from his “chapel of rest” on 75th and Amsterdam to this, “her eternal resting place” . . . right under the LaGuardia Airport flight path in Flushing Meadow, Queens.

After the woman turned away, I heard the reverse throttle of jet engines and glanced up into the cold blue winter sky. No doubt several members of the assembled graveside congregation thought that I was contemplating the heavens—and wondering about my mother’s place in its celestial vastness. But actually all I was doing was checking out the name of the descending jet. US Air. One of those old 727s they still use for short hauls. Probably the Boston shuttle. Or maybe the Washington run . . . It is amazing the trivial junk that floats through your head at the most momentous moments of your life.