My holy of holies is the human body
—Anton Chekhov, 1888
All the people that I’ve lost – and I’ve lost a lot – I keep them with me. And it makes life that much happier. About six or seven years ago I saw the perfect shirt for Fred, my late husband. I started paying for it before I even realized what I was doing. And then I bought it anyway. I just keep them all with me because life doesn’t have to be so lonely. You know, if you shut everybody out just because they die, then what’s it all for?
Day before Thanksgiving Day, November 2015
I decided, as I continued through Thanksgiving traffic, to just show up to the family’s house and see what I might find. I knew I was taking a risk, tackling this removal without a backup remover. If too many stairs and treacherous angles and such, my fallback plan was to call someone in from Removals Plus. But Removals Plus is notorious for hiring shady, trench-coated, goth characters who are willing to work for $10 an hour. I wanted to avoid this, if at all possible. I had sent one of my removers to Yakima, another to Tacoma. Most of my other removers were taking holiday early – two had to work on Thanksgiving Day – so they were celebrating Thanksgiving one day early. I wasn’t about to disturb them. I had called two subcontractors (on-call, free-lance funeral directors) who were busy with their family Thanksgiving plans; they declined.
I called Hospice and found out that the 45-year-old woman, Michelle, was about 110 pounds. The sun was shining brilliantly. I felt lucky.
Grayling Street is a charming, little street—almost an alley—with modest but fixed-up homes, typical hodgepodge West Seattle style. The Howe house was well tended to, remodeled and freshly painted, backlit with the beautiful, holiday-making sun. The home didn’t look at all like it housed a dead person. After I parked in the drive, I surveyed the house, hoping there was a back exit down several steps of a deck. I knocked, and three early-forties, blond women answered the door. They looked like they might be Michelle’s sisters or close friends. One of them called out “Ricky” and her husband appeared. He was wearing a Modest Mouse baseball cap. He was fit and healthy with a mod Portlandia beard and an attitude. He felt quietly strong of heart – a man’s man, in the best sense of the term. He welcomed me warmly.
We stood in the living room with two pre-teen children, who I assumed were Ricky and Michelle’s. He showed me to the back where Michelle was laid out on a bed in a back bedroom that had huge, double French doors that opened out on to the deck. It was sunny in the room. Michelle was bald and thin, and I immediately thought cancer. She looked like she was a beautiful woman, though her beauty was partially wasted away. In my year-plus time, I have only seen one beautiful face in death—a young woman, 17, who died of cancer. Michelle’s mouth was peacefully closed. Her hands had been folded over each other on top of the bedspread. She was in repose. The atmosphere was one full of care, carefulness. She had been loved. Love was in the room.
I told Ricky and the sisters who were in the room the procedure about the shroud and the cot, and I looked at Ricky and said, “Our normal protocols have two of us here to take Michelle into our care, but because of the holiday it’s just me…” Before I could ask, he said, “I am more than happy to help. It would be my honor.”
The two blondes chimed in with their offers, too. Their helping was their healing. This harkened back to the dying days on the Nebraska plains—like we were about to enter a Willa Cather book—when all the family pitched in to watch and prepare the dead.
I asked one sister to raise the hospice bed electronically to its highest level. I directed the other sister to take down the side rail. I asked Ricky to move a bed stand out of the way. I would go get the cot. I opened the door on to the deck to figure out the choreography off the back porch.
When I got back from the van with my cot, both French doors were flung wide open. The Thanksgiving sun poured in. The bright chill from the outside felt comforting, life-giving. The three of them were tidying up—just doing some stuff, engaging. One sister commented, almost like she was happy, “It’s like she planned this. This was the day Michelle chose.” I asked her if Michelle had been ill long. “Five years. It got harder and harder to see her suffer—her breathing got so difficult.” Ricky walked back in to the room and shut the door, to the children. “We are glad for the time with her,” he said, smiling. “But we are happy she is resting now.” The citizenry in the room, their fortitude and solidity, humbled me.
We were a team now. I tagged Michelle’s ankle. I handed one of the Blond Sisters the pillow from under her head. I motioned for Ricky to pull up beside me at the bed and to another Blond Sister to be beside me on the left. I walked them through what we were going to do—lift her from one side to slide the linen shroud in. Ricky told me he preferred that I take all her sheets and diapers with me in the shroud. So, the three of us carefully rolled her to one side and then the other, swaddling her in the linen, so that she looked like a loosely-wrapped mummy. I motioned for them to move off to one side, so I could pull the cot up next to the bed. And I motioned them back to my right and left side. I gripped each spot on the linen where I wanted them to hold and told the Blond Sister to hold under Michelle’s head as we pulled her from the bed to the cot. On “one, two, three,” all three of us pulled her over. Both of them laid their hands on Michelle for the last time before I put the plastic shroud over her. There were no tears. They were ready. I finished wrapping her and zippered up the bag. I laid the quilt over the cot and motioned for Ricky to get on the foot end. The two of us slowly wheeled her out while the Blond Sisters processed slowly after us onto the deck, with the funeral director hands-folded-in-front pose. Once we walked down the deck stairs I told Ricky I could take it from there, and I wheeled her gently into the van. After I shut the door, I walked to Ricky and shook his hand and to each Blond Sister and shook their hands. I gave them my standard condolence, “You take care.” But I added, thank you so much for helping.
This was one of the most blessed removals because the family helped and we all participated together. It might be a model for the future, too—strictly voluntary, of course—whereby more family members lend their hand in order to heal. The loved ones helping seemed so right.
Of course, I got lucky, with the perfect family. My going against our protocols, my roguery, rendered something good. It was a Thanksgiving gift. Mine and theirs.