The White Sheet
The dead come to me vulnerable, sharing their stories and secrets. Here is my scar. Touch it. Here is the roll of fat I always hid under that big sweater, and now you see. This is the person I’ve kept private, afraid of what people would think. Here I am, all of me. Scarred, flabby, covered in bedsores. Please be kind.
When a body comes to our funeral home, it comes draped in a white sheet. The sheets begin clean, but soon, they carry the essence of the one who died, first in silhouette, the contour of the nose, a valley or mountain at the stomach, the feet turned slightly in or out, the bumps of shoulders, breasts, chin. Before I move the sheet aside, I study this landscape. At first glance, it is like a field covered in fresh snow. Then the details become more visible. Just as a field of snow, upon closer inspection, shows signs of the life that has tramped through it, so will the sheet show something beyond its surface. There are smears and drips, a spot of blood from where the IV was removed, a stain from loose bowels not thoroughly wiped, the sticky smear of saliva, the gray shadow of one final sweat.
I pull back the sheet and welcome Mr. Mosley to the bright white silence of my workroom, take his cold hand and hold it gently in my own. His face, neck, and hands are red and toughened from years of working in sun and cold and wind. The rest of him is quite pale, soft. I don’t often get to know my neighbors until we meet this way, and that is the case with Mr. Mosley. His wrecked body lies on the stainless steel table—a faucet near his head, a drain near his feet—and there is much to do. But first this. His hand.
Here is the man, nothing to hide behind. No sheet or uniform or name tag. This is the man without his possessions, with chores left undone, with mistakes he can’t make right, with nothing more he can prove.
I’m right here, I tell him.
It is what I have longed for my whole life. Perhaps everyone longs for this. Just to be and to have someone stay near. He does not complain that my hands are clammy. There is no pressure to be charming or clever. We are simply here, together in this quiet.
The Embalmer’s Threads
A mortician is an illusionist. The goal is to cushion reality, slow down how fast the hurt seeps in. Cuts are filled, the gray pallor painted over. Lips moistened with tinted cream. Hair washed and combed but not overly styled. The embalmer’s threads and glue and brushstrokes must be invisible so that when a family looks into the face of a loved one for the last time, there is no sign of illness, injury, or suffering. The grieving can pretend that their loved ones are merely sleeping. That they will hear you when you bend over to whisper all you had meant to say.
We need these illusions. Need to pretend the funeral will bring comfort. Closure. We need friends and family members saying, We’ve got you. You won’t slip away into a black hole of grief. You won’t. Look at the body again. See? No signs that he suffered.
But don’t linger too long. Don’t touch the skin if you hope it will be warm and supple. Don’t rub your hand against the cheek or you will find makeup on your fingers and a smell, like lard, that you will try but not be able to forget.
The Blue Hour
It’s twilight—the blue hour—the town silhouetted against the sky when everything seems to glow. The dirt road outside the funeral home snakes back to the paved one of Main Street. Some neighbors acknowledge my van as it goes by, standing still as Mr. Mosley passes through town one last time. I turn at the gray tower of the grain elevator.
Highway 200, with its deep barrow ditches on either side of the road, crosses the entire state. When you’re on it for too long, it can play tricks on your eyes. You start to see curves and obstructions that aren’t there, shimmering water where the road is dry. Once I pulled over for a hitchhiker only to discover I was alone. Every day the road is littered with the carcasses of rabbits and pheasants, the only sign that trucks have driven through at all.
The few houses along the way sit in fields of dried and flattened wheat. There are skeletons of barns, pens without animals, unrepaired fences. Out here, only a couple years after a home is vacated, you can’t tell anyone ever lived on the land. Nature grabs it back, kicks down what doesn’t belong—house, barn, or fence—spreads its pale stubble and cactus and greasewood along its low hills again.
When I pass another truck, likely the last I’ll see tonight, the driver lifts two fingers from the steering wheel in the familiar, local wave. Just out of town, I pass the old rodeo grounds and scattered ranches, some lit up, some long dark, with wooden signs above the entrances showing the names of local cattle brands: P HALF CIRCLE, BAR F, RAFTER T. And soon, save the long stretch of telephone poles and wires, you see nothing at all made by human hands.
Under the blue glow, mule deer and elk come out to feed. You can imagine what would happen if your vehicle broke down in this prairie—how very long you would walk before you met another human or even evidence of one; and how little this land could sustain you—not a berry to pick, no water to quench your thirst, so few trees for shade. In the relentless quiet, you are reminded how small you are against this vast space, utterly dependent on the strength of your own body and your own thoughts. Petroleum is no place for the weak.
The Last Thing
You think a life is built of dreams when, really, a life is made up of daily to-do lists. Take out the trash. Wash your hands. Make breakfast. Go to work. Wonder what to make for dinner and if you have all the ingredients you need. Eat. Wash again. Try to sleep, or maybe just go back to work.
How you spend your day is how you spend your life. Dreams, at least for me, are those things at the bottom of the to-do list. After: Fix engine. After: Make dentist appointment. And who ever gets to the last thing on the list?
Susan Henderson is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the author of two novels, Up from the Blue and The Flicker of Old Dreams, both published by HarperCollins. Susan lives in New York and blogs at the writer support group, LitPark.com.