Susan Henderson ~  from The Flicker of Old Dreams

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,