Today’s guest author recalls a time when families laid out their loved ones themselves, in their own parlours, performing those last acts of love and duty: washing and dressing the corpse, laying it out. She reminds us of something Larry Librach taught me: that our fear of death and our collective denial of it stems, in part, from our unfamiliarity of it. It’s an alien intruder now, not simply part of the warp and weft of life.
by Catherine Sword
Mr. Walker was my first corpse.
It was the mid 1960s and I was about seven or eight years old. My mother used to take me with her when she visited the two Walker sisters. The three women sat around the kitchen and gabbed and chuckled over grown up women things, while I sat quietly on a chair by the door to the shed.
Mr. Walker would enter the kitchen and go to the large sink in the corner by the stove. He was a very tall man and thin. He always wore a black suit and white shirt. This was odd to my eyes, which were accustomed to my father’s green labourer’s pants or his splotched painter’s paints from the dry dock. My grandfather wore dark blue dungarees over mostly red and black plaid shirts buttoned at the wrists, likely to protect his arms from the splinters while working at the boatyard down the street from my house.
Mr. Walker neatly hung his black suit jacket inside the room off the kitchen then slowly rolled his white sleeves up to his elbows and bent low to wash his hands with soap. It was not the hurried wash I’d do before supper. He took his time. Wrung his knuckles of one hand into the palm of the opposite hand, then reverse. Over and over, soapy knuckles and hands, wrists and part-way up his arms. This was followed by the same motion under running water. Again, very slowly until he stood tall, pulled down the thin hand towel and rubbed himself dry. I never heard him speak.
The last time I saw him his height was stretched horizontal in the darkened parlour. This is the origin of our funeral parlours, although I didn’t understand that when my mother and I paid our respects. Now I wonder, who washed him? Did they take the same care as he had with his hands over that sink? Did the sisters each take a hand and lay them to fold over his chest? Did it help them to let go?
I didn’t know about letting go when my father died two weeks before my twelfth birthday. He died alone, undiscovered for days. It was a closed coffin in a funeral home. At the time, I felt it laid to rest a volatile drunken situation. I did not give my father’s death too much thought and so I was not prepared for my wild ideas ten years later.
In my early twenties I worked at a University library. One day a painter arrived to give a fresh coat of beige in the reference room. I watched him work from the fish-bowl office where I researched materials requested by grad students. I don’t know why he caught my eye. Perhaps it was those painter’s paints. I had once bought a pair of white jean overalls and wished they were splotched with bright colours. A smear of memory of my father.
That was really what caught my eye. This painter, working in the library, reminded me of Dad. He was tall and thick through, and his hair was dark, even slightly curly. I remembered that I had never actually seen my father’s dead body. Was it possible?
Then my mind, really still a child at twenty-one, began to make up stories. My parents had fought. They couldn’t afford to divorce. This is what they did. They faked his death to part ways.
Surely a divorce was cheaper than a funeral. It was not my father in that library. He was truly gone. How does one get closure?
How does one get closure when death takes a person in pieces? In which year of dementia has the person left only a body to be fed and clothed and washed? My mother began to confuse her relatives. Where was her sister? No, I’d tell her, that sister is dead. Your younger sister is alive. She confused me with her grandchild with a similar name. Later she introduced me as her sister. Then she lost the words for me, her daughter. Near the end, when I entered her room, there was no malice in her, but she didn’t look at me when I visited.
My visits were long months apart. I lived two provinces away. My brother phoned to tell me, “Come now.”
I went as fast as I could, but my mother only waited until my brother left her side, and she died with a nurse to hold her hand. She was cremated by the time I reached home. I had said that I didn’t need to see her body. Really, the woman had left a long time ago.
I wonder. Does someone wash a body to prepare for cremation? Does one dress for that occasion? A nice pair of flammable flannel pajamas might be cozy and warm for that last sleep.
I joke, but only because I wonder. I live two provinces away from my family and if I outlive my husband, who will wash the world from my skin and lay my hands to finally rest on my weary heart?
About the author:
Catherine Sword has told tall tales in her childhood and written stories throughout her school years. Adult writing was part of her career as librarian with many articles to promote the public library in her local newspaper, but in recent years she’s rediscovered a love of writing just about anything. She is currently working on her memoir, with the occasional flash fiction, just for fun.