The parking lot is dead. The relentless crunch of salt between the tires and the stained asphalt is like nails on a chalkboard. Amongst 50 parking slots, only two are taken. We take the third. The grand, brick building before us flaunts its stately pillars, glass-paned double doors, and immaculately bush-lined walkway. Putting the car in park, turning the engine off, we steep in the expiring heat of the car. Staring straight ahead, my mind cannot compose accurate images of what we are about to do. My hand cannot be coaxed into pulling the door handle. My legs cannot be willed to leave the car. Crumpled tissues pile on my denim lap. With no heat radiating through the narrow dashboard slits, the air chills, leaving frozen tracks of salted moisture lining my bottom eyelids, my cheeks. In 29 years, I have only been to a handful of funerals, and have never been the one to make the harrowing arrangements.
Uncertainty creates unanswerable–and illogical–questions stretching my brain in torturing directions. What are we going to be asked to do? Is she in there now? Is she okay?
“Are you ready, Laura?” Snapping my attention with a leftward flick of the eye, I notice we are still sitting in the rapidly icing air.
My eyes beg of Jason: Turn this car around! I want no part in this!
Finding my transient courage, albeit a speck, I nod my head.
“It’ll be okay. We’ll get through this together.” He exits his side, slamming the door with startling force. The loud “bang” makes me jump, restraining my mind from retreating back into itself.
My car door opens, a cold blast hits my face, I shiver. Hand outstretched, Jason helps me out of the car. Our tepid steps are in unison, shuffling us closer to this nightmare.
From the first rug fibers inside the heavy wooden doors to the far end of the vast entryway, vacuum streaks pattern the salmon-colored carpet. Porcelain vases decorate the ornate wooden tables, gold-trimmed paintings line the walls, colorful stained glass surrounds the chapel walls. The dimmed table lamps create a comforting ambience worthy of a creepy horror movie. Absence of any noise highlights the death that lurks behind these fancy walls.
A seated, lone, middle-aged woman sees us from behind her desk. Looking up from her computer, she smiles.
“Jason and Laura?”
Our names echoing from her office into the hallowed foyer proves that we are suppose to be here. This is no mistake. This is real. She expected us.
“Yes, we are here to set up arrangements for our daughter Sophia.”
“I will let the funeral director know you are here.” Her gentle face, caked with makeup, portrays a youthful guise. Her hospitality rivals that of a resort hotel. “Would you like some coffee or water while you wait?” She is kind, offering comfort in the only way she knows how, mirroring my grandma’s gentleness just a few days ago. Stomach churning, my breath barely fill the top half of my lungs. Unsettled feelings claw at the falsified assuagement. She is not my grandmother, but rather a complete stranger who knows a concerning amount about us and about our loss.
Warming my hands on the styrofoam cylinder, the powdered creamer resistantly swirls in the dark liquid. Even with each circular mix of the red stirring stick, the powdered clump resists letting go of itself, each particle clinging to the one next to it. Forcefully, I stab at its center, splaying each crystal into the dark abyss. Grabbing for Jason’s hand, I hold him close as we wait in the shadowy lounge.
A faint pounding breaks the silence that has reclaimed the homey building. Increasing in intensity, the steady booming rises from below. Watching the staircase to our left, a man rounds the bend. Tall, thin, with slick peppered hair, the suit-clad fellow approaches us. With hand extended, and a sympathetic business-like tone, he says, “I am Ted, the funeral director. I am so sorry for your loss. We are here to help any way we can with this process. Please, follow me.”
After a lingering descent down the stairs, we navigate the hellishly winding hallways to his office. Turning on a floor lamp, a glowing halo emanates from behind his head.
With the initial divulgences covering the basic information about Sophia, my thoughts malinger, pretending we are here for reasons other than the truth. Ted reignites reality, like a blast from a flamethrower, as he proposes one simple question, “Now that we have the basic information, we need to know what kind of services you would like. Would you like cremation or a casket? Are you thinking of having a service for family and friends?”
Our brief discussion of this in the sauntering days since leaving the hospital concluded that we want neither. Tentative talk of cremation gave way to confusion and uncertainty that grapples us both. This decision is so frighteningly important.
“I think we’d like to do a cremation.” With trepidation and fear shaking his soft voice, Jason’s bravery leads to the utterance of the dreaded word: cremation. “Right, Babe?” Shoulders slumping forward in defeat, my eyelids follow suit, conceding; it is the better of two atrocious choices. Thoughts cloud my consciousness; reasoning is futile.
How do I let her go like this?
We have to do this! There is no other way!
The lump perched in the back of my throat gags my vocal cords. Reliant on Jason’s unwavering response, five seconds faintly tick on my wrist watch before he continues. “We’d like to keep this personal and between just us and close family members. No service.”
“That’s fine. We just want you to know that we do offer that kind of service if you wish. We also have pamphlets explaining the options that go along with different services, including prices.” Pause. Deep breath. Ted’s sleepy eyes peer through his lenses, darting quickly from my crumpling face to Jason’s stonewall facade. Sensing we are not interested in those, he moves on to descriptions of the cremation process, providing each painstaking detail.
“We gather all personal items from the body, including jewelry, unless you want it melted along with the body.” The walls of my stomach twist, fiber on fiber rubbing angrily.
“We put the body in a metal box so we can keep the ashes separate.” My abdominal muscles tighten, flip, and entwine.
“We slowly place the metal box in the kiln for a certain amount of time.” The tissue of each stomach muscle coils, pulling tightly into a square knot.
A bit a vomit demands a quick escape from within my gut, forcing a path up my esophagus. Forcing my jaw shut, I decline its access to the world, and table, before me. Images of little Sophia in the metal coffin, swallowed by flames, sears invariable scars.
Unphased by his own line of work, Ted moves his pitch along. “We have some urns on display in a room down the hall. Please follow me.” His deep voice soothing and resolute, he gets up and leads us out of the office. His calm demeanor is impressive as I attempt to syphon some of it for my own use.
The urn room, four times larger than our bedroom closet at home, displays a museum of rare artifacts. The vases and sculptures are carefully perched on immaculately clean glass shelves, each trying to sell itself on its own merits. The overwhelming artistic renditions of a final resting place span all four walls, top to bottom. Awe-struck, I carefully take in the progression of options: gold, silver, copper, jade, onyx, small, big, gigantic, classic, native-american, asian, childlike and whimsical. Approaching the last few tucked in the corner, the tiny urns, the charm necklaces, and the teddy bear sink my heart past my feet and into the industrial carpeting beneath the soles of our shoes.
Picking up a small, deep, crimson-colored velvet box, the lid easily unlatches, flipping open to reveal the silver heart inside. Small but weighty, it snuggles tightly in the perfectly shaped indentation. Jason watches me intently, coming by my side to see what I found. A tear forms in his eye as we look down at the time-honored capsule. Putting his arm on my shoulder, his approval melds into mine.
This is the one for Sophia. This is where she should live.
“That one is engravable.” Ted’s baritone voice drifts from the safety of the hallway. “What would you like it to say?” He slinks silently back into death’s threshold.
Strong, simple, and beautiful like our baby, we decide on Sophia Grace Gaddis 12/31/2010.
Elusive relief dances in the asylum of one final hurdle to clear: writing her obituary. Viewing some common write-ups the funeral home uses, we chose a minimalistic and modest form, highlighting key words: passed away peacefully, Friday, December 31, 2010, special daughter and granddaughter, loved by other relatives, private services held.
Finally completing the infernal gauntlet, ascension to the front hall unveils the droopy sunlight of the late afternoon, drawing long shadows across the length of the floor. The grandmotherly woman unnervingly anticipated our reemergence, approaching us with my coat in her right hand, Jason’s in her left. Ted hands us a small paper bag. “Here is the outfit Sophia was in when she came here.”
Ending this lamentable outing, clasping Jason’s gloved hand with mine, I clutch Sophia’s bagged dress. Struggling in the icy air, the engine fights, roaring to life. We sit in a pessimistic silence, waiting for the slowly warming heater to melt our frosted tears. With the idea of going home too difficult, I rummage for a new distraction.
I need to do something ‘normal’. I need to delay going home. I need to avoid the sadness.
“Do you want to go for coffee?”
With little objection, Jason nods. The gearshift pops when put into drive. The tires crunch over the salted blacktop as we pull away. Behind the wisps of tailpipe exhaust, condensing thickly in the subzero temperature, is the beautiful, yet carcinogenic, building.