Fall in the oncology research lab in Detroit was always dismal and dull. It lacked the freshness and fervor of spring, the dedication, and devotion of summer, the festivity and new-year-resolution-ness of the winter. It was the time when a melancholy nebulosity would fill the tiny labs, and the researchers, with their PhDs and other colorful decorations, who all thought that they were, in fact, the one, would begin to accept the fact that this year was simply not their year. And, as more and more of them began to fall into this gloom per diem, the lab would simultaneously begin to lose its sanguinity. Thus, Mari had decided long ago that it would be her least favorite time of the year. To her, fall wasn’t the season that reaped up the harvest, it wasn’t the season of the trail of gold nor was it the season of pecan pies. No, those were simply the pretentious poet’s reveries. Fall was what brought the browning of the leaves, the wilting of the roses. Fall was the monstrous omen and precedent to the death of life. It was exactly what it sounded like. Fall was the falling.
Mari hadn’t always despised the fall. There had been a time, long ago, when it had been known by a much sweeter name, a name that had been forgotten alongside what it felt like to be happy. A name that had been buried, shrouded, thrown away. Such an energetic child… Her bubbly laugh, her dimpled cheeks… And she had such a beautiful name…
No, she thought to herself, I must not think of that. The familiar voice of the psychiatrist ran through her head. Stay away from your thoughts. Focus. Breathe. Listen. Listen to your heartbeat. To the chatter of the lab. To the tintinnabulation of the distant bells. To the wall clock. Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.
Whoever made the metaphorical rulebook for salaries must have been wholly biased towards doctors. I mean, sure, they had to go through years of college to get to where they are and stuff. And there’s all that trouble with student loans and stuff. But after all that, their lives just become a breeze. Rising through the ranks. Growing salaries. Big lawns. Sports cars. Beach houses. What’s not to love? Their lives wouldn’t suffer much if they just earned a thousand dollars less. Then people like me wouldn’t stress our hairs white whenever we see our landlords.
After all, we are the ones who pick up after the doctors, seriously, we make their job much easier. It’s us, the undertakers, the morticians, that have to pacify those angry relatives, so easily provoked. Doctors are paid a lot because they are handed the bags marked “fragile”. We are the ones handling the broken bags along with their entourage of the complaining bag-owner. And the bag was never as broken as it was last year.
It was winter. Influenza was raging like wildfire. The hospitals were full, and whenever the hospitals are full, the morgues are full and hence the undertakers’ offices are full. So, that fall, I was in my office 24/7, ordering coffins, greeting patrons, organizing funerals. Be an undertaker for as long as I have, and these morbid subjects simply become part of everyday life.
By the time Mari came out of her office, the lab was for the most part empty. Her colleagues had already left, eager to return home to their families. But Mari had no home to return to. She had a house, sure, but no family to make it her home. It hasn’t always been like that…
The child. There had been the child.
“Mommy, mommy! You’re home! I waited for SUCH a long time! Do you think we can go to McDonald’s for dinner, please? Please? I made you a drawing! Look!”
A fiery ball of red hair and freckles attacked her with hugs. All that boundless energy, contained in a single body. Mari could remember every detail of her face. The crooked front teeth that resembled a tiny bunny’s. The long eyelashes that sparkled under the sun. That part of her cowlick that was much shorter than the rest, from the time she gave herself a haircut.
And her red hair. Her beautiful red hair. It used to shine. Like the leaves, bright red and vibrant, in… fall.
Forget. Forget. Forget. Think happy thoughts.
As she walked into the car park, Mari’s eyes filled with water, and a plump tear rolled down her cheek. Mari, having years of experience, immediately stuffed her fist into her mouth. She knew what it was like when a person was truly crying out of grief. When it isn’t their eyes watering, but their heart bleeding. The experience was a bit like vomiting. When you feel the bile in your mouth, that foul taste of dread and despair, you immediately know what comes next. And when it does come, it comes out all at once, before you can even think about it. It comes out together, in a colorful array of pure disgust. Crying was a bit like that.
It is weird how the happiest memories can break you up.
Mari got into her car. She liked to drive. It took her mind off her feelings. Driving was the temporary stitch to her wound.
Inhale. Change the gear. Reverse out of the parking spot. Exhale. Change the gear. Step on the gas. Drive. Turn out of the car park. Red light. Step on the brake.
And so, repeating instructions to herself in her head, Mari drove forward. She wished her life could be like that. Stopping at the red light. Going at the green. Slowing down at yellow. Going forward to the destination, breathing. Predictable, orderly. The very opposite of the wreck that it is now.
The smallest coffins are oft the heaviest ones to carry. If I learned anything from my time as a professional mortician, it was that. Typically, the patrons I received in my shop were sons and daughters, weeping for their parents. Or they would be grey-haired seniors, grieving their beloved. But, once in a while, a parent would enter the store. A mom or a dad, their hairs not yet white, their retirement plans not yet fully made, their children’s’ lives not yet lived out.
I still remember the day when she came into my store. It was a Sunday morning. I had let my apprentice, a loyal Episcopalian, out to Mass, so I was in the store alone. I was doing some paperwork, preparing for the funeral that afternoon. Just as I was about to take my lunch break, she walked in.
She was a small woman with reddish-brown hair. She was dressed just like your average suburban mom. Grey turtleneck, beige overcoat, black jeans, boots. All she was missing was the espresso. But, upon further observation, she was wholly different from any suburban mom I’ve seen. Her countenance was troubled: grief and despair covered her visage like a fog. If you looked at her face, it was not the eyes, nor the nose, nor the mouth that you noticed first, it was her sadness.
“How much would a child’s funeral cost?” She asked, “I want the kind in a small chapel, with a small attendance. But not in the churches. I’m not religious.”
“It would be around $5,000 with tax included. Is the patient…” I paused for a moment, it was critical not to offend the patron, “Is the patient deceased?”
She responded with such a sudden outburst that made me lean back in my chair and tighten every muscle in my body.
“Oh I don’t know,” She wailed “Tell me, sir, is your child dead… do they count as dead when they are scheduled to be plugged off life support in two days? She’s gone. Hell knows she gone. But her body is still there. The red hair is still there. And the machine next to her still tells my brain that her heart’s still going boom boom boom. But my heart tells me that her mind is no longer there. Is she dead? You’re supposed to be the professional. Is she dead?”
Contrary to what the books always tell you, sunny days are the saddest. It’s different from stormy days or raining days, days that gave you permission to be depressed. On sunny days, Mari always felt like she was obligated to be happy. That she had to frolic around in the grass and play with bunnies and host a picnic. And when she couldn’t bring herself to do that, it just added to her anger and sadness, all boiling inside of her heart.
Mari had driven herself to the Community Park. She didn’t really know why. Maybe it was the images of picnics in her head.
The woman collapsed against the row of waiting room chairs. I rushed to help her, but she waved me away.
I know what she’s feeling. I know that feeling distinctly, realistically, painfully. I felt it when my parents died, when my brother died, when my wife died. The feeling is a bit like one of those ocean waves that crash into the seaside cliffs. Suddenly… unexpectedly. Breaking the serenity, the calm tranquility of the angel, at rest and at peace with herself and the world, the sun setting on her watery surface, a palette of colors reflected on her visage. The wave would seep through the crevices, the cracks, and recede with the sediments. It left one feeling bare, unprotected.
Mari strolled through the park. It was around six o’clock, and the park was empty. Most people were home, eating with their families. She took in her surroundings, the fall leaves that surrounded her. The dead and the dying. It was so tranquil, so quiet, a sharp contrast to the storm brewing inside of Mari.
A gust of wind swept up the leaves, fragile and brittle after having fallen from their tree, their guardian, their angel, their home. And just like the leaves, Mari’s memories were swept up too. Her name…
A while later, the woman calmed down a bit. She sat herself down on the chair opposite me and looked up.
“So what date will it be on?” she asked, again.
“As soon as possible. Do you mind telling me the name of your child?”
Mari stared down at her newborn baby. Her hair was just growing out, but she could imagine it growing out into a great bush of hair one day. Mari couldn’t seem to decide whether the child’s hair or the child’s freckles were redder. She knew the perfect name.