Among The Bones
Today, I forgot my daughter’s name for the first time when I phoned her for the second time that day. I listened to the silence on the other end as I stammered and stuttered, desperately searching for her name in my rattled head. It used to be that my memory was only foggy, details slipping in and out like feathers floating in the breeze. But now, it’s more like a pair of sheers that rip and scratch away full chapters without a trace, leaving behind a gaping hole that someone else has to patch up through whispered reminders and sympathetic glances.
I have accepted the loss of some details, like the color of my wedding invitations, or my aunt’s middle name. But there is one specific memory that I panic over losing and I can’t bear the idea of it being outside of my head. I savor every whisper of my sixteenth summer as a volunteer at the local morgue. My children are baffled by this, wondering why I clutch such seemingly irrelevant details so close and let the “important ones” slowly be erased.
What I don’t tell my children is that I have no choice but to refer to this memory more and more, especially as my bones weaken and my blood thins. I know my clock is ticking, and this memory is a crucial one to have with me when Death taps me on the shoulder for the final time. Now more than ever, I clutch it in my jagged fingers, as a lifeline and a suicide vest for my final day and the only way to come to terms with my future. So, I spend my days alone, organs trembling and hair going grayer, as I think about that day, as test results come back positive and my lawyers murmur about wills and inheritances. Despite having lived a rich and fulfilling life, it was that day that truly taught me how to live it.
The summer I turned sixteen, I was tall, gangly and awkward, all elbows and acne, with eyes a little too big for my face. All the girls called me a freak because my father was a funeral director and we lived above the funeral home. That bothered me a lot, because I thought the dead were so interesting and not strange or scary at all. I would spend hours watching my father carefully embalm the bodies, in respectful and awed silence. This fascination lead me to spend my sixteenth summer as a volunteer at our local morgue. I grew up surrounded by the mourning aspect of the dead: the grieving, freshness and emotions. I wanted to understand the physical, the mathematical, the concrete, instead of the intangible. I wanted to trade our lace-lined boxes for simple hospital gowns and observe the dead as they should be, purely at peace, not made up like tiny dolls.
For some people, it’s hard to see dead people every day. It weighed heavily on my mother, mostly because she didn’t grow up with it like my father did. The business of death has always been one that has surrounded my father’s side of the family, but my mother was a stranger to such things. My mother handled the funeral home better with time, but there were always a few things that she couldn’t grasp, the mark of her inexperience, or maybe her humanity.
The deaths that would always hit my mother the hardest were the children. The tiny coffins adorned with flowers would send my mother into hysterical fits. She would refuse to go downstairs if there was one in the house, locking herself upstairs, like a prisoner to protect herself from tiny little cold hands. My father would let her be and administer the funeral as objectively as always, and then slowly coax her out of the room, never mentioning what it was that sent her inside.
During my summer at the morgue, I retained a sort of numbness. When I was cleaning the bodies, they were not souls, they were materials left over from a great journey. I didn’t think, I just did. I became a robot and operated on autopilot, with little thinking. I didn’t think about where these people were now, I thought about their bones, their skin, the fragments of physicality death had left behind. The only time the trance was broken was on my walk home, when I pondered all the cold skin I had touched that day.
When I cleaned a person’s body, I knew nothing about their life. They could have been a saint or an axe murderer, and I treated them exactly the same. I had nothing to judge the dead on but their pure bodies, their humanity gone. They were nothing but bones in my hands.
But among the bones, I could decipher small whispers, little things that the person may have tried to hide. Only me and the dead would ever know, a secret that would never get out. They are the souvenirs that death left behind. A massive, hairy muscular man had baby feet tattooed under his arm, tucked away where no one can see. A beautiful woman had a scar right below her chest, a little boost that nature couldn’t provide. The forty-something woman had three long scars along both wrists, souvenirs of a much harder time that has since past her. I saw all of these things every day, and I said nothing.
The day was hot and sticky. It was one of those days that was so hot you absolutely can’t believe it, so sweaty that you swear your eyeballs are starting to blister from the inside out. But even in the unbearable heat, the morgue remained eerily cool. It was almost refreshing to walk in the doors, and I let the cool breeze engulfed my body. Then, my supervisor bustled in.
“Do you happen to know Ethel Gladness? According to her paperwork, she lived on your block,” he snapped.
“Am I legally allowed to talk about this?”
“We need someone to ID the body. Apparently Ethel here didn’t have any friends and every single person I called is either dead or hasn’t seen her since Washington was president. Ring a bell?” my supervisor spat.
It was clear to me that he had been dealing with this all day and didn’t care for it at all. Usually identifying bodies is not an issue. Typically family or friends do it, but anyone familiar with the deceased can fill in.
“I talked to her once. Does she have a nurse or some kind of help that can do it?” I asked.
“Not since the Stone Age. She’s been a recluse for years,” he groaned and seemed to be getting more and more impatient.
“Just sign here.” He thrusted the clipboard at me and I glanced at the body behind us. My supervisor tapped his foot angrily and impatiently. I glanced over to the table holding Ethel.
Then, for some strange reason, I started to cry. Tears fell down my face silently and without my consent. Before I knew it, I was shaking with uncontrollable sobs.
“Oh no.. Miss....I didn't mean to upset you...” My supervisor trailed off, certain that it was his harsh words that caused me to break. But it wasn’t. It was Ethel. Seeing her small frail body on the table, robbed of all humanity, seemed more severe and awful than it ever had. The idea of Ethel being so old she had no children left, no friends, not even paid help, to remember her face and name.
There is nothing more devastating to me than when a life is forgotten. These people have lived, loved, laughed and cried. Ethel watched so many things change and shape over time, but no one will ever get to hear her stories. No whisper will ever fall of Ethel’s cold lips again. I wonder now, as my time grows nearer, if I too, will be like Ethel. I love my children dearly, but they are successful in their own lives across the country. Will my life matter at all to those who don’t know me? Will my physical body be the only reminder of my existence?
In our lives, we always praise those who have lived long lives as lucky, but now, I pity them, especially as I prepare to join their ranks. There is nothing worse than to have lost everyone you have loved on this earth, and Death is the only portal to where your friends are. Despite me knowing more people dead than alive, I still fear the idea of dying, especially this aspect of it. The other lives that I saw that were lost, the beloved husbands, the lovely wives, even the innocent children, those were lives that would be remembered. But Ethel wouldn’t have that, and as someone who has grown up being surrounded and drilled about remembrance and respect for the dead, it shocked me and shattered me.
That afternoon, I had tea with my mother in silence. There was some quiet understanding between us that we never had before, I think. I used to view her hysteria with the deaths as weakness, and after that moment, I understood. We were sisters in the bones now, my mother and I, mutual mourners of lives and souls that belongs to strangers.
Today, I am closer to the bones than ever. I know that every breath could be my last on this earth. Even the constant clicking of my heart is proving to be too much some days. Knowing that you are nearing the final stretch of your life is upsetting, but the saddest part of all of this, is that I fear more for myself than my children. Though they will be sad that their mother has passed, they will hardly be shocked. I have been unwell for years, and they live very far away and do not see me as much anymore, preferring to delegate the duties of caring to others. They will mourn me and a few tears will be shed, perhaps a candle lit, but that will be my legacy. When a person dies, they can never truly be memorialized. Though their body remains, a part of them is always lost, whether it be the smell of their perfume, the tinkling sound of their breath or even the secrets they never shared. There are a lot of things that make up a life, and no one has the full picture, not even those who love you the most. Some secrets will always be hidden among the bones and the souls illuminating them.