Death is a certainty and it never discriminates race or age, it just is. Young unexpected deaths are hard and young expected deaths can be even harder. When a child knows they are so sick, that they will die before they get to drive, go to prom, have a first kiss or get married, the life experience has a much different meaning than for the rest of us. It becomes more about making the best of what you are given than to imagine what could be.
In this case it was a young girl, not yet thirteen. She had always been sick and she knew that she would die young. Still, she fantasized about doing the things that most girls her age do. She loved being a girl, wearing pretty dresses and painting her nails. She also dreamed of being a bride. She wanted to wear the beautiful gown and have her hair curled and primped, to get her nails lengthened and painted. To walk into a room pretty as a princess , to be the center of attention, to be the beautiful blushing bride. In the weeks before her death she decided she wanted to be buried dressed and adorned as the bride she had imagined herself being. She hand-picked her gown and gave her mother pictures cut from magazines of how she wanted her hair styled. She went to the nail shop and had a manicurist apply long polished nails to her small, child hands, only days before her tiny body gave out.
I remember meeting her mother after the young girl died. I remember her telling me how much her daughter talked about being dressed like a princess in pink layers and lots of sparkles. I watched the pain and sorrow in the mother’s eyes as she described her child’s talking being dressed in a gown and parading around for all to see her. She described these things in detail, knowing that she would never get to plan the wedding, or gain a son-in-law or spoil a grandchild. She would only get to buy the gown that would accent a casket and make the arrangements for her daughter’s funeral. We planned out the details and the family went home.
The next day the mother walked into the mortuary bearing the dress her daughter would wear, she carried it almost like a sleeping child. Holding the hanger in one hand while the bulging plastic bag that protected the cherished wedding dress draped over her other arm. Before she allowed me to take it from her hands, she told me the story of how she had spent hours with her daughter shopping for the perfect dress. She described to me how this young child would try on dress after dress and prance and giggle while turning around on dress shop platforms admiring the flow of fabrics around her legs and watching herself in the tall mirrors. A mother’s love is a powerful thing. For her to take her baby to dress shops and endure the looks of the staff judging her for shopping for a wedding dress for one so young. Or, have to answer, when questioned, that they were searching for a burial gown for this beautiful, very lively child. She watched and bore these moments that should have been for a planned wedding and signify the beginning of a new life, not for the end of one.
I was given the dress which I carefully held in my arms just like the mother had done. After saying goodbye to her, I immediately went to the back rooms of the mortuary to uncover the dress wrapped in a plastic bag. It was a gown of pale cream with a hint of pink. The skirt had so many layers! Included was a slip that would add even more tiers of poufiness to the dress. It bore tiny bits of glitter nestled throughout the fabric that sparkled with every movement. The torso portion was sleeveless and made of satin with a hint of pink gently peeking through when the light hit it just right. I hung the dress on a clothing rack with the little girls name on it.
Later the beautician arrived at the mortuary and I walked with her to where the young girl lay. I had her already lying on a table in the center of one of our viewing rooms covered with a white sheet tucked all the way up to her chin and on top of the sheet I had placed a burgundy blanket neatly folded over at her shoulders. Burgundy couches and dark wood end tables surrounded the room and stood against cream colored walls. I stayed in the room, watching as each blonde strand was formed into a curl and placed just so to become a lovely frame around the girls’ cherub face. I thanked the beautician when she finished and walked her to the front door, and then returned to the girl to finish getting her ready.
Dressing this child was a challenge in more ways than the heartrending one. Wrestling with the layers that were designed to be placed on a bride standing up on her wedding day was a true test in futility. Each layer had an agenda to move in its own direction and had the aid of bulk and gravity. My attempts at forcing them to behave like I wanted them to, I am sure, was comical. The throw down of funeral director and wedding dress, the epic battle of human versus Tulle (a fabric of fine yet stiff netting). It ended in a compromise, the fabric puffing where it wanted to yet mostly laid in the in the right direction. With her hair neatly coifed and dress adorned I then applied her makeup as her mother had instructed me to. Light powder, rosy cheeks, a hint of mascara and clear lip gloss was all that was needed.
When it was time to place her in her casket. A coworker and I wrestled with the rows of the still rebellious fabric as we lifted the child in our arms and gently laid her down on the soft mattress tenderly resting her head on the pillow. I spent some time arranging the dress, attempting to make it all fit inside the boundaries of the casket. The dress won that battle, the pouf that surrounded and rose above the child’s tiny legs spilled off the sides of its intended vessel and her small feet barely peeked out from the bottom of the dress and were veiled in thin, pink tights.
I had scheduled for the family to come and see the child bride before the day of the funeral, when they arrived I had them gather in front of the door to the viewing room where the girl awaited their arrival. I explained what they would be walking into. It was the same room that I had led the beautician into just the day before, only now the girl was nestled in her casket against the right-side wall of the room. Both lids of the casket were open, revealing her entire body and showing off the glittery folds of the prized wedding dress. As I opened the door to the room the family cautiously walked in. They were all quiet, muted as slowly stepped closer and beheld the child lying in a casket designed for those who had lived to grow old. I waited and listened as the silence turned to sniffles, then small cries and then the unforgettable cry of a grieving mother. This is a sound one never forgets; the grief gets inside you and makes your heart feel too small. Wordlessly, I left the room to give them time to mourn in private and stood in the hallway just outside of the door for whenever I was needed.
A short time later I was beckoned to come back in the room. The mother stood before me holding a pair of pale pink ballerina slippers. She held them in front of her, close to her belly, in cupped hands like trying to hold water. She explained that her daughter had also wanted to be a ballerina, so she thought the slippers were a fitting addition to the wedding gown. She also explained that she wanted to be the one to place them on her daughters’ feet but was afraid of doing it wrong or hurting her or breaking something, a common fear with people who are unfamiliar with the dead. She transferred the precious slippers to one hand and held them against her gut. She clasped my hand, gently tugging me towards her daughter. As we reached the foot of the casket she let go of her hold on me as I talked her through what to do. We then placed a halo of little white embroidered flowers with yellow centers around the crown of the girl’s head, she truly looked like an angel. She was so beautiful and the moment precious and I watched her mother’s heart break as she prepared to bury her child bride.