One day a gentleman walked through the door of the mortuary. He was expertly dressed in a high-end suit and tie. His shoes were definitely real leather and polished to a high sheen. He sported short, dark hair which was spiked on top, undoubtedly styled by a barber in a fancy shop where your cut comes with a clean shave and a warm towel. These were things that we were not used to in our small country town. He was impressive as he walked into our office with his resume in hand. He enchanted us all with his beautiful toothfull smile and natural charisma, his charm could rival any salesman. I think we hired him on the spot, if only for the sheer ambition he exuded and dared us to test.
Sometimes people just click the moment they meet. If you have ever felt this, then you know. It is a strange, immediate feeling of familiarity like you had known each other well before that moment. That is what happened to me the day he walked through the door. The mortuary was not necessarily looking for another employee. We did okay, sometimes the days and nights got hectic and strenuous but overall, we had enough downtime to get small hours of much-needed respite. We even had the occasion to tend to a little vegetable garden at the back of our red brick building. But he walked in the door and we found ourselves with a new set of helping hands.
He and I hit it off like two teenage girls. We loved the same 80s music and old black and white movies. On his first day of working with me, as we were running errands, we stopped at a convenience store for a coke. The bins at the check-out counter held colorful braided hemp bracelets. The ones that promised to last a lifetime. We never said a word, we both saw them, we gave a knowing look to each other and I said the cashier we’ll take two of those. We ran to the car and placed them on our ankles swearing to each other that we would never take them off as long as we were friends.
As I taught him the ropes of the funeral trade, he loved and absorbed all of it. He took to funeral service like a moth to a flame. At least the service part, the embalming room presented challenges for my new-found friend. The reality that our beings could produce so many unpleasant noises, fluids, and smells made for a test in his seemingly unbreakable resolve. Many times I excitedly called him to the back room yelling “You have got to see this!”, and then chuckle as he ran for the exit when he couldn’t handle what I wanted to show him. He soon learned to approach my call with caution, carefully poking his head through the door, cracking one eye open just enough to look like Jack Nicholson in his movie “The Shining,” only he was the one who was afraid and I saying, “Here’s Johnny”! Through squinted eyes he would peer through the doorway at me ready to look away quickly in case I was trying to show him something that I was fascinated about, meaning he would not be.
His skill in meeting and talking to people completely made up for his lack of ability to embrace the back rooms. He had an attention for detail and a flare for decorating with pictures and flowers that astounded the men and women he served. Every visitation room was a show, the family memorabilia he placed so skillfully you would have thought that you were walking through a movie set, or a model home. The flower arrangements that came in for the deceased were always positioned according to height and color for the perfect balance to accent the casket and the person lying inside of it. He made friends with everyone he met and many times I would talk about a family that we had previously served and he would give me the update on how they were doing, offer their phone number and say we should stop by their house for a visit. I was quickly learning that this man was a social butterfly of epic proportions. He knew people from all over the world. He was never without his phone which was constantly buzzing or ringing with messages or calls from Dave or Brian or Celeste, any number of names I could list here certain he knew someone who possessed it. His cell phone was his life and was either on his hip in a leather pouch or in his hand.
Our friendship moved outside of work and I eventually met his boyfriend and neighbors. We had barbeques and parties and spent many late nights sitting around a fire roasting some type of meat and toasting to each other’s accomplishments. These evenings usually ending in deep conversation or dancing on the porch. Eventually I ended up moving into the house directly across from the boys, making an even more intimate bond for everyone involved. Our friendship deepened and over the years we had accumulated so many memories, lived through tragic circumstances and celebrated holidays, birthdays and ordinary days. He was the man on the riding lawnmower waving to passersby in expensive cargo shorts, designer shirts and a wide brimmed bonnet that would make any decent southern woman jealous. He won awards with his Tupperware parties and could refinish a wooden counter-top like a professional. We were besties in the sense that besties are with the added bonus that to spend a day together was as easy as walking across the street. And like all good things, these things had to end.
He struggled with balancing a party life mixed with a work life. He struggled with his health. He struggled with his relationship. He struggled with being. Circumstances changed, and he found a new happiness in another state. After carefully weighing the options of staying and going, he chose to go. Packing his moving truck was painful, saying goodbye with his promise of frequent visits was painful. Our worn and tattered ankle bracelets that had weathered the best and the worst were a testament to a human attachment that desperately held its threads together. This adventure was one that wouldn’t last. His health declined, and his partner living across the street from me couldn’t keep taking him back.
If you have ever known a person who dances on the edges of a fast and furious life that their body just can’t keep up with, you will understand the hellish cycle of ache and agony that those who loved my friend went through, including me. The phone calls got further and further apart, the excuses got more and more grandiose and the patience of not being told the truth ran thin. More times than I care to admit, I cried for him. More times than I thought was possible I believed the stories that my friend was doing well. He was depressed and spinning out of control, doing things that were harmful to him and those around him. More times than I can count I planned a trip to scoop him up out of his “Happy,” “Fun,” “Worth it all,” “Pitiful,” “Sick” life and bring him to my home to force him back to health, to reality. I never acted on that, but I did eventually learn that his “sickness” could not be cured. My friend proclaimed that he had cancer and that his only option at this point was to go home to live with his mother, three states away. He said he was going there to die.
I am left with the guilt that the years of his stories and embellishments and need for telling a grand tale left me lacking much sympathy. I had heard the woes of a desperate man who craved notice for his depravity and disguised it as illness so many times that I had already turned my head when the stories turned real and deadly.
I will not retell all of the details of his painful decline. I will only recount that he often called me with joyful accounts of some amazing opportunity that days later ended in some scheme that the company or the employees that worked there had executed to cause his separation with the establishment. My friend was talented on so many levels and to watch, in action, the deterioration of his gifts as he blamed the masses for his failure, was heartbreaking. I cannot fault him, he grappled with so much. He was a young and handsome man who loved other men in a world that hated men who loved other men.
I remember the shame I felt whenever my friend would call and tell me of his worsening ailments because I could not always believe the tale. I hated that in the background of my thoughts was an eye-roll and “Whatever” types of feeling. It was always dramatic, he was always weakening, yet he always had more days to detail the fallout he was overcoming. I stopped answering his calls every time his name popped up on my phone and only chose to pick up the phone when I knew I had the strength to be present and encouraging.
Then, his partner decided to go pay him a visit at his mother’s house. He wanted to see in person, like the rest of us, how dire my bestie’s situation had become and he promised he would come back with a report on just how worried we should be. When he returned he was in a state of grimness that could only mean that there had to be some truth behind my friend’s account of his imminent death. I was shown pictures of the deterioration of a once proud and lively man. He bore no hair on his head, his clothes hung off his bones like a wet sack. I was caught between waiting for the next tale and hating myself for not rushing to his sickbed.
One sunny afternoon, I sat on my back porch enjoying the warmth of the sun when his name popped up on my phone, I didn’t answer. Moments later I listened to the message that he left for me. He sounded so happy and spoke clearly and stated that he had some great news! He ended with an “I love you” and “I cherish our friendship”. After listening to his message, I called him back right away hoping to talk to the jovial friend that I missed so dearly. Indeed, he was his old self, cheery and fun-loving. He amused me with his quick-witted jokes and vibrant conversation. He had just left the hospital for a refill of his meds and had been given a new colostomy bag. We had talked about his funeral many times before, but he went over the details with me once again. He wanted the black onyx casket, he was to be dressed in his finest suit and designer glasses, in his hand he would clutch his precious cell phone and I was to embalm his body.
Then he told me his exciting news. He had just been hired to work for a local flower shop. He would be arranging bouquets of flowers for birthdays, weddings, and funerals, which was among his many talents. I was given a detailed account of his interview and how fabulous the owner of the shop was and that his first day was tomorrow, the next day. He was so dedicated to this opportunity and certain that he could keep this position and finally thrive in this small country town. When the conversation was over I hung up the phone thinking he was finally on the upswing again and flourishing enough and that I didn’t need to worry for him for the moment, and I was so wrong.
It was the very next day that I received a call from his partner that my bestie had been found dead. He had died in his sleep, discovered resting peacefully in his bed, no longer breathing. The news was devasting and unexpected. I had just talked to him! He was happy and sounded so healthy. So many times I had expected the news of his death, only because he always tiptoed on the edge of life with partying and depression, so when it actually happened, the shock of it took the air from my lungs. The zipping memories of laughs and smiles and fear and anger that had I shared with him and our friends flashed over and over in my head. You always think that the best years of a friendship, or any relationship for that matter will never end. The late-night talks on the back porch, watching the fashion shows as he paraded in front of us all to show off new shirts and jackets and shoes. The bonfires with all of us giggling together and the flames dancing as a happy background to our moments. No more phone calls of fabulous jobs that he would be fabulous at, and keep this time. No more stories of whatever ailments were harming him at the moment. No more heartbreaking calls begging for visitors or confessing that he had made a terrible mistake and he just wanted to come back home.
I spoke with his mother about embalming him. She relayed to me that the funeral home had already performed the procedure after they picked him up from the medical examiner’s office and it was too late for me to fly out and help.
I was managing a funeral home in another state when he died. The job was one that was almost impossible to take any time off from. So I made a plan to drive the ten hours there, attend the funeral, get a couple of hours of sleep and then drive the ten hours again to return back to work.
I woke up hours before sunrise on the day of his funeral and drove to this small town, where my friend would be buried. It was like I was in a dream, as I drove the miles and the sun started to rise I wondered if I had imagined it all. I was delirious with emotion and grappling the reality of what I was doing. I was wicked tired but so full of adrenaline that my body felt out of place with itself.
As I approached the address for the funeral home I was overwhelmed with what was waiting for me in that building. I was not ready. I could not stop the car. I drove right past and burst into tears while looking at this building as I drove past where my friend lay waiting for my arrival, decked out in his finest no doubt, and dead. My friend was dead. I could see his lifeless body in my head, I could feel his cold skin. I couldn’t imagine walking in that building with people all around me and having the energy to stifle my grief. My anger. My guilt. I wanted those people to leave so that I could be with him alone and explain why I never came to see him in the darkest moments of his life that were real and not fabricated. These people were in the way and rude for being so present when I needed them to just go away. Then, I was a funeral director, I had seen this before. So many funerals I had directed where I heard from the guests in attendance about the one person who never came to see the deceased while they were living, yet that very same person was the one who was making the most fuss and carrying on about their own grief. I felt that I had turned into that person. I drove to a convenience store on a corner up the road and one block over from the funeral home, I did not want to be on the same road as my dead friend at that moment. I didn’t want to be in the same town.
I needed gas, I needed some water, I needed sleep and I needed my friend to be alive so that I could go visit him just like he had begged me to for so many months. Eventually I couldn’t stall any longer. I pulled myself into my car. First one leg, sit on the seat, then the other leg, adjust the mirror. The seat belt needed latching, so I did that. I was thirsty, so I gulped from my water bottle. Next was to close the car door but first I needed to make sure I was really ready. I should use the restroom again. Splash more water on my face. I was so tired. Every movement was a chore, my limbs felt caked in wet mud, heavy and sluggish as I ambled back to the restroom, ignoring what I was certain were sidelong glances at my state of suffering. I made a final check of the things that I felt were necessary to pull myself together.
Finally, I had myself in my car, buckled, door closed and turned the car key to rumble the engine to life. I drove to the funeral home. I parked my car where the lot attendants told me to, a job I had performed for so many other grieving people. Now, I was the one grieving and their instructions were confusing and impatient. A teaching moment for the future. In that moment I went from a total mess, grieving my friend, to funeral home manager. I felt like I should instruct these young kids on how to perform their job of directing traffic well enough to pack a hundred cars in a fashion that would allow for a smooth transition to the cemetery when the funeral was over. I cased the parking lot, the exit from the chapel, the direction of where the procession needed to go. I needed to let it go. Funeral directors are terrible funeral guests, even if we are professional enough to keep our thoughts to ourselves, we still observe the way a funeral is run by others. I felt I should be in charge but I was not and so I kept my thoughts to myself, exited my vehicle and walked the walk to front door.
The funeral home was buzzing with people. They were moving about unorganized and loud. I didn’t recognize anyone there. I kept walking until I saw his name, his name, on a placard, in a funeral home, hovering just above an open book for the guests to sign. I made my way to there. The light that glared down on the book was hot as I tried to scribble my name and leave a sweet message for his mother. I then walked into the room jammed with people smiling and talking, I wish that they would all just shut up and leave! And then I saw across the room bits of the silver and black casket, through the throng of bodies I also caught a glimpse of dark spiky hair peeking over the lip of the box. I excused myself through the jumble of people seemingly intent on preventing me from seeing my dead friend and just before I approached my destination, I was stopped by a hand on my arm. I turned to see who could be so rude in preventing me from finishing my quest. It was his mother. She grabbed me in a full-bodied hug sobbing, “You came, you came!” I could only squeeze her tighter as I held my own emotions in my throat. She let go of me and then wrapped one arm around my waist as we walked to the casket containing the body of her sweet, baby boy.
Clumps of ash choked my throat as I tried to breathe. To swallow. To not break into shards of grief. My vision was blurred as it was confirmed that my friend was surely dead. So many times, I have stood at a casket after fussing and tucking and straightening, looking at the person lying inside with my friend standing next to me. He would tell me how good a job I did preparing this person, “You have a gift,” “You are an artist,” “The family is going to be so pleased,” “One day you will prepare my body and you better make me look just as good!” Now I stand at his casket that I didn’t help pick out, looking at his body that I didn’t embalm and assessing the folds in his suit that I did not dress him in. And he looked good. At that moment it did not matter that I did not do these things for him, at that moment I was not a funeral director, I was grief-stricken and mourning and my dear friend was surely dead.
I left his mother and scanned the room to see if I could find my friends partner. I found him across the room talking to a gentleman and so I made my approach. Once he saw me he grabbed me in a huge bear hug and couldn’t believe that I had driven the ten hours in only ten hours. And then the introductions started. It was a furious affair of being dragged from person to person, all of these people I did not know, yet when introduced with my name almost every time these people responded “Chelsea! You are Chelsea, his best friend? I have heard so much about you,” “He loved you so much,” “He always talked about you.” This was flattering. This was uncomfortable. I was this person who everyone knew as his best friend. He talked about me, shared our stories, made me up to be like this amazing angel that he looked up to and I had left him to die all alone.
After the funeral, we all drove in procession to the cemetery, a trek I had made so many times to so many cemeteries, never before driving in a car trailing behind the hearse. The cars snaked through stop lights and around the turns and bends of the small-town blocks to end at the snow-laden cemetery with only one dark patch of earth dotting our destination, my friend’s grave. I didn’t feel the cold although I am certain it was biting. I don’t remember much of the graveside service either other than I was placed up in front of the crowd, standing with the family, right where I was told I belonged.
I can still see him in his casket, I imagine him lying enclosed in his box, sealed in a concrete case, buried in the earth. He is dressed to the nines, pressed, clean shaven with perfectly spiked hair and clutching his beloved cell phone. On occasion, for months, I would send him a text letting him know of my sorrow. My guilt. I could imagine him lying there still and lifeless clutching his phone to his chest as it lit up his darkness with my messages, never read. Eventually the batteries would go dead, and my confessions and heartbreak would only be sent into the digital wasteland of regret, and grief.