Why My Family Adopted The Funeral Director
Friendships are occasionally forged under the strangest of circumstances and sometimes you find true kindness in an unexpected place.
When you think about how random life is, is it so odd that sometimes it takes a tragedy to occur before certain people can meet? Fate is a canny creature. It has an unfailing sense of what is needed in our lives and although its methods are sometimes questionable at best...and cruel at its worst...inevitably, it has its way.
I have to smile though...
I'm not exactly sure poor Don understands yet that he's been adopted...or to what purpose. Then again, neither does my family, I'm sure. All I really know is Fate decided we needed each other...and if not for my mother's death, we might never have met.
I first met Don two days after my mother's passing at the funeral home. My sisters had talked about him frequently and seemed to trust him implicitly. He extended his hand with a warm smile, grasping my own hand in a firm, strong grip and then covering it again with his other hand. His blue eyes beneath bushy white eyebrows conveyed compassion...but in their depths I caught a glimmer of a mischievous twinkle that assured me he was not always somber. I guessed Don's age to be in his sixties, but it's difficult to tell at times with men. His silvery white hair and manner spoke of a time when men were raised to be gentlemen first, exuding a quiet confidence and strength. His charcoal, pin-striped suit was conservative and tasteful without giving him an air of vanity. I was impressed by the timber of his voice which while soft and soothing, held no patronizing or insincere quality. Beneath the comforting sound was something dependable...like oak furniture. Warm and mellow...but strong and sturdy. I could see why my sisters trusted this man.
Until our mother's death, we had no need of a funeral director. Now, well...here we were, gathered in a room of the funeral home deciding things like cremation, urns, vaults and prayer cards. Tears are fought back, but escape easily...and because it's my family, at odd moments our morbid sense of humor occasionally escapes the cage of propriety and runs amok. There have been times when our lack of control has caused a bit of embarrassment...especially when dealing with doctors, lawyers, judges, police officers, government employees, clergy etc...who believe it is their duty to maintain a serious mien. Not yet as sure about Don as my siblings, I struggled to keep my manner reserved...encouraging my sisters to do likewise.
It did not take a long discussion before the four of us decided on a lovely rosewood box for our mother's ashes. This would be set lovingly in a cultured marble vault to protect it for eternity. During our brief conversation, Don wisely sat at the table, answering any questions but basically abstaining from influencing us in our final decision. My opinion of him went up a notch. And then...the humor monkey managed to unlatch the cage and was loose...
It started benignly with my sister, Ronda, asking Don if the box could be engraved. He assured us in his comfortable baritone that he could indeed have a brass plaque attached to the box with anything we wanted upon it. We pondered this for a moment before Toni suggested perhaps we should put her name on the plaque. "What about just putting "Mom" on it?" I contributed. We thought some more. In a concerned tone, Ronda pointed out that perhaps "Mom" was a bit too vague. What would happen after all, if she were exhumed for some reason...mixed up with a lot of other urns...and then nobody remembered who she was? Yes, we all nodded, that definitely would be a problem. "Well," Michele began, "we could always put ‘If found, please return to' on it."
I held my breath, my eyes darting over to Don...expecting to see a look of complete horror etched upon his features having witnessed our infamous irreverent humor. To my delight, Don was biting his lip hard and losing the battle not to laugh. In that moment, I knew without a doubt that Don was the perfect person for this job...and just what our family needed.
Being a funeral director can't be an easy job. In order for you to succeed, somebody has to die and your customers are usually emotional wrecks. It would be easy to prey on such people, when they are most vulnerable, reminding them of duty by twisting their grief into guilt over their responsibilities. Don could have been one of those...insinuating that if we'd loved our mother enough, we'd not even give a second thought about burying her in an ermine lined casket made of solid gold. Instead, he was mindful of the funds we had at our disposal, never once judging us about having to weigh cost versus sentimentality. We wanted it to be the best we could afford...but our mother would have been upset if we'd gone past our means.
Having family around during this week-long ordeal kept us emotionally strong...but without Don to keep us focused, I doubt very much anything would have been done without something going terribly awry. Just showing up at a certain place on time was already a challenge. Luckily Don always kept his schedule as loose as possible and never acted as if we'd put him out. He gave the impression that he was there solely for us...the rest of the world could wait.
On the day of the funeral, Don became our protector...our guardian angel. As the five of us circulated through the rooms...giving and accepting condolences from family and friends, he kept an eye on us. When Toni, my youngest sister, became trapped in a corner with a long line of people queuing up to see her, he slipped in without having to be asked and rescued her with a polite excuse to those waiting. Our emotional well-being was his business and we all benefited from that care.
The graveside ceremony was brief. At its conclusion, my brother, sisters and I planned to place a rose each into the vault alongside the box. Ronda hesitated and then quickly tore out a lock of her hair before winding it around the stem of the rose. I followed suit...and then Toni did the same. Michele was having a bit of difficulty with her own hair and was frowning at Ronda who was refusing to lend a hand. "I can't," she cried, "I just can't...don't ask me to." I could understand why Ronda was upset since Michele's hair had only just started to brush the edge of her collar...a far cry from a few months earlier when she was still suffering the ill effects of chemotherapy. Better to make it fast then. I reached over, snagged a lock of hair and pulled.
At Michele's yelp of surprised pain, Don magically appeared at her side, the picture of fatherly concern. He lifted his eyebrows at the sight of me with a rather guilty look on my face and a lock of my sister's golden blonde hair pinched between my fingers. The hair covered rose stems in our hands revealed the rest of the mystery and he just shook his head and laughed. Our brother was not about to part with the few strands of hair that still remained on his head. We didn't blame him...and none of us was brave enough to suggest that he should.
The crowd of mourners had pretty much left when Toni suddenly thought about leaving a cigarette for Mom to enjoy in her afterlife. There was a short debate on whether or not we should include a lighter, but in the end we decided that perhaps burying flammable objects might be frowned upon. I shook out a cigarette from my pack and watched as Toni slyly inserted it before the lid of the vault was completely closed. Yes...we were very, very sneaky.
As the vault was lowered into the ground, watched only by family members, Don sauntered over and winked at us. "So...did you include a lighter too?" he asked with a stern look.
Toni and I paled and vehemently shook our heads, mortified that he had witnessed our little last minute contribution. No sir...not us...uh uh...
With a smile, he reached into his suit coat, pulled out a cigarette and lit it casually. His eyes twinkled as he smiled, exhaling a stream of smoke. "I would have," he said. Toni and I could only stare...we never even suspected that Don was a smoker.
Overhearing our conversation, the cemetery official walked over and commented, "Well, at least I won't have to worry about coming out here some night and seeing smoke coming from your mother's grave. That would have been a bit unnerving."
With a grin, Ronda retorted back, "No...it's worse. Now if you see smoke we'll have to worry about where she got it lit..."
The following day, we met up with Don at the funeral home to tie up the loose ends and pick up the things we had left behind the day before. There were so many little touches that he had done for us, small unspoken requests that he knew were important and so he simply did them. Since we had never really answered the question regarding the engraving on the box, he'd had one put on with our mother's name along with the years of her birth and death. But I was still overwhelmed by one detail that he somehow managed to know beforehand...and for which I am eternally grateful. As we turned to go, his hand once more slipped into his jacket pocket and he held out five white envelopes. Inside of each was a lock of our mother's silvery-white hair.
Waving goodbye, my eyes were once again pricked with tears...but for a different reason. I turned to Toni and said, "I'm going to miss him..." Toni smiled and nodded in agreement. "Don't worry," she said, "he's not getting away THAT easily." Michele rolled down the window and yelled as we drove off, "By the way...we've decided to adopt you!"
In the mirror, I saw him smile and laugh...somehow I don't think the idea frightened him as much as it should have.
I asked him once how he did it. How did he manage to take such good care of complete strangers? I expected him to tell me that he had a degree in psychology or that perhaps he'd learned everything at his father's knee. Instead he told me that it wasn't easy. Don said he had ten seconds to figure out which person in the group had the firmest grip on their emotions...or at least enough presence of mind to be able to retain any information he needed to give them. After that, his job was simply to coax a smile out of a person. No wonder he had fit in so well with our family...he understood that grief and humor walk hand in hand and shouldn't be parted.
As if reading my mind, he shook his head and said that our family had made his job way too easy.
True to her word, Toni has made it a point to visit Don. He didn't think it at all strange that she would want to drop by...and just talk. At one point, Don stood up and declared a break. "Mourners aren't the only ones that need breaks, Toni," he said and to her surprise she saw that his eyes were filled with tears. With as much dignity as he could muster, he swiped at his eyes and then smiled in a self-deprecating way. "My friends all think I'm a big pansy," he declared with a rueful grin.
Like I said, Fate works in odd ways. Without a tragedy, our family might never have met such a wonderful human being. I know my mother would approve of our decision to keep him.