Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Brownies, Ice Cream, and the Things That Bring us Together

Nothing really prepares you for the first time you handle a dead body. Even when the body in question takes a long time to get from “s” to “e” in life’s great game of Horse, the difference between 'nearly dead' and 'all dead' is pretty significant.

For me, the body belonged to my dear friend, Marian Ball. Marian was this remarkable butt-kicker of a woman who waited until she was in her 70’s and legally blind before deciding to change religions, sell her house, and move from Long Island, New York to Mercer Island, Washington. To have put more distance between those two homes, those two lives, would have required relocating to an offshore oil rig.

Marian died from cancer, which was just fine with her because it meant she could stop fussing over cholesterol. Marian loved desserts, and even in her last days she was an unrepentant sugar fiend. The hospice nurse would leave a bowl of broth with a couple of discouraged vegetables sulking on the bottom, with instructions both to Marian and the Relief Society sister who would be spending the night to see to it that every bit of that dinner went where it would do the most good.

And Marian and her co-conspirator of the day would do just that. The sound of the nurse’s crepe soles would not even have made it to the elevator before the soup was in the sink and the contraband brownies were retrieved from their hidey-hole in the toaster oven. Anyone who brought Marian brownies had a friend for life. Bring some ice cream as well, and you were guaranteed a mention in her will. She must have left the same set of stemware to a dozen different women, each one believing she had earned the prize with a half-gallon of cookies n' cream and a vow of secrecy.

So when Marian finally did pass away, it was with a little chocolate on her lip and a good twenty extra pounds of Marian everywhere else.

As Relief Society president and Marian’s biggest fan, it fell to me and two other women to dress Marian in her temple clothes preparatory to her…well, to her cremation, truth be told. She had made it crystal clear that she was not spending the intervening time between death and the resurrection stifling under six feet of dirt. Her husband had been cremated, and his ashes awaited hers in the family vault in New York.

One of the women helping dress Marian was Grace Smith, who was Marian’s best friend on Mercer Island. They were the same age, had both lost husbands, and were bar none the two most elegant women in the ward. Grace with her fair skin and white hair, beautifully set, and Marian with her clear face the color of mocha and always dressed to the nines, they were a perfect match.

Grace and I were joined by another friend of Marian’s, a quiet, amazing woman named Lynne Merrell. Lynne was the ward seminary teacher, and when Marian became too weak to attend church, Lynne would go to her apartment three days a week and teach her the lessons she had been giving the seminary kids. I’m pretty sure Lynne was the most deserving of the stemware; whenever I dropped by to see Marian, she alerted me to Lynne’s latest “gift”, carefully concealed in the freezer behind the ice packs.

The three of us drove to the crematorium, a despondent looking building in the industrial district north of the Space Needle. We were taken to a room in the basement where Marian’s body was waiting, escorted by a guard who couldn’t quite figure out why three women were so interested in what anyone would be wearing when they went into the oven. Not entirely sure ourselves, we retreated behind the assurance that our reasons were “of deep religious significance,” a tactic I have found keeps folks from asking a lot of questions, the answers to which are usually, “Beats me.”

“It’s a religious thing,” we told him, “We don’t expect you to understand.”

I admit I was surprised to find Marian in a small workroom, laid on a stainless steel gurney and covered by a thin sheet. She was naked except for the red nail polish Grace told us she had painted on Marian’s fingers earlier that week. The room was sparsely furnished; a counter with a sink and a box of tissues, cupboards most likely used to store odds and ends lacking a home anywhere else in the building, and a couple of metal chairs. It was cold and clinical, and so unlike anything Marian was or had been it almost broke your heart.

Grace opened the bag containing Marian’s temple clothing and removed the first items, handing one piece each to Lynne and me.

I was 33 years old, and I had never done anything like this in my life. I hadn’t even touched Marian back at the apartment on the morning she died. And here I was, expected dress her cold, dead and above all nude body as though I did this three times a day before breakfast.

Not one to sport much of a poker face, I looked pleadingly at Lynne and said, “Uh, so, where exactly do we, you know, start?” She suggested we start at the bottom, presumably because that end corresponded with the article of clothing I was holding. I soon learned this was a first for her, too, the big faker.

With both women watching and waiting, I removed the sheet and reached for Marian’s foot. I wasn’t expecting it to resist so completely, and I was, to say the least, a little startled. Without thinking, I muttered, “Come on, Marian, cooperate.”

This made the other two laugh, and seemed to break the tension enough that we could begin working together to get the different layers of clothing on the right bits of Marian and in the right order.

I discovered that a stiff body eventually loosens up, the more you bend and twist its parts, but the feature for which corpses are most famous – that of being utterly and totally lifeless – means that the body will make exactly zero effort to help you along.

As we lifted and tugged, Marian occasionally would slip down the steel table, her arms and head dropping off the blocks on which they had been situated. As the youngest and spryest of the lot, it was my job to pick her up under the armpits and hoist her back up the table, where Grace and Lynne would replace the blocks. Every time I did this, one of us would say something to Marian along the lines of, “You know, you didn’t have to eat ALL of those brownies,” or, “You have no one to blame but yourself, Marian. That ice cream went right to your keister, just like you knew it would.”

It made it easier, more comfortable, to talk to Marian as though she were in the room with us. Who knows, she probably was, shaking her head at the comedy of errors being perpetrated against her by these three well-meaning amateurs.

While I'm sure we used the four-way conversation to help ease the anxiety each of us was feeling but didn’t want to show, there was one time when this made Marian seem almost uncomfortably present.

It happened as Grace and I were trying to put on Marian’s dress. We had made it over her head, but were having a hard time getting her arms through the sleeves. This was one time when all three of us were quietly working, each concentrating on her own little project. None was paying much attention to what the others were up to.

Grace had Marian’s right arm most of the way through the sleeve, but couldn’t quite get the dress up over her shoulder. Meanwhile, I was trying to get her left arm through the other sleeve, a process complicated by the fact that her elbow was still stiff and uncooperative. Both of us were shifting little bits of fabric, struggling to move the dress back and forth across Marian’s chest and midsection.

Now, the wrestle involved in taking the dress over her head had caused her to once again slide a little ways down the gurney, enough that her head had slipped off its supporting block. Unable to do anything more until Grace and I had worked out our difficulties, Lynne stood at the head of the gurney and spoke quietly to Marian.

What happened next comes to me primarily in a series of auditory memories and one singularly vivid one. Just as I heard Lynne say, “Marian, let’s get your head back up on this block,” Grace triumphed, “There!” Her arm had made it completely through the sleeve, which in turn freed up the dress on my side of the body. Marian’s left elbow chose this moment to loosen up, and at the same time that Lynne lifted Marian’s head, that arm shot straight through the end of the sleeve and right up into my face. For all the world it looked like Marian was sitting up and making a grab for my throat.

I let out a shriek that, if the neighbors weren’t convinced already that the place was haunted, must certainly have removed any remaining doubt. This of course had the effect that screaming always has on other women, and both Grace and Lynne joined me in a blood curdling trio which reverberated off the concrete walls of the workroom and redefined harmonic resonance in a very real and ear wax-dissolving way.

As if that weren’t enough, we each took one giant leap backward, Grace knocking over the chairs and me attempting to scale the cupboard like an Amazonian tree frog – flat handed and straight up. Lynne’s concerns for Marian’s head were forgotten, and it dropped onto the table with a clang.

It took a couple of beats for us to gather our wits, look around and attempt to sort out what had happened. Grace untangled herself from the folding chairs, I climbed down off the counter, and all three of us searched one another’s faces for some sign that we hadn’t just done what it seemed like we’d done.

And then we started to laugh. Hard.

No refined giggles, these. This was post-hysteria, doubled over, “someone check her medication” whooping that had us clutching our sides and gasping for air. What a bunch of sissies we were! The three of us, acting all calm and collected, when in point of fact we were one unexplained movement away from wetting ourselves and crying for our mommies.

I don’t know how, but we managed to finish dressing Marian, down to her slippers and veil. Reluctantly, we said our goodbyes, each kissing her on the cheek and telling her how much we loved her and would miss her.

And then, we left her there, alone in that cold workroom. The cremation would take place later that afternoon, the personnel at the facility packaging and shipping Marian’s ashes to an elderly uncle who would take them to their resting place next to those of her husband.

It was such an odd way to say goodbye, such an odd close to one of the most unique and meaningful chapters in any of our lives. There would be a small memorial service, but no funeral, no interment, no public opportunity to celebrate the classy and quirky and vibrant woman who had come to our little island and brought us the much needed diversion of serving.

Something was missing, some unfinished business yet remaining. Not surprisingly, it was Lynne who thought of it first. As we exited the freeway near Grace’s home, Lynne suggested we continue on into town, swing by Albertson’s, and pick up some brownies and ice cream.

Forget the cholesterol. If Marian had taught us anything, it was that sometimes you just had to live a little.


Kristina P. said...

You are too funny! My dad used to have to prepare bodies, when we lived in California, and he had some funny stories.

Oh, and I've never attended a funeral for anyone LDS, so it wasn't until the Big Love controversy that I found out that members were buried in their temple clothes.

Mallory said...

How totally and hilariously irreverant! I remember my mom telling me about when she and her sisters dressed their mother after her death. They said they talked and laughed through the whole thing. The funeral home workers thought they were crazy!

SO said...

What a great story! I can totally see all three of you freaking out and then busting a gut. I'm sure Marian was probably laughing where ever she was as well. And what a fitting way to remember her.

The Garden of Egan said...

I totally love you! I needed that story today.

Sandi said...

OVer here from Crash's...I just could not quit reading this, I love this story - thanks for sharing :)

Steph @ Diapers and Divinity said...

Despite all the creepiness and comedy, I could feel the reverence of it all. In a weird way, I bet you never felt closer to her. Note to self.... die IN my temple clothes and avoid the whole humiliation.

MommyJ said...

Steph's comment made me laugh out loud! And to you... all I have to say is that to be able to turn that situation into something that people can good naturedly laugh and relate to, without taking away from the significance of such a situation is truly a gift. I so dearly love your writing. ;)

Karen said...

DeNae, this post is beautifully written. It's a hilarious, but also poignant story. I absolutely love your writing. It's why I picked you to be my Blog of the Week this week.

Lacy said...

Denae, one of my favorite stories you have written about. I could actually see you on the counter! And great advice, we all do need to give a little in the end :) Love ya, I'm going to miss you this summer! I will be anxiously awaiting September.

InkMom said...

Oh, my. That was funny . . . but not too funny, if you know what I mean. Just perfect.

When my grandmother died, my mom and I and another couple of family friends had the . . . privilege of dressing her. There was joking, and there were definitely lighthearted moments, but there was also a definite sense of reverence and, for lack of a better word, awe. It was a tender moment for me. My grandmother was the source of all sassiness in my family -- she was, in her words, a catbird, and a Pittsburgh girl who said it like it was and always had popsicles in her freezer. I still miss her, and it's been ten years. When my shopping cart drives to the sheets and towels section of Target of its own accord, I know she's with me.

Wow. Sorry for all that.

Hel said...

I believe one of the best ways to remember others is by the culinary experiences they provide us.

My grandmother and minties (an Australian candy) go hand in hand whenever I think of either.

My mother on the other hand... I think I will remember her whenever I eat a dry steak. ;)

Brooke said...

This reminds me of when I was a newly-married 25-year old girl. The week I was called to serve in the R.S. presidency, the president says to me, "The other counselor & I will be out of town for the next 2 weeks. Oh, and Sister So-and-so may die while we're gone, so you'll need to prepare the body if she goes." !!!!!

I have NEVER prayed so hard for someone to stay alive in my life.

Lara said...

I could just see everything happening as you told it! So funny, and yet, so poignant. Definitely goes to show that the veil is probably very thin in those situations.

You also made me very glad that I was out of town for 2 weeks the one time a member of my Relief Society passed away when I was RS President. I don't know if I could have done it, honestly. I'm glad you did, though.

The Crash Test Dummy said...

Oh my goodness DeNae, you are such a good writer. What a crazy, quirky story! My goodness! LOL. How odd. And funny. How did you make such an odd story funny?

And hey, after you said Motherboard quit following you I checked and she quit following me too. SNIFF. I like Motherboard.

Am I following you?

Well I am now.

Melanie J said...

My husband took care of my dad's body when he died and then strongly advised me to let someone else take care of my mom's when she passed two months later. I'm soooo gald I took that advice.

Having said that, I read this aloud to my husband and giggled all the way through it while he murmured several pained "Yeps" of agreement to your experience.

I kinda want to be cremated. The funeral thing seems like a big silly fuss. Or at least, the whole coffin and burial part of it. The only reason I'll do it the old-fashioned way is because if I don't, I know my mama will slap me when I get to heaven.

Devon said...

DeNae, that was an amazing post. I felt it was wonderfully written with a beautiful, reverent undertone. Marian sounds like a wonderful person to have known.

AS Amber said...

I had no idea you were my age when you did all that. I really don't think I could have done it! Cancer?? You bet. Twice. But dressing a dead person?? Ummm...can I just do cancer again?
That was such a good story. One of your best, I think. And so beautifully written!
Marian was a neat lady. You need to tell her conversion story. And what happened to Visions when she died?

Debbie said...

I think you may just be the most gifted writer on here! I am in awe of your talent.

Sher said...

What a great story! So good, in fact, that I had to get up and get me a brownie to eat while I read it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. The last five minutes were the best of the day so far. I'm crying and laughing and remembering when I did the same for my grandmother at age33 and six months pregnant. It was a labor of love and a celebration of family. What a blessing--but one I don't want to repeat any time soon.

Lisa Loo said...

I am laughing hysterically at the screaming part and then for no reason that I can come up with--I start bawling--I hope its my meds or something--otherwise I might have to admit my addiction to you--pfft--DeNae? I can take her or leave her......


tammy said...

Oh my goodness how I loved this story!!

And I really really want a brownie right now.

Shawn said...

I would have freaked if I had to do this!!

But what a funny and touching story---one I'm sure that YOU will never forget!

Lyn Hernandez said...

I am calling my friend Amy in the morning. Coffee and your post will send her off with a huge smile. She is a Mortician, and proud of it. No it's not creepy. She just doesn't play well with live people:)

Melissa said...

Oh I loved this story! It made me think of the time me and my Mom dressed my Grandma after she passed. While yes, it was a little awkward at first, it ended up being the most loving and spiritual experience I had ever had with my Grandma. Painting her fingernails just the right shade was my favorite part. And yes, getting the dress on is the hardest part. We ended up cutting the back of it.

And now, not only do I want a brownie, but I am writing a will about who can or cannot dress me!

aunt dyanne said...

Ahhhh... this background is MUCH more reader friendly.... now, don't go changin' it back - just cuz I said... I'd be tkin' that WAYYY personally.

what the heck is an optispat?

myimaginaryblog said...

What a great story, and so well-told.

This makes me want to warn my kids or friends to dress me the minute after I expire, while it's still easy -- but I guess the embalming has to happen first? But I don't want to be embalmed, but I think by law you have to be unless you can get the body into the ground really quickly, and you can't have a viewing. So I guess I'm glad I won't be around to have to worry about all that. :)

My uncle used to work in Provo with a woman who wasn't LDS and who would talk about how on Resurrection Morning all her neighbors would rise up in their white clothing and she'd be in her robe and slippers.

That Girl in Brazil said...

And now I will make sure my husband dresses me.

(I had cake and ice cream last night ... TWICE.)

R Max said...

I have heard stories like this and let me tell you, it was my greatest fear that someone would die while I was R/S Pres. Someone almost did, but she hung in there until I got released. I will always remember her fondly...

brudcrew said...

Thanks Denae. What a good laugh. It was nice to know that if Marian had been there she would have been laughing right along with you.

JBSquared said...

Laughter on my lips and tears in my eyes. The funniest and sweetest story I have heard in a long time!

barbyb said...

Wow. Ditto that. A-MAZ-ing piece of writing on a subject I've never quite read about like that. Lovely description of a beautiful/hilariously funny/poignant time. Thank you!

. . . . .. .you SO need to be published.

Kristina P. said...

A whole week without a post! My one birthday wish is a post from DeNae. And a leopard print SNuggie. And a cake. And a gift card to Banana Republic. Well, you get the drift.

Arliss said...

I've been missing you. I remember this experience but didn't know all the details. What an experience!!! Soooo fun to read about it!
Love Arliss