“There will come a day, I promise you, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.”
~Vice President Joe Biden
The Parking Lot
It was a beautiful day in the California beach town when I parked my car in the nearly empty lot. Knowing I would only be inside for a few minutes, I left the roof and windows of my mini cooper partially open for my little Maltese, Lulu.
The pink stucco exterior of the funeral home looked only vaguely familiar. The first time I visited was mostly a blur. I was there for a “viewing.” I was there to say a heart-rending goodbye to my 22 year old son, Nick. I am able to clearly recall relatively few images from that day, but those have been seared into my memory forever.
The interior looked even less familiar as I wandered from room to room looking for the Funeral Director. Then I noticed the rug. A wave of emotion threatened to crash down on my head.
Just as he had done on that day, the Funeral Director quietly appeared and led me in the right direction, his office this time. He offered me a seat, and let me know there would be a little paperwork to fill out before I could take my son’s ashes. He had a kind face and calm demeanor. I guess that sort of goes with the job. I imagine it’s not an easy one.
After the business was taken care of, he brought out a burgundy velvet bag and gently handed it to me. I was surprised by the weight, it was heavy. I had questions. “We will want to spread his ashes, how can we open it?” After setting the bag on the table, he removed a black box with a white label on the lid that spelled out Nick’s full name. He showed me how to open it. I was glad to see it was a very tight fit, as my brain quickly indexed through several possible worst case scenarios. My next question: “How do we know those are his ashes?” He explained something about a foolproof identification system they use which involves keeping a metal tag inside with the ashes at all times.
The exchange was both surreal and commonplace. I was a little wobbly when I stood up. I don’t know whether he sensed that, or if it is protocol, but he offered to carry the bag to my car. When we got out there, I realized I was not prepared. There was no place special enough for my son’s ashes. Lulu was in her carrier on the passenger seat, and I briefly thought I could move her to the back and set the bag on the seat, but what if I had to make a sudden stop? I’d have to use the seat belt. I just couldn’t go there. I opted for the floor in front of the passenger seat, wrapping it in a purple tablecloth I happened to have in the car.
The Funeral Director must have been used to this awkward dance too, because he waited patiently until I got settled. I thanked him and we said goodbye.
After he went back in, I removed the tablecloth and picked up the burgundy velvet bag. Again, I was taken aback by the weight of the bag, which led to my association with holding a sleeping baby. I sat in that parking lot for awhile. Then I started driving.
For years I have entertained, if not completely believed, the idea that we are not our physical bodies, and that the body is simply a shell we no longer have any use for at the end of our lives. I repeated this over and over in my head and aloud, in an attempt to prepare myself for seeing Nick in physical form one last time that first day in the funeral home.
This concept proved to be particularly challenging for me to grasp, as the body in question was one I gave birth to, cared for, and watched grow into a strong and handsome young man. I remember the first time I saw his little feet. So these are what I was feeling when he would unleash a sudden flurry of kicks like a little alien tap dancer! Those sessions in utero were a harbinger of Nick’s intense energy, not unlike my own at times. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense, just as I recognize the long, slow, deliberate, catlike stretches of his younger sister.
Not really having a plan or a sense of direction, I ended up at the beach. One positive thing that has come out of this devastating loss is a renewed connection and easier communication with my ex-husband, Nick’s father. As I sat thinking and looking out at the water, I checked my phone. I saw that he had left a message. He was wondering how I was holding up, given the day’s agenda. I returned his call and we began to make plans for a ceremony to scatter Nick’s ashes. During our conversation I received several calls and texts from a number I didn’t recognize, so I ignored them.
As it turned out, those calls and texts were from the Funeral Director. He asked if I had gotten far, and offered to meet me. He apologized and said there had been a mix-up with the paperwork. I told him I was sitting at the beach, not far from the funeral home, and that I could be back there in a few minutes, there was no need to meet me.
I left a message for Nick’s dad, telling him who the mystery caller was.
The Funeral Director came out to the parking lot to meet me. He had a ruddy complexion to begin with, and I’m telling you the poor guy looked mortified. Yes, I just wrote that. He began to apologize profusely, and in a strange twist, I found myself consoling him!
“It’s okay, really. It’s actually kind of funny,” I said as I walked around to the passenger side. I opened my car door, unwrapped the tablecloth and opened the bag to hand him the paperwork. Then I noticed the white label on the top of the box. It said MARIA SOME-OTHER-NAME SOME-OTHER-NAME…
“OH!” I think I jumped back.
“I was hoping to spare you that part,” he said quietly.
Then I started to laugh, I mean REALLY laugh, thinking about how I was crying and rocking MARIA SOME-OTHER-NAME SOME-OTHER-NAME’s ashes in the parking lot.
“That’s my son! He’s playing a joke on us!”
The Funeral Director apologized again and took the whole package back into the building to sort things out. I called Nick’s dad and updated him. He asked me if I’d read his text, I hadn’t. So I did.
Friday, October 2 4:29 pm
I got your message. I thought it was the wrong urn too. Nicholas Prank. Thanks.
Nick’s dad was now connected through the Bluetooth in my car, so when the Funeral Director returned we were all able to participate in the conversation. I reintroduced them. The Funeral Director apologized once again and assured us that he had double checked, and everything was now in order. He still looked tormented.
“This has never happened before,” he insisted.
“Oh we believe you!” We answered in unison, laughing. Colorful memories sprang to my mind of other times when we had heard those exact words in relation to Nick’s antics.
“I’m telling you, our son is pranking us. Here, read this text his dad sent me. I hadn’t even read it myself, and I said the same thing to you,” I urged.
The Funeral Director read the text message on my phone, and I could feel him relax a little. With a barely perceptible smile he said “Well, I just wish he would’ve given me a heads-up.”
“But that would’ve spoiled all the fun!” said Nick’s dad.
I’m not going to pretend the last eight months have been easy. There have been days when I could barely get out of bed. But there have been gifts too, those Moments of Grace I’ve been talking about. I never imagined I’d drive away from a funeral home with my son’s ashes in the car, smiling. I’m smiling right now as I write this. Smiling, and tearing up.
Thank you Nick. I love you.
Postscript: It's now been almost three and a half years since Nick passed. After several more of these types of experiences, (they continue to this day), and much study and exploration on my part, I now know that my son is not lost to me. He is very present in my life and the lives of those he loves.