With death, there are no sequence of events. I mean, there is no rhyme or reason for things; no beginning, middle and end. First this, then this, and so on. Much like the phone ringing at 4:55pm when you’re trying to lock up the funeral home for the night, you can’t control the death call you receive at that moment. This podcast, too, has no pattern. The stories will never be sequential. It’s never just a little old lady in her bed, with her family holding her feeble hand. Sometimes, it’s much different.
This is the story of the last call my wife, Megan and I conducted together. We traveled west bound in our then 2012 navy grand caravan which smelled of chemicals and “hot car”. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I know you smell it. Megan was six months pregnant with our first son. I’m not really sure why she wanted to go, because we knew what we were getting into. She wanted to go any way. Which is truly her in a nutshell. Caregiver. We pulled up to the residence, took a deep breath, and all three of us stepped out of the van. This is the story of our last call together, caring for a child.
I don’t know what I had been doing this particular day. Imagine working in an ever stressful environment. Not because someone’s health and well-being are on the line, but things like “did you order this” or “did this get done in time for the visitation” are constantly screaming in your inner dialogue. It’s heavy.
Picture working with your spouse. Could you do it? I guess you could, but would it be effective and fulfilling?
Somehow, in time, Megan and I learned to. We’re both tough. We both have our ways, and we share it. It’s not good or bad, it just is. We have realized each others strengths. I’m a risk taker, an idea guy. I make it happen, and quick. Megan is calculated and thorough. Both qualities are equally necessary. I’m glad we’ve realized this in time.
At 6 months pregnant, women tend to show signs of pregnancy. Fatigue. Swelling. To name a few. Megan and I were expecting our first. By this time, we are of course working the same schedule. Nights we have visitation, we are together. Could you imagine, while many are going on dates to the movies or dinner, Megan and I are standing door for hours, greeting visitors of those coming to pay respects to those they love. We were up at all hours of the night, too. When the phone rang, whether two people were needed or not, I’d be sure to go when just one was, as there was never a reason a woman be out alone in the middle of the night to tend to the dead. So I would go. And when two were needed, of course we went together. Nurses, coroners, they all were surprised to see the round, pregnant belly, followed by Megan and me. Maybe the decades of men created an element of surprise. Maybe they assumed someone as far along as her would be kicking her feet up by this time. No. Not Megan. I learned rather quickly you didn’t tell Megan to slow down. I think there was something lovely about seeing an expectant mother walking up to the house of a grieving family. A sweet woman, carrying life, coming to honor the family of someone who no longer is. I don’t know.
Swollen feet, ankles, didn’t stop her. And I would be damned to step in. She would tell me. This day, it’s almost as if the phone rang differently. If you are a funeral director, you get this. If you work in a funeral home in any capacity, perhaps you get this. The phone tends to ring differently when it’s a death call. A death call, for you common folk, is when a coroner, nurse, family, calls to notify the funeral home of the death of a loved one choosing you to care for them. These calls more times than not go rather cordial and similar. Any profession or service involving the public and emotion can always throw a wrench. Nonetheless, the phone rang differently this particular day. I sense it. Kim sensed it. Everyone did. I had just walked by the office where Kim sat, speaking on the phone. I had walked by, not breaking a stride. In passing, I heard the phone hang up and Kim say “we have a call.” I backtracked and entered the office. Kim said, almost in a whisper, “it’s a little boy.” Megan was coming up the hall the opposite way I had just back tracked. “I want to go” she said. I looked at her and asked “are you sure”. I got this look. Now, guys, when you question your better half out of support or care, it doesn”t matter. If they intend to, they will. That’s what the look I got said.
We nervously walked to the transfer van. The transfer van, or vehicle. Oftentimes, they’re vans that look just like the one a mom would carry their children to soccer it. Or, an SUV a dad would drive. They’re supposed to blend in, not raising suspision of any kind they are transporting a deceased loved one on a cot. The older transfer vehicles had a specific decal or window covering similar to that of a hearse. Not so much anymore. Nothing screams death like the wavy, silver emblem on a vinyl window covering.
Our Grand Caravan screamed “soccer mom”. Only our van had a Ferno cot loaded in it. Along with boxes of rubber gloves, two body bags, and a couple pairs of shoe covering. All of these items, known as PPE, were available for many different types of call scenarios. I drove to the residence. We did a lot of nervous talking. We weren’t informed of any previous circumstance. Oftentimes, we get death calls from professionals and they say “they’ve been ill a while” or something like “please know this is a sensitive moment”. Which could elude to suicide. We were unaware of what we were getting in to with this child. We are nervous. Nervously talking to one another. The ride from the funeral home to the place of death wasn’t long enough. I remember parking the van and Megan arguing with herself on whether she’d join me for the first interaction with the family. The first interaction can be lovely. Or it can be nerve racking. This was neither. It was gut wrenching. A child. What the hell do you say to the family? One, never, ever say “i’m sorry for your loss.” Really?! Are you truly? I challenge you to say things such as “you are loved.” “I’m honored to know INSERT NAME”. “God bless you”. “prayers rising”. BE genuine and honest.
I walked into the back door, entering the kitchen, and was greeted by the coroner. To explain, a coroner is dispatched to the scene of a death where the death occurs while not under the care of a facility; hospital, nursing home, even though they are sometimes called there, too. If a fall causes a death, for example. Really though, there is never a simple scenario. Hospice facilities do not need a coroner dispatched. They’re terminal. They’re being cared for under the orders of doctors and nurses. The coroner was here this particular morning because, although this child had been ill their entire life, they were a kid. A kid. I had never received a sweet child from a residence before. I have gone to the hospital morgue more times than I’d like to receive babies, or victims of accidental drowning. Not this.
I’m standing in the kitchen, and honestly, I’m uneasy. I don’t know what’s about to happen. I hear crying. Of course there’s crying. This little one drifted away in their sleep the night prior, and the family, a beautiful and lovely family, mind you, were just beside themselves. The grandmother spent her days tending to her grandchild who need round the clock care. She never waivered. As I’m signing the provisional; it’s a document required by Kentucky to travel with the loved one throughout the entire care process, and where it ends up depends on the family’s choice for service. If cremation, the crematory, coroner, and finally, health department are involved in receiving copies and the original. If a burial, we take them to the cemetery for record keeping and sending off to the health department. It’s important to know this. You may have seen me sign one. That’s what it is. I always share with families everything I’m doing and when I sign this, a variation such as “I’m going to get with Robyn the nurse, who has a document called a provisional, which allows my family to receive your mother into our care, and will be filed accordingly.” There’s value in educating. It’s why I’m doing this podcast. It’s why we’re the best.
I’ve just finished signing the provisional for the coroner. I’d like to think it was Deputy Coroner Matthews, but I honestly cannot remember. It’s absurd why I can’t either. My memory is photographic which is annoying. Try remembering everything! Even the bad or embarrassing.
The uncle of the little one walked up. A gentle, sweet young man. As he is walking up to me in the kitchen doorway to the living room, Megan steps in from the back door to the kitchen to the home. The air is thick with grief. We are non verbal communicators. Most of our communication is non-verbal. It’s why text messaging sucks when you’re choosing that route for a serious conversation, because we assume there’s anger or annoyance, when that may not be the case. I turn and look at Megan and she knows what I’m asking without making a noise. Her glance back is “Yes. Now, let’s take care of them already.” The uncle and I are exchanging conversation, scheduling times to gather as a family to discuss how we will celebrate this little fella. I promised him, and the ladies beginning to swarm he and I the same. In that moment, any wall they had up, had come down. They let me in. They knew they didn’t have to be overly protective of their loved one, fearing if we’re good enough, worthy enough, gentle enough, caring enough, to help. They knew we were.
Megan and I received permission from the family to go to the vehicle to retrieve our cot. Picture an ambulance gurney, but not as advanced with automatic collapsing legs and wheels, or yellow. A simple silver cot. Collapsable wheels. Two buckles to reverently hold the loved one on the bed, and a cot cover. Many homes for the longest time used a zip up “bag”. Maroon. Heavy. Cold. Who’d want to see that. Not us. We have a family sew quilt covers for us. Gold. Navy. I mean, a sweet grandmother would have something like this draped over the corner of her love seat in the dining room. A perfectly white pillow is placed on top of the quilt, buckled in.
We place two pairs of rubber gloves into my pocket. You develop little quirks when you work with a partner. Being my wife, I knew she never has a pocket for her phone, or gloves, so I would always grab them for her.
We’re at the back of the van at this point. Both of us have tears in our eyes. I continually ask Megan if she can do this. Not that I doubt her. Not because she’s pregnant with our first child. But all that comes with those things. Moms and moms-to-be immediately develop this instinct. Motherly instinct, they call it. Their abilities to be in tune with and to feel for are heightened forever. Megan assures me she can. Out the cot comes from the van. By this time, a crowd has gathered. Concerned neighbors. Kids on bikes. They all know something solemn is happening, and whatever was previously on the schedule, up their sleeves, whatever, didn’t matter as much. In these moments I’m reminded people are genuinely good people. I call these moments, moments of grace and peace for me. Megan is leading the cot down the sidewalk, I’m in the back, or head end, steering the wheels, which click over each crack in the sidewalk sections. click click click. We arrive at the back door, and the coroner holds the glass door open for us. We enter reverently, with the family standing through the kitchen, in the living room. The lights are off in the living room, windows are drawn, and some cartoon on mute was flickering lights on the walls. I never really looked to see. We prepare the cot by taking our time removing the pillow, quilt, and two white bed sheets we have neatly pressed underneath the quilt. The two buckles are released, and just as Megan and I are about to collapse the cot on either end, we’re asked to leave it up. Of course, we do.
In every other case, we have always taken a look as to where someone is located. Back room. Bathroom. Kitchen. Lying on the couch. We hadn’t this particular time, because I knew where we were going. Upstairs. It’s where the faded and constant crying was. I looked at the uncle and asked permission to go upstairs. He nodded. Slowly, I walked up. At the top of the stairs was the babies’ bedroom. Toys. Cars. A kid’s dream room! A big kid bed. Them lying there, forever asleep. Being held, hair rubbed, and kissed on. I knelt down by them, placing my hand on theirs and assured them of gentle, exceptional care. Grandmother wasn’t going to leave. I didn’t want her to. I wanted her to continue what she’s always done before, help them. She gently and tenderly lifted the child from the bed in her arms, and brought them down the stairs, with me walking in front. The family and Megan weren’t expecting this selfless act. Heartfelt. Holy. Somber. I made eye contact with Megan, still standing on her end of the cot, and we cried. Everyone did. We shouldn’t be doing this. But we were. We must. Grandmom placed the child on the cot we were told not to collapse. The little one was barely half the size of the cot, another reminder this isn’t normal. We are supposed to grow up, grow old and die. How unfair.
The gloves I placed in my pocket were useless to me by this point. I wouldn’t have put them on even if I needed to probably. Megan and I asked to help with placement, to which we were granted permission. Megan worked to straighten the ankles of the pajama pants. They were green. Ninja Turtles. And I pulled the pajama top down, reverently straightening the fabric. Safely, we buckled the straps. I hugged every person in the room. Megan, too. We were all family now. I won’t share the personal exchanges we had with our new family. That’s forever ours. They know our love for them, in that moment, and to this day. The powerful opportunities a funeral director has to truly connect. To truly make a significant impact and difference.
Back in the van, with our precious little one, Megan, wiping tears away as we travel east on 4th Street back to the home, said nothing. Not. A. Thing.
That was our last call together.