(Aired on CBC Radio's Sounds Like Canada in October, 2002)
"I have never handled the body of someone who just died. Nor have I sought the opportunity. I once feared there was a body in a car parked on my street but raced past it to catch the 8:21 bus.
Many important and courageous people have touched and cared for the recently-dead. Nurses, doctors, funeral workers. To their list I now add my father and several siblings. When my mother died on the morning of May 4th, 2001, her husband of 57 years was sitting beside her rubbing her back and chest to ease the agony of lung cancer. He had just checked in after his morning walk and was about to shower. "Wait," she said, "I have a little pain."
My mother died in the house in which she had raised five boys, served hundreds of guests her famous hazelnut torte (baked with the oven door open just a crack), and triumphed over worthy ping-pong opponents using natural ability and strategic fits of infectious laughter. It was not her first home. She emigrated from Germany in 1956, young family in tow, unable for months to write to friends about her newly-purchased refrigerator, too overwhelmed by her sudden wealth. Nor did she ever sound fully at home in Canada: "Say thin, not sin!" I tutored her. But at home she was. When she slumped away from my father, there on the edge of the bed, he caught her. The sudden, wrenching motion injured his leg but he held on. Then he laid her back onto the pillow, closed her eyelids, sang their comfort song, and kissed her.
People began to arrive: the pastor to pray; the doctor to pronounce her patient dead; and my siblings. My sister-in-law helped my father prepare the body. My brothers retrieved one of two hand-crafted caskets stored in the attic of my father's shop for this and one more inevitable day. They lined the casket with delft-blue cloth. It sat on the kitchen table --the same table at which our family had enjoyed some 40,000 meals bracketed by 80,000 prayers of blessing.
In the early evening, unrushed, they carried my mother's body from her bedroom into the kitchen and placed it in the casket. It was by all accounts an awkward affair. Photos were taken and the Rummikub game, my mother's insomnia companion, was laid beside her. Then the casket lid was closed permanently. My brother's GMC van carried the casket and body to the funeral home for safe keeping until the day of burial.
I had not, however, touched the body. At the moment my mother died in Vancouver I was in flight between my home in Winnipeg and a work assignment near Hamilton. This isn't something about which I feel guilty. I had visited my mother twice since her diagnosis. I spent an early spring day with her at the beach--the last such visit for a woman raised near north-German dikes and forever in love with the edges where land holds back water. I had napped beside her--me on the couch and she in her recliner--in the semi-dark of late afternoon after she had tried valiantly to sing our favourite German lullaby, stopped only by failing breath and a hint of mutual embarrassment. "Muede bin ich, geh zur Ruh..." (Tired am I, go to rest...)
I have no guilt, but I do feel cheated. Cheated by the mobility that at once unites and divides my family. My siblings and my father were there. They were important. On the day that she died they belonged to my mother's story in a way that no-one else could. They were also courageous because in the end when my mother's breath was finally gone they refused steadfastly to let the professionals take over.
I remember vividly the day about ten years ago when my father called me into his shop, instructed me to climb the stepladder standing near the loft and said with some eagerness, "Go ahead, lift that tarp." I discovered his-and-hers caskets made, he said, out of recycled lumber pieces laminated and covered with oak door-skins discarded from a friend's factory. My father's glee betrayed more than his love of the craft: it spoke of having just stared down his own death and reclaimed it from those who would sanitize and monopolize it.
My mother, too, had embraced her own mortality. At 72 she predicted her demise within a year, citing family precedent. She was off by a happy decade. In her last months she joked about cryogenics, planning to return when her sons were frail enough to be vanquished in one more rapturous game of ping pong. But returning was never really on her mind. When my oldest brother and I spoke the eulogy to an overflowing congregation we quoted her: "Der Himmel steht offen" (heaven stands open). The reunion she longed for would be in a new home.
At the cemetery the hired workers lowered the heavy casket. Father and five sons peered anxiously over the edge to watch the non-standard box squeak into the requisite concrete liner. As agreed, we took shovels from the staff and began layering earth over my mother's remains, not ceasing until the hole was filled.
Shovelling is one way I have tried to touch the body since my mother's death. I have also hugged my father, of whom she remains an integral part even as his leg heals. I have cleaned her fine silver hairs from her bedroom rug. And I have fingered but never spent the cash she mailed for my 41st birthday together with a note saying, "I'm sorry I don't have more to give."
But still, I never touched her body after she died. I cannot say I was there. Perhaps that is why I wept when I opened my phone bill for May, 2001. There, in the list of long-distance charges for the day my mother died, I saw myself again, caught between time zones, while others were holding her."
Rick Zerbe Cornelsen