Thursday, April 15, 2021

Rise and Set and Rise Again by Jenni Cook

Damp sand shifts beneath my bare feet. Overhead, the sun strains to reclaim the sky from the clouds that linger after last night’s summer storm. The beach is silent this time of day, disturbed only by lapping waves and the occasional cry of a gull. I take a deep breath, savoring the salty ocean air.
This solitary moment is my daily reminder that despite my profession, there’s more
to life than death.

When I reach the wooden bench that marks my turn-around, I raise my arms and stretch toward the sky. Normally I’d take a seat and watch the sunrise, but today I don’t have time. Instead, I retrace my steps and think about what to say to the high school student who asked to shadow me for the day. Unlike some local business owners, I don’t have a canned talk I give every year to the student who elects to observe a day in my life. In three generations, the family business has never had a shadow on Career Day.
 
I guess no one wants to see what the town’s lady mortician does when she goes to
work. Not that I blame them.

#

“Did you always want to be a mortician?” Hailee Ryan eyes me curiously.
Ahh, the directness of youth. She lacks the uneasiness adults often exhibit when
discussing my occupation.
I pause outside the embalming room door and consider how to respond. The
openness of her expression pushes me toward honesty.
“No.” I smile ruefully. “I actually wanted to be a wedding planner.”
Hailee’s charcoal grey eyes grow round in her pale face. “That’s a big difference. Why
did you change your mind?”
“My dad owned the funeral home when I was a kid. His dad owned it before him. My
older brothers went different directions; one’s a cop, the other’s an insurance adjuster. I
was Dad’s last hope.” I shrug. “I caved. Family legacy, and all that.”
She tilts her head and studies me. “Do you regret it? Not becoming a wedding
planner, I mean?”
This time, I lie. Not because I want to mislead Hailee, but because the truth opens up
a huge can of worms I’m not prepared to deal with today.
“Of course not. Who wants to deal with bridezillas and their overly opinionated
mothers anyway? I still help people with one of the most important events in their lives. I
coordinate the flowers, and services, and--”
I open the door a little more dramatically than is necessary, and we’re hit will the
smell of formaldehyde. Hailee’s gasp at the sight of the embalming equipment spares me
from continuing with the fib, or worse, confessing the truth: That I’m sick to death of, well,
death. That I’ve received an offer from someone who wants to buy the business, and I’m
considering selling out now that both of my parents are gone.
I answer Hailee’s rapid-fire questions about the embalming process and glance at my
watch.
“C’mon. We have an appointment.” I close the door and turn back toward the office.
If only I could turn back the last twenty years as easily.

#

Late that afternoon, I sit behind the heavy walnut desk in my office at the funeral
home. Hailee sits across from me, jotting notes with a glittery pink pen that looks out of
place in the somber surroundings.
When she called to ask about shadowing me, I was a little concerned the bereaved
wouldn’t be enthusiastic about a high schooler observing their grief. Instead, most have
been accepting of the idea. Her presence even seems to provide them a much needed
distraction. I’m impressed to see she has an ease with the grieving that many people never
achieve.
Hailee points her pink pen at me. “Can we talk about those burial clothes in the
Display Room? It smells like lemon furniture polish in there, by the way. Anyway, does
anyone really buy those clothes? On TV they put people in fancy clothes, like a wedding
dress, or a suit and tie. Sometimes they even go buy something new to be buried in, but I’ve
never heard of shopping for clothes at the funeral home.”
“It depends on the circumstances. If someone’s house blew away in a hurricane, for
example, they might not have anything. But you’re right, most families provide something
for the deceased to wear.”
“Whew!”
“You know, Hailee, you’ve really taken to this today. If you’re considering applying to
a mortuary science program when you graduate, I’d be happy to write a recommendation
letter for you.”
An expression I can’t identify crosses her features, and she avoids eye-contact when
she replies, “Maybe. I don’t know. It just…depends.”
“On what?”
“I don’t know. Just stuff.”
“Fair enough. You’re what? Fifteen?”
Hailee nods.
“You’ve got time to decide.”
She bobs her head again, but she still doesn’t look at me.
She’s quiet for the next half-hour, but when her mom arrives to pick her up, she
thanks me politely and asks if she can stop by again sometime. I tell her sure and wave as
they drive away.
Edna, my receptionist, glances up from her computer as I walk back to my office.
“What do you think is going on with her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe all the talk about death got her unsettled? But she handled it
better than a lot of people twice her age.” People like Blake, my last boyfriend. He called it
quits because he couldn’t handle being with a woman who dealt with death all day. He 83
wasn’t the first. Only the latest in a string of men who found my occupation creepy. Blake
was the one who had me seriously considering the offer to sell the funeral home. I could
start a wedding-planning business with the proceeds, he’d said.

#

Five weeks later, I take my morning walk along the beach. Late summer has given
way to fall, and it’s too cool to go barefoot. I wear a hat and scarf to ward off the chill in the
dawn air and walk briskly to stay warm.
I make the turn in my usual spot, but instead of using the return trip to think about
the day ahead, I think about what Hailee’s parents told me when they came to drop off her
clothes yesterday.
“Hailee had an aggressive, inoperable form of brain cancer.” Mrs. Ryan’s eyes had
filled with tears.
“We found out right before Career Day.” Mr. Ryan had stroked his wife’s back.
“That’s why she wanted to shadow you. She knew she was dying. She wanted to know what
would happen to her body when her time came.”
“She didn’t tell me.” I shook my head. Hailee had stopped by the funeral home
regularly the first three weeks after Career Day. When she didn’t show up last week, I was
surprised how much I missed hearing her chatter. I’d been busy, though, and just assumed
she was, too.
“She said she didn’t want to be treated like a cancer patient. She wanted to live her
life as normally as possible for as long as she could.” Mr. Ryan had shrugged.
“She left a note for you.” Mrs. Ryan had reached into her purse and retrieved a
folded piece of paper. I gave her a brief hug, and she left the room stifling a sob.

#

I arrive at the car and slide into the driver’s seat. Before I stick my key into the
ignition, I open my purse and pull out a piece of paper. I’ve read Hailee’s note at least a
dozen times, but I take in her round script written in pink glittery ink again.
Lenora - Thanks for letting me shadow you on Career Day. By now you know it wasn’t
because I wanted to be a mortician. Sorry about that. I want you to know that what I learned
shadowing you gave me peace about what would happen to me after I died, especially after
I saw how much you cared for everyone who came to you. Also, I know you’ll say what my
parents need to hear to bring them comfort now that I’m gone. For what it’s worth, if it
weren’t for having to die and everything, I’d have taken you up on that offer for a
recommendation letter. I know you kinda got guilted into being an undertaker, but I think it’s
what you were meant to do. And, like you said, who wants to deal with bridezillas and their
crazy mamas anyway? Love, Hailee
When I get to work, I call the funeral director the next town over.
“Max? It’s Lenora. Listen, I’ve considered your offer to buy the business. It’s quite
generous. You know what, though? I’ve decided not to sell. I think this is where I’m
supposed to be after all.”


© Jenni Cook

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