Monday, August 17, 2009

Picking Up Dad

I ran a bunch of errands today: went to the eye doctor, dashed by the yarn store for a sock book and a new tape measure (Bali ate about three inches of the old one), got a haircut, swam, and went to the DMV to get my license renewed, since I needed a new photo this time. I had to wait about forty-five minutes -- not too unpleasant, since I had knitting with me -- and had just gotten up to a window when my phone rang.

It was the mortuary, telling me that Dad's cremains were ready.

I almost started crying right there in the DMV. We hadn't expected the remains back for months. The timing means that Dad definitely wasn't used as a medical-school cadaver, which had been what I'd wanted. (He wouldn't care; he just didn't want me and my sister to have to pay funeral expenses.) The mortuary couldn't tell me how he'd been used, although they know the med school did something with him. Maybe training flight surgeons to put in chest tubes, which was the original plan?

Anyway, I was in semi-shock, and babbled at the DMV clerk a bit. She was quite young and evidently didn't know what to make of this; she was pleasant enough, but didn't offer any kind of sympathy.

Right afterwards, I had to get my photo taken for the new license. I haven't seen it yet -- the license will arrive in the mail in about a week -- and I suspect it's even more dreadful than most such photos, given the circumstances.

From the DMV, I drove straight to the funeral home, crying as I drove. When I got there, the funeral director waved hello and said, "You didn't have to rush right down here!"

"I wanted to," I said shakily.

No sympathy from him or his assistant, either, although they were perfectly pleasant too. To them, this is just business. The assistant brought out Dad in a box, and nodded when I exclaimed at how small it was, and then they gave me copies of various permits which will, for instance, allow me to transport Dad across state lines or take him on an airplane.

The box is white cardboard. Inside, there's a brown plastic box, and inside that, I'm told there's a plastic bag containing the ashes. I haven't opened it yet. The entire package measures 9" long by 7" deep by 5" high, and weighs eight pounds.

When I left the mortuary I called my sister, who sounded even more shocked and upset than I'd been. "But what happened? Weren't the medical students going to work on him?"

"The body might not have been in good enough shape for that. They almost didn't accept it at all. Listen, I'll call the anatomical donation coordinator when I get home and get some information."

But it's the end of the day, and the anatomical donation coordinator wasn't in. I left a voicemail message, and I'll follow up with an e-mail. Liz and I now have to figure out what to do about memorial arrangements. If this had happened a few weeks earlier, we could have flown down to the Gulf this summer to scatter the ashes, but now there's no time before school starts. So it will probably be next summer.

In the meantime, Dad's resting on the red bookcase he built, which is now in our upstairs hallway. He's surrounded by things he had with him when he was alive. Someone gave him a Santa doll one Christmas, and though he wasn't big on holidays, he always kept gifts like that (he also kept a stuffed animal I gave him, which is now on my study sofa), so the Santa stayed with him to the end. There's another Christmas gift: a green vase with some decorative branches in it and a stuffed cat wrapped around the vase. Dad's friend Kathy gave him that. The branches have now been mostly gnawed and snapped off by our own cats, so I'll have to replace them at some point.

On top of the box are the sunglasses Gary and I got for Dad when he was in the San Francisco VA last November, in that gloriously sunny room overlooking Ocean Beach. In a lot of ways, that was the high point of his five months here in the West: he was still hopeful that he could get medical help, he had a gorgeous view, he was feeling quite well (largely because he was at sea level) and Gary and I got to wander around one of the loveliest sections of one of our favorite cities. At the time, having him there seemed like a crisis, but now I'm nostalgic for that week.

At least now I don't need to wonder when he'll be coming home.


  1. I'm so sorry Susan. Mom died in May of '08 and I still have some pretty rough days. We never know how the day is going to go when we wake up, do we? You alluded in a previous post to how people have a certain time after which they expect you to be OK. That is a personal pet peeve of mine. Expressions of grief should always be met with sympathy, not direct or indirect responses of "Aren't you over that yet?" I'm sorry you did not get more sympathy today. I wish more people would express their grief, if even a little, in public so people would learn how to respond. I also think it would help us all to feel that we are not alone. It is easy to feel alone when you feel like crap and everyone around you is pretending to be on top of the world.


  2. Thanks so much, Jill! Yes: very solitary-making experience. It also made me wonder what all the people around me at the DMV -- a very crowded and busy place -- were going through. Who was it who said, "Always be kind to people, because you never know what troubles they're having?"

  3. Anonymous12:55 AM

    "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle." -Plato

    Is this sort of along the lines of what you meant?

  4. Anonymous9:40 AM

    Dear Susan,

    I am so sorry to hear of this sudden and unexpected shock in the middle of an ordinary day.

    In my experience, grief comes and goes in waves - I hope you will be able to experience some calm shallows on the other side of this most recent tidal boom and crash.


  5. What a shocking way and time to find out the cremains were ready. I hope you can get some information about the donation if that would help. It makes sense that this would bring about a huge wave of feeling--such a physical presence, cremains are--gentle thoughts and prayers to you.


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