Furtive surprise flitted across the funeral director’s face. Just a flash before he again donned his long-practiced mask of oily sympathy. Of course, he’d had requests for a closed casket before. I reckon those prior ones were for disfiguring deaths such as burned-beyond-all-recognition. A massive heart attack killed my father. It didn’t disfigure him.
For the second time in a week, I had driven the 300 miles of Route 66 between college in St. Louis and Joplin, Missouri. That earlier drive, spurred by news of his heart attack, was all scurry, hurry, worry. I went straight to the hospital. He was in Intensive Care, all wired up. My sister, Patty, and Dad’s oldest sister, Aunt Bess, were already there visiting too. Aunt Bess looked worse than he did. I thought she should be in the bed and the rest of us visiting her
I was surprised to find that he looked pretty good – everybody else agreed. The doctor said he should leave the ICU in a day or two to a regular room. Then, after a week or so, he would be discharged from hospital to a rehab facility. I went on back to St. Louis and my studies feeling relieved and reassured. Mom called a couple of times with status reports. On one call she said he was moved out of the ICU. And, later, she said he was due for discharge in two days. Then came her last call; he had another attack and his heart had just exploded in his chest. There was nothing to be done for it. From time to time during my later drive down 66, the road got blurry.
My father was killed by World War II. Not in it. Not during it. Because of it. He went into the army as a volunteer and teetotaler. After landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day and fighting all the way across France and into Germany, he came out an alcoholic. Sure, he finally got sober thanks to electro-shock treatments in Wichita and a 12-step program. But the damage had already been done. If his heart hadn’t given out, before long, his damaged liver would have done him in. He was just a few weeks shy of his late November birthday. That would have been number 45.
Aunt Bess and Mom told us about their visit with him on his last Saturday. Out of the ICU and rid of all the tubes and wires, he was sitting up in a chair. After a visit filled with optimism, reminiscences, and laughter, they left him with his feet propped up and watching football on TV. He smiled and waved goodbye to them. They wanted to remember that last image of him alive. We all agreed; kept his casket closed.
Aunt Bess was also my grandmother. Well, step-grandmother. When Mom and Dad got engaged, naturally the two families got acquainted with each other. I was named after my maternal grandfather; Patty and I called him ‘Gramp’. Aunt Bess met Gramp, then a long-time widower, and they were also married about a year after my parents’ wedding
Gramp and Aunt Bess were on their honeymoon driving down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. They expected to easily be back before my due date, February 29. Yes, it was a leap-year. On February 23rd, Mom went into labor and I was born. When Gramp phoned and learned of my arrival, they scrapped their honeymoon, turned around, and came back to Joplin. Aunt Bess always told me I owed her a trip to New Orleans.
She joined her brother in just a few months. It was on my birthday. I always visited or, at least, called her on my birthday. For one thing, I had to roll over my promissory note on that New Orleans trip. They were taking her out on a gurney when my St. Louis call rang in. She made them stop and give her the phone. We talked for a few minutes. Then they continued on with her to the hospital where she died that evening. I never made good on my marker.
Aunt Bess had been sick so long that we kids couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t. She had had a fairly mild stroke. It rendered her left side somewhat dysfunctional. But her main problem was chronic pain in her stomach and abdomen. I remember a flare up while Patty, Aunt Bess, and I were sitting on the floor in front of her fireplace playing Old Maid. Her pain broke through. She would never admit it, of course, but a barely audible intake of air betrayed its onset. To beat it back, she squeezed her eyelids together so tight that crinkles formed in their corners. She told us they were her rosebuds.
She looked so calm and at peace in the funeral parlor. Better than when she was alive. Nobody wanted her casket closed. Death had brushed her rosebuds away.
Dean Z. Douthat is a retired engineer residing at a senior living facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan.