Shopping for Caskets

hardware store

Or Three Poems and a Funeral

So it is October. The month when the veil between this life and after is its thinnest. And the clouds are their most dramatic. And the colors. And so many friends have recently lost parents. Loved ones. And so I offer this. Three poems, and accompanying blather looking at death. And shopping. It’s a long read. Find a place. 

I did not stand at my mother’s death bed. All eight of my siblings were there. I heard the stories a day later, post her demise. I learned of how they circled her. How my oldest brother Paul wondered if we should save the tissues, somehow preserve her final efforts at blowing her nose.

We all knew that she never smelled well, and she always had a runny nose. She told us that hard work made her nose run, and thus she tucked tissues into handy hidden places. In a pocket. A sleeve. A bra strap. And they were, finally, tucked into the tiny space between her second to last breath, and her last. One final sniffle.

I did not stand beside my siblings to witness that breath, and, instead, I sat in an over-sized arm chair in Flagstaff, Arizona with my two daughters, and we watched The Snow Queen. I quite loved the movie, or the distraction. Procrastinating the inevitable. Waiting for the call. One ear towards the phone. One listening to the dialogue. My cheek against a very alive, lovely child of mine.

My mother had been about to die so many times, and I had flown out to Detroit for a few of those or flew out shortly after the near misses. I waited as I had waited before. To see if this was it. When they knew it was, they would call. “This is it,” they would say. This is the real deal.

There is no rehearsal or practice for death. No certain cues. It will take your loved one when it is good and ready. Whether or not you are or you are not there.

In Your Pocket

The chirping of crickets
on a rainy evening
is reassuring

like the tangibility of death
right there, it’s in your pocket
it’s in titanium and roses

it’s tangled in tonight’s dreams
it’s like black crickets
waiting outside, all legs

each night when you take out the trash
or investigate the moon’s phase
or the sound of crying

from the neighbor’s cat in heat
again you are surrounded
by the comfort of a raincoat

a second skin, so familiar
with big pockets
with a tissue and a ticket stub

and death, it doesn’t need you
to do a thing, it’s right there
it’s in your pocket

So I went to a hardware store as it is what I do the way some people might go to a garden or a park or a mall or library when they need release or reprieve or quiet distraction.  For me, being inside a hardware store and meandering among miles of metal and wood and gadgets and gizmos, a place that is home to millions of answers, most of them logically achieved, is as effortless as a good night’s sleep.

Unlike libraries, when you have to touch the book and actually pull it off the shelf and open it to see the answers it provides within all of those pages of words, in a hardware store, you can see them right out in front of you. Hundreds, or just one. One little tool. A nut. Bolt. A bulb. Tubing. Problem solved.

When I arrived to my parents’ house, after my mother had passed, I learned that I was missed. It was rare that all nine of us siblings were together anymore, it is more rare now that we have been orphaned.  I learned that my four brothers and four sisters formed a circle around the hospital bed where there had been space enough for me if I had shown up.

Each had a report on her passing. Remembering details as if they had been to a party or celebration. My sister Katy raved about the efficiency of the corpse collectors. A serious pair, she told me, who walked in, suited and focused, quiet but kind. Dutiful. They entered the room where my mother lay dead, they wrapped her in the sheets that were below her body, and in a few practiced movements, she was gone. Effortless. “They knew we didn’t want them,” she reported. “I mean she died on those sheets.”

I would have liked to see them, I thought. Run my fingers along the creases made by her shrinking body. The wrinkles in the percale that surely drew lines upon the soft flesh of demise. The dent in the pillow from her sad infected skull. When I stepped into the room it was empty but for a metal hospital bed, naked, and casting shadows into the corner. The curtains were drawn, just a crack letting in the cloudy day. As if she was still within the room. Or as if her death was. The trash can was empty of all the tissue.

The last time I had seen my mother it was in that room. Sitting in the dark, on a regular bed, and searching for something in the dresser drawers. She looked up at me, tired, a bit confused. Not tired as in needing sleep. Or restless. Or troubled. Just forlorn. And finished. Finished with waiting and wondering and watching the life in which she could no longer engage walk right by her.  It was as if she wanted to say, I am in it, but dead in it. Get me out.

“What’cha looking for, Mom?” I had asked. And she pulled out a string of hooked paper clips. She had wanted only one but her arthritic fingers were stuck trying to get a single clip loosened from the chain. I freed one for her and put the rest back in the open drawer. Then closed it, and when I turned around she was gone.

Paper Clips

She fills each faded blue line
of her tiny notebooks
with illegible and confident lists
of all those unyielding symptoms
that parade daily
down her frame.

She gives but vague indication
of emotion, and she’ll only use
small words, good bad better worse.
She writes as if sipping
very hot tea. As if
to usurp her ills
with the shaky red ink.

Her knotted joints struggle
to safely guide scissors
along the columns
of women’s magazines or
The Michigan Catholic
The Detroit News
snipping out affirmations
and prayers
and the names
of saints
or stars
she should turn to.

She unhooks paper clips
from a ragged chain as long
as her arm and as tangled
as her memory
and fastens her mornings’ finds
to doctors’ business cards
attempting to design
and direct her cancer
her time her age her

When the stirring
of the vertigo subsides
she will rise
from that certain
and abiding
edge of her recliner
of her refusal
to go just yet
and she’ll tack
her day’s work
an ornament, a votive
on the bulletin board
beside her bed.

Hardware stores are best when they first open in the morning. When the only customers are busy contractors and the floors are still shining from the previous night’s polishing. The clerks have had their caffeine and have not yet had to deal with even one grumpy customer who is on their fourth trip to the store still searching for the solution. All the stuff is in its place, and there are no misplaced screws. I roam the aisles imagining problems to be solved. What one tool can accomplish. One belt. One clip. One shovel.

When I walked into my parents’ house after my mother had died, I first saw my father. He had diminished, and it appeared immediately to me that with his wife’s passing he literally lost part of himself. The old adage was true, after all, I thought.

I remain unsure if the look he gave me was a question: Do you recognize me? I must look so different. Or scorn, for I had been their only child not to witness her last breath. Or just relief that I had arrived home safely. He asked me to join him and my brother to go to the funeral home.

Casket shopping. The salesman was gentle. How different than someone who might peddle strawberries or shoes. Screwdrivers or cheese graters. He showed us options for the fabrics that would caress my mother’s corpse. Satin or polyester or velvet. White or pink or pastel green.  He spoke in soft tones. Like a little breath mint releasing unfortunate options with every fresh exhale.

We had too many choices for this box, this tomb that would be in the earth forever. Steel or aluminum or titanium. Wood. Ornate. Simple. Gothic. Modern. I do not remember if the sales pitch included why we would select one over the other. Was it that this material would keep the worms from getting to her flesh for longer than this one would? Surely that can’t be what was said.

Was it that this would be the softer pillow for her bones when that was all that was left of her? But surely her body would be preserved to ward off the inevitable for years. Was this pillow stain resistant? Was that one? Could we possibly care? Did he know that we were shopping there on that day in order to preserve as the relic we wanted to believe she was. This was not just another dead mother’s remains. It was our dead mother’s remains.

My dad seemed torn. If he went economy–which was his way and how he had managed the brood of nine of us, plus my mother, for decades and decades–would he appear to be cheapening her final show? But if he went elaborate, would we be, in fact, too showy? My mother was well-loved, my father her greatest fan. He chose right in the middle. Comfort, and kindness, and perfectly Pauline.

Hardware stores are gymnasiums where one can work out, where one can practice their decision making skills. For it is within these aisle that you search for something you need. Something to solve a problem. Something that requires logic and analysis. Not to satisfy a craving, fulfill an urge, feed an obsession, keep up with the Jones’.

Your options are rarely based on feeling or opinion or notion. Just the facts, ma’am. You need the ¼ inch or the ½ inch? Pick just one. The 20-pound bag covers this many square feet; the 40-pound bag this many, how many square feet are you covering?

The man who guided us through the steps of an American Catholic postmortem funeral preparation was as thorough and humane as my mother’s oncologist, with a similar goal: how do we soften the blow?  We had choices, and while none of them were based, really, in logic, at that moment, he acted as if they were, which made it seem like what we were doing was normal. Daily. Like painting a bathroom yellow. Or potting geraniums.

Which hymns? Which Bible passages? Which flowers? Which night for the rosary? How many chairs? How many hours for viewing? Open or closed casket for the funeral mass? What color hearse? What type of preservative shall we pump into this cadaver so it can last a very long time after it has been dropped into the earth?

Flying home after the funeral I watched that earth fall further and further below us. I was determined that I would be able to tell if the planet’s surface had shifted even the tiniest little bit. Did her weight,  having moved from above the dirt to inside it, make a difference? To dust we shall return.

She is probably still not dust. Pumped up with forever juice. I so wanted to tuck a cigarette in between the stiff fingers of her mannequin. That, for me, would have been more “natural,” to see her that way, ready for another puff. Less dead maybe? Instead she had a rosary, of course, wound between those fingers that had finally found what they’d been seeking.

Catholics are particular about how we appear in our final viewing. The final make up job which was supposed to make her look natural was ironic for she never wore any make up. Her hair generously coiffed, which was, in fact, appropriate. Her hair was rarely out of control, even if wound up tightly in bobby pinned curls or sponge rollers or pushed inside a night cap.

The last time I saw her she had asked me to brush her hair. I let my daughters help, and they took turns, standing behind her, seeing only the future beauty they were certain they could create.  We had to maneuver a bit around the oxygen tube that snaked down her body, across the floor, and to the canister in the hallway. She had enough tubing to  walk around the block if she wanted to, but she only went to the bathroom, the bedroom, back to the recliner in front of the window, paperclip in her fingers.

Another tube was rolled flat on her belly, then taped. That is where my dad would pour her meals. She looked to be attached to life by these tubes, but for me, it was my daughters standing behind her, pulling a brush delicately through her fragile silver hair and telling her she looked “Real nice, Grandma,” that was when I last saw her alive.

I walk down the plumbing aisle at my Ace Hardware, and I pause at the display of the rubber tubing. Large rolls of it in an array of sizes. Some of it wide enough for floodwaters. Some barely thin enough to keep someone’s mother alive with a stream of oxygen, and just long enough to say goodbye.

Death Is a Mess

We enshrouded her with white velvet, mums,
explanation, and decided against the titanium

casket, we chose brushed steel. Potato salad and hams
arrived, packaged Danish, flowers in sad friends’ hands

but death is a mess you can’t cover with food, smiles
or words, it smells. Put a lid on it, a bag, a sheet, tell

again what you witnessed with her last exhale,
how men in suits wrapped her in the stained percale;

Tell of the pastel tissue you used to wipe
her lips, her chin, her discomfort, the Kleenex piled

up like crumpled carnations in the trash, all those
layers peeling off her body until death found home,

in her throat, that rattle, and she closed your eyes,
your denial more moist than her expected demise.

I never got to say goodbye but imagined her last breath
repeated again and again by those who saw her death

those who watched the final whisper of her uneven chest
the air slowly escaping its unforgiving nest

their coffin of words couldn’t solidify death’s puddle
like formaldehyde does for the dearly beloved

but we chose the right shoes, the rosary laced
through her polished fingers, we rouged her face

then the burnished cap’s click had the final word
cousins passed holy cards and threw wormless dirt

we plant only short flowers, crocus and ivy
lawnmowers can’t reach them, keeps the grave tidy



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