Death calls

Subtitled The morgue, part 2. A slice of memoir.

And so it was that the house for the dead became a house for the living. If there were any ghosts of soldiers or prisoners lingering in it for over twenty years, perhaps a three-month-old baby’s cries and the acrid odor of diapers drove them on.

Even I wouldn’t be there long. The shadow of death falls like a blanket; the living must keep moving out from under it.

My memories of the house are fragmented, all in black and white. A living room with plain white walls. A window with pale curtains likely made by my mother. The black slats of my crib. Years later my mother said there were little black footprints on the wall from where I pressed my feet through the crib slats. She didn’t have the heart to wash them off. My grandmother wanted to know why I’d been put to bed with dirty feet.

I had a white blanket with satin trim. I sucked my thumb and rubbed the satin against my nose with my forefinger; eventually the satin pulled away from the blanket. I’d rub it between my left thumb and fingers while sucking my right thumb. A soothing rustle, rustle, rustle. I called it my Silky String.

That is almost all I can remember for myself of the old house that was once an Army hospital morgue.

Pa-Pa was the reason we came to live here; he was the reason we had to go. He owned the house. When he died suddenly from a heart attack, his children took over his property. We were the stepfamily. Grannie had to leave the big house next door. My father, mother, baby sister and I had to leave this first house of my remembering. It was March. I was not yet three, when the long shadow sent us searching for a place to be.

When death calls, the living must answer.

*******

All these years later, I watch the news. Tanks, warships, airstrikes, destruction. A hundred and nine empty baby strollers placed in Lviv’s central square today, commemorating the children killed in the invasion of Ukraine.

I think of morgues.

And of the mothers. And little footprints left behind.

And people being driven from home. That is what wars do. That is what death does.

My son, in his mid-twenties, comes in as night falls. Dressed in suit and tie. I know he’s tired.

“Long day, wasn’t it?” I ask.

“It was,” he answers. “Maybe I won’t get called out tonight.”

For a minute I see him at age five, pulling out the church directory every time a member passed away. He’d grab a pen, cross out the person’s photo, and write the word Died.

Funny how these things come back to you. Memories are ghosts.

And life is circular; all things are connected.

My boy eats supper, collects Dennis the dachshund, goes upstairs to rest and, I hope, to sleep. Unless his phone should ring in the night. If it does, he’ll be back in suit and tie, leaving home to pick up someone. He’ll transport them to the house waiting to receive them, where he’ll begin the preparations for their burial or cremation. Got a death call, he’ll say, if his dad and I are still up. If not, he just goes quietly into the night, a mortuary emissary.

For when death calls, the living must answer.

Window in the living room of the house that was originally an Army hospital morgue.
I lived here from about age three months to almost three years.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

13 thoughts on “Death calls

  1. The detail here of your satin trim, rubbing it with your fingers while you sucked your thumb. There are some powerful craft moves here – jumping through time and making connections between the personal and the global. This is powerful and excellent, thanks for the share!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fran, it’s interesting that you and I both lived in a house from a few months to three years. Mine was in Port Royal, KY while Dad pastored and finished seminary in Louisville, KY. My memories of that house are also fragmented but I can draw the floor plan. Your theme here of living, dying, and death and the calling and answering are deep and rich – and weave the threads of time through the piece. I love the analogy of the blanket that we are constantly loving out from under and the one you snuggled as a child with that satin. My daughters didn’t do that, but my son did – he had to have a bottle, a wibbie ( cloth diaper he rubbed between his fingers) and a boppie ( blanket he snuggled, with horses on it) in order to go to sleep. That same kind of comfort regimen. My grandfather was in mortuary school and I gave it more than a passing thought but ended up in education. It takes someone with a heart of gold – soft enough to comfort the grieving and hard enough to see the toughest things there are to see in this world. Oh, give him a hug and tell him how much he makes a difference. He would love the book View from a Hearse by my friend Bruce Goddard. The irony is that some of the funeral directors I know are also the funniest people I know.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The memory of that blanket returned to me as I wrote – sparked by the image in my mind of death falling like a blanket. It seemed important to include. A child’s ability to self-comfort is invaluable. I feel the silken texture and the soft rustle even now. My oldest had a blanket but my youngest didn’t have attachments to soft objects like that; he had two plastic things he keeps in his desk drawer to this day: a green lid from his musical chair (he called this his “lettuce” – it has ridges) and a purple magnet of the number 8. He adored Hot Wheels, too, and carried them all around. I will have to explore all this metaphor and foreshadowing. The wonder of all our connections never ceases to amaze and delight me, Kim! My boy – he has the biggest heart of gold of anyone I know; a patient, loving, genuinely kind old soul. Self-sacrificing. And you’re right about funeral directors – they are often hysterically funny, my boy’s quick, dry wit among the best of them!

    Like

  4. Your leaving the house seemed abrupt, much as death can happen abruptly, too. Your post stirred up many thoughts for me–how my father apprenticed with a mortician as a teenager; a high school friend who worked night shift in the city morgue in college, when we went caroling and serenaded him one holiday evening with “Deck the Halls with Dead Cadavers” (we were an odd bunch); Caitlin Doughty’s books on the crematory business, and the business and cultural mores of death; and my own experience of working in the NICU and calling the mortuary one somber weekend when an infant passed. And yet life goes on–you thrived, many NICU babies thrive, even your son thrives in the service he gives to others at the time of their greatest need. Lots to ponder today, Fran!

    Like

    • I really believe that the war on Ukraine is what got the whole memory stirring again and made me want to write to all this – as the house I lived in as a baby was WWII morgue. Everything is connected. I didn’t plan to write about the footprints – I didn’t even recall that story until I was writing, and there they were. Tha magic of writing! Thank you so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fran, I just finished reading both of your posts.

    “When death calls, the living must answer.” Oh. In so many ways.

    There’s so very much here – where do I start? First of all, I love the full-circle-ness of this post, from your early experiences living in a house with so many stories to tell of the dead, to your son Dennis’s experiences both as a child and then as a grown-up, taking care of the living while they newly grieve the dead.

    And your talk of war. It’s so very easy to look at what happens on the news and shake our heads, click our tongues. Yet. That feeling of grief I experience, that keening physical pain of losing a loved one. The footprints left behind, little and big. It’s beyond overwhelming.

    Then the talk of memories as ghosts. I can’t think of a better description, with their fleeting visits – sometimes welcome, sometimes dreaded…yes.

    Thank you for these beautiful posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for such a beautiful and reflective response, Lainie. The news from Ukraine stirred a lot of stuff, bringing the house back to memory because of its ties to war and death. I really only planned to write the first post. There just seemed to be more to tell. I thought of displacement – and realized, on a lesser level, that it happened to my family. Everything is connected…thank you again for your amazing insights ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh. It’s just that way about writing, nudging us when it knows we have more to tell. So glad you shared it with us.

        Like

  6. What a beautiful piece you’ve shared today. I had to go back and read Part 1. What a gift your son is to others in a time when they are so needy! I loved the black footprints and your Silky String, such vivid images in your story. I wonder why your memories are in black and white. I’m hopeful you’ll publish your writing someday and we can all buy a copy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This means much to me, Ramona – that you enjoyed the reading and the images. I’m so proud of my boy and his extreme dedication to his work; he is a comforter by nature. Thank you and bless you, friend ❤

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s