I avoid dressing my own dead. I made it eight years as a mortician before I broke my one, unspoken rule. Thanks, mother.
The medical examiner’s report said she died from “blunt force trauma to the head” when her body collided with the packed rock and dirt trail. At fifty, she was surprisingly spry, so the fall from her horse took me by surprise. She’d been riding horses her entire life. Honestly, I expected her to outlive me, sipping on her bitterness like hibiscus tea.
My mother was found around nine o’clock, according to the medical examiner, about three hours after being thrown from the saddle. This was consistent with my mother’s habits: every morning at six o’clock, a ride to start the day. I picked her up around noon, after hearing the reports on the police scanner (a mortician’s best friend). It took thirty minutes and a quarter tank of gas to gather my nerves. I drove in circles in the Kmart parking lot across from the county morgue. I felt it in my bones before I confirmed her identity. It was so like my mother to die as she had lived: alone, horse-side, without apology or explanation. It had to be her. Anyone else would have at least made it to the hospital to say goodbye. When I walked in to identify her body, my hands shook as I signed consent forms. I loaded her into my work car and headed home.
The morgue wasn’t far, but the Florida heat was all-consuming. My mother smelled particularly astringent, a slight tang that hovered just above the blast of my air conditioner. The county’s guys, they do a job. The subtleties of the dead, the artistry of being their caretakers, is lost on them.
As I drove, I went through my “to do”s: wash and dress mother, prepare her for viewing. I laughed, because my mother’s funeral would be a party of one. I’m used to small services, given my home’s remoteness and Myakka’s general discomfit with a 30-year-old lady mortician (“it just ain’t right,” the pimply cashier at Publix once said, eyeing me over my rotisserie chicken
like I emerged from Satan’s butthole), but this was a new level of bijou. Either way, mother didn’t give a shit. Funerals are for the living; the dead have said their piece. My mother lived alone; she preferred the solace of her farm to human interaction. My father left over a decade ago, taking nothing but the clothes on his back and his pickup truck. He never called or wrote, never came back for Christmas or sent belated birthday presents. I’ve thought about trying to find him, have even gone as far as calling a private investigator, but the knots in my stomach halt further progress. My mother was an unforgiving woman; I guess I am, too.
My baby sister moved to Seattle six years ago and never looked back. We chat, occasionally, but the moment I bring up mother, she has to go. Even now, despite the fact that mother’s been worm food for three months. When I told Tessa our mother died, and that I had her body, she replied, “I’m standing outside of yoga class, I’ll call you later.”
She didn’t. She never does. And you know what? I don’t blame her. Mother’s spiral into a cold-hearted country cunt crushed whatever childhood Tessa had left. Middle school is hard on everyone. Middle school is especially hard when your mother refuses to pick you up because she doesn’t “appreciate your tone,” and forces you to walk three miles home. Middle school is barely survivable when the entire sixth grade hears about it from Susan Berly. Nosey little brat.
One time, Tessa overslept and missed the bus. Mother was feeling benevolent that day, so she woke Tessa and rushed her into the old station wagon. Tessa realized she’d forgotten shoes and tried to get out. At that exact moment, mother threw the car into reverse and sped down the driveway. Tessa spent half the day without shoes on. That is, until the school social worker heard about it and called me at work. I was completing my apprenticeship at the time, so I went during my lunch hour, bought my sister shoes, and took her for ice cream. She didn’t eat hers. It melted down her hands and formed a sticky, rainbow puddle at her feet.
I grabbed a gurney and laid my mother out in the prep room, and for a second, she looked alive. Her hair splayed out on the table, like she was suspended in water. Like old summer days in the pool, over twenty years ago, when we would play sharks and minnows. Her face looked serene. I guessed it was the absence of a scowl. I would say she looked like she was sleeping— this is almost always my observation of the dead— but even when sleeping, mother looked angry. Like a teabag that stewed too long. She hadn’t looked placid since my freshman year, before father walked out the front door and our lives. No, she looked dead.
Growing up, I lived for unwrapping things: presents, candy bars, cellophane from leftovers. Made everything feel like a holiday. Now, I live for unwrapping bodies, peeling back artificial layers to discover who is underneath. The painted toenails of an 80-year old man. The tattoos dedicated to long-forgotten lovers.
My favorite part of dressing the dead is the undressing, getting to know the body. The most beautiful are the bodies meticulously cared for by loved ones. To keep up appearances of living, knowing the body is on the threshold of death, amazes me. French braids on a hospice patient, lipgloss in the Alzheimer’s ward. Thank you for prepping this body for me, I think, imagining the late-night nurses who took the time to decorate, to dress. I won’t let you down.
My mother’s body had no flair. Her hands and feet were calloused. Her elbows and knees were dry. Her fingernails, jagged and dirty. Death has its own makeup. Living on a farm took its toll on mother, but I suspect she would have looked like this anywhere. Tough. Like the twenty-year-old horse saddles that hung in her barn. I knew I would find no surprise tattoos or hidden body piercings, but I looked anyways as I sponged her body. Hell, I guess I wanted to believe even my mother could surprise me.
When I was fourteen, I walked in on her bathing. This was when my father lived with us, before the Great Divorce. I remember how big her body looked, and how soft. She used to complain to her friends about her small breasts and say things like, “Today I put on my bra backwards. Surprise, it fit better!” To me, she was plush. I stared at her body back then, pickling under the hot water, red and splotchy. She looked so warm.
I stared at her body on my prep table, skin cold, brittle. I had to move slowly, rhymically, to avoid tearing it. The skin of the dead can ripple like water, streaks of blue across pale canvas. There was no reason to go fast. It’s all part of the process.
After washing, the face needs to be set. I opened my mother’s mouth to clean it and pin her lips. I put the eye caps under her eyelids. This part often takes the longest; my biggest fear when dressing anyone is that the pins will pop out, or the eye caps will shift, during service. What dooms a mortician’s practice more than a sudden smile on the face of Great-Aunt Bertie or an open eye on long gone Uncle Jack? But there was no need to be cautious. I was the only one who would attend the wake, and I doubted my mother would smile in death or leave me with one final wink. She barely smiled in life. Definitely never winked.
I moved her body up a few inches to the top of the table. I held her head in my left hand while I attached the extension with my right. I laid her down, and her hair hung, limp, off the back of the table. My mother always preferred Pantene, considered it a luxury item. On her death day, all luxuries were afforded. I sprayed her ash gray hair with the water hose, opened up a bottle, and lathered her up.
My mother and I got along fine under the condition that I made zero comments about her hermit lifestyle and avoided questions about the past. As in, we got along fine as long as I kept my thoughts to myself, and all conversation focused on me, Tessa, or generalities. Most often, our afternoons played out like this: two women silently sat on the porch and watched the horses, pig, and goat leisurely explore the yard. Eventually, one of us would get up and make iced tea. The silence would stretch on until the sunset, and I would go. It was as if every year packed on more silence and less levity. I’m not surprised Tessa left. She’s younger than I am, was only eight when dad disappeared, and mother’s recalcitrance stayed unyielding. At least I had memories of The Good Old Days, gulps of air in the midst of drowning. Tessa was too young. You can’t survive on someone else’s memories.
I combed out my mother’s wet hair gently, like a doll’s, to avoid tearing her scalp. The body dehydrates, and the skin starts to shrivel, losing its elasticity, its buoyancy. I decided not to embalm her. My mother believed in living close to the earth, and I wanted to make this transition as easy as possible. Filling her with formaldehyde would have created a barrier to the type of existence she always craved. Natural, dirt-filled. She’d get a tickle out of being farm food. Plus formaldehyde smells like shit.
Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice. Maybe I should have fed mother to her horses— or dressed her up for one last ride, then buried them, horse and rider, together. Even now, I question whether the horses miss her. What is three months of absence to fifteen years of companionship? What about the one that abandoned her on the trail— did she immediately gallop home to tell the other animals? Are they in mourning? Or was this a set up, a conspiracy against her. What if I popped in to her farm right now— would I catch the horses ransacking my mother’s empty house, the long forgotten “For Sale” sign kicked down, the goat and pig acting as lookouts? “Have you seen the horses?” I would ask, bartering answers for food. “Which one drove the getaway car?”
What caused a horse to abandon her rider, anyway? Maybe mother told her to go. Maybe mother’s ghost rode her home, pale horse, pale ride. “Death rides a horse, right? I can never remember.
Mother taught me to braid in first grade. It quickly became one of my most useful talents around the morgue. For some, death days are as good as wedding days, given the amount of time and energy put into beautifying the body. If I ever gave up my business, I could probably hack it as a beautician. Wouldn’t enjoy it, though. The living talk too much.
I braided my mother’s shoulder-length hair around her head, like a crown. Her face and neck were stiff, like braiding the hair on a mannequin. She looked regal. Younger. If I had snapped a picture, one could easily confuse mother for a middle-aged Juliet on her wedding day, forever waiting for Romeo. I didn’t pull out my phone, though. The dead deserve their privacy, too.
I haven’t seen her wedding pictures in years, but I sense she looked as she did then: soft, tranquil, light. Those pictures, and father’s things, engulfed by mother’s many bonfires. Actually, there’s no trace that my father existed at all, except for me and Tessa. We became living embodiments of her loss. Or so I think— at this point, I’ll never know.
Without embalming, the body stiffens fast. Rigor mortis peaks twelve hours into death. It comes on slow, like gangrene, and once it starts, it is hard to stop. Beginning in the face, it spreads down the neck, back, and through the limbs of the body. My mother was uncommonly stiff, comparatively speaking. Rigid, really, as if my bathing and setting her made her so uncomfortable, her only response, in death, was to scrunch up. Shut me out.
I wouldn’t have it. This is my domain, and, while I am amenable to the wishes of the dead, they do not get to dictate or demand. “I’m sorry, mother,” I said, “but you’re being a bitch.” One of the pins in her mouth popped, revealing the left side of her mouth. Bitch. I massaged her limbs, tried to break up the lactic acid that spread across her muscles. The more I touched, the harder her body became, crystallizing beneath my fingers. I pinned her left lip back to the gum, twisted the tie a little harder, and grunted, “I won’t give in so easily, mother. I am your daughter.”
Before I picked her up from the county, I stopped by my mother’s house and grabbed a burial outfit. Of the ten items in her closet, one was a dress. Dresses are easier, especially if they are flowy and loose; imagine trying to zip up a pair of skinny jeans or squeeze a turtleneck onto a corpse. Mother never wore dresses, but I knew the one I bought her for Mother’s Day, 1998, still fit. It was blue, with big, yellow flowers on it. Sleeveless, which is normally a nonstarter for natural burials, given the amount of blood that pools under the surface of the extremities, but mother didn’t own any cardigans, and no one else would see her, anyway. At this point, sleeves or no sleeves, getting her into clothes was a challenge.
I took a pair of scissors and cut open the back of the blue dress, then carefully lifted her left arm a few inches. This is the part where the dead start talking. The arm groaned, protesting this change in altitude, and threatened to break if I moved it any further. In the second I had her arm off the table, I slipped the left arm opening over her hand, elbow, and up to the shoulder. I slowly placed the arm back to rest, then repeated on the right side. Her body moaned the words her pinned mouth could not say (most likely, “get the hell away from me”). Her front was encased in the dress, but the back was still open. I grabbed four safety pins, planted my feet, and placed my left hand under her right shoulder, my right hand on her right hip. I pushed, groaned, heaved, moaned. She rolled, slightly, and I pulled the dress into the exposed space beneath her back, pinned it quickly. Not the most graceful, but then again, I know my audience. I placed her back down with a muffled thud. We hadn’t been that close in years. I smiled. Thank God my mother was a small woman.
I left my mother on the table while I slipped out to tie up loose ends. Called the newspaper and placed the obit, ordered flowers for a noon delivery. Last thing I had to do was run by the farm and take out mother’s personal items. You never know who will show up looking for what after someone has died.
By the time I got to the farm, the sun was starting to set. I grabbed my mother’s reading glasses, her appointment book (empty), her favorite iced tea glass. I pushed her dresser from the wall, peered behind it, found nothing. Stomach to the ground, I scoured the floor beneath her full-sized bed, hoping, despite the gnawing emptiness in my stomach, that I would find a note, or a card, maybe a scrap of paper with my name on it. Something. Anything.
Nothing. I sighed as a heaviness took three turns on my chest and settled in, like a barn cat. Everything else would be donated. I grabbed her check book and money clip from the dining room table, turned the lock on the front door, and walked out to the barn. The goat and pig were chomping away, careless and unaware. There were three horses in the stable, waiting patiently to be fed. She always took such good care of her horses. She loved them like children.
I shoveled hay, topped off water, and tromped around, looking for signs of the fourth horse, Miranda. Had she not made it home this morning? I rushed to the closest field, cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted. “Miranda!” My chest heaved. “Miranda, girl! Come here!” In a distant field, a horse streaked across the horizon, away from me. The horses inside the barn whinnied, irritated. A sob escaped my lips. I wiped my face and shut the barn door. The sun had set, and all was dark. I’d look for her tomorrow. There would be time. I smiled weakly. I drove home to my mother.