Published on February 2nd, 2021 | by Liz Tichenor0
The Arrangements: An Excerpt from THE NIGHT LAKE
The paper I drew out of the glass jar on Sunday was a faded red, interrupted by big curving shapes of white and green, like a carved block print. May your son always know laughter and tears. I exhaled slowly, almost imperceptibly. Would he discover these in the great beyond? Fritz had been so young that tears did not fall when he cried, even when he screamed. He’d heard our laughter but had not yet laughed himself. What would it be like to learn these, to know tears and laughter, each in turn, in whatever life lay past this place? I had not spent my energy on theological questions, yet they were beginning to press in. Generally, I just didn’t care about any of this, these not being the theological dilemmas that most grabbed my curiosity, but they forced themselves on me anyway, in people’s questions, in their frustrating assertions, and even in this little note from the evening of blessing.
The worst phone call I would ever have to make needed to be done this day: the call to the funeral home. I didn’t know if anyone would be there on a Sunday, but I had finally mustered the courage and I needed to try. Annie, my mom’s older sister, had arrived by then, sharing with Laurie the mantle of mothering me. My aunt looks enough like my mom to short-circuit my brain sometimes, tricking me into thinking it’s Mom herself, the two moving and speaking from the same entangled strands of DNA. Alone with her in our cabin, I told her I needed to make the arrangements.
Sitting with Annie on our couch, blanketed in sun, I dialed, then jumped up to pace in tight circles, then sat again, nervous. A grandfatherly voice answered, and I launched in, my face hot, my words tumbling out in a blur. “My son died, I need him to be cremated, they gave me your name at the hospital, can you help us?”
Ralph, the seasoned director of the funeral home, had plenty of logistical questions: timing, age, cause of death. I could tell he didn’t get babies often.
Then: “I’m a grandfather,” he told me. “I know how precious these little ones are. Keep trying, make sure you have more. It’ll help to have more, have as many as you can.”
I was horrified at his presumption, but meekly replied, “All right,” having forgotten how—or having lost the will—to fight back.
We moved on to all the fancy urn options, the countless ways I could honor my son by paying this business more money—the same son he believed I should immediately seek to replace.
I refused the high-end urns. “We’ll be burying his ashes right away. We want the cheapest, simplest option.”
“We have ceramic urns, and burled wooden boxes, and brass ones that you can engrave as a keepsake. There are urns specially made for children, with teddy bears holding them.”
I reiterated my insistence on cheap, disposable. “No teddy bears!” I told him firmly.
Finally, he acquiesced, explaining the frugal option.
“A plastic box? Great.”
One battle won, I thought, moving on to prices. I was aghast to learn just how expensive cremation could be, even for such a tiny body. For perhaps the first time in my life, I haggled, digging in my heels, pushing back at the absurdity of it.
“We really don’t have that much money,” I said. “I don’t know how we’re going to do this; that’s just so very much for us.”
Ralph said he’d check with a guy, see what he could work out. He finally acknowledged that, yes, in fact the process would take much less work for a baby who’d died at forty days.
I hung up, livid that this man would have the gall to tell me to have more kids while I was asking him to burn the body of this one. I collapsed on the couch, crumpling into my aunt’s lap, sobbing. I sobbed and sobbed. I had never, ever imagined making such a phone call.
Later on, Ralph checked back, letting us know the funeral home would give us the cut rate, a sympathy price for a baby’s body and a young family just starting out. Maybe it was an empty triumph, beating the funeral home industry; still, I was satisfied to win at least this once.
read more of Tichenor’s journey through grief in The Night Lake
“A sad, tough story, but finally so life-affirming, filled with spirit and love.” – Anne Lamott
Copyright © 2021 by Liz Tichenor, from The Night Lake. Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint Press.