Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them. George Eliot
‘Your brother told us nobody wanted to view him.’ Discomfort, and a fear of the angry bereaved, brightened her eyes.
‘He didn’t think, he reacted.’
‘When you called, your father was already in the … mortuary.’ the Charge Nurse said. ‘He’s not presented as we’d like, you know … in a bed.’
‘I understand. I’d still like to see him.’
‘I’ll have someone take you.’ Was she displeased? Her stiff face stern, she turned on her heel. A citrus odour of polish wafted round as she left.
A puddled path
‘He’s just down here.’ We walked around the building, a Victorian Cottage Hospital, on a sloping path past walls of strong dressed granite. Misty drizzle chilled my face and hands; peat smoke from nearby houses scented the air.
‘Sorry about the puddle.’ The trainee nurse said, her edginess seeped into my awareness.
‘That sort of day’
‘The mortuary is small.’
She produced an ancient brown key from a pocket. The bits were shiny with use. She rolled it from hand to hand as she worked out how to get to the lock, across a gleaming puddle, with dry feet. In the end she tip-toed through the water and unlocked the door.
‘He’s over here.’ Beckoned forward, I jumped the pool and into the room, feet dry. She found the light switch. ‘In the corner.’
In the left-rear of the room a refrigeration unit hummed beneath a filing cabinet sort of structure, three metal drawers tall. Whitewashed walls suited the chill air. ‘We store the deceased here. Your father is in the top.’
‘Right.’ I said. Any remarks about the old-man being “top-drawer” didn’t occur to me at the time.
Not too long goodbye
This was it, the final goodbye. On the Isle of Arran, as a boy, an old man told me to place my hand on the forehead of a dead person and I’d know they were gone, and, never fear death again … Such was my mission, held in my heart for forty years.
The nurse opened the cold metal door at the topmost level. I could see the top of Dad’s head wrapped in white cloth. Next she wheeled over a large hydraulic trolley which, once lined up, she pumped to the correct height for my father’s shelf. Standing beside her I could see another corpse on the shelf below.
‘How much of him would you like to view?’
‘His head’ll be fine.’
Dance of death
She pulled his stretcher on to the trolley. Lost in thought I didn’t know anything was wrong until she gave a strained grunt. I looked at her, then the trolley. She hadn’t turned the switch to lock the hydraulics. Dad and his tray started to topple.
‘Unnn … uuh … uh.’ The trolley started to move back. I put my arm over Dad and tucked him into my armpit.
‘… got him!’
Her chalk-white face said it all. ‘I’ve only done this once before.’
Dad was getting heavy. ‘Sort out the trolley.’
‘Oh… oh yes… sorry…’ She pumped the hydraulics.
My teeth gritted as tight as bulging veins and a puce face would allow. A gentle hiss told me the platform was on the way down again; the sodding switch. The tray teetered on the frame and wobbled at the edge of the door.
Dad was half under my arm and half in the unit.
‘Pump it back up.’ Pump. Pump. Pump. She turned to me. ‘Now turn the switch.’ Her movements were jerky with panic. ‘Turn the switch, there on the right.’ She did. ‘Now turn it to twelve o’clock.’ Click! ‘Please fix the shelf.’ She moved with new-found assurance and put the stretcher in place on the trolley.
At last I could place Dad where he belonged. We both sighed. She started to apologise, eyes going teary. I put my hands up and shrugged. ‘Let’s move on.’
‘His head you say.’ She pulled at a piece of securing tape and, with gentleness and respect, unwrapped that well-known face. His teeth had been replaced, untidy and twisted, after rigour mortis set in, but I loved him all the same.
‘Please give me five minutes.’
She went out and left me to it. I put my hand on Dad’s forehead, said goodbye and sobbed for a moment. I’d more than followed the highland advice.
When the nurse returned I helped her pump the trolley up to the right height and pushed Dad into his chilly residence. We wheeled the trolley back to close the door. I read the name on the next place down, I’d known him.
An echo of laughter
On the drive back north I imagined Dad laughing at the comedy in the morgue. Another time, I said ‘Goodbye Dad’ in a different way. Sitting at the keyboard I smile even as wistful sadness and remembered loss touches me. I loved my father and in those few minutes of our final dance I lost any fear of death I might have had. The Highlanders were right.
by Mac Logan