When Dad died, I went to see him one last time. This is what happened.
Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them. George Eliot
Fond memories are an antidote to the hurt of loss. Malky L
‘Your brother told us nobody wanted to view him.’ I saw discomfort and a fear of the angry-bereaved in her eyes.
‘He didn’t think, he reacted.’
‘When you called, your father was already in the mortuary. He’s not presented as we’d like… you know… in a bed, that sort of thing.’
‘I understand. I’d still like to see him.’
‘I’ll have someone take you.’ Was she displeased? Stern faced, 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, and followed a sloping path past walls of strong dressed granite. Misty drizzle kissed my face and hands. Peat smoke from nearby houses scented the damp air.
‘Sorry about the puddle.’ The trainee nurse’s edginess seeped into my awareness.
‘That sort of day.’
‘The mortuary is small.’
Ancient key, ancient door
She produced an ancient brown key from a pocket. The bits were shiny with use. She rolled it from hand to hand working out how to avoid wetting her feet in the puddle in front of the door. In the end she tip-toed through the water and, perched on doorstep, opened the morgue/storeroom.
‘He’s over here.’ Beckoned forward, I leapt the flood and entered the room, feet dry. She found the light switch. ‘In the corner.’
In the left rear of the room was a refrigeration unit, a rack, three metal drawers tall. The walls were strong grey Scottish stone. The air chill. ‘We store the deceased here, your father’s in the top.’
‘Right.’ I said. Any humour about the old-man being “top-drawer” escaped me at the time.
Not too long a goodbye
This was it, the final goodbye.
On the Isle of Arran, as a boy, an old man placed a gnarled hand on my shoulder. He told me how touching the forehead of a dead person meant I’d know they were gone, and, never fear death again … Such was my mission, held in my heart for forty years.
With a click, 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 tugged his stretcher on to the trolley using both hands. Her strained grunt signalled problems. Lost in thought it took me a moment to tune in. Oh boy, here was a catastrophe in the making. She hadn’t turned the switch to lock the hydraulics in position.
Dad and his tray started to topple.
‘Unnn … uuh … uh.’ She moaned as the trolley the trolley drifted away, beyond her control. 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 the trolley.’
‘Oh … oh yes … sorry …’ She pumped the hydraulics.
My teeth gritted, as hard as bulging veins must and a (probable) puce face would allow.
I grabbed for the trolley and half-placed Dad on it. A gentle hiss informed me the platform was on the way down again. She’d forgotten the sodding switch.
The tray teetered on the frame and swung round from the edge of the door.
Dad, stiff, as a board, lay 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 jerked, imprecise with panic. ‘The switch, there on the right.’ She did. ‘Turn it to twelve o’clock.’ Click! ‘Please fix the shelf.’ She moved with new-found assurance and moved the empty stretcher into its place on the trolley.
At last I could position Dad on his chilly bier. We both sighed. She started to apologise, eyes going teary. I put my hands up and shrugged. ‘Let’s move on.’
One tear escaped and started down her cheek. She wiped it away with her arm. ‘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 after rigor 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 … forty years of advice awaiting action … I muttered farewell and sobbed for a moment. I don’t remember my words, but they felt right.
When the nurse returned I helped her pump the trolley back up to the right height. Once aligned, we pushed Dad into his chilly residence. We wheeled the trolley back to close the door. Below, I saw the name on the next place down, I knew him too.
An echo of laughter
On the drive back north I heard Dad laughing at the comedy in the morgue.
Sitting at the keyboard I smile, even as wistful sadness and remembered loss touches me. I love 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.
© Mac Logan