“Umm, there’s a hearse out front,” I said to my wife and son a few Wednesdays ago. We were in my kid’s upstairs room, and I could just see a black vinyl top that had appeared out his window. I was only puzzled for a moment, and then I ran down the stairs and yelled, “Dad!”
No, nothing bad had happened – I knew he was driving!
My father’s close friend Jeff runs a well-established funeral home near Portland, Maine, where I grew up. Dad is retired from a million-mile career in truck equipment sales but somehow can’t quite stay off the Interstates. A couple times a month, he puts on a dark tie and runs a rig like this from Portland to somewhere else in the northeast. While he’s been doing this for years, his arrival that Wednesday night was a complete surprise.
I’ve never really taken a close look at a hearse. I’ve been part of a few funerals, but that’s a less than ideal setting for car-watching. The front end of this one seems completely stock, except for the little flag holders. It’s clearly a late-model Cadillac DTS, though I have no idea how to tell the model year. Any guesses?
While I’d prefer whitewalls on my own final chariot, at least these wheels are handsome and well-polished. That’s a 55-profile tire; in 2012, not even the dead can escape having their bones rattled by too-big rims on Rust Belt streets.
Dad was headed back up to Maine with a “paying customer,” as he calls them. He had shown up at my house in Massachusetts too late for dinner, so I made him a ham sandwich. It’s kind of a family tradition. Back when he was a sales rep, he’d often arrive unannounced at his parents’ house in Connecticut on his way home from points south and west.
In stereotypical Italian-American fashion, no matter how late he arrived, my grandmother would bend his ear and bring out bread, cold cuts, homemade soup, egg cookies, pepper biscuits, what-have-you. Not hungry? Don’t feel like talking after six hours on the road, with four more to go? Sorry, that’s not on the menu!
On this trip, Dad had had a passenger on the way down to Massachusetts, as well. He was a young man who died accidentally, not long before he was to graduate from Harvard.
I was about to add a link to a news article about this sad event, but somehow, that seems ghoulish. More so than sharing the story at all? Yes, somehow. It’s natural to wonder about death, and sometimes it’s easier to wonder about strangers, in the company of strangers. (Like you and me, for example.) Still, it seems better to let lost strangers stay anonymous, rather than knowing their names only for their having died.
Dad’s visit that Wednesday was a surprise, which is maybe why it sent my mind down this odd emotional path. Routine visits with family are no big deal. Of course, they really are, but it can be hard to wipe the routine from your eyes.
Before he left, Dad asked me to help him with something. We went around the back of the car and he opened the gate. Here I must confess that my title is a bit misleading. This customer was not riding in a casket, but rather in a heavy vinyl bag on a chrome-tube gurney. There was a rubber mat that had slipped out from under it, so I was there to help lift while Dad straightened the mat. The gentleman was quite heavy.
Now, I have no particular fascination with the morbid, but it’s impossible not to look at a bag with a body inside. What struck me, more than its size or shape, was the zipper. It was so ordinary, so matter-of-fact, without polish or flag holders or a brass padlock, nothing to embellish its role or keep anyone away.
And I guess that’s as it should be. Seeing a plain zipper to pull, knowing what it’s for, I knew not to touch. It doesn’t need to pad its part, or draw attention to that cusp that nothing can keep us from, not a Cadillac or Harvard degree, not even a Wednesday night ham sandwich, with your father, mother or son.