Burying the Dead
I’m sitting in the Irish pub after work hoisting a few pints with my fellow server Beth. You remember her. She’s the one that was still wearing Underoo’s when I graduated college. The beer and the conversation flow freely.
“When I was in the third grade I was mauled by a dog,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Wow,” I say surprised.
“Yeah, he ripped off my eyelid and damaged my eye socket. My eyeball was like exposed,” Beth continues.
I peer closely at her face. There’s no sign of trauma.
“You’d never know it happened,” I say.
Beth smiles, “I had a good plastic surgeon. It took three surgeries to repair the damage.”
Beth is a very pretty girl. She almost wasn’t. The surgeon was very talented.
“Amazing,” I murmur.
“That wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she says taking a pull on her beer.
“My best friend Alice was killed in a car accident when I was nineteen,” Beth says.
“She lived right across the street from me. We grew up together, went through school together. She was so beautiful that she could’ve been a model.”
“I lost a good friend once,” I say mostly to myself.
When I turned eighteen she showed up to my birthday party in her prom dress and sprinkled me with confetti,” she continues.
“She was my birthday fairy.”
“She sounded like a wonderful person,” I say.
“After she died her parents asked me to pick out her clothes for the funeral. They knew I knew her best – what she’d like to be wearing.”
“Wow,” I reply.
“And then I did her makeup at the funeral home.”
My heart skips a beat.
“Really?” I say in wonderment.
“Alice’s face was bruised from the accident. The mortician had to fix that part but I did the rest. She looked the way she would’ve wanted to look. I even used the sparkles she liked so much. ”
My response was honest and totally wrong.
“I don’t know. If you were my daughter I’d be so uncomfortable letting you do that.”
“I know it sounds a bit strange. But you know what? I was honored to do it. I loved her very much.” Beth says.
There’s no sadness in her face – just a kind of serenity.
All of a sudden I’m ashamed of myself. Images flood into my minds eye.
I see my father kissing his mother before her coffin closed forever….
My cousin singing “Ave Maria” in the ER as her mother died….
A couple gently stroking the hair of their dead child while I watch wordlessly from the corner of an intensive care unit a long time ago…
Sometimes our tenderness is the last gift we can give the departed. I’ve forgotten my catechism. It’s a work of mercy to bury the dead.
“You should be honored,” I say finally, “That was a tremendously kind thing to do.”
We’re quiet for a few moments.
“You know what’s strange?” Beth says.
“What?” I say.
“It sounds weird but Alice’s death changed me for the better.”
“It’s probably the truth,” I say.
“After she died I realized what a gift it was to be alive. I can’t waste time with bullshit anymore.”
I take a long look at Beth. She is very young, very courageous, and very wise.
“I’m thirty seven and I still haven’t learned that lesson.” I say.
Beth smiles gently and drinks some more of her beer. “Remind me to show you a picture of her one day,” she says.
“I’d like that.”
An hour later we say our goodbyes and I walk to my car, humbled by the fact that someone younger knows something about life than I don’t.
I fumble with my keys and open the door. Turning the ignition I remember the philosopher’s words, “Ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.”
Despite my “wise daddy shtick,” my experience and background, I don’t know a whole hell of a lot. Beth reminded of me that.
I just hope the seeds of my ignorance blossom into wisdom. Maybe someday.
I drive off into night thinking about tenderness and burying the dead.