About the recently departed

When I was little and growing up the only corpses I saw were in caskets at wakes and funerals, with formaldehyde in their veins and make-up on their faces. That’s how I saw my father. I once got a look at an old man who had collapsed sitting in a car outside church, but to me he just looked old, not obviously dead.

I didn’t see a fresh corpse until my mother died. The home called to tell me she was having trouble breathing, and I went straight there. I could see right away she was different, she was so still. I stared at her, looking for movement. No movement.

I touched her hand, her cheek, and her skin was cool to my touch. I had never touched cool human flesh before. No breath, no movement of any kind. When the attendant came in, after trying to take my mother’s pulse she told me I could stay a while if I wanted to.

I don’t know how long I sat there on the radiator before I kissed the corpse’s forehead and said goodbye. Not long, because Janice and I went to a party later.

After my sit the Sunday morning Janice died, I could hear that she was breathing deeper than she had in months, and loudly. Something had changed. She had quit ingesting anything after Joe’s birthday on Friday, and now this.

“Where are the boys?” That’s the question I heard clearly in Janice’s voice. The whole thing was so natural that I didn’t notice anything was unusual. I had heard that question and other everyday talk like it so much that I simply answered, “They’re both here.” Much later I realized that she hadn’t spoken in weeks and then only in a whisper.

I had been talking to her and listening to her breathing and holding her hand for many minutes when she drew two deep breaths and stopped. Her hand had been limp and still it was her hand, my wife’s hand in mine. I never heard her last exhalation, it was so gentle.

And Janice was gone. Everything else was the same, the bed, the light coming in the window, the little brass bell she had used to call me with, and the hand I was holding, too. The hand wasn’t Janice’s anymore, though, because Janice was gone. I was holding the hand of a corpse. Then I kissed its forehead and went to get my sons.

I helped the hospice nurse bathe it, heavy and unyielding—not Janice—and then I think I sat outside the rest of the day, the only thing I could think of to do.