Fall 2017

Three Years

December 16, 2017

I discovered this series of photos in January 2015. My mom died the month before, and my brother and I had just spent two days cleaning out her home. We saved going through her photos for last.

These were taken in 2000 during my mom’s visit to Wilmington to see me and my first son on his first birthday. I remember this being a stressful trip. My mom and I didn’t have a perfect relationship, especially when I was younger. I had a lot of resentments and in my naivety, I was unwilling to let them go. The only things I remember about this trip were the fight we had over dinner and the stress I felt by having my son’s routine disrupted. What my 22-year-old self couldn’t see and what my 36-year-old self could only see after losing her was that my mother loved me the best she knew how. She really loved me, and I spent a lot of wasted time in my younger years keeping her at a distance.

When I first discovered these photos 15 years after they were taken and one month after my mother’s death, I ugly cried with a heart full of regret. In four days, it will be three years since she died and I still regret that I didn’t do better. It’s probably the biggest regret of my life.

Maya Angelou said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

I know we did the best we could. My mother loved me the best she knew how, and I loved her the best I knew how. I just didn’t know better until I lost her, and maybe that’s what I regret the most. I wish I knew better sooner.

My relationships changed dramatically after she died. If there was unfinished business with someone, I spoke it aloud so we could work it out. I never let anyone leave without them knowing how much I love them. I give more hugs and speak more truths in my personal relationships. And most importantly, I don’t ever allow small things to be big things any more.

If I could see her now, there are so many things I would share with my mom. I would ask her to tell me the stories of her life so I could know her better. I would spend more time with her and work harder on the relationship we were building together as adults. I would tell her I’m sorry. And I would let her know I love her so much that life without her is just not the same.

Fall 2017

On Nurturing

November 8, 2017

There is a simplicity and beauty in life if we just stop and take a moment to let it unfold. It’s not easy to do, though. That’s why we chase it endlessly, day after day. We start our mornings in a rush (and let’s be honest here, I’m referring to myself as well), and the day gets away from us. As we finish up the dishes after the  family meal is served but before we settle into the couch for the latest This Is Us episode, we think, “Where did the day go?”

I left a career in marketing to pursue life as a mortician. While in marketing, I was home when my boys came home from school, and I had time to bake in the afternoons for the following day. I worked for myself and made enough to enjoy the afternoons off. I loved being a mom and I loved being home, but I wasn’t so keen on the work. A sacrifice, I thought, for the simple pleasures. It’s funny how one can feel so unfulfilled when denying a calling. I woke up every day thinking, “Is this all there is?” (Insert mom-guilt here. Yes, us moms are allowed to have passions outside of motherhood.)

Once I entered the funeral business, I knew it was where I needed to be. Luckily, my boys were older and understood that I wouldn’t be at home as often. After losing their Granny, they knew that showing up for other families meant sacrificing time with your own. However, as I quickly learned, the long hours and days on call can make one burn out quickly, no matter how understanding your children and partner can be. After two years in the business, I’m by no means an old-timer, yet I’ve already realized that self-care and family-care are important.

The time I spend with family now is quality time. I savor every moment, even if I’m still learning to put the phone down. I’m not perfect, but I’m present. Sometimes I sit back and think, “This is what a fulfilled life feels like.”

The self-care part, important as it is, is something I am still learning to embrace. I’ve always taken care of others before taking care of myself, and it is very easy to continue that trend in this industry. When I’m on a long stretch of days at the funeral home, sometimes my self-care goes right out the window. Yet, this is when I need it the most.

It’s the little things: a quiet bath, a trip to the nail salon (still trying to fit that one in), a nature walk, ordering groceries online so you don’t have to shop, or a home yoga session. It’s also the big things: a cleaning crew to come in and do the detail work, that new light fixture, or a mini-vacation with the family.

The latter is what I indulged in recently.

Every day, I try to see things with fresh eyes. I can see how this would sometimes make people want to break out the eye-roll emoji with the naivety of it all, but death with do that to you. When you see it on a daily basis, it’ll really do that to you. If you’re in the industry and it doesn’t do that to you, it’s time to leave.

We went to Florida to spend some time with my grandfather in Panama City, and I’ve seen the beach a million times. I’ve reluctantly headed to the beach for photo opportunities with my mom and grandmother (both of which are no longer with me), and I’ve gone seashell hunting in the white sand only to misplace the shells when I arrive home. But ever since my mom died… damn. The beach is spiritual experience.

The snowy sand, the way it feels in between your toes, the way it glistens in the sun. The vast expanse of water that dances translucently, somewhere between an emerald and a blue topaz. Standing on a mound of sand and watching your husband play with the kids in the distance, and no place is better than this because if you were a part of it, you’d never feel the sun on your face and the pull on your heart like you do in this moment.

Every day is precious. Every day is a miracle. When we have so many of them, we forget that it is so. That is a tragedy.

The root of self-care is understanding that your contribution to this world is worthwhile and knowing that you have to be your best self in order to show up every day. How can you be your best self? Well, that is up to you. We all have an inner voice that guides us. Listen to it. How can you take care of you today?

For me, I can’t always make the drive to Florida (although I’d love to see my grandfather more often. He is 84 and the wisest man I know. He is also the only grandparent I have left.)  Sometimes, it’s sitting in the tub and appreciating that I have access to water to take a hot bath, with a bath bomb no less! Sometimes, it’s sitting in traffic and being thankful for the heartbeat that sustains my life in this moment. Sometimes, it’s an indulgent shopping trip with the girls for all the things we don’t normally buy for ourselves. And sometimes, it’s the quiet whisper inside of you that knows what is good for you. It’s best to listen to it.

So here I am, back at my desk, back in the real world. No sand between my toes or salt spray in my hair. This is my real life, that delicate balance between nurturing others and nurturing myself. Today, I will take a small moment to nurture myself. You should, too.

Fall 2016

The Undertaker’s Daughter

September 27, 2016

I am the daughter of a funeral director and embalmer. I didn’t think there was anything inherently strange about this fact until Jennifer Sailor* stopped being my best friend in 8th grade and told me it was creepy to ride on stretchers in the back of my father’s van. That’s when I realized that perhaps it’s a little strange to have a father in the death industry.

My dad started out part-time at a funeral home when I was maybe 8 or 9, and I would visit with him in the evenings as he tuned into a small desktop TV in an eerily quiet office conveniently located near the visitation rooms and the crematory. In fact, if I wanted a soda, I had to venture near said crematory via the cold garage to get one from the drink machine, it’s bright lights and ghostly hum the only life in that part of the building. My heart would pound in my chest as I waited for the drink to dispense, and then I would run as fast as I could back to the office where it was warm and safe.

I remember when I saw my first decedent. I couldn’t have been much older than 10, if that, and I asked my dad if he would let me see a dead person. Back then, my imagination certainly got the best of me, and I was surprised when the sweet elderly lady in the casket looked like she was just sleeping. I didn’t dare touch her, but I also wasn’t as freaked out as I thought I might be.

It wasn’t long after that when I found myself around decedents on a fairly regular basis. My dad’s part-time job turned into a full-time venture as a removal company (and a successful one at that). For those of you that are unfamiliar with removal companies, they’re the ones that pick up decedents from their homes, hospices, and hospitals and take them to the medical examiner or the funeral home. They’re also the first ones to respond to a death outside of the police and EMS, and they set the tone for the entire funeral experience. Before long, I was riding shotgun with my dad as he transported a passenger on the stretcher in the back. I loved it. “I see you brought your helper today,” the hospital staff would say as I smiled from the front seat while they helped my dad load a decedent into our van.

I wasn’t as much in love with the act of caring for the dead as I was with the fact that I got to spend time with my dad. Some of these trips were hours long, and I was still a child with no comprehension of grief or loss. I was more morbidly curious about what happened to the body after death, although I was still very aware that our passenger was also a person, someone who was loved and cherished. My dad never let me forget that.

By the time I was 13, I was ready to see my first autopsy. I wasn’t sure what I expected exactly, but I don’t think it was a boy my age who had committed suicide with a shotgun. Every moment during that first autopsy was equally fascinating and poignant. I knew there was a heaviness that surrounded this boy, but I was too young to appreciate the gravity of it all. I wondered if his days were like mine, filled with school and hormones and happiness and boredom. What made him so different than me, that he ended up on a cold mortuary table and I watched from the other side?

Growing up, I saw and did things that most others will never see or do in their lifetime. It was an amazing childhood, and it shaped my calling as an adult. There are still people in my life that talk about the day my dad came to pick up their loved one and how he was a comforting presence when everything was falling apart. If you ask my dad, he would probably say he was just doing his job. I believe it’s a calling for him as well.

He went on to get his funeral director and embalmer’s license, and now we talk shop every time we get together. In fact, it usually takes less than 3 minutes for our discussion to turn to funeral directing, which makes holiday dinners interesting. (“What’s your go-to mix for jaundice? Can you pass the potatoes?”) My children are now experiencing the childhood I did, although they are much less hands on. Give them time. My youngest has already said that he may want to be a funeral director when he grows up.

I am proud to be where I am today, a second-generation apprentice funeral director and embalmer, a legacy created for me by my father. He gave me the foundation, and my mother gave me the purpose. Who knows what the future holds? Maybe a fourth-, fifth-, even sixth-generation funeral director? How amazing would that be?

*Of course, this name has been changed.