February 17, 2020
Caller’s Relationship: Brother
Deceased: Timothy Roberts
Message: Brother is at Medical Examiners’ office. Caller has questions.
Approximately 15 minutes ago, I was struggling to carry all of my bags through the parking lot toward my driveway. Work bag, lunch bag, purse, random shopping bag full of empty cups and meal prep containers that I have been meaning to bring home from my office for the past few weeks. I forgot to put my coat on, which makes my steps more urgent - I’m still in denial that the nice weather is a thing of the past and it’s Winter in New England, dreary and raw cold. The sun has already gone down, a reminder that I’ve been cooped up in a basement office and barely saw the sun for most of the day. The older I get, the more difficult it is to tolerate this cold, grey season, physically and mentally.
I passed Pat in the driveway as he left for work in a hurry. He walked by me as I tried to give him a kiss goodbye, clearly annoyed that I was running late, as if I can control the unpredictability of my work day. I remind myself not to let this small gesture of insensitivity dissipate the last little bit of positivity I have to bring home with me now. Without him here to help, I’m on my own tonight with all three of the kids.
Five minutes later, I’m breezing through the house, picking up the random clothing items that were strewn around the kitchen and living room when the kids got home from school today. I glance at the clock and it’s 5:47 P.M. - past the time I usually like to have dinner on the table. When I realize this, I feel it fuel my usual level of anxiety and the pressure of it is palpable as it rises in my gut.
Catherine is asking me questions about her homework, “What is nine times six?” She hands me a permission slip for a field trip that’s happening next week. Another email I evidently lost in the abyss of my gmail inbox. I’m struggling some to remain patient and composed; and dinner needs to be made and dishes need to be washed, kids bathed, homework finished, reading done, lunches packed for tomorrow.. the list goes on.
It was a busy day at work, but I’m home now and I’ve just about flipped the switch from “funeral director” to “wife and mother” mode, when I hear the notification for an incoming text message. I’m on call tonight. Shit.
“Landon, where’s my phone?” I yell out through the house. I’m pretty sure my three year old daughter was walking around with it a few minutes ago and now panic sets in a bit as I rummage through my purse and move toward the living room to check the couch cushions. It’s there under the pillow and I brush off some Oreo crumbs and swipe the screen to unlock it. It’s the answering service. The first thing I notice about the text message are the words “medical examiner” and the year 1996. My senses go on high alert and my heart pumps a bit faster, anticipating the conversation in which I am about to engage.
People die every day and every day I speak with widows and widowers or the surviving children of the deceased that we care for at our funeral home. No matter how often you speak with the families of the dearly departed elderly or chronically sick, I’m not sure anyone is ever eager to handle the initial conversations that need to take place following a sudden, tragic and untimely death.
All of the things that I was doing before this text came in are now put on hold. I retreat to the bathroom with a notebook and pen, closing the door behind me after Landon promised to keep on eye on his sisters for me for the next ten minutes. His intentions are good, but those girls will be banging down the bathroom door if I’m not quick about this. My notebook is
balanced on my knee as I sit on the edge of the tub, prepared to make notes.
Calm, patient, speak slowly, less is more. Deep breath.
“Hi, John? I’m so sorry to hear about Tim..”