At the tender age of five, I’d already absorbed a lifetime of fire and brimstone, guilt and hell fires crammed down my throat by a staunchly religious, fanatical Aunt, so I spent a fair amount of time pondering the omnipresent death. Her proselytizing Satan's revenge made me afraid to go to sleep and prompted a tentative look under the bed each night. Once I’d scurried under the covers I’d pull them over my head and wait for the inevitable doom to descend. Although the words, “scared shitless” best described my state of mind in the cavernous darkness of my room, through the fear budded a curiosity about death and what it meant to die.
By the luck of good health and maybe divine providence; longevity of grandparents and absenteeism of fatal accidents, the limbs of our immediate family tree were still intact. I heard the odd little story about death from classmates, television and radio, but that left big gaping holes in five year old rational thinking. I wouldn't say I was a morbid little kid, I just had an appetite for answers to questions, a characteristic that must have driven my poor parents to wonder what was going on in my little blond head.
So not having any direct experience with death and dying, I was left to flounder on my own devices, constantly seeking answers to the questions that riddled my brain. But, of course, that sort of conversation wasn’t for the dinner table and I found very quickly that death was taboo and was told to practice more of the seen and not so much of the heard. Of course that only raised the bar on my curiosity and I was even more determined to seek the truth. Surprisingly, in 1963, the assassination of President Kennedy was the catalyst that cemented a lifelong interest in death and dead bodies.
I clearly remember the day when the news broke that the John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Being Canadian and very young I had little concept of presidents or the United States, but I soon became aware that his death was a sensation that brought the world to its knees, causing tears to fall in all languages around the globe.
Radio and television covered the assassination as if all other news ceased to exist. Inundated with media coverage, we ate the news at supper straight through to dessert and picked right back up where we had left off during breakfast the following morning. Sadness, disbelief and death hung in the air and we breathed it in like bad oxygen.
When the day of the funeral arrived our television tubes burned brightly. Like most North Americans, my mother was glued to the procession, watching history roll by on the horse driven caisson that carried the casket of the most powerful leader in the free world. It was during this telecast that the mold was poured and my idle curiosity was formed into an obsession with death. I remember succinctly the very second the fixation began. Just as John F. Kennedy’s, flag draped casket made its first appearance on the screen; my mother quickly hustled me from the living room and very sternly told me to stay in the kitchen. Sitting alone at the table, I listened to a dirge being played on the bagpipes, the ongoing commentary of the announcer, the silent tribute, the never ending clip clop of horse hooves, the Air Force fly-by, the twenty-one gun salute and a bugle’s tribute of The Last Post. I envisioned all manner of horrible things that my mother might try to protect me from and my imagination breached its limitations many times. Suffering the worse for not knowing, my first real taste of death had been made secret and forbidden, and like Eve and that apple, I just couldn’t let it be.
After a night of disturbing dreams, my mother blamed it on hearing the funeral procession, feeling justified for banishing me from the room. Little did she know that it was her protective actions that prompted that restless night. I found out years later the scenes on television were nothing more than a sad procession of mourning faces and a sealed wooden casket covered discreetly with the United States union jack. But, back then, sitting isolated in the kitchen, my ears turned into eyes that created visions of gaping wounds and blood-soaked skin. Worms crawling from holes where eyes had been. Boogie men, vampires and black cats. Things that go bump in the night and ghouls that sneak into the rooms of sleeping babies to steal their breath. And I mustn’t forget to throw my aunties contribution on the pile; of hell fires and flesh being ripped from bodies, the gnashing of teeth and the blood of the lamb soaking the ground. A frightening compilation of every ounce of darkness I’d ever heard was the culprit that terrorized my dreams, not the reality of the day. Like a switch going on, after that moment of isolation in the kitchen, death became a preoccupation, one I greatly feared, but at the same time, longed to know.
My next encounter with death came a year later and was a little closer to home. I befriended a girl that recently moved into our neighbourhood and though we shared the same birth year, Bridgett was old beyond her years. Toughened around the edges by street wisdom, she was the big city kid plopped into a rural environment with little else to do but hang out with wet behind the ears country bumpkins. Tolerance best described her attitude towards me, but at times, we managed to find a mutual level of enjoyment when there wasn’t an audience to promote her bullying, know-it-all behavior.
Bridgett’s sickly grandfather had moved with them. It was the first time I heard the word cancer, obviously something hideous that was “eating away at his insides”, words of my fathers that provoked a lot of mulling over in the darkness of my room with covers pulled over my head. Bedridden and in need of constant care, the family turned the downstairs parlor into his room and once when I visited, his door was ajar and I peeked in as I followed Bridgett up to her bedroom. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday; the cloud-like, makeshift hospital room with its white paint and willowy sheers fluttering in the light afternoon breeze. The room was spacious, void of colour and sparse of furniture with only a bed, night table and dresser. Eerily pale and austere it was as if the room itself was void of life.
My eyes were drawn to the shell of a man lying on crisp white bed linens whose hallowed face was turned toward the doorway. The ghostly pallor of his skin melded with the blankets, giving him a sinister appearance. When his dull gray eyes met mine, I turned and quickly fled up the stairs to escape the grip of his prickling stare. At the time I believed that I had witnessed fear in those eyes, but thinking back, it was probably my own terror reflecting in his dull orbs and solely responsible for the creepers dashing up and down my spine. One thing for sure, there had been nothing peaceful about his face for he wore the mask of a man intimate with great suffering.
Strangely, I didn’t fear the possibility of the reaper standing next to his bedside waiting for the old man’s number to come up on the roster. Through the trepidation emerged a curiosity and a part of me wanted to return to his room, to steal another glimpse at this part of life I knew nothing about, but, after that day, the door was always closed and I felt relieved and upset at the same time.
Shortly after that summer’s day when I saw firsthand the ravages of what disease can do to the body, my father announced that the old man had “slipped away in his sleep”, and that “it was for the best, considering”. After the funeral, that I wasn't allowed to attend, the room was dismantled and transformed into a children’s play area, but I continued to feel a chill there, a trace of uneasiness that manufactured goose flesh up and down my arms. The old man’s eyes, permanently etched on my brain, seemed to follow me everywhere and I couldn’t shake the feeling that a part of him was still lingering.
A year later Bridgett’s family moved back to the city and another family bought the house. The odd feeling of dread must have moved with the packed cartons, or maybe, it was permanently trapped under the new, brightly flowered wallpaper that completely transformed the sterile coldness of the room into a modern delight. For whatever reason, the gateway into darkness was temporarily closed and I was able to put those eerie sensations behind me.
As I grew older I kept my ear to the ground for every tidbit, every mention of death that fell from lips. I read murder mysteries and anything I could get my hands on pertaining to the subject. At age thirteen I decided to become a mortician, a job that would ensure a steady supply of death to study. I believed it took a lot of compassion to prepare the body for its eternal rest and I knew I would be able to paint life on their faces where none existed, to help ease the family’s suffering as they bid their last farewell. I believed a funeral director's job was the last step in the cycle of life, a worthy, compassionate occupation that helped mourners say goodbye to their loved ones in a serene, comfortable setting.
I haunted the local funeral home and asked questions until poor Bill Freeman dreaded the sight of me and I visited with every body that went through the home, just to have a little peek and grow more comfortable around the dead. Maybe all the terror I experienced as a child, fearing Satan plucking me from my bed and throwing me into the hell fires where my flesh would melt from my body (my auntie’s words) desensitized me to death, making the cold corpse almost a pleasant experience. Thinking back, it's amazing I turned out as well as I did considering the bill of goods I was sold at such an early age…why did my parents ever let her babysit me?
But whatever the reason, I didn’t have any fear and found it weird that kids my age thought I was creepy. They would dare one another to visit the cemetery and I thought they were idiots so our opinions of one another were balanced. My parents never knew I was visiting the mortuary or there would have been a plug pulled on my curiosity but then I probably would have found a way to continue behind their backs. To me the entire process of death and the aftermath was very normal, just a departure of sorts, like moving from a house, taking all the stuff inside that we love and leave the shell behind.
As I got older I realized there were far more facets of death than just body preparation for funerals, so I started reading about Entomology and Pathology, opening door after door on the sciences of the dead. It was fascinating. I fully believe that once the person dies, the body is just a shell and a new chapter begins. Death is the basis of all life. Without bacteria we would cease to exist. I know most feel squeamish and don't care to speak of such things and I respect that, but I have a curious mind that I will take to my own grave.
My dreams of becoming a pathologist have now been laid to rest, pardon the pun. For years, my hubby encouraged me to go to university, but I'm a bit too old to be rediscovering myself. I'm happy with rug hooking and will see that to the end but all those years of information gathering isn’t going to waste. I am working on a novel, a juicy murder so I’ll put all those interesting tidbits to good use.