Six Feet Upper

I grew up around death. My father has a degree in Mortuary Science, and for many years when I was little he worked in a funeral home setting, counseling families and helping them prepare the services for their passed loved ones.

I saw the basement rooms full of flowers – tables spread with various stems, waiting to be arranged into beautiful bouquets. I saw the room with the cement floor centered around a drain, with a long narrow table in the middle. I grew up knowing that’s where a dead body rested while it was embalmed and prepared for viewing and burial.

When my grandmother passed – my dad’s mom – I remember my dad taking my small niece up to her open casket and touching her small hand to my grandma’s hand. He spoke gently to her, telling her it was okay to touch her, that this was just her body for us to say goodbye to, but Grandma was really with Jesus in heaven.

I grew up very aware of the physical attributes of death, even if weirdly so, according to my friends.

“Your dad does, WHAT?” they would say. It never occurred to me it should be strange, and their responses puzzled me. I didn’t understand why it was “creepy” that I sometimes spent Saturday mornings wandering the halls of my dad’s funeral home, poking around in dark rooms filled with caskets.

People died, and I knew my dad helped their families. I was proud of that.

Knowing the physical process of dying, though, doesn’t make the emotional response any easier. I’ve wrestled with the loss of Scout, our dog. She was declining in health, but her death still came suddenly, and somewhat unexpectedly. Bryan and I both agree she is the best dog either one of us has ever had, both in obedience and personality.

I’ve also experienced the loss of a parent – my stepdad, Gordy. And while their losses had drastically different impacts to my Universe (loss of a parent can’t compare to loss of a pet), they both left me aching for that Eden existence where there is no pain or loss.

Death reminds me that we were meant for Life, and something, somewhere, long ago, broke.

The ABC series, Boston Legal, ends every episode with Alan Shore (played by James Spader) and Denny Crane (played by William Shatner) drinking cocktails and smoking cigars on the balcony, sharing deep thoughts about whatever recent events transpired.

In last week’s episode, Shatner’s character, Denny Crane, asks, “Do you think in heaven I’ll have Mad Cow?”

(Mad Cow is his code word for the Alzheimer’s he’s been diagnosed with).

Spader pauses to take a drink, then says, “Denny, I think in heaven you will be as you were in the prime of your life.”

Denny Crane nods in contemplation. “Then I’ll be just as I am now,” he says and raises his drink to Spader.

I don’t think it’s an accident I watched this episode the night of Scout’s death, as my eyes were red and swollen from crying. Death of anyone or anything – a loved one, a dream, a way of life – leaves a gaping hole, and we long for it to be filled again. We find comfort in those things we lose, and we feel lost without them.

But like Denny Crane implied, each moment of my life is a miracle, each experience I’ve had is the best one I could ever have had. The prime of my life wasn’t yesterday, or when I was skinnier, or when Gordy was still alive – it is now.

And now is the time to enjoy it.

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