The first call comes early in the morning, when we’re all still bleary-eyed and downing our first cups of coffee, but the family requests that we not come to the house until the early afternoon. They’re waiting for a sister who’s coming from Mexico, and she wants to see her mom at home first. I set an alarm on my phone for 1:30 PM so we can be on the road and at the house by 2.
It’s one of those days, one that passes so slowly that Ollie and I are already in the van by the time the alarm starts chirping at me, suit jackets on. It takes eleven minutes to cross town instead of the usual nine because we catch all the red lights possible; with him driving, the empty gurney lurches forward into the small of my back with the lightest tap on the brakes.
We back into the driveway significantly earlier than our expected arrival and twiddle our thumbs for eight more minutes before stowing our phones and deciding to head in.
I rap on the door four times, Oliver standing just behind me. There’s a bustle of movement, and the door opens to reveal a smattering of gathered family members.
“Hi there. I’m Heather Ratcliff, from the mortuary, and this is Oliver.” Several people shake my hands and introduce themselves in a flurry of names I won’t remember. One brother takes point and steps back, inviting us in.
“We’re just finishing praying the rosary with Mom, so we’re gonna be a few more minutes. If you want, you can have a seat in here instead of waiting in the car?” We’re ushered into a living room, sitting down beside an unlit fireplace and a life-size photograph of Pope Francis. Pope Benedict peers down from above a fish tank across the room, algae swaying gently as the goldfish inside swim slow circles.
There are kids in the room, all under the age of 16. Some smile and nod as we sit, tucking in our elbows and taking up the least amount of space possible. The older generations retreat to the bedroom, and “Hail Mary” filters back to us in murmured Spanish. The generational divide between traditionalism is readily apparent as the kids mutter questions about what the grown-ups are doing in the back.
“No, I have no idea what they’re saying. This is taking forever.” An androgynous young woman slouches in a wing-backed chair beside us, Doc Martens crossed at the ankle and a loose shock of faded blue hair tumbling over the shaved half of her head. “I’m starving, though.” Everyone nods his or her assent. “I would kill for some Taco Bell,” she continues, utterly sincere.
Ollie and I have never tried so desperately to not disrupt natural conversation as it delves into talks of tacos with death just a room away. Our laughter in the car, though, is long and joyful.
proprioception, 11:55 PM
the cold envelopes my foot
running shatter-rampant up my heel and
twining around my calf, bloodied bandages
if i stay still
limbs splayed in the gentle, lapping quiet
of dilaudid dulling
for a moment i feel nothing:
no stiff metal, no straightened bone
no aching freeze down past my nerve endings;