With Halloween a few weeks away, my thoughts cannot help but think of last year’s holiday, strange as it was.
The day before, October 30, I was at Swedish Hospital. It was a dark rainy day, one of those days that never looks like day. Cancer had already been found in a lymph node a few weeks earlier, now medical personnel were looking for where it came from. Multiple breast images that day resulted in two painful biopsies. We lingered in Seattle to be sure all the bleeding and swelling would subside. Sitting in the car in the rain, the ice packs in my bra thawing, I called the hospice nurse who had seen mom earlier that day. She told me mom was stable and assured me she was not likely to die soon, though maybe in the next few days. Having seen her myself the day before, I wasn’t so sure, but we were planning to see her on our way home and I could do my own assessment.
After waiting an hour in a ferry line, having just missed the one we’d hoped to be on, we were driving off the ferry when the call came. Mom had died, the person calling was surprised I hadn’t been called. She died around 8:30. It was now after 9:00.
Stunned from the events of the day and the call, on autopilot I called the number on the little orange card I always carried with me. Mom had given it to me years ago. Since her mid-70s she had been a volunteer participant in an Alzheimer’s research study through Group Health and the University of Washington. Her brain was to be autopsied upon her death, whether she had Alzheimer’s or not. As it was, she had been diagnosed about 6 years earlier.
A woman answered the phone. She said it would take the ‘driver’ (who, it turned out, was her husband) an hour, maybe more, to get to where mom was. Okay. We would be there, we would wait.
After more than an hour (it was now past 11:00) no one had come. The staff in the care home were changing shifts and gently as possible asked me what was going to happen when. Sitting in the dark stillness of mom’s room, where she lay even more still, I called again.
Finally, around 11:30, a young man walked in. In a black style-less suit, thin fabric, narrow lapels, with a white shirt and a thin black tie, he had no facial expression, in fact his face was very pale…no kidding, he was white as a ghost.
In a low, whispery monotone, he asked me to sign some papers. He expressed no words of condolence, there was nothing ‘warm’, or kind, about him, he barely spoke at all, he was all about the task at hand. With the most flat affect I’ve ever heard, he answered a few questions with short replies. I asked them mostly just to have conversation, but there wasn’t going to be any conversation with him. I made a comment based on a previous experience about a body bag, he said he does not use a body bag, he uses a shroud, and implied body bags were uncouth. Oh-kay.
We decided to leave, it was getting very late. As we went out the door of the care home parked in front was a Toyota van just like ours, only black. I had never seen a black Sienna, have never seen one since. I’ve looked. There was no sign on the vehicle, I thought there’d be some business name, though not sure what that would be: “Body Transport Services, call 567-4321” ? He had no one else with him, though he was a skinny, slight built person. We wondered, how was he going to do this? What if mom had weighted 150 pounds? (at 93, she was in fact tiny and light, having not eaten for a week).
The bigger question: was this guy of this world and was she really going to get to the UW morgue?
The next morning, Halloween morning, after only a few hours sleep, I received two calls. The first, very early, from a cheery doctor at the morgue who had performed the autopsy. He was done, where did I want Ruth sent? (at least I knew she had arrived.) He was chatty, upbeat, as polar-opposite from ‘the driver’ as two people could be. (that was a little strange too, she had not been dead 12 hours and this guy was talking to me about her brain dissection. But at least he was friendly.)
The next call was the doctor at Swedish telling me they had found two types of cancer in my breast. Happy Halloween eh?
The person at the ACT study who I knew, and who knew mom well, was out of the country when mom died. Not knowing this, I had called her cell phone that night, which she had told me to do if I needed any help or had any questions, day or night. She called me the day she returned, on my birthday, two weeks later. She told me the drivers were contracted, she did not know this guy and had never heard his name before nor a report like mine. She was a little ‘spooked’ too!
That strange night, exhausted, stressed, anticipating all that lay ahead, I called my brother as we drove home and told him the story of the driver. As we laughed about it, my brother said “he watched too many undertaker movies.” We decided he was in the right line of work. Either he got that way hanging around with dead bodies, or perhaps he had some form of autism which made communicating challenging and this was a job he could do as it did not involve much interaction with, well, living people.