Their underwater mountains, coarse to fine,
And water waves appear and disappear
Retrieving counted grains and leaving more
Uncounted grains in heaps in lullabies,
Where Archimedes, counting grains of sand,
Is seated in his half-filled universe,
And sorting out the grains by shape and size,
And all is well now, hush now, close your eyes,
And one... by one... by one... by one... by one...
The flakes of mica gold and granite-crumbs
Materialize, and dematerialize.
- G. Schnackenberg, "Archimedes Lullaby"
* * *
My father was an embalmer. At the time of his death I calculated that somewhere near 12,000 bodies had passed under his hands during his 40 year stint in the various tiny morgues of the various tiny funeral homes dotting the south side of Chicago that were more his home than the place where I grew up. He'd be called out in the middle of the night to work on two, three, four bodies that managed to time their deaths to stack up like so many airplanes waiting to land. And he would go in the darkness to do an ugly, dark job that no one wanted to consider, but were so glad to have done on their behalf.
And I was among those grateful for his work. It fed me, housed me, clothed me and kept him a mystery until the months before he made his lonely way to his cancerous death.
On a handful of occasions I rode with my father to help him in his work - not the embalming, but the placing of a large and ungainly body into its casket and setting that now filled box on its catafalque. Never once did I consider the life that had so recently animated the heavy, cold, stiff body that I hoisted into place. Never once did I ask a name. Never did I think of the bogey-man or ghosts. I heaved frozen clay and that is all. That is all.
I never asked those questions because my father had taught me by his example to not ask. If he'd ever asked he couldn't have done his job and without his job we could not be a family. A child both of divorce and the Depression he was determined to have have both a job and a family - regardless of costs. This was his everyday heroism. This is the heroism of all who work for their families, of all who place themselves behind their loved ones.
Though I never asked, I always wanted to know who died - where they came from, how they lived, who they were before they were frozen, unknowing clay.
It is impossible to know. There are too many of us, too many stories, too much time, and it all ends the same, and one... by one... by one... by one... by one we flake into carbon dust and another takes our place until they, too, are pulverized by time and dematerialize.
And all this is incredibly depressing. Except there is a caveat, a loophole in the contract we have with time: if you live while you can, if you accept the finite nature of your time and USE IT UP, then you will not fear the foregone conclusion. The challenge lies in unfucking your life so that you can move while you can, build while you can, love while you can. The 12,000 bodies my dad filled with embalming fluid to slow the corrosion of their flesh so that family and friends could say good-bye without the stench and mess of decay, had their moment to live. My father's work was the icing on their cake.
Each of the 12,000 was loved or not loved as was their due. Each of the 12,000 lied or never lied as was their bent, and each of 12,000 had a chance at life. How many actually lived is anyone's guess. All those lives are heaped in lullabies whose song comes and goes.
We are born once and live once. Those we love will die in their time and time always wins. Knowing this how can you not live out the fullness of your name? Simply because you will die is no excuse not to live and if you know this you are obligated under the same contract with time to help make the lives of those closest to you kinder, braver and more forgiving than they would have been without your example.
Have you done this?
* * *
Among the few papers my father left behind are hand written notes of the cases he worked on. From October of 1992, just eight weeks before his own death, sick with chemo, my father went about his work. These are just a few of the names rescued from the lullaby pile.
October 1 - 5: Sick
October 6: Feeling better. Lost five calls.
October 7: Layout Priest for Marquette - no charge?
October 8: Sandeman - female, autopsy
October 10: Sandeman - Ryan
October 11: Zefran - female
October 12: Marquette - Zemaitis, autopsy
(Nice day. Shoot.)
October 14: Trip to Henry
October 17: Indian Summer!
October 19: Satala - male
Marquette - Skelly, female
Marquette - Vilulas, autopsy
Octoner 21: KEMO
October 24: Marquette - Mickus - ship-in
(Rain. Trip North for lunch with Mark)
October 25: Sandeman - Temple, female
October 26: Zefran - Butkus, female
October 27: Zefran - Szlosek, female
Satala - Brogan, female
October 28: Marquette - Healy, male
October 29: Sandeman - Hadisohn, female
October 30: Sandeman - Pugh, female
October 31: Sandeman - Hollis, female.
* * *
On January 5, 1993, Donald Wayne Child made his way to the lullabies and the songs I sing are but the half-remembered melodies he sang in his time.