June 6, 4:20 am
The chairs in the Funeral Director’s office at the Deseret Serenity Mortuary on 7th South were as large and plush as the Funeral Director himself was small and sparse.
Keith was sitting across the big desk from the Director, in one of three ornate, heavy wooden chairs with red velvet seats. The Director himself was a mousy little man by the name of Ingalls, and he sat behind an ornate and comically large oak desk. The furnishings of the room made him look very small, but the lighting was soft, the decor classical, and from somewhere far away, Keith could hear what sounded like new age music playing. Perhaps Enya? He imagined there was a viewing or reception happening in some other part of the building as they sat there, listening to the little man’s soft and comforting voice.
Michelle sat close on Keith’s right, and Pil on his left. And it seemed they were taking turns touching him. One or the other always had a hand on his arm, or his knee. It was comforting, but also a little awkward. His two friends were trying to protect him as if he was an injured bird. He sighed and tried to listen to the man across the desk.
All these rituals of death and grief are already feeling tiresome, he thought. As he spoke, Mr. Ingalls’s small but soft eyes never wavered.
One of Richard’s friends had suggested this place, specifically because Mr. Ingalls was known to be kind and understanding toward his gay clientele. But to be honest, Keith was too weary to care what the man thought.
Fortunately, they had already settled the major decision they needed to make tonight, which was to tell Mr. Ingalls that yes, Richard would be cremated, rather than embalmed. The man said that this was always the hardest decision for the family to make after the passing of a loved one, and now he was talking softly about the process, and what urns were available for Richard’s ashes.
He had said it was a tough decision. But for Keith, it was actually the easiest one.
Unlike a lot of couples who studiously avoided such subjects as death and illness, Keith and Richard had talked about it frequently. Richard’s parents had both passed away before he and Richard had met. His father had died in a horrific accident, falling from a chairlift tower while helping build the Park City Ski Resort. That had been when Richard was just a child. His mother had lived until he was twenty-six, but then she was claimed by breast cancer.
It wasn’t the first cancer in Richard’s family. Even though he had grown up in Salt Lake City, his ancestors had mostly been miners, and the toxicity of the lead and other minerals in the mine had led to a lot of cancers, especially among the men. Richard feared that he had a genetic disposition to cancer, and Keith remembered how carefully he had checked his skin for spots and had his doctors run every test possible at his yearly checkups. If an article on the proper diet to cut cancer risk crossed his radar, he’d usually forward it to Keith. It was never really an obsession, but a deep and simmering fear of cancer definitely gave Richard a sense of his own mortality.
But whatever the motivation, Richard had been attentive that both of them had up-to-date wills, and durable power of attorney documents for health care decisions.
That, at least, was making this process easier. All the paperwork was in order. Richard had made sure that both of them had all the protection they needed for each other, in the event of an emergency.
Or an unexpected death.
Going through the details in the wills and the power of attorney forms made Keith feel like Richard was still somehow nearby, directing things, even after his death. Cremation was clearly specified in those documents, and of course Keith intended to honor Richard’s wishes.
And besides, after the damage that the bullet did… Well, an open casket viewing is out of the question.
Keith pushed that thought away. He had to stop returning to that night in his memory, if he ever hoped to get his life back.
I never thought I’d wish on you that cancer you were always afraid of, Keith thought. But it would have given us more time together. And a chance to say goodbye.
The funeral director was still talking, and he gently pushed a catalog across the desk. Michelle opened it, and Keith saw it was full of literally hundreds of urns and boxes for the ashes of the deceased. A virtual Amazon.com of death paraphernalia.
“Can we take this with us, and get back to you?” Michelle asked, clearly sensing that Keith was reaching the limits of his endurance for this meeting.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Keith said, his voice sounding weak and raspy. “Do you have a restroom?”
“Yes, certainly,” Ingalls replied, “It’s just down the hall. Take your time.” Something in the way the man spoke made Keith believe he wasn’t the first of the bereaved to have hit his limit in this office.
He maintained his composure as he stood up from the funeral director’s desk and made his way to the washroom. But once inside, he sank to the floor next to the toilet, and rested his forehead against the cool porcelain tank.
It wasn’t that he wanted to weep. Or that he even felt that he could. It still felt like the tears were all dried up now. But he just needed to be alone, at least for a few minutes. He couldn’t listen to the little man drone any more, and even the hands of his friends on his arm and knee were making him feel like he wanted to get up and run out of the funeral home.
Run, and keep running.
Instead, he just sat and stared at the wall of the bathroom, which was painted in soft, warm colors. He thought they were the colors of an early evening sky, or maybe a nice bowl of ripe citrus fruit.
Richard loved grapefruit, he remembered.
On the wall was a framed painting that he didn’t recognize, but it appeared to be an outstanding example of Mormon religious pop art. In it, a relentlessly white and blond Jesus was reaching down, silhouetted by heavenly golden light and billowing clouds. He was reaching down and taking the hand of a frail old woman in a wheelchair, who was beaming back at him with tears of relief in her eyes. The old woman looked like she had been waiting for Jesus her entire life.
Keith just stared at the painting, numbly, his head against the cool porcelain. The tank of the toilet felt as holy, and much more real, than anything else he was likely to encounter in this place.