Friday, June 26, 2015

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

* My Parents' Corpses

50th Anniversary:
 Bob and Barbara Keane

Final Resting Place :
Mt. Carmel Burying Ground

My Parents’ Corpses


 Paul Keane

I want to talk about my parents’ corpses. Both of them. It’s all that matters.  It’s what my whole life and status as first-born  had been directed toward---although they would vehemently deny any such intention on their parts:  Getting them safely ---or at least gracefully --- off the planet.

Hidden underground,   now in lovely mahogany cartons, signs of a comfort and affluence attained in a lifetime of striving, further surrounded by cement boxes ------ air raid shelters for the dead ----- and certainly, by now reeking of foul odors despite all the formaldehyde pumped in to them by Bradley and Bishop, the august undertaking parlor which handled the corpses of all of New Haven’s Yankee families,  reside the remains of my parents.

Yes. Their corpses reside  next to a golf course, twenty miles from Yale, in the Yankee outpost of Mt. Carmel, now a bedroom community for the Yale wealthy and the local industrial elites but a modest middle class community in my day.

Their  corpses had once been warm,  they had held hands,  and kissed on Star Street, a New Haven ghetto for the white poor.  Formaldehyde highways now were then coursing with blood and hormones along plaque-free tubes,  which gradually hardened and constricted over fifty years of smoking cigarettes  into trajectories of death,  tighter and tighter, waiting to do their  final work: Aitral fibrillation for my mother; pulmonary thrombosis for my father.

The pump stops.

And Bradley and Bishop collect the remains. One --- mother’s  ----- arrived by plane from 3000 miles away on the West Coast, a hearse waiting at the Hartford international airport to collect it . Her son –---  me –--- allowed the ‘privilege’ as a divine  (a graduate of Yale’s divinity school) --- the ‘privilege’ of  opening and closing the casket and accompanying the corpse to its final presentation.

The West Coast undertakers in Oregon did not know my mother,  and the scowl they rendered on her face which I saw when the coffin was opened was ugly to me. So was the hole in her neck where the respirator has been inserted.  Gauze pads surrounded the hole and I wondered why it hadn’t been sewn closed, and prettied up, which B and B would soon accomplish. An interstate law was involved in that matter  I was told.

When I was a kid I would ask my mother why there was a scar on her neck where a man’s Adam’s Apple was located and she would recount having nearly choked to death as a child until a doctor cut a hole in her throat to allow her to breath.   Now the scar had been opened again decades later for the respirator, pumping life into her lungs for 118 days, stranded on the West Coast on vacation, fully conscious but unable to speak because of it.

Seven years later, unlike my cosmeticized mother,  Bradley and Bishop had to start from scratch with my father. He choked to death in the ambulance of the way to Yale -New Haven’s emergency room when the artery to his lungs jammed with plaque and he couldn’t breathe but could briefly talk, as his face turned blue.

No Oregon undertaker had prettied him up. He died just ten miles from home. The University  chaplain, my friend and mentor, had walked over to the emergency room when I called from Vermont to tell him I couldn’t get there for the four  hours of driving; would he look in on my father so he wouldn’t be alone?

He was dead on arrival as the Chaplain arrived , himself  68, ten years younger than my father, having got up from his privileged desk at Battell Chapel and walked the four blocks to the emergency room, an act of civility and decency I can never repay.

Yes, my father’s corpse had to be dealt with from scratch by B and B unlike my mother’s already primped corpse. 

I had worked with B and B’s undertakers years before when I was a freshly minted graduate of divinity school,  performing funerals for dead people who had no money or no families, so I knew the undertakers by name, often having coffee with them at a New Haven breakfast joint near the Yale gym.

Charlie---- the chief undertaker, --- knew my mother personally since she worked in the town clerk’s office near his funeral parlor  typing birth and death certificates. He knew she was tall and aristocratic and looked like Katherine Hepburn.  He knew too that that grimace on her face above the hole in her neck, which he would plug up and disguise, that that grimace did not do her justice. 

With hands --- thumbs probably  --- whose artistry I never appreciated till her unveiling at the funeral, Charlie took that grimace (sewn shut so the mouth wouldn’t drop open during viewing) and turned the corners of her lips upward in a characteristic smile which those who knew her had often seen, a smile in the coffin which redeemed her 118 - days of suffering stranded on breathing machines thousands of miles from home --- redeemed it so much that when my father saw it, he did something I never thought he would do. 

He ---- who hated funerals and avoided them like death itself  ----- leaned over and kissed her corpse on the lips: 51 years of kissing now culminated in a coffin.  (They had “observed” that 51st anniversary in the intensive care unit  3000 miles from Connecticut )  

But here in Mt. Carmel , now seven years later , is my father’s corpse. Although I called every day, I had not visited Connecticut for ten days and the small hospital attached to the assisted living place for rich old folks, where he --- not rich --- had been given for these last five weeks the one bed the government mandated  must be reserved in that facility solely for a medicare patient, not a wealthy tenant.

I lived and taught in Vermont four hours away from his home in Connecticut , now empty and awaiting,  in vain, his return.  His ten year old German Shephard, Westy, had had a seizure the first day after my father’s hospitalization, and died.  The house was truly empty and creepy in its silence.

DOA: Dead on arrival at Yale-New Haven Hospital.  When I phoned to ask his condition, a nurse turned me over to a doctor who said, “ Is this Mr. Keane? Your father expired.  Would you like an autopsy?”

No I would not.

Bradley and Bishop collected the corpse and without my knowledge either shaved his mustache off or did not know that a nurse at the tiny  rich folks’ hospital had shaved it without my father’s permission.  Or maybe –-- depressed and indifferent --- he had  given permission to remove this lifelong companion.  I will never know.

What I did know as I looked over his corpse in the casket for the first time an hour before the calling hours, was that my brother and his wife from Seattle would arrive  from the airport at the funeral home  in half an hour and that they had not seen my father for several years: They had lived in Oregon, where my mother had been stranded and died seven years before.

I knew they would not recognize this mustache-less corpse.  I barely recognized it myself.  But I did notice something strange ---- my father’s upper lip had a slight imperfection at the seam, ruining the Palladian symmetry one takes for granted in lips.   That mustache had actually been camouflage all these years,  a secret  I would never have known except for that careless shaver.

I told Charlie,  “I know you folks can do something about this missing mustache and we need to do it now before my brother arrives. He will never recognize him.”  We lifted up my father’s head still full of beautifully coiffed white hair (his barber insisted on styling it without fee as a farewell ) and we cut a handful of hair off the back of his head which was concealed by the coffin pillow. 

Then we applied ordinary Duco Cement across the top of my father’s lip,  and with tweezers we assembled a mustache, white hair by white hair, until no one could tell the difference.  Since my father’s corpse was dressed in his navy blue pin striped suit, a stray hair or two fell onto the suit and remained there unnoticed by the undertakers.

My father hated funerals and I believe he would have enjoyed the irreverence and humor of our using his own hair to create  a fake mustache in a panic half an hour before viewing time.  I told many of the guests at the wake  the story of that  mustache just to lighten the mood, and they unashamedly returned to the coffin for a second look.  Some smiled.

My mother had been dead for seven years. She would have  been  80 if she were alive.  Her 90 year-old friend –-- my ‘godmother’ --- had taken a fancy that she was my father’s girlfriend ---because he  took her to lunch now and then --- and she too had interceded with the undertaker without my knowledge or permission. 

She ordered a bouquet of Queen Anne’s lace (her favorite) placed in my father’s hands, which like all corpses in American funerals are sewn together so they won’t move in an inadvertent twitch during the viewing.   I was tempted to remove the bouquet ---what right had she, I thought, especially without asking ---- but I remained silent in deference to  something I knew not what: Old age? The dead? 

Later, again without asking, she appeared at the reception at my father’s home, in a floor length dress, and held court standing up and greeting visitors .  My, my.

Twenty-three years after my father’s death --- thirty years after my mother’s --- I am now in my 70’s myself and I see the poetry in all this: The living working their will on the dead to satisfy their own need for art and order. And if they have a skilled undertaker, the dead can even smile back at them.


Paul D. Keane

Monday, June 1, 2015

* Gradgrind in Hartford