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June 10, 2012 / hippiechickamblings

The Boy with No Face

I don’t see dead people. I grew up with them. The fact that I often slept in the same building with them didn’t smother me with nightmares or give me the crawling heebie-jeebies. Since a good chunk of my youth was spent living on the second floor of a funeral home, all those things which would’ve bred morbid fascination in others, was normal for me.

I wasted no time being afraid at night of the dead who lay downstairs, beneath me. Once in a while, but not often, I’d wonder about them, who they’d been inside, the dreams they’d had, the good deeds they’d done. But, one, I cried over.

At the time, I was officially a teenager and knew more than anybody. After spending my childhood in blissful ignorance of what Dad’s work truly entailed, I suddenly decided his life’s vocation was gross. When I told him so, his eyebrows shot up. “You think it’s gross? In what way?” he asked, calmly.

“Oh, the whole casket-thing and viewing and flowers…it’s just morbid and gross,” I said, in my coolest, offhand tone. “Why do all that? I think I just want to be cremated and put in a shoe box.” I was going for the shock effect, but it didn’t work. He simply took another sip of after-dinner coffee, giving me a measured look over the brim of his cup.

“Well, certainly, you should be able to choose what you want, when the time comes.  But my work isn’t really about the person who’s passed.”

“Well, of course it is,” I declared with a snort. “That IS what you do, Dad.” Clearly, he was not up to par with my superior intellect.

Slowly, he lowered the coffee cup to the table and laced his fingers around it, his gaze, intense. “Let me ask you something,” he said. “Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that God forbid, your mother got cancer. That stuff is the devil itself.

It ravages the body, eats it up, until there’s nothing left. The treatments aren’t much better. Radiation and chemo burn, and pills swell the tissues. As beautiful as your mother is, would you want your last memory of her to be some pitiful, bald, wasted shell, to be burned and thrown in a box?”

Tears had clogged my throat in a wet knot, and I could barely croak my outrage. “Stop it!” I cried. “I don’t even want to think about that!”

“Neither does anyone else,” he said softly, reaching across the table to take my hand. “That’s my point. Death is ugly, and nobody wants to face it. What I do is to try and frame a memory. If I can give those left behind, one last look at a loved one that ISN’T so ugly, a last moment that brings them peace, then just maybe they can bear to say good-by. That’s what my job is about.”

I would remember that conversation shortly afterward, when Dad received a call which would ultimately involve me in a way that his work never had. A young man, only sixteen years old, had been killed in a car wreck and his grieving mother had arrived at the funeral home to make the arrangements. “He’s her only child,” Dad told us that night at the supper table, “and her husband’s dead. She came in here today without a coat or socks, as cold as it is.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 1st week, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dirt poor, doesn’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of.” I noted the strain in Dad’s face, the absence of his easy laughter, and knew there was more to this story. He’d dealt with poor people his entire career, taken care of countless children, gone too early from parents. What was different this time? What was the reason for the pain I saw in his eyes?

That night, tossing, mulling this question and finding no answers, I gave up on sleep and slumped toward the kitchen for a drink of water. Halfway there, in the hallway, I realized the light was already on, and I halted as I heard their voices, subdued, but clear. “You’ll just have to be straight with her,” Mom said. “Tell her she simply can’t have that casket open for service.”

“I can’t do that. Her mind is made up. Nothing else will do but for her to see him.” There was true anguish in Dad’s voice, and it wrenched my heart to hear it.

“But how can you? It’s going to destroy that woman to see him!” Hearing the slight tremor in Mom’s voice, I knew she was thinking how she might feel if she was in that other mother’s shoes. Deciding this conversation would be best left to them, I turned to head back to my room when Dad’s next words stopped me dead in my tracks.

“He has no face.” Like a statue, I stood frozen in place, my pulse thudding thickly in my temples. No face! What on earth is he talking about? The air seemed to thicken around me, heavy as syrup, and I realized I was holding my breath. Seconds ticked by, the silence lengthening. Finally, Mom responded.

“Just this once, can’t you say ‘no,’? Wouldn’t it be easier for everybody?”

Suddenly, like a sleepwalker only half-conscious of his actions, I was standing in the kitchen doorway. Startled, Mom jerked her head in my direction, her face glistening with the night cream she wore. “What are you doing up? Go back to bed, Honey.”

“I want to know about the boy with no face,” I said. “Please, Dad. I’m not a baby, anymore.” There was a beat of silence as they exchanged a meaningful glance. With a sigh, Dad raked at his hair with restless fingers and motioned for me to sit. “Okay,” he said, “I always thought you were older in your head than your years.” I took the seat nearest him, inhaled deeply, and let it out. “Tell me,” I said.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I’d crossed a threshold. I’d stepped into a land where fairies could never enter, and the white knight could lose. Dad’s face was etched in lines of fatigue as he studied me. “This young man,” he began, “was in a horrific car accident. There was a coal truck. It was a head-on collision. This boy’s face…”he wavered, drawing a shaky breath before continuing. “His face was utterly destroyed…crushed… no bone structure left intact. And his mother…”

“…wants to see him,” I finished. “She wants the casket opened.”

“She doesn’t know,” he said, “and I can’t tell her that her only son has no face.” A slight shiver passed through me and I fought the image rising up in my mind’s eye.  I strove to focus my thoughts on the mother and tried to imagine standing in her shoes. I couldn’t. I hadn’t known that sort of soul-grinding grief.

“Remember what you told me, Dad? About framing a memory? That’s what you’re going to have to do, isn’t it? You’re going to have to make a memory for this mom, of her son, the way he was before…before the accident.” He cast me a sharp look of surprise.

“Exactly,” he said.

Mom reached across the table for his hand, her dark eyes, serene. “Then you’ll just do what you have to do. That’s all there is to it.”

Later, in bed again, I thought about that forlorn, coatless mother. I thought about the nameless boy with no face. And I thought about my dad, determined to do the impossible. How on earth was he going to be able to give that heartbroken woman the one thing she wanted most– a last look at her son’s beloved face?  As I lay there, staring into darkness, my thoughts as scattered as wind-tossed leaves in autumn, he’d already gone to work. All alone, in a secluded room, he was laboring to build a boy’s face out of nothing.

We didn’t see or hear from him until the following evening when he trudged upstairs to our living quarters and shut himself up in the bathroom. Finally, he emerged, clean-shaven, smelling of soap, and dressed in a suit and tie. I knew the moment of truth had arrived. “Everybody’s going to show up in a couple of hours,” he told me. “I’ve asked your mother to come downstairs with me to take a look. I always trust her opinion.” I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. My heart was pounding. “I’d like your opinion, too, but only if you think you can do this and not be afraid.” Knowing I’d never seen a dead person before, he was offering me an out.

“I’m not afraid,” I said. “I want to see.” Through the two doors and down a flight of stairs, the three of us entered the chapel where the open casket gleamed in the soft light of flanking lamps. Banks of flowers surrounded it. As I approached the raised lid, I instinctively averted my eyes and began to count to ten. There was a sharp intake of breath from my mother, and I squeezed my eyes shut, overcome with a nameless dread. I felt Dad’s hands resting lightly on my shoulders.

“Why don’t you just go back upstairs?” he said softly. “You don’t have to do this.”

“But I want to,” I said, and opened my eyes.

His hair was dark, parted neatly on the side, and looked slightly damp. He was thin. Allowing my gaze to travel the length of him, I noted finely chiseled features with prominent cheekbones and a squared jaw.  His skin was dusky, with Cherokee undertones, and smooth. With a slim, rounded nose and full lips, his face still had the softness of a boy not yet a man. Black lashes shadowed his cheeks and there was a dimple in his chin.

He’s handsome, I thought, and that thought surprised me.  I’d always heard that a dead person is supposed to look like a mannequin, but this boy, dressed in a plain flannel shirt and denim jeans, appeared to be on the verge of opening his eyes and smiling at me. Like a sledgehammer, the realization that he would never be able to do that, broadsided me. That was when I cried, my hot, sliding tears, a silent tribute to the boy whose name I never knew.

Dad had been given only a snapshot of that boy, so he’d know how to style his hair.  With only a Polaroid likeness to guide him, he gave that mother her greatest desire and returned her lost child to her for just a moment. The moment was enough. The funeral was paid for in dollar installments until the mother had no more dollars to spare. That, too, was enough. To this day, I can’t comprehend how my dad managed to do what he did. I only know he was born to do it. Framing a memory requires magic.

 

5 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Wonnie / Jun 10 2012 10:10 pm

    What an amazing story and great tribute to your dad. Through your writings you also create amazing magic. You are truly blessed with your talent. Keep up the good work and continue to make you dad proud.

    • hippiechickamblings / Jun 10 2012 10:18 pm

      Well, you just brought tears to my eyes, for nothing meant more to me than to think my dad was proud of me. I was so blessed to have him in my life, if even for too short a time. I’m also blessed to know you, my dear sister of the heart. Thank you for your continuing friendship and support!

  2. annie / Jun 14 2012 8:46 pm

    O that is such an amazing story!!

    • hippiechickamblings / Jun 14 2012 8:50 pm

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you didn’t find this gross or depressing. It’s not easy for some people to understand that for me, this was normal life, and it was my life.

  3. annie / Jul 19 2012 8:29 pm

    This is the most amazing story,I believe it honors your dad greatly!

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