I can find a carotid artery with my eyes shut and one hand behind my back, and when I was still in school I made good on this in front of several other students. My hands knew the motion, knew the depth and location of the cut to make, and my fingers knew what to feel for. I still can, with a gloved hand and no vision, tell whether I’ve found an artery, vein, or tendon.
But that’s only on the right side. The left carotid lies a little differently and I don’t have a surefire way to simply incise and locate. As I explained to an intern, I use the “grab and sever” method. Reach into the incision, grab a bundle of tissue, and start severing anything that is obviously not the artery. By default, you will eventually grab a bundle that will contain the left carotid. (Or, if you’re a total loser, you’ll sever the artery and try to insert the cannula into a tendon, which once happened to…this friend I have. No one you’d know.)
Some things I just don’t know how to do. Some things I’ve never tried; some things I’ve never learned. And sometimes I’m just not that good. There are embalmers better than I. Hell, there are student embalmers better than I. Most of the time, my work is amazing. Sometimes it’s simply adequate.
Over the last several years, I’ve either decided or come to believe – still not sure – that I’m just not that good of a funeral director; that my skill is strictly confined to the prep room where I don’t have to talk to living people. I am someone who believes in keeping nothing secret, so here it is: I am autistic. I know that adult autism is something of an en vogue diagnosis, often self-diagnosed after spending time on social media, so I can qualify my statement this way: I was diagnosed by an actual psychiatrist at the age of 3, at a time when autism was not very well understood, nor was it frequently screened for. I clearly stood out as “a severely emotionally and behaviorally disturbed child,” as it was written, and which many might still call me today. 😊
Back then, I was sent to a place where I could get help. Everyone there was nice. I have fond and very clear memories of being there. Every day, after swimming lessons, I would bunch my swimsuit up in a little ball rather than hang it on the rack, and laugh hysterically about it. My favorite activities were repetitive tasks like drawing and cutting out simple shapes. There was another autistic child there who was non-verbal (very common), but I had a knack for relating to those like me. Over time, when I was around, he started to speak. His mother was thrilled, and she started setting playdates for the two of us, because it was the only time she got to hear her son’s voice.
Today, my autism symptoms are a lack of interest in hobbies coupled with an extreme interest in only one thing – my work; a painful sensitivity to annoying stimuli (human voices, shouting, TV); an intense need for rules and structure and routine; and being a complete idiot in all forms of social interaction.
But I can still relate to those like me. I do fine around other autistic individuals, and others in the funeral business. (I should find some other autistic funeral people and we can go into business together…) And as a funeral director, I do very well with families who have experienced my kind of grief. When I worked for a corporate funeral home several years ago, it became the office rule that I got the “babies and suicides.” That is, anyone experiencing the loss of an infant or a loss due to suicide would come to me, since these families aren’t ones that most funeral directors want.
I haven’t lost a baby, nor have I lost anyone close to me to suicide, but I am experienced with sudden loss and with loss that no one wants to talk about because it’s just too damn sad and horrible; no way to put a positive spin on it. I also am not afraid or uncomfortable sitting and talking with a family about their baby and how she died, or what might have been going through their son’s mind in the days before he killed himself. I don’t use euphemisms. I don’t try to avoid making them cry even more; I encourage it. I encourage families to be sad and angry and to absolutely lose it. After the arrangement, they would be laughing and hugging me.
Of course, not all loss is like that. Most of the job is old people who died in nursing homes, sometimes alone and sometimes surrounded by loving families who came to me to plan peaceful and meaningful services. Most of the time, I did a fine job. Sometimes I did a wonderful job that was followed by cards and gifts from the family. And sometimes, I made a dork out of myself because I didn’t understand the pre-need contract or I didn’t know how to explain certain things or I misunderstood other things because I’m just not good at talking to people.
Today is the day he died. Or it was when I started writing; not sure when I will actually post this. The absolute worst day of my life, the phone call that felt like a thousand knives and put me on the floor, and I couldn’t even have a cigarette because I was pregnant. Seventeen years ago and I can tell you, it does not “get better.” Rather, it just…assimilates. I wouldn’t even say it gets easier; that time will heal it. I’d say that, over time, you start having some really good days in between the bad ones. And eventually, it’s mostly good days, many good days in a row before another bad one shows up to remind you just how much a death can wreck your life.
He wasn’t supposed to be there. He was supposed to help me move, but he ditched me.
And I didn’t get a viewing, the viewing that would have helped me immensely, so I dedicated the rest of my life to giving other families the viewings they need. I’ve proven many medical examiners and other embalmers wrong when they told me “absolutely not viewable.”
I’ve been just the embalmer for the last four years, because that is who I am. That is my reason for being. When I’m not working on a body, I’m reading my embalming textbook or trade journals or talking to other embalmers about interesting cases. I’m ordering new restorative materials to try, and practicing at home on a silicone face. I’ve asked not to be called to work at funerals and visitations, because I just don’t have the patience to deal with living people.
But sometimes I miss it. I miss seeing the family through every step of the funeral – picking up the body at their house and then seeing them at the funeral home a few hours later; embalming the body and setting up the viewing and service; standing at the graveside until the casket is lowered and then helping them gather up the flowers. Turns out, I actually am a good funeral director. Maybe not a good conversationalist, or a good…uh…person, but more often than not, if I end up serving a family, they will be pleased.
It doesn’t always take much. Once I arranged a cremation over the phone with someone; she lived two hours away so we took care of all the signatures by fax and then I mailed her the urn. Then, she drove the two hours to bring me a basket of homemade jam, because she said I helped her on the worst day of her life. She wrote a card, that I still have, saying she hoped my employers appreciated what they had. I barely did anything. I arranged the most common type of disposition, but it was much more than that to her.
I’m a good teacher as well. I am someone who can go for weeks at a time without saying a word, but when I have a student with me and a body to work on, the conversation just flows. I can talk embalming until several hours have flown by. The last intern I worked with found a femoral artery on her first try, going only by my verbal instructions. Of course, I also had her find veins and tendons, so she would know what they felt like.
It’s 2am and I decided now was a good time to put a cheesecake in the oven. I’ve busied myself eating some of his favorite foods; a grilled cheese sandwich and apple juice. There is one small comfort I can cling to. The day before he died, according to one of his friends during the memorial service, he was counting his blessings and said, “I’ve got the best friends anyone could have; I’ve got a girlfriend and I’ve got new socks. If I died tomorrow, I’d die happy.”