We had 27 inches of snow to clear that morning, two years ago now, before we could call Tull, the funeral director, to pick up the body. Fortunately, my brother Pete had just bought a snowblower, and I heard him firing it up before I’d gotten downstairs.
We had been up late, until three or so, or whenever it was that the hospice woman left. She’d come to the house in the middle of the night, undaunted, the accumulation of snow already formidable enough to make opening the sliding door on the porch difficult. This will be some morning, I thought, until I was brought back to attention by her peppiness, which was, of course, in the wrong key. But she had a kindness that forgave her. When she was done, she handed my mother a death certificate with the official time filled in—not the actual time. I’d been there for that.
At the end, he’d made a final appeal: mouth opened like a newborn’s unfamiliar with oxygen, with that same perplexed look—Why have you brought me here? Then he relented at last. For a few moments, we sat like strangers trapped together on a stuck elevator. But there were protocols to follow, and my mother knew them, and we began to move about and talk again, and the new world opened to us.
He passed when the snowfall was heaviest, its whiteness pervading the death room. “Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling,” I was surprised to remember from Joyce, “upon all the living and the dead.” Unlike its confederates of recent years, this snowstorm seemed windless, devoid of anger, and I was grateful for that. I stepped outside and listened as the snow fell through the trees, barely audible, like the sound of a toddler tiptoeing on a hardwood floor. I went upstairs, closed my eyes, and then Pete was there and it was daylight. “Are you awake? Can you help me with the snow?”
The snow has mounted so high that it keeps collapsing onto the blower, and Pete, who suffers from enough back pain to stun a rhino, pushes the machine into the mounds again and again. We go way back with snow, to our midwestern years. After the blizzard of ’79, I shoveled our roof—one hand pushing the snow down, the other underneath me so I didn’t slide off. Now I settle for shoveling snow off the back deck, breathing hard and remembering the body upstairs, still unclaimed. When we’re clear, I call Tull and ask if he can make it out to the house over the ruined Connecticut back roads.
“I drive in anything,” he says. “I’m fearless.” The word has never sounded so hollow.
Not long after, Tull backs into the driveway, his tires crashing Pete’s fresh snowbanks. He’s all business, and it’s a volume business. I recognize his type: the man whose vocation is at odds with his resources. He’s the mortician short with grief. Pete doesn’t like him. He doesn’t like Pete. I mediate; this is no time to break character. Tull gets upstairs with his assistant—he asks us not to follow—and they bring the body down in what looks like a giant garment bag and strap it onto their gurney or whatever one calls conveyances for the dead. They wheel the body out and place it in the back of the van with professional care.
Pete glares at Tull. Then: May I follow you? Tull: Why? Pete: Just to see everything done right. Tull concedes, but he’s flustered. Welcome to the family, pal: How fearless are you, really?
I leave them on the driveway and head back inside, already feeling the hunger that strikes me whenever someone dies. My mother is on the phone with the church. Back upstairs, I see that she’s stripped the bedsheets. Standing in a vaster space, I replay his final moments, and then images from long ago come flooding in, and it’s only the sound of the vehicles outside that rouses me. Through the window I watch as Tull, with Pete in close pursuit, takes our father away.
PHOTO: MICHAEL MOHR/CORBIS