Monday, June 04, 2007

Coach, aka Hearse

Some girlfriends were over the other night and I told this story and well i think it's probably better if you know what i look like. Not what my face looks like, that doesn't matter, but my size. I'm 5'4 1/2 " (yes the 1/2" is important to me) and I'm thin (ish), not as thin as I was, but who is? My husband thinks I'm short. I don't. I'd like to be 5'7" but that's probably not happening. I seem taller than a lot of women, okay mostly old women, but I don't think of myself as short or as small. Until, that is, I had to drive the coach. All of a sudden I felt like a very small woman.

We may have over booked ourselves. Well, this one was actually my fault, I didn't write a 10:00 service in our calendar, and then New FD scheduled a graveside at 10:30. Guess as it turns out, he can't be in two places at the same time. We called the other funeral home and they had no one available to help us out. They did have a coach available for us to use, just no driver. New FD looked at me. I looked at him. He smiled. I panicked. I said okay. As the day got closer, I got more nervous. The burial was at a national cemetery, so I didn't have to do anything but show up, they take care of the details. I was pretty worried though for several reasons. Getting lost, being late, getting in a wreck, all kinds of things could go wrong. I was very nervous.

Got up early. Dressed in the suit I now feel most comfortable in. It's a little heavy and it was a pretty hot day, but I feel the most confident in that suit, so i wore it. My prayer for the day was fairly simple; I didn't want to do anything wrong which would put attention on me instead of on the family and their grief. I wanted to fade into the background, which is the job of a funeral director, fading. It's why they wear black clothes, not because of their own mourning, but because it enables fading. Got to the office. Got my paperwork in order. Put the flag on the casket, New FD and I loaded it in the coach. And then it was time for me to go.

I got into the driver's seat and immediately felt like a small child in her papa's big chair. Black leather enveloped me, pure luxury with a great sound system. Buttons buttons everywhere. I looked around and adjusted the side mirrors. Hmm, there's glass in between me and the casket, just like a limo. I finally allowed myself to look out the rear view mirror. It took my breath away. The reflection was of a long dark rectangle. The back window is framed by curtains, which reduced my vision and elongated the overall image. What took my breath though was the contrast of the dark walls and ceiling against the flag draped casket. I've never seen red, white, and blue look so vivid. It was incredibly sobering. As if I weren't already aware of the importance of the task at hand, I was now without doubt that my cargo was indeed precious. This was no load of potatoes headed to market. A weight settled comfortably on my shoulders. I would deliver this man to his final resting place, where his family waited to say their goodbyes. I would send him on his last journey with my respect and humility. I started the engine and drove to the end of the lot. Looked for oncoming traffic, saw none, pulled out, right into the path of a grandma who switched into my lane at the last second. There was no way I could have guessed it, she didn't use a blinker, she just came over. I saw her in the rear view mirror. She raised her arms in the "what the f_?" pose, I closed my eyes and braced for impact. It never came. Thank God. I don't know how close she really was. I never figured out distance. I could see nothing in the lane to my right. Nothing. Nothing. When I needed to get over, I checked the mirror as though it would really make a difference, then I put on the blinker, counted to five (or six, or seven) and went over. It was terrifying. I tried to calm myself. My heart raced. On the freeway, across the river, off the freeway. Then traffic stopped. What? Oh, road construction, great. I crept along, they closed the right lane, that was okay, cuz I could see to get over to the left. My problem came when the right lane remained closed in front of my turnoff. It was completely blocked, I tried not to feel nervous, I was still early. Up ahead I saw a detour sign, it said nothing about the cemetery, just detour, but I took it anyway. I went through a curvy, hilly area, up and around, corners so sharp I thought I'd be too long for them. I breathed in and out and wouldn't allow nerves to overcome me, although they threatened, boy did they threaten. The detour cost me fifteen minutes, but I still got to the cemetery five minutes early, not much a time cushion, but still okay. I set the emergency brake and went into the office to let them know we'd arrived. I've talked to most of the folks up there but hadn't met any of them in person, they seemed nice enough, told me what to do, I just had to follow the cemetery guy's van, then the family who were already waiting in their cars in line would fall into place behind me. I went back out, hoped in the coach, started the engine and could not for the life of me find the e-brake release. There wasn't one. Anywhere. I finally panicked. Sort of. Not really out loud or in any visible way, but inside, I panicked. How could I get here and then not be able to make the darn car move. The cemetery guy came over to help. He couldn't. I called the funeral home, it did no good, since I'd turned the phones over to the answering service before I'd left. I called the other funeral home. Only two directors were in the office, neither knew how to release it. A little voice kept saying in my head, just get in and drive. I was yelling to the voice that that made no sense, I wouldn't be able to. I stuck my head under the dash and finally saw a tiny yellow lever, yanked it and the brake released. The cemetery guy couldn't believe it, neither did I. I got in, he got in his car, off we went. Sure enough, the family tucked in right behind me, just like he said they would. They had no idea that there was any driver malfunction. We drove through the cemetery and up to a shelter (like a gazebo) where the honor guard waited. I pulled forward and waited for the guy to close his fist. I was told he'd close it when I was supposed to stop. He never closed it. I stopped. He tapped the passenger window and told me to move up two feet, guess he never closed his fist because I'd not driven far enough ahead. I went to the back and opened the door. With my back to the family I asked him what to do. "Nothing, we'll do it, just stand there and look pretty." Hey, he wouldn't say that to a guy! What could I do though but stand there and look pretty. It's amazing to view the happenings from the "inside". I obviously had no attachment to the deceased, but the only other time I'd been to this cemetery was last year when Steve and I attended the funeral of his friend. So my feelings probably got a little mixed up with that. I get choked up everytime I hear the 21 gun salute and Taps, but the folding of the flag and presentation to the wife is the real tear jerker. It's such a beautiful tribute.

This post has turned into its own novel. And I could go on and on. During my drive back, I was a little less nervous. Incredibly relieved that everything was flawless from the family's point of view. Incredibly relieved. I was actually able to look around a little as I drove, not just tunnel vision straight in front of me, white knuckles gripping the wheel. I did notice that people gave the coach the right of way, that was weird. And I also noticed that no one looked at it as they passed. It was as if they stared straight ahead and didn't acknowledge a vehicle of death, they'd be better able to elude death themselves for one more day. No one looked at me. Okay, except for one guy. I didn't tell my girlfriends about him, but the look on his face was awesome. It's the same look they had when trying to picture me driving a hearse. I'm too small and the car's too big and I did look like a child in their papa's recliner. He glanced over. Then he gawked. His head swiveled, his jaw flew open. He was staring at me with a wide open mouth. I smiled, then laughed, then laughed a little manically. He stared more, actually slowed down to pace me for about 20 seconds. I could only laugh more, which added to his surprise for some reason, maybe I was supposed to frown. I realized that I am not the dork from Six Feet Under who creeps you out and who'd you expect to be driving a coach. I tossed my curly brown hair over my shoulder, looked ahead, and drove confidently back to the funeral home.


Sayre said...

Terrific story! I'm short too, but people don't realize it. You and I are the same height. I think that because I walk tall and have a tendency to stride everywhere, no one notices that I'm short. Except my husband, who is over 6'. And he likes it!

Sheri said...

I loved this entry. Poignant and touching but humerous too. I love getting a glimpse into your job. It's fascinating.

Catch said...

Great story Noel!!! I would have been just as nervous as you, but it sounds like you did a great job!! WHenever I see one of those hearses Im always trying to find a button b/c a long time ago one of my gfs Mothers said " always grab a button when you see a hearse for good luck"...imagine how upset I get when I have shorts and a t shirt on with no buttons! I love your stories and look forward to them!!!!

Carmen said...

Good story! It's kind of neat looking into a world that most people don't think about until you need it! Which is why I was obsessed with Six Feet & that show on A&E. Very interesting to see how "normal" everyone is! (are any of us really normal?!)

Calamity Jane said...

Great story and beautifully told. I get choked up whenever I hear Taps played too.