Of Grave Concern: And then there was one – but that was enough

Stock image used for illustrative purposes only. Photo by Halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

FEATURE — I would like to introduce you to a wonderful friend from my past. Meet Matilda, a spunky and vivacious gem of 89 years. Our friendship was unexpected to say the least, and where we met and the interactions that followed were under the strangest of circumstances.

I was the owner of my own family funeral home for many years in the beautiful area of the Puget Sound. If you haven’t been there before, it should be on your bucket list! The summer breezes and beautiful waters surrounding the area are serene.

It was here in this place that I first met Matilda at an assisted living facility. You see, as the town funeral director, as occasion directed, I was often summoned to the care center to remove the body of someone who had died. Both the young and old. 

The day I met Matilda, I was pushing my gurney through the hallways, looking for a nurse to help direct me to the correct room of the deceased. I suddenly heard a sweet, soft voice. “Over here young man. She’s over here in my room.”

I looked down at a wheelchair where Matilda sat looking up at me and pointing with her thin hands to her room.

“She was my roommate you know, with me for a few years now. Dear sweet Joan, I will miss her so. It gets ever so lonely in this place.”

She gazed down at the floor and took a tissue from her sweater pocket, almost in a trance. I stood still, waiting for her to come to herself again – and she was blocking the way to her room. 

I introduced myself to her and asked if I could help her to another room while I took care of her roommate in the next bed. It was always uncomfortable for me to intrude into a room with a gurney; it clearly sent a message that someone had died.

How many times had I watched patients line the hallways and look up from their bent over postures as I slowly pushed the gurney past? It was a reminder of what lie ahead for so many of them that were confined to their circumstances. 

Matilda was stoic in her demeanor. She had seen much of death over her 89 years and chose to go back into her room and bid her dear friend farewell as I prepared to remove the body from the bed.

In her roommate’s area hung several family photos, finger paintings from little ones, greeting cards and more. I knew this person was loved and watched over, and that gave me reassurance that she had been cared for.

However, as I pulled back the curtain that divided Matilda’s room from that of her roommate’s, I was startled by the fact that there were no pictures – no letters or cards of any type – just blank, sterile painted walls surrounding her.

There were no signs of family or friends. Only a bed, a comforter and a nightstand accompanied her in this space she called home. 

As I left, I asked one of the nurses about Matilda, and she confirmed that she was very much alone in this world and never had visitors with the exception of the holidays when people would come from the area churches or organizations.

She quite enjoyed that. 

As the year’s passed, I entered that facility several times as patients “moved on,” many from Matilda’s room. Each time I stopped by to say hello to “little” Matilda. She was always cheerful and had a smile on her face, despite her circumstances.

At times, she would be resting, and I would just touch her hand and leave. On other occasions, she would be wide awake, and I would take a moment to sit at the end of her bed, and we would talk and laugh.

Upon my arrivals, she would always tease me that she wasn’t “ready to go yet,” and yet she would look at the gurney with an oddly stare. I knew what she was pondering, and she knew that I understood. She would look up at me with her blue eyes and gentle smile. 

Over the years we became fast friends. I always felt bad that I never had enough time for her. I was always working and was there to pick up a deceased person, and yet, during those small moments of time, a gentle touch or conversation seemed to make a difference for Matilda – and for me.

One morning the mortuary phone rang. It was the facility calling to tell me Matilda had peacefully passed away early that morning. I was stunned. I don’t know why – after all she was pushing 98 by then – but still there was a sudden emptiness. Loss is never easy, no matter the age. 

With a tear in my eye, I drove over with my removal van and entered her room. In the stark silence she lay in her bed, ever so still, the light gone from her eyes and the smile now a memory. I carefully brought her back to the funeral home and cared for her remains.

I pulled her pre-arrangement file, which I had looked at before over the years. She had made her wishes known years before. She wanted a simple funeral service with family and friends and then burial. The reality was, she had outlived her husband, children and friends.

And still, by law, I was to carry out her wishes. 

As the day of her service arrived, the pink casket sat alone at the front of the empty funeral chapel with a simple white carnation spray of flowers. I was sitting at the back, as funeral directors often do to watch over the proceedings, but as I sat there, it dawned on me that she was not alone. I was her friend, and I would see this through. I stood up and walked to the casket and put my hand on it for a moment while a rush of memories flooded through my mind.

 I sat on the front row, just one, but that was enough. 

Written by DAVID JOHN COOK, public relations and funeral director for Spilsbury Mortuary.

• S P O N S O R E D   C O N T E N T  •

Resources

  • Spilsbury Mortuary | Address: 110 S. Bluff St., St. George |  Telephone: 435-673-2454 | Website.
    • Hurricane location | Address: 25 N. 2000 West, Hurricane | Telephone: 435-635-2212.

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