Not many kids grow up with a favorite uncle who’s an undertaker, but I did. With a big smile and a lot of jokes, Max always played with my brothers and me as kids. He drove what we called “a limousine station wagon,” and once took us for a ride, though not in the back like we wanted.
But it’s just not the kind of work one explains to a child. Embalming the dead involves touching their bodies and preparing them to be entombed. So I had no idea what he did for a living. To a large extent I’m sure that I still don’t.
Then Tibbi, my chestnut colored guinea pig, died. He had been running the edge of his cage daily for three years until one day he started wheezing and then expired during the night.
My parents wrapped him in a navy blue hand towel and placed him in a shoebox before I woke the next morning. I remember sneaking out to the garage, lifting the box lid, touching the blue towel, and then immediately withdrawing my hand, his body stiff. I didn’t know what rigor mortis was, but I knew it was wrong, and I fled.
Later, my father read from the book of Revelation, and we prayed around a little dirt patch outside. I cried repeatedly for days.
Soon afterward, I received a sympathy card in the mail. Max had written Tibbi an obituary and included it in the card. “Tibbi was a cheerful guinea pig who enjoyed eating carrots, squeaking, and reading the books on the lower shelves.” I laughed. Max knowing Tibbi comforted me.
Twenty years later, my husband and I silently drove our dying spaniel to the vet’s office. Though I had attended a handful of funerals for elderly relatives and peeked over the edge of two open caskets, touching that blue towel was still the closest I’d been to death. My husband, a surgeon, was the expert, however. He’d given bad news to families, hand-pumped people’s hearts and cracked their chests, sawn off toes and arms and legs, and debrided entire faces off of burn victims.
But when we entered the vet’s white, fluorescent examination room, he began to sob.
“I’ve seen enough things die,” he said, and walked out. After five years of handling bad situations well, his suppressed emotions bubbled to the surface, and he left me alone with our dog to die in my arms.
It was the first and only time I have been with someone at the moment of death.
And yet there is life, and particular lives. Even wild animals, scientists now know, have specific personality traits and habits. It seems possible that no creature on this earth has a mere cookie-cut design. God created not only humans with distinct traits, but also lions, wolverines, and whales. Researchers are just now discovering how little we know about the specificity of our world — a true Narnia, if you will.
When I read that little typed obituary for Tibbi, I didn’t have any of that figured out. I just knew Tibbi was special. And I still didn’t know Max was an undertaker — I thought he was a writer.
I wanted to be a writer, too.
His words called my pet by name. They knew him as a particular being, despite his lowly rodent status. And God knew these particularities as well. It made complete sense. After all, Jesus said that God even loves sparrows, and I was comforted.
Now I’m an aunt, and my little nieces just lost their dog, Flash, last week. He’d been in their family longer than they had. My brother-in-law probably cried like my husband did.
Those tears are justified.
This creation of lilies, sparrows, guinea pigs, dogs, surgery patients, and elderly people groans. Every bit of our world suffers the Fall in a truly personal way. So it’s okay to sob on this planet where the innocent suffer right alongside the rest of us — even for hardened surgeons or my brother the Marine, for my grandparents who have lost almost all of their friends, or for anyone who’s waited too long by a hospital bed.
We cannot get used to it. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
But we are given words, and though it’s difficult to understand their mystical connection to the Word, their ability to define, describe, and relieve sadness is a part of the special grace of this life.
Through the words of the Word, we are assured that even the least of us are loved. So for my nieces . . .
Flash was a loving friend and faithful companion, everything a basset hound should be. His legs were short and his girth sizable, yet he moved with unbelievable speed and agility every Sunday morning so that his petite mistress had to chase him down in high heels. Flash relished nosing the edge of the table, gobbling treats, and greeting golfers as they putted near his yard. A true family man, he permitted the tugging of his ears and posed perfectly for the Christmas photo every year. Though he could slip a collar at any time, he never chose to do so when a child walked him. Flash was a good dog, and God loved him.
I promise he did. Thanks, Uncle Max.
Jessica Eddings-Roeser is a writer and mother who currently resides in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband and two small children. While she has a background in education, she is now home for
her family and piecing together a novel. A former contributor to Image Journal’s Good Letters Blog, Jessica also has work in Rock and Sling. Jessica has an MFA from Seattle Pacific University.