Monday, April 4, 2011

Flowers and seashells

Reposted from One Day at a Time.

A few days ago, I was setting up our chapel here at the funeral home for a visitation, carrying flowers from the delivery room in the back of our building, across the hall to arrange them on stands near the casket at the front of the chapel.

It reminded me of another afternoon of carrying flowers, early on in my time here, when I remarked to my boss that the arrangement I had in my arms, and could barely see over the top of, smelled nice. He growled back something along the lines of "They're damn funeral flowers. They never smell nice."

Maybe I haven't been in this business long enough to be jaded, because I still think they're pretty. Then again, I'm a little strange. The whole issue reminds me of doing human remains detection with my canine SAR team in Crystal Beach after Hurricane Ike.

The relatively undamaged elementary school- a big, sturdy building built on huge concrete pylons- where our base of operations had been established was less than a quarter of a mile from the beach.

We had been working the bay side of the peninsula all morning, pretty enough underneath the debris, but plagued by homicidal biting flies that make me itch even now just thinking about them and bordered by the muddy, silty, unappealing banks of the channel, and I hadn't been to the beach in over a year at that point, not since the last coast trip with the Sailing Club back in college. There was no way in hell I was going to be that close and not at least see the ocean, disaster zone or not.

It's bad policy, in a disaster zone, to just go strolling off by yourself. There could be any number of hazards, human and otherwise, and even if you're impervious to damage, like me, it creates a lot of undue stress for those responsible for keeping track of people. So, a teammate- herself a product of the coast, just a different coast- walked down to the beach with me. I've never seen the water at Bolivar look so clear and clean; it was as though the storm had washed it free of the usual combination of Mississippi River silt burden and industrial filth that produced the familiar grayish brown murk I remembered.

A few seagulls had begun to return; we had seen the first few on the ferry crossing, and my team leader declared them a sign of hope. Even with bare foundations and shattered homes in the background, the beach was more beautiful than I had ever seen it.

Perhaps it was so beautiful because of the destruction in the background, because the contrast emphasized that peace and serenity had returned, that the Gulf's fury could wash away everything human hands had made, but not beauty and light.

I always pick up seashells at the beach. Usually I just find one or two in a stroll, a small memento of the day's trip. Most of the ones in my collection, until recently, I could still assign to a specific memory, a specific outing. This one from the afternoon at Follett's Island with my parents on Mother's Day my last year in high school (the day I wrote a haiku about), these from a motorcycle outing with Daddy, and that one from the afternoon my college roommates and I decided to try surfing and I broke my toe.

I have discovered that seashell-hunting with Greg is a larger-scale operation entirely, and the last time we went to the beach, I may have had to whine and throw a tantrum to get the man out onto the beach with me, but once he got there he was insatiable, and we left with two plastic drinking cups full of shells.

I love my husband. Speaking of light in the darkness, he is mine.

Thus, as the sun was setting over Bolivar Peninsula, at the end of a long day of slogging through marshes and brush, and over debris that that once been homes, looking for and not finding the missing dead, I literally skipped over to my team leader, who was as weary and filthy and stinky as I was, and cheerfully announced, "Look, Fearless Leader! I found seashells."

He looked at me like I was nuts, and maybe I am, but you've got to cope somehow.

We were sitting around here at work the other day, talking about people's reaction to our occupation (the funeral director I share an office with says that she has heard people rudely unwilling to eat anything she baked for her church once they found out what she did for a living, and the girls at the local car wash are apparently annoyingly reluctant to wash the funeral coach when it's brought in). My office-mate told me that someone interviewed her and our boss shortly after she came here, and asked her if working at the funeral home made her sad.

I suppose I can understand the question, but for me the funeral home is not a sad place. The sadness- the moment of loss- happens elsewhere. This is a place for grieving, yes, but that grieving is the beginning of the healing process, and the service we provide, at its most fundamental level, is to facilitate the beginnings of healing. This isn't a place of sadness; it is a place of coping, of comfort, of eventual hope.

That's the underlying purpose of human remains detection, too- to bring closure, and sometimes justice, so that that process of grief and healing and life can begin more easily for those we help.

Part of my role in that, and part of my role in life in general, is to find the bright spots amid the darkness, the moments of levity amid rubble and the beauty in a rite of mourning. The world is full of death, darkness, and destruction, which I walk in by choice to do what good I can, but the seashells and the clear ocean are still beautiful, and the flowers still smell sweet.

It would never be worth it, otherwise.