Temporary Container

Melissa Fast

A friend offered to take my address book and call everyone to give them the news. It relieved me since I no longer knew what to say after, hello. Just a few days prior, all phone calls began the same way, “How are you feeling?” or “It’s gotta be cool as hell having two babies kicking around in there. I bet your belly is getting really big now.”

I didn’t know what to do with the silence on the other end of the phone after I repeated the same abbreviated story.

Preterm labor. No stopping. Dead babies.

But I had to make this call. My mom offered to help; so did my husband. No, this call would be different. No surprises. The person on the other end expected to hear from me. Death was his business, and now he had my babies.

I tried not to think about how Nolan and Simone got to this man, just as I tried to avoid the hand-painted box on the coffee table, which held the tiny knit hats and sweaters that still smelled of Johnson’s Baby Powder. The nurses had dressed my twins in the preemie outfits before gently placing them in my arms, and then hours later placed the lacquered box in my empty lap.

I wanted to ask the man on the other end of the phone if my babies were still swaddled together in the flannel blanket with the blue and pink striped trim.

You’ve got to keep their heads covered. They might get cold.

I couldn’t stand the idea of putting my babies in the ground, and a traditional funeral seemed a colossal waste of money. I also couldn’t imagine standing in front of two tiny caskets during calling hours, recounting the entire story for all the people who came to pay their respects, comforting them when it was I who needed someone to keep me upright.

Lyle and I decided on cremation and an in-home memorial service for just our family, but I needed specifics about my twins’ bodies and how they would be cremated. I didn’t know then that details wouldn’t make sense of the senseless.

“I want my babies cremated together,” I said to the funeral director on the other end of the phone.

“I’m not sure I can do that. There are laws we must consider,” he said. “Would you like to come in to discuss the arrangements?”

I imagined him in his office, full head of dark hair, graying at the temples. Black suit. Muted tie. Cuff links. He probably straightened the papers on his antique mahogany desk as he spoke into the receiver. If I came in, he would greet me with fake concern as he led me to pricey baby caskets.

“No. They have to be together. They’ve always been together.”

They might get scared.

“Are you burying, scattering, or keeping the cremains?”

“I don’t know.”

He went on to describe the types of urns and options, and he offered again to sit down with Lyle and me to go over everything. I wanted to scream, “Why didn’t my doctors give me this many choices when they told me I was in preterm labor? Where were these considerations when my babies were still alive?”

Instead the nurse came to my room before the delivery and told me the only choice left was whether or not I wanted to hold my babies until they died.

Now sitting on my creamy, white leather couch, I wished I had let my mom make the call. She watched me across the room, saw me blink back tears and heard my words begin to stammer. She mouthed, “Do you want me to handle this?”

I shook my head and swallowed hard. She walked over, sat next to me, and put her hand on my leg.

“Well, you don’t have to decide now,” said the funeral director. “But it helps to know so we can suggest the right type of container. If you think you may scatter the cremains, I would recommend a temporary container, and that would be less expensive.”

“Okay. I guess we’ll scatter. What does ‘temporary container’ mean?” My mind flashed to something flimsy that I’d knock off the counter, ashes shooting across the carpet. A bad SNL skit shot through my head and ended with me pulling out the vacuum cleaner.

That’s sick, Melissa.

“Well, it will probably be the same kind of container we use for small pets.”

I dropped the phone in my mom’s lap and burst into tears.

###

The ashes arrived or maybe Lyle picked them up. Neither of us can remember that detail. Much of those early days and weeks ran together in a cloudy-cold haze like the January days I stared into from my living room chair. But I won’t or can’t forget the small rectangular cardboard box. Inside, bubble wrap surrounded a round tin twice the size of a dipping tobacco can. The tin held a knotted plastic bag of lumpy ashes. More angry tears slid down my cheeks. The funeral dude was wrong – the temporary container wasn’t suitable for a cat or a dog.

###

Mom always looked put-together, often dressed in a bright paisley or geometric blouse with a tailored blazer that pulled out one of the colors in her shirt. Expertly creased slacks and pointy sling-back shoes rounded out a polished outfit, and shiny lacquered nails and spiky short hair completed her smart look. But on this day, her outfit was dark, subdued, and serious.

She stood sentry as people came in the house. I remember hushed conversations, but held no interest in eavesdropping. I imagine my mom greeting my dad and his wife at the door.

“How’s she doing?”

“It’s hard to tell. So many people have been calling, but she’s only talked to a few,” Mom said. “But you remember how hard it was.” In a silent flash, their memories fused on their infant son who died 40 years earlier.

Dad answered only with the throat clearing and coughing that I knew meant he was choking back tears.

My dad and his wife joined Lyle’s parents, sister, and a cousin in the living room.

We all waited for the minister to arrive, and I half listened to the small talk. Three days prior, I would have participated and thought nothing wrong of the idle chatter. But on this day, I clamped my lips tight to prevent shouting, “It’s stupid to be talking about how much snow we expect in January when I just gave birth to twins and held them until they died. Why does it fucking matter that it’s colder than the weatherman said it would be? My life is ice.”

Chit chat mingled with condolences, but I didn’t know then no words or conversations existed that would make that day okay.

Instead, Lyle and I huddled. I needed his touch, not metaphorically, but his physical heat and support to keep me steady. I leaned into his shoulder, sometimes tucking my head into the dip of his collar bone, comforted by the brush of his lips across the top of my head. I inhaled the familiar spicy-clean smell of Irish Spring Soap. Our fingers laced, knuckles draining of color, fingertips pulsing pink.

I watched Lyle’s sister across the room treat my son, Russell, like a turd as she taunted him through a game of Candyland. “Yeah! I get a pass on the Rainbow Trail. I bet you get stuck in the Lollipop Woods. I’m going to make it to King Kandy before you.”

Did I say, he’s five, you are 45 or just think it?

I heard my mom say, “Your Aunt Lisa isn’t a very good sport, Russell. Maybe we should put her in a room for a time out.”

Thank you, Mom.

Eyes and nose, itchy and puffy and sore. Arms and legs, lead heavy. Heart beat banging in my ears. Grief pushing down, heavier than gravity. I wanted to believe things would get better once I could put this day into a little box and tuck it way forever.

###

If only I could find the right place for the ashes.

Not the lake where we lived. We might move.

Not mountains or ocean. Too far to visit.

Not the state park a half hour away. Too many people.

Every time I looked at that tin of ashes, I thought of the funeral director picking up my babies from the hospital. Did he hold Nolan and Simone with kind hands? Did he take them back to his work room and leave them on a stainless steel table and roll them into one of the many refrigeration boxes lining the back wall, or did he immediately slide them into a glowing incinerator? I squeezed my eyes shut.

On a trip to Tucson to see my mom, I went to the Tohono O’odham Nation and found a clay pot with an ink-black maze painted on the round vessel. These native people were known for their creation of the Man in the Maze drawings. Many iterations of the story exist, but all center on the Iʼitoi who traveled through the maze of life. Wrong turns. Dead ends. Route changes. Many believed the I’itoi searched for the Sun God, and when he found him, the Sun God would bestow blessings and understanding.

I carried the pot home in my lap, happy with the find, but wanting more to hold bouncing babies.

###

I pulled the small cardboard box from the cabinet, opened it, and saw the tin. I took the baggy of ashes and placed them in the clay pot. I threw the tin in the trashcan. Fuck you funeral dude and your temporary container.

The new container found a place on the fireplace mantel. A friend would ask about the maze painted on the Native American pot, but I would only recite the story of I’itoi. I kept the contents hidden.

On the days when I would catch myself looking at the clock at 11:24 a.m. remembering the morning in the hospital when the guttural sounds escaping my body sounded more beast-like than human, I would look at the maze and hope tomorrow would bring a new turn.

###

In the early days, I dreaded standing behind the pregnant woman in a long check-out line at the grocery. I’d watch her massage her lower back with one hand, and with the other, rub small circles around her swollen belly.

Please don’t turn and talk to me.

“This is killing me. This baby is outta-control big. I can’t wait ‘til it’s over.”

I’d chew my lower lip.

Be careful what you wish for.

I’d load the groceries in the back of the van and climb in the front seat. Sobs would rack my body as I sat in the parking lot gripping the steering wheel, head pinned between pallid knuckles.

I didn’t know then hearing a pregnant woman complain would always cause my stomach to flip-flop. Months (okay, years) later, I would still sit in the same parking lot after a similar encounter, but the intensity waned, leaving only few quiet tears sliding down my cheeks.

###

Years passed. In the mornings, I would send Lyle off to work with ham sandwiches, granola bars, and miniature cans of V-8. I prepared steaming bowls of oatmeal blended with spicy cinnamon and tart, granny smith apples for our son, Russell, as he crammed his backpack with homework completed the night before. Xeroxed math worksheets morphed into middle-school trebuchet projects.

I looked at the clay pot sitting on the shelf. I saw the years of twists and turns.

I felt ready to scatter the ashes, but for so long Lyle avoided the topic with things like, “I can’t think about this right now, Melissa. I’ve got deadlines to meet.” Occasionally, we would talk of scattering the ashes in the mountains, deserts, oceans, but without an official container, we weren’t sure a baggy of ashes would pass through post-911 security at the airport in a carry-on bag, and neither of us wanted to take the chance of losing our babies again.

###

The summer before Russell entered high school, we planned a trip to Tucson. I broached the subject again.

“What do you think about taking Nolan and Simone’s ashes and scattering them at Mt. Lemmon or Sabino Canyon,” I said.

“How are you going to get the ashes there? What about airport security?” Lyle said.

“I’ll pack them in my luggage. I think I’m okay if my bag gets lost. Are you?”

“Yeah, me too.”

I put the baggy of ashes in a red silk pouch and tucked it in the middle of the suitcase, hoping it wouldn’t attract attention at the security check-in.

People talk of dry Arizona heat, but when you step outside of the airport in August, into 115 degrees, the heat knocks you back as you suck fire into your lungs.

We spent most of the days poolside with an endless vat of strawberry Eegee’s, Tucson’s famous frozen slushy and answer to the hellish heat. We spooned big scoops of the icy treat into Styrofoam tumblers and topped them off with shots of tequila, just enough to melt the frozen chunks to suck through a straw, inducing instant brain freeze.

I hadn’t wanted to surprise my mom and step dad with our plans to scatter the ashes so I told her before we arrived. I knew we’d all be thinking about it until we talked, so I was glad that she brought the subject up while we hung out at the pool.

“Have you thought about what you want to do?” she said.

“I kinda imagined a picnic and then scattering the ashes somewhere. I thought Mt. Lemmon or Sabino Canyon, but the canyon is going to be really hot. So, Mt. Lemmon? Will you and Paul come with us?”

“Absolutely. Paul’s already picked out a spot you might like.”

Mount Lemmon is the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains. At nearly 10,000 feet elevation, it provides relief from the heat of Tucson summers.

We stopped at a Church’s Chicken to stock up for our picnic before making the 20-minute winding climb in the Buick Century.

The mountains are bigger than what people expect to see popping up in the middle of the desert. Often, people don’t know that Tucson nestles within three mountain ranges. You won’t find the switchback twists and turns of the Rockies as you ascend, but the city grid below grows smaller and smaller with each turn up the side of the mountain.

The sun shone across the saguaros on the first look out, but by the next turn, scraggly desert replaced the giant forked cacti, which won’t survive at higher elevations. A couple turns later, evergreens began to sprout across the landscape. On this day though, we also saw charred-stick trees jutting from the ground, the remnants of a forest fire the winter before. Yet, life continued, and the forest would grow again.

We reached the shaded spot, grabbed a picnic table, and took a little walk. This time of year, the mountain offered the only natural respite from the heat in the valley far below. We pulled a box of fried chicken out of the car, set out the biscuits and potato wedges, and plopped one of the Cokes on top of the napkins to keep the mountain breeze from whistling them away.

We munched and laughed and inhaled the woodsy aroma. Paul tossed bits of biscuits and potatoes to the chattering mountain jays and skittish chipmunks that traded instinct for crispy nuggets.

“Right up there is the highest point of Mt. Lemmon,” Paul said. “There’s a pretty cool lookout.”

“Can I go check it out, Mom?” Russell said.

“Be careful. Dad and I will be up in a minute,” I said.

We watched Russell skitter across the boulder with the ease of the chipmunk that came from the same direction.

“Hey Mom, come over here. You gotta see this,” Russell said.

On top of this humongous rock, a break in the trees gave way to the azure-blue sky, which stretched for miles above the layers of mountains and trees below. A breeze breathed through the evergreens.

“Do you think this is a good place, Mom?”

“I think this is a perfect place. What do you think, Lyle?”

“Yep. I agree.”

“I want to say something,” Russell said.

Had I known Russell’s words would fade in my mind, maybe I would have jotted them down and tucked them away in their own special box. But today, I wonder if that day and all the others leading up to it were just a few more turns in the maze.

One comment

  1. Alison McArthur · December 16, 2014

    What a powerful experience to read this. The author’s candid and honest expression left me in tears.

    Like

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