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Cleansing the way

Last year, Marlys Anderson died. Marly had been our department secretary for well over a decade and I continued to know her and value her friendship for many more years. She had some of us—Cindy, Milton, Dennis among others—on speed dial and we often had long conversations that grew from reading the obituaries, where Marly would see a familiar family name and wonder if he or she had been a former student. Apparently you can take the secretary out of the department, but not the reverse.

Her daughter Lori called and asked if I would be a pall bearer at Marly’s funeral. I said “Of course!” Marlys had covered my ass so many times that I was honored to carry hers to the grave. I think she would laugh at that remark, by the way.

On the appointed day, I put on my suit and readied for the drive to her Moravian church in rural Cass County, then noticed something in the inside coat pocket: where I found two programs from the last two funerals I’d attended. This had apparently become my “funeral suit.”

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Cleansing the way

He was an odd man, like his father. I knew them both.

The father paved the way for the child, as parents do. In this case, I think, with both concern and a disengagement that some might have mistaken for disinterest. Love and laissez faire in equal parts. Who would have believed.

My friend grew to manhood after his father’s passing, though I suspect “irresolution” hardly describes their relationship. Years of therapy later, there was one last act to cleanse the way between them. For my friend died this week—the day before yesterday, in fact—and set in motion one last promise I had made.

His dad was inclined to random acts of kindness, doing things and taking payment or not according to the moment’s whim. He fixed a truck tire once and refused payment—just because. The day before or an hour later he would have taken fair compensation but that day it was recreation, therapy. The trucker would have none of it, though, and left a case of Ivory soap, forty-eight bars of 99.44 % purity that went off to college with my friend.

I don’t know how long those bars lasted; Ivory is gentle, soft and quickly gone. But one of those bars lasted fifty years; a carefully preserved artifact of youth; an icon of ancestry; a link to the man he’d come to know in hindsight. I held that bar of soap in my hands last night and I held my friend as well.

He had asked me to perform one last act of kindness: to wash his body with that surviving bar of soap as preparation for the crematory. I recalled a favorite poem by Rilke and read it again before going to the mortuary.

“Washing the Corpse” by Rainer Maria Rilke

They had, for a while, grown used to him. But after
they lit the kitchen lamp and in the dark
it began to burn, restlessly, the stranger
was altogether strange. They washed his neck,

and since they knew nothing about his life
they lied till they produced another one,
as they kept washing. One of them had to cough,
and while she coughed she left the vinegar sponge,

dripping, upon his face. The other stood
and rested for a minute. A few drops fell
from the stiff scrub-brush, as his horrible
contorted hand was trying to make the whole
room aware that he no longer thirsted.

And he did let them know. With a short cough,
as if embarrassed, they both began to work
more hurriedly now, so that across
the mute, patterned wallpaper their thick

shadows reeled and staggered as if bound
in a net; till they had finished washing him.
The night, in the uncurtained window-frame,
was pitiless. And one without a name
lay clean and naked there, and gave commands.

Grave_of_rainer_maria_rilke_at_the_churchyard_in_raron_-_swizerland

What would Rilke have made of my Friday night? I was alone and this was the fulfillment of a promise, not the satisfaction of a job.

My friend’s naked body lay on stainless steel. I had seen him at least once a week for fifty years, yet I did not know the man before me. The appendix scar transported me to high school—1959 I think—when he was absent from several classes and we sent a get well card. I ran my finger over his writer’s callous, the skin on the inside of his right middle finger thickened from years of writing. And the indentations on his nose from a half century wearing glasses.

He’d been posed, at once unnatural yet entirely apropos, with arms folded, right had cupped within the left. His legs were straight and parallel and invited comparison. Our bodies are rarely if ever symmetrical; he’d been right-handed and was now just as obviously right-legged. The toes of his feet turned downward, pressed no doubt by the heavy blanket of his deathbed. And the resulting spike-like shape of the lower body suggested driving him into the ground like a spike, if he weren’t reduced to ash, that is. I thought for the first time since college of a herm, the Greek protector and marker of boundaries—a role my friend would have welcomed and performed with dignity.

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I’d brought white cotton towels to wash and dry my friend. New and freshly laundered, they would perform their tasks and go to the oven with him. But what might have taken five minutes—surely no more than ten—I lengthened to an hour, a last hour with someone I’d respected despite his faults and loved because of them. Cleansed with that last bar of Ivory soap—my friend as well as myself—I left what was left of him and took the better part home in my heart.


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