I remove my glove and take an ivory taper and a gardening book from a box I keep hidden in a nearby cabinet. After I check the dog-eared page, I return the book to its spot. I dont know why I keep these items hidden, except perhaps that Linus would misinterpret them as instruments of faith, evidence of my conversion. I fit the candle into its holder, strike a match, and then allow Mozarts Violin Concerto no. 5 to lift the dreariness of my basement workspace. The candle appears to flicker in time to the strings being plucked. This is the only time I listen to music.
As with all trades, theres a routine to mine. Its during this interlude, as the bloodletting begins but before the cleansing commences, that I perform this ritual of sorts. While Linus has his prayers to purge the soul, I bathe the body with music and candlelight. What with the clinical stainless-steel worktable, angled for maximum drainage, fluorescent lights, and frigid concrete floor, it seems only proper that there be some softening of the moment, some recognition of the life lived. Its not meant to be a send-off into another world, more a farewell from this one. Yes, a good-bye. A trip to where I dont know, the ground usually. Most times the deceased leave the embalming room propped in a somber coffin with satin pillows to comfort the bereaved. Then off to the freshly dug earth or, occasionally, a fired oven. Few go straight from the deathbed to the flame.
Though I would prefer to use a warm washcloth and sudsy water the way a mother would when welcoming a newborn at the beginning of life, the law requires I use an approved antiseptic and disposable sponge for this last bath. The gore of the blood draining and the odor of deterioration make this process difficult, but I simply recall the tenderness of that first bath and try to honor it.
As Piano Concerto no. 26 cues, I finish washing the old woman. I remove my gloves, turn off the music, blow out the candle. More gloves and a cotton mask - sterile formalities in this most intimate of times - and then I lift the trocar from its hook on the wall. I insert the instrument into the small incision in her abdomen, just above the navel, and then turn on the suction. Its important for the aesthetics of the wake that all bodily fluids and soft organs be removed.
I wash her again with only the humming water pipes as an accompaniment this time, then cover her body in a sheet. Shell have to wait for her dress and pumps. Her son forgot to bring them when he dropped off her photograph. Though theres an armoire just outside this room filled with clothes to adorn the dead - high-collared dresses with modest hemlines and easy-access snaps, dark suits with starched shirts and Velcro back seams - most people prefer to dress their loved ones in something familiar. Though sometimes a daughter will shop a better department store for a demure dress that will rot in the ground, often with price tags still attached.
With the bathing finished, I plug in the rollers and fetch the makeup box and hair dryer from the closet. People tend to overlook this aspect of the preparation, but its oftentimes what mourners remember best. Somehow it soothes them to know the dead are well coiffed. (Ive never been able to wear makeup myself.) With her hair damp, I begin applying her makeup: thick layers of foundation to cover the few cancer ulcers on her forehead and chin, the spray of broken blood vessels along her nose, blush to liven her cheeks, and a shade of tangerine lipstick I found on her chest of drawers. Her scalp - pink again - runs like ribbons through her fine hair. The photograph shows a woman who preferred a few well-placed bangs along her forehead, the rest teased up and away to cover the bare spots toward the crown. I smooth the ends with hair wax, spray it all with extra-hold formula bought in bulk from the salon down the street, and then reach for my stylists shears. Ive learned over the years that a little more layering will add much more fullness.
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