“A seat belt reduces the likelihood and severity of injury in a traffic collision by stopping the vehicle occupant from hitting hard against interior elements of the vehicle or other passengers (the so-called second impact)… The world’s first seat belt law was put in place in 1970, in the state of Victoria, Australia, making the wearing of a seat belt compulsory for drivers and front-seat passengers.”
seat belt, noun: an arrangement of straps designed to hold a person steady in a seat (as in an airplane or automobile).
— Merriam Webster Dictionary
Lev’s dad and I had originally planned to pick up our boy’s ashes together, to soldier on in solidarity through another painful milestone, safety in numbers and all of that. But when the call came from the funeral home that the urn was ready to be picked up, the idea of playing family for the afternoon was untenable. Our previously strained relationship had degraded to the point we could barely tolerate being in the same room. Confident our tension would likely lead to a relationship meltdown in a totally inappropriate location, it was decided I would go and retrieve the urn solo. I scheduled the handoff appointment with The Funeral Director for a Friday at lunch in the hope that I could dash in and out with minimal interaction. Icon of crippling self-sufficiency that I am, I had of course declined all offers of accompaniment and support. I told myself it was because my shit was just that together, but there was a small part of me that wanted the option to blow the whole thing off out of sheer terror (and if I had someone meeting me there or driving me there, I would have to actually show up). Mostly, I was just unsure of what to expect from the situation and from myself once I was inside the belly of the beast. Best to go alone into the heart of darkness went my logic.
Turns out, returning to the funeral home for the urn weeks after the memorial was approximately like going back to the bar the morning after a night of hard drinking to retrieve your credit card. Where there had been ceremony and organ music and explosions of flowers in celebration of Lev’s fantastic little life, now there was tatty carpeting and the awkward business of day-to-day funeral parlor operations: office clerks, fluorescent lighting, ringing phones. The Funeral Director (the same woman who had handled Lev’s memorial—let’s call her Norma) came out to the foyer to retrieve me and brought me into a small room with chintzy wallpaper and a large round that table dominated the space filling it almost to the edges. Norma indicated that I should take a seat and she sat down next to me. I glanced around, but nowhere did I see the urn I had come to retrieve.
When Norma began talking about Lev and the memorial and how moved she had been by all of it, I got the message that her perceived bond with me was apparently strong on the heels of her admission of Improv comedy aspirations weeks earlier. She wanted to share. It seemed like she wanted me to share too—I remember her asking me about my writing and about my job at the hospital, whether I had gone back to work yet. I suppose I must have answered her, but my half of our conversation has been redacted from my memory. Blank. What I do remember is the longer the exchange with Norma spun out, the less I understood the purpose of this meeting and the more I felt like I must have missed some key element of why we were there. My initial anxiety upgraded to mild panic as my confusion ratcheted up. I remember thinking: “Do we owe her money maybe? Is this her way of breaking the ice to shake me down for a check?”
Eventually, I know I started to cry. I remember the crying mostly because, ironically, there were no tissues in that room. [I came to the realization early on in the crying-a-hundred-times-a-day phase of my life that even in rooms where grief routinely comes to pass, there are never enough tissues. It’s almost as if people willfully refuse to anticipate the messy moisture that comes with sadness. The bodily indignity with which grief presents us all is just too ugly, I suppose.] When it became clear that the dam had broken, Norma left the room and returned with a small packet of tissues for me. Not a whole box, mind you, but one of those tiny little cardboard packages like they have in hospitals. After a few uncomfortable minutes with me blowing my nose as the only soundtrack, Norma asked if I was ready to see the urn. “I think you’ll be quite happy with it.” She said. “It turned out beautifully.” Already wrecked by the kookiness and oddly epic length of what I thought would be a mannered, brief interaction, I was resigned to go wherever this was headed. I nodded and followed Norma to the next, even weirder, location.
Unless and until you are responsible for retrieving the ashes of a cremated loved one, you would have no reason to know that the funeral home has a special little room for ceremonially displaying the urn. It’s like a tiny chapel, not even big enough for a whole coffin. There are a couple of seats and a little pedestal for the urn. There are ferns and faux stained glass windows and more tatty carpet. Basically it’s like an abbreviated churchy museum for displaying one box of dust. Lev’s lacquered zebrawood box seemed extra out of place in the chapel setting. Not to mention we’re Jews. Suffice it to say, the ash chapel took my sadness to a whole other plane of existential angst. Once in there, Norma and I commenced awkwardly shifting our weight and smiling at one another without making eye-contact as it became clear that neither of us knew how long was long enough to wait in this moment. She starts to explain that the remains are additionally ensconced in a bag inside the box and shows me the mechanism for how they put the ashes in the urn. Oh dear god. The length of time we were in that room couldn’t have been more than five minutes, but in my mind, it was like Sartre’s No Exit.
I wanted to grab the urn, stash it under my arm like a football and run away. But I recognized that there must have been a process of some kind at work, something out of the funeral director playbook. Although said process was completely opaque to me, I was pretty sure my running blindly away from the scene was not the next thing on the agenda. Norma must have sensed my coiled energy ready to snatch my son’s remains and bolt, because she grabbed the box off the pedestal and sheathed it in a velvet bag “so you don’t get fingerprints on it.” Then she led us out of the urn room still clutching the package. I loped along behind her, baffled, as we made our way toward the front door. She paused in the foyer to ask me where I’d parked and whether I wanted to bring the car around. Keep in mind, it’s not raining, the parking lot is small, and the parcel in question is a box weighing maybe three pounds. I have no idea where she’s going with this, but I humor her because it’s clear she has a plan. So I go and get the car and pull it under the carport and Norma comes out to meet me, cradling the urn. I keep thinking: Ok, this is it. She’s definitely going to hand me the urn now. Any minute now. But she stands there stone-faced, waiting. So I fumble with the locks to the back door, thinking she’ll place the box on the seat and I can peel out in a puff of tire smoke. Instead, Norma opens the front passenger door, and begins to STRAP LEV’S URN INTO THE FRONT PASSENGER SEAT WITH THE SEATBELT as I look on in horror. And then, she looks me in the face with total beatific sincerity, tilts her head to the side like she’s got some emotion welling up and says, without irony, “Well, I guess this is the only time he’ll get to ride in the front seat…” and trails off.
I broke Norma’s gaze. Blinked. Clicked my own seatbelt into the latch. And as I finally turned the key in the ignition, the box of Lev riding shotgun beside me, I resisted the urge to peel out, drove away in an orderly fashion. When I got back to my parents’ sterile condo, I sat in the car for a few minutes to let it all wash over me. I cried some. And then I started to giggle. And the laughter kept coming more and harder culminating as I un-strapped the seat belt from the urn to walk my son’s remains into a house where he never lived, one of the single oddest moments of my life up to that point. I thought to myself:
That all actually happened.
It totally happened and it kept on happening. And it was both soul raping and hilarious. You can’t make this stuff up. And why would you? It’s all right there. Those moments where humor is so crushingly deadpan and black that you are compelled to break the fourth wall of your sadness and fucking melt into the kind of convulsive laughter that re-routes your day, those are the moments that saved me. Instead of going back to work that afternoon, I drove downtown, got a really expensive manicure and sat in the spa until dusk. It was kind of glorious.