Retouching the Corpse

Part of me didn’t care what happened to the body. Mom had spent years abusing it, drinking and smoking, eventually producing the bloated, blackened cadaver before me. I had spent the past week alternately praying it into miraculous recovery and begging Mom to leave it because it was a completely useless thing now. On about the fourth day of her coma Dr. Carvahlo had suggest draining the infection and running tests on the pus. My argument was: who cares what the disease was, after it had shut down her kidneys, gangrened her legs and hands, and rendered her lungs useless? Two days later, Mom’s only working organ slowed to a stop - her heart.

It was Sunday at five something in the morning that Mom passed away. We were not there. It was only the second time in a week that I had left the hospital; I didn’t want to go home that night, but everyone insisted. They were afraid, I think, of how her body was affecting me - the sight of so many machines somehow connected, underneath the sheet, to the insides of her body; the loud whoosh and ker-chunk the breathing machine made as it inflated and deflated her body every few seconds. By the time the night nurse called and we drove the miles back to the hospital, she was dead.

She actually looked better - those jillions of tubes and machines were gone, so Mema could finally reach her to give her a good-bye peck and squeeze. I never got to say good-bye. She was already comatose when I had arrived, and now I didn’t care to, because this body was not my Mom - I couldn’t feel her inside of it and hadn’t since the previous Tuesday at 3:00 a.m. It was then, I think, that her spirit had taken my advice and abandoned a hopeless situation.

Now it was up to us to present her body to her friends and family for mourning. The funeral home director, Mr. Henry, had said that with such short notice there were no guarantees as to her “presentation”…in other words, he could stuff ‘em, but he couldn’t dress ‘em. We - Mema, Aunt Martha and I - decided it was our job to do Mom’s hair and make-up. We didn’t want to take a chance on Mr. Henry’s interpretation of her looks; Mom never went out unless she looked a certain way. She always like to spray her hair stiff, line her eyes and lips and fill in with blues and oranges. We were determined to somehow paint a mask of dignity and beauty on this face.

We walked down the aisle to the preparation room at around 1:00 p.m. She was already in the casket. We collectively took a deep breath and went to work. Aunt Martha was the hairdresser in the family. Mom’s hair was matted, stiff and sparsely flattened from two weeks of hospital-bed pressure. Martha tried to tease the stiff wisps of hair into the small bouffant Mom always wore, but at first she put too much hair spray on and soaked the hair into gray strands. Teasing was out of the question, so it remained flat - though it became neater with combing. Mema fussed with the hands, trying to pull the sleeves down tight enough to cover most of the blackened streaks and bluish parts. I did the makeup, trying to pinken the sallow cheeks and line the squinted eyes.

I felt as if she were sleeping breathlessly, so when I leaned in to do her face, I held my breath. Her eyes and mouth were pinched shut, giving her a tense, angry expression. Broken capillaries were splintered across her cheeks like cracks in shattered glass. I put some foundation on her skin, wary of the rubbery, cold texture. Her cheeks were a little ruddy from the capillaries; I could forgo the blush.

Next, I concentrated on her eyes. As I leaned in close I rested my arm across Mom’s still chest. It was so unnatural to be this close to someone and not provoke some kind of reaction. My heart rushed blood to my ears while I slowly drew a neat line across the hairs-width vertical wrinkles above her eyelashes. Perfect. One down, one to go. The next eye was the one on my left. I had to contort my arm into an unnatural position but somehow my hand never shook and I traced a perfect line across this seam-like lid. Behind me Aunt Martha and Mema were encouraging me between comments on the placement of her hands, the beauty of the coffin and the music for the service one hour later.

Stepping back I concentrated on those dry, pursed lips. Another seam. The inside of her mouth had blackened days before she’d died and now that that black seeped ink-like into the lips. Lipstick would only cake up, sitting separate and artificial on the surface. A brief pow-wow among the others and we decided to forego the lipstick, too.

Stepping back to analyze our creation, we agonized over her bloated double-chin. We asked Mr. Henry to move her head so it would be level, thus not pressing her chin down. He was glad to oblige, and, lifting her head with one hand underneath her neck, pressed hard on the forehead as if she were a Barbie. Her head snapped. We all gasped a little and agreed in hush tones that this wasn’t really Mom so it was OK to do that to her body. Maybe now she could be laid to rest.

-Sharla Mize

Sharla Mize is a mental health therapist, mother, animal lover and human rights advocate living in Nashville, TN with her husband of 30 years. She imagines she has a relationship with the crows who eat her peanuts and is a new mother to 6 chickens.