Story Four of Four
by Gina Giuliano
The service was held on a magnificent August day. Gwen thought there was something surreal about the setting. The scene was strangely evocative of the last time Gwen had seen Sam, at a swing concert over a decade before. The crowd consisted of the same type of tidy, refined folks, but on this day they were gathered not to listen to music, but to honor the memory of loved ones who had donated their bodies to the medical school.
Gwen had dreaded attending, not because she didn’t want to honor Sam, who had died three months earlier from a lifetime of alcoholism and bulimia, but because she feared one of Sam’s crazy sisters would be there. She knew this was irrational, as the risk was minuscule. Even in the unlikely event that they cared enough to want to come, none had the resources to make the trip. The cliche about not having a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of was not an exaggeration in Sam’s family’s case, thought Gwen.
This was what drove Gwen to attend: Someone should be there to represent Sam. Two weeks after Sam’s obituary appeared in the newspaper, Gwen contacted the anatomical donor program to ask when the memorial service would be held. She didn’t expect to get a response, because she assumed if Sam wanted her to know or to be there, she would have listed Gwen on the donor form or had someone contact her before or after she died. But Sam didn’t. Gwen didn’t blame her. Maybe Sam felt Gwen didn’t care. Whatever Sam’s wishes, however, the program’s staff did indeed respond with an invitation. So Gwen went. Jack went too, toting chairs for them along the cemetery’s winding paths on one of the hottest and most humid days of the year.
The director of the anatomical gift program spoke about the many reasons people have for choosing to donate their remains. He said some believe in research and teaching, others want to spare their families the hassle of a funeral, and for a proportion it’s financial. Gwen added another to his list: There is no one to spare from the hassle. The director probably didn’t mention Sam’s reason because people in this category didn’t have any family or friends in attendance. Except for Sam, that is.
After the director, the hospital chaplain issued a vanilla blessing that could have been applied equally to Moses, Jesus, Mohammed or Zeus. Then two medical students spoke. One was bubbly and so plagued with "upspeak" that Gwen thought, “Maybe she expected? Someone to jump in? And answer her questions? Or is this how? She always talks? Didn’t her advisor? Try to help her?” The other monotonously droned on in a whisper, and Gwen suspected all the senior citizens present heard not a word she said. The message of the speech was something trite fancied up with New Age lingo, about healers being good people. Afterwards a man sitting next to Gwen remarked to the woman with him, "young people should be taught public speaking."
The next part reminded Jack of the Truman Show. A series of speakers read the list of donors, and medical students put a carnation for each name on the joint, single casket. They walked around over and over in a big circle surrounding the crowd, all in the same order every time. The same students must have passed Jack and Gwen ten times.
Mourners could go up and place a flower on the casket when their loved one’s name was read. Jack whispered, “do you want to go up?” but Gwen vigorously shook her head “no.” The chance of a crazy sister encounter was extremely small, but it was not zero. As predicted, though, no family was evident when Sam’s name was read.
Gwen couldn't help thinking of Sam's antics if she had been sitting there. She'd have made them laugh inappropriately, probably imitating future Dr. Upspeak, and the people nearby would shake their heads “tsk tsk tsk,” as the concert goers had shushed Sam, all those years before.
Afterwards, they lingered a while, visiting the flower-covered casket, and looking at the nearby headstones for prior years’ donors. Jack snapped a few pictures. Later, Gwen noticed that the tombstone he’d photographed had bird crap obscuring some of the letters. Sam would have found that funny. Gwen imagined her doing her favorite Cheech and Chong routine, “Looks like dog sh-t, Smells like dog sh-t, It IS dog sh-t!”
Goodbye Sam, Gwen and Jack. Reflecting on Donna’s death, it struck me that there was no longer a need to write in the third person or to change names to protect the guilty. Perhaps there never was, as the first three stories in this series: The Sweater, Competing Conversations and Tacos Anyone? were never published anywhere Donna would have seen them. But the anonymity was always more to protect Donna from other friends of long ago, most of whom were naive to her situation, than because Donna might encounter the stories and be hurt. Not outing her remains important to me, but I made the decision that I was not going to hide her afflictions if someone asked “why?,” as many did, stunned when they learned of her passing.