By Chiggers Stokes
Special to The Forks Forum
In 1990, I revealed to my parents my intention to have a family cemetery in or upon the Flying S Farm. Both of them were emphatic that they wanted no part of it. Both of them prepaid their cremation fees. Both of my parents left clear instructions to be delivered to the same Oregon mortuary service that had conspired with my wife to deprive me of my grandmother’s body.
Howard Stokes’ last stand was here at the Forks Long Term Care facility. In February of 2001, his obituary in the Forks Forum remarked about the exceptional care he received in our community. Thank you, Forks, for such excellent and compassionate care of my dad!
Fifteen years ago, I received the call from Long Term Care that my dad had passed at age 93. The day he died was Carnival in Rio. He had shared that experience a few times with me before I was 5. I will always be a drummer for those experiences. A million drums beat over that city of deluxe hotels, condominiums and cardboard shelters as I sat alone with the heap that had just been my dad. I told the Forks LTC staff that I was going home to arrange transportation. Would they please prepare my father for transport?
I got back an hour later with the pickup and its owner. My wife was jumpy about me transporting the deceased without supervision. Forks LTC had washed my father’s body, brushed his hair, put in his dentures, put him in traveling clothes and even put on the tie my dad wore most of his life. For 6 years my father had cast about, looking for my deceased mother. He couldn’t make himself understand or accept that she was dead. I took the picture of my mother hanging above his bed and cradled it in his lifeless arms. We loaded what had been my father into the bed of my wife’s pickup. First stop was the P.A. courthouse for a death certificate. Cops get exceedingly jumpy when they make a routine car stop and discover a dead person aboard.
What I learned when I got to Corvallis was that morticians are people, too. Not only are they compassionate, supportive and sensitive; they are totally tolerant and non-judgmental … at least these guys were. After surrendering to them my father’s body, I realized I had given up the precious picture in my dad’s arms. I went into the crematorium and fetched the picture. Then I realized that I wanted other stuff that was on my dad … to remember him … to hold that article close to me and reflect on my dad’s wisdom and character.
The friendly morticians told me to take whatever time I needed and to remove whatever I wanted from my father’s person. I returned with my dad’s shoes, his empty wallet, his handkerchief, his belt. From that day, to this day 15 years later, these articles have been precious to me. I asked the sympathetic morticians if I could make another trip, but my wife said it was grave robbing. The staff spoke up for me and said many people find comfort in holding onto articles from the deceased.
I had called them ghoulish behind their backs and been disrespectful when facing their fronts. Now they were patiently explaining to my wife, that their professional experience led to the belief that there was no correct or proper way to grieve.
“We are not trying to interfere in a family matter,” they explained. “But our position is that many people find comfort in keeping mementos of the deceased. We don’t put boundaries or a stopwatch on grieving.”
Wow! I sure misjudged these guys! On the way back, her pickup swerved for some reason on the road. On the car radio we learned that an earthquake had just occurred, causing the road to shift under the pickup. The quake had sufficient force to crack our Capitol in Olympia.
My father’s instructions had been, NO MEMORIAL NECESSARY, but if there was one, he wanted Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem, “One Hoss Shay,” read on his behalf. Forks LTC was not done caring for my dad. At their behest we staged a memorial in their dining room. My closest neighbor and friend, Ralph, was the only non-staff person in the room besides myself.
I stepped up to read the poem which was about a parson’s buggy that was built with such quality and care that it went from a functional carriage to dust in one mighty collapse. I gathered that the shay, or buggy, was symbolic of the human body, built to perfection and designed to last a lifetime. I read the last paragraph and the hair on the back of my neck horripilated. In the poem, the buggy, symbolizing the human body, turned to dust, “At half past nine by the meet’n’-house clock — Just the hour of the earthquake shock!” The functional buggy turned to dust from exactly the same force that swerved my wife’s pickup truck.
I’m sure my dad liked the poem because it was about having a full, long life then, collapsing into dust without convalescence. Just as I can wear my father’s shoes today, if I want, I can believe that the geological processes that control how the Earth will stress, then shake to relieve tension, are part of the same system, which launches our spirits in human form. Like the parson, we seek and offer Love in the course of our buggy’s travels. The geological process is part of the same force or machine which drives our biology and comes for that payload of spirit when the buggy is dashed by the shaking ground.
For those of you that knew him, my dog Mikey was the most gentle, passive flesh this side of a Buddhist monk. Yesterday, I buried my dog. He had cancer of the brain, cancer of the snoot, cancer on his butt, and all these tumors making a land rush for his airway. I want to thank our twice-a-week vet, Dr. Pat, for the compassionate and affordable care she rendered my friend and for her finesse in Mikey’s final moments.
My neighbor, Ralph, was driving Mikey and me. I couldn’t stop crying. I cried through the smooth and peaceful euthanasia. I cried on the way home and I cried as I tore into my land with a shovel. I haven’t cried like that since I was a kid: great heaving sobs with tears splashing into the hole with the falling rain. I cried for my loss; I cried for the loss of family, I cried for dead kids I pulled off the beach as a park ranger and for the dying, I rode with as an EMT here in Forks. I cried for Syria. I cried for a dog that I had to put down 50 years ago and another I had to put down 20 years later. As I began to fill the hole. I tried to say, “Goodbye, Mikey. But I will be joining you in this earth.” But I could only sob.
I feel much better this afternoon. I picked up my copy of the Forks Forum and saw Part One of this very article. I sat down to write this conclusion.
It was in writing the above paragraphs that I sensed an intersection between what I was writing about and what I was living. I defended my parents’ will. In my heart, I believe I defended my dog’s will. When it’s time, help lay me down. Doesn’t my right of habeas corpus allow me to bequeath my flesh to this land and my water back to this drainage? Like my parents, my instructions are clear. My confederates are chosen. My land waits for me.
I’m telling you, what I choked on yesterday: I will be following Mikey into this ground one day. And I am asking for my community’s will and help in keeping me there.