Our Death Doula by Dan A. Cardoza

It’s late November. The earth is hopelessly frozen, platinum ice-cycle cold. The earth is too fucking stingy for a shovel, or a six foot deep hole from the scoop of a backhoe. Death cares two shits about all this. 


We’ve crossed storms and traveled three hundred miles to get here.  Just before midnight we enter a light talc of white spice at the beginning of the cascades, my old home. So tired, we sleep sofas and floors. 


I rise early, hot coffee in hand. I place myself right dab in the center of my childhood, in the center of a winter skeletonized orchard. Bone hued hoarfrost coats the reaching Saperstein branches, anorexic metatarsals, splintered radius and ulna. They claw alien into the sky toward hung-over stars.  


I think to myself, welcome the fuck home son. It’s been like forever.


Morning is breaking her yoke. She knows I’m back in town.  She’s whores rouge cumuli, brilliant light in the tip-top serrations of Sycamore.  The Sycamore line the hash tag tracks like teal candles—burn lit at the tips in the anarchy of autumn. Frozen in time my eyes glass over and water. Not from grief, but paradox. I’ve never felt so alive.


It’s a seasonal cat-walk for the living, trending fashionable grey and black. Bring your undead, its winter time, love. 


#


Our Death Doula arrives exactly on time, in what we imagined, a charcoal Camry. She’s a licensed R.N. As she exits her car, she appears wound up, tightly gauzed with preparatory instructions. 


She bounds up the stairs in her black patent shoes in her matching Gucci, clacking like a sandwich bag full of pills. 


“Coffee!” demands General Patton in drag. 


I say, “It’s been waiting, like us.” There both cold. 


As she grazes my shoulder at the top of the stoop, I swear I can smell the chemical stink of 50’s Iodine and Macuracome, shoplifted pharmaceutical trophies from a twentieth-century five-and-dime. 


There is no love lost between us. 


Inside the kitchen, we circle the farmhouse table like condors, wait for her to land. 


When she does, she quickly nods for us to perch. Her eyes seem to oscillate, inspect us for weakness. We introduce ourselves like new recruits. 


“Death can be a beautiful thing,” she says, paraphrasing a shopworn paperback narrative from her only college Gerontology course. She grips it tight from escaping. I know the read from my own college coursework, On Death and Dying, by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. 


As I recall, my gently used hardbound is packed coffin tight in a box in the attic.  An attic is where you store death in your twenties.  


“What is so humorous?” she accuses, as she stares at the beginning of a grin. Careless on purpose, I cautiously stretch it into a smile. 


There are snakes in the room. I watch as the ‘S’ in ‘humorous’ awkwardly glissades through her false teeth, glides through her cracked lips and fades away, hissing as it slithers into the tall weeds of silence.   


“Nothing ‘ma’am,” I lie. “I’m so sorry, I’m tired, I mean no disrespect.”


I am a schmoozer, a fixer like her. In her spell, I am back in sixth-grade Algebra, where I levitate an F into a D, in full view of Mr. Fish, my math teacher, who loved being called a genius.


“Thank you she says,” I accept your excuse. “Let’s rise above this please.” 


“Your father has this last day, per my computations, we have ample prescriptions. One of the benefits of hospice is that it’s never an emergency. No alarm trucks or cops to scream sirens. No crush of strangers in the room unless you’re estranged, and then I only allow one at a time. There will be no clandestine sweeping away of his body, I assure you.” 


I raise my hand, the Death Doula nods ok. 


I say, “Others are coming who want to spend some private time?” 


Her response is opaque, “Maybe, to be perfectly clear,” she continues, “Things are in motion, timing is everything.” 


Then I watch as she worries her armies of wrinkles into trenches. I entertain myself, observe, as her body-language rages war with her brambles of thoughts.   


“It’s okay to cry—or not,” she says. Doing simple tasks helps some, others not. That’s if you need a distraction. Be gentle in touch, and spirit. Speak softly. It’s certainly not the time for thorns, or the bee sting of honesty. Let’s give him an unremarkable, compassionate send-off.”


My son enters the room and says, “Grandpa refuses to talk. He’s staring at the ceiling.”


#


As we visit the day away, whittle time to the floor, I feel thankful we know what to expect from our assigned Death Doula. 


She teaches us to ignore distractions, and that anxiety is overrated. She makes us guffaw at her low brow gallows humor. We learn to acquire a taste for the exotic, to eat death like raw oysters, frog legs and Escargot. Toward the end of the day, she’s even got us all believing in clichés, “Death does taste exactly like chicken.” 

By evening, we grow convinced dad is mumbling up at Elvis. While in heaven, apparently Elvis has learned how to croon from the ceiling. I think it must be one of those over dramatic cape kind of things. Dad’s caught a wormhole in his head. He gently sways. I imagine Elvis looping, “a hunk, a hunk of burning love,” from somewhere above.


Herr Nurse Doula taps her Apple Watch timer. It’s purple, tickles her wrist like a vibrator. She says, “After he’s delivered, the funeral director will help you bathe and groom the nearly deceased,” who remains nameless.  She then leaves the room, silent and speechless. The time remaining grows death like dandelions.  

When his bedroom swells with silence, I close the laced windows. Not because it’s so cold and quiet, but rather because fathers melody is gone. His music staff has buckled, collapsed, unable to hold his song.  

In a refrain in my head, I can hear Jim Morrison softly sing, ‘Wintertime Love,’ from his grave in France. Or maybe just outside in the darkness, in the gusts of wind that insist on turning Maple leaves into scraps of crepe paper.  


I think, ‘shame on the living. Someone light the damn fire.  We need a pyre to burn the indifference.’ 

From now on, I’m going to disguise as tight as a shadow, in a midnight glove, a charade for the guilt of living, command all my tomorrows Mardi Gras, hide behind a Fat Tuesday mask.




Dan A. Cardoza’s poetry, nonfiction, and fiction have met international acceptance. He has an M.S. degree in education from C.S.U.S. Most recently his work has been featured in Brave Voices, Cabinet of Heed, Cleaver, Coffin Bell/2019 Anthology, Dime Show Review, Entropy, Gravel, New Flash Fiction Review, Poached Hare, Spelk, Thrice and Vamp Cat.