I was loitering around the casket showroom on the day of a delivery. It was the coolest room in the house, a respite on muggy summer days when it was too hot to play outside. The casket room was set in the back of the property where the limbs of shade trees grew close to the building. My father rolled tremendous, long boxes into the room via an outdoor ramp that led directly inside to the casket room. But on this day two noticeably smaller boxes appeared. I stood at my father’s side when he opened the first one. In it was by far the smallest coffin I’d ever seen. The pink satin box looked like a toy. I glanced at him, but said nothing as he opened the second one – a blue satin covered baby coffin. I ran my fingers along the outside of the pink one on which puffy tufts and pleats attempted some kind of design detail. He took the lid off. Inside was a tiny pillow. I asked if it was meant for a baby girl and he said yes, it was.
“Did a baby girl die, Daddy?”
“What’d she die of?”
“She was born dead.”
He continued to unwrap the clear plastic wrapping from the blue one.
“What’s that? What’s born dead?”
“Well, it means that the baby died before it had a chance to be born, it’s called stillborn.”
“Will her parents leave the casket open?”
“No, they won’t.”
“They don’t want to see her?”
“Why? Why don’t they want to see her?”
“It’s just too hard on them. And she’s too small.”
“Did a baby boy die?”
“So why do you have that blue one then?”
“Well, sometimes baby boys die, too.”
“Did the baby girl’s parents know when the baby was going to die? You know, a lot of times you know when people are going to die, I hear you say so and then they do.”
“That’s not the same. I don’t know if they knew. It’s not something you ask a parent.”
“Do you know when I’m going to die?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Do you know when you’re going to die?”
“Where’s the baby girl, Daddy?”
He glanced over at the door.
“In the embalming room? Is she in there right now?”
He knew where my question was headed.
“We don’t embalm babies.”
I didn’t know that babies died. Until that moment I thought that only old people died.
I moved away from him and the baby coffins so that he couldn’t see me. I felt a cocktail of sickness, fear and sadness, but I wanted him to think that I could handle it. I felt his hand on my shoulder directing me out of the room, away from the boxes for dead people.
“Come on, let’s go get a Coke and some peanuts,” he said as he turned out the light.
He closed the door and left the blue baby casket in wait of its yet unidentified occupant.