The Last Roadtrip My father-in-law, Joe, died at the age of 85, after a ten year battle with Alzheimer's. My spouse, Monica, and I moved to Oregon from California in 2007 and her parents followed after living in Los Angeles most of their lives. Joe grew up on a farm in Nebraska, the youngest of twelve children. He followed his older brother to California in 1960 and met his future wife, Emilia, a California native. They married in 1962 and their first child arrived nearly nine months after the wedding. Joe and Emilia were devout Catholics who attended mass daily and the family was active in the parish for many years. Every single summer Joe would pull a family camper with his Volkswagen van to Kings Canyon in the Sierra. He would wake the family at two in the morning to make the arduous trek over the treacherous ascent on California's I-5 known as "the Grapevine." Everyone in Kings knew Joe as the man with the firewood because he spent much of his time chopping and gathering wood for his massive woodpile that was always stacked over his head.
When I met Monica, Joe was already exhibiting the early stages of dementia. He was an affectionate, mostly docile man, but was set in his ways. Always particular about his appearance, he carried a small comb in his pocket and could run in through his silver hair countless times a day. He was also always aware of the time, checking his watch and, as his disease progressed, did not like to be away from home after dark. When he came to our home for dinner we would try to get him to relax, but as the sun went down he would always become anxious about going home in the dark.
Joe and Emilia purchased cemetery plots at a Catholic cemetery in Los Angeles early in their marriage. When they moved to Oregon, we began to lament the logistics of getting them back to California for burial.
Having graduated from mortuary school and working in funeral service, I knew that the cost of shipping someone out of state was outrageous. At first, it became a family joke that we would put them in the back of our pick-up truck and drive them to LA. Emilia was insistent that neither she nor Joe would be embalmed. I informed them that it was within their rights to not be embalmed. In fact, I told them, it was possible to do everything ourselves without the assistance of a funeral home. My only hitch was that I wasn't sure it was legal to transport an unembalmed body over state lines.
We would have these talks over dinners several times over the last few years, planning things in more detail each time. We thought the idea of a simple casket that people could decorate would be special. As long as he would have a funeral mass, Joe was on board with any other plans.
Three years ago it became necessary to admit Joe to a memory care facility because he could no longer live at home. As his condition deteriorated, he became a shadow of the father and husband he once was. He no longer recognized what the word "daughter" meant and he could barely speak, but he seemed to have a glimmer of recognition when Monica visited him. We visited him for the last time on his birthday, two weeks before he died.
Monica and I were on vacation in the Eastern Sierra, enjoying its beautiful celebration of autumn when the care manager from Joe's facility called to tell us that he was unresponsive and breathing erratically. He'd had a similar episode previously and after figuring out that his blood sugar was probably low, he recovered. Suspecting that this may be the case again, we asked the manager to check his blood sugar. When she called to tell us that his blood sugar was normal, we knew that this was something irreversible.
Being at least a day's drive from Oregon, Monica knew that we would not possibly make it back before her father died. "I feel closer to my dad here," she said as she decided to stay in the Sierras. Because of her father's illness, Monica and her family had done a lot of anticipatory grieving over the last few years. We felt that his death would release him from a life that none of us believed he would want. She was, however, unsettled about not being with her mother at her father's bedside. She had assumed that she, too, would be with him during his last hours. Fortunately, Emilia had a cousin who only lived a few miles from her and he became essential in taking care of her during her vigil. At four thirty in the afternoon we spoke to Emilia and she told us that Joe looked mottled and his breathing was rapid and shallow. We knew he could not possibly last through the night. We were driving along the 395 highway as the Sierra Mountains glowed in the pink sky of twilight when Monica said, "Call my mom."
When I heard Emilia's surprisingly upbeat voice on the phone I knew Joe was still alive. A nurse's aide was helping her with her wheelchair from the bathroom, she informed me. She chatted for a few minutes and told me her cousin was on his way to bring her some dinner. As the aide wheeled her back to Joe's room her tone changed. "Oh, he looks so different," she said to me.
It was at that moment I knew Joe had died. The soul's departure always changes the appearance of the vessel it lives behind. I looked at Monica, hoping that she would see the unspoken message in my eyes that her father was gone.
"His chest isn't moving," Emilia said to me. She told me the nurse's aide was checking Joe's pulse. "I was only gone for a few minutes," she said with anguish. "I wasn't with my mother when she died and I wasn't here for Joe," she added.
"But you were with him when he needed you the most," I said. She had been by his side for six hours and could not understand why he would die during the brief interlude when she was out of the room. I'd had a lot of experience with dying patients and no matter how long the family's vigil lasted, the dying would always slip away as soon as the family left the room. I told Emilia this. "You gave him permission to go and he took the opportunity."
I hung up the phone and Monica looked out the window. The sun was dipping behind the mountains. "The last light of day and my father dies," she said.
"Your dad always needed to get home before dark," I reminded her.
Emilia's cousin, Bob, arrived within a few minutes. He gave her a hamburger and some French fries, unaware of what had just transpired. Still sitting at the bedside, Emilia began to eat her dinner. Halfway through her meal she said to Bob, "Joe's dead." She finished her meal and asked Bob, who by this time was slightly shell-shocked, to take her home.
The following day Monica was on the phone trying to make arrangements. She had to contact the cemetery and then prove that her grandfather wasn't going to show up and want the plot. Then she had to coordinate plans with her brother Kris and her daughter Kate who was studying out of the country. Our plan to take Joe's body home was thwarted by our absence and we had to have a mortuary pick him up, but we held on to our intention to take him, in a casket, to Los Angeles. We just needed to calculate how much dry ice we would actually need.
"The mechanic said I shouldn't take my truck out of town," Monica said. Her 1995 Ford F-150 had seen better days and I did not relish the thought of being stranded in the California central valley with her dead father in the back.
Monica's mother and daughter wanted no part of transporting a dead body so they decided to take a separate car and drive to LA. "We'll rent a van," I said. "Then we can leave it in LA and all drive back to Oregon in one vehicle." Brilliant.
I called several truck rental companies, including the one that advertised WE HAVE WHAT YOU WANT WHEN YOU NEED IT. I purposefully omitted my purpose in wanting to rent a van. Instead, I told them that I had a very long couch. Turns out, no company had what I wanted nor did they have it when I needed it. None of them would allow me to take a van one-way, but several of them offered me a 16-foot truck, way more vehicle than I wanted to deal with or needed for our 700 mile journey. "You better book it quickly," I was told. "Supplies are limited." On our drive back to Oregon, I still had no idea how we were going to transport a casket. I was feeling pressured to break down and rent the over-sized truck. I was about to make the call to the rental truck agency when I stopped and studied the interior of our Saturn Vue. We used the car to travel all over the country and I had once slept in the back with the seats folded down. Jokingly, I said to Monica, "We don't need to bring the casket."
She looked at me curiously.
"We can put your dad in the back of this," I said.
"How?" she inquired.
"I think he'll fit. He's not very tall." I expected her to stop the car and dump me out on the side of the road. To my surprise, she hardly balked at the idea and it was at this moment I realized she had a pathological trust in me that no other human had ever had.
That night, at home, I tossed and turned, thinking about what I had proposed. A dead body. Unembalmed. Nine days old. In my car. The possible ramifications of nature doing what nature does sent my senses reeling. I woke up the next morning and expressed my concerns to Monica as delicately as I could. She called the mortuary that picked Joe up and told the funeral director about my concerns.
"Can we take my father in a body bag, on ice, in the back of our car?" she asked. "My spouse is concerned about..."
I'm concerned about decay! I wanted to say, but I kept my mouth shut.
I expected to hear him shouting at the other end of the line about how insane we must be. Instead he said, simply. "No problem." Although our request was unusual, it was not impossible. He put bodies on dry ice all the time, he told us. He would arrange it all and we could pick Joe up early Sunday morning. I asked the funeral director if he would close Joe's eyes and mouth. The family had told me repeatedly that they did not want to view the body, but I knew that could possibly change. "Does he always have a beard?" he asked.
"Yes, but I'll email you a picture so you can trim it like he wore it."
I cleared out the back of the car, put the seats down, and climbed into the back. I lay in the back to find that I fit perfectly even if I positioned myself diagonally. If Joe had been much taller than me we would either have to put his head into the driver's area or we would have to flex his legs. I was only slightly more comfortable about our plan.
On Halloween, we met Emilia at the local funeral home to make arrangements about the service and try to coordinate with the LA mortuary. It was decided that she would select a casket and we would get it in LA. We considered a metal casket, but found that the simple pine casket would be more conducive to decorating because we could attach things better. I pointed out the beauty and simplicity of an Orthodox Jewish casket, completely wood, tastefully ornate, and inexpensive. Joe was, at heart, a modest farm boy from Nebraska and it seemed fitting. The problem with getting a casket in Los Angles was that the mortuary in LA would gouge Emilia for a handsome sum. We went online and I searched for an Orthodox casket. I stumbled upon a company in Los Angeles who could deliver one on Monday, the day before the funeral, but they only had one in stock and it was varnished. Thinking the varnish would inhibit the decorating, we told them we wanted one made of unfinished pine.
"We can make one for you," they replied.
As if by fate, another cousin, Paul, was visiting from Orange County. The timing of his visit was a blessing and the night was cathartic for everyone. We ate dinner, played music, laughed, cried, danced, and drank. And drank some more. Paul had brought a white whiskey called Silver Coyote from Santa Fe which was a step up from pure moonshine. I thought it best to let Monica indulge. It had been a hard week and it wasn't going to get any easier.
Up to this point, I'd been holding myself together. I wasn't sad for Joe because I knew he was free. I had been constantly thinking about the details of the trip we were planning to Los Angeles. I told Emilia that I would take care of Joe and I wanted to dress him and put him in his casket. Finally, I asked if she'd thought about what she wanted him to wear.
"I thought I'd put him in his wedding suit," she said.
I had never seen Joe in a suit. He always had on a pair of jeans, a white T-shirt and flannel shirt. I said to her, "You know, you don't have to put him in a suit if you don't want."
She looked at me quizzically. "I don't?"
"No," I said. "Put him in what he wore every day. You can dress him in anything you want."
She quickly discarded the thought of a suit aside and I followed her into her room She had me reach up and take down a package of crisp brand new white undershirts. "I don't have any underwear for him. He's been wearing diapers for the past few years."
I felt a lump in my throat. I thought I could pick up a pair of jockey shorts for him the next day. We went to Joe's closet. I opened it and looked at the row of neatly hung familiar flannel shirts. Stacked tidily on the shelf were three pairs of Levis. I took a pair from the shelf and held them up for her approval as I fought back the tears. I didn't want her to see me cry. Choosing a shirt was more difficult. No, that one is too worn. No, not the yellow one. How about blue? I put my hand on a red and black plaid one. I'd not seen it before. "That one's new," she said. "You take it." I tried to get Monica's attention. I didn't think it was my place to choose her father's final wardrobe, but she was wrapped up in a deep, inebriated conversation with Paul.
"Yes, the blue one," I told Emilia.
Lastly, I went into his dresser and took out a pair of dark socks. I carried the clothes to the kitchen and asked Monica for a paper bag and started to cry.
"Your dad has no underwear."
Paul piped up. "I just bought a pack of underwear. I would love to contribute. What color do you want? I have blue, red, gray, black..." He staggered into the guest room and rummaged through his luggage.
"Blue," Emilia said.
Paul came back with a brand new pair of dark blue Jockey shorts, slightly off from Joe's usual style, but we thought he'd be pleased. I was nervous on Sunday morning as we drove to the mortuary where the funeral director brought Joe's body, in a large black body bag, on a stretcher, and positioned him at the back of my car. I opened the back of the car and we slid him in. His head lay nestled against the back of the driver's seat, and, as I predicted, he fit perfectly at a diagonal. We covered him with a wool blanket and purple Tibetan bedspread. I kept wondering how Monica was handling it all. Here was her father, ice cold and bundled up in a bag, nestled between our backpacks.
The funeral director instructed me on the ice and assured me that he was 'quite cold' from the 20 pounds of dry ice that was packed around Joe's body. Again, I expressed my concerns about potential problems and asked him about the eyes and mouth. "The features are set," he said, "but his mouth may open enroute. You should be fine." I closed the back of the car and thanked him. He handed me a piece of paper-- a transit permit-- that allowed us to transport the body legally. It was all pretty simple.
Kate, Monica's daughter, was quietly uneasy and slightly squeamish about this whole endeavor. She and Emilia were already on the road in another car. They planned to stop for the night in Stockton while Monica and I would get closer to LA. We climbed into the car and headed south toward California.
At any entry point into California there is an agriculture checkpoint. Cars are routinely stopped to inspect for out-of-state fruit. Lately, on our trips across the border the inspectors had been waving us through without so much as a glance. "You know damn well that today is the day that they're going to want to inspect the car, don't you?" I asked.
"Well, we have a permit," Monica said simply.
Joe always hated long car rides. The disease made him impatient and car rides made him anxious. "Where the hell are we going?" he'd ask constantly. I looked into the back of the car at the lovingly packaged corpse and thought how irritated he'd be if he knew the trip ahead of him. "My dad is frozen in a bag in the backseat," Monica pondered out loud.
My brain censor wandered off momentarily and I said, "Yeah, we have a Papa-pop."
To my relief, she laughed. "Papa--sicle." She laughed even harder. "We're taking you on your last road trip, Daddy-O!" she said. "It's a good thing your mother isn't seeing this," I said.
Four hours down the road we decided to meet Emilia and Kate for lunch. They were waiting for us in a deli just outside Williams. "How's it going?" Emilia asked.
"Great. Best trip I've ever had with Joe. He hasn't complained about a thing."
After lunch, we went back to the parking lot and I lost sight of Monica and Emilia. "Where's your grandmother?" I asked Kate. "She went to your car."
Cautiously, I went to my car and was dismayed to find Monica had opened the back of the car while Emilia, sitting in her wheelchair, studied the black and green parcel that was her husband of fifty years.
"I wanted to see," she said when I stood by. She touched the vinyl bag. "Okay then, I'm ready to go."
"I wasn't expecting that," I told Monica as we got back into the car.
As we got back onto the freeway, two young men were holding up cardboard signs, asking for a ride.
"Let's pick them up," I said. "That would be a riot."
"I'm sure we could scoot my dad over."
By dusk we stopped to get coffee at a McDonald's and contemplated where we should spend the night. As we were sitting in the car with the doors open and reading the map, a smartly dressed African American man startled us by walking up to the car. He started talking about his stranded vehicle and how he had to get to LA because his mother was in the hospital. He gave us a long dissertation about his woes as we listened in silence. In my head I was thinking, Please ask for a ride, please ask for a ride. To my disappointment, he finally asked for money. With an inward smirk, I stepped out of the car, opened the back door and pointed to my expansive cargo. "We'd love to help you out, but we're so short on funds that we have to take her father's body to Los Angeles to bury him."
"But we have a permit," Monica chimed.
The man's eyes widened and he blanched. "Oh, oh, I'm ssssorry," he stammered. "Bless you. Oh, my. Sorry. Bless you. Bless you." He bowed and scurried off like a scalded cat.
"We probably shouldn't do that, huh?" Monica said.
I shrugged. We checked into a hotel in Santa Nella. The hotel was not very busy and I felt reasonably safe. It was surreal leaving Joe in the car all night. Again, I wondered how Monica was handling it. I was also nervous that he might be getting too warm. I put my hand on the outside of the bag to check the temperature. It was still cold.
I was a little restless because I could not see the car from the room. Monica went out to the car four different times for one excuse or another. Each time she made me go with her. She just wanted to check on her dad.
"Is it weird leaving him in the car?" I asked.
"Did you want to bring him into the room?" I asked nervously as I tried to imagine the two of us hoisting Joe up the stairs and having him spend the night on the floor of our hotel room. Surely no one would notice.
To my utmost relief, she shook her head.
Exhausted, we fell asleep easily. Sometime in the middle of the night I was awakened by the bright light and the fan coming on in the bathroom. It lit up the whole room. Monica was sound asleep. What the hell? I climbed out of bed and glanced at the red numbers on the bedside clock: 2:07. I turned the bathroom light and fan off and went back to bed. My heart pounded as I lay there. Maybe Joe was trying to tell me something. Maybe someone was breaking into the car and stealing his body. I should get up and go check. No, the car alarm would go off. I convinced myself to go back to sleep. I said to Monica, "Your dad turned on the bathroom light." I didn't tell her what time it was.
As if she was expecting it, she mumbled sleepily, "Uh huh."
In the morning I asked her, "Why would your dad wake us up so early?"
"Whenever we went Kings my dad would get us up at 2am to leave."
"The light went on just after 2:00. I guess he's ready to get going."
To my relief, Joe was safe and snug in the back of the car. We estimated that we would get into Los Angeles in the early afternoon where we would take him to the mortuary. Monica and I planned to return in the morning to dress him and prepare him for the service.
On the drive to LA I fell asleep and when I woke up Monica was visibly shaken and upset. We were stuck in a tangle of traffic. "I got to the Grapevine and lost it," she explained. "That's the last time he'll ever be on that road."
When we entered Los Angeles Monica said the words I found most disturbing: "I don't want to unload him."
Visions of Norman Bates and his mother buzzed through my brain. "We can't drive around with your dead father in our car forever."
"I know," she cried. "It's harder than I thought it would be. I don't want to leave him here," she said as we pulled into the parking lot. "Would it help if we got him ready this afternoon instead of waiting until morning?"
I told the "memorial specialist" (we never saw a funeral director) what we wanted to do. She told us drive around to the garage area where we would take Joe out of the car. When we backed the car into the garage, four wide-eyed mortuary suits stood by with a stretcher. I opened the back of the car. Clearly, no one had ever brought their own loved one in the back of a Saturn before. I was more anxious about the condition of the body and I asked one of the men if they would take Joe out of the pouch, put him on a dressing table and put a sheet over him before. I was afraid the shock of seeing her dad would upset Monica.
"Are you all right doing this?" I asked as I pondered whether or not I'd actually be able to go through this with one of my own parents.
"Yes. I want to do this, but once I'm in there, don't ask me how I'm doing. I just have to focus on the task."
The staff placed Joe's body on a dressing table in one of the visitation rooms. As I opened the door I saw that they had wrapped him in a sheet, but his head was uncovered. Again, I worried that Monica would not be prepared, but she walked in and we got down to what we set out to do. I bit my tongue to suppress the natural urge to ask her how she was.
I carefully unwrapped the sheet and was immediately struck by how cold, actually frozen, he still was. His condition was impeccable. He looked more peaceful than we'd seen him in a long time. His mouth did come open slightly. Monica took the clothes from the paper bag and we began to dress him. It was challenging as one of his arms was quite stiff from being frozen. We took his nursing home clothes off and as we put his brand new Jockey shorts on we smiled at Paul's contribution. Together we turned him side to side and put his undershirt on, then slipped his Levis on, making sure his white T-shirt was tucked in. Then we put his flannel shirt on and finally, his weathered blue fleece vest. Our biggest challenge was that his hair was too long, something that would probably bother Joe more than anything. Monica took the small black comb that he carried and ran it through his hair. It cascaded over the pillow. "He's become an Oregon hippy," I said to Monica.
"Should I cut it?" she asked.
"God, no," I replied.
After much fussing, we managed to comb it back and under so that it resembled the Joe we knew. His beard, thanks to the funeral director, looked neatly trimmed.
I went to lobby in search of the memorial specialist to tell her we were ready to have the casket. When she came in we were deafened by a sudden fire alarm. What are the odds? They told us we had to evacuate the building and I felt strange leaving Joe lying on the dressing table, unattended.
Monica and I spent nearly 45 minutes in the parking lot waiting for the fire department to clear the alarm. All the while I fretted that this huge outfit of a mortuary would push Joe into a utility closet or otherwise misplace him.
Sometime during the interruption, someone had placed Joe in his casket and returned him to the visitation room. We fussed with his hair some more before Monica tucked his handkerchief and comb into his shirt pocket. We planned for the rest of the family to come in the next afternoon and put items in the casket with him, but I put his wallet in his pocket and red rosary in his left hand. "I'm shocked at how good he looks," I said to Monica. "Your mom might want to see him after all."
"I know," she said.
I asked that his features be reset in case the rest of the family wanted to view him. No matter how much time one spends with a loved one, it's never enough. It was hard to walk out of the room, but we felt better than he was in repose and looked peaceful. The morning of the funeral was one of the most difficult times for Monica because it truly meant the end of the journey, the absolute end of her father's life. I asked her if she was glad she did what we did and she assured me she would have not had it any other way. At 11:30 the next day I went into the visitation room where they had Joe's casket open with the lid completely off. The light unfinished pine gave off a woodsy scent in the room. I was alarmed because I knew Emilia and Kris did not want to see him but from the door I could not see into the casket. I went out to tell Monica and Emilia that the casket was open. I told Emilia that I thought Joe looked peaceful and I would have discouraged her if I thought he looked bad in the least.
"Okay, I want to see him," she said.
I wheeled her chair over to the side of the casket and Monica and I helped her to stand. She touched him and remarked how peaceful he looked. Joe always displayed Emilia's college portrait in frame on his dresser. Emilia took the picture and placed it over Joe's heart. Kris and his family arrived by noon. They all gathered at the casket and viewed their father and grandfather. In honor of Joe's firebuilding skills, his grandson Jake put a small tied bundle of wood next to Joe's leg. I put Joe's keys in his front pocket of his jeans. Emilia gave me a spoon that Joe always used. He had always mused that he wanted buried with him. I put it in his shirt pocket. Kris took Joe's well-worn Cornhuskers hat and asked me to put it on his father's head. I slipped it on and we adjusted it jauntily tilted to the right. "He just dropped it on top of his head all the time," Monica said.
Finally, Kris pulled out a 32 ounce can of Miller Genuine Draft and I tucked it into Joe's right hand. I had visions of a long neck, but Kris said, "Do you know how hard this beer is to find? Who knew?" Everyone was afraid the nun would come in and blow a gasket if she saw a beer in Joe's right hand and a rosary in his left. Other extended family members also came in. Friends brought in cedar wood from Kings Canyon and we placed that next to his other leg. We placed the lid on the casket before we could be chastised and they came to take Joe to the chapel for the mass.
After the mass they took the casket to the vestibule entry where we began to pass out a variety of colored pens and stickers. Some of the attendees looked stunned when we told them we were going to decorate Joe's casket, but soon everyone was getting involved. Our friend Paul had stickers made before we left with images of Nebraska and even had one made that said SILVER CREEK BOOSTER CLUB that we placed at the foot of the casket. Emilia's cousin, David, attached a roasting stick and marshmallows to the top and we tacked a green T-shirt with a picture of Snoopy emblazoned with JOE CAMPER on the lid. People wrote sentiments, quotes, love notes, and messages for Joe. Some drew pictures while others simply signed their names. Emilia placed three white roses on top.
I consider it a privilege to be able to take part in what turned out to be a beautiful tribute to Joe. I'm honored that the family entrusted me with this endeavor and I'm in awe of Monica for being courageous enough to take part in her father's final journey. We understand that many people would be reluctant undertake their own deceased, but we feel that it is important for people to know that they have options. By law, the family has custody of a body of a loved one, but our society is conditioned to believe that we must turn our loved ones over to "professionals." It is also a widely held belief that the body must be embalmed, but this is not the case. It is legal for the next-of-kin or an appointed person to act completely as a funeral director in 45 states. This experience has created an awareness that creating and controlling a personalized farewell to our loved ones is one of the greatest gifts one can give both to their loved one and to themselves.