The childhood behavior that drove my mother nuts – besides the fire-setting – was probably my late-night roaming.
I remember being five years old and creeping out of my bedroom window carrying nothing more than a little doll blanket and just…going for a walk. It was a chance for me to be alone and not have to talk to people and just focus on things I found interesting, like bugs and flowers. Sometimes I wouldn’t even go back home, but would be found by a concerned citizen the next morning, sleeping on a park bench.
This led to problems like my little brother being influenced to do the same, and the two of us eventually finding ourselves on the roof when we moved into a two-story house. I remember his windows having to be locked.
I was sent to live with my dad in Alaska, in a remote village where snowdrifts literally bury your home. He lived in the one apartment building in town with my stepmom, and with two vigilant parents I found it impossible to sneak out. Still though, I missed my outdoor solitude, and sometimes on the walk home from school when the wind and snow got too harsh, I would dig a hole in the side of a snowbank and just curl up in it until the storm passed, and stay in it for a bit afterward too. I used to wonder if it would be safe for me to stay the whole night.
I really did walk to school in a snowstorm every day, both ways. But not uphill.
My favorite activity was feeding the dogs with my dad. We had anywhere from twelve to twenty sled dogs at any time, and they were all chained on the beach a short drive (by Snowmobile; no one had a car) from the apartment building. We would take two buckets and fill them with a mix of bulk dog food and hot water, and put them in a trailer attached to the Snowmobile. My dad would let me drive, but really I was only steering.
I would feed the dogs the same hot slop every day while my dad usually smoked in secret. We rarely spoke. I just showed up right on time and followed the routine. It was our thing, our ritual, and any time I got in trouble at school the first privilege of mine to be revoked was feeding the dogs.
I think my dad recognized that I needed this unstructured quiet time. He can’t have been that enthralled by chain-smoking on a dark beach in sub-zero temps. But sometimes he seemed to drag out the task, and I would either let a dog off its chain and play with it, or venture out onto the frozen Bering Strait, or just sit and look at the Northern Lights, making a mental note that my 4th grade teacher back home had asked me to tell him interesting things about Alaska if I ever came back to his classroom. If. Nothing was certain. But I would [and did] tell him about the Northern Lights.
And on the beach – a large expanse of snow and jagged ice from October to May – there was a small ramshackle cabin, really a wooden lean-to built of stacked logs that was used to store dog food and buckets. It offered no protection from the elements; miniature snowhills reached the ceiling, which couldn’t have been more than six feet high. There was a hinged door built of similar logs, but the snow prevented it from closing. I became obsessed with the idea of this being “my” space that I could sleep in by myself. I would wear my down-filled snow gear and the wolverine fur hat and bring an arctic sleeping bag and a flashlight, so it would probably be totally safe for a nine-year-old girl to spend a winter night in there, in a remote part of Alaska where occasionally even our sled dogs would freeze to death.
Of course my parents never agreed to this, and I overheard a few late-night conversations about my incessant demands to sleep in the place. In the village school, the Health & PE unit had started a section about basic first aid, and I took notes on this as evidence that I could take care of myself alone in the cabin. I collected bandaids and gauze and practiced making weird splints with materials that were eventually taken away from me because I wouldn’t shut up about it.
It ended anticlimactically. I hurried over to the cabin after school one day, deciding I would take a nap in my ski clothes. The door was frozen ajar and I stepped over the mound of snow at the entrance, kicked snow aside as though any minute I would uncover a serene sleeping spot, and wasn’t discouraged to find only more snow. I opened my backpack and got out my book (White Fang by Jack London) and started to read my assignment but was too excited, giddy even, over finally getting to be alone in my cabin. I took out my kit with the popsicle sticks and gauze and practiced making splints instead, in case I broke my wrist or whatever my parents were so worried about. I wondered how much a broken bone would hurt and if the splint would really work. I read more White Fang and sat there giggling to myself about how I was in the cabin and no one knew. I made a little snow pillow and laid down for a second to read the fight scene in White Fang where the dog fought a lynx and I wondered why I never saw any lynxes in Alaska and why our stupid school mascot was a panther and not a lynx. Could I write a letter about this? Who is in charge of these things? Then I got bored and went home, and never mentioned or thought of the cabin again.
I’ve noticed, particularly among younger women who may be working in their first job, a prevalent fear of working alone. They don’t want to be alone with a dead body or alone at night or driving alone on the freeway. I’ve tried to schedule people for services only to have younger women refuse if it meant they would be “out late alone.”
I understand this is a fear that is ingrained into many women from a young age, but it didn’t take with me, and my earliest memories are of seeking solitude. I mean, I flew to Pakistan alone to marry a stranger. I flew to Mexico alone for surgery. In my early 20s I hitchhiked nearly every day as a means of transportation. I have been homeless alone in a car/tent/motel/homeless shelter as young as 17. I went to rehab alone and jail alone and overdosed alone and fell asleep alone in my first apartment after starting a fire, alone. I can do all kinds of things by myself, some of them less fatal. Sometimes in high school I’d even go to a movie or restaurant alone!
I have the expected cache of drug-related stories I can reach into, and what catches people’s attention is the fact that I was alone when I did these things. I located and bought drugs from strangers alone, and used alone, for nearly every first use of any substance.
Solitude is an oddity. My brother told me that all the cool kids thought I was weird because they would see me in the park in the middle of the night, just walking around the bike path listening to my headphones. It was okay that they were in the park at night, because they were with friends. I was doing something weird.
Perhaps the people who are afraid to be alone are those who aren’t comfortable with their own thoughts, or with silence, or without being seen. How limiting, not to be able to find meaning and interest and even entertainment within. Someone like me won’t get bored in a mindless factory job, or in solitary confinement for an extended time period, or in a prep room working on the 4th body after not speaking for the whole day. It’s what I do. I’ve never in my life crawled into a parent’s bed because I didn’t want to be alone, and I’ve never walked off the job in tears due to missing my family.
A few days ago, I was trudging uphill at midnight at a quick pace, with a 30-lb backpack, getting out of the way anytime a car came by. Someone stopped. They were concerned. Did I need a ride? Was everything all right? It’s fine. I’m just walking. On purpose, for exercise. I did it at midnight because that was when I happened to have the energy, since it’s Ramadan. But the sight of someone walking by herself when she didn’t have to was odd.
I’ve had nurses ask me if I was scared to be by myself in a car with a dead body. I think that’s less dangerous than being a nurse who won’t give someone fentanyl when they ask.
Realistically, everyone knows a dead body or an empty building is not dangerous. They are afraid of where their mind will go if left in that building, or with that body, alone. Perhaps they also feel very in tune with their environments and can sense things like ghosts. I’ve written before that I don’t feel the presence of any spirits and that if I did, it would be impossible to do this work.
I’m seeing a pattern lately of younger women who are just starting in the business suddenly cut their careers short due to what they perceive as unreasonable demands made by employers. Anything you want to do becomes a “right” and requests not to do the thing, or to do a specific work thing, are seen as evidences of an “abusive” environment. I even had a funeral director apologize to me because he had asked me to embalm two bodies, which took a total of eight hours, and he promised me that “we don’t normally abuse people this way.” By…giving them good money to do interesting things on their own time in a very relaxed environment…?
And sometimes, the work thing that needs to be done is a body being removed from a death scene or prepared for viewing or driven to another state, and very often these things need to be done alone. I completely understand not being able to work by yourself in cases of large funeral services or very heavy people, but just because you’re afraid of your thoughts? No. It is unreasonable on the part of any funeral director to claim they will serve families and then decide they can’t operate a car alone after 8pm.
Are there not enough units in mortuary school devoted to the actual day-to-day realities of working in a funeral home, or making a living freelancing? Maybe schools should hire exceptionally inspirational and positive people like me to speak to their classes. They wouldn’t be able to make eye contact with me but I could tell them all about how I spun off the road after being awake 36 hours and hallucinating that a truck was barreling straight for me and I kept zigzagging trying to get away from it and then realized no one was there. There was no truck. I was…alone. I napped on the side of the freeway
and then went and got the body.
So good. Really loved this. Thank you for your writing.
Does this line of work allow a lot of opportunities to work alone outside of the prep room? I’m starting mortuary school in the Fall and trade embalming is my biggest interest as I vastly prefer to get into my zone and just work alone for extended periods of time. Just curious if there are opportunities suitable for this type of person in other areas of the death care industry.