Well, I wanted to start covering my face in public anyway.
Other than that, this pandemic has been an absolute nightmare. When I had the honor of embalming the very first covid case in Washington state, I thought it was a fluke. This virus will never take hold in America because we have, you know, first world healthcare.
What a joke.
At least I’m not going broke. I haven’t decided if it’s worth it or not. I called my mom a little while ago and she asked me how I was doing in quarantine, relaxing at home…I reminded her I’m working more than I have in a long time. 14-hour days are the norm. I started this blog piece in…March. I get down a few sentences and then I fall asleep.
We are beyond capacity at the mortuary, at every place I’m working. We have been stacking bodies to the ceiling, stacking them two to a shelf, calling other funeral homes all over the state seeing if we can unload some of our cases onto them. And they’re calling us, asking the same thing.
It’s never been like this, not anywhere I’ve worked, not even during flu season.
I also made it through my third Ramadan, which was a different experience since I couldn’t go to the mosques and there were no Islamic events and I didn’t get to enjoy that sense of community that just grabbed me during my first Ramadan. In a way, it helped me. I got a bit more sleep due to not being able to stand in prayer for five hours at night. I also didn’t gain weight, since there was no huge potluck at the end of the 30 days. I recited the entire Quran in Arabic for the first time.
Another reason my workload is so heavy now is because I’m one of the younger people in the funeral business; most funeral directors here are in their 60s and 70s, with a few still working into their 80s and 90s. People in that age group are either afraid to go to work, or most managers would rather not take the risk and prefer to pay them unemployment instead. So at the workplace where I have a long-standing assignment, they have laid off over half their workforce – the funeral service professionals and the administrative staff. I am now the only licensed embalmer, absorbing the workload of three or four additional staff people.
It is getting to me.
I sleep maybe 3 or 4 hours a night on my workdays, and on my days off, I might sleep 16 hours a day. Of course, I spend most of my days off…getting called into work. My husband asked me, “How is it a day off if you always end up going to work?” Because…I’m an American funeral director.
We’re coming up on our anniversary in just a few days! His US visa was approved. It’s hitting me that he’s going to be here. In my house. I’ll have to get a bigger closet and get him on my phone plan and he wants to grow flowers outside. I told him some words I’m not certain I believe: “Don’t worry; when you’re here I won’t be working until midnight!”
In addition to the large number of Covid deaths – the funeral home is very close to that Life Care Center, which was considered the epicenter of the US outbreak – I am seeing a lot of drug overdoses. A lot of suicides. In one week we had two senior-citizen gun suicides. The following week we had a teenage girl gun suicide. I’ve also gotten a few more suicides that were witnessed, including the teenage girl. Imagine how much you have to be hurting to do something like that. To say to everyone, You are going to see me; I will make you watch.
And I started to suffer physically from the amount of work, the lack of sleep, the sheer exhaustion of it all. One day in the prep room I got dizzy, then the room went black, I managed to make it to a step stool to sit down, and then I was waking up on the floor. I’m sure I was out for less than a minute. I weakly called upstairs to the secretary and managed to squeak out “…help me…not well…” because I was scheduled to drive to a cemetery later and I didn’t feel comfortable taking responsibility for a casket anymore. She came downstairs, right away asks me if I’m pregnant (no), I started laughing, and then crying out of embarrassment. I hate losing control and being weak and not being able to do my job.
And recently, it happened again, only worse. My dog was coughing so I brought him to the emergency vet, spent about three hours waiting for him while they took x-rays and called him fat (he is), and then paid my bill and set to leave…and then woke up outside, on my back, with people standing over me. I was confused. I wasn’t in pain, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I heard a man’s voice; “…she fell twice, she hit her head the second time…” Paramedics were there. I felt a needle in my arm, a blood pressure cuff, and no pain. I tried to speak and it came out a garbled mess. Anyway, I got rushed to the hospital and their verdict was severe dehydration coupled with overuse of caffeine, as well as my pre-existing heart problem. I’ve been doing it again. Back up to three energy drinks per day, plus three over-the-counter diet pills, plus coffee.
It occurs to me this job is physically breaking me. I am getting older, and not stronger. I am suffering from the lack of sleep and the overuse of the caffeine I need just to stay awake. I need what my salary can’t buy: sleep and vitality. It hits me I may not be able to do this job much longer.
I told my husband I wanted to come to Pakistan instead of him coming to the US. I wouldn’t have to do anything. No work. No chores, because they have servants. Nothing but be with my husband and get to know my new family and study the Quran all day, every day. He told me his parents would let me bring the dog. What’s the point of making such good money when it costs so much, financially and physically, just to go on?
He is determined to get out and see the world. He never has. He’s never left Pakistan, never been on a plane, never spoken to a non-Muslim. So at first, at least for a while, he wants to try living in another country.
A lot has changed at work. It’s not just wearing masks in the office. I realized I actually like my co-workers, and it’s hard having to stay away from them as much as possible. No more lunches, no more picking up bodies together in the same van. On a two-person call, we each have to drive separate vans. If you know what a bad driver I am, that’s highly inefficient, especially if we’re going to a downtown apartment with scarce parking. I miss just being the one who does the paperwork while the other guy drives.
It occurs to me I could die, though I haven’t had so much as a cough. I could die alone in an American hospital, not how I want to go. If I moved to Pakistan at least I could die surrounded by family, and be buried in the cemetery which is home to generations of the Prophet’s descendants (my husband’s family).
My boss, already a germaphobe, has taken it to new heights. Frantically wiping doorknobs and stair rails and not allowing paper to be brought into the office. I probably change my gloves ten times on every case. I know some embalmers who don’t even bother to wear gloves.
We aren’t denying funeral services to families but we’re only allowing ten people in at a time. That means people arrive to grieve in shifts. Viewings are sometimes scheduled for only an hour.
We’ve all stopped saying “When covid is over.” This is the new normal.