Red Casket

Susan Bludworth Newton

© Copyright 2020 by Susan Bludworth Newton


Photo courtesy of Sky Casket Company.
Photo courtesy of Sky Casket Company.
I want a red casket and I want it closed.

Wait, I am rushing ahead. Allow me to start with my credentials. I have attended well over 50 funerals to date. My mother had a large family, so dozens from that pool. She outlived almost everyone she knew, so there are a few more dozen. I worked at an ALS clinic, so eventually - every patient. Throw in a scattering of people more directly connected to me and it might be as high as 70. And yes, I keep count. In a large, Baptist, Texas family, this is not tragic, it’s braggin’ rights.

Almost all were people of faith, so those services are inspiring at some point. I have attended funerals of all faiths. One denomination was a bit bleak as there was no mention, what so ever, of any afterlife. Which leads me to Baptist funerals. Baptists believe “Once saved, always saved.” Once you become a Christian, you have a guarantee of an eternity of light, love, mansions and streets of gold. Funerals can be celebrations.

And you can’t find a bad Baptist funeral. Favorite hymns are played, humorous vignettes told and the pastor, with a fresh audience, is always in an up mood. The departed is described as a faithful church attender, strong believer, loving family member, unforgettable friend, completely healed and at peace with the Lord, waiting to welcome us home one day. Well…if you are a believer. This is where the preacher lights up and covers the steps to salvation – believing Jesus is the son of God, died for our sins, rose again and if we accept him into our hearts as such, we will spend our future on earth and afterwards, with God. See how one can sneak that in?  The service typically wraps up with a rousing chorus of “In the Sweet By and By”.

When my mother passed on at 92, my sister and I wanted something a little different and had to have a stern talk with her Baptist pastor. It would be a small audience; most attending are already believers, and the others are sick of us trying to recruit them. Our real concern is for our own children, who have tuned out our voices and beliefs for years.

Back at home, we got Mama’s Bible and the pages fell open to the book of Philippians and there were three scriptures underlined in a pen’s red ink and a note handwritten by my mother. “Christianity is not what you know, but Who you know.” The underlined verses summed up the way to that relationship. We had an opening and three sermon points. We would just need a strong finish.

Her eulogy was about the words she was known for and we listed endearing, quirky and comical remarks she was known to make. After the eulogy, the pastor opened my mother’s Bible, read the underlined verses and her comment, then looked directly at our children and asked,

"Have you ever known your Granny to be wrong?"

Three heads shook no.

Well, I don’t advise crossing her now.”

It got a laugh and hopefully their attention. He then burst into an unapproved, but impressive, verse of “How Great Thou Art” – acapella at that.

So – I know funerals, and in our family, we like to leave you laughing.

Before you think I'm all doom and gloom, it is quite the opposite. My physician, Dr. Mary Ellen Bluntzer, and I have an arrangement. She is never to tell me any negative health related news. I lose all hope with a 48-hour cold so we are in agreement I will not be the cheerful patient anyone would enjoy visiting. If she ever needs to treat me for, say breast cancer, it should go something along the lines of:

Take this new medication to prevent early dementia Susan. It may make you nauseous and your hair thinner, so I'll double up on your antidepressant.”

I have to go back to 2015 for the beginnings of my funeral planning. I am in a chilled, fluorescent lit room, socked feet in a fetching, robin’s egg blue paper dress, cut “oh-so-daring” all the way down the front. I 'm still holding my breath after the first photo, the gown slid provocatively off my right shoulder, right breast in the masher, when Miss Tech looks at the screen, grabs the phone and spits out:

Dr. Radiologist, don’t go to lunch yet.”

Are you kidding me? That's not in their training manual. You know they go to great lengths not to frighten you during these procedures. I’m of the opinion Botox was originally devised for the faces of x-ray technicians to ensure no eyebrow can be raised and the rest of us are just fortunate some old gals at the FDA approved today's cosmetic use of it.

Miss Tech finishes the exam and leaves the room. I make a deliberate decision not to panic. Just a few minutes lapse before the door opens.

Ms. Newton, we're moving to another room to do a sonogram now.”

The second room is dimly lit and I am lying on my back as Miss Tech applies the cold gel, runs the sonogram wand over my right breast and underarm, while her eyes never leave the computer screen, nor blink.

I’ll be right back with the doctor.”

I am left alone on the table in a darkening room for anywhere from five minutes to five hours. This is where the voices begin.

Well crap. This is it. I’m too young. I want out of here.”

I hear my clock begin to tick down.

Funeral planning begins.

My first thought is to find the bootleg tape on YouTube of Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, singing Amazing Grace and start my “Funeral File.” The video is delightful. Steven is singing a duet with a church choir member who can almost out-sing him. His whole body is singing, from his toes up. His smile gets bigger with each higher note the woman hits and Steven hugs and kisses her at the end. Always makes me happy. I watched it every morning one year.

Now everyone I know has had quite their fill of my, let’s call it ‘fascination’, with this rock star. My son, Will, listens only to classic rock but turns off the radio within the first three notes of an Aerosmith song. I’ve been planning to outlive all my friends, as all the women in my mother’s family do, so the video will only annoy my son, which is fine, as there will also be some cash he's not expecting coming his way. I guess I should add Linda Ronstadt's song “Goodbye Old Friend”, now that I will be going first.

Dr. Radiologist comes in, repeats the sonogram procedure, stares at the screen, hangs up the wand. She says "Nothing there." and exits the room. Whew. I leave happy, carefree and satisfied with the music chosen for a distant funeral. Time well spent. Voices are gone.

Until one Wednesday in January of 2019.

They have updated Texas Women’s Health Center since 2015 and I am treated to a lovely salmon hued, spa like robe, belted at the waist. The procedure goes much smoother, no alarm bells set off or screams of “Doctor, STAT.” I'm deciding what to wear to the new church group I'm going to that night. Dr. Radiologist comes in and says there are some teeny tiny calcifications in my left breast that surely mean nothing - unless it’s cancer, and I must schedule a return visit for a needle biopsy.

Hmmm. I’m a little shook. I have trouble putting a dollar bill in the parking lot machine. Then I make a deliberate decision not to worry. I won't even mention it to anyone. And I begin to worry.

That evening, sitting around a table with my church group, I consider mentioning it as a prayer request. However, one after the other cite something far more dreadful than my little fret. Finally, the woman to my left steals my thunder.

My best friend is in the hospital. The worst diagnosis. They went in and lopped off both breasts.” She swings her arm across her front like an axe taking down a tree.

I make no prayer request.

I call my sister on the way home, but not to tell her, as she really will worry. After 15 minutes of listening to what a terrible mother her daughter-in-law is, I blurt out,

They found something on my mammogram.”

Oh, it’s nothing.” she chirps. “I’ve had a biopsy before. It’s nothing. Can you believe Kate let the baby stay up until ten?”

Now I want someone to listen to me. I call my lifelong friend, Tracy, who interrupts me.

Don’t say another word out loud. You can speak a disease into existence. Do you know how devastated I would be if something happened to you? There is nothing wrong in you.”

Again – not the comfort I’m looking for.

I call my neighbor Darla who will need to drive me to and from the procedure and she demands I schedule it immediately as she needs to know now. I don’t need to know now. I don’t want to know now. I don’t want to ever know.

The following morning I wisely consult the internet for procedure details, treatments and prognosis possibilities. That begins my struggle between the light and the dark – or – an unusually late onset of schizophrenia, because now there are voices yelling in my head.

What? It’s over? I don’t have thirty plus years to complete my bucket list? I have to start guitar lessons.”

Straight pins are popping balloons in my brain.

Others might outlive me. My will is outdated. Where are those songs taped? I have work to do.”

Then a different voice. “Calm down. Make a list.” I love lists.

  1. Start going to church every Sunday so the preacher can say I was a faithful member.

  2. Find those two songs and add some Baptist standards: “In the Garden” and “It is Well with My Soul.” It’s just not a funeral without those two.

  3. Write down the headstone quote. I’ve had it for years. “She loved God, her son and Aerosmith, just not sure in what order.”

  4. Plan reception and for that I need attendance numbers. I have no idea. What if no one comes? People are busy these days. My sister has her hands full with mistreated grandchildren. Tracy will never admit I’m no longer alive and well. I know Darla will come but how many others?

  5. Make more friends. Get to know my neighbors. Invite the ladies in my writing class over. Plan a lovely, intimate dinner for these folks after the funeral service.

  6. Wait, what if the church is full? How much should I allot for refreshments? And where the hell are all those people right now when I can’t find a bit of comfort? If over one hundred attend, cookies and punch only.

  7. Call my attorney, Hal.

Hal, we need to update my will.”

What now?" he asks.

We have been through several wills. The first was the "Will is Still a Minor Will." Then the "Will has Chosen a Private College Will" and the current one is the "Will Makes More Money Than I Do Will" where he gets a thank you card for being so successful after I spend my last years traveling and shopping.

"Now I need an “If I’m Hit by a Bus Tomorrow Will” because I do not dare say out loud any other possible cause of death.

Hal advises, “You don’t want to leave a young man enough money to think he can quit his job. You need a financial planner. You need a trust. You don't want any possible ex-wives getting any of it." I love my attorney Hal.

  1. That is too much work. To hell with the trust. “If there's enough left, buy Will a Lamborghini.” I love my son Will.

  2. Find and destroy old journals and secret writing file Carmen told us to keep.

  3. Ignore the voices. Think positive. Avoid the news, sad movies and the prison channel.

By Sunday night, I'm exhausted and drinking is my new hobby. But I take a breath. My ducks are lining up. I’m up to Season 6 of my favorite British Game Show, “Would I Lie to You?” I have a call in to Mary Ellen to prescribe me Xanax for the needle biopsy. And my funeral is planned.

Thursday comes and no one is laughing. The staff is kind but not jolly. A needle biopsy includes happy pain medication and a pinch of pain. Dr. Radiologist removes all the calcifications and forwards me to a breast cancer surgeon to discuss if a larger, surgical biopsy is needed. She does not think so and lists prevention measures to take: Lose weight, No alcohol, Vigorous exercise 300 minutes per week, and No stress. There. She has a sense of humor. She adds, I should stop taking hormone replacement therapy.

Now that sentence alone could be a book title, with chapter titles of Hair Loss, Weight Gain, Mood Swings, Forgetfulness, Why Am I Crying? and Just Shut Up.

Time flies by and I have had three follow-up clear mammograms. I’m eating healthier, rarely drink and have a Peloton bike the doctor thinks I should be riding.

I’m in good shape, I have a bit higher chance of getting breast cancer in the future. Not worried. Never even think about it.

And now we have a pandemic and I’m in the “older, more at risk” category. So I just pull up my funeral plan and make it my screensaver on my desktop.

Which brings me back to my initial request.

I want a closed red casket - my favorite color and what a statement piece. (Amazon has a beauty on sale for $899, free shipping; but where would I store it?) I hope to need it when it is much more expensive.

So, if you do find yourself at my funeral, sooner than later, please wait til near the end of the service and whisper through your mask to the person six feet away from you:

You know why the casket is closed, don’t you?”

Then chuckle. And with a smile, say,

She isn’t in there. She finally ran off with Steven Tyler. I hear they're at his place on Maui.”

Pass it on.”

I'm a woman of a certain age, I inherited the ability to find humor in everything.  As an Oil and Gas businesswoman in Dallas, Texas, I now have plenty of time for writing and submissions.  My experience includes a screenplay ranked in the top 10% of the Austin Film & Screenplay Festival and a 750-word essay making it to the Final Round of a recent Women on Writing Contest.

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