Stranger

By: Megan Hart


I say almost because the conversation clung to me for the rest of the day. It left a sour taste on my tongue. It made me clumsy and forgetful, too, refusing to be put aside even though I had a meeting.


“What can I do for you, Mr. Stewart?” I folded my hands on top of the desk my father had used, and his father before him. At my left, I had a pad of lined paper. At my right, a pen. For now I kept my hands folded between them.

“It’s about my father.”

I nodded, waiting.

Dan Stewart had regular features and sandy hair. He wore a suit and tie too nice for the meeting, and probably was what he wore to work. It was too nice for an office job, which meant he was either a corporate bigwig or an attorney.

“He’s had another stroke. He’s…dying.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I might not believe in a chorus of heavenly hosts, but I understood grief.

Mr. Stewart nodded. “Thanks.”

Sometimes they needed prompting, those who sat across from me, but after a second Mr. Stewart spoke again.

“My mom doesn’t want to deal with it. She’s convinced he’s going to pull through again.”

“But you want to prepare?” I kept my hands folded, not picking up the pen.

“Yeah. My dad, he was always the sort of guy who knew what he wanted. My mom…” Stewart laughed and shrugged. “She does what my dad wants. I’m afraid that if this isn’t prepared in advance, he’s going to die and she’ll have no clue what to do. It will be a real mess.”

“Did you want to begin the planning now, yourself?” It could be awkward, planning a service without the spouse.

He shook his head. “I just want to get started. Thought I’d take some stuff home, talk about options with my mom. Talk to my brother. I just want…” He paused, his voice dipping low for a moment and I understood this was for him more than anyone else. “I just want to be prepared.”

I slid open my file drawer and pulled out the standard preplanning packet. I’d revised it myself, one of my first tasks when I’d taken over. Printed on ivory paper and tucked inside a demure navy blue folder, the packet contained checklists, suggestions and options designed to make the process as easy as possible on the mourners.

“I understand, Mr. Stewart. Being prepared can be quite a comfort.”

His smile transformed his face from plain to stunning in seconds. “My brother would say I’m being anal. And please. Call me Dan.”

I smiled in return. “I wouldn’t. Planning a funeral can be stressful and exhausting. The more you take care of beforehand the more time you have to devote to your own needs when you’re dealing with a loss.”

Dan’s smile quirked higher on one side. “Do you have a lot of people preplanning funerals?”

“You’d be surprised.” I gestured at my wall of file cabinets. “Lots of my clients have planned at least something, even if it’s just the type of religious service.”

“Ah.” He looked past me at the row of file cabinets, then met my eyes again. The intensity of his stare would have been disconcerting if his smile wasn’t so nice. “Do you handle a lot of Jewish funerals, Ms. Frawley?”

“You can call me Grace. A few. But we certainly can accommodate your service. I know Rabbi Levine from the Lebanon synagogue quite well.”

“And the chevra kadisha?” He eyed me, his mouth stumbling a bit on words he’d probably never had to say before.

I knew what the chevra kadisha did, though I’d never been present while they prepared the bodies for burial according to Jewish custom. Traditionally, Jews weren’t embalmed, nor laid to rest in anything but the simplest of pine coffins.

“We don’t have many Jewish services,” I admitted. “Most of the local congregation goes to Rohrbach’s.”

Dan shrugged. “I don’t like that guy.”

I didn’t much like him, either, but wouldn’t have ever admitted it. “I’m sure we’ll be able to provide your family with whatever they need.”

He looked at the folder in his hands, his smile fading. Funny, though, how it left its imprint on his face, which I no longer would ever have considered plain. His fingers tightened on the blue paper, but it wouldn’t crease.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m sure you can.”

His hand, when he offered it, was warm and the shake firm. I stood as he did, and walked him to the door.

“Is it hard?” he asked, turning. “Dealing with so much sorrow all the time?”

It wasn’t a question I’d never been asked, and I answered it the way I always did. “No. Death is a part of life, and I’m glad to be able to help people deal with it.”

“It doesn’t get depressing?”

I studied him. “No. It’s sad, sometimes, but that’s not the same thing, is it?”

“No. I guess not.” Another smile tweaked his mouth and made him handsome again.

It invited me to smile, too. “Call me if you need anything. I’ll be happy to talk to you and your family about how to take care of your father.”

He nodded. “Thanks.”

I closed the door behind him and went back to my desk. The unmarked pad of paper, the still-capped pen. I had paperwork to fill out and phone calls to return, but I simply sat for a moment.

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