Paul Leroux first met Win Heald on August 29, 2007, the day his father, Gary Leroux, passed away unexpectedly shortly after arriving at Northwestern Medical Center. Paul attended Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, where he was the President of the Class of 2010, a delegate to Boys State, and a National Merit Scholar. A resident of Bakersfield, Paul now studies at Harvard College in Cambridge, MA. Every summer, Paul participated in BFA’s Rail City Writing Workshop, and in 2009, he was prompted by Rusty “The Logger” Dewees to write about someone in his community. Paul chose to write about his funeral director.
About Win Heald
Paul Leroux, June 16, 2009
It's well after midnight on the worst night of your life, and they won't let you leave. A distant and senior nurse claims to be in control of the situation, or as in control as anyone can be when everything has deviated so far from normal. The priest has come and gone, so have the detectives; it's just you, your closest family, and her, but she won't let you leave, she needs to know who will "handle the arrangements". "Handle the arrangements," she says it like that, as though this catastrophe is not a deviation at all, as though it's to become some sort of catered affair like a wedding or a prom. She knows it's not though; her age lines show that. But you know you need to get out, so you don't argue. You have to get home, whatever that is now--somewhere with a private bathroom, a private phone, somewhere that is someone's home, not this Godforsaken room with the trash bins full of used tissues or the phones that have made so many life-changing calls. You respond to her with a name you've heard once, the man who "handled the arrangements" for your great-grandmother and more than half of her family. You don’t really know him any better than any other candidate, perhaps even less than some of them, but you know that family precedent dictates here, and you aren’t going to fight that, not now, not when you have to get out.
You won't hear his voice maybe for another twelve hours. His call will probably be missed amid all the many, many calls from people you care about far more than him. Somebody in your house assigned to message duty, one of the many relatives who have already arrived on the scene, might pick it up and pass it on to you, or it might land on your voicemail, and suddenly he becomes real. "Hi, this is Win Heald down to the funeral home, I'm very sorry for your loss. We should meet today to discuss things," he states, his speech slow and matter of fact, as though he has all the time in the world. Really though, he has about 48 hours to organize the biggest event your family has ever seen, without ever having met his customers. You don't know him yet either, and in a way, he's still the enemy now, a man who wants to profit off your hard times, but there's something about his warm, deep voice, even on the phone, that makes you keep with him, and you say you'll meet later that afternoon.
He meets you at the door, dressed in a tweed suit, smiling only slightly as he shakes your hand and introduces himself to the entourage of family you've brought with you. It is a warm reception by every standard--from his perfected handshake to the respectful look in the eyes that greet you from under large, round glasses. He's been in the business for a long time, and he sets you at ease with his first hello. He invites you to the "conference room" and you discuss how exactly you want everything to go for the next few days. He knows when to smile, when to nod, when to pat you on the back, when to leave the room, and when to offer you a tissue or Creme Saver. He's genuinely impressed with what you tell him, but he knows the wound is still fresh, so he doesn't stress if you accidentally use the present tense when dictating the obituary.
He tells a story about his background to lighten the mood, or maybe you asked. "I first got into the business when I was just a young boy, younger than you. My father, who inherited the business from his father, used to pay my brother and me a dollar each to go pick up bodies at the hospital, but it was two dollars if we had to get out of bed to do it. So if the phone rang and we were still up, my brother and I would rush back to our bedrooms and pretend to be asleep so as to get twice the money." You laugh at this, maybe a little too much, but you feel like it's okay. Win wants you to know that you can laugh in his funeral home, whether you're laughing about his memories or your own. By the time you leave him and drive home through the red of a late summer evening, you wonder why the doctors and nurses the night before couldn't have been more like Win.
You probably talk to him on the phone or maybe even in person a few times between the first meeting and the visiting hours. He calls at 10:30 PM to make sure you got the priest you needed, or to finalize the obituary that's due in half an hour. He might be in the office still, or maybe he's at home, but you still picture him in that tweed suit, his white hair perfectly in order, even if he's taken off the glasses now. He stays professional for you the whole time, one safe port in the storm of your turbulent week.
He's in black the next time you see him, at the wake. He's waiting with your grandmother and your cousins when you walk in, and he gently walks you through the layout of the chapel, admiring the floral arrangements with you, amazed that he didn't know this man who was known by so many. When the proscribed hour arrives, he takes his place by the door, a convenient chaperone for the dozens of students and teachers who you hold court for in the lobby. He goes to check on your other relatives now and again, but he likes to be out front, a sort of ambassador to and from the rest of the community. He pulls you aside now and again to discuss photos or procession details or to share anecdotes about different guests, always making sure to keep the ceremonies personal and warm.
This warmth and professionalism continue the next morning, even as your composure breaks. He graciously heeds your brother's request to close the casket before he enters the chapel, and he never blinks when your grandmother changes the procession order you laid out for him the night before. On the steps of the church, he walks you through your ceremonial obligations for the service and tells you how glad he was to have been able to work with you during this time of need, and you can't help but know, maybe even say, that "He would have really liked you, Win." When you break down and cry in the front row of your town's biggest church, he feels for you, and winks in your direction, offering a tiny smile to let you know he's there. He lets you take your time leaving the church, and leaving the grave, and leaving the luncheon. He knows it was never his show, so he also lets you have your space when you and your relatives need it. At the end of the day, he hands you a green paper bag with his family logo on the front, a bag which contains everything that has come to symbolize the last week of your life, from the crucifix he gave you to place atop the casket, to the velveteen guestbook which chronicles your loved one's relationship with the community, and you can't help but wonder how you'll handle the next week of your life without his direction.
When you see Win a year and a half later at the diner or somebody else's wake, you remember with bittersweet admiration the compassion that he and his staff showed you on the worst days of your life. You hope that every town has its own Win Heald, but you know they can't all be as lucky