In the “lower 48” more often than not, the United States Post Office is a place of scorn. It is a place of inconvenience. There never is a place to park. The lines are endless and by the time you get to the counter you are so frustrated that there are only two clerks behind the counter. (Of course this is the look and feel of big city Post Offices. I am sure small towns have a different persona.) If you have a certified letter or a package slip you have to figure when you can find time to go. If you work that is even a bigger challenge. The lines during lunch time are even longer, inside as well as waiting for a parking spot. At every opportunity I always found a way to ship through UPS or FedEx. There were satellite stations all over town. Unlike the US Postal Service, UPS and FedEx had better home delivery options. Until moving to Alaska I avoided going to US Post Office at all costs.
Since moving to a remote rural community in Alaska I have found that the United States Post Office is a lifeline to the outside world. It is not only a place to pick up your mail, both wanted and unwanted, and packages, it is a place where community events and garage sales are advertised, bake sales, raffle ticket sales, and a time to catch up with a neighbor or co-worker. Sure there are days and times of the year that the lines are longer but that is ok because there is usually someone there that you can catch up with or even do a little business. Given that there is no mail delivery, just about everyone needs to go to the Post Office sooner or later. We had a clerk that recently retired who knew everyone by name as well as your box number. It really reminds me of the old theme song from the TV show Cheers, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” Rural Alaskan Post Offices serve as the epicenter of life in small town Alaska.
Last week, however, I found myself a little reticent to go to the Post Office. The thing about remote rural Alaska is that there are few services. Sure we have a Safeway, a few bars and restaurants, a delightful health food store with a wonderful lunch counter, a car repair guy, a hardware store, a number of gift shops, an emergency medicine hospital, K-12 city schools, a library, three museum facilities, a NAPA, and a few other oddities but the thing we do not have is a funeral home with cremation services. The closest cremation provider is 305 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska. While my love was transported on a RAVN Air flight to Anchorage I was told that he would be coming home via the United States Post Office. That truly seemed odd to me. A man who was not only big in character but big in size seemed too large to ship via the US Postal service.
Each day last week I tentatively went to the Post Office. Friends and co-workers offered to go to the Post office for me but I really did not want just anyone to pick up this package. I really felt that I owed it to my love to bring him home myself. I would run into acquaintances at the Post Office and we would have the typical conversation, “Hey, how’s it going?” My response would be vague and more often than not I would say “I’m hanging in there.” On Wednesday I called the Alaska Cremation Society and asked when I could expect my package. They said that my love would be arriving Thursday morning.
I typically go to the Post Office at lunch time before going home for lunch. On Thursday I went to the Post Office as I always do but was uncertain how I would react to this package slip. I knew that I wanted my love at home. One of the last things I remember him saying is that he did not want to go to Anchorage. The whole time he was in Anchorage I felt guilty that he was there. I had no other choice. So I gathered my strength and went to the Post Office. I walked slowly to the Post Box and found a bunch of catalogues, bills and two package slips. I thought hmm two. I examined both carefully. A couple of days earlier I spoke with the Post Master to ask him what I could expect the package slip to say. He stated that it would have the box signature required checked and that the location of the box would say safe. Well one of the slips had the signature required checked but it need not say safe. Cremated remains are treated very carefully and are secured in a safe at both ends. Well I figured this slip had to be the one. (The second slip was a book club book.) So before I went to the counter, I put the loose mail in my car because I wanted to have both hands free to carry this precious parcel.
Walking tentatively back in the Post Office with my two package slips, I found that there was no one in line. There was a new clerk behind the counter. Oh he had been there for a couple of months but I still did not know his name and he not mine. I laid both of my package slips on the counter. Away he went into the back. First he handed me the book club order and as he did the second package teetered on the counter. I knew this was my love. I stated calmly, yet firmly, please do not drop my husband. Mortified, he said “Oh I’m sorry, I’ll be more careful,” As he input confirmation data into his computer and requested that I sign the pin pad I got to thinking about how much the box weighed. I had no idea what to expect. Was my love light and fluffy? I really did not know. I mustered the physical and emotional strength to pick this precious package up and said “Oh that is heavier than I thought.”
As I walked away from the counter, a gentleman behind me said, “Did you get a box of quarters?” I looked at him and said, “No, this is my husband.” He too was mortified. Walking back to the car, I thought about the quarters and remembered when my love and I owned a bar. Each day my love would go to the bank across the street and buy a box of quarters. For the duration of my walk to the car I tried to figure out if the two were comparable.
When I got to the car, I set my love and the book on the hood of the car. I did not want to drop my packages. I threw the book in the back seat. The last time my love was in the car we were driving to the ER on that final day. He was sitting in the front passenger seat. I knew that is where this package should sit. I placed my love in the seat and began to sob uncontrollably. I debated whether or not to put his seatbelt on. I shut his door and went around the car to the driver’s seat. I sat there for quite a while before I could get it together. Finally I started the car and I drove my love home. It seemed weird yet satisfying that I was taking him home.
At home I knew what I had to do. My love requested until the memorial cruise in the San Juan Islands he wanted to hang out on the dining room table. As my love enjoyed the holidays so much we felt this was a great place for him. While not with us in full physical being, he would be with us for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Both holidays he would make lavish meals that would feed no less than 25. I examined the table with a fancy trivet, napkin holder and a few papers. My love needed to be placed just right. I moved the fancy trivet to the center of the table and placed the US Postal Express box on it. Until my son has time to build something better, I felt that this was a way to elevate my love with a little distinction.
As my son and I have not opened the box, I am assuming that my love is inside. A couple of times I have asked if he would like to open the shipping box, of course not with a knife because we do not want to break the TSA seal underneath. Frustrated, my son says “Mom, what are we going to do? Examine his DNA? That would break the TSA seal and then we will have trouble getting him on the airplane.” I am told that this is part of the grief process where I doubt that he is actually in the box. What if they put the wrong person in the box? I am certain I will always have doubts. For now, I will take a leap of faith that my love is indeed in a TSA Pre-approved box.
So, friends where there is life, there is death. The United States Postal Service is so much more than a place of scorn. The Post Offices throughout remote rural Alaska serve not only to deliver mail and Amazon orders. The Post Office is a conveyance of cremated remains. I will never go into the Post Office with the same light nonchalant feel again. I will know that this is the place that my love came home to me.