The three of them storm into the office a little after 4:00 in the afternoon. A gust of wind slams the door behind them, and they all but cower under the fluorescent lights. I introduce myself to each of them, shaking their hands, willing them to be somewhat easy to get to know. None of the three even tells me their name.
I assume one of the women is a sister because I have talked with her on the phone. She called about twenty minutes ago to say she was leaving the hospital and needed to have her brother cremated.
I am trying to meet them where they are. They have never done this before, and I cannot blame them for lack of trust or even lack of basic formalities, such as telling me their names.
My words land slowly but deliberately to fill the awkward silence. Instead of hustling them away into the conference room, I decide to stay standing in the entryway for a moment longer. My eyes glance toward the floor as I extend my condolences for their loss. They do not respond verbally, but the man’s eyes begin to look away from his cellphone. Progress.
I explain that we will go over some paperwork for the death certificate and for the cremation. They follow me into the arrangement room. We discuss the particulars for a while, and I hand the sister a form to sign. She has been taking notes so I do not offer her my pen. She signs the form with her pen and I step out of the room to make a photocopy. When I walk back in I overhear the man asking for the pen she has been using. She passes it to him and he makes a few notes. I eyeball the container of pens in the middle of the table just to check that it is well stocked. There are plenty to go around so I don’t force the issue.
As we talk I notice their tensions begin to soften. They ask some great questions, and I fill in as many gaps as I can. I learn they are all siblings of the deceased. They are from a different state and are leaving in the morning.
Our meeting draws to a close. As the brother walks out the door, I call after him by name when I see his cellphone still sitting on the table. I rush to return it to him, and he thanks me.
After they are gone I notice the pen the siblings shared is still sitting on the table. I pick it up to find the name of a hotel emblazoned on the side.
Tonight will be their last night to stay in that unfamiliar room. They will head home tomorrow to a place where they will all be greeted by name. Their homecoming, however, will be without their brother, and they will continue living without his familiar presence. I slip the hotel pen into my pocket. I am sure they left it behind accidentally, and it will be quickly forgotten.
Our time together today was brief, but it was part of a story they will not soon forget. I hope they left here today with more than a disposable pen. I hope the unfamiliar they encountered here became the slightest bit more bearable, if only for a moment.