Future Reflections        Winter 2014        CAREERS

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An Unusual and Demanding Profession

by Cassandra McNabb-McKinney

Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 56, No. 9, October 2013

From the Editor: Blind people work successfully in countless occupations. They are lawyers, physicians, teachers, social workers, business owners, and scientists. Yet there are always new challenges for us to meet and unforeseen barriers for us to break down. In a presentation at the 2013 national convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Cassie McNabb-McKinney talked about her work as an embalmer and funeral director and described the path that led her to this unusual profession.

Cassandra McNabb-McKinney makes a point at the podium.Good afternoon, fellow Federationists. I'm glad that you're all here--alive and breathing and enjoying this convention. Before I begin my talk today, I'd like for you to do a hands-on activity. I'd like for you to take your index finger and place it at the top of your nose, and then take your thumb and place it under your nose. I would like you to keep your fingers right as they are and move them over to your ear, and it should be the same length. If it's not, well, nobody's perfect. I'll be sharing some more interesting facts about landmarks on your face a little bit later in my presentation.

In order to tell you about my unique career, I think it's important that I tell you two stories. The first story is how I came to the Federation, and the second story is about the day that changed my life, the day I became an embalmer.

I came to the Federation in 2003 at eighteen years of age. I had never been around a group of such enthusiastic, encouraging blind people before. It changed my life. At that time I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my future. I started as a chemistry major at a college in Tennessee, which is my home state. I soon found out chemistry was not for me, because calculus was just not my friend. I decided to attend mortuary school and to pursue a career in something I felt strongly in my heart. It wasn't about being a part of something that was unique as a career, but it was about following my calling.

The journey through mortuary school was difficult. It was full of challenge. I was the first legally blind student to attend John A. Gupton College of Mortuary Science. I remember the first day of embalming class; my professor and I were having a conversation about adaptations, and I asked him, "How close am I going to be able to get to these people that I'm going to be embalming?" I wanted to make sure I'd be able to get close. His response shocked me. He said, "Well, Cassie, you can get as close as you can handle." I learned in my first day of clinicals how close that was. It wasn't as close as I originally thought.

I went on to graduate second in my class, and, following graduation, the real work started. Where does a young woman in a career that is not really open to women, a young woman who is also blind, find a job? My pursuit led me to a friend who owned a corporation of funeral homes. I sent my résumé to him, and he offered his assistance. He said, "Are you willing to relocate?" I said, "Sure."

A week later I received a call from Mr. Robert Di Luzio in Keene, New Hampshire. I didn't even know where New Hampshire was. I grew up in west Tennessee; it was hard enough to figure out where Nashville was, much less another state! So I got on an airplane, and I flew, for the first time, to New Hampshire. I started working there two weeks later, and I've been there for six and a half years.

Now I guess I should get back to the Federation part of this story. In 2009 I had been an apprentice for two and a half years. Apprenticeship is a difficult challenge; every funeral director must serve an apprenticeship before being licensed to serve families. It had been two and a half years of tears and struggle, but there were accomplishments along the way.

One day in that summer of 2009, at the NFB convention in Detroit, I got up early. We were going to march. We marched for independence that day. For me it wasn't just a march for independence; it was a march for self-knowledge. During the march I received a bell; I have it with me today. I don't think there were very many of these bells made, so I count it as a very special symbol.

When I returned home to New Hampshire, I placed the bell on my desk, and many people asked me what it stood for. I said that it stands for independence. My boss, Mr. Di Luzio, heard this so many times he started to tell people the story. Whenever I had a bad day, when the struggle of the apprenticeship got to be too much, I would go to my desk and pick up the bell and ring it. I remembered the sound of the bells ringing that hot July day. The work that we were doing in the Federation, the inspiration of the people who had come before me--it helped me go on.

Now the second story. It was January 29, 2010. This is a special day for two reasons: first, it was my birthday; and second, it was the day I became an embalmer. In the state of New Hampshire, you have to perform a practical exam in front of a board member of the New Hampshire Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. They examine every process that you do in embalming a body--no pressure, right? I got up in the morning, and I knew that this was the day. I knew it was going to be a day that would change my life.

When I arrived at work, I made all the proper phone calls to notify the board member that I had the gentleman to embalm. She informed me that I should go ahead and do the first steps of the process. I want to explain to you, very briefly, what those processes are. [nervous laughter] This is what you've all been waiting for, right? And it's right after lunch.

Okay, so, nonvisual techniques of embalming, here we go. I had never shaved a man before I became an apprentice embalmer. And so I thought, Oh my goodness--sharp object, a person that everybody's going to see; this could be interesting! I learned that gentle strokes are best, and I also learned that, after you've finished, if you gently run your hand across someone's face, you can tell if you missed anything. This is what I do to this day.

So I did this portion. I closed the person's eyes and mouth (I won't tell you how we do that--many of you probably don't want to know). This is all part of the beginning processes to make them appear as they did in life.

Then comes the surgical portion. Now, I'm going to tell you a little bit because it's important. When doing the surgical portion, there are two main blood vessels that you have to locate: the carotid artery and the jugular vein. They are identifiable by touch. For those of you who have never felt an artery, it feels like a large rubber band. The only way I can describe how you know where the vein is is to say that it's colder than anywhere else that you're touching. See, that wasn't too bad, right?

So the board member watched. I remember that, as I was doing the exam, we were talking about how to make chicken and dumplings. I explained that my mom owned a restaurant. Most of you might not know my mom, but some of you do--her name is Sharon Treadway. She is a Randolph-Sheppard vendor and also a member of the board of directors for the National Merchants Division, the organization of blind merchants. She taught me how to make chicken and dumplings.

When I finished the exam I thought it had gone very well. But at the end of the exam the board member doesn't tell you if you passed. She had Mr. Di Luzio come down, and they walked out--they didn't say anything to me.

People always ask me, "Do you ever talk to the people?" And that day I did. I remember saying, "I think we did pretty good."

Then Mr. Di Luzio came back. He had been working with me for three years. He walked across the room, and he gave me a hug. I was crying, of course. Overwhelmed. And he said, "You passed." I got even more overwhelmed then!

After I collected myself I looked at him and I said, "You know we just made history, right?" And he said, "We did."

It wasn't that I was doing something extraordinary; it was that I was doing something as a pioneer. There weren't any other embalmers in New Hampshire who were legally blind. This knowledge of being a pioneer--I think of it as a responsibility. I have a responsibility to the generations after me to show them that anything is possible. You might not become an embalmer, but you can do anything that you can imagine.

I want to speak for just a moment to the parents who are here. I am blessed with parents who supported me, who never told me that my dreams were impossible. The fact that you are here for your children shows that you believe their dreams are possible. My father is sighted. He knew when I was born that the world would be different for me. But he didn't let that stop his dreams and his aspirations for his little girl. I have one short story that deals with my dad, and then I'll conclude.

When I was three, we lived in west Tennessee, and in our back yard was a swamp. There were turtles that would come up, and my father thought it would be awesome if his little girl could see what these turtles looked like. One morning he caught one, put it in an old swimming pool, and charged my mom with the job of making sure it didn't leave the pool. Then he got me up--it was probably about eight o'clock in the morning. He got me up and he brought me outside to the pool. He was so proud. And he showed me the turtle. I was able to see what it looked like; I was able to touch it, and I still remember what it looked like.

My father didn't know about the Federation until almost twenty years later, but he had the philosophy--both of my parents did. I don't think I would be the young professional that I am today if it hadn't been for my parents.

I promised you that there'd be some more landmarks. In the geography of your face, your face is the width of five of your eyes if you measure from left to right, and you are exactly six-and-a-half heads tall. That's some Jeopardy information for you.

I am honored that Dr. Maurer asked me to speak to you today. It is an honor to stand here and be able to tell you my story. I hope that it is a positive influence; I hope that it inspires you to pursue your dreams, to go out and do whatever it is that you would like to do with your life. Dream big, work hard, and someday maybe you can say that you've made history. Thank you.

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