- So… Henry. You remember Henry.
It was another first for me in my medical examiner career.
I couldn’t quite believe it was happening, though I had been told by all my co-workers that the day was coming. They had spoken about this upcoming miracle with such certainty, such assurance. Still, right up until the event occurred, I assumed it was nothing more than a pipe-dream, a myth that had been concocted by our betters to keep us all faithfully believing.
Kind of like the rapture or the second coming of Christ as it was preached by my childhood church, I had been told that these events were imminent. I dutifully believed in them with all the starry eyed faith of an uncorrupted child. But here I am, 40 years later and if the rapture happened, I can only assume that it was something like every cool-kid party that ever took place in that I was not included among the chosen.
And then it happened.
We got a new truck.
I was astonished.
In the past, whenever it was suggested that the county spend any money on the medical examiners at all, the prospect was always met with an attitude of incredulous ire. One time my boss suggested that maybe I should get a “personal day” due to the 4 infant deaths I had handled that month. The county commissioners balked like she had asked them to put a wet-bar in the morgue. Another time I was awarded a $1000 scholarship to attend an out-of-state training on clandestine graves and buried bone retrieval. Everyone with any authority in the matter said I couldn’t go because the county would still have to throw down the money to fly me there and find a couch for me to sleep on.
So I literally choked with excitement the day I pulled into our parking lot to find a brand-new, glistening white, extended cab USS Enterprise parked in the spot where our old, beaten-up Millennium Falcon used to be.
Henry was beaming with glee when I dashed into the office to find him for shift change and to get the specs on our new ride. It had bluetooth, a USB port and air conditioning like a wind-tunnel. The light-bar atop the cab flashed strobes with enough intensity to permanently sear out your retinas. We had a remote-controlled spot-light. We had a back-up camera. Sitting in the driver’s seat, it felt like I was piloting a top-of-the-line cruise ship. The odometer, adorably, read a measly “000053”.
I spent my morning blissfully puttering around, toying with the power windows and waving and shouting things like “FUCK YEAH!” or “DAMN RIGHT!” every time I passed a cop who flashed me a thumbs-up upon seeing my pimped-out body-hauler. I was in the middle of programming all the pre-set buttons on the radio when I happened across a station in which the morning deejays were describing an article that they had found online. This article listed the 10 dirtiest surfaces that people touch everyday. I paused to listen as they mentioned things like hotel remote controls, shopping carts or buttons on the ATM. Unsurprisingly, money has been found to be utterly filthy, as well as computer keyboards. I couldn’t help but think of myself and my co-workers as this list went on. Of course we’ve all been trained to wear gloves when we’re handling the dead, but I couldn’t help but think of all the filthy homes, all the hospitals, all the hotels, even the funeral homes that we entered everyday. We touched dead people’s clothing, their phones, their floors, their drugs… And when was the last time we had thought to wash the cell phone? The computer? God… the computer charging cable? How often had I staggered into my apartment after a long day of trudging through crack-houses and slums, walking through horrific crime scenes and car accidents. And how often did I remember to leave my work shoes outside? I mean, honestly, how many times did I just lurch into my bedroom and collapse on the bed without even taking them off?
I shuddered, but reminded myself that the truck was brand new. The steering wheel and door handles were, as yet, unsullied. We could start over. We could do better. This would be the dawning of a new era. We were going to be clean!
I was deluding myself with these thoughts as I pulled off at a Starbucks to get some coffee. And as I returned to the new truck, I realized there was something on the passenger side of the cab. Was it bird-shit? God, someone hadn’t already chipped our paint with a careless door swing, had they? As I got closer, I realized the passenger-side door was liberally smeared with… son of a bitch… I tried to convince myself it might have been a splash from Henry’s hot-chocolate. Or maybe he had spilled soy-sauce. But there was really no mistaking it. It was blood. The passenger side door of our brand-new truck was gaily decorated with someone’s blood.
In my excitement over the new truck, I vaguely remembered Henry saying something about going out on a gnarly car accident the night before.
…and I briefly considered calling the radio show and telling them this tale… and about the kind of shit WE find on OUR surfaces at work, but I doubted they would appreciate the irony.
People don’t generally find blood spatter funny.
Our job is gross… really gross. Distressingly gross. But I’ve gotten used to it. In fact, I’m so desensitized that I find blood spatter, among other things, funny.
One of the funniest things I run into is squeamish men. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten called by a clearly rattled law enforcement officer who simply couldn’t handle standing in a room with an overripe corpse.
“Uh, hey Grace.” They’ll say, “we have a dead body here. Uh, it’s a… male. Date of birth: 5/10/43. Uh, name of John Smith. What info do you need?”
“Well,” I’ll respond. “What do we know about this guy? Do we have any history? Does he appear to be injured?”
I’ll hear the shrug through the phone. “The neighbor called in a welfare check.”
“Um, there are newspapers piled up on the front step”
That’s when I’ll hear the sound of passing traffic through the phone, indicating the officer is probably calling from the curb outside the home.
“You didn’t go inside the house, did you,” I’ll ask with the I’m-so-disappointed-in-you tone.
“Do you need me to come to the scene and save you from the stinky dead body?”
They don’t even try to play it cool anymore, which I appreciate. They know they’re being ridiculous and they own it. Even when I arrive and call them a bunch of delicate flowers. They don’t give a damn what I say, so long as they don’t have to actually go into that house and view the oozing remains of a man who has been marinating in his bathtub for the last month.
Firefighters are far worse though. Seriously, you’ve never seen a more melodramatic squad of prima donnas.
One time I was called to a death scene that turned out to be a parking lot in one of those multi-building apartment mega-plexes. Some dude had commit suicide in his car in the parking lot. Before he did the deed, however, he somehow secured a canvas car cover over the vehicle so no one knew he was in there. Days passed, maybe even a couple of weeks. The only reason he was discovered was the parking-lot was being repaved. Residents had been warned to move their vehicles to make way for the work and when the decedent’s car didn’t move, a tow-truck was called. The poor tow-truck driver arrived and pulled the cover off the car to hook it up and haul it away… and … well… you get the idea.
The decedent was not only morbidly obese, but also bloated and well into the decomposition process. The car was a tiny two-door hatch-back and the dead guy had fully reclined his seat prior to abandoning the mortal coil. His massive, seeping torso almost filled the passenger compartment and he was wedged in there tighter than a chunk of half-chewed gristle between your teeth. We were going to have to call the fire department to cut the car apart to get him out.
Predictably, when they arrived the local heroes took one look at the half-melted body in the driver’s seat and began suiting up as though they were mounting an expedition to cut open a space shuttle. Out came the self-contained breathing tanks, the masks, the double-thick gloves, the heavy-duty fire-retardant boots. But best of all, out came the full body, white plastic suits. They donned all their gear with grim resolve and set out their tools on the pavement with the precision of a surgeon arranging scalpels before surgery.
“What the fuck is all this?” I murmured to Detective Labrecht, who was watching this scene unfold as incredulously as I. Labrecht snorted, both of us thinking the same thing. We weren’t inside an enclosed space with a rotting cadaver that was emitting noxious gasses, we weren’t stomping through a burning building that was hazy with toxic smoke. We were outside. The early summer day was clear and sunny with a light but constant breeze dancing playfully through the air. This was going to be nasty, but it wasn’t like we were trapped in a sealed compartment with an ebola victim. Why the fire department was convinced they needed their bottled air was a complete mystery to everyone who had experience with death investigation. While a rotting body is inarguably vile… it’s certainly not any more infectious than your run-of-the-mill dude with a cold on the treadmill next to yours at the gym. I mean, sure, it made sense they needed their turn-out gear for the heavy machinery. But the hazmat suits and oxygen tanks seemed a little… I don’t know… excessive.
“Jesus,” I muttered. “Look at them, they look like fucking space-men. Did someone tell them we found a dead body on the moon?”
Labrecht snorted again as we both pulled out our cameras. I stepped forward and joined in the melee, making sure I got some clear photos of the decedent and the interior of the car just as the roof was pulled off. As for Labrecht, he got a wide array of shots, featuring me directing the removal of the body from the car. He showed me the pics afterwards. They’re pretty funny. I’m in a full-on action pose, perched on the gaping hood of the car like Washington crossing the Delaware in my sensible business-casual clothing and sturdy shoes. As far as protective gear, I’m wearing gloves but that’s it. And all around me are a bunch of anonymous, hooded, bulky white figures… dutifully pulling chunks of metal off the car and breathing their canned atmosphere for fear of inadvertently contracting a zombie virus. When they finished, they packed up their toys with an offended air and scurried back to the safety of their station for a critical incident debriefing and a group hug.
Okay, okay. I know you’re probably going to give me a ration of shit for being so critical of the fire department. But someone needs to do it. Otherwise they would all continue on in their group-delusion that they can do no wrong and every woman in the world longs to suck their collective cocks right before cooking them brownies.
I want some motherfucking brownies for once.
And to be completely honest, I’m not above the Tyvekk suit myself. Though I’ve only donned one once… a scene which was, by far, the most disgusting thing I’d ever encountered.
Our city has a massive homeless population. Everywhere you look there’s another tent-city popping up like a weed from between the cracks in the sidewalk. There are stretches of road in the dead center of town where it isn’t safe to walk because the entire thoroughfare is thick with ramshackle cardboard structures and ratty tents that house belligerent panhandlers. The streets are lined with permanently parked cars and broken down campers that serve as domiciles for some of these characters, and it was in one such vehicle that I truly hit my gross-out limit.
No one was sure how long the RV been parked there. All anyone could say was that our dead guy hadn’t been seen for a couple of weeks, maybe more. In the heavy heat of a coastal summer, the odor of decomposition came on gradually, yet unmistakably. When someone finally thought to call a welfare check, it was because the rest of the homeless population had vacated the block on account of the smell and an oozing pile of some unnamed goop was seeping out the side door.
When investigating police called me they weren’t only NOT in the RV, they weren’t even within eyeshot of the thing. But they could smell it.
I pulled up to the scene and as soon as I opened the door to my truck I could detect the stench of human decomposition. As reported, I approached the RV and noted that there was a suspicious bubbling brown puddle forming beneath the side door which led into the camper. As I got closer, I realized the puddle was literally alive with a writhing colony of maggots.
“We saw him through the windshield!” Hollered one of the cops who was standing by his car which was parked a good foot-ball field away. I circled around to the front of the camper and climbed up on the bumper. Deep within the bowels of the camper, I could glimpse the legs and lower torso of the decedent, laying on the floor of the camper with the head and upper torso hidden within the stairwell leading from the kitchen area to that seeping side-door. Our guy was essentially tiled downward, head-first into the stairwell, and that was how he died. I gulped.
“Okay…” I said to the lone police officer who had ventured forward to observe me looking in the RV. “That’s… ummm… wow.”
He nodded. “We were waiting to break in until you got here.” And with that, he pulled out his baton-sized flashlight and bashed in the driver’s side window of the cab. The smell that wafted out nearly knocked both of us to the ground.
“Oh my fucking GOD!” I gasped. The cop was covering his nose and mouth as he nodded and reached in the shattered window to unlock the door.
This was the moment that I decided to break out the Tyvekk suit. My eyes were watering as the scent of advanced rot filled the air around me, a pungent vapor, thick with flies. I ended up having to vault into the RV and sift through the decedent’s belongings in an effort to find anything that might give us an idea of who he was and why he was dead. I crawled over the crumbling mosaic of empty beer cans and empty food containers the get a look at our guy. His head was hidden in the shadow of the stairwell and his torso was swollen with bloat. Spidery black veins threaded the surface of his thinning skin. His fingertips had hardened to wood-like points and blebs of fluid collected beneath his epidermis, threatening to burst open like water balloons with even the slightest movement. I perched over him and heaved the side door open with my shoulder in an attempt to gain better access to a physical exam. When the door finally gave way and crashed open… his head tumbled out into the puddle below with a hollow, wet thud.
The cops gagged and I nearly fell on the body. I hurdled myself over him and landed in a bush just clear of the head and the puddle beneath it. I sprang up to check myself for injury and filth, then glanced around to see if anyone had witnessed my acrobatics. I noted that now I was not only being observed by the police, but employees from the business across the street had decided to take their lunch-break walks… which was actually just an excuse to come outside and see what was going on.
“Hey,” I said to one of the cops as I ambled back over to them to report on my findings. I had managed to locate a wallet, a few prescription bottles and a truly prolific collection of empty liquor bottles. “Who are those people, “ I asked as I gestured to the clean-cut parade of 9-5ers that all marched past the scene with their hands over their noses and mouths. They would glance erratically at me and the cops, but didn’t make eye-contact and there faces were contorted into expressions of profound disgust.
“Those are the people that called this in,” the closest officer told me. They were complaining about the smell and someone finally called in a welfare check.”
“They work across the street?”
I watched as they all trooped back into the front doors. The building was a tastefully rustic edifice with a massive, glass-walled foyer. A huge sign above the door proclaimed “*Ubiquitous White Guy’s Name* Ministries” I’m not omitting the name just to be nice, I honestly don’t recall the dude’s name. But it was his building, and apparently, “ministries” is what they did there.
I turned back to the cops.
“So… who is that guy,” I asked, gesturing to the sign.
“I dunno, some televangelist or something. I guess this is his headquarters. I’d never heard of him either.”
“They’re some kind of evangelical ministry and some guy was dead in a Winnebago in front of their building for a month and they only called because of the smell?”
People frequently ask me what’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Usually these people are morbidly curious voyeurs who want me to regale them with tales of severed heads and murder scenes that look like something out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And I mean, I tell stories like those on this blog sometimes. But I like to think that more often, I hold up humanity’s dark mirror. I like to show us the truths that I have learned about people by investigating their deaths.
So try this on for size…
I once had a friend tell me that people are disgusted by maggots, flies, cockroaches and other vermin because we don’t like to be reminded of how dirty we are. We tend to despise the things that clean up after us. And while I suspect my friend had probably smoked a little too much weed when he evolved this theory, I think there maybe a bit of truth to it. We don’t like to see the reality of our own filth. And as I watched all those “evangelists” avert their eyes and scurry back into the safety of their designer, glass-walled palace, I decided I had a new answer for the next time someone asked me what’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen… and it wasn’t the rotting guy in the RV.
In short order, I loaded the dead guy (and his head) into the back of my truck and was almost ready to go when the cops approached me again. They told me that they had gotten ahold of our decedent’s family, but they were all out of state and wouldn’t be able to make it into town for a couple of days.
“So, I guess we’ll just leave the Winnebago here. I mean, the tags are current and it’s a public street. It’s perfectly legal for it to be here.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I mean, after all… if you’re going to be giving the keys to the family when they get into town, it can stay here until they figure out what to do with it.”
The officer glanced at the RV, with it’s smashed front window and the frothy puddle of decomposition beneath the door. “In any other circumstance, I’d have the fire department come here and hose down the street, but there’s no drainage at the bottom of this hill. It would just turn into a swimming pool.”
“Sounds fine to me,” I said. “Leave it.”
As we all went onward into our days… me to deliver our decedent to his autopsy, and the police to govern any number of other catastrophes that might occur… I think all of us thought it, but no one said anything.
Let the smell stay there.
Let it stay. Leave it. The storefront full of missionaries could sit there and smell the scent of neglected human life and death until the weather washed it all away.
While it may have been our job, mine and the police, to pronounce the decedent and figure out why he was dead, it certainly wasn’t our job to save these people from the repercussions of their actions… or lack thereof. I wouldn’t say that this guy’s death was on their heads, but it certainly happened right under their noses… And none of them gave a shit until they were personally inconvenienced by it.
It’s the worst thing that I see. It gets under my skin more than the crushed bodies of car accident victims, more than the SIDS babies, more than the brutal homicides.
People who die and no one notices or cares until they start to smell.
This is our mess… the one that no one wants to clean up. This is the stinking rot at the core of our existence. This is the thing that no one wants to look at or consider… because we’re too disgusted with ourselves to face it. We forget people. We dismiss one another. We ignore each other. We avert our eyes.
Well, take a long look. draw a deep breath.
We need to see it.
We need to clean it up.
We need to take care of it…
… or the maggots will do it for us, and it won’t be pretty.
We, the medical examiners of America… we are a junk drawer.
To date, there is no prime-time television show about medico-legal death investigators, and as a result, nobody really knows what we do. (And in case you’re asking, no, CSI, Dexter and Rizzoli and Isles don’t count. Nor does any incarnation of Law & Order. Dick Wolf can suck a big fat one) It’s a shame. In my opinion we MDI’s (Or deputy medical examiners… or whatever) are actually a pretty fun bunch and I think we’d be a big hit if any network producers ever decided to take a chance on us. (I’m available for consultation and script-writing… you know… if you happen to BE or KNOW a network television producer. Forget what I said about Dick Wolf sucking a big fat one)
Anyway, because no one knows what we do, we are frequently asked questions. People call our office all the time and lay a wide array of dilemmas at our feet. Folks seem to think that if their conundrum involves a dead person in any way, it must be the medical examiner’s responsibility.
I’m guessing that, in the continental United States, the following exchange takes place every 0.3 seconds:
-SOME DUDE- He’s dead. What do we do now?
-SOME OTHER DUDE- I don’t know. Call the medical examiner.
We do what we can. We do what we should. We often take on puzzles that are decidedly not in our job description because we’re civic-minded folks and we want to help. BUT a lot of the time, we punt these problems right back into people’s faces… because their dead monkey isn’t a part of our horror circus. My coined phrase when I get these calls is this:
“Well, jeepers! This sounds like a whole lot of ‘not-my-problem!'”
Don’t believe me?
Well take a gander at this-
We have a hospital in our county that doesn’t have a morgue. I’m not sure why. No one has ever bothered to explain this architectural feature to me and all I can say is that I really admire the hospital’s optimism. But sadly, their faith in their capacity to treat and save every life that walks through their doors is unfounded. People die there. It’s a fucking hospital.
Most often, when people die there and it’s not a death that falls under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner’s office, the decedent is removed from the hospital room by a funeral home that’s selected by the next-of-kin. Simple.
Sometimes non-jurisdictional deaths happen at this hospital and the dead person has no next-of-kin. This is when the hospital staff starts calling our office, attempting to coerce us into taking the body. The conversations go something like this:
-ME- Hello, Medical Examiner’s Office
-HOSPITAL STAFF- Hi, we have a deceased person with no next-of-kin.
-ME- Ok… ummm… is this death a medical examiner case?
-HOSPITAL STAFF- (confused) He… has no next-of-kin.
-ME- Right, I heard you. Does anything about this death make it a medical examiner case?
-HOSPITAL STAFF- (louder) HE HAS NO NEXT… OF… KIN.
-ME- Why exactly are you calling me?
-HOSPITAL STAFF- Well… you need to come get him.
-HOSPITAL STAFF- But… you’re the medical examiner. …
-ME- That’s not what we do. If the death isn’t a medical examiner case, we are not involved in the disposition. We’re not your storage facility.
-HOSPITAL STAFF- But… what do I do with him? We don’t have a morgue!
-ME- Listen, I don’t know how many times we have to tell you this, but just because someone has no next-of-kin does NOT make them a medical examiner case. It’s not our fault that you don’t have a morgue and we’ve told you several times that hospital administration needs to come up with a plan for when this happens.
-HOSPITAL STAFF- (sniffling a little bit) Well… can you just come pick up this one?
Now I’ve worked here for almost ten years and the answer to this question has never changed. They always want us to take their dead bodies and we always say no. They also want us to take the dead person’s stuff and then find the person’s elusive, long-lost family.
Speaking of family…
I get a lot of questions from families, too. And I try to be kinder to them than the hospital staff, who in my opinion, have no excuse for their dumb-ass calls. But answering questions from families is far more explosive and complicated, despite the fact that I try to be as delicate as an ice dancer with these interactions.
First of all, when I talk to families, they’re (justifiably) hysterical and only hear a fraction of what I say. This means that they will frequently call back with a jumbled knot of misinformation in their heads. They will claim that they were lied to. They will claim that nothing that they’ve been told makes sense. They’ll call me names. They’ll threaten.
I was a paramedic for a long time and I’ve been mother-fucked by a wide array of people in the back of the ambulance. I’ve learned not to take it personally. But still, it wears on you. I think what’s so hard about it is the seemingly universal assumption that the medical examiners are all malicious ass-holes who are always trying to hide something. We never get the benefit of the doubt. People never seem to consider the possibility that, in their devastated, grief-stricken state, maybe they didn’t hear me quite right…
My last shift, I investigated the death of a woman who choked to death. It wasn’t awesome. She was developmentally delayed and had been in the care of an adult day-care program. They take these folks on field trips to the mall or the park. It’s a chance for these folks to get out and socialize and it gives their families a break from 24/7 caretaking. This group had been picnicking on the shores of a local lake when this woman choked on her lunch. No Heimlich Maneuver or chest pumping could get the piece of meat out of her airway and she was pronounced at the scene. (It was a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea.) The following day, the decedent’s sister called me up and the second I answered the phone I could tell she was primed for a fight.
“My sister died yesterday and we just don’t feel like our questions are being answered!”
“Okay,” I said. “How can I help? What do you need to know?”
She delivered every question as though she was kicking me in the shins as she spoke. She was using the you’d-better-not-mess-with-me voice as though I, inexplicably, intended to mess with her. I gave her all the same information I gave her the day before, hoping that maybe this time she’d remember. Things seemed to be going well right up until she hit me with this one:
“Why wasn’t my family notified that my sister would be going to the lake?”
Now. let’s all remember that I don’t work for the adult day-care program. I am completely ignorant of their policies and I cannot answer questions on their behalf. I didn’t have any fucking clue why the family didn’t know that a picnic at the lake was on the docket for the day. But I understood that they had been blindsided by the death and wanted an explanation for every detail. But that didn’t mean I had one for her.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. I don’t work for the day-care program and I don’t know anything about their policies. I’m thinking you should probably get in contact with them because I don’t feel like I can speak for them-”
And she hung up on me.
Also, on my last shift, I had a guy who was electrocuted while installing lighting in a commercial space. That whole situation was just dodgy as fuck because as far as I could tell no one bothered to turn off the power and the dude had minimal experience with electricity. But it’s not my place to say what should or should not have happened in that situation. Imagine me as Dr. Bones on Star Trek- “I’m a medical examiner, not an electrician!” And I certainly don’t regulate safety practices on electrical jobs. But that didn’t stop the family from demanding that I explain why the decedent wasn’t wearing “appropriate safety gear” (as they put it)
Honestly, how am I supposed to answer that question? I have no idea what’s considered “appropriate safety gear” in those circumstances, nor do I have any clue why he was or was not wearing it… but that didn’t stop them from being plenty pissed when I told them so.
“What the hell are you people DOING out there? Why isn’t anyone doing their JOB?”
I don’t blame them for wanting answers. I really don’t. I don’t want to sound glib or calloused. The fact is, I wish I was MORE calloused. When families lose their shit on me, I feel a completely unreasonable sense of guilt. I stare into the hungry, chomping mouth of their grief and wish I had something to feed it other than, “We’re doing what we can.” That answer felt so insufficient to me for such a long time that I nearly killed myself trying to satisfy people’s insatiable need for an explanation for their tragedy.
But sooner or later, in this job, you have to learn some boundaries and understand that you don’t owe every question an answer…
I had a funeral director call me other day…
-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- So, we have a decedent here and I’m doing his death certificate. When we picked him up, You guys told us he was transient.
-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- Well… if he’s transient, what do I put for his home address?
-ME- Well, I expect you’d put “transient”
-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- (huffing indignantly) Don’t you have anything else?
-ME- If he’s transient, then I suppose you’d list transient as an address on the death certificate. It’s how we complete our case files. Why? Is that not allowed?
-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- (eye-rolling) WELL, I was hoping you could offer a little guidance…
-ME- Listen, we medical examiners don’t fill out death certificates. I have NEVER filled out a death certificate in my life. You know why? Because that’s the FUNERAL DIRECTOR’S JOB. I have no idea what state vital records will or won’t accept for a decedent’s address. I only know what they will and won’t accept for cause and manner of death because that’s the MEDICAL EXAMINER’S JOB. Maybe try talking to your manager.
The idiot funeral director hung up on me… I guess because she was insufficiently trained and I refused to do her job for her.
I’m not sure what the hell is going on. But apparently this is a growing trend. People are more and more in the habit of asking the wrong people the wrong questions.
Today while I was working out at the gym, one of the televisions above my treadmill was tuned to “The 700 Club”. If you’ve never heard of it, this show is basically an Evangelical Christian version of a news program. Something like 20/20, but for religious fanatics for whom Fox news isn’t quite skewed enough. I’m familiar with this program because I was raised in an Evangelical home in which my mother watched “The 700 Club” all the damned time… when she wasn’t attending prayer meetings and casting demons out of our appliances (not joking).
So, much like rubber-neckers at the scene of an accident, I just couldn’t bring myself to look away as the program entered it’s Q & A segment. During this time, the quintessential old-white-dude televangelist answers questions that viewers have emailed in. Typically, the questions are about theology, scripture, ethics, etc. etc. Also people ask him how he managed to fit all those animals on to one boat… because this guy has GOT to be as old as the flood.
So, imagine my surprise when THIS little gem flashed across the screen. Some blithering moron sent in the following question:
“Dear Pat, If we say grace over our food before we eat it, asking God to nourish it to our bodies, do we still have to be concerned with the sugar and cholesterol in it?”
I didn’t see Pastor Pat’s answer… probably because I nearly fell off the treadmill in astonishment that Pastor Pat somehow managed to get an email from the Dark Ages. Honestly , this reminded me of centuries ago when people sincerely believed that the Eucharist (the wine and communion wafers of Holy Communion) LITERALLY turned into the body and blood of Jesus Christ… Making early Catholics a bunch of zealous cannibals who didn’t know the meaning of a metaphor. Even more so, I was reminded of those charismatic nut-bags who demonstrate the depth of their faith by dancing around, waving poisonous snakes in the air. It’s right up there with “praying the gay away,” I was legitimately astonished that someone out there was asking this question of a televangelist as opposed to… say a nutritionist or a doctor. And I was even more astonished that the producers of this show thought this was a legitimate enough question to put it on the air. Never mind doctrinal issues like predestination or the cannonization of scripture. People want to know if they can pray their way out of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
I barely had time to stomach this whole situation when the next question flashed across the screen:
“Pastor Pat, Why is it that some dead people look really terrible, while other dead people look normal and healthy… almost as if they’re still alive?”
I couldn’t help it. Right then and there I actually went to the 700 Club website, and then looked up this “Pastor Pat”. I wanted to see if he had any kind of advanced degrees or training that might qualify him to answer such questions. There wasn’t a thing about medicine or death investigation… nothing to indicate this guy knew anything about human physiology in the living or the dead.
I watched in amazement while Pastor Pat reeled off some drivel about how morticians put make-up on dead bodies to make them look more alive… which is true. Morticians do that. HOWEVER, there’s a little more to what, exactly, makes dead people look the way they do. So many factors affect post-mortem changes that you see in a dead body. The body’s position, the post mortem interval, heat, air-movement, fat-to-muscle ratio… not to mention the fact that if people don’t look great when they’re alive, death probably isn’t going to make it any better. Pastor Pat totally copped the fuck out of that question… a question to which I could have actually delivered a concise and thoughtful answer, based in both personal experience and science.
But of course, nobody asked me.
So from here on out, I’d like to offer my services to you, your televangelist hero, your wacky podcast… whatever. If you have a MEDICAL EXAMINER question. Feel free to ask it. And if you’re not sure if your question is a medical examiner question… you can ask me that too, and I’ll tell you. Just stop asking people questions that they’re not qualified to answer. And if you’re not qualified to answer a question… don’t just answer it anyway
For fuck sake
Somebody needs to put and end to this madness.
Some days it’s just so damn hard.
The hardest days are usually the ones when my own life is in such profound turmoil that the added load of doing my job makes me feel like an old world martyr, being pressed to death in the town square. Every ring of the phone, every scene investigation, every page of paperwork is like another boulder that’s being piled on my chest as bystanders look on in morbid fascination, wondering how much more i can take before I finally stop breathing.
So when the call came in that I was being dispatched to the suicide of a 13-year-old girl who was in foster care, I almost stopped breathing. I was already buried beneath a pile of unfinished reports. And I was being dive-bombed by an angry, buzzing swarm of unreturned phone calls.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was the fact that, in addition to the daily onslaught of deaths and death related tasks, I was still frozen in an icy block of anguish from the happenings of the night before.
I had broken up with someone… Again. Which may be why I’m so comfortable in working with the dead. I’ve had so many horrible endings in my own life that I subconsciously realized that I should just start making living off everything going to shit.
Anyway, I broke up with him. Which, theoretically is supposed to feel empowering… I guess. You know, being the one who calls it off means you win, right? Except I didn’t feel like a winner at all. It was a complete catastrophe.
I had found emails in which my boyfriend had been corresponding with his high-school girlfriend. And it wasn’t your typical “Hey, how have you been.” Unless of course I’m mistaken and guys regularly check in with their exes to let them know that they miss holding each other’s naked body. Is it typical for dudes to ask their married-with-two-kids high school sweetheart if she thinks about him when she masturbates? Because that’s the kind of email conversation they were having when I uncovered it. And, I mean, maybe I’m way off base here, but I had lunch a couple of years back with my high school ex and, somehow, the subject of masturbation never came up.
All that was bad enough, but I suppose I could have let it slide. I’m not too proud to admit that I’m in the habit of taking WAY too much douchebaggery from the men in my life. But I hit my douchebaggery overflow valve when I noted that the two of them were pointedly making plans to get together during a period of time when I would be out of town.
I was a perfectly cool girlfriend, he told her, but no one would ever matter to him like she did.
I woke him up to confront him. Because at the time, he was of course sleeping in MY bed-in MY house- like a drowsy little self-satisfied, narcissistic house cat. He maintained that he “never cheated”, then tried to deflect his own guilt by acting wounded and outraged that I had snooped in his email. In response, I couldn’t help but point out that he had given me the password back when I had disclosed my trust issues due to cheating exes.
“Check whenever you want!” He had confidently bade me at the time.
Well, I did.
Anyway, I had stuffed all his belongings into his arms and shoved him out the door. Then when I noted his towel was still hanging in my bathroom, I set it on fire in the dumpster down the street.
Now, at work, I was fielding the phone calls, conducting scene investigations and feeling like my heart had been replaced with a mace-and-chain that bashed against the inside of my rib cage every time I moved. And in between all of that, I couldn’t get the cacophonous birds in my brain to settle on one side of the fence or the other: had my response been justified or had I overreacted?
Maybe committing arson had overshot the limits of reasonable behavior juuuuuuuuust a hair.
Anyway, I certainly didn’t feel up to fielding the suicide of a 13 year old foster kid, not when all I wanted to do was lay down and die myself.
But that’s the nature of the work. When you’re on the clock, you’re on the hook and no one cares how you feel. Back when my father died, I was allotted exactly one shift off to attend his funeral and not a second more. I spent the next month sobbing my eyes out in the county truck between calls. Every death that I attended to raked across the raw nerve of my own loss to such a profound degree that I staggered home from each shift, exhausted and numb with despair. When I went to Human Resources, desperate for some kind of relief… maybe the emotional equivalent of “light-duty…” the flat eyed desk-jokey told me in a voice, caustic with sarcasm, “We’re not going to give you time off just because you’re sad.”
So, I knew that I had to lay my own misery aside and squire this, latest decedent to the afterlife with stoic decorum. It was going to be a rough ride, I knew. The death of a child is always dicey and complicated. The death of a child in foster care would only be more so. Every aspect of this child’s life and death would be meticulously dissected, re-examined, argued over, theorized on and criticized. Every agency that ever had a hand in the decedent’s life would be frantic to prove that they weren’t the ones who dropped the ball when it came to her welfare. Whose head was on the proverbial block for this death?
Well, it wouldn’t be mine. I buckled down the rattling baggage of my sorrow and told myself that I was going to document the fuck out of this investigation. It would probably take hours, but nothing about this kid’s death was going to get by me.
When I rolled up to the scene, I noted a spread of no less than three squad cars on the block, in addition to a couple of vehicles that were quite obviously the “unmarked” units used by detectives. As I got out of my truck and turned to regard the unassuming ranch-style home, I noted a hand-wringing, middle-aged man, pacing in the driveway. He was portly, rumpled and had hair as thin as a bad alibi which was becoming more and more disheveled every time that he ran his stubby fingers through it. He eyed me worriedly as I walked past him, but I ignored him as I stepped up the walk. Whatever his story, I would get to him later.
“That’s the foster-dad,” said the uniformed officer posted at the front door, nodding in the man’s direction. “I guess he’s the one that found her. He called 911… maybe about 3 hours ago now. We’ve been here since then”
This information didn’t surprise me. When it looks like a death investigation is going to be a fiasco, police and detectives usually spend a couple of hours freaking out before they think to call me. On the rare occasion that they call me before they’re done freaking out, I’ve actually told them to get their shit together and get back to me in an hour or so when a plan has emerged.
As I stepped into the house, I noted that I had an array of maybe 5 cops and two detectives in attendance. And just a few feet inside the front door, laying in the middle of the living room floor, was my dead girl. She was smallish, maybe five feet tall. She was laying on her side with her long, frizzy, dark hair covering her face. She wore jeans, a hoodie, sneakers and her backpack lay on the floor nearby. I glanced around the room, taking in the suburban-normal of the couch, a couple chairs, a TV- all of it completely unremarkable except for the dead body and the police that crowded the small space.
“Hey Grace!” I heard a voice call from the kitchen.
“Hey man!” I called back as I made my way past the living room and found Detective Labrecht chatting with a patrol officer by the sink. “What’s the story here?”
Labrecht sighed. “Well, it’s a suicide. This girl has a history of cutting and self-harm. I guess school counselors told the foster folks to remove all the sharp knives from the home recently. Foster-mom saw her this morning as she was leaving for work and our girl was getting ready for school. Mom and the other foster kids left before she did. Foster dad comes home around four this afternoon and finds her like that.”
“Foster dad found her like that?” I squinted at Labrecht and turned to re-examine the scene. “So, what exactly makes us think this is a suicide?” I wasn’t trying to be contrary, I was legitimately curious because the whole thing just didn’t seem… right… to me. When I had been to previous teenage-girl-suicides… hell, when I had been to any suicide, the scene had always been carefully “staged” by the decedent. Usually there was a note in a prominent place. The decedent was typically sitting or lying in a deliberate fashion. Often we find a stack of important paperwork or instructions left for emergency responders or family. Once we even had a dude video-record himself on his ipad, stating that he was going to kill himself, providing date and time and then showing the gun he intended to use. This girl looked like she had literally been walking out the door to go to school when she suddenly remembered she had forgotten to commit suicide- Then she decided to do so right then and there without bothering to take her jacket or shoes off.
“We’re not sure how she did it yet. Probably pills of some kind but we don’t know what. There’s nothing in the house but some over-the-counter stuff. And, we found a note in her bedroom over there.” Labrecht gestured at a door in the nearby hallway and an officer standing there beckoned me in.
“It’s right here.” The officer handed over a piece of spiral notebook paper that had obviously been crumpled up and spread back out again. I squinted as I read the words scribbled on the lines. Something about how no one loved her and everyone was prettier and smarter and better than she was. She wished she was dead etc. ect. And although she said “I’m sorry” several times in the note, it didn’t explicitly reference an intention to kill herself, nor was it a blatant good bye to anyone. My brow puckered in doubt but I opted not to disclose to the officer that this “suicide note” bore a striking resemblance to my own rambling journal entry that I had blearily scrawled just last night in the aftermath of my relationship Armageddon. Furthermore, it pretty much echoed every thought I’d had about myself during the day… thoughts that, even now, were barely being kept quiet below the rippling surface of my composure.
“We also found these.” The officer motioned to the bed where two spiral notebooks were laid open. Both of them were filled with page after page of feminine handwriting. And each page was another diatribe about how much our decedent believed the world sucked, her family sucked, foster care sucked, school sucked and she, herself… sucked. I paged through them wordlessly, remembering my own struggles with junior high school, puberty, boys, friends, parents, teachers and the eternal mystery of myself. Who was I? Who cared about me? Why was I so sad? When would it ever change? Again, I didn’t say anything to the officer who was clearly proud of his incriminating evidence in favor of suicide. But I wasn’t convinced. As terrible as it was, all the girl’s musings honestly seemed to be standard-issue adolescent self-loathing with a healthy dose of family trauma smeared on top.
“Okay, where did we find this?” I asked the officer as I straightened up and once again addressed the crumpled up “suicide note”.
“It was in the waste-basket.”
I felt the scowl crawl across my face. This was making less and less sense. Suicide notes are typically left out where people will find them. If this was a suicide note, and that was a big if, it would have been displayed. It would have been obvious. This was… this was…
“Hey, did she just breathe?” An officer’s voice floated into the bedroom.
“WHAT?!?” I barked. I turned and sprinted into the living room where five cops and two detectives were all frozen, staring at the inert body on the floor.
“Seriously. It… it looked like she just breathed.” stuttered an officer.
I scrambled to the dead girl’s side and pulled her hair off of her face as I rolled her on to her back. Her skin was pale and cold but she wasn’t in rigor mortis at all. And she should have been. By all reports she had been dead for anywhere from three to eight hours. Unthinkingly, I groped for the girl’s wrist and ten years of paramedic experience guided my fingers to her radial artery… where she had a thundering pulse.
“YOU GUYS, SHE HAS A PULSE!” I announced to the utterly stunned room of officers, all of whom had stopped breathing and were likely without pulses of their own at that moment.
“Call 911!” I yelled at them, before realizing that I was yelling at a roomful of uniformed, on-duty cops to call 911 when we actually were 911. “Call an ambulance!” I corrected myself as I reached into my bag and pulled out a CPR mask that I always kept there, never believing I might someday use it. I tossed the mask to Labrecht to assemble and quickly raked my knuckles over the girl’s sternum as hard as I could.
She gasped. She flailed. She opened her eyes.
“Um… hi…” I said to her, suddenly unsure of what to say. I mean, I would frequently talk to the dead, but I never expected any of them to answer. “Hey, so, what’s your name?”
“Sabrina,” she mumbled softly, looking around at the assembly of people around her, most of whom were policemen who stood, transfixed by her resurrection. Already I could see the wheels turning in their heads. Someone was going to get blamed for this utterly disastrous debacle, and how could they ensure it wasn’t them?
My pre-hospital career was coming back to me as I helped Sabrina to her feet and guided her over to sit on the couch. I took a cursory look at her and established that she was free of any injuries. I asked her a few questions but she was disoriented and spacey. The pulse at her wrist was stable and strong but unbelievably fast. I was mentally flipping through my index of possible reasons for her unconsciousness and rapid heart rate when an ambulance showed up and I handed Sabrina off to the medic crew who seemed just as baffled as everyone else at this turn of events.
“This is Sabrina, She’s been unconscious for at least the last three hours. She awoke to painful stimuli and is disoriented to place and time. There are no visible injuries to her head or thorax. She’s got a rapid radial pulse and is a suspected suicide attempt—“
As I reeled off the information, everyone in the room seemed to be moving at half speed. The paramedics fumbled with their EKG, the police all shifted uneasily and Labrecht meandered back into the kitchen to call a supervisor. Yet above everything else, one thought drowned out all others as I watched Sabrina get escorted to the stretcher and loaded into the ambulance:
I didn’t have to write this report anymore.
I DIDN’T HAVE TO WRITE THIS REPORT ANYMORE!
During the next few minutes that I stayed on scene, I was downright jubilant with glee. Sure, my personal life was, literally, a dumpster fire. Sure, I was still facing hours of paperwork from my other investigations that day. But I didn’t have to write up the novel-sized case file that would be required by a foster kid’s suicide. Hell, this shit show suddenly had nothing to do with me. Even better, the scene had started with a body count of one… and now the body count was zero! I was so good at my job I brought the dead back to life!
I blithely watched the police argue over who was the primary officer at the scene and who actually pronounced Sabrina dead in the first place. Then I watched as they all made excuses as to why none of them had bothered checking for a pulse themselves. I watched as Labrecht deftly slipped out the door, probably hoping no one would remember he was there. And I watched the ambulance pull away from the house as the foster dad stared in relieved astonishment.
In the following few days, the police department evolved a story in which at the time of their arrival, Sabrina’s pulse was too faint for anyone to feel. My theory is simply that cops are shit at taking pulses. But it’s okay because it’s not actually their job and they’re not trained to do it. I’m sure if I tried to arrest someone, I’d fuck that up, too.
I later found out that, at the hospital, Sabrina admitted to taking half a bottle of extra strength Tylenol the night before with the intention of committing suicide. When she woke up the following morning she threw her farewell note away, figuring she failed at everything, even killing herself. Little did she realize as she got ready for school, that the Tylenol had gone to work at annihilating her liver while she slept. This explained why she suddenly got dizzy and passed out in the living room on her way out the door. If much more time had passed, she would have suffered irreversible liver damage and possibly death. But yours truly pulled her back from the abyss with a classic sternal rub.
I think about Sabrina a lot. I wanted to try to connect with her after she got out of the hospital, but when I told the story to a more cynical friend of mine, she told me not to bother. “Her life is shit,” my friend had told me. “It’s never going to get any better. She’s screwed.” Moreover, a couple other people told me that it wouldn’t be “appropriate” for me to contact her… whatever that means. Besides, if I did manage to get in touch with her, I can’t fathom how a conversation would go. I’d probably lose my nerve and end up saying something that sounded like a greeting card or a facebook meme: “Hang in there!” or “The hour is darkest…” or some such bullshit.
But the thing is, I know what I want to tell her. I just wouldn’t know how to do it without sounding crazy. I want to tell her about the day I was having. I want to tell her about sitting here, still in the devastated wreckage of a heartbreak that runs far deeper than I’ll ever let on. I want to tell her about realizing that if he loved me at all, he loved me like a child loves his second favorite toy right before he pulls it apart to see how it works. Then, bored, leaves it in the yard to rust with gears askew and springs sticking out of its belly like hands reaching out for rescue. I want to tell her about a lifetime of feeling as though happiness was a bowl of candy that was empty by the time someone thought to pass it around to me. I want to tell her about all the times I’ve looked at myself and said “My life is shit, it’s never going to get any better, I’m screwed.”
And I want tell her a story that was told to me, by an artist who was once asked to illustrate the laws of physics for time magazine. And he told me that when an electron passes through the nucleus of an atom. That electron ceases to exist and is reborn out the other side… and I think that we are all those electrons and that nucleus is simply the pain inherent in living… we get pulled into its orbit until we have to pass through it… again and again.
Things are tough all around, kid. And at 13 you are only ankle deep, wading into a rising tide that’s aiming for 10 feet above your head. And you will spend your life feeling as though the devil has his hand in your pocket, demanding that you pay for sins you never committed. There will be times when your enemies will tell you that you are a worthless failure and you will agree with them. There will be times when screams will fill your throat like dirt as you’re being buried alive from the inside out. And there will be times when people you dearly love will tell you that you never really mattered.
You will enter it
And you will cease to exist, it will feel as though the nucleus of your grief is unmaking you,
You will dissolve into a nothingness so hollow that light will invert itself and every waking dawn will break as black as death into another day without hope. And you won’t want to move
I know because I don’t want to move. Days like this I don’t believe in God, love, humanity, fate, logic, wealth, power, family, friendship or fairies. I don’t believe that I’m special because I’m not and I don’t believe that everything is going to be okay because it isn’t. After cancer, divorce, miscarriages, betrayals, deaths… days like this I wonder if the future I imagine gleaming on the horizon of this wasteland is only a fluorescent light, glinting on the edge of the razor I’ll use to slash my wrists when I get there. Sometimes, the only fuel I have left for my journey is the knowledge that I have to keep going. I have to. To remain motionless is to allow defeat to swallow me like weeds swallow an unused road. And I want to be reborn. I want to stumble out the other side of my sorrow, blinking and bewildered that I’m still alive… just like you were. Just like that day when I felt your heart with my fingers, pounding from inside your flesh like an angry fist, demanding a recount. And I realized that, despite my own fucking problems, I would have to carry on so I could show you that it can be done… So I could tell you you’re life isn’t shit. It is going to get better and you’re only screwed if you give up.
You have to keep going. You have to make a habit of survival. You have to learn to love despite the pain. You have to learn to find someone to trust in a world full of assholes. You have to learn to forgive people who will never be sorry. And you have to be willing to enter despair in order to pass through it. I may not believe in anything but I believe in the other side of the nucleus and I intend to meet you there. I want to feel the grip of your hand in mine and I want to see your face. I want to be able to tell you that the 27 years between your age and mine are going to be worth it and it’s going to get easier. You’ll learn to thank the devastation, you’ll learn to love the loss. You’ll learn to shrug in the face of heartbreak and say I’ve survived lots of tragedy, this is just the latest one.
I’ve asked Labrecht to look up her case. He’s reluctant to do so, probably because no one wants to remember that we were involved in something so embarrassing. But I’ve kept at him. I’m not sure what I’ll do, probably call up child protective services and just ask if she’s ok. They might not be able or willing to tell me and I’m not sure what I’ll say if they ask me why I’m interested in her. Should I tell them she’s the one that got away? That I feel responsible for her? Do I tell them that I owe her? That I want to keep an eye on her?
Maybe all I can do is send this to her.
Maybe all I can say is thank you.
I hope you’re ok
I’ll see you on the other side.
I was tired.
Dear, sweet, putrid puddles… I was tired
As I stumbled into the shrieking starkness of linoleum under fluorescent lights, the entire world seemed as harsh as road rash to my fatigued senses. Every sound clattered through my brain like a toddler in tap-shoes. More than anything I wanted to sleep, but all things considered, I would have settled for dying if that was the only option.
I do my job, I told myself. And this is the job…
… a lunchroom full of high-schoolers.
I had just finished a wickedly brutal shift which involved a 3-fatality car crash, two floaters and a partridge in a pear tree. But there was no going home for me. I had, once again, agreed to participate in the molding and shaping of young minds. So here I was, at a local high-school, hosting an information table at the county health department job fair.
In the past, the local teachers would call our office and ask me to do a single presentation for a classroom. But someone, somewhere had apparently decided that such a forum was entirely too small-scale. They wanted an event. And stupidly, I had agreed to help.
To be fair, I actually really enjoy these functions. When I was growing up it was pretty much assumed that, as girls, our futures were already decided. We were all destined to be wives and mothers and if we chose to pursue any profession outside the confines of home-making, the only available vocations were teacher, nurse or secretary. Now I’m not saying there’s anything WRONG with those jobs, but I certainly didn’t get the impression I could do whatever I wanted if I wasn’t suited to any of those three. Consequently, I enthusiastically consider it my duty to show young women that they, too can veer wildly off the map like I did… and end up doing all kinds of crazy shit… like I do.
… participate in a job fair on 3 hours of sleep after spending your whole night prying dead people out of their smashed vehicles… Reach for the stars, kiddos!
I walked into this event armed with my third 5-shot Americano of the morning and noted that all around me the other tables were populated by restaurant inspectors (yawn), a couple of paramedics (ugh), and a school nurse (I think). Their tables were scattered with cheap candy, photographs and tools of their trade. Whereas I didn’t have anything but a surly attitude and caffeine that I had no intention of sharing. The plan for this whole affair was that the students would divide up into groups of 8 or 9 and then they would rotate from table to table, spending approximately 20 minutes at each one. I was supposed to give each group a brief description of my job and then allow them to ask questions.
After this plan was described to me, I sat down at a table and stared blankly at my hands… muddling over exactly how to manage such a forum. Describing my job in the space of 15 minutes was kind of like asking someone to encapsulate the plot of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen into a 15 second blurb. It simply can’t be done, at least not in a way that made sense or was even remotely entertaining. And let’s be honest, the point here was to be entertaining. These kids most likely didn’t give a toss about a career in public health and really just wanted to get out of morning classes. As for the presenters, this was low-effort overtime for most of us… either that or it was an excuse to escape the office for a few hours without taking PTO. Consequently, I resolved that my primary goal in this event was my own amusement, and if some of the kids came to believe that being a medical examiner was cool… well, all the better.
I tried to be professional and friendly with the first group, a gaggle of dead-eyed prom-queens who were all wearing a shit-ton of mascara and stated that their communal goal was a career in physical therapy. The next group wasn’t much better, a swarm of anxious-looking Asian kids who took copious notes and seemed too afraid to speak when I asked if they had questions. By the time the third group rolled around, I was severely over-caffeinated to the point of being vibratingly giddy. I suppose that’s when I decided to throw all decorum aside and give them a taste of the real medical examiner experience.
“Welcome to the Death-Table!” I crowed at each, subsequent group of students as they seated themselves around me. “My job is to figure out why people are dead! I don’t have any visual aids because my photos would give you nightmares. Who wants to hear a story?” Then I would give them a couple of real-life scenarios, death scenes that I had actually worked, and challenge them to hazard a guess as to what the cause and manner of death had been.
I was a hit.
Or at least I’m pretty sure I was doing better than the restaurant inspector who was demonstrating how he measured the temperature of soup.
When I would get to my Q&A time, the kids were full of questions. Of course, there was the typical, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” which I answered truthfully (A motorcyclist who hit a truck head-on and was cut in half by his handlebars) And a few of them asked about my salary (Not nearly enough to cover my therapy bills) But I was completely stymied by one sharp-eyed young man who asked perhaps one of the most unique and perceptive questions I’ve ever received: “How do you deal with all of the terrible stuff you see?”
Badly! Screamed the honest voice in my head. I deal with it BADLY!
“Well,” I said carefully. “It’s very important to have an involved and rewarding life outside of work… and make sure I have plenty of activities and relationships that have nothing to do with my job. I do my best to allow as little cross-over as possible.”
Which was the truth… it is the truth… mostly. Except for the part where it’s really not possible.
My worlds collide; the world where I’m a medical-legal death investigator, and the world where I’m a friend and family member who’s just trying to do right by the human race.
Sometimes, it’s a little funny.
As an avid, semi-professional aerialist, my Facebook feed is cluttered with pictures of me, dangling from the ceiling in various states of costuming and make-up. As I’ve become “friends” with more and more police officers, they can’t help but be aware of my circus proclivities. More than once, I’ve been leaving a death-scene and a passing cop has said something to the tune of “nice leotard”, indicating they’ve joined the ranks of law enforcement officers who have viewed photos of me hanging up-side-down in my skivvies. And hell, I have no problem posting every god-damned photo I can get of myself looking strong and agile. Go ahead and look.
Unfortunately, sometimes, the crossover goes a little too far. Recently, I invited Chaplain Bob to one of my performances. Specifically, he came to the Halloween show in which I was a black-toothed goblin with a purple mow-hawk. Chaplain Bob was delighted at the performance, and got several photos of me goblin-ing away. The problem arose a few weeks later when we were on the scene of a heroin overdose and Chaplain Bob began showing these photos to the investigating detectives. Nothing says professional reliability like a photograph of the medical examiner perched like a gargoyle on the arm-rest of a theater-seat with some unsuspecting patron squealing in horror as I pretend to eat their hand-bag.
Other times, it’s less funny…
I am far too aware of what kills people. I am far too aware of how bad some lives can get before they finally end. I see horrible shit and it’s difficult not to apply my knowledge of human suffering to my own circumstances… it’s a burden.
Or maybe it’s a gift. It’s hard to say.
At the end of the day… The worlds collide. My idealistic, romantic, optimist self spends a lot of time arguing with the well-informed, cynical realist who has seen far too much.
Is it a blessing or a curse?
I don’t know. As I sit here in the conundrum of my solitude, I’m marveling at the ambiguity of my state. I’m so hopeful and yet I always know so much better. I think about the Greek myth of Cassandra, Princess of Troy, cursed to utter prophecies that were true but no one believed her. But what about when you’re both the prophet and the unbeliever? How does one navigate the dichotomy of undoubtedly knowing what’s to come but also stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it?
He was a man… and everything that comes with that. I suppose that makes me a woman. Our story wasn’t anything unusual, which is part of the problem. I wish I could chalk us up as aberrant, but we weren’t. We were ruthlessly typical which was why our reality was so distressing.
I wanted it to work out so badly. I loved him. I didn’t tell many people that, but I did. I was so excited.
But there were the red flags: The times he got a little too drunk, the inconsistencies I caught him in that weren’t quite lies, the way he would be almost mean to me… and how much I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to see that this dream was boiling over into a nightmare. But how could I avoid it? I was in love, but I was also excruciatingly aware of what was on the verge of happening.
I investigate a lot of death. I see the ending to every story and then I slowly rewind the video feed to track the mechanics involved. I watch, in reverse, every decision that led to the dead body on the floor. And perhaps the two most over-whelming commonalities are this:
- Alcohol kills men
- Men kill women
Let’s break those down a bit-
Regarding #1- Alcohol Kills Men-
Most deaths I investigate are those of men. Not because more men die than women, but because statistically, men’s deaths are more confusing, more violent and more complicated than women’s. Why is this? Well, because men make riskier decisions. Men tend to be more violent. Men are less likely to get regular health care. And more men have unbridled substance abuse issues than women. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, men are twice as likely to become drug addicts. And if that weren’t enough, men are three times more likely to become alcoholics. Furthermore, 88,000 people die of alcohol-related causes annually, 62,000 of which are men… making it the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Those are some pretty dismal number to begin with, but I wonder what they mean by “alcohol-related”. Do they just mean those deaths are the result of liver failure and other medical problems that result from drinking? Or do they also include the car accidents… and does it include the victims of drunk-drivers or just the drivers themselves? Does it include people who kill themselves as a result of their addiction? Does it include the murder victims of crazed alcoholics in the midst of a meltdown? House fires in which the drunk person fell asleep with a lit cigarette in hand? If not, that number should be even higher. I can say firsthand that, of the non-natural deaths that I see… in other words, of the suicides, homicides and accidents… the staggering majority involve alcohol in some way or another. And most of them are men.
Furthermore, that number doesn’t even begin to touch the lives that are RUINED by alcohol. The destructive force of alcohol and alcoholism cannot be measured.
And here I was, in love with someone who, undeniably, had a drinking problem… one that was so severe his license had been revoked and he’d actually served time. And yet he continued to drink… to excess- to the point that he would crash-out and I couldn’t wake him, he would slur his words, he would have conversations with me that I wasn’t actually a part of and I’m pretty sure he was hallucinating my responses.
It was right there. I didn’t want to see it, but I couldn’t look away. And I knew the destination for the drunk train was inevitably grief and destruction.
Regarding #2- Men kill women.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.3 million women in America are victims of an assault by a domestic partner. Everyday, 3 women in the U.S. are killed by current or former partners. Now if you take a look at the school shootings in America since the year 2000 (18 years), and I mean shootings on school buses as well as grades K-12 in both private and public schools, also including colleges and universities– the number of fatalities amounts to approximately 270. On the other hand, if you count up the number of women murdered by their current or former partners… well folks we’ve already exceeded 270 fatalities in 2018 before we even hit April… that’s 3 months.
One more time for the folks in back: MORE WOMEN IN AMERICA HAVE BEEN MURDERED BY THEIR CURRENT OR FORMER PARTNER IN THE FIRST 3 MONTH OF 2018, THAN ALL THE FATALITIES IN ALL THE SCHOOL SHOOTINGS IN THE LAST 18 YEARS.
I don’t see a ton of murder, but I see enough. And of the homicides I’ve seen, I have to say that in maybe half of them the victims have been women. Of those, almost all of them were murdered by their male partners- typically when the woman was in the process of leaving him.
As if that’s not enough, nine times out of ten, the perpetrator had no known history of violence and showed no previous signs of unusual aggression.
I can recite all the numbers you want, but nothing can really give you a hint of what that looks like:
A floor smeared with blood, lots of it. Trails indicating where she ran and how he followed
Broken furniture that he threw, either at her or because she was dodging behind it
Smashed doors where she tried to barricade herself in
Scattered belongings all over the floor: plates, books, whatever he could get his hands on… An entire household over-turned as she tried to get away.
The stillness of her face, all of those muscles gone slack so she’s as blank as the doll he tried to make her into before she’d had enough. Because that’s what it’s about… it’s about control. He doesn’t see her as a person, she’s an extension of him… She’s not real. Why wouldn’t she be/say/do what he wanted? How dare she leave?
I can’t tell you how it feels to lift the weight of a woman’s body into a truck so that the state pathologist can tell us what we already know: he shot her, he strangled her, he beat her to death. I can’t tell you what changes inside me when I look into these women’s dilated, blank eyes and I know that they died scared… probably with the thought, “Oh, my God, he’s going to kill me.”
I can’t tell you how awful it felt to lie in bed next to my drunk boyfriend who just said something horrible to me and wish that I could just kick him out of my house… But to also realize that so many men are at their worst when the relationship is ending, and you never know what’s going to make someone snap.
But there I was, laying in bed next to a man that had just deeply insulted me, and all I could think was, How well do I REALLY know him? If I told him to leave how angry would he get? What would he do? Could I defend myself if he got violent?
And I laid there next to him until morning… because I felt I didn’t have a choice. I had to wait until it was safer. I had to wait, because I’ve seen too many dead women; women who undoubtedly told themselves, He would never do that to me.
How do I deal with all the terrible stuff I see? How do I process the realities of how and why we die. Then how do I live and love in the face of that? How do I know what I know and then look beyond all the signs and signals that scream: This is all going to end in disaster, and try to carry on a normal life?
I threw a weak answer at that kid that morning, but his question has stuck with me like a penny I picked up and left in my coat pocket months ago. I pull it out and stare at it when the fingers of my thoughts brush against it during the day.
I think the answer is simply that I am always living in the suspended moment of indecision. I exist in the impossible contradiction between everything that I hope for as it crashes into the impenetrable wall of everything that I know. It’s a tiny, cramped space, the space between knowing and hoping… the inches between one world and another as they bash into each other… the big bang…
…and begin again.
Always begin again.
It’s Valentine’s Day!
Or, at least it will be very soon… 5 hours and 45 minutes to be exact. I’m pretty sure that means it’s way too late for you slackers to call FTD. Face it, you’re going to have to get creative with whatever you can find at 7-11. But chin-up! All is not lost! A Hershey bar and a handful of International Delight coffee-creamers is almost like a box of assorted chocolates. And if you presented your lady-love with this thoughtful, though unconventional gift, you’d still be doing better than a long lost boyfriend did for me one year when he gave a greeting card which contained a 5-dollar-bill.
It’s okay, he was from Iowa. (Speaking of… I just spontaneously looked him up on Facebook. He’s married with children so I can only assume his game has improved.)
Honestly, I figure most people would assume that I despise Valentine’s Day. But I don’t. Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. I have many happy childhood memories of elementary school classroom parties during which we forsook our afternoon academia in favor of eating VAST amounts of sugar and exchanging dopey little cards that featured our favorite cartoon characters. Naturally, as I grew into a surly, semi-goth teenager who was utterly disenchanted with EVERYTHING, I sneered heavily at the holiday and pretended to have nothing but salty disdain for such contrived sentiment. All the while, I secretly hoped anyone ANYWHERE liked me enough to mark the day as important and bestow upon me ANY TOKEN OF AFFECTION AT ALL.
My standards weren’t great. It became a problem later in life. But hey’ that’s what psychiatry is for.
STILL I like Valentine’s Day. It can be a lot of fun if you keep an open mind. Like this year, for example…. I would like to bestow a special gift. One of my friends was recently dumped by her deplorably tactless boyfriend who flailingly bumbled off an excuse he probably found online. Meanwhile, the truth of the matter is almost certainly that he wanted to fuck other people. It’s okay, He’s from Vegas… there isn’t much else to do there. But in a show of solidarity, I would like to offer some of my more horrific medical-examiner-dating stories in the hopes she will draw comfort from the fact that she isn’t even remotely as hopeless as I am…
So Mel, this one’s for you.
You may wonder, first of all, why I’m writing this little blurb and not spending time with the hapless victim whom I am currently dating… well, to kick-off these stories of gross misfortune, I must confess that I recently had an abnormal PAP-SMEAR. My gyno scheduled my colposcopy for yesterday and the two of us spent a very intimate afternoon together as she lopped off parts of my cervix. After this moment of togetherness, she informed me that sex was a no-no for at least a week… which puts something of a damper on the holiday, but it’s cool. Even if she had told me that I was good to go for a donkey ride post-procedure, I can’t imagine it would have gone well. I picture my paramour flinging me down on the bed… romance novel style, and just as he’s about to put the banana in the fruit salad I would say something like,
“Mind the biopsy scabs, lover… these are new sheets you know…”
Because that’s the kind of thing I would say… It’s the kind of thing I always say.
Don’t believe me?
Once, I was really into this dude.
And he was really into me.
We were making out.
Sounds promising, right? But for the fact that I was an intrinsic part of this scenario and my capacity to completely fuck up virtually any situation is unlimited.
So we were kissing, and I must have had some kind of odd expression on my face, because in the midst of our heated breathing and unbridled pawing, he breathlessly asked me,
“Is it weird that I hold your face in my hands when I’m kissing you?”
I thought about it for a second and blurted out this little gem:
“Holding my face in your hands when you kiss me is only weird if the rest of my body isn’t attached when you do it.”
… which I think is a perfectly valid response.
Anyway, we’re not together anymore.
So, as a medical examiner, I end up at a lot of really nasty scenes. And the nastiest are always the scenes when the person has been dead for a while and, for whatever reason, no one noticed… until they started to smell. These scenes are called “decomps” and they stick with you, literally. There’s nothing quite like the stench of a rotting human corpse. And once you smell it, you smell it for hours, sometimes DAYS.
Moreover, when you’ve recently been on a decomp, you become acutely aware of the scent of generalized decomposition everywhere around you. Subliminally, everything smells like death… because EVERYTHING is in some state of decay… all the time. It’s a fact of nature.
Never was this more in evidence to me than recently when I was on a date. Dude and I had been eating pizza and he’d had a couple of beers. Afterwards he leaned in for a kiss and I almost re-introduced him to my dinner. I shrank away from him as though he had dung beetles crawling out of his mouth. Why? Because I had recently been on a decomp at work, and this guy’s breath smelled … like death.
It just happens. We get bad breath because of the microscopic bits of food in our teeth. Our breath is the smell of our body breaking down whatever we just ate… it’s the smell of decomposition. Obviously it’s not the same as the scent of a rotting body… but it’s juuuuuuuuuuust similar enough.
Anyway, when this dude tried to kiss me, a knee-jerk, visceral chain-reaction occurred. I squirmed away from him as my face wrinkled in disgust, Involuntarily, a whimper of revulsion wormed its way out of my mouth and I pushed Dude away with unmistakable finality.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, astonished.
I groped about for an explanation, even as I pulled him back to me for a hug in an attempt to deflect the awkwardness of my repugnance.
“Ummmm… it’s not you… it’s medical examiner problems. I’m really sorry…”
Later that night, I sent him a lengthy text message and apology, exhaustively explaining the biological mechanics of what had happened. And, believe it or not, he was actually cool with it. Which means I can’t possibly go out with him again. I mean what kind of person would be cool with that?
I could blame these personality glitches on my profession. But the fact is I’ve always been… not awesome… at this sort of thing.
Remember when I said that, even as a sullen teen I wanted the romantic gestures. Well…
His name was Tom. It was my freshman year of high school and he sat next to me in history. I don’t remember him showing any particular interest in me. He didn’t ever strike up a conversation or register anything resembling a crush. There was one incident in which the guy who sat on his other side in history made a huge show of telling me that Tom was into me… all the while Tom swatted at him from his seat, in an attempt to shut him up. When things settled down a bit, I told Tom, not to worry about it, I didn’t believe that guy anyway.
Tom didn’t look at me or offer any indication that he’d heard me.
That Valentine’s Day, I walked into history class in a huff. I was always in a huff. It was kind of my default setting as a teenager. I used my huffs to poorly hide the fact that I was painfully insecure and being pissed off all the time felt slightly more powerful that just being pathetic. I sat down at my desk briefly while the other students were milling about, and then got up for something, I don’t remember what. But when I came back, I found Tom was carefully placing a single Hershey’s kiss on my desk.
Our eyes met and he didn’t say anything, much like he hadn’t said anything to me for months. A blush crept its crimson fingers across his face as he looked down. A pregnant pause followed. I picked up the kiss and … a trilling purr of delight rumbled somewhere deep in my belly. I looked at him, looked at the kiss, looked back at him… and… and…
“Did you find this on the floor?”
I asked him, matter-of-factly. Because my teenaged huff was still in place and I didn’t know how to accept the idea that anyone could possibly like me… since I certainly didn’t like me.
Tom wordlessly shook his head.
“Thank you.” I said… my voice softening as I desperately tried to navigate how best to manage being liked.
I don’t think Tom and I spoke again. The semester ended and he went on to date a cheerleader… meanwhile I retreated into the waiting, morose arms of the theater department.
But I remember him…
and I remember me…
…and it would appear not much has changed.
Except that now I’m a bit better at accepting that I’m likeable… I must be… after all
Mel, YOU like me…
and you’re one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. So don’t worry about stupid-old-what’s-his-name in Las Vegas. You will continue to kick all kinds of ass and he will almost certainly contract an STD.
So get back out there and embarrass yourself.
Make me proud.
So… not everything that happens at the medical examiner’s office is an epic disaster… at least not to us… I mean, we understand that what other people consider an epic disaster is actually a pretty slow Tuesday around here.
So, I suppose what I mean to say is that, not every incident turns into an existential crisis for yours truly. One of the main questions people ask when they find out I’m a medical examiner is: “Woah, is that anything like what you see on TV?” And I have to tell them that the REAL medical examiner experience is less “CSI” and more “Parks and Recreation” Sometimes, funny and weird shit just happens… and it doesn’t send anyone into a metaphysical melt-down. So, taking a break from my incredibly strange dating life, here are a couple of more-benign tales:
-THE CSI EFFECT a.k.a. The Starfish Phenomenon-
Murder is a big crowd-pleaser. It seems that for any tale to be considered interesting, someone has to be dead, someone else must have murdered them… and someone has to be naked. Such plots are the stuff that tend to drive story-lines right into the awards season. So-and-so was brutally killed and Thus-and-such processed their grief by going on a rampage… or revolting against an unjust government… or by writing a symphony… or by meeting someone else and falling in love against all their instincts… or by taking a spaceship to join a new human colony on Mars… and so on and so on.
A less popular story is that people generally just die because they’re sick and/or old.
No one likes that story. It’s not terribly compelling…
… Or it’s not “sexy” in Hollywood-speak
Or here’s another one. People generally just die because they’re sick and/or old… and they are often naked when their death occurs.
No one likes that story either, not even the police… as Henry found out on his last shift.
I usually come on shift right after Henry. And this past week, I arrived at the office to find Henry sitting in our cubicle, staring at his unfinished case file on the computer screen and shaking his head in disbelief. He glanced up as I approached and sighed.
“The cops are just dying for a homicide…”
“How so,” I asked, although I was already somewhat familiar with the tale… because it’s not a new one. Law enforcement is always on the lookout for something to solve; a homicide, a robbery, a crossword puzzle…
Henry launched into his tale of an older woman who had been found deceased in her bed by her roommate. This deceased woman was in her late 60’s, was known to have a host of medical problems and, unfortunately for everyone involved, she was partially undressed when her body was discovered. The whole “partially undressed” tid-bit was enough to send the local police into a frenzy of theorizing. Clearly, they decided, someone else had done this. She had obviously been sexually assaulted and then murdered… or murdered and then sexually assaulted… or maybe she had died DURING the sexual assault. Why else would she be partially naked?
Consider this blog post your official notification that people frequently undress when they’re feeling sick, or crazy, or like they’re about to die.
I first learned this concept as a paramedic student after spending a day pronouncing a wide array of naked people, all of whom were positioned in such a way that the first thing that we saw when we walked in the room was their dead… naked… butt.
My paramedic field instructor put it best as he was explaining this phenomenon to me during a break in our day:
“I don’t know what it is…” he pondered as he chewed on his slurpee-straw like a wizened old philosopher working a pipe. “But when people feel death coming on, the first thing they do is strip down and point their purple star-fish right at the door.”
Well, no one told the cops in our county about what shall forever be known as “The Starfish Phenomenon”. Because they took this woman’s near-nudity and ran with it.
According to Henry, he stood by in horrified fascination as the roomful of police officers at the scene of this death spun an ever more elaborate tale as to how this woman came to be both partially dis-robed AND dead. First they blamed the roommate, then they decided the family must be in on it. Maybe she had been drugged. Was it possible it was an assault gone wrong? Could she have been smothered with a pillow during the attack? That must be why there were no marks on her!
Henry did his best to reel them in. He explained how her positioning wasn’t consistent with an assault, pointing out that in order to make the scheme work, her attacker would have had to contend with the adult diaper our decedent was wearing. Then Henry showed them both the dead woman’s anus AND vagina, describing how there were no abrasions to suggest that this woman had in any way been… fucked with. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it)
The police remained unconvinced and called out the detectives who jumped on the homicide bandwagon like they were writing a script for a summer blockbuster. Meanwhile, Henry conducted his investigation and discovered that although this woman hid diabetes, there were no diabetic supplies or medications in the house… indicating she had been blissfully indifferent towards a disease that’s… generally not something one should ignore. Furthermore, he noted that the whites of the dead woman’s eyes were virtually banana-yellow. This discoloration is called jaundice and it’s an indicator that the woman was in the final throes of liver failure when she passed. AND, in addition to yellow discoloration to the eyes and skin… one of the OTHER major symptoms of liver failure, is delirium… which frequently presents as people peeling their clothes off.
Henry quietly called the body-removal team and released the decedent to a funeral home. He excused himself from the scene as the detectives were beginning to question the roommate.
“Seriously,” he marveled as he recounted the story to me. “They worked themselves into such a lather, I’m not even sure they noticed I left.”
-WATCH YOUR MOUTH-
I’m supposed to be indifferent… or at the very most, I’m supposed to be distantly curious… benignly interested, vaguely intrigued. My emotions are not supposed to enter the scenario when I’m working. I’m an investigator, a blank slate. The story of a death is supposed to write itself on the empty pages of my perception and all I do is watch and record.
But the fact is, I’m a person and I’m subject to the emotional climate of a given situation juts like anyone else. And there’s very little that pisses me off as much as suicides.
I understand… more than I’d like to say… how one’s life can become so painful that the only apparent relief from the suffering is to simply cash in your chips and leave the corporeal table. I get it. Life fucking sucks… deeply and frequently. That said, I find it incredibly difficult to have sympathy for the dead when I have to deal with the aftermath of their demise… particularly when that aftermath includes a shattered family that will spend the rest of their lives trying to shed the spirit-crushing weight of this event. Keeping a carefully bland and distantly sympathetic expression on your face can be quite the Herculean feat when the dead guys wife has a story that really paints the guy as being a supremely self-absorbed, responsibility-dodging, infantile douche-bag. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, the last thing this guy did before deciding to off himself, was assault his wife as she was trying to leave him.
As a woman who’s had to deal with alcoholic significant others… It made my blood boil. Seriously, I was pricklier than a porcupine in a mosh-pit as I excused myself from her company and went into the family home to assess the physical state of said alcoholic.
It was a mess. Dude had opted to off himself with a high-caliber fire-arm and hollow-tip ammo right through his thick skull. The floor of the bathroom was a veritable swamp of blood and brain matter. On the counter-top was a hastily scrawled note in the decedent’s hand, stating that he was “going to do everyone a favor” and kill himself….
…Small note here… If you’re really going to kill yourself as a “favor” to your loved ones, maybe think about doing it in a fashion that ISN’T going to result in a $3000.00 bio-hazard clean-up… because neither the medical examiners, the fire department nor the police are responsible for picking your skull fragments out of the ceiling. Your FAMILY has to deal with that. So try showing a little fucking consideration… m’kay?
It was late and I was tired. I don’t know, maybe it was the mess he’d left, both in an emotional and a janitorial sense… maybe it was the fact that I knew this event would FOREVER taint Christmases to come for his children… maybe it just pissed me off to see another now-single mother trying to figure out how she was going to get herself and her children through this, latest shit-show inflicted upon them by an alcoholic father. Regardless, as I braced myself for the task of examining the body and sifting through all the goop to try and find a bullet casing, I couldn’t hold back:
“Asshole…” I muttered at the corpse under my breath.
-because sometimes I’m just NOT the bigger person. Sometimes the story gets to me and I can’t help but pass judgment. I fucking human, man! What the hell do you want from me?
If you’re offended, read on. Because I definitely got my just desserts on that one.
I wedged myself into the bathroom, tiptoeing around the vast puddle of bodily fluids and angling myself over the decedent like I was playing a macabre game of Twister. Balancing delicately as I straddled the guy’s shoulders, I began my official “external exam”. The investigating police officers watched in gaping, horror as I moved my hands over the decedent’s ruined, malleable head, broad shoulders, stiffening limbs… Like they couldn’t quite believe I was actually touching him.
(Why, you may ask. Why bother looking at all that stuff if there was a big-ass hole in his head and so much blood that you could hydro-plane a HUMVEE? Wouldn’t his cause of death be obvious? You’d think that, wouldn’t you? WELL gunshot wounds to the head are what I refer to as “distracting injuries”. Sure the guy may have a bullet in his head… but he may also have a bullet in his chest. So yeah, I give the cops grief for imaginatively turning EVERYTHING into a homicide. But one mustn’t discount the possibility that someone may have put that bullet in his already-deceased head, hoping no one would notice his actual fatal injury. The same thing happens on the ambulance- “distracting injuries”. Paramedics are so busy fiddling with someone’s broken ankle that they fail to notice their patient is also having a cataclysmic heart attack.
Stick with me , kids! I’ll teach you everything I know! Then you, too can become a cranky, judgmental, disillusioned government employee who wrestles with soggy dead-bodies over the holidays)
Anyway, once I was finished with his front, I had to roll the guy over to take a look at his back. No small feat since he outweighed me almost two-to-one and we were stuffed into the cramped bathroom so tightly I could practically taste the liquor he had been drinking, pre-mortem. The police were of limited help, seeing as how the two I had with me were looking a little nauseated and both were large enough that had they attempted to join me in the bathroom, one of us would have had to literally stand on the corpse, and another would be relegated to standing in the blood-puddle.
No matter, I’m pretty good at rolling a corpse on my own and I had indignant rage fueling me. I seized one of the dead guy’s arms and grabbed a handful of his belt and heaved as hard as I could.
I’m still not altogether sure how it happened. The fact is, the guy was heavy, stiff and slippery… a trifecta of inconvenience. The grip that I had on the dead-guy’s wrist slipped… I mean, greased watermelon-slipped. And I was bent over him in an attempt to lower my center of gravity to ease the movement. Unfortunately, this put me within arm’s reach… because the arm slipped, and my face was right in it’s path as it ricocheted back to the ground- smacking me square across the jaw and leaving a spectacular explosion of blood, cerebro-spinal fluid and brain matter, slathered across my mouth and cheek.
“Oh FUCK!” I hollered as I leapt free of the dead dude’s rasp and flailed toward the sink. The police hadn’t been watching, but turned at my outburst to find me hunched over the sink, dousing my blood-smeared face with scalding hot water. Gathering the gist of what had just happened, they awkwardly stood there, trying to think of something to say… finally blurting out:
“Uh, do you want a towel?”
“Jesus-fucking-christ, man,” I gasped as the outer-most layer of epidermis melted off my face. “Yes… fuck! Yes, I’d love a towel!”
For reasons unknown to me, both officers darted away to ask the decedent’s widow for a towel. I guess it was a team effort… which was fine, because it gave me a chance to have a little talk with my assailant.
“Very funny, asshole,” I growled at him over my shoulder, before sighing and following with: “Okay, okay… I suppose I deserved that one. Call it even?”
He didn’t say anything.
As a rule, I don’t either. I rarely talk to my dead bodies, and typically it’s just a word or two when I do: “I’m really sorry, dude.” or “Okay, time to go.” I don’t want them to get confused about whether or not they’re still alive, and I really don’t want them thinking that I’m available for extensive conversations and no, they may not follow me home.
Anyway, this time I talked… he answered.
They say you shouldn’t talk smack about someone who isn’t there to defend himself.
Heh, get it? Talk-Smack.
I won’t make that mistake again.