The other day, I was riding my motorcycle and my rear tire blew out…
…which was terrifying, but not so terrifying that I didn’t go ahead and limp my poor bike to my original destination… which was my trapeze class. After all… TRAPEZE. And there’s no reason why a near-death event should interfere with my training schedule. I’ve been getting SOOOO close to a double front hip-circle, it seemed a waste of a trip downtown to just give up and park my bike by the curb when I was only a mile or so from the aerial studio. I think my dead rear tire would have wanted me to go on… to be happy… to nail my double front hip circle. It’s summer anyway, and there was plenty of daylight left after class for me to have the requisite “I’m-20-miles-from-home-and-my-motorcycle-is-DOA”-meltdown.
This was how I found out that:
a) my AAA membership covers motorcycle towing
b) one of my trapeze classmates is a motorcycle mechanic who has lots of spare tires in his garage, and he had just mail ordered this weird hinged-metal lever thingie that squeezes motorcycle tires off their mounts. (Kewpie doll for anyone who knows what the hell I’m talking about, because I have no idea what that device would be called)
Anyway, my friend told me to have my bike towed to his house and he would change out my tragically shredded rear tire for a “gently used” one that would at least get me home. Which was how I found myself sitting in the front seat of a tow-truck, talking about death.
The guy that AAA sent to my rescue with his flat-bed-trailer-tow-truck was a talker. And I think he was initially surprised to find out that I was not. I imagine most of his clients, pardon the stereotype but especially women, probably babble endlessly about their tale of vehicular woe once they’re in his passenger seat. But I wasn’t feeling particularly verbose. I was actually mentally analyzing some of my trapeze techniques while at the same time wondering if it signified some profound disconnect with reality that I was more concerned with getting to class than I was with safely operating a two-wheeled motor vehicle (Okay… so that day, it was one wheeled… or one-and-a-half-wheeled) that, on it’s best day, still kills roughly 26 times more people than cars.(Statistic courtesy of the US Department of Transportation in 2013)
The tow-truck driver, clearly baffled by my lack of chit-chat, asked that fateful question: “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a medical examiner for Oswald County.”
He absorbed that answer for a second
“So… what does that mean?”
I went with my I-don’t-feel-like-explaining-it answer: “It means all dead people, all the time.”
And he was off.
He talked about how his mom was in the hospital and likely wouldn’t last through the end of the month. He talked about the death of his father… and then he talked about how certain smells evoke memories of his past lives… and he did so with a you-know-what-I-mean attitude which indicated that he assumed that I, of course, believe in past lives along with the rest of the general populace… like, of course I used to be an 18th century Irish potato farmer… weren’t you?
(Just for the record, I don’t NOT believe in past lives… to read more on the faith and mysticism issue, please observe the previous blog-post: “Why not?”)
Then he started asking me about my job. He asked me to describe it, which is kind of like asking someone to describe every flower in the rain-forest. There’s too much. In fact, there’s so much that it’s difficult to even describe how indescribably diverse my job duties are. I admit, I gave him a half-assed answer. I just didn’t feel like talking. But the truth is, this past few weeks has been a kaleidoscope of wacky job duties that I kind of feel need to be shared. So, in addition to my more prevalent job duties of investigating deaths, writing case files and schlupping corpses from place to place- this is the other stuff I do when I’m getting paid:
1) The “Is this guy dead?” question
I don’t mind these calls at all. They’re actually my favorites because so far, they’ve all had happy endings. People call me up and tell me that they’ve lost touch with a friend or a relative whose lifestyle is… shall we say… a bit risky. Perhaps they’re homeless. Perhaps they tend to drop out of contact for extended periods of time, then reappear and admit that they were in a commune doing LOTS of drugs. Perhaps they ride to trapeze class on motorcycles with flat rear-tires. Whatever.
Anyway, I get these calls and I comb through our county case files. Then I go into the state death certificate registry and check for the name of the party in question. Then I get to call back the inquiring person and give them good news! Their brother, friend, cousin, etc etc. has not turned up dead in the state of Maine! Congratulations! They’re relieved and they thank me with real appreciation… not the wooden, hollow-voiced, mechanical thank-yous that I get from people after I’ve told them that their husband’s death was ruled a suicide or that their son’s blood alcohol was astronomically high when he killed 6 people in a highway wreck. Those people say “Thank you” with distracted automaticity- the way you thank someone who tells you your loan application was rejected… the way I thanked the doctor who called me and told me I had cancer. I never know what to say back to those people… “You’re welcome” just makes me feel like an asshole who’s rubbing it in.
But these folks… they’re thrilled to hear from me. They thank me like I just slipped them the key to Heaven’s back door. I could go on and tell them that it’s entirely possible that the object of their concern actually IS dead and their body just hasn’t been found yet… or that we’re located really close to the state border and there’s a good chance this person managed to meander over the state line before buying the farm…. but it’s so rare that I actually get to give people good news, I try not to ruin it.
I have yet to get one of these calls and have to report that the hunted individual is, in fact, deceased.
Knock on wood.
2) The OTHER “Is this guy dead?” question
So, this was kind of a new one today. I received a call from a triage nurse at a doctor’s office. She sounded really nervous on the voice message… and even more nervous when I called her back… like the kind of nervous someone might be if they believed they were knocking on the door of the house from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. It’s okay, I’m used to it.
“So… this is kind of weird question…” she said hesitantly.
“No it’s not.” I thought to myself. “Go ahead, I dare you… Surprise me.”
“This gentleman called today to make an appointment. He said his name was Conrad Earl Miller* and he gave his date of birth and his social security number. He said that he had just been seen for a broken wrist at the Oswald General ER and he needed to follow up with us…” he voice trailed off.
“Okay…?” I prompted her on.
“Well… Conrad Earl Miller is dead. Two years ago we received word that he was dead and we made note of it in his chart. I was just checking with you to confirm that he really is dead.”
So I pulled up both the case file and the death certificate and verified that Conrad Earl Miller, with a birth-date, social security number and address that matched this mysterious caller, was indeed dead. Mr. Miller was a Native American war veteran with a history of schizophrenia who hanged himself in his tool shed in 2013. And yet, apparently, Mr Miller was also a calm, well spoken, articulate gentleman who was coming into their office on Monday to see about his broken wrist.
The nurse and I knocked around theories for a bit, but were admittedly at a loss as to why someone would steal the identity of a broke, crazy Indian with suicidal ideation (AND suicidal actualization). Of course, it would appear that stealing other people’s ethnicities is all the rage right now, so maybe this dude was just taking the Rachel Dolezal act a step further.
I ended up having to call Mr. Miller’s daughter (who confirmed that she had identified her dad at the funeral home in 2013 and there was NO DOUBT it was him in the casket) and letting her know someone out there was pretending to be her father. Then I told the nurse to call the vital records fraud department as well as the police to see if they wanted to nab this wacko when he came into her office. The nurse, who probably doesn’t see a lot of intrigue in her job, sounded really excited and told me she felt like she was on a detective show.
“I feel like an investigator!” she gushed.
“Ummm… yeah!” I tried to match her excitement- because I just didn’t have the heart to tell her what investigators really do. Case in point:
3) Don Quixote seeking lost princess
This isn’t my story. It’s really Herny’s.
Henry is my co-worker who has been investigating death for roughly as long as I’ve been alive. Henry has the inexplicable ability to be on shift whenever something really crazy happens. Keeping with this tradition, Henry was they guy who got the call when a woman’s skeleton was found in a field next to a trailer park.
It’s not as exciting as it sounds. This lady had been living with friends in the nearby trailer park, but had been trying to get into some kind of assistance program. In order to demonstrate her need for this assistance, the woman had temporarily moved out of the trailer and set up an outdoor camp in the field. She had a tent and a sleeping bag and all the typical homeless amenities. Unfortunately, this woman apparently misjudged how badly she needed assistance, especially medical assistance. She died out there… and no one noticed for a year until a grounds-keeping crew came through to do a yearly underbrush-clean-out.
You might think it strange that no one noticed when this woman went missing. But the fact is, it’s not at all difficult for someone to slip through the cracks… Given the right circumstances. For starters, this woman, like the Native American in the last tale of woe, was schizophrenic. Which is to say… she kind of drifted through life in a colorful mash-up of hallucination and reality. The people that she lived with in the trailer park were elderly landlords that the woman had found through craigslist. They weren’t terribly invested in our decedent and they were so senile when she moved out, it’s likely they barely noticed she’d been there at all. When Henry interviewed them, they had almost no information about their tenant. They had a rough idea as to where she worked… a school of some sort… located in a parking lot… over by the Wentworth Family Grocery. They weren’t sure about family… but didn’t she say something about having been a Cherokee princess? Or maybe it was a Celtic princess… anyway, she had been royalty of some kind.
Henry was incensed. He was a man possessed.
Since the body was more or less skeletonized, it was near impossible to make a definitive identification. The only hope was to find a doctor who might have x-rays showing some distinctive morphology to her thorax or cranial sinuses… an old fracture or something… Of course, to get such x-rays, we would have to FIND a doctor… and the elderly couple she had lived with could barely recall each other’s names, let alone the name of our decedent’s physician. The other option was to get DNA- which would be utterly useless without a known family member to compare it to…. so Henry was in a jam… no positive ID, no next of kin… just a pile of bones in a field and a pair of old geezers who answered every question with: “Eh?”
That’s how Henry, one of the most skilled, experienced, decent medicolegal death investigators I have ever known… ended up wandering the grocery store parking lots of Oswald County Maine… hunting for information on a lost princess.
Astonishingly, he managed to find the school where this woman worked (yes, she had access to the malleable minds of your children) and while they were no help in the whole doctor/dentist/next-of-kin search, they DID confirm that this woman had been in the habit of billing herself as the princess of virtually everything, everywhere… Lucky thing, the rest of us only get to be potato farmers.
These are the stories you don’t see on the Discovery Chanel.
4) “You know he would want this!”
Perhaps the worst duty I get sucked into performing is that of familial referee.
The other day I had this woman call and spend a half hour telling me how much she hated her step-mother. The complainant’s father had died, leaving his wife as next of kin. The decedent’s daughter from a previous marriage was inconsolable about this matter, as she and the decedent’s wife utterly despised one another and refused to play nice. It seemed the step mother was refusing to allow the daughter to be involved in the funeral arrangements or cremation plans. The daughter, thinking to side-step her step mother’s authority, called my office with plans to commandeer her father’s final disposition.
“I need you guys to get his ashes from the funeral home and give them to me so I can spread them over my mom’s grave. That way I can see both my parents at the same time when I go to the cemetery,”She commanded in a businesslike tone that indicated she’d spent a lot of time giving orders at places that had slogans like “Your way, right away”.
“Ma’am,” I told her, “Legally, your father’s wife is the next-of-kin. Which means it’s entirely her decision what happens to your father’s ashes. I’m sorry if there’s a rift there. But we can’t subvert her wishes.”
“But..” the daughter barked incredulously. “Then I would have to drive THREE HOURS to see my dad! And I would have to take a separate trip the opposite direction to see my mom! That’s not fair!”
I resisted the urge to tell her that, actually, she would be driving three hours to see a plaque on a wall since her Dad was no longer inhabiting the physical plane.
“Well… can’t you just take… like… half of his ashes and give them to me? She doesn’t have to know. Just so I can sprinkle them on my mom’s grave. My step-mom is EVIL! She’s an awful person! She’s not letting me be part of this at all!”
“I’m sorry. But we can’t do that. By state law, your dad’s wife is the legal executor for his estate and all decisions are in her hands. It’s not my choice. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
She tried again.
“Look!” she demanded accusingly. “You KNOW this is what he would have wanted… YOU KNOW IT!”
“What I KNOW,” I countered, “is that you are asking me to commit a CRIME. What you’re asking is AGAINST the LAW and I am not going to take part in it.”
“Well, I’M going to CALL a LAWYER!” I love how people say that as though they believe a lawyer is going to tell them that they can have whatever they want. Seriously, what the hell is it with folks? Are we so immersed in customer-service culture that we cannot FATHOM not getting our way in all matters?
“I encourage you to do so,” I told her. “I hope you do manage to get some of your dad’s ashes, but this isn’t something I can help you with.”
Last I heard she was trying to get the funeral home to steal her dads ashes out of the crematorium before her step mother could take them. She even had the nerve to tell the funeral home that I said it was okay. Fortunately, the funeral director is well versed in crazy so he wasn’t buying it either.
There are more duties…. eternally more snags to navigate… more problems to solve… more nut-jobs to talk to. But it’s late, I’m tired and I have no doubt there will be another princess to hunt for tomorrow.
Fortunately, Henry’s on shift.