I was lucky.
Of all the things that could have happened, an accidental shooting that was transported to the hospital and then pronounced dead in the ER made for a relatively easy night. Not too bad for my first shift back. I wasn’t terribly on my game but, thankfully, I didn’t have to be.
It was an accident.
Of course, I was unlucky in that this accident took place right around midnight and I was, of course, dead asleep when the call came in. And unfortunately the last month and a half has completely de-conditioned me for waking up in the the middle of the night to do anything complicated and/or important.
In case you didn’t pick up on that, I just came back from a month and a half off work, but more about that later. And anyway, considering all the unluckiness going around that night, I really couldn’t complain.
I answered the phone with a blurry, half mumbled greeting, haphazardly scrawled some notes down from dispatch and then immediately started processing how I could technically do my job and still put in as little effort as possible. Specifically, could I deal with this call without actually having to get out of bed?
It wasn’t until I was on the phone with the investigating detective that I came to grips with the fact that this was actually a pretty serious situation and I was going to have to suck it up and work.
“Hey Grace! It’s been a while since I’ve seen you! Where have you been? How are things?”
“Hey Bishop,” I responded wearily… already instantly back in the habit of calling everyone by their last name. (Of course that doesn’t apply to me because no one can pronounce my last name) I really like Detective Bishop. He’s an honest-to-goodness nice guy who has never put on any big-fat airs about being a detective. The guy has absolutely NO swagger at all. He started with the Oswald County Sheriff’s Department at the same time I got picked up as a medical examiner. We shared our first call on the job here, so we’ve always had something of a kinship for each other. Appropriately, we’re at roughly the same level of disenchantment and we’ve watched one another become less and less enthused with the whole medicolegal-DEATH process. We’re buds. Still, that doesn’t mean that I was about to tell him where I’ve been or how things are…
Because I’ve been out on leave for PTSD and depression, and quite frankly… things are bad. I’m not sure I should be back at work but for the fact that I’m out of money.
I’d offer details, but I’m not sure how much time you have.
The last 6 years has been a devastating, twisted carnival of loss, heartbreak and trauma. And while I have been dealing with it the best I could, that should not suggest I’ve been dealing with it well. As each new blow was landed; from the miscarriage to the divorce, from the cancer to the break-up and the subsequent suicidal ideation… I lost footing, I flailed. I fell…. and got back up, always telling myself I could go on. I was fine. I was managing. But I wasn’t… Just because I awoke every day and managed some semblance of consciousness and function does not mean I was in any way surviving…
Yes, it got that bad…
…or rather, I got that bad… because I think the abandoning of myself, the slow degeneration of my own spirit that has been what we, in medicine, refer to as a chronic condition… a “smouldering infection”. It hasn’t been any one, single ruinous event that suddenly crashed my planet, it’s the accumulation of sorrow along with my desperate and increasingly disorganized coping. The state I was in really wasn’t evident until I was sitting in the front seat of my car… thinking about how I could just veer into oncoming traffic and be done with it all.
I’m not proud of how completely I departed from my own center… How thoroughly I was flung off my axis…
I’m not blaming anyone. I was a perpetrator in these events as much as I was a victim. I still am. I wish I’d been better, wiser, kinder with it all. I wish I knew what to do now…
…besides my job.
Yeah… I wasn’t about to share any of this with Bishop, I couldn’t. Despite what our human resource departments like to claim, no one ever ‘fesses up to being on the ragged edge of a nervous break-down. We’re not “welcome to express our feelings”. The fact is, pretty much all of us (police, paramedics, etc.) are a mess all the time and we all smooth over the cracks in our psyches. It’s a shameful thing… not being able to “cut it”. Especially as a woman, there’s always that added layer of misogyny… the weight of having to prove you can hang with the guys, not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of all women who have ever applied for and held a job in a male-dominated field. The eyes of history are on you. Generations of women before you fought and suffered so you could collect that paycheck… so are you going to cry and reach for your smelling salts while someone loosens your corset for you? Or are you gonna fucking galvanize and show these assholes what a pair of x chromosomes can do?
“I’ve been around, Bishop. You know me… I’m always around. What’s the story?”
“Well, we’ve got an accidental shooting. This kid’s from China. He’s here for college or something. He and his buddies were playing with some guns and one of them accidentally discharged. There’s liquor all over the place. At first we thought it might be gang related… but it’s not. The shooter shit himself… like actually shit himself when it happened.”
Bishop kept talking while I wrestled out of my pajamas and re-built myself into my business casual professional-wear.
So… it made sense… everything Bishop was telling me. Owning firearms is an incomparable novelty for these foreign kids who have never even seen a live weapon, let alone held or operated one. So naturally, when Chinese students come to America, one of the first things that they do is go out and buy guns. The next thing that they do is invite all of their friends over to see their gun collection. And after THAT, the next thing they do is drink a vast amount of alcohol and start passing around those pea-shooters… and guess what happens next?
According to Bishop, the AR-15 discharged while pointed at our decedent’s abdomen
When I saw him at the hospital, the wound was maybe half a centimeter in diameter… barely big enough to see. But as anyone who knows anything about ballistics can tell you, the kid’s liver had essentially been put through a paper-shredder. He was unconscious before the ambulance arrived. He was pulse-less by the time they got him into the ER.
A split second. A tiny hole. And here he was, 19 years old… less than half my age. Done.
Of course, the existential crisis I was due to have regarding this kid’s death was somewhat delayed by my more immediate logistical crisis: He was 6’2″ tall and weighed just shy of 300 lbs. I had to get him into the state office and on to an autopsy table all by my itty-bitty self at almost 2 a.m…. prompting a less than boast-worthy hissy fit during which I uttered the reprehensibly racist comment that I thought Chinese people were supposed to be little…
Yeah, not proud of that one. but hell, what do I have to hide anymore?
It took some fancy finagling on my part, but I managed to get the kid on a prep-table and into the cooler without dropping him on the floor or throwing my back out… because that’s what I do, right? In the face of overwhelming tribulation, I carry the fuck on.
Still, after I had him on the table, I stood there and looked at him for what was probably an inordinate amount of time.
I never see these people alive, so seeing them dead isn’t as disturbing as one might think. While their friends and family are devastated to see the inert flesh vehicle that once housed the soul of their loved one… it’s different for me. He’s been dead the whole time I’ve known him. I don’t know a thing about him other than how damn heavy he is and what he looks like naked. In general I like it that way… There’s just enough separation. It’s like handling mannequins. Sure, it might get a little creepy when you’re by yourself, but it’s not like they’re going to get up and start talking to you.
Maybe it’s because it was my first death, back in the saddle and my brain-condom wasn’t thoroughly in place… But I did something I can only call ill-advised. I stepped out from behind the protective lead curtain of indifference. I looked at this kid and tried to imagine what his voice sounded like. I tried to imagine him joking around with his friends. I wondered what he was studying in America and what he figured his life was going to look like. Was he going to go home to China? Was he going to stay here? Did he think America was just fucking awesome? Did he realize what happened to him in those brief moments after the bullet tore through his body and before he exsanguinated into his abdominal cavity?
19 years old.
I remember being 19 years old, and I probably wasn’t too different from this kid.
It may be hard to imagine, but I was raised to be a conservative Christian. I went to church 3 times per week. I sang songs, I lifted my hands up in worship. I tried really hard to speak in tongues but couldn’t ever get the hang of it. I probably would have handled snakes if we had been into that sort of thing. I was REALLY good at figuring out what people expected me to do, and then doing it. By all accounts, I was set to have a safely obedient life of meek piety in the kingdom of God. Everything was in place. I was sheltered.
I left home to go to college, too. I didn’t traverse continents in the name of higher education or anything, but I moved out and all of the rules that held me in check suddenly evaporated. I could do what I wanted… for the most part. Sure, I went to a Christian college (at first) that had a curfew, a chapel, an “honor-code” and all manner of rules governing our comings and goings. But let’s be honest. It was a barely contained free-for-all. Sex, drugs, rock-and-roll… and chapel services in between.
No one handed me an AR-15 or anything, but we had a wide variety of other lethal implements at our disposal… and not one of us had been trained, or even cautioned regarding their use. Specifically, we all had barely developed brains, unbroken hearts and just-out-of-the-box, freshly-oiled, fully-functioning reproductive systems.
And being sheltered from the use, care and maintenance of these items in no way sheltered us from the repercussions when we decided to start using them… and I imagine we were a lot like that slew of Chinese college kids. Drunk on freedom, waving around our shiny new toys, feeling like hot shit… ignorant to the fact that you’re not supposed to put your finger on the trigger… be careful where you point that thing… it’s loaded you know…
I’m not young anymore. There’s no excuse anymore. But if life is a battlefield and these are my weapons, I still can’t shake the feeling that I never really learned how to use them. I imagine myself, staggering through no-man’s land, the demilitarized zones of human experience, dashing from one trench to the next, firing blindly over my shoulder. Taking another bullet in my thigh, one to the shoulder, throw on a bandage, tie on a tourniquet… keep running…accidentally firing on my friends, my lovers, my family… lost and confused…staring at a map that I never learned to read, wondering if that hap-hazard kaleidoscope of scoldings and sermons I received was supposed to pass for training…
I have to slow down. I have to figure out how to shoot this thing… and how to NOT shoot this thing. I need to figure out who my allies are. How do I recognize an enemy? And for god’s sake… where is safe? How did I get here? How do I get home?
“I’m so sorry.”
…was all I said to the dead Chinese boy. And I was. I’m so sorry for all of the things he was counting on doing that won’t happen now. I’m sorry for his mom who probably had nightmares about this very occurrence. I’m sorry for the friend who accidentally let off a round from his flashy new gun and whose future was now so terrifyingly uncertain. And I’m sorry for all of us… the wizened old-timers who somehow survived our first rounds with the real world and have continued to get pummeled ever since.
Here’s to him.
Here’s to us.
We who are about to carry the fuck on… salute you.