It was about as funny as it wasn’t…
… which describes most of my experiences as a medical examiner. It also describes most of my experiences as a human, but I always had kind of a twisted sense of humor. Just ask all of those agents who refuse to publish me because my writing is “too irreverent” or “disrespectful of people’s tragedies”.
Sometimes you have to laugh because it’s the only option. And I totally respect other people’s tragedies because I’ve had plenty of my own… I’ve laughed at all of them… right after I cried so much I thought my chest was going to split open as brands of fire spilled out.I’d had a day full of coagulated deaths; deaths so logistically and physically sticky that it took hours to thread through all of the bureaucratic knot-work involved, even as I did my best to wipe the residue of mortality off my metaphysical shoes. We, in America, make death so complicated that it’s about as funny as it’s not.
Anyway, I was sitting at my desk, having finally cleared from two separate death scenes that had both been particularly tedious. I don’t remember any specifics now… namely because of what was about to happen. I was just sitting down to the tidal wave of resulting paperwork when my pager went off. I called the number and found myself on the phone with state police dispatch.
“Hey, we’re wondering if you have an ETA for the accident on Highway 30”
“Ummmm, what accident on Highway 30?” I responded.
“Well I paged the officer’s number out to you almost 2 hours ago…”
I glanced at my pager, I HAD gotten a page two hours earlier, but when I called the number, it had gone straight to voicemail. The outgoing message had stated that, “-the person’s voicemail box has not been set up yet.” I had dismissed it, figuring that if it was important, the person would call back. Which, I suppose, now they were.
I explained this problem to dispatch trying to keep my irritation under control. It is a faux pas of epic proportion to miss a scene call, and the sinking feeling I experience when I find out that this has happened roughly resembles the legendary, black-out drop on the Space Mountain roller coaster at Disney World. It’s the kind of situation I get called into my supervisor’s office to explain after any number of dispatchers and officers call to gripe about our shitty professionalism. Write-ups and warnings abound… and rightly so. It’s my fucking job to be available for these things.
“You guys… You KNOW that if we don’t respond to a call within 15 minutes of a page, you’re supposed to call BACK.”
I was pissed. No way in hell was I taking the heat for this one.
The dispatcher stuttered and fumbled, then transferred me to her supervisor. I explained the situation over again and the supervisor put me on hold for a few minutes before coming back on the line and telling me that the motor vehicle accident on highway 30 was in such a remote area that there was no cell phone coverage.
“We’ve got a new trooper out there and I think he’s feeling a little overwhelmed. He didn’t know to call back when he didn’t hear from you. we’ll explain it to him.”
I re-packed my freshly un-packed scene-bag and mounted up for a drive into the remote foothills of my county… for a head-on semi-truck-vs-panel-truck motor vehicle accident that was two hours old and getting older. I was preparing the little come-to-Jesus talk I was going to have with this noob state trooper when I got there: stern, but not too salty. After all, this was probably the first time he’d seen a catastrophic death and it made sense he might be a little squirrly.
However, when I got to the scene…. now 3 hours after that initial page… I was approached by none other than state trooper Nicholson- who is one of my favorite people. Trooper Nicholson and I rescued a dog together who had been locked in a garage alone for a month after his owner died in the house. It was a miracle the dog was still alive and both Nicholson and I had almost burst into tears when the beautiful Rottweiler had huddled his gaunt frame up to us, grateful for his first contact with other living beings in 33 days.
Nicholson is not only one of my favorite people, he’s also 7 months away from retirement.
“Uh… HEY!” I cheered as he approached. “Um, dude, sorry it took me so long to respond. When I tried to call the number back I couldn’t get through. I guess there’s no reception up here and I only got that one page two hours ago. You know you can call me back if you don’t hear from me after 15 minutes, right?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” he chuckled. “We had plenty to keep us busy here. And I did ask dispatch to call you back. I wonder what happened.”
“Well, um… Dispatch told ME that the trooper onscene was a newbie and didn’t know to call back…”
Trooper Nicholson stared at me in disbelief. I squirmed under his gaze like a freshly salted slug… shrugging and chuckling awkwardly… because it was funny.. about as funny as it wasn’t. And I reflected to myself that I wasn’t sure if that burning smell was from the scorched out semi truck on the side of the road, or from Nicholson’s hair, curling up and smoking as his face turned a wrathful garnet-red.
“They… said… what?”
I smiled weakly and made some inane comment about, “what’s the sound of a buck being passed”.
“Uh, yeah, anyway… tell me what’s going on here.” I turned to survey the damage which was… profound. There was the burned up semi-truck on the shoulder, as I mentioned before. But that wasn’t my focus. Reportedly THAT driver had been airlifted to the downtown hospital and was doing just swimmingly.
My date was with the panel truck that sat in the center of the two-lane highway, split open like a busted melon. The debris field was… substantial, easily covering nearly one hundred yards of pavement before me: shattered glass, broken plastic fragments and hunks of unidentifiable machinery. It all speckled the asphalt like a Jackson Pollack painting. In the middle of it all, there was a yellow tarp.
Nicholson explained as I gingerly tip-toed through the hodgepodge: “So… witnesses say the panel truck veered into the oncoming lane. The truck was going about 50. The semi was coming down the hill in the opposite lane, going maybe 60? The panel truck crossed into the oncoming lane… there’s that steep grade on the side of the road there and the semi didn’t have anywhere to go… so… OOP,” he hiccuped as I stepped over the yellow tarp. “Yeah, one of the guy’s arms is under there. Anyway, most of the rest of him is still in the cab… what’s left of it.”
“Most of the rest of…” I stuttered. And then I saw it.
There was carnage scattered around in the mess. Chunks of flesh were sprinkled here and there amongst the wreckage. There was so much… meat on the highway it boggled the mind. It looked as if the guy had exploded. There was a pile of muscle to my right, another scrap of sinew to my left. And over there was… a… plastic bag, split open… with a few hunks of carrion spilling out the side? And I realized…
The panel truck had been a food delivery truck.
Upon impact, dozens of boxes of raw chicken and pork had burst out the yawning tear in the truck. The boxes had detonated when they hit the ground and literally bestrew the debris field with… well… debris. We were surrounded by errant breast fillets and stray tenderloins… It had all tumbled and scuffed along the ground, getting covered in dirt and leaves, until each species of gore was virtually indistinguishable from the other. The only thing that could be definitively identified as belonging to our driver, was the severed arm underneath the tarp.
And I burst out laughing…
…because it was funny
…about as funny as it wasn’t.
Nicholson, next to me, wrestled back his wide grin, momentarily forgetting how he’d been done dirty by dispatch. “I know, right?” He chortled, “you can’t make this stuff up.”
“Oh my GOD,” I gasped. “This is so fucking wrong.”
I took a couple deep breaths and stepped over a tangle of snarled noodles that were hemorrhaging out of a box nearby as I moved to survey the truck driver still in the cab. That’s where the laughter drifted away. The guy had died on impact… thankfully. He never felt a thing. He had lost a leg as well, it was tangled in the seat mechanism beneath him. And he lay sideways across the seat… eyes closed… almost peaceful. It was tragic, deeply tragic. He was young… tattooed… bearded. He looked like so many of my friends…
I looked up the road to make out the skid marks that would communicate the lines of travel that the semi had made as he swerved, hoping to avoid the truck. Up the road I saw the police tape stretched across the road and a legion of curious drivers, all, trapped by the accident, stuck waiting for us to move it out of their path. Necks were craned and eyes were alert. All of them were angling to catch a glimpse of the deceased driver as he lay, barely shielded by the crooked-hanging passenger-side door.
The rage blossomed through my mind like a mushroom cloud.
“Somebody fucking do something about those goddamnned lookie-loos,” I snapped, gesturing violently toward the crowd. They were far enough away that they couldn’t hear me, but I have no doubt they could see the flailing motions of my arms as I cursed their curiosity. One of the department of transportation guys nearby began ambling up the hill towards the onlookers. I could see him hollering at the people and their lukewarm response to his commands. They each took a couple of steps back, but remained well within eye-shot of the scene, having no intention of missing the “main event” when we pulled the broken driver out of the truck. I became even more incensed and began stomping my way up the hill, intent on delivering a scalding diatribe as soon as I reached them… a diatribe that included the phrase: “THIS MAN DID NOT DIE FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT!”
It appeared they caught sight of me bearing down on them because the whole sordid lot scrambled back to their cars as though they were being set upon by a swarm of killer bees. I slowed my pace and stood, hands on hips, between the crowd and the accident, shouting at the slow-movers “KEEP WALKING!!!” as they meandered out of sight. Turning back to the accident, I noted another state trooper nearby. One I had worked with before, but didn’t know personally. Our eyes met and his mouth twisted in a barely contained smile.
“I was going to tell them to bug out, but I kinda wanted to see you mad.”
We had to call the fire department back to the scene to get the driver out. It was a long process. I ended up helping and received a massive splash of blood on my leg that soaked through and wet my skin. Then we had to do a shoulder-to-shoulder-walk of the debris field, playing a gruesome game of “Chicken, Pork or Human”… I was the referee.
I know… funny… not funny.
Attempts to get an address for his Next of Kin was impossible. He had just started working for the truck company and his supervisor barely knew him… when asked if there was emergency contact listed on his hiring paperwork, he told us the office was closed until Monday… then shrugged with indifference. As I was finally leaving, with the truck driver on his way to the morgue and his cell-phone tucked into my pocket in the hopes I might manage to find his family, one of the DOT guys stopped me.
“Hey, aren’t you going to take a fortune cookie?” He asked, pointing at the ground. The truck had apparently been making a delivery to an Asian restaurant, because hundreds of fortune cookies lay at my feet… some crushed, some intact. “We’re all taking one…” he coaxed.
I shrugged, picked up a fortune cookie, cracked it open and glanced at the words from the hereafter.
“Cool man, I’ll catch you later,” I said to him. I hugged Nicholson goodbye and reminded him to invite me to his retirement party… seeing as how he was a newbie and all. Climbing into my county truck, I headed back into civilization, hoping to finally start my paperwork and maybe go home to eat.
I didn’t sleep that night.
When I did manage to sit down, I spent the next hour combing through the truck driver’s phone, trying to disseminate which numbers were his family or friends. The names were all nick-names and there weren’t any text messages. Finally, desperate to notify someone before midnight, I called the most frequently dialed number in his phone and ended up speaking to his fiancee. It was a horrific notification. When I told her, she screamed, choked, cried. Her heart-crushing sobs floated through my apartment even though she wasn’t on speaker-phone. My roommates in the living-room stared wide-eyed through the kitchen door, clearly able to hear the wrenching sounds of her devastation.
Even after that call, it wasn’t over. I had three more calls that night. I don’t really remember them, I only remember that at 5 a.m., with three hours left of my shift, it hardly seemed worth it to go back home. Instead, I staggered back into my office and finally began hacking away at the jungle of documentation that has been amassing for the last 48 hours. I sent my counselor an email stating that I wouldn’t be at group therapy that morning, even though I probably needed it more than ever. but I wouldn’t have time to go home and change beforehand and I didn’t think the others would be so keen to see me walk into a group therapy with blood all over me… even if I assured them it wasn’t mine. At one point I logged into Facebook and happily saw that my boyfriend of three months was online. “Hi!” I typed to Darkhorse (as he shall forever be known to you) “How was your night?” (He’s a bartender at a local watering hole and eatery)
“It was incredibly stressful…” he typed back. Launching into a story about how busy he had been. A customer complained about him and his passive aggressive co-worker refused to bring him fresh silverware when he asked for it because the co-worker thought that Darkhorse’s tone was rude.
“Wow,” I typed back… “that sounds… rough…”
I know… funny… because it was… and wasn’t…
He didn’t say much more. He was grumpy and didn’t sound particularly interested in how my shift had been. He told me he thought he was getting sick and logged out.
I had no idea that I wasn’t ever going to see him again, at least not in any way that I expected.
Darkhorse’s sickness extended through the next few days. We cancelled plans to go out of town on an overnight trip upstate. I was exhausted and his sickness had taken pretty serious hold. He told me that he just wanted to rest and “cough up his lungs”. I offered to make him soup and show him movies if he came over. He declined. I was okay with it… I had to go out of town for a family thing and didn’t particularly want to catch anything. But then a few days stretched into a week. Darkhorse’s messages thinned out to a trickle. A sentence here and there, a greeting, a video of some cats. Then one day went by… then two… with no contact whatsoever.
I reached out to him a couple of times… jokingly asking if he was still alive- because in my world, when people stop calling it’s because they’re dead. I asked him if everything was okay, was there anything I needed to know. No, he said, he was just tired and sick. He loved me, he missed me, everything was fine.
Then five days went by. The unease was starting to gnaw at me. The two of us had been inseparable right up until that night of that awful shift. We had been happily bashing around the city for weeks. He had taken me to my doctor’s appointments, we had played card games, binge-watched TV shows on Netflix. He had seemed delighted to regularly crash at my place for four days at a time. And now, it felt as though a light had suddenly burned out. I was groping around in the dark, trying to find the hand I had just been holding. I was trying to be patient and give him space, knowing that he was a bit introverted. Also, I was out of state with my family and maybe he was just giving me time away. We had been spending an awful lot of time together, maybe we just needed to recharge our batteries and pay more attention to our own lives, after all… you can’t live in the honeymoon phase forever.
At the end of those five days, I messaged him on facebook again, I would be coming home from my brother’s place the next day and I just wanted to check in. “What’s going on?” I had said.
“I’m terrified,” he responded… a number of hours later. “I don’t know how strong I am for this.”
I was confused and hurt… telling him that his distance and silence had compelled me to believe that our relationship was over… much like that shift, I don’t remember a lot of what was said… but the gist…
“I’m afraid you’re going to die. I’m not strong enough for this”
“You’re breaking up with me because I have cancer?”
He was breaking up with me because I have cancer…
I do… have cancer. If you’re just joining the story now, the fact is I have cancer… a rare variant of a rare form of cancer. It manifests as an intermittent rash on my face and neck. I’ve had two rounds of radiation therapy and the rash still comes back, itchy and demanding as a backwoods cousin on meth. It’s not systemic right now, but that’s all we really know. Doctors tell me that they can’t say with any reliability what’s going to happen, but as far as they can tell it’s just going to be an aggravation that has to be managed and there’s no reason to think that I won’t live a normal life span… still you never know.
You never know…
Just like you never know if you’re going to be run over by a car… or you never know if you have a malformed vessel in your brain that could rupture at any time… you never know when you’re going to distractedly veer into an oncoming lane and get hit, head-on, by a semi… but I can tell you how it feels when you do.
It feels like that conversation.
This isn’t the first time.
I was married when I first got diagnosed. My husband was an introvert, too. He was so introverted that he completely ignored my disease until, finally, I asked him one day how he felt about it. What did he think? What should we do? Again, I was groping around in the dark, trying to find the hand I had just been holding. My husband stared at his feet for a second, looked up without meeting my gaze and said, “I’m not comfortable with that question.” And even though he was physically present, I never saw him again, at least not in any way that I expected.
Our marriage never recovered from that conversation.
The very next relationship, I was breaking it off because we lived in different states and straddling the two locations was making me crazy and exhausted. I was sorry but I just couldn’t maintain the connection.
“You know, Grace,” he had barked at me petulantly, “You don’t look that good on paper… you’re divorced… you have CANCER…” pointing out that I should be grateful that he was willing to take me on with all my… flaws.
Then there’s my last relationship, the one with the verbally abusive bipolar who, during his particularly bad spin-outs, would wield my disease like a mace, brutally bashing me back and forth, telling me that he didn’t know what I was so upset about. HE was the one taking on all the risk in this relationship… seeing as how I had cancer.
Now… someone just couldn’t bear to watch me die of cancer, he just wasn’t strong enough for it. “I do love you…” he typed.
What followed was a jumbled onslaught of messages from me… dazed… crushed… flailingly trying to make sense of what I had just been told. I’m not sure what I said, but I know I’m not proud of it. When I finally got my wits about me, I told him that I was sorry for not being more compassionate towards his fears… it makes sense, it’s scary to lose someone. I feared the same thing… He never responded
He did this over facebook.
and I apologized for my lack of compassion…
I’ve laughed as much as I’ve cried. I’ve laughed when my friends have threatened to stuff him in a crematory. I’ve laughed at myself for being so messed up over anyone who could do something like that. I’ve laughed at the sheer absurdity and likely falsity of his argument… I love you, I can’t stand to watch you die… even though I’m not dying. Chances are he’ll die long before I do. I should know, I’m a medical examiner for fuck sake. It’s what I do.
And I think about it… that last shift that I thought I was okay, that I was loved… that I belonged somewhere and with someone. It’s funny how I feel like both of them at the same time… the driver… torn to pieces by a sudden impact that he never saw coming. But I’m also his fiancee, somehow still breathing, left alone in the desolate aftermath… my roommates, staring wide-eyed through the kitchen door.
And I still have that fortune, the one I picked up at the scene, tangled up in the wreckage. I stuck it to the refrigerator and I see it several times a day… and it’s funny…
… about as funny as it isn’t.
“A found penny will bring you good luck!”
…well… that’s something to look forward to…
I haven’t found it yet.