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.