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. Furthermore, the first officer at the scene swore up and down that the girl was super cold to the touch and that’s why he opted to cancel the initial medical response. (If paramedics had initially come to the scene, they would have put the EKG on her right away and the whole crisis would have been averted.) 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.