What it Means…

I’m not sure what happened.

I mean, I KNOW what happened because I was there and everything… but … I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m sick, maybe it’s because I’m tired.

Or maybe it’s because I’m starting to lose my touch…

But then again, maybe I’m starting to FIND my touch. Maybe it’s the healthiest reaction I could have had, given the circumstances.

Anyway, I’ll stop being vague and just tell you.

I cried on a scene on a recent shift… something I’ve NEVER done before.  I don’t cry at work.  I’m the fucking medical examiner, I hold it together when everyone else falls apart. I’m the carved, granite face of control and professionalism when the cops are puking, the chaplains are cussing and the funeral-home employees are averting their eyes with disgust.  I don’t cry…

Until now.

And I wish that was all, but I did some othershit that I’ve never done before.  Stay tuned.

So, to be fair to myself (something that never happens) it was a really fucked up call.  It was a baby death that, as far as we can tell right now, is completely unexplained.  They used to call such an event a SIDS death, but there is a push in the medical community to move away from that term.  For anyone who doesn’t know, SIDS stands for “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome” and that moniker is problematic because it gives people the impression that there is a diagnosis to be had.

The word “syndrome” sounds like a legit, defined disorder or disease process.  It sounds like  something that can be seen under a microscope. “Syndrome” sounds like a fully researched pathology with a list of risk factors, symptoms and treatments. It sounds like the kind of thing an autopsy would explain.

But sometimes autopsies don’t explain shit.

SIDS deaths are the absenceof an explanation. No one knows why these babies die.  That’s why the modern term for these events is now SUDI: “Sudden UnexplainedDeath in Infancy”. And that phrase is only assigned to a death when every test and exam has been done and we still don’t know what the hell happened.  Maybe someday, the great culprit will be found.  Some researcher somewhere will see the altered morphology of the heart tissue.  Someone will uncover the faulty gene sequence.  A dude in a lab will take a look at a petri dish full of cells and figure it all out. Until then, we’ve got jack.

Which isn’t really the point.  I just tend to ramble about academic drivel when I don’t want to remember what happened.

It was awful, really awful. There was absolutely no reason for this little girl to be dead.  Even as I was talking to the neighbors… the police… the parents… I’ve been in this line of work long enough to be able to pick up on the sense that there wasn’t going to be any solid ground at the bottom of this hole.  It was a SUDI. I knew it.  But still, I investigated my ass off and prayed like hell that I was wrong and that any answer at all might explain why this girl had just stopped breathing. I know what the lack of answers does to the parents of a deceased baby.  I’ve had that conversation several times. I will call up devastated mothers and fathers to give them autopsy results, and then have to admit to them that there aren’t any.  They sit there on the other end of the phone in complete silence, waiting for me to say something more. It’s as though I’ve reached through the phone line and slit their throat. They can’t comprehend that the excruciating void of their loss has no resolution.  It’s awful. We can collect all the facts and still have nothing to show for it. 

The more and more information I gathered on this investigation, the more I suspected that there would be no answers.  The child had been carried to term and born at 40 weeks.  Uncomplicated pregnancy, uncomplicated birth, no risk factors, no illness.  She had been loved and well cared for.  Now, like a wisp of smoke or a popped soap bubble, she was simply gone.

The father asked me if he could hold his daughter before I took her.

I used to be a real stickler about those requests. I thought that letting parents hold their dead infants would compromise the whole investigation.  It would muck up trace evidence.  It was unprofessional.  And to a degree, all of that is correct.  There have to be limits, but these days- a decade into my profession as a deputy medical examiner, and a… a… witness  to all of the realities surrounding death- I wasn’t about to tell him “no”.

The mother wasn’t sure if she wanted to see her daughter- which is fine and normal.  Not everyone needs that moment of seeing their loved one’s body. I know I don’t.  When my Dad died, everyonetold me that I should view him before he was cremated. But I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I was already a medical examiner by then and I didn’t want to remember looking at my dead father every time I walked into a scene.  So I told everyoneto fuck right off and leave my over-worked psyche alone. Grieving people don’t need or want your instructions. 

Quick public service announcement: thinking that someone isn’t reacting appropriately to a personal catastrophe is a shitty, self-righteous projection. And telling someone that they’re not reacting appropriately to a personal catastrophe is basically taking that shitty, self-righteous projection and beating them over the head with it… So don’t do it.

 Anyway, I led the father into a separate room and then brought the girl in to him.  He smoothed her tousled head of feather-fine curls.  He kissed her cheeks and then clutched her to his chest and sobbed convulsively… animal-like… as though his bones were being pulled out of his body through his skin, one by one. “I was worried about paying for her wedding…” he gasped out, not necessarily to me. “Now I’m wondering how I’m going to pay for her funeral…”

I swallowed, I pinched the web of skin between my thumb and my index finger. I breathed in for 6 seconds and out for 8.  I internally shouted at myself: HOLD IT TOGETHER!!! YOU FUCKING HOLD IT TOGETHER. YOU ARE A PROFESSIONAL AND YOU DON’T CRY.  But it didn’t matter. My surroundings went watery in my vision and with one blink, the tears tipped from my eyes on to my cheeks. I was crying. For the first time in 10 years, I was crying.

Yeah, it feels something like this… (I stole this art from Pinterest- the artist is Jefferson Muncy, check him out)

Okay, so not so much crying, but I was sniffling. And the first couple of tears laid the pathway for several more to slip down my face before I could collect myself enough to take the tiny, cold form back from her father. I left for the morgue, skirting past the police officers and curious witnesses, doing my best to hide my face as I went. I placed the little body on the front seat of the truck beside me and took her away.

The morgue isn’t scary, even though I always feel like it should be. For some reason, anytime I take a body to the morgue, it’s always dark outside and I’m always the only one there. Even though I’m on shift for 48 hours and people die all the time, for some completely inexplicable reason, I never end up at the morgue during normal business hours. But you get used to it, and so far, the dead have never hurt me. There are several security doors and passcodes.  The lights are always on and as soon as the slithering whoosh of doors sucks you into the cooler, you’re immediately saturated in the sickly-sweet odor of decomposition.  The cooler is always crowded with bodies, most of whom are still in rigor-mortis and frozen in whatever position they died in. They’re also covered in sheets or wrapped in white bags. A limb is held aloft here or there. Perhaps a hand protrudes from the edge of a sheet.  The end effect being they look as though they were all engrossed in some elaborate interpretive dance and froze in place, mid-gesture, when I entered. That night was no different, except for the fact that I simply couldn’t shake my sadness. Generally, when I’m working, I have what I refer to as my “brain condom”. While on shift, without even trying or realizing it I view the endless march of tragedies through a nerve-dulling membrane.  I can see what’s happening and I can acknowledge with deepest sympathy that it’s sad.  But it’s never really sad to me.  And while I’ve recognized what a shame it was that this person or that person was dead, I’ve always known that my feelings on the issue certainly didn’t matter, so why open up my coin purse of emotional nickels and start feeding grief’s hungry slot machine?

Except tonight. Except her.

I put the little girl’s tiny form on the scale and found myself irrationally outraged at the fact that it read a diminutive “17 lbs”.  That scale wasn’t supposed to spit out numbers that small.  Normally it read “185 lbs” or “250 lbs”. I stared down at her and felt angry… and confused… and incredibly sad.I hated that I was going to have to put her on a gurney that was 10 times bigger than she was. I hated that I was going to have to wheel that gurney into a cooler full of corpses in various states of decomposition… most of whom were probably assholes. I hated that I was then supposed to just shut off the lights and leave her there. I hated thinking about her parents cleaning up all the baby stuff in their house. I hated thinking about them having to explain to their other child that he wasn’t a big brother anymore. And then having to explain it again because he wouldn’t understand.  

I hated thinking about her autopsy.

Art by “Shinyrotom”

I’m not religious. I used to be, but not anymore.  I’m not saying that I don’t believe in God, but I am saying that I don’t much like church or a lot of the people you’ll find there.  In my experience, they’ve never much liked me either. I was a weird kid and I grew up to be an even weirder adult. Church just felt like a continuation of the exhausting work and irretractable rejection I dealt with at school and home.  There was always some task that I had failed to do… always some social maneuver that I had failed to navigate.  Being “Godly” seemed to go hand-in-hand with being popular and beautiful and I was never either. And, church aside, after almost 15 years of witnessing people’s seemingly pointless and random suffering, followed by the gut-punch of my own cancer diagnosis… Well, I just wasn’t altogether sure what I thought of God. More importantly, if God existed at all… I wasn’t sure I could be convinced that God necessarily gave a shit about us.

Case in point… why the hell was this kid dead? What purpose did it serve? How did it fit into God’s plan which I had heard so fucking much about as a child? As I stood there, looking at her little dead body, I could hear all the empty platitudes: God works in mysterious ways.

I guess resurrection was on the brain.

A couple of shifts ago, Henry had a family lose their shit on him because their brother was autopsied before they could pray him back to life.  No shit, they called and specifically asked that we delay the autopsy for 3 days so God could work the resurrection.  Then they freaked out to learn that, through an array of miscommunications, their loved one was autopsied the same afternoon that he was found dead. They believed it was our fault he didn’t come back to life.  We fucked up their miracle by being too efficient.  At the time that all this had played out, Henry and I had sat on the curb outside our office, passing a Marlboro Red between us and cackling with laughter between drags. But tonight it seemed less funny…

I put my hand on the little chest, feeling the cool, smooth velvet of her skin.  I put my other hand on her head and closed my eyes.

God? I took a deep breath… Um, hi.  I know I haven’t talked to you for a while and I don’t know what to say.  I know that this isn’t something that you do anymore…maybe you never did. But if you ever did… how about now?  If it ever occurred to you to bring someone back to life… if you ever had it in your head to take something back… how about now?  Why not this one? Please?  Just this once… it’s not for me… please?

I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen. But yeah, I prayed for God to bring her back to life… probably prayed harder and with more sincerity than I’ve ever prayed for anything…which has to be the definition of PTSD or unprofessionalism. I must have broken some rule somewhere…

Not to mention the fact that when it didn’t work and the wave of sadness receded, it occurred to me to consider the real-life, practical implications of what I was asking. Namely, what the hell would I have done if it had worked?

For starters, it would have scared the shit out of me… which raises the question of which do I believe in more? God or zombies? Secondly, what the hell would I have to say for myself? How would that phone call to my supervisor have gone? 

“Hey… soooooooo… ummmmmmm… that baby that I just took to the morgue from that scene? Yeah, I think I’m going to have to bring her back?”

The sheer ridiculousness of the thought snapped me out of my existential stupor and I laughed out loud right there, alone in the morgue. Alone except for my story, my work, and a God that may or may not have anything to do with us. 

When I wheeled her into the cooler, I made sure to keep her away from the addicts and the homicides. I tucked her into a corner next to an 11-year-old boy who’d been hit by a car.  I told her to keep him company and I asked him to look out for her because she needed a big brother.  I shut the lights off. I closed the door. I went home.

I have no idea what any of this means. Is it a good thing that my emotions surged to surface with such force that tears and prayers came out?  Does it mean I’m losing my mind?  Am I burned out? I don’t know. Maybe this is the beginning of the end.  Maybe it’s time to move on to something else. 

But on the other hand, maybe it’s time to take a step back from the traditional standpoint of utter stoicism and indifference.  A military veteran friend of mine who has some extensive PTSD told me once that trauma tends to pick off your emotions, one-by-one, until all you have left is rage and contempt.  And if you stick with your trauma long enough, even those will disappear… leaving you a hollow, dead-eyed golem… Dragging onward toward your last paycheck. So if I’m crying… I’m still there, right?

Or maybe this is happening because child deaths have started hitting me differently. After quite the unexpected turn of events, I’m about to acquire 2 young stepkids who are already dearer to me than I ever could have imagined.

Kids.

I’m a stepmom.

I don’t remember the last time I was responsible for kids who were ALIVE.

This should be interesting…

2 thoughts on “What it Means…

  1. First of all, your writing is beautiful and also had me in tears. Secondly, if one of my children – small or adult – ever died, I would hope that whomever took care of them afterwards felt some emotion – care and compassion and the desire to do right by them – not just clinical interest (or lack thereof). I hope that father noticed your tears, because it would have been incredibly comforting to know that the person you’re about to hand your baby over to also mourns and actually gives a shit. In my opinion, the world needs more people who do.

    • Thank you so much for saying so. I’m glad this post resonated for people. I was really apprehensive about posting it because the subject matter is soooo… tricky. But it was the kind of thing I couldn’t NOT write about. I’m glad to have people who can witness with authenticity and don’t get freaked out

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