“You’ve got a bunch of people attached to you. Do you want me to do a clearing and get rid of them?”
I never know what to say when he asks me this.
I was talking to Peter, a dear, true friend of mine who is a doctor as well as a… a… um… an empath? An energy worker? The correct term eludes me, but he talks to me a lot about “light” and how I manifest the divine feminine.
And I mean… not in a creepy way. Many very “spiritual” men have propositioned me, offering a 2nd chakra alignment, (meaning they intend to fuck the enlightenment out of me). But Peter’s interest in me has never been anything so vulgar.
Honestly, I’m not altogether sure what to make of his interest in me. We’re kindred spirits for certain. We met back when I was a paramedic, working in an urgent care clinic during my internship with a medical examiner’s office. He was a physician. We slogged through grueling 12-hour shifts together and found considerable relief in one another’s sense of humor. For example, I used to engage in interpretive dances in an effort to pass the time. These dances always involved an array of handy props: I.V. poles, neck braces, clip-boards, you name it. Peter tells me that the first time he ever saw me go pirouetting through the clinic waving a pair of ace bandages over my head, he thought to himself, “Oh, thank GOD, someone normal works here.”
As we became better friends, Peter allowed me to perform any number of procedures which were decidedly not in a paramedic’s scope of practice, but still super fun. I don’t care what you’ve heard, stapling someone’s scalp back together is a total kick in the head
Also, as we became better friends, Peter began letting me know that his talents extended beyond the corporeal realm and he also engaged in energy work and … stuff.
I say “stuff” not to be disrespectful, but rather because I flail at describing what, exactly, Peter does. I just know that every now and then, he calls and says he senses I’ve got some undesirables lurking about my person… souls that I’ve picked up from a death scene like cat hair or bed-bugs. “It’s perfectly normal,” he tells me. “You work with the newly dead. AND you work with souls who were pretty violently ripped from their bodies and they’re confused. It makes sense they would attach to you. You’re a pretty bright light and you’re there to restore order.”
Anyway, Peter always asks for permission to “clear” the hangers-on and I always give it. He has also “cut-cords” that energetically tethered me to a couple shitty ex-boyfriends. He has asked me afterward if I felt better and I suppose I did to some degree. To this day I don’t feel weighed down by those memories or characters anymore. But I’m a hardened skeptic. A cancer diagnosis paired with an Evangelical Christian upbringing will do that to you.
I’m not sure if you know this, but I was raised in a SUPER-Christian home. We didn’t handle snakes or anything, or reject modern medicine. But the gravity of my “inherent sinful nature” and a constant need to atone for it always simmered on the front burner of my developing brain. It made for a heavy childhood, thick with guilt and obligation.
On the one hand, I don’t hold anything against my long-ago spiritual teachers. I understand that they were doing their best for me. But on the other hand, some of the things they taught me ultimately equated to a primeval sense of cause and effect: If something bad happened to you, you probably did something to deserve it. And even if you didn’t, what right did you have to question the will of God? If God wanted you to have cancer, it was your job to find the lesson he was trying to teach you. Obviously, cancer was God’s way of trying to get your attention. So be a good girl and listen for his voice in the midst of your suffering.
I heard the rattling and buzzing machine that fired deadly radiation at me.
I heard my ex-husbands beeping computer as he buried himself in video-games, leaving me to navigate the labyrinthine corridors of modern medicine, alone.
I heard the silence from friends and family members who called either rarely or not at all.
And I came out the other side of cancer with the distinct opinion that if “God” existed, he either couldn’t help me… or wouldn’t.
But believe it or not, I didn’t really hold it against him. The same way I wouldn’t hold it against a tidal wave that annihilated my home, my city and everyone I know. How can you be angry at a force of nature? Why bother getting pissy with physics? Not a single feverish prayer or spirited hissy fit stops fate from handing out some truly raw deals.
Of course, I haven’t gone completely atheist. But I regard the God of my youth the same way I regard many things: I don’t not believe in him.
When Peter said my soul had seen thousands of years on Earth, I didn’t not believe him.
When my palm-reading friend looked at my hand and told me I had “someone riding with me”… as in a guide or defending spirit. I didn’t not believe her.
When my shaman-in-training co-worker told me that my spirit animal was a tiger and it would help me through cancer treatment, I didn’t not believe her.
But I also don’t entirely believe them.
Still, I have to admit my Judeo-Christian upbringing has helped me out here and there. Most recently, my years of Sunday-schooling helped me figure out a particularly mysterious cause of death.
MY FIRST CRUCIFIXION
Very little enrages me as much as waking up to a beeping pager in the dead of night. Local law enforcement knows this and I’m pretty sure they draw straws to determine which poor bastard has to call me with a death report. This night was no different. After the pager pulled me out of a dead sleep, I called the flashing number and, with scathing derision, asked the officer what the fuck he wanted.
“Hey Grace. We have a dead guy here… he’s hanging.”
“Ok,” I grumbled. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. It’s a suicide, right?”
He hesitated. “Ummm… no? I don’t know. He’s hanging by his arm.”
I shrugged, hanging up. Suicide or accident, it didn’t matter. I still had to ooze into some clothes and stagger my way to the scene.
When I got there, I realized it wasn’t a house or park or any of the typical places where people hang themselves. The scene was a massive, empty warehouse. The building had, at one time, housed one of those enormous, big box stores. But it had been vacant for a couple of years, save for being rented by a pop-up costume and accessory store-front that arrives with Halloween and is gone by November 1st. The parking lot was silent and deserted as I approached the darkened edifice. The pavement was cracked and full of weeds. The parking-lot flood lights had long been burned out and the decrepit desolation reminded me of a post-apocalyptic zombie flick. Only a single vehicle was noted: a van, parked in a far corner of the lot; obviously positioned there in an effort to avoid detection. I crept my county truck around to the freight entrance of the building where I found several police cruisers and an un-marked detective’s unit.
“What the hell?” I barked at the officers as I threw the truck in park and jumped out. “The dead guy is in there?”
“Yeah!” They called back. “Weird, right?”
“Hey guys?” I heard a hesitant, echoing voice warble out from inside the slightly open garage door of the freight entrance. “Is that the medical examiner? Are you guys coming in soon?”
“Who is that?” I asked.
They exchanged looks and one of the officers almost giggled. “That’s our recruit. He was the only one small enough to get under the garage door. He’s in there with the body.”
“He’s alone in that warehouse with a dead body?”
The officers snickered. “We gave him a flashlight…”
“That’s fucked up, you guys.”
They shrugged. “Somebody had to do a standby with the body until you got here. He’s fine.”
“He doesn’t sound fine.”
They shrugged again. “You wanna go under the door or up the dumpster chute?”
“I bet you say that to all the girls,” I muttered as I hopped up on the loading dock and crawled, army-style, under the garage door. As I got up, I first noted that there was a relieved-looking officer standing before me, agitated and fidgeting with his flashlight. I also noted that the warehouse was cold, quiet and stagnant as a tomb. The entire expanse was an empty linoleum floor that seemed to stretch on endlessly before us. I squinted into the blackness and thought I saw a pale, ghostly shape suspended in mid-air in the far corner of the building.
“Is that him?” (as though anyone else would be dangling from the ceiling in there…)
The officer nodded and the others outside called in to us, saying the fire department had just shown up with some tools to cut the doors open. I barely heard them. With the officer (who looked like he was about 12) by my side, I approached our decedent. He was hanging, just like the officers had said. His feet were about 6 feet off the ground and he was maybe another 6 feet from the ceiling. But there was no ligature around his neck. As reported, the dead guy appeared to be hanging by one arm. Specifically, it looked as though he was hanging from one hand. With the flashlight, I could make out a length of wire, looped tightly around and crushing his left wrist. The wire passed behind him and was also looped across his shoulders and down to his right hand. But there was nothing across his throat and no indication of strangulation.
On the floor beneath him was a tangle of wires and a large toolkit. Above him hung a maze of piping and air-ducts.
“What the fuuuuuuuck,” I murmured.
“He was stealing the copper wiring, it’s actually pretty valuable,” the young officer told me by way of explanation. “His girlfriend was outside in the van. She says they got here around 7 a.m. and he came inside. She fell asleep and he wasn’t back when she woke up. She couldn’t see in the windows and just wandered around for a while until she called a friend. The friend boosted her into the garbage chute and she found him like this.”
“Yeesh…” I muttered. Crawling in the barely-open garage door was bad enough. But I couldn’t imagine crawling into the near-complete darkness to find your significant other, dead, hanging from the ceiling. It was gruesome and undeniably traumatic. “How the hell did he get up there?”
The officer pointed. “There’s an access ladder right there. It goes up to that trapdoor to the roof. He probably scaled the ladder then crawled outside the cage and just sort of crawled on to of the pipes to get to the wires.”
“Well, it doesn’t look like a hanging. He’s tangled in the wires but nothing is actually around his neck. Don’t touch him. He’s probably an electrocution. And stay away from all the wires. We don’t know which ones are live.”
Just then, the fire department tumbled in the door with a loud crash. They set up a couple of floodlights, which helped with viewing the scene, but also made the whole tableau look that much more like a haunted house display. The fire department was pretty gung-ho about cutting him down and getting the hell out of there. But both the police and I insisted on calling the local power company to make sure the power was completely shut off to the building.
This meant another 30 minutes of waiting for the on-call electric company employee to drag himself out of bed and brave the abandoned-building wasteland along with the rest of us. When he got there, he shuddered with disgust at the inert body hanging from the ceiling. But he looked downright horrified when he took in the chaos of the electrical room. Our decedent had made a glorious, tangled mess of the place. All of the electrical boxes had been smashed open and lengths of wire were stripped from the wall-anchors and lay, strewn on the floor. Electric-dude (as he shall henceforth be known) started pulling all manner of gadget out of his kit and fiddling around with… stuff.
After a few minutes he announced that he had to go outside to the electrical box and … do whatever it is he does… out there. While we were waiting, the officers and I prowled around the gutted mega-store, observing the damage our guy had done before meeting his end. In the back hallway, locked doors had been kicked in. Ceiling panels hung askew from their brackets and more wire lay in piles beneath smashed holes in the walls. Aside from the recent damage, the floors were stained and sticky. Paint was chipping and beautiful people with grotesque, billboard- smiles, grinned down at us from the peeling advertisements on the walls. All of us squirmed at the hollow echoes of our voices in the expansive void. The emptiness was darkly oppressive and unnerving, especially since the only illuminated corner of the building featured a suspended corpse.
“So, here’s the deal-” The electrical guy’s voice boomed towards us as he came back in. “As far as I can tell, the electricity to the building is off and has been this whole time.”
The cops and I exchanged a look.
“Are you sure?”
He stuttered for a moment. “Well, there’s still a very slight charge to the box, but nothing lethal. It looks like everything has been off for a while.”
“Okay… but are you sure there’s no electricity in those wires? I don’t want all of us to get electrocuted trying to get that guy down.”
His eyes flipped from me- to the cops- to the fire crew- to the dead guy- back to me. “I’m pretty sure…”
This was good enough for the fire department. They seemed bored with the whole production and quickly set up a ladder and looped a harness over the pipes in the ceiling to create a pulley system. I held my breath as one of the fire crew scrambled up the ladder and looped the harness around the decedent’s torso. The rest of the fire crew heaved on the loose end of the rope as the ladder guy quickly snipped the wire loose with a set of bolt cutters. I held my breath, waiting for an explosion of sparks and a surprised cry from the fire-fighter as 100,000 volts of electricity ripped through his body
But nothing happened. The other fire-fighters held the harness line taut as the suspending wire wrapped around the dead guy’s arm released and they gently guided him to the floor.
Once there, I began painstakingly examining his body for signs of trauma. Electrical injuries have a reputation for being evasive and subtle: a white spot on the thumb and a corresponding blackened smudge to an ankle. Of course other times, these physical markers dramatically display themselves as a charred limb or scorched digit- with layers of skin peeling away like barbecue. However, the blemishes I had been eying on our decedent’s body from a distance turned out to be common scrapes or even dirt. What I had initially been certain was an entry point for a lethal electric charge was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill laceration which was probably about a week old. Furthermore, the way the wiring twisted around our dead guy indicated he had been attempting to alleviate the pressure on his tangled left wrist by wrapping the wires around his right hand and lever himself out of the merciless loop that suspended him between heaven and earth. If he had been electrocuted, there would have been no attempt at escape, he would have been dead almost instantly.
Unable to find the expected culprit, I stood up from the grimy concrete floor and regarded our decedent in confusion. It was possible I was missing the entry and exit points for an electrocution due to the poor lighting, the layers of grimy clothing and the pressure of an audience. Even as I regrouped, the fire department started bubbling over with suggestions and speculations. Maybe he had died of a heart attack and that’s what caused him to fall. Maybe it was an overdose- like he had hit the crack pipe or something just prior to ascension.
Maybe it was the word “ascension” that caught my attention.
Or maybe it was the fact that our guy was pale and thin… with a beard and straggly, shoulder length brown hair. His arms were splayed out to either side at shoulder level and he looked almost peaceful- kind of like someone I used to spend a lot of time with.
“Oh my god,” I gasped. “You guys… he was crucified!”
The cops and firefighters all looked at me like maybe I had hit the crack pipe. Crucifixion? I imagined them all thinking. No one jammed a crown of thorns on his head and nailed this guy to a post. I scrambled to explain as the realization filled me with triumphant excitement. Finally, my years in religious-school purgatory were paying off!
You see, in addition to filling little children’s heads with self-loathing and shame, many Christian schools also subject students to incredibly graphic descriptions of Christ’s crucifixion. I suppose the idea is to impress upon them the extent of Jesus’ suffering to pay for mankind’s sins. Subsequently, I learned the pathology behind crucifixion at such an impressionable age that I could never hope to forget it. Most people think that crucifixion victims die of blood loss or exposure and that’s a fair assumption. The torture rituals surrounding crucifixion are brutal enough to cause death long before the main event actually takes place. But here’s the thing- anyone who manages to survive the floggings and beatings until they’re nailed to a cross actually dies of positional asphyxia… that is to say, they suffocate.
Your lungs don’t inflate of their own accord. Put simply, air gets pulled into your lungs when your diaphragm (a big, flat muscle that’s stretched across the bottom of your ribcage) expands downward, creating a negative pressure gradient. Without that muscle, you couldn’t breathe on your own. Furthermore, the muscles between your ribs (your intercostals for those of you feeling scholarly) assist in breathing. And these muscles are like any other muscles in your body. They are subject to fatigue if they’re over-taxed. When someone is suspended by their arms for an extended period of time, (either stretched to the side or over their heads) the diaphragm is stretched and has to work extra hard in order to expand enough to pull air into the lungs. The intercostal muscles also put in extra work to enable the mechanics of breathing. If a person remains suspended for an extended time, all those muscles eventually give up. It’s a grueling and painful death, gradually losing your air as you dangle. A lot of images of crucifixion show a little wedge at the feet, upon which the victims could brace themselves as they awaited the inevitable. It’s debatable if this little wedge was actually a thing. It’s also believed that the victims’ feet being nailed to the cross also supplied a certain amount of support. But according to history, if a crucifixion victim managed to hang out for too long, surviving the elements and the injuries, people would get bored and the powers that be would command for the victims’ legs to be broken. This action would eliminate any remaining hope that the victim would be able to hold a position in which their respiratory muscles could function. Fully suspended, they would be dead in a matter of hours.
Just like our decedent.
Following the story we were being given, The decedent had gone into the warehouse around 7 a.m. He had managed to get some demolition and thievery done before climbing up to his perch and then falling, probably grabbing at the wires on his way down. Which explains how he ended up wrapped up in the wire in the first place. And there he hung. It wasn’t until 11 p.m. that the girlfriend began wondering in earnest where he was. Then another hour went by as she summoned a friend to help her gain access to the dumpster chute. All told, our guy had likely been suspended by his one arm for at least 12 hours. Possibly up to 16.
More than enough time to slowly suffocate.
I told all of this to the gathered assembly with excited glee. It was an incredibly unlikely death, and an even more unlikely discovery. As far as I knew, not one of my colleagues had ever come across a crucifixion before and I couldn’t wait to tell them.
Of course, no one else shared my enthusiasm. Quite the opposite. I was so excited about figuring it all out that I kind of forgot to consider what this meant for our victim: an excruciatingly slow, torturous death. The cops and firefighters all gazed at me in horror as I chuckled and beamed in exultation, congratulating myself for my own acumen. And it didn’t occur to me until I was driving home, that when the decedent’s friends and family called and asked their favorite question, the one friends and family always ask: did he suffer, I was not in a position to offer my usual response. Typically I say either No, he didn’t, or I don’t know. In this one instance I knew the answer. It had been drilled in to my brain from the moment I was first able to babble the lyrics to Jesus Loves Me.
Yes, he absolutely suffered.
His death was probably indolent and terrifying… shadow-like, creeping up the walls as the light faded from the windows and his breaths came shorter and shallower.
It was probably awful.
The thought sat on my lap and stared at me as I drove home from that scene. I felt heavy… I felt haunted. And I guessed that if I ever had any “spiritual hangers-on” I definitely had them now. Intrusive thoughts and vicious little pictures played themselves out in my head. I couldn’t stop imagining him, hanging there, waiting to die in the dark… alone.
I thought about calling Peter and asking him to do one of his “clearings”-whatever that means. I don’t know if he sits cross-legged in a quiet room and imagines brushing cobwebs off of me or what. But it was still early, I didn’t want to wake him. Then again, I also didn’t want to carry the spiritual/emotional/metaphysical residue of this death into my home. I didn’t want to track this shit into the living room. I didn’t want to lie down in my bed while my ghostly thoughts laid down next to me and stroked my hair as I tried to sleep. I didn’t want my brain-monsters watching me shower.
When you become a medical examiner, or when you begin working in healthcare, you’re generally required to take classes that train you to properly clean up after medical emergencies and such. It’s usually called, “blood-borne pathogens” or something equally unimaginative. You’re also trained in the proper use of “PPE” or “personal protective equipment”. There are guidelines and laws and documents governing how you keep yourself safe and clean. But no one tells you how to sanitize your mind. How do you peel the images off your brain? How do you rinse the existential ennui from your spirit and scrape the demons off your shoes before you accidentally track them through your life?
As the sun rose, I stood in my front yard, staring at my house. I couldn’t go in… not yet. I had to do something…something to pry the evil eye off my back. I couldn’t bring that death home with me. Not that one.
Earlier in my life, I would have prayed. I would’ve sung a hymn to myself and asked Jesus to cleanse my mind of melancholy and phantoms. As a child I used to plead with God to remove the monsters from my closet. Then I implored him to ease my way through high school. Later I begged for confidence, a job… a husband… But, I don’t know, asking Jesus to help me stop thinking about a guy who got crucified kind of felt like asking Jack Daniels to help me stop drinking.
Not really his wheelhouse.
So I decided to wing it.
I stepped off the sidewalk and on to my front lawn (less a lawn and more a tangled mess of weeds and under-watered grass). I kicked my shoes off and delicately placed each bare foot on the ground. I stared at my toes and willed the earth to soak up the darkness I had absorbed during the night. I willed the sorrow away. I tilted my head back and took a deep breath of the chilly, pre-dawn air. I smelled dew mixed with grass and the faint, saucy sweetness of my rosebushes nearby. I said his name, addressing him directly. I told the crucified dude that I was sorry for what had happened to him, but he wasn’t allowed to come home with me. I told him he didn’t belong here anymore. I told him to move along.
And as I opened my eyes…
… there was my 80-year-old neighbor and her dog, standing on the sidewalk, staring at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.
She didn’t say anything, just watched as I hastily pulled my shoes back on and adjusted my massive, black work bag on my shoulder.
“Hi Karen..” I mumbled as I retreated into my home, leaving the stubborn spirit of one, recently dead, crucifixion victim on the front lawn, hopefully to follow her home instead. After all, Karen lives alone and is a much better hostess than I am, judging by the banana bread she baked us last year.
When I talked to the dead guy’s family, they didn’t ask too many questions. I think when I explained the mechanism of his death, they drew their own conclusions about how unpleasant his final hours were. Life went on, uninterrupted, and the next time I talked to Peter I half expected him to warn me that I had a whopper of a restless spirit skulking around and stinking up my aura. But he didn’t mention anything. I can only surmise my half-assed little “ritual” must have worked.
It’s a satisfying feeling, knowing I can clear my own atmosphere. Because let’s be honest, Peter’s a doctor. He’s got all kinds of other shit going on. And Jesus… well, I’m not too sure what Jesus is up to these days but I want him to know I’ve got my business handled.
I fight my own battles-
and I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.