Remember that book? “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”
I did a quick look up and found out this charming little tale of childhood angst was first published in 1972. If you haven’t read it, maybe give it a look. You know, before it’s too late and you spend your life with an unexplainable sense of optimism, assuming everything is going to work out for you.
Let me explain.
The book is a story about an 11-year-old boy, Alexander, who has a catastrophic day in which he suffers numerous atrocities. He trips over his skateboard getting out of bed. He has to sit in the middle seat during his morning carpool ride to school. He gets shit on by his friends at recess. He goes to the dentist to find he has a cavity. He has to eat lima beans, he has to wear shoes he doesn’t like. He gets scolded by adults. His nightlight burns out and his cat doesn’t want to sleep with him. Throughout it all, he believes the remedy for his woes is to move to Australia. In the end, Alexander’s mother lets him know that regardless of where he is or what he does, sometimes life will kick him in the teeth. All he can do is take it on the chin and hope tomorrow is better.
I get it. This book strives to communicate to kids that bad times don’t last forever. Things will improve and it’s important to develop a sense of resiliency when nothing is going your way.
That’s one way of looking at it. On the other hand, I can’t help but see Alexander’s run of school-kid crises as preparation for what’s to come. Alexander is having a rough time of it and no one cares… Which makes this book perhaps the most Generation-X literary work ever published: Life is going to fuck you over, kids. Deal with it.
I think Alexander may have grown up to be a deputy medical examiner.
I think I might be Alexander.
Seriously, I’m not sure, but I believe books like these set the gaslighting tone of the 70’s and 80’s in which we were told that not wanting life to suck so much all the time was some kind of a moral failing. I don’t know about your generation, but I come from latch-key kid territory and the overwhelming theme of my childhood was this: Nobody gives a shit how you feel. Work harder.
I think most of us born-between-1965-and-1980 folks really internalized that message and have become the bone-grinding laborers that are currently keeping the world together while the Baby-boomers succumb to dementia and the Millennials battle for social justice in the streets. Speaking from my own experience, I would have loved to march and riot and demonstrate along with all the other outraged feminists. But I have to work. The dead bodies of my county aren’t going to clean up themselves, and my co-workers are just as overworked as I am. I can’t bring myself to call in sick-of-the-state-of-affairs when I know it would mean sticking my cohorts with a 72 hour shift. We’re all burned out.
I’m not gonna lie, things have been bad lately. I think the combined stress of the pandemic along with a whole array of political upheavals and civil unrest is taking a brutal, unacknowledged toll on the human race. People have been dying of COVID-19. But, there have also been more suicides, more homicides and WAY more instances of people dying BADLY than I think I’ve ever seen. Seriously, you guys… shit is fucked. Maybe it’s always been that way and my original programming: the suck-it-up-no-one-cares-how-you-feel-programming… is simply starting to fall apart. The lesson I learned from Alexander and his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is failing me. Maybe I’m just done taking it on the chin and hoping tomorrow is better.
Anyway, it’s been a run of some gnarly shit- and since this is MY blog and MY coping mechanism… I’m gonna go ahead and talk about it.
(I guess that’s as close as you’re going to get to a trigger warning.)
-Case #1- Bad men and beautiful creatures
It was the second day of my 48-hour shift, and I use the word, “day” lightly. The time was 4:55 in the morning, and I know this because it was the third time I had been woken out of a dead sleep to deal with someone else’s problems. The first call had been at midnight. The second call had rolled in at 3 am. Now it was 4:55, I had barely slept and I was shlupping my cranky ass to a suicide… Rather, ANOTHER suicide. There have been so many lately.
It may surprise one to hear, but much like paramedics, death investigators have certain scenes that they don’t mind running, and other scenes that they despise with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. For example, back when I was a paramedic, I was a whiz with cardiac calls, but I hated respiratory calls. I would completely fall apart and do a shit job.
The quirky, stoic medical examiners displayed on network television would have you believe that all deaths are created equal and we who investigate them are indifferent and unaffected at each and every one.
That is not the case.
I hate suicides on a visceral level. Walking into a suicide scene feels like swimming in toxic waste. You come away from it feeling heavy and poisoned. I hate asking witnesses about the dead person’s slow descent into hopeless misery. I hate looking at blown-off heads or mouths erupting with frothy foam from an overdose. I hate heaving dead bodies down from their hanging points. I hate measuring ligatures. I hate peeling ropes, electrical cords and ratchet-straps out of the deep furrows around people’s necks. I hate having to explain to the dead person’s mom or wife or brother that we know it’s a suicide due to a multitude of reasons. I hate telling them their suspicions the death may have been a homicide or an accident aren’t based in reality or fact.
That morning, as I wrote down the address and headed to the scene, I hated all of it more than ever. In addition to the standard issue post-suicide angst, I would also be battling sleep deprivation. I’m physically incapable of napping during the day, which meant the remaining 27 hours of my shift were going to be fueled by caffeine and rage. I wasn’t even halfway done. And a shift at the medical examiner’s office is like a box of chocolates: There’s a lot of variety, but sooner or later, all of it is going to keep you awake, make you fat, and give you a disease.
I stampeded onto the scene with a degree of salty sarcasm that frightened even me. Sadly, stopping at a Starbucks for a cup of liquid decency didn’t improve my mood. The only thing that helped the situation was the fact that none of the decedent’s family was at the scene when I got there. Normally, the cops are supposed to keep witnesses around so I can interview them myself. But today I didn’t give a shit. In fact, I was relieved no one emotionally invested in the death was still present, because the second I walked in the door I was off like a sarcastic comet… my contempt for everything and everyone trailing a searing streak behind me.
I barked questions at the cops, I sneered at the Walmart décor… asking if it was from the “Suburban Desperation Collection.” I demanded to know who had cut the decedent down from the ligature point in her closet. And did that investigative genius bother to take any measurements or pictures before they destroyed anything of evidentiary value. To cap it all off, I also asked why the fuck these people had a drawing of Christopher Walken in their living room.
(It took me a second to realize it was actually a cringe-worthy, cliché “Native American’s” face superimposed over an equally mediocre landscape. Whoever had drawn it had attempted to accentuate the stereotypically high cheekbones and solemn countenance. But they had only managed to render a white-washed, gaunt ubiquitous male who, hand-to-God, looked just like the Hessian Mercenary from Sleepy Hollow.)
By the time I made it to the decedent’s body in the living room, my tirade died down a bit. I heaved out an exasperated huff as I knelt down beside her. Her name was Krista. She was 21 years old. Blonde. Eyes closed with black eye-makeup flaking off her eyelashes on to her cheeks. Her shirt had been cut by the fire department during resuscitation and lay in shreds beneath her. To facilitate CPR, Fire had also yanked her bra up to her chin rather than try to cut the underwires. He jeans were slashed from the cuffs to the waistband so an interosseous IV could be drilled into her leg. Tangled IV lines and plastic wrappers from resuscitation equipment surrounded her. There was a tube jammed down her throat and vomit smeared her face and dribbled into her hair. There was a deep, waxy furrow looping around her jawline and up behind each ear. It was vulnerable, grotesque and in a word, humiliating. I glanced around the living room. There were pictures of her with her family, hung everywhere. She was smiling in all of them, clearly laughing in a couple as well. I felt a twinge in my chest.
“Oh, kiddo… what the hell did you do?” I sighed as I pulled the airway tube and began peeling away layers of resuscitation equipment. The officers spoke as I worked. They detailed Krista’s last night on Earth as I ran my hands over her scalp and face, feeling for bumps, bruises, deformities. Feeling for movement where there shouldn’t be any. Looking in her mouth, pushing on her teeth to make sure they were all still in place. I checked for scratches, bruises, defensive wounds… anything that might suggest she didn’t do this to herself.
“This is her parent’s house,” The officers told me. “By all reports she was a pretty normal kid until she moved in with some guy for a bit. That fell apart and she’s been a mess ever since. She was living here right after the break-up. But apparently she wasn’t willing to abide by ‘house rules’ so parents kicked her out a while ago and she’s just kinda been couch-surfing ever since. They let her sleep in her old room here from time to time. But I guess she won’t keep a job and parties all the time: In and out at all hours, problematic behavior, steals, lies etc. Anyway, she shows up yesterday at like 7am, asking if she can crash here for a bit. Mom & dad say yes, even though they’re leaving to go to out of town for the weekend and she’s going to be here alone with her sister who still lives here. The sister decides to go to a boyfriend’s place, leaving our girl here alone. Krista decides to have some people over even though she’s been told not to. Sister calls at about midnight and hears people in the background. Sister tells our girl to get those people out of the house. They hang up and about 2 hours later, Krista texts the sister and tells her not to come home tonight. Naturally, the first thing Sister does is come right home. She finds our girl alone, trussed up in the closet. Sister cuts her down, calls 911 and here we are.”
I glanced down at Krista’s face as though I expected her to offer some kind of explanation or rebuttal. The officers continued:
“We’ve already talked to one of our girl’s friends who was here earlier. The friend says she didn’t like Krista’s new boyfriend who was here, so she left right after that phone call with the sister. I guess Krista’s boyfriend stuck around for a bit, but then left too. We got his number, but we haven’t called him yet.”
“Well, shit,” I guffawed. “Dial him up and put him on speaker! We have questions for him.”
The officer nodded. “One more thing,” he said. “Sister says Krista was at some birthday party recently. She got pass-out-wasted and I guess she was sexually assaulted by a couple of guys there. It wasn’t the boyfriend. He wasn’t there. But I guess she didn’t file a police report because she felt like it was her fault.”
“Fuck…” The twinge in my chest tightened into a twist, like my heart couldn’t watch anymore and was trying to turn away. I stared into Krista’s dead face for a second and I could feel the officers’ eyes on me as I absorbed this information. My glance snagged on another smiling pic of our dead girl as I straightened up from my crouched position on the floor. “Fuck, that’s… terrible… Ok, mom and dad have been notified?”
The officers nodded. “They’re driving back right now, it’ll probably be another few hours. Sister is at a friend’s house.”
I stood there, silently for a moment. Looking at Krista’s face and trying not to think of the pictures on the walls around me: pictures of her smiling, pictures of her laughing with her sister or hugging her dog. I wanted to say something to her. I wanted to hold her and soothe away the trauma in her life. I wanted to rewind it all and tell her she was going to be okay. But she wasn’t ok. She was dead.
“Boyfriend,” I announced to the officers. “Get the boyfriend on the phone.”
They nodded again and one officer, Derrick, dialed the number we had been given for the boyfriend. He put the phone on speaker and we gathered around as the ringer trilled. We had to call 3 times but he finally answered. I kept quiet as Officer Derrick introduced himself and told the guy (let’s call him Tony) about the death.
To his credit, Tony was pretty upset. He gasped and sputtered and his voice shook as he asked what happened. Derrick calmly explained that Krista had killed herself and we knew that he had been at the house earlier in the evening. “Listen, Tony,” Derrick said. “The medical examiner is here with me. You’re on speaker and she’d like to ask you some questions.”
“Man… o-ok,” Tony gasped as the reality of the situation punctured the fog of sleep.
“Tony,” I spoke loudly into the phone in Derrick’s hand. “My name is Grace, I’m the county medical examiner. I need you to answer some questions for me.”
“You’re Krista’s boyfriend, right.”
“No… not exactly… we’re talking,” he mumbled.
My eyes narrowed and I glanced at Derrick, who shrugged and rolled his eyes in response. “you’re ‘talking.’ Ok. What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. We hang out but it’s nothing official.”
“Right. Okay. I understand you were here tonight. Can you tell me what happened? What was going on? How was Krista acting?”
Tony launched into a confused description of being invited over to the home, driving across town to get there, the “vibe” of the whole thing being “pretty chill” until the sister called. At which point the other girls in attendance “later-ed out” and he and his buddy left soon after.
“So,” I rubbed my eyes with one hand as I took the phone from Derrick. “How was Krista acting when you left.”
“I don’t know… She got really quiet.”
My ears pricked. “What do you mean ‘she got quiet?’”
Tony fumbled with his words for a second. “She got quiet, she seemed… quiet… I don’t know.”
“Was she upset?”
“Did you guys fight?” Tony was sounding a bit evasive. He was couching his answers in equivocations in order to deflect something. Not quite lying, but definitely side-stepping.
“No…?” he hesitated.
I was starting to lose my patience with Tony. “OK, go on.”
He fumbled around for a bit, meandering through some feeble tale about they were supposed to go paddle-boarding the next day and her friends were lame and some other such bullshit. His voice went higher and the words came faster with no destination or point in sight. The tone of his monologue made my teeth grind until they squeaked.
“Tony… tony… tony… TONY STOP TALKING!” I interrupted him mid-sentence as he blathered on about absolutely anything other than what I was asking. The deputies froze at my tone and exchanged a glance. I have a reputation for being kind of a hard-ass, but I don’t think any of them had ever actually heard me yell at a “witness” before. But Tony was trying to wiggle out of something and I wasn’t having it. “TELL ME EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED.”
“Well… I drove all the way over there from across town, and I thought we were going to hang out. But then we had to leave and I told her I was annoyed-“ His voice trailed off.
-and that’s where the real story colored itself in. I knew exactly what had happened. Tony had driven across town, thinking he was going to get laid. And when Tony didn’t get laid, he let Krista know exactly how he felt about it. He had burned a good $7 in gas on the possibility of an orgasm. When he didn’t get what he felt entitled to, he had berated Krista and she got -as he called it- “quiet.”
I asked him if he knew about the sexual assault at the party. He said he’d heard about it but wasn’t there and didn’t know the details. His voice broke and he started babbling again. I could tell he was winding up to kick-off some hysterics and I wasn’t interested. I handed the phone back to Derrick and walked away as Tony began wailing. I didn’t care.
Tony was an idiot.
I’ve known the type. After getting out of an incredibly abusive relationship, I attempted dating a “nice guy,” as in: he wasn’t a tattooed psychopath with a substance abuse problem. But despite the fact that I had told Mr. Nice-Guy about my recent, traumatic past… that didn’t stop him from kicking stones and whining that I had neglected to have sex with him after a few dates. Specifically, he didn’t get a pony-ride on his birthday and he felt cheated.
Another time, another boyfriend wove together an epic guilt trip when I made moves to go to sleep when he was expecting sex. “Of course, maybe you just don’t LIKE sex,” he’d accused glumly. “Or maybe you just don’t like sex with me.” (Later that night I woke up to the sound of him noisily jerking off to porn in the bathroom. When he came back to bed to find me up, he told me it was my fault he’d been driven to such behavior.)
Still another time, ANOTHER boyfriend confronted me with near outrage when I had taken a sleeping pill on a camping trip, thinking I was about to turn in for the night. “What do you think you’re doing?” he had demanded as I washed down my Benadryl with a sip of water.
I bet if you’d asked any of those guys what my reaction was to their behavior, they’d say that I “got quiet,” too.
Because I did.
In each of those instances, I froze with confusion, anger, shame. What should I say? What should I do? Am I wrong? Is he?
I knelt down again next to Krista as Derrick tried to talk Tony out of his imminent melt-down. I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t want the deputies to see me, because, after all, I’m a hard-ass. But I wasn’t just going to leave her there. I had to do… something. I reached down and cradled Krista’s head in my hands, stroking the sticky hair away from her face. I put a hand over her eyes and closed my own for a moment. I can’t put words to that moment because I didn’t say anything. I was just trying to reach past whatever barrier she had slipped through in her final moments. I see you. I know what happened to you. I’m so sorry, kiddo. I’m sorry so many people failed you. You deserve better. I’m sorry all you get is me: a random stranger standing over you on your parents’ living room floor. I’m so sorry.
When I glanced back up, Derrick was watching me. He’d handed the phone off to the other deputy (Tony was now audibly sobbing over the phone in another room) and when our eyes met, he said that he’d called the body transport crew and they’d be here soon. I stood up, straightened my coat. “Ok,” I sighed. I felt heavy. Like I just didn’t have the energy to even be sad or say something to Derrick who looked concerned, like maybe I would start crying too. I wouldn’t, I was just weary. Weary of loss. Weary of tragedy. Weary of what human beings do to each other and themselves.
I walked to the front door and stood in the foyer for a second. It was almost 5 am: early enough that the sky would still be dark, and it wouldn’t take the transport crew long to arrive. It was also early enough that the neighbors wouldn’t be staring out their windows or coming outside to ask why all the police cars were there. Sighing again, I opened the front door. I needed to breathe a bit.
There, right at eye-level as I opened the door, a hummingbird hovered in the entryway. Facing inward as though it had been about to knock on the door. The tiny thing didn’t flinch or fly away, but rather hung there, regarding me with fearless curiosity.
My breath halted in my throat and the moment froze like a paused movie. Its wings were a dark blur and I couldn’t completely see it in the dark. But its throat was such an astonishing neon green it looked like it was lit from the inside. “Oh…” I gasped as the hummingbird zipped a few inches closer, then backed away again. The little green light twitched and flashed with each miniscule movement. We remained like that, staring at each other for a few suspended seconds before it turned and disappeared, leaving me in the early morning stillness. I couldn’t move.
“What are you doing?” I heard Derrick behind me, breaking my trance.
“I… uh… there was a hummingbird. It was… green.”
“Hummingbirds are cool.”
The transport crew came and took Krista’s body away and throughout the rest of my shift, I grilled every cop I saw about whether or not anything could be still be done to prosecute the guys who attacked Krista at that party. The answer was pretty much the same all around: She hadn’t reported it and now she was gone. Those cases are hard enough to pursue when the victim is still alive and willing to talk. Without Krista to make the report, there was almost no chance those guys would ever answer for what they did to her. No one took it lightly, either. Every cop and detective listened intently and shook their head in frustration. Everyone felt the same way: angry, disgusted, helpless.
The next day, I had the dreaded talk with Krista’s mom. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea, but I mentioned the sexual assault when she asked me if I knew what happened. As I explained what we had found out about the incident Krista’s mom sighed, sounding almost exasperated. “I told her… I told her these things could happen. I warned her about drinking…”
I get this a lot. People feel compelled to explain things to me, to justify what they did or didn’t do. They defend themselves or the defend the dead person. It’s unnecessary. After over a decade of doing this job, I don’t really feel invested enough to make judgements on who’s a good person, who’s a bad person or who’s to blame. I just want to get my paperwork done.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel kind of … incredulous at this response. Like, okay, it’s important to warn kids about the things that could happen if they drink too much. But still, in the aftermath of her daughter’s sexual assault and subsequent suicide, this I-told-her-so reaction struck me as being pretty… awful. Granted, this wasn’t my family and our conversation was only a glimpse into their dynamic. But damn. The whole situation burrowed me deeper into a state of bleak ennui. In the immortal words of Charles Bukowski: “People are not good to each other. Perhaps if they were, our deaths would not be so sad.”
Or, in the words of Alexander: “Terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad…”
I did my best to file it all away in the “things I can’t think about or it’ll kill me” drawer in my brain. Also, I didn’t tell anyone about the hummingbird because I knew it would sound all woo-woo or whatever. I mean, it’s silly to attach significance to it, right? Hummingbirds happen – my desire to turn its appearance into a tiny, little, neon miracle… maybe Krista’s soul flying away from a bullshit, human existence… stupid… right?
I didn’t even tell my deputy husband, Mike, how upset I was by the whole scenario. But it appears someone did. Imagine my surprise when he came home from work a while later, put down his gear and regarded me.
“Derrick is going after those guys.”
“Derrick, he was with you on the suicide of the girl who was assaulted at a party. He’s interviewing the other witnesses, he’s going to try to go after them.”
“Yeah, it might not go anywhere. But he’s at least going to get them on law enforcement’s radar. We’ll know who they are. “
And it’s only now funny to me how I went to that death thinking that no one invested would be at the scene. No one who cared would be around.
I cared. Derrick cared.
Sometimes, you’re alexander. You realize no one gives a shit how you feel. You take it on the chin and hope tomorrow is better.
But sometimes, something lights you from the inside.
Sometimes, you’re the hummingbird.
I hope I’m the hummingbird.
Stay tuned for cases #2, #3 and #4