It’s the little things.
This job is difficult for a whole host of reasons. But most of those reasons are small. It sounds weird I know- because so much of what I do is BIG TRAUMA. Murders, Suicides, Accidents… oh MY! So few people see such events up close. Everyone assumes it must be horrible and haunting. But not really. I’m toppled by the itty bitty aftermath. I can wrestle a bear, no problem. But I cannot handle the ensuing allergic reaction from having his hair all over my shirt. Watch me run from a burning building like a champ… and then trip over my shoelaces in the parking lot.
I recently had a virtual appointment with my primary care provider, during which I talked about my acute-on-chronic PTSD in the context of working in death care with virtually no support during a global pandemic. A few days later, I glanced at my after-visit summary and my doctor mentioned something about my “PTSD from seeing dead bodies.” I was low-key offended at his assessment. I’m regularly misunderstood and underestimated by the men around me… but… damn. Did he ever miss the point.
Dead bodies are the easy part. They’re quiet, predictable and they never lie.
I really enjoy going on death scenes. I have a puzzle to solve. I get to play with the police dogs and joke around with the crime scene technicians. I get to search people’s cupboards and root through their pockets. Best of all, if it’s a homicide, there will be pizza.
(Seriously. Not to be glib or anything, but homicides take a long time to process. The detectives have to write warrants, then judges have to sign them. The crime scene people have to take pictures, the reconstructionists have to map out the scene. It takes hours and once you arrive at the scene, you’re kind of stuck there for the long haul. Inevitably, someone goes out to retrieve coffee and snacks. Now, I’m not saying I like it when people kill each other, but if there’s a silver-lining, it’s usually covered in pepperoni and cheese.)
The hard part is the minutiae, the bureaucratic drone-work, the million little inane tasks that have been invented by anemic desk-jockeys who’ve never even seen a dead body, let alone smelled one. (Unless you count the pulseless, vapid spouse they go home to every night.)
Seriously, on our current case-file system, I have to enter the time of death 3 separate times. Then I have additional forms to fill out depending on the kind of death it is, or how old the deceased person was. If the body goes into the morgue for an autopsy, It has to be checked in ***just so*** or I can expect to get a slew of nasty-grams from the morgue technicians who feel it’s a personal affront when you accidentally leave a hair-tie on a corpse… or neglect to put ALL FIVE forms of identification on the body (not joking, see below).
But perhaps the hardest bit… is the phone calls. SO MANY PHONE CALLS. I don’t know about other medical examiner’s offices, but around here I am literally the ONLY employee during my shift. For 48 hours I’m on the hook for every task required of the medical examiner’s office. THIS INCLUDES answering the phone, picking up messages and returning calls. You wouldn’t believe the calls we get. I couldn’t possibly describe them all, but here’s a quick sample:
-Funeral home calling- their transport crew failed to collect ANY information on the body they picked up so now they need the decedent’s time of death, next of kin and primary care provider.
-Funeral home calling back- the primary care provider refused to sign the death certificate. What should they do?
-Hospice calling- this patient had a fall in the week prior to their death. Does that make it a medical examiner case?
-Hospice calling back- the family wants an autopsy.
-Random lady calling- her transient son hasn’t been heard from in 3 months. Is he dead?
-Random lady calling back- it’s been 15 minutes, how come no has called her back yet?
-Doctor’s office calling. The funeral home sent over a death certificate to sign and the doctor hasn’t seen the decedent for two years.
-Doctor’s office calling back- the funeral home sent over a death certificate and the decedent’s doctor retired last week so they can’t sign
-Another random lady calling- She just got her mother’s death certificate and it lists an accidental overdose as cause of death. She disagrees and wants to talk to a manager.
-Random guy calling- his dad died in the hospital last week, the body’s been cremated, but now he wants an autopsy because he thinks the hospital doctors accidentally killed his dad.
-Another random guy calling- his father died 30 years ago and now he wants the death certificate changed to homicide because he’s been watching too much Law & Order
-Still another random guy calling- He needs copies of his wife’s death certificate, why are they taking so long.
-Another random lady calling- she’s sobbing so hard I can’t understand what she’s saying.
-Dispatch calling- You’re on your way to a double suicide across town… and may God have mercy on my soul.
So on and so forth. I’d offer you a few more examples, but just typing this list nearly gave me a panic attack. I’d also like to point out, dealing with most of these calls isn’t my job. But the medical examiner’s office is death’s junk-drawer. People throw problems at us because these problems tangentially involve death, and no one else knows the answer. I might not know the answer either, but I can wing-it like a motherfucker.
Still, the other day I had a run of perhaps the oddest phone calls ever. It was the kind of shift where you wonder if you inadvertently wandered into Bizarro-world. Nothing made sense, but everyone wanted an explanation anyway.
-09:15 Call #1-
I have left the pager on my kitchen table while I take my dogs for a walk. I am gone for maybe 15 minutes and I come home to the pager beeping it’s brains out. I have a message to call a fire crew. I call the number on the pager and connect to a miffed firefighter who definitely wants me to understand the depth of his displeasure.
“We’re on the scene of a death,” he huffs.
“Okay…” I respond.
“We’ve been here for over an hour!”
“Okay…” I respond again, not altogether sure what he’s getting at.
“We’ve been calling you! YOU HAVEN’T ANSWERED!”
“Um…” I glance at the pager. The only page on it is the one I just got. No other pages this morning. Furthermore I check the phone. No messages. No missed calls. “Ok… I’m not seeing that I missed any calls or pages.”
“WE’VE BEEN CALLING YOU FOR OVER AN HOUR!”
“I understand, but I’m not seeing any missed calls or pages. What number were you calling?”
“I don’t know that,” he scoffs.
“Well, if the phone or pager isn’t working, I need to kno-“
“It’s not important now,” he snaps. Then he proceeds to reel off his report in a rushed, pissy tone. Turns out, the death is a hospice death and EMS never should have been called in the first place. This death doesn’t fall under the medical examiner’s jurisdiction and the firefighter seems personally offended when I say so.
“Listen-” I start to tell him that if we ever fail to respond to a call, they can always contact dispatch and have them try to reach us.
“GoodBYE,” he barks. The line goes dead.
I’m confused. I contact dispatch and they confirm that the only call they got from this fire crew is the one I responded to. Then I have dispatch page me AND call me on our cell phone. Both these methods of communication are completely operational. I can only surmise that, rather than have dispatch page me (like they’re supposed to) this fire crew repeatedly attempted to call the medical examiner’s office by dialing a wrong number. When it didn’t work, rather than employ some very basic problem-solving skills, they opted to keep calling that wrong number. Then they got their petticoats in a flounce because I didn’t answer. To top it all off, America’s heroes seemed to be even angrier that I failed to apologize for NOT being on the other end of whatever phone number they were dialing.
And this is my problem with firefighters. Even when something is unmistakably their fault, they still get mad at YOU.
-10:10- Call #2-
(I feel it’s important to mention here that this isn’t the second call I answered that day, it’s just the second ultra-weird one)
A man calls in a real tizzy. His elderly father passed away at a care facility. He is claiming that the nursing staff was negligent and didn’t take good enough care of his dad.
“I looked at the nursing log! His blood glucose was 360!”
“They’re supposed to call his doctor if his blood glucose is over 400!”
Then he waits as though I’m supposed to make some connection here.
“Umm, Sir, I’m not sure where the oversight is…”
“The point is I am SHOCKED! DO YOU HEAR ME! I AM SHOCKED THAT MY FATHER IS DEAD! HE WAS FINE YESTERDAY!”
I glance at his father’s medical records. I pulled up the file online before i returned this call. His father was 93 years old and had Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, his father was a type 1 diabetic with atrial fibrillation and a pacemaker. The ol’ trooper had 3 heart attacks under his belt and hadn’t been able to walk under his own power for a couple years.
I’m not sure what to say to the son. Undoubtedly, it would just piss him off more if I told him that his father had been playing the bonus round for quite some time and the reaper finally caught up with him. Still, the son confirms that his dad wasn’t on hospice, which means the death technically should have been reported to our office. I know I’m going to have to reprimand both the funeral home and the nursing folks for this oversight. But it happens. These clerical glitches are common. Often, when a decedent is very old and infirm, everyone will assume their passing is not a reportable event.
I’m just about to wrap up and tell the son I’ll handle it, when he drops this little gem on me:
“The blood glucose thing was bad enough! BUT when they called to tell me my dad was dead, they said he choked to death and then texted me a photo of his body!”
“… What?” I sputtered.
“YEAH!” The son fumes on, glad that something has finally gotten my attention. “The nurse told me my dad choked on his food and when I said I was coming there to see him, she said I didn’t need to and texted me a photo of his dead body.”
This changes things. A death due to choking is a mandatory report and possibly an autopsy. It means the death is arguably accidental and if that turns out to be the case, the death certificate needs to reflect as much. Not only for life insurance reasons, but also because it creates a paper trail regarding the nursing home and possible negligent practices. But aside from that… who the hell texts someone a picture of their dead father? What was she trying to prove? That the poor old dude didn’t have his face beaten in prior to his death. It’s fucking weird.
The son senses my abrupt change of tone and he’s setting up to kick-off again. But I cut him off and tell him I’ll call the nursing home and see what their story is. I’ll call him back with an update.
I take a minute to search the address of the nursing home in the death certificate database. Nothing. No one has died at that location in the last 8 years. I’m… confused. How is it possible that a location whose sole purpose is to shelter ailing old people hasn’t had a single death in almost a decade? It’s fucking weird.
-10:40- Call #3-
As promised, I contact the nursing home which is actually something called an “Adult Foster Care Home.” These little establishments are usually an informal alternative to a full-fledged nursing home facility. They tend to be privately run and are little more than a house with a few extra medical supplies. As far as I can tell, people will get some kind of licensing and rudimentary medical training and start moving “clients” into their home. The proprietor “takes care” of the residents who pay a glorified rent. These clients are “in-betweeners:” Too decrepit to live independently, but not quite so ill that they need 24/7 care.
When I call this place, a woman with an earthy Russian accent answers. I tell her who I am and explain to her that I’ve been talking to the son of her recently deceased resident. She immediately begins stumbling over her words in an effort to explain that the son is unreasonable and malicious. She’s probably right but that’s not why we’re talking.
“Ma’am,” I interrupt. “Are you aware that you’re supposed to report deaths to authorities?”
“Vhat?” She blurts out.
“Any death that isn’t a hospice patient has to be reported. You’re supposed to cal 911.”
“Ve do not need cahll… No von healthy ever die in my houze! Only old…seek people…”
ONLY old, sick people die there?
“Ma’am,” I try another tactic. “Did you tell Mr ****** that his father choked to death?”
I sigh deeply. “A choking is an accidental death. It ABSOLUTELY needs to be reported. How do you know he choked? What happened?”
She flounders for a minute. “Vehll… he vas eating and then he die… so ve figure he choke. I call the funeral home. I call his family…” She delivers these words with an audible shrug, like she can’t believe I’m upset over something so pedestrian as an old man choking on his dinner. What’s the big deal? It’s not like he was murdered or anything.
“Look, you can’t DO that.” My incredulity spikes a shrill tone. “You can’t just arbitrarily guess at causes of death and then tell people’s families! And deaths have to be reported. How many people have died in your facility that have gone unreported?” The thought legitimately horrified me: people dying of falls, infectious disease, overdoses, malnutrition, anything. And here’s this crazy eastern block sociopath thinking they were old anyway. No one’s going to care.
She begins flailing. This doesn’t bode well for her and she knows it. For lack of a better plan she turns to supplicating flattery. “Vell, I’m not as good at it as you are… I’m only nursing assistant. but I run good place.”
That’s good… fine…great. I feel a stab of sympathy for her. She’s in the land of opportunity and has a good thing going. But if she’s ignoring this regulation, what other rules have escaped her notice?
“I need you to fax me the deceased patient’s chart. Everything you have. And I’m sorry, I’m going to have to report you to the licensing board.” I wasn’t thrilled with the thought. She was even less so. She tries a few different protests that don’t make a dent in my resolve. This isn’t Game of Thrones. Dead bodies are kind of a big deal. You can’t just roll them off the back of your ox-cart and hope they don’t get resurrected by white-walkers. We’re civilized, goddamnit. AND we’ve got the bureaucracy to prove it!
Later on, the decedent’s chart arrives. And the first page appears to be a hail-Mary from the nurse. In an effort to prove nothing suspicious happened to the old man, she has included the picture of his dead body: presumably the one she took with her phone and texted to the son.
-11:00- Call #3-
Stephanie from Peaceful Paths Funeral Home is calling.
“Hey Grace…” she’s hesitant, which is a bad sign. Funeral home employees have to deal with at least as much bullshit as I. So, when they’re stymied, I’m worried. “I have this woman here, I’m not sure what to do. She walked in with a Tupperware container-“
I already know where this is going.
Women with Tupperware containers walk into funeral homes often enough for us to know without being told: Miscarriage. Women will miscarry in early pregnancy and won’t know what to do. They might not have health insurance so they don’t go to the hospital. They might be super anti-establishment and not believe in modern healthcare. Hell, they might’ve not known they were pregnant. But for whatever reason, they miscarry and find themselves at home and in a weird moral, emotional and logistical gray-zone. They’re holding a lump of expelled tissue, anywhere from the size of a mandarin orange to the size of a grapefruit. What to do now? From a practical standpoint, it’s too big to flush. And from a humanitarian standpoint, no one wants to just throw it in the toilet… or the garbage for that matter. But it’s not a dead body- at least not technically. So, what often happens is women will lay the -tissue- in an airtight container and put it in the freezer. When they’ve had some time to process (or not process) the loss, they’ll take it out and go to a funeral home, thinking they’ll have it cremated or buried. And this is where things can get weird. If the …little guy… wasn’t cooked enough to survive outside the womb, it’s not considered a “death”. But funeral home employees aren’t trained to be able to assess that. It’s always possible that this person gave birth to a living child, however premature, and then killed it. This means that by disposing of the “body” funeral homes would be aiding and abetting a murderer.
So the funeral home calls me.
“What should I do,” Stephanie whisperes into the phone. “She’s waiting.”
I sigh. “Take a picture of it next to a pen or a coffee mug or something for scale and text it to me.”
I’m shooting from the hip. we have four different forensic pathologists and each one of them will give me a different answer if I call and ask for direction. In the past, we’ve been told to collect the “body” so the pathologist can see it for themselves. We’ve also been told to contact the woman’s doctor to get medical records and see if there’s any documentation as to how many weeks gestation she was at her last appointment. But we’ve also had doctors say that it’s not a medical examiner problem and they don’t care.
My phone beeps as I’m considering the options. I look at the photo and sigh with relief. The “body” is an opaque red sac, about the size of a lemon. Still, I call the on-call forensic pathologist and run the whole scenario by him.
This doctor is newer and I haven’t yet learned to predict his responses. I convey the essentials, he listens, and if it’s at all possible, I can hear impatience in his silence. He’s polite and tolerant when he tells me that this isn’t a medical examiner case. I’m not sure if I’m just imagining his contempt as he speaks. But the fact is, there’s a shortage of board-certified forensic pathologists in America, and by wasting 2 minutes of his time, I basically just torched $300 of taxpayer dollars.
–13:00 -Call #4-
I pick up a message. The wife of one of our decedents is calling with “some questions.” I hate that phrase. “I just have some questions.” I look up her husband’s case before I call her back. The dread slides into my stomach and knots itself up like an eel. His death was a suicide… an ugly one.
Suicides are hard for families, often they won’t accept that manner of death and will attempt all kinds of mental and logistical acrobatics to make it something else. Henry once had a family whose son had committed suicide by hanging himself in the garage. In the weeks after the death, the parents had a series of seances and the charlatan… *ahem* I mean the medium had these poor folks convinced that the spirit of someone else who had committed suicide in the residence (years before) had possessed their son and caused him to do the same. Then they mounted a (failed) campaign to have the death certificate changed to say it was a homicide.
I’ve never had it that bad, BUT families have called, claiming the suicide was a cleverly hidden murder… usually enacted by a new spouse or love-interest the family didn’t like. It’s a fight to convince them otherwise.
Now when I say “fight”, I don’t mean screaming match. The conflict is never so overt. Maybe I should say “dance:” a subtle, manipulation of questions and answers, the finest act of diplomatic side-stepping and re-direction. Dodge, parry, feint… until the querying person realizes that they don’t really think that their step-mom KILLED their father. She’s just an awful person and they can’t stand the fact that she’s now in possession of Dad’s coin collection.
Managing these conversations is an exhausting art form.
I expect the worst as I call the young wife back. But this girl was about to take a sharp zig on my expected zag.
“Hello, This is Grace with the medical examiner’s office… you had questions?” I try to sound calm, confident and yet soft and empathetic. I’m a memory foam mattress: warm, supportive and yet firm and non-reactive. I absorb impact, jumping on me won’t be any fun.
She does the usual stuttering and evading. She wants something but doesn’t want to actually say it.
“Ummmmm… Is my husband’s body still with you? Because I was wondering about something…”
“Ok,” I try to encourage her to her point. Go ahead honey, I think. Nothing surprises me anymore–
“I’d like to take pieces of his skull and give them to his family.”
-… Except maybe that…
I’m silent for what seems like a long time.
“Huh.” I say thoughtfully. And she charges on ahead:
“He shot himself in the head, it was… really bad. And after his body was gone, I found little pieces of skull in the carpet. And I was thinking, since we can’t have a viewing… maybe… everyone…” she trails off.
I have no idea if this is legal or even possible. I know for a fact that the uptight state morgue technicians (as previously mentioned) come completely unglued by a rogue hair tie. I can’t imagine they’d consent to dividing up a skull so everyone gets a piece at the funeral. I can imagine them clutching their pearls and frantically typing up horrified memos to my boss if I suggest such a thing. But I also don’t want to be the asshole who tells this woman what passes for acceptable grieving rituals. I’m in no place to judge. When my dad died, I drove his truck in circles, sobbing and eating all the candy bars in the glove compartment. A dear friend of mine died and I mixed his ashes with a can of paint and spread him all over the walls of my studio so I could “manifest” some of his astounding creativity.
All the same, skull fragments from the obliterated head of a suicide victim? Beats me. In our state, people are allowed to transport and bury their loved one’s body on their own property so long as they’ve got the right paperwork. Which I suppose means no one’s watching if they decide to get all viking about it. Ultimately, the legality isn’t the issue so much as finding someone who’s willing to make it happen. And, cringing… I pass the buck.
“I think your best bet is to talk to a funeral home,” I tell her. “The medical examiner’s office is responsible for cause and manner of death. We don’t really deal with the disposition of bodies after they leave the morgue.”
She sounds disappointed when we say goodbye and I feel shitty for shuffling her along like that. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to know specifics about funeral laws, but anytime I’m asked a question at work, I can’t shake the feeling like I’m supposed to have an answer- whether it’s my job or not. Someone could call asking for a banana bread recipe, and I’d probably die of shame for not having one committed to memory. I blame my Gen-x, standardized-test childhood. Back then, if you didn’t know the answer to a question, it was your fault. No one ever considered whether or not the question was ridiculous or unreasonable… or even if you should know the answer. Now that I think about it, a lot of people have gotten a lot of mileage out of me due to “question guilt.”
I think I might die mad about it.
-15:00- Call #5
I’m going to a suicide.
I see a lot of suicides.
I’m tired of suicides.
This guy was living in a group-home, which is a sanitized way of saying he just got out of prison and he was staying at a halfway house. I know some people who have gone this route and from what I understand, it’s terrible. On the one hand, you’re out in the world and you can see the sky and walk down the street and go to the bathroom when you want to. On the other hand, it’s the worst dorm room situation ever. You have a curfew and mandatory drug tests. You have to hold down a job and pander to your boss, your parole officer, your house manager. You have to deal with navigating a society that in no way resembles the incarcerated norms you’ve adapted to. Worst of all, you have to live and get-along with your housemates: an array of similarly displaced strangers who may or may not steal your stuff or stab you in your sleep. From what I understand, many people violate parole and risk going back inside rather than live in a “group home.” Others try it out for a few weeks and decide to tap out and commit suicide rather than deal with “life inside” or “life outside.”
I arrive at the scene to find the house manager in the driveway, talking to the police. The house manager is a portly old bear whose ample belly protrudes well past his belt buckle. His arms are crossed and he puffs his chest up as he speaks to the police, clearly hoping to match their uniformed authority with his own. He’s the king of this ramshackle realm, and he isn’t used to being out-ranked…especially by a woman.
As I park the medical examiner truck, unload my gear and approach, the house manager ignores me. He’s talking to the officer who greets me with exaggerated deference. The cop introduces me to house manager who looks me over and I can feel his surface assessment bounce off like a skipping stone on water: skinny… blonde…GIRL. He turns back to the officer and resumes talking, dismissing me.
I am having none of this.
“Sir,” I say in a bright but firm tone, “I’m going to have to ask you to excuse me and the officer for a moment.”
His sentence trails off. He glances at me again, then at the officer.
“She’s in charge,” the officer says simply.
Manager-man is stymied and shuffles off to his car without another word. I watch him go. I recognize that this is a confusing moment for him. A “client” in his “care” is dead and he isn’t sure what’s going to happen. He doesn’t know if he’s going to get blamed, if the house is going to get shut down, if he’s going to lose his job. Like anyone else, he has wrapped himself up in his coping mechanism. For some people, they become small and apologetic. Others overexplain and justify. Manager-man has opted for the- “I’m in control” tactic. I’ve just taken it from him. Poor guy.
The officer and I head back toward the halfway house and he gives me the lowdown on this situation. Our guy was found hanging off the edge of his bunkbed, suspended by the neck with an electrical cord. He was last known to be alive this morning when he was briefly contacted by investigating detectives who told him that his recent release from prison wasn’t the end of his troubles… not by a longshot. No one was yet sure what the story was, but something set this dude off. We are still waiting for a call back from his probation officer who has all the sloppy details of our guy’s latest problems.
As reported, my decedent is quite dead. He has been cut down by his roommate who discovered him. That poor soul is the dude we passed back in the living room on our way up. He was sucking on a cigarette as though the smoke might cloud his brain and obscure the unforgettable memory of seeing a ligature suicide. Even after 13 years, I’m always a little taken aback by it- hanging people look weird: mouths open, usually the blackened tip of their tongue sticking out like dried jerkey, sometimes a thin, silvery line of drool dangling down their shirt- and the unnatural hyperextension of the neck, eyes drowsy and opaque.
This guy looks… well… he looks like a hanging. I turn my back to the body and address his belongings. This is where the real interrogation takes place. I sift through a cinder-block of paperwork: Release details, parole agreements, drug and alcohol tests, and a sheaf of letters from a woman to her daughter… most likely the decedent’s daughter and her mother. Why does he have these?
“He have kids?” I ask the officer.
“Yeah, three. We’re trying to get them notified now.”
On the dresser there is a faded, framed photo: our guy on one of those roller-coaster splash rides with two small boys sitting ahead of him. The picture was taken at the climactic moment of the ride, just as the car reaches its zenith and plunges down into the water. Everyone is laughing. The kids look ecstatic. In the photo, our guy’s eyes are closed and his mouth is wide with an excited scream as they make the drop. It makes me sad to look at it. Happier times. At some point his kids loved him. For a shimmering, held-breath moment, they were all delighted together.
I blink away from the photo. “What?”
“That’s what he was in prison for,” the officer pokes his head inside the door and motions to the phone in his hand. “He molested his daughter and did 15 years. Got out last Friday but it looks like some new charges have just been brought up. Detectives were looking into it. Looks like dude was about to get collared and have to do it all over again.”
I glance back at the photo, feeling… annoyed. I’m irritated with the emotional nickels I just fed into this dude’s bullshit slot machine. And I’m disappointed in myself for looking at that photo and believing the story it told- or rather the story it made me tell myself. I feel gullible, naïve. I know better than to feel anything for anyone while I’m working.
The officer goes on:
“Guess it’s his son this time. He’s in college nearby- parole officer has been talking to him. Sounds like he’s just recovered some repressed memories of dad here sodomizing him in a shower when he was 8.”
“Oh Jesus FUCK!” I bark. “Okay… well I guess we know what happened then…” I numbly process the scene, take my photos and cram all of the dead guys belongings back into the dresser. “Fuck this guy.” I mutter to myself as I get the oldest son’s information from the officer and stomp back to my truck, passing the house manager who looks flabbergasted. I guess he just learned the reason behind his client’s suicide, too.
-17:30 Call #6-
I’m driving home to regroup, write some case files and steel myself for whatever the rest of the night is brewing up for me. I’m stuck in traffic and agitated with the amount of work I need to do. I figure fuck it. I dial the son’s number and route the call through the truck’s Bluetooth speaker. Another weird call:
When he answers, I introduce myself: name, title… but then, I’m lost. I’m a complete stranger but I’ve got intimate knowledge of what was probably the worst day of his life. We’ve never met, but i know things about him that he’ll struggle to tell his closest friends. I don’t know if I should play dumb or just lay it all out for him. I don’t know how this poor college student will react if I call our decedent his “father,” But should I just pretend I don’t know his father sodomized him in a shower when he was a child? That’s the kind of information that really informs your interaction with someone.
I’m tired. I don’t have the bandwidth to skillfully navigate this conversation. So I just stumble on ahead.
“I know the parole officer told me you’d be hearing from me. And I’m not sure I should be calling this man your father, but I know you’ve been informed of his death and I just need to talk to you about what happens next.”
“Yeah, Fuck that guy. To be honest, I’m glad he’s dead,” responds the son.
I tell him he doesn’t need to be involved, he doesn’t need to take time out of his life to make arrangements or even take notice of his abuser’s death. “One thing though, he did have some belongings.”
“I don’t want any of his shit.”
“I understand that, but I found a whole folder full of cards. I believe they were addressed to your sister and they were sent by your mother.”
Silence on the other end of the phone. Then, “What?”
“Yeah, dozens of them.”
And the son explains to me that his father had custody of his sister while their mother was in prison. Their father had always told them that their mother never wrote or called. In reality, he had been hoarding all of the letters, never letting his daughter see them. It was during this time that the abuse happened.
“Wowwwwww,” I marvel.
“Yeah,” the son sighs.
“Well if you want them, the house manager has all of it in a box, he can send it to you.”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure she’ll want them. Our mom is back in prison for trying to kill her last year.”
We sit there, silent for a moment.
“I’m sorry…” I say, because what else is there?
He thanks me and takes my number in case he has any more questions later on. I don’t expect to hear from him. He doesn’t want to remember talking me- which is fine.
No one ever does.
It’s like traveling through the multiverse. I recently saw that new ”Dr. Strange” movie. I loved a scene in which Dr Strange and his companion basically blast thought about 16 different planes of existence in as many seconds. Then he vomits.
I’ve never identified so completely.
Every phone call is its own universe… complete with all new laws of physics that you’ll have to learn as you go. Up is actually down this go-round. Better luck next time, kiddo.
What weather system are you moving through this time? It might be raining ashes or rose-petals. Might be a slight drizzle, might be a nuclear war.
Wing it… do your best.
Pack an umbrella. How good is your coat? Did you bring a hat?
Take a deep breath.
Answer the phone.