EWWW…

It was another first for me in my medical examiner career.

I couldn’t quite believe it was happening, though I had been told by all my co-workers that the day was coming. They had spoken about this upcoming miracle with such certainty, such assurance. Still, right up until the event occurred, I assumed it was nothing more than a pipe-dream, a myth that had been concocted by our betters to keep us all faithfully believing.

Kind of like the rapture or the second coming of Christ as it was preached by my childhood church, I had been told that these events were imminent.  I dutifully believed in them with all the starry eyed faith of an uncorrupted child. But here I am, 40 years later and if the rapture happened, I can only assume that it was something like every cool-kid party that ever took place in that I was not included among the chosen.

And then it happened.

We got a new truck.

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not our actual truck

I was astonished.

In the past, whenever it was suggested that the county spend any money on the medical examiners at all, the prospect was always met with an attitude of incredulous ire.  One time my boss suggested that maybe I should get a “personal day” due to the 4 infant deaths I had handled that month. The county commissioners balked like she had asked them to put a wet-bar in the morgue.  Another time I was awarded a $1000 scholarship to attend an out-of-state training on clandestine graves and buried bone retrieval. Everyone with any authority in the matter said I couldn’t go because the county would still have to throw down the money to fly me there and find a couch for me to sleep on.

So I literally choked with excitement the day I pulled into our parking lot to find a brand-new, glistening white, extended cab USS Enterprise parked in the spot where our old, beaten-up Millennium Falcon used to be.

Henry was beaming with glee when I dashed into the office to find him for shift change and to get the specs on our new ride. It had bluetooth, a USB port and air conditioning like a wind-tunnel. The light-bar atop the cab flashed strobes with enough intensity to permanently sear out your retinas. We had a remote-controlled spot-light. We had a back-up camera. Sitting in the driver’s seat, it felt like I was piloting a top-of-the-line cruise ship. The odometer, adorably, read a measly “000053”.

I spent my morning blissfully puttering around, toying with the power windows and waving and shouting things like “FUCK YEAH!” or “DAMN RIGHT!” every time I passed a cop who flashed me a thumbs-up upon seeing my pimped-out body-hauler. I was in the middle of programming all the pre-set buttons on the radio when I happened across a station in which the morning deejays were describing an article that they had found online. This article listed the 10 dirtiest surfaces that people touch everyday.  I paused to listen as they mentioned things like hotel remote controls, shopping carts or buttons on the ATM. Unsurprisingly, money has been found to be utterly filthy, as well as computer keyboards.  I couldn’t help but think of myself and my co-workers as this list went on. Of course we’ve all been trained to wear gloves when we’re handling the dead, but I couldn’t help but think of all the filthy homes, all the hospitals, all the hotels, even the funeral homes that we entered everyday. We touched dead people’s clothing, their phones, their floors, their drugs… And when was the last time we had thought to wash the cell phone? The computer? God… the computer charging cable?  How often had I staggered into my apartment after a long day of trudging through crack-houses and slums, walking through horrific crime scenes and car accidents. And how often did I remember to leave my work shoes outside?  I mean, honestly, how many times did I just lurch into my bedroom and collapse on the bed without even taking them off?

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not my actual boots

I shuddered, but reminded myself that the truck was brand new. The steering wheel and door handles were, as yet, unsullied. We could start over.  We could do better.  This would be the dawning of a new era.  We were going to be clean!

I was deluding myself with these thoughts as I pulled off at a Starbucks to get some coffee.  And as I returned to the new truck, I realized there was something on the passenger side of the cab.  Was it bird-shit? God, someone hadn’t already chipped our paint with a careless door swing, had they?  As I got closer, I realized the passenger-side door was liberally smeared with… son of a bitch… I tried to convince myself it might have been a splash from Henry’s hot-chocolate.  Or maybe he had spilled soy-sauce.  But there was really no mistaking it.  It was blood.  The passenger side door of our brand-new truck was gaily decorated with someone’s blood.  

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not actual blood

In my excitement over the new truck, I vaguely remembered Henry saying something about going out on a gnarly car accident the night before.  

Christ.

…and I briefly considered calling the radio show and telling them this tale… and about the kind of shit WE find on OUR surfaces at work, but I doubted they would appreciate the irony.

People don’t generally find blood spatter funny.

Our job is gross… really gross. Distressingly gross. But I’ve gotten used to it. In fact, I’m so desensitized that I find blood spatter, among other things, funny.

One of the funniest things I run into is squeamish men.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten called by a clearly rattled law enforcement officer who simply couldn’t handle standing in a room with an overripe corpse.

“Uh, hey Grace.” They’ll say, “we have a dead body here. Uh, it’s a… male.  Date of birth: 5/10/43. Uh, name of John Smith. What info do you need?”

“Well,” I’ll respond. “What do we know about this guy? Do we have any history? Does he appear to be injured?”

I’ll hear the shrug through the phone. “The neighbor called in a welfare check.”

“Ok. Why?”

“Um, there are newspapers piled up on the front step”

That’s when I’ll hear the sound of passing traffic through the phone, indicating the officer is probably calling from the curb outside the home.

“You didn’t go inside the house, did you,” I’ll ask with the I’m-so-disappointed-in-you tone.

“No,”

“Do you need me to come to the scene and save you from the stinky dead body?”

“Yes.”

They don’t even try to play it cool anymore, which I appreciate.  They know they’re being ridiculous and they own it.  Even when I arrive and call them a bunch of delicate flowers.  They don’t give a damn what I say, so long as they don’t have to actually go into that house and view the oozing remains of a man who has been marinating in his bathtub for the last month.

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not actual cops

Firefighters are far worse though.  Seriously, you’ve never seen a more melodramatic squad of prima donnas.

One time I was called to a death scene that turned out to be a parking lot in one of those multi-building apartment mega-plexes.  Some dude had commit suicide in his car in the parking lot.  Before he did the deed, however, he somehow secured a canvas car cover over the vehicle so no one knew he was in there.  Days passed, maybe even a couple of weeks.  The only reason he was discovered was the parking-lot was being repaved.  Residents had been warned to move their vehicles to make way for the work and when the decedent’s car didn’t move, a tow-truck was called.  The poor tow-truck driver arrived and pulled the cover off the car to hook it up and haul it away… and … well… you get the idea.

The decedent was not only morbidly obese, but also bloated and well into the decomposition process.  The car was a tiny two-door hatch-back and the dead guy had fully reclined his seat prior to abandoning the mortal coil.  His massive, seeping torso almost filled the passenger compartment and he was wedged in there tighter than a chunk of half-chewed gristle between your teeth.  We were going to have to call the fire department to cut the car apart to get him out.  

Predictably, when they arrived the local heroes took one look at the half-melted body in the driver’s seat and began suiting up as though they were mounting an expedition to cut open a space shuttle.  Out came the self-contained breathing tanks, the masks, the double-thick gloves, the heavy-duty fire-retardant boots. But best of all, out came the full body, white plastic suits.  They donned all their gear with grim resolve and set out their tools on the pavement with the precision of a surgeon arranging scalpels before surgery.

“What the fuck is all this?” I murmured to Detective Labrecht, who was watching this scene unfold as incredulously as I.  Labrecht snorted, both of us thinking the same thing.  We weren’t inside an enclosed space with a rotting cadaver that was emitting noxious gasses, we weren’t stomping through a burning building that was hazy with toxic smoke.  We were outside.  The early summer day was clear and sunny with a light but constant breeze dancing playfully through the air.  This was going to be nasty, but it wasn’t like we were trapped in a sealed compartment with an ebola victim. Why the fire department was convinced they needed their bottled air was a complete mystery to everyone who had experience with death investigation.  While a rotting body is inarguably vile… it’s certainly not any more infectious than your run-of-the-mill dude with a cold on the treadmill next to yours at the gym.  I mean, sure, it made sense they needed their turn-out gear for the heavy machinery.  But the hazmat suits and oxygen tanks seemed a little… I don’t know… excessive.

“Jesus,” I muttered. “Look at them, they look like fucking space-men.  Did someone tell them we found a dead body on the moon?”

Labrecht snorted again as we both pulled out our cameras.  I stepped forward and joined in the melee, making sure I got some clear photos of the decedent and the interior of the car just as the roof was pulled off.  As for Labrecht, he got a wide array of shots, featuring me directing the removal of the body from the car.  He showed me the pics afterwards. They’re pretty funny.  I’m in a full-on action pose, perched on the gaping hood of the car like Washington crossing the Delaware in my sensible business-casual clothing and sturdy shoes.  As far as protective gear, I’m wearing gloves but that’s it.  And all around me are a bunch of anonymous, hooded, bulky white figures… dutifully pulling chunks of metal off the car and breathing their canned atmosphere for fear of inadvertently contracting a zombie virus.  When they finished, they packed up their toys with an offended air and scurried back to the safety of their station for a critical incident debriefing and a group hug.

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not an actual firefighter

Okay, okay.  I know you’re probably going to give me a ration of shit for being so critical of the fire department.  But someone needs to do it.  Otherwise they would all continue on in their group-delusion that they can do no wrong and every woman in the world longs to suck their collective cocks right before cooking them brownies.

I want some motherfucking brownies for once.

And to be completely honest, I’m not above the Tyvekk suit myself. Though I’ve only donned one once… a scene which was, by far, the most disgusting thing I’d ever encountered.

Our city has a massive homeless population.  Everywhere you look there’s another tent-city popping up like a weed from between the cracks in the sidewalk.  There are stretches of road in the dead center of town where it isn’t safe to walk because the entire thoroughfare is thick with ramshackle cardboard structures and ratty tents that house belligerent panhandlers.  The streets are lined with permanently parked cars and broken down campers that serve as domiciles for some of these characters, and it was in one such vehicle that I truly hit my gross-out limit.

No one was sure how long the RV been parked there.  All anyone could say was that our dead guy hadn’t been seen for a couple of weeks, maybe more. In the heavy heat of a coastal summer, the odor of decomposition came on gradually, yet unmistakably.  When someone finally thought to call a welfare check, it was because the rest of the homeless population had vacated the block on account of the smell and an oozing pile of some unnamed goop was seeping out the side door. 

When investigating police called me they weren’t only NOT in the RV, they weren’t even within eyeshot of the thing. But they could smell it.

I pulled up to the scene and as soon as I opened the door to my truck I could detect the stench of human decomposition.  As reported, I approached the RV and noted that there was a suspicious bubbling brown puddle forming beneath the side door which led into the camper. As I got closer, I realized the puddle was literally alive with a writhing colony of maggots.  

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actual maggots

“We saw him through the windshield!” Hollered one of the cops who was standing by his car which was parked a good foot-ball field away.  I circled around to the front of the camper and climbed up on the bumper.  Deep within the bowels of the camper, I could glimpse the legs and lower torso of the decedent, laying on the floor of the camper with the head and upper torso hidden within the stairwell leading from the kitchen area to that seeping side-door.  Our guy was essentially tiled downward, head-first into the stairwell, and that was how he died.  I gulped.

“Okay…” I said to the lone police officer who had ventured forward to observe me looking in the RV. “That’s… ummm… wow.” 

He nodded. “We were waiting to break in until you got here.” And with that, he pulled out his baton-sized flashlight and bashed in the driver’s side window of the cab.  The smell that wafted out nearly knocked both of us to the ground. 

“Oh my fucking GOD!” I gasped.  The cop was covering his nose and mouth as he nodded and reached in the shattered window to unlock the door. 

This was the moment that I decided to break out the Tyvekk suit.  My eyes were watering as the scent of advanced rot filled the air around me, a pungent vapor, thick with flies. I ended up having to vault into the RV and sift through the decedent’s belongings in an effort to find anything that might give us an idea of who he was and why he was dead. I crawled over the crumbling mosaic of empty beer cans and empty food containers the get a look at our guy. His head was hidden in the shadow of the stairwell and his torso was swollen with bloat.  Spidery black veins threaded the surface of his thinning skin.  His fingertips had hardened to wood-like points and blebs of fluid collected beneath his epidermis, threatening to burst open like water balloons with even the slightest movement.  I perched over him and heaved the side door open with my shoulder in an attempt to gain better access to a physical exam.  When the door finally gave way and crashed open… his head tumbled out into the puddle below with a hollow, wet thud.

The cops gagged and I nearly fell on the body. I hurdled myself over him and landed in a bush just clear of the head and the puddle beneath it.  I sprang up to check myself for injury and filth, then glanced around to see if anyone had witnessed my acrobatics.  I noted that now I was not only being observed by the police, but employees from the business across the street had decided to take their lunch-break walks… which was actually just an excuse to come outside and see what was going on.

“Hey,” I said to one of the cops as I ambled back over to them to report on my findings. I had managed to locate a wallet, a few prescription bottles and a truly prolific collection of empty liquor bottles. “Who are those people, “ I asked as I gestured to the clean-cut parade of 9-5ers that all marched past the scene with their hands over their noses and mouths.  They would glance erratically at me and the cops, but didn’t make eye-contact and there faces were contorted into expressions of profound disgust.

“Those are the people that called this in,” the closest officer told me.  They were complaining about the smell and someone finally called in a welfare check.”

“They work across the street?”

“Yup.”

I watched as they all trooped back into the front doors.  The building was a tastefully rustic edifice with a massive, glass-walled foyer.  A huge sign above the door proclaimed “*Ubiquitous White Guy’s Name* Ministries” I’m not omitting the name just to be nice, I honestly don’t recall the dude’s name. But it was his building, and apparently, “ministries” is what they did there.

I turned back to the cops.

“So… who is that guy,” I asked, gesturing to the sign.

“I dunno, some televangelist or something. I guess this is his headquarters. I’d never heard of him either.”

“They’re some kind of evangelical ministry and some guy was dead in a Winnebago in front of their building for a month and they only called because of the smell?”

“Yup”

“Wow”

People frequently ask me what’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.  Usually these people are morbidly curious voyeurs who want me to regale them with tales of severed heads and murder scenes that look like something out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  And I mean, I tell stories like those on this blog sometimes.  But I like to think that more often, I hold up humanity’s dark mirror.  I like to show us the truths that I have learned about people by investigating their deaths.

So try this on for size…

I once had a friend tell me that people are disgusted by maggots, flies, cockroaches and other vermin because we don’t like to be reminded of how dirty we are.  We tend to despise the things that clean up after us.  And while I suspect my friend had probably smoked a little too much weed when he evolved this theory, I think there maybe a bit of truth to it.  We don’t like to see the reality of our own filth.  And as I watched all those “evangelists” avert their eyes and scurry back into the safety of their designer, glass-walled palace, I decided I had a new answer for the next time someone asked me what’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen… and it wasn’t the rotting guy in the RV.

In short order, I loaded the dead guy (and his head) into the back of my truck and was almost ready to go when the cops approached me again.  They told me that they had gotten ahold of our decedent’s family, but they were all out of state and wouldn’t be able to make it into town for a couple of days.

“So, I guess we’ll just leave the Winnebago here.  I mean, the tags are current and it’s a public street.  It’s perfectly legal for it to be here.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I mean, after all… if you’re going to be giving the keys to the family when they get into town, it can stay here until they figure out what to do with it.”

The officer glanced at the RV, with it’s smashed front window and the frothy puddle of decomposition beneath the door. “In any other circumstance, I’d have the fire department come here and hose down the street, but there’s no drainage at the bottom of this hill.  It would just turn into a swimming pool.”

“Sounds fine to me,” I said. “Leave it.”

As we all went onward into our days… me to deliver our decedent to his autopsy, and the police to govern any number of other catastrophes that might occur… I think all of us thought it, but no one said anything.

Let the smell stay there.

Let it stay. Leave it. The storefront full of missionaries could sit there and smell the scent of neglected human life and death until the weather washed it all away.

Tough.

While it may have been our job, mine and the police, to pronounce the decedent and figure out why he was dead, it certainly wasn’t our job to save these people from the repercussions of their actions… or lack thereof.  I wouldn’t say that this guy’s death was on their heads, but it certainly happened right under their noses… And none of them gave a shit until they were personally inconvenienced by it.

It’s the worst thing that I see. It gets under my skin more than the crushed bodies of car accident victims, more than the SIDS babies, more than the brutal homicides.

People who die and no one notices or cares until they start to smell.

This is our mess… the one that no one wants to clean up.  This is the stinking rot at the core of our existence.  This is the thing that no one wants to look at or consider… because we’re too disgusted with ourselves to face it. We forget people. We dismiss one another.  We ignore each other. We avert our eyes.

Well, take a long look. draw a deep breath.

We need to see it.

We need to clean it up.

We need to take care of it…

… or the maggots will do it for us, and it won’t be pretty.

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Frequently Asked Questions…

We, the medical examiners of America… we are a junk drawer.

To date, there is no prime-time television show about medico-legal death investigators, and as a result, nobody really knows what we do. (And in case you’re asking, no, CSI, Dexter and Rizzoli and Isles don’t count.  Nor does any incarnation of Law & Order. Dick Wolf can suck a big fat one) It’s a shame. In my opinion we MDI’s (Or deputy medical examiners… or whatever) are actually a pretty fun bunch and I think we’d be a big hit if any network producers ever decided to take a chance on us. (I’m available for consultation and script-writing… you know… if you happen to BE or KNOW a network television producer. Forget what I said about Dick Wolf sucking a big fat one)

law

Anyway, because no one knows what we do, we are frequently asked questions.  People call our office all the time and lay a wide array of dilemmas at our feet.  Folks seem to think that if their conundrum involves a dead person in any way, it must be the medical examiner’s responsibility.

I’m guessing that, in the continental United States, the following exchange takes place every 0.3 seconds:

-SOME DUDE- He’s dead. What do we do now?

-SOME OTHER DUDE- I don’t know. Call the medical examiner.

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We do what we can.  We do what we should. We often take on puzzles that are decidedly not in our job description because we’re civic-minded folks and we want to help.  BUT a lot of the time, we punt these problems right back into people’s faces… because their dead monkey isn’t a part of our horror circus.  My coined phrase when I get these calls is this:

“Well, jeepers!  This sounds like a whole lot of ‘not-my-problem!'”

Don’t believe me?

Well take a gander at this-

We have a hospital in our county that doesn’t have a morgue. I’m not sure why.  No one has ever bothered to explain this architectural feature to me and all I can say is that I really admire the hospital’s optimism.  But sadly, their faith in their capacity to treat and save every life that walks through their doors is unfounded.  People die there.  It’s a fucking hospital.

Most often, when people die there and it’s not a death that falls under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner’s office, the decedent is removed from the hospital room by a funeral home that’s selected by the next-of-kin. Simple.

HOWEVER

Sometimes non-jurisdictional deaths happen at this hospital and the dead person has no next-of-kin.  This is when the hospital staff starts calling our office, attempting to coerce us into taking the body.  The conversations go something like this:

-ME- Hello, Medical Examiner’s Office

-HOSPITAL STAFF- Hi, we have a deceased person with no next-of-kin.

-ME- Ok… ummm… is this death a medical examiner case?

-HOSPITAL STAFF- (confused) He…  has no next-of-kin.

-ME- Right, I heard you.  Does anything about this death make it a medical examiner case?

-HOSPITAL STAFF- (louder) HE HAS NO NEXT… OF… KIN.

-ME- Why exactly are you calling me?

-HOSPITAL STAFF- Well… you need to come get him.

-ME-No.

-HOSPITAL STAFF- But… you’re the medical examiner. …

-ME- That’s not what we do. If the death isn’t a medical examiner case, we are not involved in the disposition.  We’re not your storage facility.

-HOSPITAL STAFF- But… what do I do with him?  We don’t have a morgue!

-ME- Listen, I don’t know how many times we have to tell you this, but just because someone has no next-of-kin does NOT make them a medical examiner case.  It’s not our fault that you don’t have a morgue and we’ve told you several times that hospital administration needs to come up with a plan for when this happens.

-HOSPITAL STAFF- (sniffling a little bit) Well… can you just come pick up this one?

dead patient

Now I’ve worked here for almost ten years and the answer to this question has never changed.  They always want us to take their dead bodies and we always say no.  They also want us to take the dead person’s stuff and then find the person’s elusive, long-lost family.

Speaking of family…

trauma

I get a lot of questions from families, too. And I try to be kinder to them than the hospital staff, who in my opinion, have no excuse for their dumb-ass calls. But answering questions from families is far more explosive and complicated, despite the fact that I try to be as delicate as an ice dancer with these interactions.

First of all, when I talk to families, they’re (justifiably) hysterical and only hear a fraction of what I say.  This means that they will frequently call back with a jumbled knot of misinformation in their heads.  They will claim that they were lied to.  They will claim that nothing that they’ve been told makes sense.  They’ll call me names.  They’ll threaten.

I was a paramedic for a long time and I’ve been mother-fucked by a wide array of people in the back of the ambulance.  I’ve learned not to take it personally.  But still, it wears on you.  I think what’s so hard about it is the seemingly universal assumption that the medical examiners are all malicious ass-holes who are always trying to hide something.  We never get the benefit of the doubt.  People never seem to consider the possibility that, in their devastated, grief-stricken state, maybe they didn’t hear me quite right…

My last shift, I investigated the death of a woman who choked to death.  It wasn’t awesome.  She was developmentally delayed and had been in the care of an adult day-care program.  They take these folks on field trips to the mall or the park.  It’s a chance for these folks to get out and socialize and it gives their families a break from 24/7 caretaking.  This group had been picnicking on the shores of a local lake when this woman choked on her lunch. No Heimlich Maneuver or chest pumping could get the piece of meat out of her airway and she was pronounced at the scene. (It was a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)  The following day, the decedent’s sister called me up and the second I answered the phone I could tell she was primed for a fight.

“My sister died yesterday and we just don’t feel like our questions are being answered!”

“Okay,” I said.  “How can I help? What do you need to know?”

She delivered every question as though she was kicking me in the shins as she spoke.  She was using the you’d-better-not-mess-with-me voice as though I, inexplicably, intended to mess with her.  I gave her all the same information I gave her the day before, hoping that maybe this time she’d remember.  Things seemed to be going well right up until she hit me with this one:

“Why wasn’t my family notified that my sister would be going to the lake?”

Now. let’s all remember that I don’t work for the adult day-care program.  I am completely ignorant of their policies and I cannot answer questions on their behalf.  I didn’t have any fucking clue why the family didn’t know that a picnic at the lake was on the docket for the day.  But I understood that they had been blindsided by the death and wanted an explanation for every detail. But that didn’t mean I had one for her.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry. I don’t work for the day-care program and I don’t know anything about their policies.  I’m thinking you should probably get in contact with them because I don’t feel like I can speak for them-”

And she hung up on me.

Also, on my last shift, I had a guy who was electrocuted while installing lighting in a commercial space.  That whole situation was just dodgy as fuck because as far as I could tell no one bothered to turn off the power and the dude had minimal experience with electricity.   But it’s not my place to say what should or should not have happened in that situation.  Imagine me as Dr. Bones on Star Trek- “I’m a medical examiner, not an electrician!”  And I certainly don’t regulate safety practices on electrical jobs.  But that didn’t stop the family from demanding that I explain why the decedent wasn’t wearing “appropriate safety gear” (as they put it)

Honestly, how am I supposed to answer that question?  I have no idea what’s considered “appropriate safety gear” in those circumstances, nor do I have any clue why he was or was not wearing it… but that didn’t stop them from being plenty pissed when I told them so.

“What the hell are you people DOING out there? Why isn’t anyone doing their JOB?”

scream

I don’t blame them for wanting answers. I really don’t. I don’t want to sound glib or calloused.  The fact is, I wish I was MORE calloused. When families lose their shit on me, I feel a completely unreasonable sense of guilt.  I stare into the hungry, chomping mouth of their grief and wish I had something to feed it other than, “We’re doing what we can.”  That answer felt so insufficient to me for such a long time that I nearly killed myself trying to satisfy people’s insatiable need for an explanation for their tragedy.

But sooner or later, in this job, you have to learn some boundaries and understand that you don’t owe every question an answer…

For example…

I had a funeral director call me other day…

-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- So, we have a decedent here and I’m doing his death certificate.  When we picked him up, You guys told us he was transient.

-ME- Ok

-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- Well… if he’s transient, what do I put for his home address?

-ME- Well, I expect you’d put “transient”

-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- (huffing indignantly) Don’t you have anything else?

-ME- If he’s transient, then I suppose you’d list transient as an address on the death certificate.  It’s how we complete our case files. Why? Is that not allowed?

-IDIOT FUNERAL DIRECTOR- (eye-rolling) WELL, I was hoping you could offer a little guidance…

-ME- Listen, we medical examiners don’t fill out death certificates. I have NEVER filled out a death certificate in my life.  You know why?  Because that’s the FUNERAL DIRECTOR’S JOB.  I have no idea what state vital records will or won’t accept for a decedent’s address.  I only know what they will and won’t accept for cause and manner of death because that’s the MEDICAL EXAMINER’S JOB. Maybe try talking to your manager.

The idiot funeral director hung up on me… I guess because she was insufficiently trained and I refused to do her job for her.

lazy

I’m not sure what the hell is going on. But apparently this is a growing trend.  People are more and more in the habit of asking the wrong people the wrong questions.

Today while I was working out at the gym, one of the televisions above my treadmill was tuned to “The 700 Club”.  If you’ve never heard of it, this show is basically an Evangelical Christian version of a news program.  Something like 20/20, but for religious fanatics for whom Fox news isn’t quite skewed enough.  I’m familiar with this program because I was raised in an Evangelical home in which my mother watched “The 700 Club” all the damned time… when she wasn’t attending prayer meetings and casting demons out of our appliances (not joking).

fridge

So, much like rubber-neckers at the scene of an accident, I just couldn’t bring myself to look away as the program entered it’s Q & A segment.  During this time, the quintessential old-white-dude televangelist answers questions that viewers have emailed in.  Typically, the questions are about theology, scripture, ethics, etc. etc. Also people ask him how he managed to fit all those animals on to one boat… because this guy has GOT to be as old as the flood.

pat

So, imagine my surprise when THIS little gem flashed across the screen.  Some blithering moron sent in the following question:

“Dear Pat, If we say grace over our food before we eat it, asking God to nourish it to our bodies, do we still have to be concerned with the sugar and cholesterol in it?”

I didn’t see Pastor Pat’s answer… probably because I nearly fell off the treadmill in astonishment that Pastor Pat somehow managed to get an email from the Dark Ages. Honestly , this reminded me of centuries ago when people sincerely believed that the Eucharist (the wine and communion wafers of Holy Communion) LITERALLY turned  into the body and blood of Jesus Christ… Making early Catholics a bunch of zealous cannibals who didn’t know the meaning of a metaphor. Even more so, I was reminded of those charismatic nut-bags who demonstrate the depth of their faith by dancing around, waving poisonous snakes in the air. It’s right up there with “praying the gay away,” I was legitimately astonished that someone out there was asking this question of a televangelist as opposed to… say a nutritionist or a doctor.   And I was even more astonished that the producers of this show thought this was a legitimate enough question to put it on the air. Never mind doctrinal issues like predestination or the cannonization of scripture.  People want to know if they can pray their way out of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

junk2

I barely had time to stomach this whole situation when the next question flashed across the screen:

“Pastor Pat, Why is it that some dead people look really terrible, while other dead people look normal and healthy… almost as if they’re still alive?”

What

The

Fuck

I couldn’t help it.  Right then and there I actually went to the 700 Club website, and then looked up this “Pastor Pat”. I wanted to see if he had any kind of advanced degrees or training that might qualify him to answer such questions.  There wasn’t a thing about medicine or death investigation… nothing to indicate this guy knew anything about human physiology in the living or the dead.

I watched in amazement while Pastor Pat  reeled off some drivel about how morticians put make-up on dead bodies to make them look more alive… which is true.  Morticians do that. HOWEVER, there’s a little more to what, exactly, makes dead people look the way they do.  So many factors affect post-mortem changes that you see in a dead body.  The body’s position, the post mortem interval, heat, air-movement, fat-to-muscle ratio… not to mention the fact that if people don’t look great when they’re alive, death probably isn’t going to make it any better.  Pastor Pat totally copped the fuck out of that question… a question to which I could have actually delivered a concise and thoughtful answer, based in both personal experience and science.

But of course, nobody asked me.

dead

So from here on out, I’d like to offer my services to you, your televangelist hero, your wacky podcast… whatever.  If you have a MEDICAL EXAMINER question.  Feel free to ask it.  And if you’re not sure if your question is a medical examiner question… you can ask me that too, and I’ll tell you. Just stop asking people questions that they’re not qualified to answer.  And if you’re not qualified to answer a question… don’t just answer it anyway

For fuck sake

Somebody needs to put and end to this madness.

 

 

 

The One That Got Away

It’s hard

Some days it’s just so damn hard.

The hardest days are usually the ones when my own life is in such profound turmoil that the added load of doing my job makes me feel like an old world martyr, being pressed to death in the town square.  Every ring of the phone, every scene investigation, every page of paperwork is like another boulder that’s being piled on my chest as bystanders look on in morbid fascination, wondering how much more i can take before I finally stop breathing.

pressing.jpg

So when the call came in that I was being dispatched to the suicide of a 13-year-old girl who was in foster care, I almost stopped breathing. I was already buried beneath a pile of unfinished reports. And I was being dive-bombed by an angry, buzzing swarm of unreturned phone calls.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.  The worst of it was the fact that, in addition to the daily onslaught of deaths and death related tasks, I was still frozen in an icy block of anguish from the happenings of the night before.

I had broken up with someone… Again.  Which may be why I’m so comfortable in working with the dead. I’ve had so many horrible endings in my own life that I subconsciously realized that I should just start making living off everything going to shit.

Anyway, I broke up with him. Which, theoretically is supposed to feel empowering… I guess. You know, being the one who calls it off means you win, right? Except I didn’t feel like a winner at all. It was a complete catastrophe.

I had found emails in which my boyfriend had been corresponding with his high-school girlfriend. And it wasn’t your typical “Hey, how have you been.” Unless of course I’m mistaken and guys regularly check in with their exes to let them know that they miss holding each other’s naked body. Is it typical for dudes to ask their married-with-two-kids high school sweetheart if she thinks about him when she masturbates? Because that’s the kind of email conversation they were having when I uncovered it.  And, I mean, maybe I’m way off base here, but I had lunch a couple of years back with my high school ex and, somehow, the subject of masturbation never came up.

All that was bad enough, but I suppose I could have let it slide.  I’m not too proud to admit that I’m in the habit of taking WAY too much douchebaggery from the men in my life. But I hit my douchebaggery overflow valve when I noted that the two of them were pointedly making plans to get together during a period of time when I would be out of town.

I was a perfectly cool girlfriend, he told her, but no one would ever matter to him like she did.

I woke him up to confront him. Because at the time, he was of course sleeping in MY bed-in MY house- like a drowsy little self-satisfied, narcissistic house cat. He maintained that he “never cheated”, then tried to deflect his own guilt by acting wounded and outraged that I had snooped in his email.  In response, I couldn’t help but point out that he had given me the password back when I had disclosed my trust issues due to cheating exes.

cheater

“Check whenever you want!” He had confidently bade me at the time.

Well, I did.

Anyway, I had stuffed all his belongings into his arms and shoved him out the door.  Then when I noted his towel was still hanging in my bathroom, I set it on fire in the dumpster down the street.

Now, at work, I was fielding the phone calls, conducting scene investigations and feeling like my heart had been replaced with a mace-and-chain that bashed against the inside of my rib cage every time I moved. And in between all of that, I couldn’t get the cacophonous birds in my brain to settle on one side of the fence or the other: had my response been justified or had I overreacted?
Maybe committing arson had overshot the limits of reasonable behavior juuuuuuuuust a hair.

dumpster

Anyway, I certainly didn’t feel up to fielding the suicide of a 13 year old foster kid, not when all I wanted to do was lay down and die myself.

But that’s the nature of the work.  When you’re on the clock, you’re on the hook and no one cares how you feel. Back when my father died, I was allotted exactly one shift off to attend his funeral and not a second more.  I spent the next month sobbing my eyes out in the county truck between calls.  Every death that I attended to raked across the raw nerve of my own loss to such a profound degree that I staggered home from each shift, exhausted and numb with despair. When I went to Human Resources, desperate for some kind of relief… maybe the emotional equivalent of “light-duty…” the flat eyed desk-jokey told me in a voice, caustic with sarcasm, “We’re not going to give you time off just because you’re sad.”

So, I knew that I had to lay my own misery aside and squire this, latest decedent to the afterlife with stoic decorum.  It was going to be a rough ride, I knew.  The death of a child is always dicey and complicated.  The death of a child in foster care would only be more so.  Every aspect of this child’s life and death would be meticulously dissected, re-examined, argued over, theorized on and criticized.  Every agency that ever had a hand in the decedent’s life would be frantic to prove that they weren’t the ones who dropped the ball when it came to her welfare. Whose head was on the proverbial block for this death?

Well, it wouldn’t be mine.  I buckled down the rattling baggage of my sorrow and told myself that I was going to document the fuck out of this investigation.  It would probably take hours, but nothing about this kid’s death was going to get by me.

When I rolled up to the scene, I noted a spread of no less than three squad cars on the block, in addition to a couple of vehicles that were quite obviously the “unmarked” units used by detectives.  As I got out of my truck and turned to regard the unassuming ranch-style home, I noted a hand-wringing, middle-aged man, pacing in the driveway. He was portly, rumpled and had hair as thin as a bad alibi which was becoming more and more disheveled every time that he ran his stubby fingers through it. He eyed me worriedly as I walked past him, but I ignored him as I stepped up the walk.  Whatever his story, I would get to him later.

“That’s the foster-dad,” said the uniformed officer posted at the front door, nodding in the man’s direction. “I guess he’s the one that found her.  He called 911… maybe about 3 hours ago now. We’ve been here since then”

This information didn’t surprise me.  When it looks like a death investigation is going to be a fiasco, police and detectives usually spend a couple of hours freaking out before they think to call me. On the rare occasion that they call me before they’re done freaking out, I’ve actually told them to get their shit together and get back to me in an hour or so when a plan has emerged.

confused

As I stepped into the house, I noted that I had an array of maybe 5 cops and two detectives in attendance.  And just a few feet inside the front door, laying in the middle of the living room floor, was my dead girl. She was smallish, maybe five feet tall.  She was laying on her side with her long, frizzy, dark hair covering her face.  She wore jeans, a hoodie, sneakers and her backpack lay on the floor nearby. I glanced around the room, taking in the suburban-normal of the couch, a couple chairs, a TV- all of it completely unremarkable except for the dead body and the police that crowded the small space.

“Hey Grace!” I heard a voice call from the kitchen.

“Hey man!” I called back as I made my way past the living room and found Detective Labrecht chatting with a patrol officer by the sink. “What’s the story here?”

Labrecht sighed.  “Well, it’s a suicide.  This girl has a history of cutting and self-harm.  I guess school counselors told the foster folks to remove all the sharp knives from the home recently.  Foster-mom saw her this morning as she was leaving for work and our girl was getting ready for school.  Mom and the other foster kids left before she did.  Foster dad comes home around four this afternoon and finds her like that.”

“Foster dad found her like that?” I squinted at Labrecht and turned to re-examine the scene.  “So, what exactly makes us think this is a suicide?” I wasn’t trying to be contrary, I was legitimately curious because the whole thing just didn’t seem… right… to me.  When I had been to previous teenage-girl-suicides… hell, when I had been to any suicide, the scene had always been carefully “staged” by the decedent.  Usually there was a note in a prominent place. The decedent was typically sitting or lying in a deliberate fashion. Often we find a stack of important paperwork or instructions left for emergency responders or family.  Once we even had a dude video-record himself on his ipad, stating that he was going to kill himself, providing date and time and then showing the gun he intended to use.  This girl looked like she had literally been walking out the door to go to school when she suddenly remembered she had forgotten to commit suicide- Then she decided to do so right then and there without bothering to take her jacket or shoes off.

“We’re not sure how she did it yet. Probably pills of some kind but we don’t know what.  There’s nothing in the house but some over-the-counter stuff. And, we found a note in her bedroom over there.” Labrecht gestured at a door in the nearby hallway and an officer standing there beckoned me in.

“It’s right here.” The officer handed over a piece of spiral notebook paper that had obviously been crumpled up and spread back out again.  I squinted as I read the words scribbled on the lines.  Something about how no one loved her and everyone was prettier and smarter and better than she was. She wished she was dead etc. ect. And although she said “I’m sorry” several times in the note, it didn’t explicitly reference an intention to kill herself, nor was it a blatant good bye to anyone. My brow puckered in doubt but I opted not to disclose to the officer that this “suicide note” bore a striking resemblance to my own rambling journal entry that I had blearily scrawled just last night in the aftermath of my relationship Armageddon. Furthermore, it pretty much echoed every thought I’d had about myself during the day… thoughts that, even now, were barely being kept quiet below the rippling surface of my composure.

“We also found these.” The officer motioned to the bed where two spiral notebooks were laid open.  Both of them were filled with page after page of feminine handwriting.  And each page was another diatribe about how much our decedent believed the world sucked, her family sucked, foster care sucked, school sucked and she, herself… sucked. I paged through them wordlessly, remembering my own struggles with junior high school, puberty, boys, friends, parents, teachers and the eternal mystery of myself.  Who was I? Who cared about me? Why was I so sad? When would it ever change? Again, I didn’t say anything to the officer who was clearly proud of his incriminating evidence in favor of suicide. But I wasn’t convinced.  As terrible as it was, all the girl’s musings honestly seemed to be standard-issue adolescent self-loathing with a healthy dose of family trauma smeared on top.

note

“Okay, where did we find this?” I asked the officer as I straightened up and once again addressed the crumpled up “suicide note”.

“It was in the waste-basket.”

I felt the scowl crawl across my face.  This was making less and less sense. Suicide notes are typically left out where people will find them. If this was a suicide note, and that was a big if, it would have been displayed.  It would have been obvious. This was… this was…

“Hey, did she just breathe?” An officer’s voice floated into the bedroom.

“WHAT?!?” I barked. I turned and sprinted into the living room where five cops and two detectives were all frozen, staring at the inert body on the floor.

“Seriously. It… it looked like she just breathed.” stuttered an officer.

I scrambled to the dead girl’s side and pulled her hair off of her face as I rolled her on to her back.  Her skin was pale and cold but she wasn’t in rigor mortis at all. And she should have been. By all reports she had been dead for anywhere from three to eight hours. Unthinkingly, I groped for the girl’s wrist and ten years of paramedic experience guided my fingers to her radial artery… where she had a thundering pulse.

“YOU GUYS, SHE HAS A PULSE!” I announced to the utterly stunned room of officers, all of whom had stopped breathing and were likely without pulses of their own at that moment.

“Call 911!” I yelled at them, before realizing that I was yelling at a roomful of uniformed, on-duty cops to call 911 when we actually were 911. “Call an ambulance!” I corrected myself as I reached into my bag and pulled out a CPR mask that I always kept there, never believing I might someday use it. I tossed the mask to Labrecht to assemble and quickly raked my knuckles over the girl’s sternum as hard as I could.

She gasped. She flailed. She opened her eyes.

“Um… hi…” I said to her, suddenly unsure of what to say.  I mean, I would frequently talk to the dead, but I never expected any of them to answer. “Hey, so, what’s your name?”

“Sabrina,” she mumbled softly, looking around at the assembly of people around her, most of whom were policemen who stood, transfixed by her resurrection.  Already I could see the wheels turning in their heads.  Someone was going to get blamed for this utterly disastrous debacle, and how could they ensure it wasn’t them?

My pre-hospital career was coming back to me as I helped Sabrina to her feet and guided her over to sit on the couch. I took a cursory look at her and established that she was free of any injuries.  I asked her a few questions but she was disoriented and spacey.  The pulse at her wrist was stable and strong but unbelievably fast. I was mentally flipping through my index of possible reasons for her unconsciousness and rapid heart rate when an ambulance showed up and I handed Sabrina off to the medic crew who seemed just as baffled as everyone else at this turn of events.

“This is Sabrina, She’s been unconscious for at least the last three hours. She awoke to painful stimuli and is disoriented to place and time.  There are no visible injuries to her head or thorax. She’s got a rapid radial pulse and is a suspected suicide attempt—“

As I reeled off the information, everyone in the room seemed to be moving at half speed.  The paramedics fumbled with their EKG, the police all shifted uneasily and Labrecht meandered back into the kitchen to call a supervisor. Yet above everything else, one thought drowned out all others as I watched Sabrina get escorted to the stretcher and loaded into the ambulance:

I didn’t have to write this report anymore.

I DIDN’T HAVE TO WRITE THIS REPORT ANYMORE!

freedom

During the next few minutes that I stayed on scene, I was downright jubilant with glee.  Sure, my personal life was, literally, a dumpster fire. Sure, I was still facing hours of paperwork from my other investigations that day. But I didn’t have to write up the novel-sized case file that would be required by a foster kid’s suicide. Hell, this shit show suddenly had nothing to do with me. Even better, the scene had started with a body count of one… and now the body count was zero!  I was so good at my job I brought the dead back to life!

I blithely watched the police argue over who was the primary officer at the scene and who actually pronounced Sabrina dead in the first place. Then I watched as they all made excuses as to why none of them had bothered checking for a pulse themselves. I watched as Labrecht deftly slipped out the door, probably hoping no one would remember he was there.  And I watched the ambulance pull away from the house as the foster dad stared in relieved astonishment.

In the following few days, the police department evolved a story in which at the time of their arrival, Sabrina’s pulse was too faint for anyone to feel.  My theory is simply that cops are shit at taking pulses.  But it’s okay because it’s not actually their job and they’re not trained to do it. I’m sure if I tried to arrest someone, I’d fuck that up, too.

I later found out that, at the hospital, Sabrina admitted to taking half a bottle of extra strength Tylenol the night before with the intention of committing suicide.  When she woke up the following morning she threw her farewell note away, figuring she failed at everything, even killing herself.  Little did she realize as she got ready for school, that the Tylenol had gone to work at annihilating her liver while she slept. This explained why she suddenly got dizzy and passed out in the living room on her way out the door.  If much more time had passed, she would have suffered irreversible liver damage and possibly death.  But yours truly pulled her back from the abyss with a classic sternal rub.

I think about Sabrina a lot.  I wanted to try to connect with her after she got out of the hospital, but when I told the story to a more cynical friend of mine, she told me not to bother.  “Her life is shit,” my friend had told me.  “It’s never going to get any better.  She’s screwed.”  Moreover, a couple other people told me that it wouldn’t be “appropriate” for me to contact her… whatever that means. Besides, if I did manage to get in touch with her, I can’t fathom how a conversation would go. I’d probably lose my nerve and end up saying something that sounded like a greeting card or a facebook meme: “Hang in there!” or “The hour is darkest…” or some such bullshit.

But the thing is, I know what I want to tell her. I just wouldn’t know how to do it without sounding crazy.  I want to tell her about the day I was having. I want to tell her about sitting here, still in the devastated wreckage of a heartbreak that runs far deeper than I’ll ever let on.  I want to tell her about realizing that if he loved me at all, he loved me like a child loves his second favorite toy right before he pulls it apart to see how it works.  Then, bored, leaves it in the yard to rust with gears askew and springs sticking out of its belly like hands reaching out for rescue.   I want to tell her about a lifetime of feeling as though happiness was a bowl of candy that was empty by the time someone thought to pass it around to me. I want to tell her about all the times I’ve looked at myself and said “My life is shit, it’s never going to get any better, I’m screwed.”

And I want tell her a story that was told to me, by an artist who was once asked to illustrate the laws of physics for time magazine.  And he told me that when an electron passes through the nucleus of an atom.  That electron ceases to exist and is reborn out the other side… and I think that we are all those electrons and that nucleus is simply the pain inherent in living… we get pulled into its orbit until we have to pass through it… again and again.

atom

Things are tough all around, kid.  And at 13 you are only ankle deep, wading into a rising tide that’s aiming for 10 feet above your head. And you will spend your life feeling as though the devil has his hand in your pocket, demanding that you pay for sins you never committed.  There will be times when your enemies will tell you that you are a worthless failure and you will agree with them. There will be times when screams will fill your throat like dirt as you’re being buried alive from the inside out. And there will be times when people you dearly love will tell you that you never really mattered.

You will enter it

And you will cease to exist, it will feel as though the nucleus of your grief is unmaking you,

You will dissolve into a nothingness so hollow that light will invert itself and every waking dawn will break as black as death into another day without hope. And you won’t want to move

I know because I don’t want to move. Days like this I don’t believe in God, love, humanity, fate, logic, wealth, power, family, friendship or fairies. I don’t believe that I’m special because I’m not and I don’t believe that everything is going to be okay because it isn’t. After cancer, divorce, miscarriages, betrayals, deaths… days like this I wonder if the future I imagine gleaming on the horizon of this wasteland is only a fluorescent light, glinting on the edge of the razor I’ll use to slash my wrists when I get there. Sometimes, the only fuel I have left for my journey is the knowledge that I have to keep going. I have to. To remain motionless is to allow defeat to swallow me like weeds swallow an unused road.  And I want to be reborn. I want to stumble out the other side of my sorrow, blinking and bewildered that I’m still alive… just like you were. Just like that day when I felt your heart with my fingers, pounding from inside your flesh like an angry fist, demanding a recount. And I realized that, despite my own fucking problems, I would have to carry on so I could show you that it can be done… So I could tell you you’re life isn’t shit. It is going to get better and you’re only screwed if you give up.

You have to keep going. You have to make a habit of survival. You have to learn to love despite the pain. You have to learn to find someone to trust in a world full of assholes. You have to learn to forgive people who will never be sorry. And you have to be willing to enter despair in order to pass through it.  I may not believe in anything but I believe in the other side of the nucleus and I intend to meet you there. I want to feel the grip of your hand in mine and I want to see your face. I want to be able to tell you that the 27 years between your age and mine are going to be worth it and it’s going to get easier.  You’ll learn to thank the devastation, you’ll learn to love the loss. You’ll learn to shrug in the face of heartbreak and say I’ve survived lots of tragedy, this is just the latest one.

I’ve asked Labrecht to look up her case.  He’s reluctant to do so, probably because no one wants to remember that we were involved in something so embarrassing. But I’ve kept at him. I’m not sure what I’ll do, probably call up child protective services and just ask if she’s ok.  They might not be able or willing to tell me and I’m not sure what I’ll say if they ask me why I’m interested in her. Should I tell them she’s the one that got away? That I feel responsible for her? Do I tell them that I owe her? That I want to keep an eye on her?

Maybe all I can do is send this to her.

Maybe all I can say is thank you.

I hope you’re ok

I’ll see you on the other side.

 

 

When Worlds Collide

I was tired.

Dear, sweet, putrid puddles… I was tired

tired

As I stumbled into the shrieking starkness of linoleum under fluorescent lights, the entire world seemed as harsh as road rash to my fatigued senses. Every sound clattered through my brain like a toddler in tap-shoes. More than anything I wanted to sleep, but all things considered, I would have settled for dying if that was the only option.

Whatever.

I do my job, I told myself. And this is the job…

… a lunchroom full of high-schoolers.

I had just finished a wickedly brutal shift which involved a 3-fatality car crash, two floaters and a partridge in a pear tree. But there was no going home for me.  I had, once again, agreed to participate in the molding and shaping of young minds. So here I was, at a local high-school, hosting an information table at the county health department job fair.

In the past, the local teachers would call our office and ask me to do a single presentation for a classroom.  But someone, somewhere had apparently decided that such a forum was entirely too small-scale.  They wanted an event.  And stupidly, I had agreed to help.

job fair

To be fair, I actually really enjoy these functions.  When I was growing up it was pretty much assumed that, as girls, our futures were already decided.  We were all destined to be wives and mothers and if we chose to pursue any profession outside the confines of home-making, the only available vocations were teacher, nurse or secretary.  Now I’m not saying there’s anything WRONG with those jobs, but I certainly didn’t get the impression I could do whatever I wanted if I wasn’t suited to any of those three.  Consequently, I enthusiastically consider it my duty to show young women that they, too can veer wildly off the map like I did… and end up doing all kinds of crazy shit… like I do.

For example…

… participate in a job fair on 3 hours of sleep after spending your whole night prying dead people out of their smashed vehicles… Reach for the stars, kiddos!

reach

I walked into this event armed with my third 5-shot Americano of the morning and noted that all around me the other tables were populated by restaurant inspectors (yawn), a couple of paramedics (ugh), and a school nurse (I think).  Their tables were scattered with cheap candy, photographs and tools of their trade. Whereas I didn’t have anything but a surly attitude and caffeine that I had no intention of sharing.  The plan for this whole affair was that the students would divide up into groups of 8 or 9 and then they would rotate from table to table, spending approximately 20 minutes at each one.  I was supposed to give each group a brief description of my job and then allow them to ask questions.

After this plan was described to me, I sat down at a table and stared blankly at my hands… muddling over exactly how to manage such a forum. Describing my job in the space of 15 minutes was kind of like asking someone to encapsulate the plot of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen into a 15 second blurb.  It simply can’t be done, at least not in a way that made sense or was even remotely entertaining.  And let’s be honest, the point here was to be entertaining.  These kids most likely didn’t give a toss about a career in public health and really just wanted to get out of morning classes.  As for the presenters, this was low-effort overtime for most of us… either that or it was an excuse to escape the office for a few hours without taking PTO. Consequently, I resolved that my primary goal in this event was my own amusement, and if some of the kids came to believe that being a medical examiner was cool… well, all the better.

stage11.jpg

I tried to be professional and friendly with the first group, a gaggle of dead-eyed prom-queens who were all wearing a shit-ton of mascara and stated that their communal goal was a career in physical therapy. The next group wasn’t much better, a swarm of anxious-looking Asian kids who took copious notes and seemed too afraid to speak when I asked if they had questions.  By the time the third group rolled around, I was severely over-caffeinated to the point of being vibratingly giddy.  I suppose that’s when I decided to throw all decorum aside and give them a taste of the real medical examiner experience.

“Welcome to the Death-Table!” I crowed at each, subsequent group of students as they seated themselves around me. “My job is to figure out why people are dead! I don’t have any visual aids because my photos would give you nightmares.  Who wants to hear a story?” Then I would give them a couple of real-life scenarios, death scenes that I had actually worked, and challenge them to hazard a guess as to what the cause and manner of death had been.

students

I was a hit.

Or at least I’m pretty sure I was doing better than the restaurant inspector who was demonstrating how he measured the temperature of soup.

When I would get to my Q&A time, the kids were full of questions.  Of course, there was the typical, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” which I answered truthfully (A motorcyclist who hit a truck head-on and was cut in half by his handlebars) And a few of them asked about my salary (Not nearly enough to cover my therapy bills) But I was completely stymied by one sharp-eyed young man who asked perhaps one of the most unique and perceptive questions I’ve ever received:  “How do you deal with all of the terrible stuff you see?”

answer

Badly! Screamed the honest voice in my head. I deal with it BADLY!

“Well,” I said carefully.  “It’s very important to have an involved and rewarding life outside of work… and make sure I have plenty of activities and relationships that have nothing to do with my job. I do my best to allow as little cross-over as possible.”

Which was the truth… it is  the truth… mostly.  Except for the part where it’s really not possible.

My worlds collide; the world where I’m a medical-legal death investigator, and the world where I’m a friend and family member who’s just trying to do right by the human race.

worlds

This is what it looks like in my head… all the time.

Sometimes, it’s a little funny.

As an avid, semi-professional aerialist, my Facebook feed is cluttered with pictures of me, dangling from the ceiling in various states of costuming and make-up. As I’ve become “friends” with more and more police officers, they can’t help but be aware of my circus proclivities.  More than once, I’ve been leaving a death-scene and a passing cop has said something to the tune of “nice leotard”, indicating they’ve joined the ranks of law enforcement officers who have viewed photos of me hanging up-side-down in my skivvies. And hell, I have no problem posting every god-damned photo I can get of myself looking strong and agile. Go ahead and look.

Unfortunately, sometimes, the crossover goes a little too far.  Recently, I invited Chaplain Bob to one of my performances. Specifically, he came to the Halloween show in which I was a black-toothed goblin with a purple mow-hawk.  Chaplain Bob was delighted at the performance, and got several photos of me goblin-ing away.  The problem arose a few weeks later when we were on the scene of a heroin overdose and Chaplain Bob began showing these photos to the investigating detectives.  Nothing says professional reliability like a photograph of the medical examiner perched like a gargoyle on the arm-rest of a theater-seat with some unsuspecting patron squealing in horror as I pretend to eat their hand-bag.

goblinguy

As a representative from Health and Human Services, I’d like to express our sympathy at your loss.

Other times, it’s less funny…

I am far too aware of what kills people. I am far too aware of how bad some lives can get before they finally end. I see horrible shit and it’s difficult not to apply my knowledge of human suffering to my own circumstances… it’s a burden.

Or maybe it’s a gift. It’s hard to say.

At the end of the day… The worlds collide. My idealistic, romantic, optimist self spends a lot of time arguing with the well-informed, cynical realist who has seen far too much.

Is it a blessing or a curse?

I don’t know.  As I sit here in the conundrum of my solitude, I’m marveling at the ambiguity of my state.  I’m so hopeful and yet I always know so much better.  I think about the Greek myth of Cassandra, Princess of Troy, cursed to utter prophecies that were true but no one believed her. But what about when you’re both the prophet and the unbeliever?  How does one navigate the dichotomy of undoubtedly knowing what’s to come but also stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it?

cassandra

“Hey guys… shit’s about to go down. Seriously, maybe we should turn off the music and do something about it.”


He was a man… and everything that comes with that.  I suppose that makes me a woman.  Our story wasn’t anything unusual, which is part of the problem. I wish I could chalk us up as aberrant, but we weren’t.  We were ruthlessly typical which was why our reality was so distressing.

I wanted  it to work out so badly.  I loved him. I didn’t tell many people that, but I did.  I was so excited.

But there were the red flags: The times he got a little too drunk, the inconsistencies I caught him in that weren’t quite lies, the way he would be almost mean to me… and how much I didn’t want to see it.  I didn’t want to see that this dream was boiling over into a nightmare. But how could I avoid it? I was in love, but I was also excruciatingly aware of what was on the verge of happening.

I investigate a lot of death. I see the ending to every story and then I slowly rewind the video feed to track the mechanics involved.  I watch, in reverse, every decision that led to the dead body on the floor.  And perhaps the two most over-whelming commonalities are this:

  1. Alcohol kills men
  2. Men kill women

Let’s break those down a bit-

Regarding #1- Alcohol Kills Men-

alcohol

Most deaths I investigate are those of men. Not because more men die than women, but because statistically, men’s deaths are more confusing, more violent and more complicated than women’s.  Why is this? Well, because men make riskier decisions.  Men tend to be more violent.  Men are less likely to get regular health care. And more men have unbridled substance abuse issues than women. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, men are twice as likely to become drug addicts.  And if that weren’t enough, men are three times more likely to become alcoholics. Furthermore, 88,000 people die of alcohol-related causes annually, 62,000 of which are men… making it the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Those are some pretty dismal number to begin with, but I wonder what they mean by “alcohol-related”.  Do they just mean those deaths are the result of liver failure and other medical problems that result from drinking?  Or do they also include the car accidents… and does it include the victims of drunk-drivers or just the drivers themselves?  Does it include people who kill themselves as a result of their addiction?  Does it include the murder victims of crazed alcoholics in the midst of a meltdown? House fires in which the drunk person fell asleep with a lit cigarette in hand? If not, that number should be even higher.  I can say firsthand that, of the non-natural deaths that I see… in other words, of the suicides, homicides and accidents… the staggering majority involve alcohol in some way or another.  And most of them are men.

Furthermore, that number doesn’t even begin to touch the lives that are RUINED by alcohol.  The destructive force of alcohol and alcoholism cannot be measured.

And here I was, in love with someone who, undeniably, had a drinking problem… one that was so severe his license had been revoked and he’d actually served time.  And yet he continued to drink… to excess- to the point that he would crash-out and I couldn’t wake him, he would slur his words, he would have conversations with me that I wasn’t actually a part of and I’m pretty sure he was hallucinating my responses.

It was right there. I didn’t want to see it, but I couldn’t look away.  And I knew the destination for the drunk train was inevitably grief and destruction.

Regarding #2- Men kill women.

domestic-violence

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.3 million women in America are victims of an assault by a domestic partner. Everyday, 3 women in the U.S. are killed by current or former partners. Now if you take a look at the school shootings in America since the year 2000 (18 years), and I mean shootings on school buses as well as grades K-12 in both private and public schools, also including colleges and universities– the number of fatalities amounts to approximately 270.  On the other hand, if you count up the number of women murdered by their current or former partners… well folks we’ve already exceeded 270 fatalities in 2018 before we even hit April… that’s 3 months.

One more time for the folks in back:  MORE WOMEN IN AMERICA HAVE BEEN MURDERED BY THEIR CURRENT OR FORMER PARTNER IN THE FIRST 3 MONTH OF 2018, THAN ALL THE FATALITIES IN ALL THE SCHOOL SHOOTINGS IN THE LAST 18 YEARS.

I don’t see a ton of murder, but I see enough.  And of the homicides I’ve seen, I have to say that in maybe half of them the victims have been women. Of those, almost all of them were murdered by their male partners- typically when the woman was in the process of leaving him.

As if that’s not enough, nine times out of ten, the perpetrator had no known history of violence and showed no previous signs of unusual aggression.

I can recite all the numbers you want, but nothing can really give you a hint of what that looks like:

A floor smeared with blood, lots of it. Trails indicating where she ran and how he followed

Broken furniture that he threw, either at her or because she was dodging behind it

Smashed doors where she tried to barricade herself in

Scattered belongings all over the floor: plates, books, whatever he could get his hands on… An entire household over-turned as she tried to get away.

The stillness of her face, all of those muscles gone slack so she’s as blank as the doll he tried to make her into before she’d had enough.  Because that’s what it’s about… it’s about control.  He doesn’t see her as a person, she’s an extension of him… She’s not real. Why wouldn’t she be/say/do what he wanted? How dare she leave?

I can’t tell you how it feels to lift the weight of a woman’s body into a truck so that the state pathologist can tell us what we already know:  he shot her, he strangled her, he beat her to death. I can’t tell you what changes inside me when I look into these women’s dilated, blank eyes and I know that they died scared… probably with the thought, “Oh, my God, he’s going to kill me.”

I can’t tell you how awful it felt to lie in bed next to my drunk boyfriend who just said something horrible to me and wish that I could just kick him out of my house… But to also realize that so many men are at their worst when the relationship is ending, and you never know what’s going to make someone snap.

But there I was, laying in bed next to a man that had just deeply insulted me, and all I could think was, How well do I REALLY know him?  If I told him to leave how angry would he get?  What would he do? Could I defend myself if he got violent?

And I laid there next to him until morning… because I felt I didn’t have a choice.  I had to wait until it was safer.  I had to wait, because I’ve seen too many dead women; women who undoubtedly told themselves, He would never do that to me.

sleep-paralysis


How do I deal with all the terrible stuff I see?  How do I process the realities of how and why we die.  Then how do I live and love in the face of that? How do I know what I know and then look beyond all the signs and signals that scream: This is all going to end in disaster, and try to carry on a normal life?

I threw a weak answer at that kid that morning, but his question has stuck with me like a penny I picked up and left in my coat pocket months ago.  I pull it out and stare at it when the fingers of my thoughts brush against it during the day.

I think the answer is simply that I am always living in the suspended moment of indecision.  I exist in the impossible contradiction between everything that I hope for as it crashes into the impenetrable wall of everything that I know.  It’s a tiny, cramped space, the space between knowing and hoping… the inches between one world and another as they bash into each other… the big bang…

…and begin again.

Always begin again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m in the mood for love… simply because you’re breathing… FOR MEL

It’s Valentine’s Day!

Or, at least it will be very soon… 5 hours and 45 minutes to be exact.  I’m pretty sure that means it’s way too late for you slackers to call FTD. Face it, you’re going to have to get creative with whatever you can find at 7-11.  But chin-up! All is not lost! A Hershey bar and a handful of International Delight coffee-creamers is almost like a box of  assorted chocolates. And if you presented your lady-love with this thoughtful, though unconventional gift, you’d still be doing better than a long lost boyfriend did for me one year when he gave a greeting card which contained a 5-dollar-bill.

Not joking.

It’s okay, he was from Iowa. (Speaking of… I just spontaneously looked him up on Facebook.  He’s married with children so I can only assume his game has improved.)

Honestly, I figure most people would assume that I despise Valentine’s Day.  But I don’t.  Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays.  I have many happy childhood memories of elementary school classroom parties during which we forsook our afternoon academia in favor of eating VAST amounts of sugar and exchanging dopey little cards that featured our favorite cartoon characters.  Naturally, as I grew into a surly, semi-goth teenager who was utterly disenchanted with EVERYTHING, I sneered heavily at the holiday and pretended to have nothing but salty disdain for such contrived sentiment.  All the while, I secretly hoped anyone ANYWHERE liked me enough to mark the day as important and bestow upon me ANY TOKEN OF AFFECTION AT ALL.

youll do

My standards weren’t great.  It became a problem later in life. But hey’ that’s what psychiatry is for.

STILL I like Valentine’s Day.  It can be a lot of fun if you keep an open mind.  Like this year, for example…. I would like to bestow a special gift.  One of my friends was recently dumped by her deplorably tactless boyfriend who flailingly bumbled off an excuse he probably found online. Meanwhile, the truth of the matter is almost certainly that he wanted to fuck other people.  It’s okay, He’s from Vegas… there isn’t much else to do there.  But in a show of solidarity, I would like to offer some of my more horrific medical-examiner-dating stories in the hopes she will draw comfort from the fact that she isn’t even remotely as hopeless as I am…

So Mel, this one’s for you.

You may wonder, first of all, why I’m writing this little blurb and not spending time with the hapless victim whom I am currently dating… well, to kick-off these stories of gross misfortune, I must confess that I recently had an abnormal PAP-SMEAR. My gyno scheduled my colposcopy for yesterday and the two of us spent a very intimate afternoon together as she lopped off parts of my cervix.  After this moment of togetherness, she informed me that sex was a no-no for at least a week… which puts something of a damper on the holiday, but it’s cool.  Even if she had told me that I was good to go for a  donkey ride post-procedure, I can’t imagine it would have gone well.  I picture my paramour flinging me down on the bed… romance novel style, and just as he’s about to put the banana in the fruit salad I would say something like,

“Mind the biopsy scabs, lover… these are new sheets you know…”

bloody sheets

Because that’s the kind of thing I would say… It’s the kind of thing I always say.

Don’t believe me?

-INCIDENT #1-

Once, I was really into this dude.

And he was really into me.

We were making out.

Sounds promising, right? But for the fact that I was an intrinsic part of this scenario and my capacity to completely fuck up virtually any situation is unlimited.

So we were kissing, and I must have had some kind of odd expression on my face, because in the midst of our heated breathing and unbridled pawing, he breathlessly asked me,

“Is it weird that I hold your face in my hands when I’m kissing you?”

I thought about it for a second and blurted out this little gem:

“Holding my face in your hands when you kiss me is only weird if the rest of my body isn’t attached when you do it.”

head.jpg

… which I think is a perfectly valid response.

Anyway, we’re not together anymore.

-INCIDENT #2-

So, as a medical examiner, I end up at a lot of really nasty scenes.  And the nastiest are always the scenes when the person has been dead for a while and, for whatever reason, no one noticed… until they started to smell.  These scenes are called “decomps” and they stick with you, literally.  There’s nothing quite like the stench of a rotting human corpse.  And once you smell it, you smell it for hours, sometimes DAYS.

Moreover, when you’ve recently been on a decomp, you become acutely aware of the scent of generalized decomposition everywhere around you.  Subliminally, everything smells like death… because EVERYTHING is in some state of decay… all the time.  It’s a fact of nature.

Never was this more in evidence to me than recently when I was on a date. Dude and I had been eating pizza and he’d had a couple of beers.  Afterwards he leaned in for a kiss and I almost re-introduced him to my dinner.  I shrank away from him as though he had dung beetles crawling out of his mouth. Why? Because I had recently been on a decomp at work, and this guy’s breath smelled … like death.

It just happens. We get bad breath because of the microscopic bits of food in our teeth.  Our breath is the smell of our body breaking down whatever we just ate… it’s the smell of decomposition.  Obviously it’s not the same as the scent of a rotting body… but it’s juuuuuuuuuuust similar enough.

Anyway, when this dude tried to kiss me, a knee-jerk, visceral chain-reaction occurred.  I squirmed away from him as my face wrinkled in disgust, Involuntarily, a whimper of revulsion wormed its way out of my mouth and I pushed Dude away with unmistakable finality.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, astonished.

I groped about for an explanation, even as I pulled him back to me for a hug in an attempt to deflect the awkwardness of my repugnance.

“Ummmm… it’s not you… it’s medical examiner problems.  I’m really sorry…”

Later that night, I sent him a lengthy text message and apology, exhaustively explaining the biological mechanics of what had happened.  And, believe it or not, he was actually cool with it.  Which means I can’t possibly go out with him again.  I mean what kind of person would be cool with that?

Weirdo.

-INCIDENT #3-

I could blame these personality glitches on my profession. But the fact is I’ve always been… not awesome… at this sort of thing.

Remember when I said that, even as a sullen teen I wanted the romantic gestures.  Well…

His name was Tom.  It was my freshman year of high school and he sat next to me in history. I don’t remember him showing any particular interest in me.  He didn’t ever strike up a conversation or register anything resembling a crush.  There was one incident in which the guy who sat on his other side in history made a huge show of telling me that Tom was into me… all the  while Tom swatted at him from his seat, in an attempt to shut him up.  When things settled down a bit, I told Tom, not to worry about it,  I didn’t believe that guy anyway.

crush

Tom didn’t look at me or offer any indication that he’d heard me.

That Valentine’s Day, I walked into history class in a huff. I was always in a huff. It was kind of my default setting as a teenager.  I used my huffs to poorly hide the fact that I was painfully insecure and being pissed off all the time felt slightly more powerful that just being pathetic.  I sat down at my desk briefly while the other students were milling about, and then got up for something, I don’t remember what. But when I came back, I found Tom was carefully placing a single Hershey’s kiss on my desk.

Our eyes met and he didn’t say anything, much like he hadn’t said anything to me for months.  A blush crept its crimson fingers across his face as he looked down. A pregnant pause followed.  I picked up the kiss and … a trilling purr of delight rumbled somewhere deep in my belly.  I looked at him, looked at the kiss, looked back at him… and… and…

“Did you find this on the floor?”

I asked him, matter-of-factly.  Because my teenaged huff was still in place and I didn’t know how to accept the idea that anyone could possibly like me… since I certainly didn’t like me.

Tom wordlessly shook his head.

“Thank you.” I said… my voice softening as I desperately tried to navigate how best to manage being liked.

I don’t think Tom and I spoke again.  The semester ended and he went on to date a cheerleader… meanwhile I retreated into the waiting, morose arms of the theater department.

But I remember him…

and I remember me…

…and it would appear not much has changed.

Except that now I’m a bit better at accepting that I’m likeable… I must be… after all

Mel, YOU like me…

and you’re one of the coolest people I’ve ever met.  So don’t worry about stupid-old-what’s-his-name in Las Vegas.  You will continue to kick all kinds of ass and he will almost certainly contract an STD.

So get back out there and embarrass yourself.

Make me proud.

600 Pablos

I’m not sure where I first heard this story…

… probably church.

It has that greeting-card, anecdotal type of sentiment that pastors like to employ when they want to dandle your heart on their knee like a dim-witted toddler.

Of course,  I still remember the story… and now I’m telling it to you, which would indicate that whatever pastor it was who planted this tale in my brain… he knew his business.  He must have made an impression because I still remember.  It goes like this:

A father and son had a falling out- I don’t recall the details.  I don’t think they matter.  It’s an old story, told a million times over: A father and son had a falling out over something.  Maybe it was money, or someone didn’t approve of someone else’s choices.  How many ways are there for a family to fracture? Anyway, the son’s name was Pablo.  I remember that much.

Pablo and his father went their separate ways… most likely after a torrent of angry words, accusations, resentments and so on… all stacking up like boxes of ugly memorabilia that no one wants, but can’t bring themselves to throw away.  Years go by and Pablo and his father soften, but don’t know how to go about reconciling.  They’ve lost touch. Phone numbers change, people move… and then move again… keep moving. The silvery-thin threads that connect them, disintegrate. Before they know it, Pablo and his father couldn’t reach one another even if they wanted to… and that’s the thing, they DO want to.  Each of them has, in turn, come to understand that the reasons for their rift are utterly unimportant.  Their aggravations and arguments are inconsequential when compared with the enormity of losing each other forever.

prodigal

a.k.a. “Pablo and his Dad

In desperation, one day, the father takes out a full-page ad in the newspaper.  “Pablo,” it reads. “All is forgiven.  Please come home.  Meet me in the town-square at noon on Sunday. -Papa”

That Sunday, the father goes to the town-square and he’s astonished to find no less than 600 men… all named Pablo, all looking for their fathers… all hoping to mend the schism.

Such is the human desire for reconciliation… for forgiveness… for connection.

600 Pablos.

Maybe that’s why I remember the story so well.  It occurred to me that if I should ever find myself in a band (again), I’d want to name it “600 Pablos”.

Anyway,

It’s the holidays.  At the medical examiner’s office, that usually only means one thing: every death we deal with is going to be worse than usual.  Every relationship we encounter is going to have its temperature set to “high”.  The pressure is on.  Thanksgiving is just disappearing in our rear-view, and soon comes Christmas and New Year’s and all the anger and desolation that is intrinsic to either having a family… or not having one.  I think the worst calls of my career have always happened on holidays, not necessarily because the calls themselves were so different or traumatic, but rather because during the calls, you realize that THIS holiday will forever be ruined for THIS family because it will always be tainted by THIS death.

deaths xmas

… he knows if you’ve been bad or good…

One time I had a dude commit suicide the day before Thanksgiving.  He shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle in his garage and his teen-aged son found him like that:  Skull fragments, brain matter and blood everywhere.  Obviously, the family was inconsolable.  The wife was particularly angry.  Her rage ballooned with every question I asked her during our regrettably mandatory interview.  She became so incensed that periodically during our discussion, she would pause to punch her dead husband’s driver’s license that lay on the kitchen table where the police had left it after retrieving it from his pocket.

“HOW could YOU do THIS to US?!” she hollered as she slammed her fist against his I.D. photo.

The hardest part was the teen-aged son, though. At one point he pulled me aside and asked if it was possible that someone else may have shot his father. I asked him why he would suspect such a thing and he told me that he saw small holes in the closed garage door when he found his dad.  Could those holes be bullet holes?  Is it possible that someone was firing a gun elsewhere and the bullets ripped through the garage door and killed his father?

I had to tell him that, no… those holes in the garage door were NOT stray bullet holes.  They were, in fact, made by his father’s skull fragments as his cranium was blown to smithereens by a self-inflicted, close-range, high-powered projectile.

Anyway… stuffing anyone?

thanksgiving.png

Another year I had a murder/suicide on Thanksgiving morning.  While the rest of the world was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, this dude was shooting his ex-girlfriend as she moved out of their shared home… then he shot himself. This whole scenario would have been bad enough as it was, however, when police arrived at the scene following a panicked neighbor’s call, they had no way of knowing if the shooter was still alive in the home.  Subsequently, their remedy was to fumigate the residence with tear-gas in an attempt to smoke the guy out.  They must have fired at least 6 canisters into the 2-bedroom home… all completely useless because everyone in the residence was dead except for the dog- who was found hiding under the bed.  And even though the cops opened all the windows for ventilation after they gained access to the house, it was still impossible to walk into that place without having your eyes water-up, your nose start leaking like a sieve and your throat lock up tighter than an angry fist.

Yes, for Thanksgiving dinner that year, I got a face-full of tear-gas.

Yet more than gruesome calls and overly-enthusiastic SWAT tactics, what we deal with on holidays are unresolved issues.  People are mired in thought about their family… and they’re desperately missing their departed, which prompts lots of calls to our office to discuss… things. I’m not sure, but I think it makes people feel closer to their loved ones when they make contact with the investigator and re-hash all the circumstances regarding their death.  People want to hear the story again, make sure we didn’t miss anything… or make sure they didn’t miss anything… or make sure there haven’t been any new developments.  I once had a woman call me up on Christmas Day to ask me if I was absolutely certain that her son’s death was a suicide and he wasn’t actually murdered by the “Mexicans” who had been moving into town lately.  She actually asked me that, hissing the word, “Mexicans” the way some old-world gypsy woman would say “Trolls” or “Vampires.”  And while, realistically, I couldn’t address her blatant racism, I was able to assure her that her son’s death had been a suicide by hanging and he hadn’t been strung up by an angry mob of any particular ethnicity.

All of these episodes taken into account, though, I can’t help but feel that we’re in for something different this year, namely because 2017 is the year our office met Beatrice.

Realistically, only one of us has actually “met” Beatrice.  She showed up at the scene of a fatal motor-vehicle accident that my co-worker, Henry, was fielding.  But more about that later…

Beatrice is an elderly woman who started calling the medical examiner’s office roundabout early spring.  No one is really sure how she got our number or what originally started her on her campaign… but every time there is a deceased male anywhere in the county, Beatrice calls to see if it’s her son.

We don’t know much about Beatrice, but we’ve managed to figure out a few things. We know that Beatrice must have a police scanner, or she is connected to some kind of web-site or app that allows her to listen to dispatch because she’s always on point about calling whenever a male dead body is found. Furthermore, we also figure Beatrice is at least partially cognizant of how odd her calls are, because a little research on the part of our secretary uncovered that she was warned off calling the police or the fire department anymore… making the medical examiner’s office her only hope. The calls commenced like a flash flood. At first there was nothing- just your normal, everyday benign business at the office one day.  And the next day our phone was squawking like an angry crow… announcing an onslaught of voicemails, because Beatrice had found us.

Furthermore, when Beatrice calls, she doesn’t just call once, she’ll keep calling until someone calls her back.  Now, doing the math on that concept really quick:  Our county is scrambling towards a population of 700,000 souls. Assume that roughly half of those souls are men. Then take into account the fact that women live longer than men and as a rule, men are statistically more at risk for heart disease, alcoholism, auto-accidents and so on and so on. This means that most of the calls our office gets are to report the deaths of men… Well, nowadays, the rest of the calls our office gets are from Beatrice, wondering if any of those dead men are her son.  And dealing with Beatrice’s calls and voicemails is turning into a full-time job

Now, let’s also remember that there’s only one medical examiner on duty at a time.  If that medical examiner is busy… you know… doing their JOB.  They may not call Beatrice back for a few hours.  Consequently, her repeat calls come faster and faster, always with a building sense of irritation and urgency.

The messages always start out the same:

“Hello, this is Beatrice Peterson. Please call me back at **********.”

Sounds pretty unassuming, right?  Nothing to be worried about here.

Then comes:

“Hello, this is Beatrice Peterson. I called earlier. I need a call back.”

“Hello, Beatrice Peterson call me back.”

“Hello, I don’t know why no one is calling me back. I need to know who died today.”

Sometimes, she’ll catch on that we’re not prioritizing her call and she’ll start giving alternate names and numbers, hoping that we won’t recognize her voice.

“Hello, this is Betty Johnson.  Please call me back at *completely different number than the one she left in the previous 4 messages.*

Now, I know what you’re thinking, Why not just talk to her and get it over with? Well, we would, but for the fact that sometimes when she calls, we’re kind of in the middle of something.  We may be explaining to a young mother how her baby died.  We may be discussing details of a homicide with a detective.  We may be in the fucking bathroom.  Sometimes we just can’t answer the goddamnned phone.  And when we finally DO call her back, Beatrice suddenly becomes evasive and vague… demanding information, but refusing to give any in return.  It goes like this:

“Hello, this is the Oswald County Medical Examiner, returning your call.”

“Hello, I want to know the identity of the person who was found dead on Main street this morning.”

“Well ma’am, the medical examiner’s office never releases the identity of any of our decedents.  That information comes from the Police Department’s Public Information Officer.  And they won’t release a name until the next of kin has been notified.”

“… But you know who it is?”

“Yes ma’am, I do.”

Well… I need to know.”

“And why is that?”

“Well, I just need to know.”

“I told you, no public information is released from this office.”

“Well, can you tell me if he’s white?”

“Ma’am…”

“What about his age? Can you tell me how old he is?”

“Ma’am, why do you need to know this?”

“I just want to know if it’s my son. I’m so worried about him.”

“Well, what’s your son’s name?”

And this is where it gets weird.  She refuses to give us her son’s name.  I’m a crack-shot when it comes to finding people.  I’ve found the biological parents of adopted children, I’ve found half-siblings who were completely unaware that they HAD any other family.  I’ve found estranged spouses who were living in foreign countries where no one spoke English.  I’m great at skip-tracing.  So at one point, it occurred to me that if I could find Beatrice’s son, maybe we could reunite them and then she’d stop calling us.

Problem is, Beatrice won’t give up the goods.

“I understand you’re wondering if the dead person is your son, can you tell me your son’s name?”

“Oh… uh, I just need to know the name of the dead person…”

“Yes, I know, because you’re worried it’s your son…”

“Yes.”

“Well what’s your son’s name?”

This is where she typically hangs up.  Or the story starts changing.  One time I told her I wanted to help her find her son, and she responded that she knew where he was, but just didn’t want to bother him.  Another time she told me he was homeless and could be anywhere.

Still another time, Henry was on the scene of a man’s death and as he describes it, some ragged-looking crazy woman showed up at the scene, wild-eyed, frantic and asking everyone who the dead person was.  At first Henry dismissed her until she got close enough for him to hear her voice.  Only then did he realize that Beatrice had taken her crusade to the streets.

“She looked exactly the way you’d imagine,” he told me later. “Her hair was all ratted out in every direction and I think she was wearing a night-gown.”

We needed to talk about Beatrice.

In our little office pow-wow, we decided something needed to be done… but no one was sure what COULD be done. She seemed to exhibit signs of dementia, yet she was aware enough to withhold information.  She wasn’t calling 911, just our office, so she wasn’t breaking any laws or rules… nor could we accuse her of abusing the emergency system. And while she’s undeniably inconvenient, she’s not threatening or even rude.  So we’ve more less realized there’s nothing we can do but wait for her to either turn her attention elsewhere or… well… die.

funny_granny

*not actually a photo of Beatrice

Thanksgiving is gone and Christmas is coming.  It’s the goddamnned holidays and I’m thinking about Beatrice. She’s on my mind because I have no doubt her usual call volume is going to increase exponentially with every passing day.  But she’s also on my mind because I fear I identify so closely with her right now.  The termites of loneliness are chewing on my foundation and I’m feeling a little… unstable.

I’ve been divorced for 2 years now, and 4 boyfriends have come and gone since then.  The latest guy was sweet, attentive, funny, intelligent… and a convicted felon… A small detail he conveniently forgot to reveal for about two months… right up until I started asking questions that didn’t have easy answers.  So I just ran his criminal history and 7 mug-shots later… that was the end of that (I’m a fucking investigator.  Did he think I wouldn’t find out?)

My father died a few years back.  My mom remarried.  My brother has his wife and kids. They’re all out-of-state and occupied with their suburban dream. I’ve got good friends, but everyone has their own thing going on… their own relationships to tend to.  I don’t have any kids- and I likely never will… but if I did, this is probably when I would start making calls to them, weird, frantic calls.  This is where I would start reaching out a hand to see if anyone’s there to take it. This is where I would start getting scared.

It’s weird how and where and when you find yourself alone…

empty

…Something like falling asleep on the subway and waking up to find everyone else got off 2 stops ago and it’s so quiet.  It’s so quiet that maybe you start calling out to see if anyone at all is with you.

Listen, do me a favor.  This holiday season, do something for me… as I sit in the office fielding phone calls from Beatrice and a host of other broken, remorseful people.

Bury the hatchet.

Mend the fences.

Bridge the gap.

Just call them- whoever is weighing on you- whoever it is you’ve been thinking about- whoever your pride has pushed away. Call them.

Do it for your local medical examiner.

Do it for Beatrice

Do it for 600 guys named Pablo… wandering around in some un-named town-square somewhere,

all searching for their fathers.

 

Comedy and Tragedy

It was about as funny as it wasn’t…

… which describes most of my experiences as a medical examiner.  It also describes most of my experiences as a human, but I always had kind of a twisted sense of humor. Just ask all of those agents who refuse to publish me because my writing is “too irreverent” or “disrespectful of people’s tragedies”.

Whatever

Sometimes you have to laugh because it’s the only option.  And I totally respect other people’s tragedies because I’ve had plenty of my own… I’ve laughed at all of them… right after I cried so much I thought my chest was going to split open as brands of fire spilled out.

catastrophe

a picture of me, having a meltdown from outer space

I’d had a day full of coagulated deaths; deaths so logistically and physically sticky that it took hours to thread through all of the bureaucratic knot-work involved, even as I did my best to wipe the residue of mortality off my metaphysical shoes.  We, in America, make death so complicated that it’s about as funny as it’s not.

Anyway, I was sitting at my desk, having finally cleared from two separate death scenes that had both been particularly tedious. I don’t remember any specifics now… namely because of what was about to happen. I was just sitting down to the tidal wave of resulting paperwork when my pager went off.  I called the number and found myself on the phone with state police dispatch.

“Hey, we’re wondering if you have an ETA for the accident on Highway 30”

“Ummmm, what accident on Highway 30?” I responded.

“Well I paged the officer’s number out to you almost 2 hours ago…”

I glanced at my pager, I HAD gotten a page two hours earlier, but when I called the number, it had gone straight to voicemail.  The outgoing message had stated that, “-the person’s voicemail box has not been set up yet.” I had dismissed it, figuring that if it was important, the person would call back. Which, I suppose, now they were.

I explained this problem to dispatch trying to keep my irritation under control.  It is a faux pas of epic proportion to miss a scene call, and the sinking feeling I experience when I find out that this has happened roughly resembles the legendary, black-out drop on the Space Mountain roller coaster at Disney World.  It’s the kind of situation I get called into my supervisor’s office to explain after any number of dispatchers and officers call to gripe about our shitty professionalism.  Write-ups and warnings abound… and rightly so.  It’s my fucking job to be available for these things.

angry boss

“You guys… You KNOW that if we don’t respond to a call within 15 minutes of a page, you’re supposed to call BACK.”

I was pissed. No way in hell was I taking the heat for this one.

The dispatcher stuttered and fumbled, then transferred me to her supervisor.  I explained the situation over again and the supervisor put me on hold for a few minutes before coming back on the line and telling me that the motor vehicle accident on highway 30 was in such a remote area that there was no cell phone coverage.

“We’ve got a new trooper out there and I think he’s feeling a little overwhelmed. He didn’t know to call back when he didn’t hear from you. we’ll explain it to him.”

I re-packed my freshly un-packed scene-bag and mounted up for a drive into the remote foothills of my county… for a head-on semi-truck-vs-panel-truck motor vehicle accident that was two hours old and getting older. I was preparing the little come-to-Jesus talk I was going to have with this noob state trooper when I got there: stern, but not too salty. After all, this was probably the first time he’d seen a catastrophic death and it made sense he might be a little squirrly.

However, when I got to the scene…. now 3 hours after that initial page… I was approached by none other than state trooper Nicholson- who is one of my favorite people.  Trooper Nicholson and I rescued a dog together who had been locked in a garage alone for a month after his owner died in the house.  It was a miracle the dog was still alive and both Nicholson and I had almost burst into tears when the beautiful Rottweiler had huddled his gaunt frame up to us, grateful for his first contact with other living beings in 33 days.

Nicholson is not only one of my favorite people, he’s also 7 months away from retirement.

“Uh… HEY!” I cheered as he approached. “Um, dude, sorry it took me so long to respond. When I tried to call the number back I couldn’t get through.  I guess there’s no reception up here and I only got that one page two hours ago. You know you can call me back if you don’t hear from me after 15 minutes, right?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” he chuckled. “We had plenty to keep us busy here.  And I did ask dispatch to call you back.  I wonder what happened.”

“Well, um… Dispatch told ME that the trooper onscene was a newbie and didn’t know to call back…”

Trooper Nicholson stared at me in disbelief.  I squirmed under his gaze like a freshly salted slug… shrugging and chuckling awkwardly… because it was funny.. about as funny as it wasn’t.  And I reflected to myself that I wasn’t sure if that burning smell was from the scorched out semi truck on the side of the road, or from Nicholson’s hair, curling up and smoking as his face turned a wrathful garnet-red.

“They… said… what?”

I smiled weakly and made some inane comment about, “what’s the sound of a buck being passed”.

“Uh, yeah, anyway… tell me what’s going on here.” I turned to survey the damage which was… profound.  There was the burned up semi-truck on the shoulder, as I mentioned before.  But that wasn’t my focus.  Reportedly THAT driver had been airlifted to the downtown hospital and was doing just swimmingly.

My date was with the panel truck that sat in the center of the two-lane highway, split open like a busted melon.  The debris field was… substantial, easily covering nearly one hundred yards of pavement before me: shattered glass, broken plastic fragments and hunks of unidentifiable machinery. It all speckled the asphalt like a Jackson Pollack painting.  In the middle of it all, there was a yellow tarp.

Nicholson explained as I gingerly tip-toed through the hodgepodge: “So… witnesses say the panel truck veered into the oncoming lane.  The truck was going about 50.  The semi was coming down the hill in the opposite lane, going maybe 60?  The panel truck crossed into the oncoming lane… there’s that steep grade on the side of the road there and the semi didn’t have anywhere to go… so… OOP,” he hiccuped as I stepped over the yellow tarp. “Yeah, one of the guy’s arms is under there.  Anyway, most of the rest of him is still in the cab… what’s left of it.”

“Most of the rest of…” I stuttered. And then I saw it.

There was carnage scattered around in the mess. Chunks of flesh were sprinkled here and there amongst the wreckage.  There was so much… meat on the highway it boggled the mind.  It looked as if the guy had exploded.  There was a pile of muscle to my right, another scrap of sinew to my left.  And over there was… a… plastic bag, split open… with a few hunks of carrion spilling out the side? And I realized…

The panel truck had been a food delivery truck.

Upon impact, dozens of boxes of raw chicken and pork had burst out the yawning tear in the truck.  The boxes had detonated when they hit the ground and literally bestrew the debris field with… well… debris. We were surrounded by errant breast fillets and stray tenderloins… It had all tumbled and scuffed along the ground, getting covered in dirt and leaves, until each species of gore was virtually indistinguishable from the other.  The only thing that could be definitively identified as belonging to our driver, was the severed arm underneath the tarp.

And I burst out laughing…

…because it was funny

…about as funny as it wasn’t.

Nicholson, next to me, wrestled back his wide grin, momentarily forgetting how he’d been done dirty by dispatch.  “I know, right?” He chortled, “you can’t make this stuff up.”

“Oh my GOD,” I gasped. “This is so fucking wrong.”

I took a couple deep breaths and stepped over a tangle of snarled noodles that were hemorrhaging out of a box nearby as I moved to survey the truck driver still in the cab.  That’s where the laughter drifted away.  The guy had died on impact… thankfully.  He never felt a thing.  He had lost a leg as well, it was tangled in the seat mechanism beneath him.  And he lay sideways across the seat… eyes closed… almost peaceful. It was tragic, deeply tragic. He was young… tattooed… bearded.  He looked like so many of my friends…

I looked up the road to make out the skid marks that would communicate the lines of travel that the semi had made as he swerved, hoping to avoid the truck.  Up the road I saw the police tape stretched across the road and a legion of curious drivers, all, trapped by the accident, stuck waiting for us to move it out of their path.  Necks were craned and eyes were alert. All of them were angling to catch a glimpse of the deceased driver as he lay, barely shielded by the crooked-hanging passenger-side door.

The rage blossomed through my mind like a mushroom cloud.

“Somebody fucking do something about those goddamnned lookie-loos,” I snapped, gesturing violently toward the crowd.  They were far enough away that they couldn’t hear me, but I have no doubt they could see the flailing motions of my arms as I cursed their curiosity.  One of the department of transportation guys nearby began ambling up the hill towards the onlookers.  I could see him hollering at the people and their lukewarm response to his commands.  They each took a couple of steps back, but remained well within eye-shot of the scene, having no intention of missing the “main event” when we pulled the broken driver out of the truck.  I became even more incensed and began stomping my way up the hill, intent on delivering a scalding diatribe as soon as I reached them… a diatribe that included the phrase: “THIS MAN DID NOT DIE FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT!”

It appeared they caught sight of me bearing down on them because the whole sordid lot scrambled back to their cars as though they were being set upon by a swarm of killer bees.  I slowed my pace and stood, hands on hips, between the crowd and the accident, shouting at the slow-movers “KEEP WALKING!!!” as they meandered out of sight. Turning back to the accident, I noted another state trooper nearby.  One I had worked with before, but didn’t know personally.  Our eyes met and his mouth twisted in a barely contained smile.

“I was going to tell them to bug out, but I kinda wanted to see you mad.”

Funny guy.

We had to call the fire department back to the scene to get the driver out.  It was a long process. I ended up helping and received a massive splash of blood on my leg that soaked through and wet my skin.  Then we had to do a shoulder-to-shoulder-walk of the debris field, playing a gruesome game of “Chicken, Pork or Human”… I was the referee.

I know… funny… not funny.

Attempts to get an address for his Next of Kin was impossible.  He had just started working for the truck company and his supervisor barely knew him… when asked if there was emergency contact listed on his hiring paperwork, he told us the office was closed until Monday… then shrugged with indifference.  As I was finally leaving, with the truck driver on his way to the morgue and his cell-phone tucked into my pocket in the hopes I might manage to find his family, one of the DOT guys stopped me.

“Hey, aren’t you going to take a fortune cookie?” He asked, pointing at the ground.  The truck had apparently been making a delivery to an Asian restaurant, because hundreds of fortune cookies lay at my feet… some crushed, some intact. “We’re all taking one…” he coaxed.

I shrugged, picked up a fortune cookie, cracked it open and glanced at the words from the hereafter.

“Cool man, I’ll catch you later,” I said to him. I hugged Nicholson goodbye and reminded him to invite me to his retirement party… seeing as how he was a newbie and all.  Climbing into my county truck, I headed back into civilization, hoping to finally start my paperwork and maybe go home to eat.

I didn’t sleep that night.

When I did manage to sit down, I spent the next hour combing through the truck driver’s phone, trying to disseminate which numbers were his family or friends. The names were all nick-names and there weren’t any text messages.  Finally, desperate to notify someone before midnight, I called the most frequently dialed number in his phone and ended up speaking to his fiancee.  It was a horrific notification.  When I told her, she screamed, choked, cried.  Her heart-crushing sobs floated through my apartment even though she wasn’t on speaker-phone. My roommates in the living-room stared wide-eyed through the kitchen door, clearly able to hear the wrenching sounds of her devastation.

Even after that call, it wasn’t over.  I had three more calls that night.  I don’t really remember them, I only remember that at 5 a.m., with three hours left of my shift, it hardly seemed worth it to go back home. Instead, I staggered back into my office and finally began hacking away at the jungle of documentation that has been amassing for the last 48 hours.  I sent my counselor an email stating that I wouldn’t be at group therapy that morning, even though I probably needed it more than ever. but I wouldn’t have time to go home and change beforehand and I didn’t think the others would be so keen to see me walk into a group therapy with blood all over me… even if I assured them it wasn’t mine.  At one point I logged into Facebook and happily saw that my boyfriend of three months was online.  “Hi!” I typed to Darkhorse (as he shall forever be known to you) “How was your night?” (He’s a bartender at a local watering hole and eatery)

“It was incredibly stressful…” he typed back.  Launching into a story about how busy he had been. A customer complained about him and his passive aggressive co-worker refused to bring him fresh silverware when he asked for it because the co-worker thought that Darkhorse’s tone was rude.

“Wow,” I typed back… “that sounds… rough…”

I know… funny… because it was… and wasn’t…

He didn’t say much more. He was grumpy and didn’t sound particularly interested in how my shift had been.  He told me he thought he was getting sick and logged out.

I had no idea that I wasn’t ever going to see him again, at least not in any way that I expected.

Darkhorse’s sickness extended through the next few days.  We cancelled plans to go out of town on an overnight trip upstate. I was exhausted and his sickness had taken pretty serious hold.  He told me that he just wanted to rest and “cough up his lungs”.  I offered to make him soup and show him movies if he came over. He declined.  I was okay with it… I had to go out of town for a family thing and didn’t particularly want to catch anything.  But then a few days stretched into a week.  Darkhorse’s messages thinned out to a trickle.  A sentence here and there, a greeting, a video of some cats.  Then one day went by… then two… with no contact whatsoever.

I reached out to him a couple of times… jokingly asking if he was still alive- because in my world, when people stop calling it’s because they’re dead.  I asked him if everything was okay, was there anything I needed to know.  No, he said, he was just tired and sick. He loved me, he missed me, everything was fine.

Then five days went by. The unease was starting to gnaw at me.  The two of us had been inseparable right up until that night of that awful shift. We had been happily bashing around the city for weeks. He had taken me to my doctor’s appointments, we had played card games, binge-watched TV shows on Netflix.  He had seemed delighted to regularly crash at my place for four days at a time. And now, it felt as though a light had suddenly burned out. I was groping around in the dark, trying to find the hand I had just been holding.  I was trying to be patient and give him space, knowing that he was a bit introverted. Also, I was out of state with my family and maybe he was just giving me time away.  We had been spending an awful lot of time together, maybe we just needed to recharge our batteries and pay more attention to our own lives, after all… you can’t live in the honeymoon phase forever.

At the end of those five days, I messaged him on facebook again, I would be coming home from my brother’s place the next day and I just wanted to check in.  “What’s going on?” I had said.

“I’m terrified,” he responded… a number of hours later. “I don’t know how strong I am for this.”

I was confused and hurt… telling him that his distance and silence had compelled me to believe that our relationship was over… much like that shift, I don’t remember a lot of what was said… but the gist…

“I’m afraid you’re going to die.  I’m not strong enough for this”

“You’re breaking up with me because I have cancer?”

He was breaking up with me because I have cancer…

I do… have cancer.  If you’re just joining the story now, the fact is I have cancer… a rare variant of a rare form of cancer.  It manifests as an intermittent rash on my face and neck.  I’ve had two rounds of radiation therapy and the rash still comes back, itchy and demanding as a backwoods cousin on meth.  It’s not systemic right now, but that’s all we really know.  Doctors tell me that they can’t say with any reliability what’s going to happen, but as far as they can tell it’s just going to be an aggravation that has to be managed and there’s no reason to think that I won’t live a normal life span… still you never know.

You never know…

Just like you never know if you’re going to be run over by a car… or you never know if you have a malformed vessel in your brain that could rupture at any time… you never know when you’re going to distractedly veer into an oncoming lane and get hit, head-on, by a semi… but I can tell you how it feels when you do.

It feels like that conversation.

This isn’t the first time.

I was married when I first got diagnosed.  My husband was an introvert, too.  He was so introverted that he completely ignored my disease until, finally, I asked him one day how he felt about it. What did he think? What should we do? Again, I was groping around in the dark, trying to find the hand I had just been holding.  My husband stared at his feet for a second, looked up without meeting my gaze and said, “I’m not comfortable with that question.” And even though he was physically present, I never saw him again, at least not in any way that I expected.

Our marriage never recovered from that conversation.

The very next relationship, I was breaking it off because we lived in different states and straddling the two locations was making me crazy and exhausted.  I was sorry but I just couldn’t maintain the connection.

“You know, Grace,” he had barked at me petulantly, “You don’t look that good on paper… you’re divorced… you have CANCER…”  pointing out that I should be grateful that he was willing to take me on with all my… flaws.

Then there’s my last relationship, the one with the verbally abusive bipolar who, during his particularly bad spin-outs, would wield my disease like a mace, brutally bashing me back and forth, telling me that he didn’t know what I was so upset about. HE was the one taking on all the risk in this relationship… seeing as how I had cancer.

Now… someone just couldn’t bear to watch me die of cancer, he just wasn’t strong enough for it.  “I do love you…” he typed.

What followed was a jumbled onslaught of messages from me… dazed… crushed… flailingly trying to make sense of what I had just been told. I’m not sure what I said, but I know I’m not proud of it.  When I finally got my wits about me, I told him that I was sorry for not being more compassionate towards his fears… it makes sense, it’s scary to lose someone.  I feared the same thing… He never responded

He did this over facebook.

and I apologized for my lack of compassion…

Funny, right?

I’ve laughed as much as I’ve cried.  I’ve laughed when my friends have threatened to stuff him in a crematory.  I’ve laughed at myself for being so messed up over anyone who could do something like that. I’ve laughed at the sheer absurdity and likely falsity of his argument… I love you, I can’t stand to watch you die… even though I’m not dying.  Chances are he’ll die long before I do. I should know, I’m a medical examiner for fuck sake.  It’s what I do.

And I think about it… that last shift that I thought I was okay, that I was loved… that I belonged somewhere and with someone. It’s funny how I feel like both of them at the same time… the driver… torn to pieces by a sudden impact that he never saw coming.  But I’m also his fiancee, somehow still breathing, left alone in the desolate aftermath… my roommates, staring wide-eyed through the kitchen door.

wreck

And I still have that fortune, the one I picked up at the scene, tangled up in the wreckage. I stuck it to the refrigerator and I see it several times a day… and it’s funny…

… about as funny as it isn’t.

“A found penny will bring you good luck!”

A penny…

…well… that’s something to look forward to…

I haven’t found it yet.