50 Shades of Dysfunction

So, you may not believe me, but I actually saw this wretched movie…

Not the newly released sequel, mind you, but the first one: “50 Shades of Grey”

a.k.a.

“Dysfunctional Codependency 101”

50-shades

I’d hate to admit it, but I read the book, too.

I wasn’t so much interested in the whole bondage scene, so much as I was wondering what all the excitement was about.  Women everywhere were fawning over this smouldering anti-hero, Christian Grey.  The BDSM community was up-in-arms about the misrepresentation of their life-style and a bunch of my Christian friends and family members were clutching their blouses in horror and writing lengthy, self-righteous Facebook posts about how disgraceful it is to indulge in fantasies about men other than your husband.

I figured anything that garnered that kind of controversy and excitement deserved a look.

So I purchased the e-book on itunes and sat down for a little somethin’somethin’ with American literature’s most talked about sadist.

Long story short, it was drivel… I mean… high-school-creative-writing-class-bad. I honestly kept reading it out of sheer outrage that something so deplorably vapid could actually turn a profit.  That got me through the first chapter.  I spent the rest of the book fantasizing… not about kinky sex with a 27-year-old billionaire, but fantasizing about rewriting and editing the text to actually make it a halfway (in)decent read.

I remain flabbergasted by the notion that such inane garbage could actually get published while I’m struggling to get any agent to read my stories about the Mighty American Death Machine.

Anyway, after I read the book, I watched the movie… and you know what?

The movie wasn’t half bad.

It wasn’t “A Lion In Winter” or anything, but I actually enjoyed it to some degree, for a few reasons.  First off, Jamie Dornan is definitely not too hard on the eyes.  However he makes a much more convincing serial killer than romantic lead. ( If you don’t believe me, look up “The Fall” on Netflix) Secondly, Dakota Johnson actually has some talent for wandering through a scene looking bewildered and uncomfortable… which was exactly what her role called for. Nice work, casting director.

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Anyway, probably my favorite part of the movie was the ending.  And for those of you who haven’t seen this cinematic travesty, let me illuminate you:  After a weeks long campaign of stalking, intimidation and abuse that, really, should have resulted in a restraining order… Anastasia Steele decides that she simply cannot abide Christian Grey’s kink… and she walks out on him.

That’s it.

And while it may not seem terribly revolutionary to anyone else, I wanted to give our heroine a standing ovation… right there in my pajamas as I watched this literary swill play itself out on my ipad.

Of course, tragically, the series continues with the next installment in which the two of them get right back together before Anastasia even has the time to wash him out of her bed sheets… which is a damn shame but I can’t say I haven’t done the same… several times.  But that brings me to my point….

What the fuck are we doing?

I remember going to see “Phantom of the Opera” with my father when I was a tender 16 years old.  I was unbelievably enamored with the romance of it all; the phantom’s tragic genius, dancing inside his gloriously dark midnight-mind like the aurora borealis… the soul-ripping music that bled from his broken heart like a hemorrhage of magic falling from the stars… The love… The poetry… The allure of a magnificently tortured soul, as breathtaking as the crush of a fatal impact. I loved it. And when Christine decided to abandon the phantom to his dismal solitude beneath the Paris opera house, I cried my starry little teenaged eyes out.  How could she leave him?  He was soooo grotesquely beautiful.

I also remember when Beauty and the Beast came out in theaters… obviously not the live action one that was released just last week, but the animated one that, in it’s brilliance, received an Oscar nod as well as a subsequent stage adaptation that has been running for … well… I’m not sure, but probably decades.  I saw that damn movie nine times in the theater. NINE TIMES… IN THE THEATER.  That doesn’t even begin to touch the number of times I saw it after a friend bought it for  me on VHS. (Yes, VHS. I’m dating myself, I know.) I was obsessed with that story, too.  I strongly identified with the lead character who was a painfully misunderstood girl who read too much and couldn’t fit in.  And, of course, I LOOOOVED the LOVE story.  With her love Belle transformed the selfish, enraged, monstrous beast into a loving, tender prince and they lived happily ever after. Yay for love!

I could go on.  There are innumerable tales, loads of movies, countless books.  Hell, even the great classic “Pride and Prejudice” features a love affair between our spunky, whip-smart Elizabeth Bennett and the dashingly dour Mr. Darcy… a man who is, quite frankly, a judgemental, imperious prick who refuses to dance with Elizabeth in the first chapter, proclaiming derisively to his cronies that she, along with all the other women present, is “barely tolerable”.

I’m 40 now, and recently, I went to see “Phantom” again.  It was just as evocative and excruciating as ever.  But this time when Christine high-tailed it out of the opera house, leaving the Phantom to his dank isolation.  I wasn’t quite as heartbroken and maybe just a little exhilarated… a little vindicated… and a part of me wanted to get up and yell after her, “Run faster, girl! You can make it! That guy’s a complete psycho!”

Because he was.

phantom

Coming at it from the other side of 25 years later, I realize “Phantom of the Opera” wasn’t a love story.  It’s the story of a young woman who is being manipulated and slowly driven insane by a crazed (and brilliant) narcissistic sociopath who uses her childhood trauma to exploit and, ultimately, try to consume her. That’s not love.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a story of a young woman who, depending on the version you’re reading, is held captive by a vicious, maladjusted, shut-in who intends to steal her life away and make her fall in love with him so he can escape from his own twisted situation. That’s not love.

“50 Shades of Grey” is a story of a young woman who is completely inexperienced and naive.  She is seduced by a sadomasochistic nut-job (whose only real attribute is his fabulous wealth)  who is obsessed with the notion of owning and controlling her. One more time… louder for the folks in back… THAT’S NOT LOVE.

And we are doing ourselves and our children a massive disservice by telling them that it is.

My tirade isn’t only inspired by the recent release of many of these movies.  The other day I was working out at my gym and a song came on the sound system.  It’s a senselessly vapid little ditty, sung by some pouty-mouthed ding-bat in a leotard.  “When love huuurts… baby… yeah that’s how you know it’s REAL!” she croons through a synthetic swamp of over-produced auto-tune.

jojo

“when love hurts… baby, yeah that’s how you know it’s time to reassess your values and maybe think about getting some counseling.”

And THAT ladies and gentlemen is the crux of the problem. We (both men and women) have been led to believe that intensity and emotional turmoil are love.  We enter and entertain relationships that are damaging and dangerous because we believe that the “high” we feel from a flooded limbic system is “ever after” calling us forward from our mauve, hum-drum lives to embrace a vibrant and passionately tumultuous existence.  It’s a crock of horse-shit and we need to stop… seriously, we need to stop.

Because my tirade is also inspired by something else…

Remember “Beauty and the Beast”? That movie I saw nine times in the theater? Well one of those times I saw that movie, I was with my best friend, Theresa. She loved it just as much as I did. We clung to each other in delighted sophomoric ecstasy. We laughed, we cried, we agreed it was the BEST MOVIE EVER!

Hers was the first dead body I ever saw.

A few months after we saw that movie together, Theresa took up with some guy whose name I don’t even remember. His name doesn’t matter. He was “that guy”. The one who shows up with the saucy smile and the cigarette between his teeth.  He also showed up with a blunt and a wandering eye. Theresa fell desperately in love with this little shit stain and when he cheated on her a few months later, she killed herself.

Sixteen years old… Just like that.

I remember her funeral… And all of us there, children. Stacked up in the church pews with our eyes as wide as a virgin moon. We were dazed, terrified, baffled. Had this really happened? Was this really happening? It was an open casket. Theresa had dyed her blonde hair jet black and her roots had been growing out. Her face was green. That’s what I remember.

And I wonder about it now. What if? What if she had called me before she took the pills? What if we had seen a different movie or listened to different music? What if someone, somewhere had definitively assured Theresa that this relationship was absolutely NOT the most important thing that would ever happen to her?

Maybe she’d be here with me… Laughing at long-lost what’s-his-name with his stupid smile and his even more stupid cigarette…

Intensity and chaos are not passion… they’re intensity and chaos.  Yet young women are being bombarded with this message from highly stylized pop-culture.  They’re being told to sacrifice their own well-being and sanity in the name of love… with the assurance and everything will turn out great… Furthermore, they’re being told that failing to sacrifice themselves means that they are some kind of a banal, inhibited coward.

wonder

The fact of the matter is, women die because of this message.  Not only do they end up beaten to death, shot, strangled… (I’ve seen all of these situations).  They die to their values when they abandon their own moral compass in order to keep the peace with a lover.  They die to their identities when they ignore their own life in order to fit into the twisted contortion that’s required to make an impossible relationship work.  They die to their hopes and dreams by becoming a satellite to another person’s ego.  They die to their friends and families when they slowly disappear from activities and events… either because they’re too tired, too stressed out, too pressured or too ashamed of what they’ve become

They die to themselves, when they capitulate to this madness and become a hollowed-out receptacle where a broken man stores all his self-loathing.

Leaving is brave.

Self-preservation is sexy.

Fighting for yourself is passion…

Relationships are difficult… relationships take work… and all that psycho-babble.  But if you’re with someone who regularly treats you like shit and you hate yourself as a result…

You’re not the heroine in a love-story for the ages…

You’ve been had.

It’s okay, we’ve all been had at one point or another.

So turn off the romantic tragedies. Ignore the wailing advice of insipid pop-stars on the radio. Don’t take advice from anyone you don’t want to emulate.  And anyone who calls you a fool or accuses you of giving up is an idiot.

Follow in the footsteps of Christine Daae. High-tail it out of that fucking swamp, and rest assured, you will have an audience of women like me… women who have been there, who’ve had to make that choice and fight that battle… women who have had to run for their lives.  We’ll all be standing up in our seats and cheering as you go…

“Run faster, girl! You can make it!”

run!

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The Dating Zombie

hands

It’s happening again.

It’s time.

Its the creepy organ music.

It’s the rich, sugary burn of scorched pumpkin flesh.

Its the shelves of the grocery store adorned in cotton cobwebs and piled high with bags of “fun-size” candy (-something that never made sense to me… why is a ¼ sized candy bar considered fun?  What’s FUN about less candy?)

Anyway… caramel and apples are stacked in the same display case in the supermarket, Ouija boards are on sale and department stores are already setting out Christmas decorations.

No doubt about it… it’s October.

As Halloween closes in on us, we as a culture are once again drawn toward the macabre, the creepy and the downright gross. Not surprisingly, I love Halloween.  It feels almost like the medical examiner equivalent of Veterans’ Day or St. Patrick’s Day. Suddenly everyone is into the same things I’m into and I feel a little less like a morbid anomaly… but just a little…

I went to see a Halloween circus and acrobatics show this past weekend and it was utterly delightful.  From the spiders on the trapeze to the hand-balancing werewolf, every single performer was amazing to behold.

If I had to choose a favorite act I would be tempted to say it was the witch who pulled a rubber chicken out of her shirt, but in truth my favorite act was the contortion zombie. This girl was all done-up post-mortem-like…ragged and emaciated.  She staggered onto the stage, groaned at the audience and proceeded to pull off a wide array of freakish moves, including, but not limited to, sitting on her own head.

contortion

I howled in nauseated astonishment along with the rest of the audience, my stomach turning along with everyone else’s at the feats of flexibility this girl was performing… but that’s not to say I wasn’t still something of a freak myself… because while everyone else was being blithely traumatized by the performer’s exploits, I was trying to calculate exactly how decomposed your standard dead body would have to be in order for her tendons and ligaments to display that kind of mobility.  I mean, you’d have to wait for rigor-mortis to dissipate, and the rate at which THAT takes place is profoundly variable. Furthermore, most bodies would lose the epidermis, adipose and muscle long before the sturdier connective tissues gave out.  Even then, you’d have to account for ambient temperature, precipitation, insect activity, exposure, body mass index and on and on and…

(In case it wasn’t obvious, this morbid anomaly here was dateless for this function)

Anyway… zombies.

Zombies have really enjoyed quite the revival over the course of the last 10 years (get it?).  I like it.  It’s nice to see them getting some work again and broadening their horizons.

After George Romero’s whole, “Night of the Living Dead” heyday In the 70’s, there was something of a dead calm throughout the 80’s and on into the 90’s for the re-animated.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, popular culture was, as ever, enamored of the paranormal.  But for a good 20-years, all things trendy chose to bow at the feet of vampires (The Lost Boys, Interview With a Vampire) witches (The Craft, Practical Magic) and werewolves (The Howling, An American Werewolf in London)… probably because the old adage remains true… sex sells. And it’s hard to make a rotting corpse look sexy.  And how the hell can a putrefying cadaver ever hope to rival Brad Pitt done up as the romantically tortured Louis… ever suffering the foppish insults of an equally exquisite Tom Cruise a.k.a. Lestat.  So zombies took a back seat, and waited.  Why not? They had time.

I’m not sure which movie did it… Maybe “28 Days Later” or “Shawn of the Dead”.  But as we staggered our way into the 2000’s, sultry, pouting succubi failed to titillate and the ennui of another struggling half-human, anti-hero began to wane even as our Nine Inch Nails albums wore down and even Marilyn Manson began looking a bit too… pedestrian for our tastes.  We wanted entertainment, mindless, heartless, pulseless entertainment… and the zombies provided.

But unlike the previous zombie fevers, this time we no longer feared the zombie apocalypse… we hoped for it.  Hell, we invited it.  I counted myself amongst those who regarded a zombie apocalypse with giddy anticipation. I just knew I would own the unbridled anarchy that would certainly ensue when the dead rose again and we could finally put to use all the driving and shooting skills we had honed while playing “Grand Theft Auto.”

Such an event felt like my own natural habitat. I would be like a duck in water… a kid in a candy store… an arsonist at Burning Man… a cop in a race riot. Nothing would stop me.

My friends and I would frequently discuss where we would meet at the advent of this “disaster”, where we would go once we had assembled, which stores we would loot first, which vehicle we would steal, which weapons to employ…  It’s kind of shameful how much effort we put into zombie apocalypse preparation as compared to how little preparation and planning we put into disasters that could actually happen.

I was set to hole up in the local art museum with an arsenal of blunt objects and canned goods at the first sign of zombie-trouble, but I couldn’t tell you how to use a fire extinguisher or what to do in the event of a tornado… I mean the city would shut down a lane of traffic on my usual route to work and I would erupt like a shaken soda bottle.

Anyway… zombies.  During this zombie revival, I was dating a guy named Cahuncey (yes, Chauncey… whatever assumptions you’re making about him based on his name are probably right.)  Good Ol’ Chauncey was even more enthusiastic about the immanent zombie apocalypse than I was.  And he used to play off this character we called “The Dating Zombie”… it was one of those nauseating little inside jokes that couples share… kind of like when another  boyfriend and I used to pretend we were dinosaurs and chased each other around his apartment making weird noises that we fancied were dinosaur-ish… He was Veloci-Ian and I was Dilotho-Kate… anyway, Zombies.

Chauncey would lurch over to me with a vacant, twisted expression on his face (even more so than ususal) tongue out and silvery thread of drool oozing from a corner of his mouth. He would heave forward with his arms bent askew, randomly clawing at the air like he was conducting an orchestra of seizure activity… with hands curled up like dead spiders.  One leg would be dragging numbly behind him as he convulsed and grunted and groaned like a dying asthmatic buffalo.   Once within a hand’s reach of me, The Dating Zombie would start in with the sweet talk… “Yooouuu haaave reallyyyyyy nicssse HAIIIIRRRRRRR” as he pawed at me in a clumsy, flailing attempt at a caress.  “Dooo you wannnna come back to myyyyy plaaaaaaaaaaaace AAARGH?” And he would stumble forward, catching my hand in his then he would pretend to be overcome with bloodlust and start nibbling on my fingers… “Brrraaaaainnssss! I love a woommaaaan with BRAAAAAIINS!”  It was cute… in a quirky, hipster way.  The Dating Zombie… poor, awkward undead romantic.

lovezombies

I’m divorced… which is really weird to say.  It sounds so much older and serious than I feel.  “Divorced” is for older ladies who wear too much perfume and have lip-stick on their teeth.  They roll their eyes during lunch dates with their friends and talk about alimony and child support and their ex-husbands’ mid-life crises.

It’s not really how I imagine myself.  But then again, I’m not just divorced.  I’m a divorced medical examiner… with cancer… which means I’m a divorced morbid anomaly… with cancer.

Honestly, as I’ve struggled to re-enter the “dating scene” (if that’s what we’re calling it) my attempted interactions with the opposite sex haven’t been too different from the strangled gestures of the dating zombie… I’m almost alive again, after the heart-stopping trauma of separation and divorce.  I brushed off the dirt in which my past life was buried and pitched myself ever onward, fumbling and ungainly, half-syllables and drool falling from my lips in equal measure as I attempted to get my hands on something satisfying.  Brains are good… as any zombie will tell you, but so is a sense of humor, a nice face, a job and maybe a retirement plan. At the moment, however, I’ll settle for a pulse and a penis.  And I insist on both at once.  A girl’s gotta have standards.

The problem is, everyone else has standards as well… standards that I suppose aren’t too stringent for most people. But if these standards are the equivalent of a metal detector, I don’t even make it past the front door. As I’m continually exposed to ever more death, I’ve sunk further and further into the quicksand of weird behaviors and habits that inevitably come with near-constant emotional crisis.  Some might call it post-traumatic-stress-syndrome… I just call it socially awkward. Either way…

I’ve retreated into the recesses of human interaction and lurk in the unmentionable shadows… a troll under humanity’s bridge… I see the underside of everything and it’s hard to find any common ground upon which to strike up a conversation.  I’m a classic bait and switch… I look like a normal woman, perhaps even an attractive one. I go normal places and appear to do normal things, but then I’m approached by a member of the opposite sex and I burst forth with some bizarre comment or question that’s so fucking disturbing that men turn tail and run as though I just sprayed them like a skunk.  I should just start farting the second I’m approached.  It might actually be less embarrassing.

For example:

I was working out at my gym and I’d seen this guy around.  He was something of a gorilla, big, hulking shoulders… thick, slab-like arms and hands like anvils.  He kind of had that dangling swagger to his upper torso where his biceps, triceps and lats were so overgrown that he couldn’t really put his arms down.  Head shaved and a wide, guileless grin… he had introduced himself at some point. I think his name was Joe and he was really impressed with my calves… and as I recall, I looked at him blankly, wondering why the hell this meathead was interrupting my interval.  But he seemed nice enough… and it didn’t occur to me until after I was already showered and at home in my own bed that he might have been flirting with me.

The next time I saw him, he approached as I was on the stair-machine and I was too sweaty and out of breath to really say anything… and my attempt at an inviting smile may have seemed more like a pained grimace. But I gave it my best shot and he stuck around long enough to tell me that he was a school bus driver for the local school district… a little fact that made him infinitely more attractive in my eyes. On first sight, I would have pegged him as a car mechanic or construction worker.  But hey… this dude worked with kids… which meant he had to be okay with a certain amount of gross talk… boogers and lugies and such. He was probably super patient and, on a more practical level, he had to have passed a pretty vigorous background check.  I had managed to gasp out that I was a medical examiner and he hadn’t run away screaming. He hadn’t even done the quiet moment of contemplation as he registered the depth of what that meant.  Maybe this could go somewhere… and by somewhere I meant… like to coffee… or to a movie… or somewhere other than to the rack for another set of curls.

The last time I saw him, I won’t say I was ready, but I wasn’t mid-exercise, so my lungs were full of air and I wasn’t sporting a big-soggy sweat-mark on my chest. He waved hello and I meandered over to try my hand at conversation.  We exchanged the requisite greetings and such and I asked him how the bus-driving gig was going. He shrugged and grinned then went into an extensive tale about a recent trip to the zoo in which 6th grade pandemonium ensued.

“Have you ever tried to wrangle a bus-load of 6th graders?”  He chuckled.

“Heh,” I said in an attempt to jovially identify a similarly complicated situation at my job. “Have you ever tried to wrangle the family of a dead infant?”

Even as the words charged past my lips I felt the choking horror set in… had I really just said that… like out loud and everything?

flaming

The question hung there for a moment, and Joe’s facial expression never changed… but there was a sudden shift of the light behind his eyes, like someone had just closed the venetian blinds.  Not so much the lights are on but nobody’s home… rather somebody’s home but they have no fucking desire to talk to you anymore.  I think a few parting words may have passed between us after that, but I sure don’t remember what they were. It’s hard to imagine which of us was more eager to pull the rip-cord and vacate that conversation.  Anyway, you’ll notice I said that was the last time I saw him…

A bit later on, I had managed to get past first base with this one guy who actually seemed pretty into me.  Which is to say he kept calling and seemed to have a decently strong stomach.  Right up until one day when I was working and he was feeling saucy, judging by the text message I received:

“-Hey pretty lady, thinking about you.  Tell me something dirty.”

Now I’m 40 years old, and I am one generation too far gone from this whole “sexting” phenomenon.  Which is not to say that I’m not game for it… I’m just no good at it.  Because, glancing at my surroundings, I shrugged and sent him the dirtiest thing I could think of…

“-Okay, right now I’m standing over the decomposed corpse of a woman who hasn’t been seen or heard from in a month and a half.  She’s covered in maggots and melting into the carpet.”

I’d give you his response, but  I’m not sure how to quote dead silence.   After an uncomfortable amount of empty air passed between us, I figured maybe I should … say something?

“-Ummmm, that’s probably not what you meant, was it? Damn… I suck at this.”

“-Yes… you do…”

Clearly we didn’t have enough in common and it’s hard to say who ghosted whom on that one.  But I wish him all the best in his ongoing quest for a girl who’s good at the “me-so-horny-talk” and a little bit more forthcoming with boob-shots.

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I hope you two are very happy together

But joke’s on him because I can be sexy … I can totally be sexy… I just have to concentrate and watch my mouth.  I was sexy enough to get one rollicking stallion horizontal with me and I don’t mind telling you that I was a goddamnned singing siren sweeping him into my stormy shores… peeling his clothing off with deliberate, lingering sensuality… eyes locked in… caught breath gasping in every gesture… I was a necklace of golden, gleaming girl wrapped, fingers clenched around his neck like no one I was identity lost in the moment… right up until I began sliding his jeans down his hips and the purely analytical part of my brain… the one I had hog-tied in the corner … well she managed to wrestle her gag loose and piped up at the worst moment possible.

“Wow,” I heard myself say. “Taking a guy’s pants off is so much easier when they’re ALIVE!”

In my defense it’s totally true. You have no idea how difficult it is to pull the trousers off a 400lb dead guy in full rigor mortis until you’re all by yourself in the autopsy suite and it’s your job to prep the dude for his post mortem exam.  And fortunately, my paramour laughed it off even while I was choking on my own tragic timing.

I really liked him… Hell, in pretty short order I loved him… loved him like my body loved breathing… wanted him like a song wants to be sung.  And over the course of the following year many of my professional glitches faded, shriveled and crumbled away like a lost leaf in late autumn… but they shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have drowned out the ominous underscore of unease that set in like the subsonic hum of electricity right before you’re hit by lightning.

lightening

The first time he yelled at me, the lights of my heart went out like an overloaded circuit breaker, everything stopped right down to my cells as each nucleus stared in disbelief as the monster of his rage crawled out from the dark corners and roared… for coming home late because a movie was longer than I thought it would be.  Saying that he was complicated was like watching the nightly news sanitize a natural disaster that just blasted through your front door. I found myself rearranging my life to accommodate his “bipolar episodes” the way you rearrange your living room to fit your new roll-top desk in there- before you’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s just too damn unwieldy and it just doesn’t belong.

The manic, unparalleled joy coupled with the spirit crushing devastation of inexplicable, spinning conflict… left my instincts strangled with barbed wire… struggling to get free and run for help. Something was wrong… something was terribly wrong but defining it was like trying to put a leash on a forest fire.  His wrath was like a flash flood from the downpour in his head and though I never saw a drop, I was still in its path and utterly naked except for my breath, my blood and all my best intentions hanging off of me like the jewelry I’d be buried in.

I remember the first time I saw him do a line of cocaine like helping himself to the dish of mints on the coffee table, it’s no big deal… it was no… big … deal.  Then he told me about how our conflict drove him to try crack for the first time. I never saw him do heroin, but that didn’t stop him from saying it was because I was just so goddamnned difficult to be in love with…

I’m not saying I was blameless.  No one is. And my inadequacies, insecurities, selfishness and character flaws are always before me… but under his scrutiny, I became infected with blame and everything I touched turned to rot… because he said it did…

I began seeing myself at work… everyday… in the face of the woman who’d come home to find her husband had drank himself to death.  In the story I was told about how the dead woman laying in front of me had broken up with her boyfriend and was in the process of moving out when he walked up behind her and opened fire with his glock.

In the overdoses, the suicides.  I saw my almost undeniable destination played out before my eyes every day…devastated parents, destroyed spouses, anguished children…. All left to clean up the mess of a man who sounded eerily similar to the one sleeping next to me.  And I knew better… if anyone knew better, I did. I was my own Cassandra… so irrefutably certain of the outcome and still I didn’t believe the truth of my own experience. I investigate death every day, you’d think I could see it coming.

It happens slowly… it happened to me… slowly,  as slowly as a summer sunset and the next thing you know you’re completely in the dark… alone… except for him… there with you… with a gun in his hand and he’s holding it to his head saying, “Tell me again that you’re breaking up with me…”

He claims he pulled the trigger but the gun jammed.

Just like I pulled the trigger… several times, desperately trying to execute the shuffling corpse of a relationship that just wouldn’t die… like a zombie… I should have aimed for the head instead of the heart…

The last time I walked away from him I lay down in that grave, pulled the earth over me and wished for oblivion. I stared at the ragged remains of myself, bewildered and empty, waiting for the almighty nothing to overtake me…I lived years through each hour… eons through each day. I aged lifetimes with every fucking second of loss and sorrow…  But inexplicably I stirred, I squirmed, I writhed, I rose again.  My hands groped for the surface as I climbed the ladder of my own spine out of the quagmire.

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And I stagger ever onward, the dating zombie… now two deaths deep into the afterlife. Slower, quieter  dragging one foot after the other as my post-apocalyptic hereafter once again falls into place around me.  There’s no one to hear, and I don’t know if it’s practice or it’s habit… but every now and then, I’ll find myself veering off toward one distraction or another , I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in a broken window… I’ll drift a fleshless hand through my matted tendrils of hair…and grunt:

“I’ve always wanted to learn to play Mortal Kombat…”

“Your mother’s a much better cook than I am”

“Would you like to come upstairs for a night-cap?”

Nothing to fear… but rancid chlamydia



I admit it, I did it.

As much as I would like to say I’m above such things…I bowed to the peer pressure.

I fell for the hype.

I went to a haunted house this Halloween season.
I’m not sure what I was thinking. It seemed like a fine evening’s entertainment in theory, except for the part where I spend all my time around REAL dead bodies, so I’m not sure why I thought a warehouse full of fake ones would be even remotely interesting.

fright

just another day at the office

Ever since becoming a medical examiner, the American fascination with simmering, oozing, coagulating gore has paled on me a bit. It’s not because I find it distasteful or anything. I’m not “insulted” by it.  I don’t have a newfound respect for life and death… Quite the opposite. My respect for death has actually declined significantly since it became my job.  I reckon it to becoming the personal assistant or publicist for a mega-beautiful, billion-pixel-perfect movie-starlet.  Everyone else is clamoring to get closer and take a picture. Whereas you, as an insider, know how rancid her milk farts smell and how annoying her voice gets when she’s snapping at the help for serving her cold coffee.

When you’re elbow deep in anything, be it cocaine, music, strippers, show ponies, or dead bodies… The varnish tends to wear thin and every shiny surface goes dull sooner or later.

I remember way back when in my twenties, I used to make a point of going to every haunted house in the city. I loved them. I would scamper through countless warehouses and converted storefronts… Each one was sketchier than the last. Scorched burlap and newspaper would be draped over every available surface while grimy gauze tendrils hung from the ceiling, drifting gore smeared caresses through your hair. The fog machines belched out bottle after bottle of eerie ambiance as bargain-store strobe lights flashed themselves to smithereens. My friends and I would tear through each b-movie horror installation squealing like a Kardashian in a plastic surgery clinic (speaking of tiresome starlets).

kardash

Every time another community theater reject covered in ketchup and hack-job prosthetics would leap out from behind a wooden palette or trash-can… we would obediently shriek, flail, run…. Kind of like the morbid, gen-x version of eat, pray, love…

These days, going to a haunted house feels like I’m a Royal Shakespeare Academy trained actor that has been coerced into attending an 8th grade performance of “Romeo and Juliet.” The first few scenes might be cute… bordering on quaint.  But even before the pimply faced heroine can breathlessly gasp “Wherefore art thou…”, I’m going to be scanning for the fire exit or rooting through my purse for my flask.

Of course I still went… Reasoning with myself that haunted houses should be like medical procedures… in that they become more sleek, stylized and effective as the technology improves.  Surely, I would at least be entertained, maybe a little grossed out and at best, alarmed.  Besides, I was going with a delightful cadre of buddies and I believed that together, we were incapable of having a bad time unless we were really, really dead set on it.

Here, I should let you know that before we embarked on our adventure, we had a nice little dinner of cocktails and … More cocktails.  Which may explain why I almost got into a fist-fight before we even breached the front door of our holiday adventure.  I was feeling a bit ornery from the get-go, after having worked perhaps the most heinous scene of my career just a few days earlier.  But I don’t always recognize the forest for the trees, so to speak.  I never know that I’m bothered… bordering on traumatized…by something at work… until I’m screaming obscenities at a grocery store clerk, or choking back heaving sobs at a step-aerobics class. It isn’t until THAT moment that it occurs to me that … maybe… just maybe… my lug-nuts are tweaked just a liiiiiittle too tight.

breakdown

don’t mind me… nothing a clock-tower and an assault rifle won’t fix

The establishment we patronized wasn’t your typical haunted house, it was actually three separate haunted houses all set up in the basement of the local coliseum.  The idea was you bought a ticket for the whole shebang and spent your evening wandering between the three makeshift structures, each of which had a different theme. The first level of hell that we decided to visit was the “Zombie Apocalypse” experience. And it was here… In the entry line for this shit-show (yes, the ENTRY line) that our evening began to go off the rails.

The line for our zombie experience was relatively short, but the process by which people entered this experience was downright laborious.  I noted that at the front of the line, a haunted house employee was letting customers into the house in measured doses.  He was dressed up as a bedraggled SWAT officer who had allegedly been battling the undead hoards.  And having spent a pretty significant amount of time around every incarnation of law enforcement officer under the sun, I can attest that this dude’s costume wasn’t half bad.  He pulled off an air of exhausted authority as he would allow a group of two or three folks to enter the front gate… Then he would hold the next group in line for a couple of minutes before motioning them through as well.  I get it.  The idea is to enhance the horror ambiance and control your crowds.  But I didn’t want our stumbling-drunk little group to get separated since we needed each other so desperately in order to stay upright.  Consequently, as we approached the gate-keeper of the zombie apocalypse, I asked him, as sweetly as I could, if it was okay for the four of us to stay together as we entered.

Now either this dude was an undiscovered gem of an actor, or he was a complete cock-sucker.  I say this because he looked down his nose at me with an air of utter exasperation and held up his hand as though he was attempting to Jedi-mind-trick a yapping dog.
“Just chill out,” he snapped at me, “don’t worry about it.”

A completely irrational sense of indignation rose like bile in my throat.  I felt my face flush red with rage as the pseudo -cop launched into his spiel about the haunted house rules. My jaw jutted forward and my shoulders squared back. My right hand raised in an inquiring index-finger point that I was prepared to bury in this ass-hole’s sternum as I barked through my gritted teeth, “Exactly WHO the FUCK do you think you ARE?”….

Because the fact of the matter is… I’m the head bitch in charge.  As the county medical examiner, I outrank every uniformed officer on every scene… Without exception.  If there’s a dead body involved… I’M THE BOSS… And every officer in the county KNOWS it.  Nobody does a goddamnned THING without my permission. They know, balls-to-bone, that it’s “yes ma’am”, “no ma’am”, “can I help you with anything else, ma’am?” Or they will be relegated to a career of helping me with the gnarliest, smelliest, sloppiest tasks I can find for them… (Think head-wounds and decomps… Those bodies don’t roll themselves) Historically, any officer who’s copped an attitude with me (get it?) has lived to regret it.

I couldn’t remember the last time someone in a uniform had dared take that tone with me. In my vaguely inebriated mind, I failed to recognize that this douche was just a guy in a costume, and my professional knee-jerk reaction was to lay into this cum-stain like fucking Cujo on meth.

ill-get-you

“Look here, probie,”  i hissed at the guy, fully prepared to demand his badge number and the phone number of the staff sergeant on duty… When my rant screeched to a sudden halt. Though my conscious mind had failed to grasp the reality of the situation, my tactile mind was able to grab the steering wheel and stand on the proverbial brakes before I got myself and all of my friends kicked out of the evening’s festivities. “He’s not wearing body armor” my sensory neurons whispered across the synapses of my brain. “There’s no chest plate.”

It was true.

Everytime I’ve ever put my hands on a cop (it’s happened more frequently than you’d think,) I’ve always been conscious of the ceramic plate that tucks into the Kevlar pocket at the front of their bullet proof vests.  This plate, ideally serves to protect their heart and lungs from bullets and other projectiles… Such as my finger when I start poking them in the chest, fully prepared to serve up a frosty, sarcasm-laced piece of my mind.

vest

“Uhhhhh…” …. Was the only noise I could make as all my ire dissipated like steam escaping from a teapot.

The not-cop blinked at me as I took a step back and patted him on the chest. Right where his plate would have laid, had he been the real deal.

“You’re adorable.” I mumbled as my buddies grabbed my hand and dragged me into the zombie nest where we spent the next 20 minutes stumbling around in the dark while “Zombies” meandered hither and thither… making threatening gestures and moaning.

As we tumbled out the exit of the zombie phase of our evening, my friends were laughing and shrieking.  But I couldn’t join in. It wasn’t working.  I wasn’t scared… I wasn’t even really entertained and I was beginning to wonder why I had come along.  This experience was downright depressing, and not just because I had allowed some guy dressed as a cop to mouth off to me.  But because, just a week earlier, I had been at the scene of some REAL fucking horror…

My boss likes to tell me that I have the “black cloud” curse.  It happens to people in law enforcement and emergency medicine.  The “black cloud” is what they call it when you have an uncanny knack for being on shift when all of the most ghastly, soul-crushing, violent and chaotic incidents happen.  And not only do I have the black cloud… I also have the pediatric black cloud.  I’m on shift when kids die… All the shit-sucking time… And the week before this haunted house occurred, I had the great grand-daddy of all black clouds seep into my shift and rain the deepest of dark deaths down on my head.

This dude had snapped and killed both his 8 year old daughter, 6 year old son… and then himself… With a handgun… While his wife and the mother of his children took a shower in the next room.

That’s all I’ll say about it. So don’t ask for more.  Suffice to say that no one involved in that situation, personally or professionally, came away from that scene emotionally or mentally intact.

I had gone home in a daze, dragging myself in the front door in the convoluted soup of midnight minutes and hours between one night and the next morning… Lost in that weirdly ambiguous barbed-wire tangle of emotion and duty.  Do I take a few minutes to lose my shit or do I start my paperwork?

nervous

Just to be clear, I wasn’t comparing the haunted houses to the death of this family at the hands of one of their own.  A haunted house is a farce, whereas a death scene like that one… Is a nightmare of desolation and grotesque insanity.  To even attempt to weigh the two against each other communicates a lack of understanding so profound it defies language.

So what the hell was I doing there?

I don’t know. I guess there was part of me that wanted to feel like everyone else.  I wanted to join in the willing suspension of disbelief and dangle my toes over the edge of the proverbial abyss, giggling and nervous, like I used to…. Before that abyss became my job and I wasn’t dangling anything anymore… I was fully submerged and I’ve been swimming for the surface ever since… trying to gasp a breath of air before I dive back under and go about the business of black-clouding my way through another fucking shift.

I just wanted to be scared, like a normal person.

“I feel bad.” I told to my friends, trying to play off my flat affect as we got into line for the next portion of the haunted house. “I feel like such a disappointment to all these ‘actors’.  They’re all trying so hard to be creepy and it’s just not doing anything for me.

The line crept forward and I announced to my companions that for the rest of the night, I was going to scream like a kicked hooker whenever anyone jumped out at me….just so they’d feel like they were doing well.

To their credit, I think at least one of my friends, Gretchen, was picking up on my weird vibe.  She nodded her approval and squeezed my hand as my other friend, Josh, seized upon the idea.

“I think,” he declared imperiously, “that every time some one jumps out at you, you should scream, ‘FUCK ME IN THE FACE!’ As loud as you possibly can.”

I shrugged. “Okay.”

I’m not sure if he didn’t think I’d do it.

But the second we walked through the front door of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-themed ramshackle facade, it was on like Donkey-Kong.

Some freaky-little mutant looking dude crept out of the shadows and I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with all the breath they could hold and taking a moment to mix the air with all the latent frustration, sorrow, and pain in which my heart had been marinating since that night… The night I had a lethal bullet fall out of a little boys cheek and into my hand… The night I had to sift my fingers through a little girl’s silky black hair in order to find an exit wound… The night I was again reminded of what really haunts us… each other…

“Aaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!” I screamed with all the blackness of this heaviest cloud… Vomiting out all the darkness… All the rage… I hollered as the slimmest hint of tears quivered beneath my closed eyes and I tilted my head back firing it all up toward heaven…

“FUCK ME IN THE FACE!!!!!!”

The little mutant looking dude stopped dead in his tracks and stared at me in astonishment as I opened my eyes and looked at him.  He hesitated for a second… Unsure as to whether or not to continue forward or retreat back into his corner, having elicited perhaps the most violently dramatic reaction any of them had witnessed this year.

Nearby, I heard Gretchen titter and snort, before finally bursting into peals of laughter, loud, clear and pure as a ringing bell.

“FUCK ME IN THE FACE!!!!!” She screeched, driving the little mutant dude back into his hidey-hole to wait for some people who were a little less…. Frightening.

creep

fucking armature, I’ll give you something to scream about…

I laughed… . I laughed like popcorn, I laughed like a downpour.  I laughed like it was shaking rust off my brain, like it was rattling the cage door of my brain open… I laughed like my life depended on it.

The next twenty minutes was a deafening festival of profanity as Gretchen and I bade every haunt and villain to fuck us in the face… Each time dissolving into a puddle of laughter so overwhelming that, just half-way through, we couldn’t even get the whole phrase out of our mouths before we drowned in the sheer ridiculousness of it.

We staggered out of that haunted house breathless and bouyant.  Josh and Will, who had charged on ahead of us, staring in amazement… Having heard us screaming the whole way through the maze of characters and scenarios. Telling each and every one of them… that they, too… could fuck us in the face.

“So….” I grinned at Josh as we lined up for the third and final installment of our evening.  “What are we doing this time?”

Josh thought about it for a second, then grinned back.

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it,is to yell “RANCID CHLAMYDIA!” Every time someone jumps out at you.”

“No problem.”

 

The Suicide

The call rolled in the way they always do… Unexpectedly.

 

Which is to say that I was asleep and in absolutely no mood to go to work. I would say it had been a long night… But I can’t remember. I only know that every night feels long when the morning comes entirely too soon… heralded by the pager rudely poking you in the ear with it’s thin, insistent, needle-like beeping. Five a.m., Sunday morning… and I was on my way to a suicide… Again.

 
I heaved my sleep-heavy legs over the edge of the bed and sat there for a moment, staring quizzically at my toes, daring them to touch the floor. And with a resigned sigh, I gave up on trying to delay my journey up and out of my bedroom until I felt a bit more ready. You’re never ready, that’s the point of my job as a medical examiner… If every death were expected, we’d all be living in a poorly-scripted Disney movie and I would be out of work.
There was nothing terribly unusual about the death. Each suicide has it’s own particular character… Just like the proverbial snowflake- every one is different, but they’re still all snowflakes. They’re all, more or less, going to behave the same way. Suicides and snowflakes have a lot in common, now that I think about it. They fall, they melt and inevitably, someone is going to have to wake up obscenely early to shovel it all up so everyone else can get on with their day.

 
If I sound pissed off, it’s because I was. Emphasis on WAS.

 

It’s easy to take suicides personally when you’re an exhausted medical examiner who has seen way too many people die in way too many ways… People who fought like hell to live. It seems so wasteful at first glance, you know? Someone throwing away something that millions of other people long for… More life. It seems as though when someone commits suicide, the rest of their allotted years should be distributed amongst those who are desperately trying not to die… Like me, for example. I have an in-curable cancer diagnosis, and I want to live. I want every single one of my 78-allotted years (as is promised to me by whatever statistician decreed that the average American woman has a life expectancy that stretches into the late 70s. That fucker and I are gonna have WORDS if I ever meet him). In this way only, do I want to be average. I would love to be fucking average, rather than the freak of pathological nature that I am. As it is, I have no idea how long I have to live. At any moment, my cancer could metastasize and I could have a really fucking uncomfortable ride off of this rock we call Earth. And when I see people who have killed themselves, well… It feels kind of like being flat broke and uncertain of where your next meal is coming from… And having some dude walk up to you and burn a hundred dollar bill right in your face…

 

It’s hard to feel sorry for them.

 
Or, at least… It WAS hard to feel sorry for them.

 
In this particular case, the whole scenario was a little bit easier to take because I managed to stop for coffee on the way to the scene. Furthermore, when I got there, the investigating police correctly surmised from my overall demeanor that I was on the teetering edge of setting them on fire. Consequently, in an act of self preservation they thrust a large box of donuts in front of me and urged me to help myself to their “cop-food”. (I’m not kidding… That’s actually what they called it. Way to embrace a stereotype). So, it was with a fully caffeinated nervous system and cinnamon-bear-claw in hand that I greeted my latest customer: A guy who shot himself in the head in a suburban park.

 
Apparently, he’d been depressed and hermit-like for the last month or so and, without warning, left his parents’ home at 10 p.m… Never to return. At roughly 2 a.m. his friends and family all received the fateful text message… Something that’s becoming more and more common: the suicide text. Notes are not done so much anymore and, when you think about it, it’s really an ingenious method to convey your goodbyes.

 
Allow me to rabbit trail for a moment here… With a texted suicide note, you don’t have to worry about the note getting lost..blown off your desk by a gust of wind for example. Also, everyone gets the same note… So there’s no contesting what it said… No one can misrepresent your final words because everyone knows what they were. Lastly, there’s never the worry that you’ll die and no one will notice for a couple days. People know what you’re up to and they know to look for you. There will be none of this sitting in your apartment decomposing for a week before someone finally decides to check in. With a text message you’ll likely be found when you’re still nice and fresh for an open casket… Unless you shoot yourself in the head… Like this guy did.

 
As predicted, the moment the text message hit the airwaves, the guy’s friends and family went apeshit trying to find him. The police were called and every squad-car in the county was on the lookout for an “endangered person”. At just after 4:30 a.m. A homeless dude stumbled across our decedent’s inert form, laying at the base of a bench… bullet in his head, blood on the pavement. I’m not sure how the family came to learn that he was there, but they showed up at the scene- kept mercifully distant by the police chaplain who did a very good job of explaining to them that they couldn’t un-see their loved one’s body once they’d seen it. Usually, that’s enough to make someone think twice about insisting upon viewing a violent death.

 
I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say that the death was, irrefutably a suicide. When I approached the family with the news, they were devastated and shocked… But they didn’t argue… There were no wild claims that someone MUST have murdered him… No wailing protestations that the wound MUST have been accidental. As is my job,I had to ask them a lot of difficult questions… Questions that, ultimately, colored in the outline that I had begun tracing with my investigation. With every answer, you could see the reality of the affair dawning on the family. The young man had been depressed… VERY depressed. They couldn’t say for certain what had been wrong. They couldn’t point to a particular traumatic event that set the whole thing off… There was no clinical diagnosis, no named psychosis. They couldn’t dig up the roots of his misery and identify the seed, but there was no doubt… He had been on his way to this end for some time.

 
Their sadness vibrated so strongly, I could almost hear the thrum of the wavelength as it passed through me. So I did what I’ve learned to do in these circumstances… I threw out an interrupter.

 
“Tell me something good about him.” I said to the decedent’s brothers.

 
“What?” The older one sniffled through the washout of his face.

 

“Tell me something good about him… Like, What was he good at? Tell me something he liked doing.”

 

The two men swallowed, stared at each other…

 

“He could juggle.” The younger brother almost smiled.

 

“Juggle?”

 

“Yeah… He could juggle. He was really good at it. He could hackey-sac too. He’d walk down the street, kicking the hackey-sac the whole way. His teachers in school would take it away from him, but he would go and steal it out of their desk and just keep going.”
And for just a moment, they were out… Out of the cage of their grief. He wasn’t their brother who commit suicide, he was their brother who could juggle.

 

I have no idea if it helps in any long term way. But it eases the tension of the scene just a bit… To get the family thinking something good about their dead relative… No matter how badly they went out. To throw a wrench into the gears of their devastation.

 

The rest of the whole debacle went off so uneventfully that I don’t remember anything else… Except for the fact that as I was leaving I was still so salty about being woken the hell up , stupid-early on a Sunday, that I took a picture of myself cutting through the crime-scene tape that police had looped around the park with my pink trauma shears. I told myself that I was going to post it on Facebook or something with a #thuglife, but I didn’t…. Of course. That kind of behavior isn’t expressly forbidden, but it does display an attitude that many supervisors consider threatening. So instead I just saved the picture on my phone and I pull it out and look at it when I’m feeling ornery.

 

All of this to say… I was pissed about the ungodly hour that I was roused out of bed, but I wasn’t pissed about another suicide. I actually find it hard to get angry at suicides anymore. I feel it’s kind of hypocritical of me… Since I commit suicide myself… Not too long ago.

 

I once had a co-worker who would tell me that suicide was what happened when the pain of living exceeded the pain of dying… And that’s how I came to realize that I had commit suicide.

 

I can’t think of a more accurate analogy, I commit suicide. I put the gun in my mouth and swallowed a nice, tall glass of death to it all. I took a running jump off a building that was “fuck-it” tall and counted every floor on the way down like counting the cost of a decision that is never done nickle-and-diming you to death. I sawed through the skin and gristle of my own wrist and sprayed the walls of my life with screams until my heart had nothing left to beat.

 

I got a divorce…

 

And as anyone who has ever gotten divorced can tell you… It’s like a death, but it’s hard to say whose. Was it my death? Was it his? Goodness knows the two of us crucified each other enough times with our words… And toward the end, all I could keep picturing was the anthropomorphized embodiment of our marriage, in the shape of a sick child… OUR sick child (if we’d ever had one) laying in a hospital bed, tubes and wires everywhere… Barely breathing, doctors trying to be kind while still conveying the gravity of the prognosis. anyone with experience could tell you there was no hope.

 

And I think about it.

 

I think about suicide, and divorce…and how it feels to live everyday with the thought in your head, “I can’t do this anymore.” What it feels like to carry that invisible disease of doubt around in your heart, trying to hide it, trying to fake it, trying to convince everyone (especially yourself) that this is normal. Everyone goes through hard times. No one has it easy. You don’t just give up. It would hurt so many people, it would tear everyone apart. But still, it’s there… Germinating in your mind: this uneasy, sub-sonic hum that no one else seems to hear. You start to do irrational things, behaviors that don’t make any sense to anyone on the outside. You leave for extended periods of time. Or you lock yourself in rooms. Take inordinate risks. Isolate or surround yourself with friends… Or maybe strangers. Throw out all your clothes, but new ones you never wear. Start taking pills. Go on a diet. Then over-eat. Buy a dog. Take up cross-fit… Anything to try and snap yourself out of it, that thought. “I can’t do this anymore.” I can fix it. I can fix myself. I can fight through this. You don’t just leave, you don’t just give up.

 

 

And who can possibly understand? Outwardly, you seem to have something that anyone else would want. You have a magical arrangement of circumstances and relationships that most of the world will never know: You come from intact families. Everyone is gainfully employed and educated. There’s no addiction, no debt, no problem. You’re loved by so many people who would never leave you or hurt you. What more could you possibly ask for? Except that it isn’t about “more”. It was never about “more”. Not for me.
When you finally do it, everyone thinks you’re crazy. Selfish. Cruel. They are surprised, devastated, heartbroken. They say things like “I knew there were problems, but I never thought she’d do this.” They stand over the wreckage and judge. How could you do such a thing? How could you do this to the people around you? No ones life will ever be the same, you know. When someone introduces this kind of act into a family… It opens a door. Soon other people will start doing it, too. You’re responsible for bringing this disease around. You’ve infected all of us with your unhappiness. Why couldn’t you just stay? Go on a retreat? Take up yoga? Have a baby?

 

And all I can say… All I can THINK, is that divorce is what happens when the pain of staying together is greater than the pain of breaking up.

 

I certainly don’t recommend it. It wasn’t enjoyable or easy. Some might like to suggest such a thing but they’re wrong… It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. No one in my family has ever gotten divorced. I had no guide, no map, no sympathy and no one’s approval;Just the voice of my own disquiet, slowly eating away at me like maggots devouring carrion.

 

And I think about all of those suicides… And my own judgements upon them. Some make sense… Like some divorces are irrefutably rational… So rational that no one could imagine another ending. But I think about the ones that make no sense, the ones that seem so wasteful and needlessly painful. And I realize that I can’t judge, no more than anyone can judge me for leaving. They can take their limited information, hazard a few guesses and self-righteously gossip it out over coffee.

 

 

So here I am, in my own afterlife…. Wondering about all of those suicides. Wondering where they are now and if they regret it. Are they better off where they are now? Are they content? Are they safe? Am I? And I wonder about my ex-husband… Not much, but a bit. I imagine the grief, confusion and resentment are much the same for him as if I had committed suicide. Maybe he wishes I had. Maybe that would have been easier for him.

 
Either way I hope someone is there to ask him the question, eventually if not sooner. “Tell me something good about it.” Not because I’m hoping he’ll think kindly of me, I know he won’t. But rather because I hope something can interrupt the grinding of his pain and he can remember that it wasn’t all bad. Our marriage was more than just it’s ending. I hope the scar tissue softens.

 

In the meantime, all I can do is continue to wipe the blood off my hands and recognize that, regardless of whether it was right or wrong, there’s no going back. Step away from the shed skin of the past, pass through the veil… And into the afterlife. Leaving behind a note that I’ve read so many times at work, but never really understood until now:

 

“I’m sorry. I know you may never understand, but I couldn’t do this anymore. I loved you all. I hope someday you’ll forgive me.”

As Gangsta as Barb

So… as I’ve mentioned before, I am in the process of learning how to “cut”.  Which is to say, I’m learning how to function as an autopsy technician… or pathology assistant- the job title varies depending on who you ask.  It’s always tricky to learn something new as an adult.  I think we kind of get mired in a set habit of knowing and performing our daily tasks and then when we try something else… we don’t want to do it because we don’t already know how to do it… which totally defeats the purpose of doing something new and doesn’t make any sense… but there it is.  We don’t want to learn to do anything we don’t already know how to do.

Maybe it’s the fear of looking or feeling stupid… or it’s the fear of failure… in my case, it’s the fear of accidentally sawing off my own hand… or stabbing somebody with an AIDS infected scalpel.  Learning to “cut” is scary.

But I’m trying it… I’m doing it… I’m learning it… and I’m fortunate enough to have Barb as my teacher.  Barb is one of the two pathology assistants at the state office.  She’s a dainty little Asian lady who’s always happy and super helpful.  Whenever I’m at the state office with a body, Barb always wants to stop and chat for a few minutes… ask how things are going… and for some reason, Barb always feels compelled to tell me how skinny I am, which I think is a compliment… Anyway, Barb rocks… and she’s been super extra wonderful as a teacher as I go about the messy business of learning how to properly field dress a human being

Barb is always telling me to cut with longer strokes and more conviction.  “Be more confident!” she chirps at me as she grabs a hold of a wad of intestine and forcibly rips it free of its mesenteric mooring…  Barb has been doing this for years, and the state office usually boasts about 4 autopsies a day… all of this to say that Barb is an expert in her field and acutely and terrifyingly aware of exactly what kind of force and how much effort it takes to remove any limb or organ from a human corpse.  As a result, bodies just seem to fall off the bone under her touch… like tender beef sliding off the bone in a crock-pot… a few small, decisive cuts and she’s successfully extricated a liver, a heart, two kidneys, all five lobes of the lungs, a pancreas and a spleen… all in one lump of viscera that we in the industry refer to as “the organ block”. Dead bodies just disintegrate in front of Barb… she’s astonishing.  And she smiles the whole time

My technique isn’t quite as fluid.  I still wade through the whole process, tentatively pulling and making tiny, repetitive jabs with the scalpel as though I’m an Australian cattle-dog trying to herd the organs out of the body like livestock through a gate.  It takes time… I’m not good with dead bodies… at least not as good as Barb.  I thought I was super hard-core until I started hanging with Barb.  It’s easy to do… when the police all marvel at your nerve as you dive right into a decomposed corpse… or when you stomp up to a traumatized fire crew and announce your presence by barking, “Okay ladies, who can tell me who’s in charge of this shit show?”  It’s easy to think of yourself as being super hard core…. mega-gangsta… but the fact is I could try for all my life and never be as Gangsta as Barb.  She’s O.G.

Never has this fact been more obvious to me than during my last autopsy.  I had scheduled the time to come in when I knew Barb was going to be there, along with one of my favorite forensic pathologists, Dr. Olds.  Dr. Olds is actually quite young… the youngest of the doctors at the state.  To say he’s quirky is putting it mildly.  The first time I met Dr. Olds he had dressed up like Tiny Tim for the office Christmas party… he was wearing argyle socks and knickers… yes… knickers. He’s currently sporting a marvelous handle-bar moustache and is known to wander around the morgue in his bright orange crocks and favorite t-shirt which proudly proclaims “I think I’m a lesbian” on the front. 

As it had been a while since my last autopsy lesson, I was relatively solid with the first two gestures of the y-incision… However, as I was dragging the scalpel down the center of the sternum toward the abdomen, I found myself wobbling off the axis.  What was supposed to come next?  I couldn’t remember.  The pointers Barb had given me before were a bit hazy.  How deep was I supposed to go?  How far? What was the best technique for getting through the fascia? Did I cut through the diaphragm first or deflect the soft tissue of the thorax?

My nerves weren’t helped by the fact that this dead person was, quite frankly, a bit of a surgical anomaly.  She’d had a few abdominal surgeries and was ….a little on the large side .  I was worried about how difficult it would be to find my anatomical markers in the midst of these factors.  Dr. Olds noted my hesitation and charged right in with his own scalpel as if he was leading an expedition into a lost continent.  

“Just go long!” he bellowed at me encouragingly as he swept his scalpel down the length of the abdomen… all the way to the pubis.  I noted that Barb was backing up slightly as he did this, and all things considered, it seemed prudent to follow her lead.  I’m glad I did because in his enthusiasm to demonstrate sweeping, fearless cuts, Dr. Olds went a bit too deep and managed to slice a big-ass-hole in the large intestine…. Which is something I suddenly remembered Barb telling me on my last autopsy… that you wanted to go long… but careful…because you’d nick the transverse colon and then you’d have shit everywhere.

And literally, suddenly there was shit… everywhere. For those of you who aren’t up on your anatomy, the large intestine is the victory lap for your digestive track- it’s the last path that solid waste material travels before it leaves your body and becomes the sanitation department’s problem.

The woman had, undeniably, been an eater and whatever she’d consumed roughly 16 hours prior to her demise was now seeping through a gaping hole in her large intestine and into her abdominal cavity.  It was… shitty.  But Barb just smilingly carried on as Dr. Olds retreated back from the fecal fountain to busy himself with making labels for the tissue sample containers. 

For the most part, the rest of the autopsy went on without incident.  We deflected back the epidermis, hacked through the ribs with a bolt cutter and removed the organ block without getting too messy.  Barb managed to almost magically avoid coming into contact with any poop… while still finagling out the intestines in such a way that she was able to show me where the decedent had undergone a gastric bypass surgery.  The procedure had turned the already labyrinthine structure of the small intestine into a hopeless knot and I resisted the urge to quip that maybe we’d find the Minotaur wandering around in there somewhere.  As the new kid, I didn’t want to get too out of hand with the morgue humor.

Everything was going really well, actually. After Dr. Olds faux pas with the guts, I had managed to get my sea-legs under m a bit more and the removal of the trachea had gone just swimmingly when Dr. Olds asked us to finish up with a radical hysterectomy.

A radical hysterectomy is the removal of all the female reproductive organs… all at once.  I’m not sure what the difference is between a radical hysterectomy and just a plain-old mundane hysterectomy… maybe one just listens to thrasher metal during a radical hysterectomy… or performs the procedure while also engaging in some form of extreme sport. Hysterectomy while wake-boarding… or bungee jumping.  Anyway, it was new territory for me and Barb was more than happy to guide me through yet another aspect of the human autopsy.  She reached down into the already vacant abdominal cavity and wrapped her hand around the light-bulb-sized lump of muscle that made up the woman’s cervix and uterus.  Explaining as she went, Barb traced the uterus and then the twin fingers of each fallopian tube as they extended upward towards the ovaries.

“Oh,” Barb flinched as she palpated each ovary in its little flesh-sac. “She had ovarian cysts.”  Barb’s fingers gently probed each ovarian capsule with a delicacy I had never seen her employ.  “Okay,” she said as she motioned for me to step forward and traverse this, latest challenge. “Now, you’ve got to be careful, because these ovarian cysts are under pressure and they can rupture.”  Following Barb’s lead, I reached in and wrapped my hand around the uterus, then watched as she motioned for me to simply cut a swift, horizontal incision across the cervical opening…

… I was so intent on watching Barb’s demonstration, that I failed to notice that I had not only grasped the uterus in my shaking hand, but I had inadvertently also managed to capture a fallopian tube and an ovary as well.  Furthermore, in anticipation of this new-and-latest task, my grip had tightened on the organ until I was, literally, squeezing it as though I was hoping to drink its contents for breakfast.  I was squeezing it so hard that, as Barb leaned in to watch my cutting technique, one of the ovarian cysts gave way and popped like a zit. 

The following mili-seconds went by with the gruesome slow-motion clarity of a fatal auto-wreck.  I watched in suspended horror as the encapsulated pocket of fluid shot out of the body as though fired from a squirt gun.  With sniper-like aim, the missile rocketed straight out of the abdominal cavity, past our flailing hands as we reached up to shield ourselves… and struck Barb square across the face… making a sickening “SPLAT!” as it found it’s mark. 

(It may occur to one to ask the question at this moment, why wasn’t Barb wearing some kind of a face shield or eye protection? Well, the fact is most autopsy techs usually do, but since Barb is such a bad-ass and never spatters anything… Like EVER. She stopped wearing anything that impeded her vision or made her feel claustrophobic.)

No one said anything for a moment. I stood, trapped in the hanging breath of my gasp, frozen in place, scalpel still in my hand as Barb calmly walked over to the sink and began rinsing her face off. Dr Olds, who witnessed the entire event, was likewise completely motionless as he stood at the cutting board with a dripping kidney in his hand. When he did move, he glanced to me wearing an expression of intermingled disgust, amusement and pity… And was it my imagination, or did I see a bit of relief? Likely because his poopy-faux-pas was no longer the grossest thing that had happened that day. When I finally did re-engage my brain-stem and start breathing again, the garbled apology tumbled out of my mouth like a mud-slide of contrition.

“Oh my… Barb, I… Oh GOD, ummm. I’m SO… Oh jeez..”

And, true to form, Barb responded with what I can only imagine was the most gangsta statement ever made by someone who cuts people up for a living…

“Oh don’t worry about it,” She soothingly cooed as she walked back to the autopsy table. “My mouth was closed.”

She went on from there, telling me that at least the decomposing body fluid with which I had just lacquered her cheek was clear… So it didn’t smell too bad and, theoretically, it was free of infection. I can’t remember what all she said… More than anything, I was shocked and overcome with hero worship for the woman who was inexplicably trying to make ME feel better about the fact that I had just popped a dead woman’s ovarian cyst on her face …

Dr. Olds shook his head and went back to sawing the dead woman’s organs into pieces. Barb and I finished up without further incident. Every now and then I would, again, attempt to apologize… And Barb would, again, casually wave off my pleas with such benevolence, it really made me wonder what the hell else had happened to her during autopsies that made my transgression so benign…
But I’ll never ask her.
Barb’s not the kind of person to whom you ask the question, “What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?”
Whatever it was, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t handle it… I mean, I can handle a lot. The cops live in awe of my ability to wrestle decomposing corpses. The fire department cowers whenever I produce an 18″ long hollow needle and announce that it’s toxicology time… But I’ll never be as gangsta as Barb…
… Not by a long shot…
… Right across the face….
… With an ovarian cyst…

 

A day in the life

Sometimes, in life… we are asked to do thing we don’t like.  As an adult we come to terms with those instances and muscle through because that’s what life is… soldering on even when you don’t want to.  Fortunately, this was not one of those times.

Right now, at work, we have a new administrator… someone who is still wet behind the ears and hoping to make his mark as being a really hard-nosed go-getter.  (I’ve never met the dude myself… this is just what I’ve benn told) He wants everyone to know that he’s watching and evaluating and considering… and his ambitious young eye recently turned to the medical examiner’s office.  He’s decided he doesn’t understand how our schedules work and figures we might be working too little and getting paid too much.  One of our program managers, in an effort to justify our income, has asked that each of us perhaps document a day’s activities while on shift… so she might have something to show this steely-eyed whipper-snapper to prove that the medical examiners actually ARE worth the pittance we are being paid.

My response to this request was, “You want me to write about my job?  Oh no! PLEASE don’t throw me into that, there briar-patch!”

So here’s what the administrator got…  I’m not sure if I expect to be promoted or fired:

 

-09:00- I wake up. This  represents a late start for me, but this was my second 24 hours out of 48.  The previous evening… Or rather…morning… As in somewhere between midnight and 9 a.m. … I was awoken 3 times by St. Jerome’s hospital, calling to report deaths that had occurred in the emergency apartment.  The third time, I try to affect a little humor and I say to the charge nurse: “Wow! Another one? What are you guys putting in your I.V.s over there?”

She does not laugh.

Anyway, each of these calls takes up approximately a half hour of time since every question that I ask about the given decedent is met with the answer: “I don’t know… Let me check…”

The questions haven’t changed… In the 5 years since my hiring date… they haven’t changed.  I spend an additional 15 minutes of the early morning staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, wondering why everyone always seems so shocked when I ask for the decedent’s name.

-09:30- I go to Starbucks to get a morning “cup of ambition” (Thank you Dolly Parton). While there, I run into the county epidemiologist who tells me she left some homemade cookies on the Medical Examiner desk for me and my co-workers. I am giddy with anticipation…. Cookies!

-09:40- Upon my arrival at our cubicle in the public services building, there are no cookies on my desk… Or anywhere in the cubicle, I know because I spend 5 minutes frantically tearing through every possible hiding place where these alleged cookies might be lurking.  I ask our secretary about these cookies.  She unapologetically states that, despite the fact that she has a huge bag of leftover Halloween candy in her desk, and a dish of this candy prominently displayed ON her desk… She and our program supervisor ate the cookies that had been left on the medical examiners’ desk.  “I didn’t know when you’d be coming in…” She states. “You guys aren’t here very often and I didn’t think food should be left on your desk.”

Never mind the fact that there is a dish of food permanently stationed on her desk at all times.

I say nothing but remind myself that I know how to dispose of bodies… If it should come to that…

-09:45 until 12 noon- I spend the next few hours at the office.  I type up the cases from last night, which takes up roughly 30 minutes apiece.  I also read through and summarize  some medical records that I received from a hospital the day before regarding a case from my last shift.  Recognizing that these records aren’t really sufficient, I fax over a request to the decedent’s primary care provider. Doctor’s offices are notoriously slow about sending records… I might get them next week.  I also return a call to a funeral home regarding another doctor who’s supposed to sign a death certificate.  The doctor doesn’t want to do it, which happens often, but I’m not sure why.  They act like we’re asking them to go state’s evidence on the mob or something.  I call the doctor’s office and leave a message telling him that I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.

-12:30- I go home (a 5 minute walk) and eat lunch… an apple with almond butter and a power bar.

-12:50- I get called to the scene of a death. A 63 year-old gentleman who lived alone and apparently hated going to see doctors… despite his gout, pre-diabetes, peripheral neuropathy and heart disease.  Instead, he has been self-medicating with a steady diet of marijuana and porn.  This treatment has not been terribly effective, since his foot and leg pain were evidently so severe that he just sat in his easy-chair in front of the television, smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka.  In fact, his foot pain was so bad, rather than get up to use the bathroom, he would relieve himself in old juice bottles that had stacked up around him like a fortress.  He had been deceased for  minimum of 3 weeks, judging by the post mortem changes. The house smells awesome. I briefly consider a career change to a Starbucks barista… I bet that smells good.

-12:50- While I’m at the wonderfully fragrant house, I get a phone call from a Washington County Detective.  He needs help facilitating the fingerprinting of a dead body that is currently at the state office.

-13:40- While still at the scene, where the  ambient fragrance of the dead guy and his urine has thoroughly wormed it’s way into my hair (so I’ll be smelling it all day now) I get another call from a funeral home, asking for help finding a doctor to sign another death certificate.

-14:00– I release the dead guy from the scene and drive to Planet Fitness… figuring that if I can’t smell good, I’d better look good.  While driving to the gym, I return the call to the funeral home. I also do some arranging and finagling and the fingerprinting gets scheduled to take place tomorrow morning.

-14:10- At the gym, no one wants to use the treadmills next to mine… I am not surprised.

-14:40- While sweating my brains out, I am paged to call an Oswald County officer who’s at the scene of a death.  The decedent is 55 years old and has a phenomenal medical history.  There is no trauma and nothing suspicious about the death so I release the decedent from the scene to the on-call funeral home.  However, no one has any access to the next of kin.  The guy allegedly has two kids who live in Utah.  The police officer says he’ll get back to me about whether or not they manage to make contact with these kids. (Spoiler alert: the officer never gets back to me… one way or the other… I am not surprised) This whole interaction takes about 40 minutes.

-16:00- While I am driving back home, I get a call from the local organ donation service about the above-mentioned 55 year old.  I call them and tell them that if I were in need of retinas, I certainly wouldn’t want his… he had a history of drug abuse and alcoholism… additionally, there’s no next of kin to ask for permission to donate.

-16:30- I get called to a city on the edge of the county for a death.  The decedent is a 43-year-old woman who has had multiple interactions with the police in the past.  She was known for having paranoid delusions and would often call them to come and clear the aliens out of her apartment.  The officer tells me she has killed herself.  I ask how he knows that.  The officer admits that he can’t be sure… because the decedent has been deceased for no less than a month and a half and no one was willing to get close enough to the corpse to actually ascertain a possible cause of death.

-16:40 (or so)- On my way to the scene of the 43-year-old woman, I get a page stating that a woman by the name of “Melinda” called the office with a series of questions for a medical examiner.  When I call her back during my drive, Melinda tells me that she is 61, she lives alone and she wants to know what will happen to her when she dies… not in a metaphysical sense… she wants to know how, exactly she would be found and what would happen to her body… since she doesn’t have any family. I take Melinda through the general processes involved in a death where the decedent has no next of kin.  Melinda is a talker… and she’s clearly happy to have someone listening.  It becomes more and more obvious that Melinda’s solitude in the world is getting to her because with every answer that I give to her questions… she launches into a 5 to10 minute long soliloquy about her life.  Moreover, English is not Melinda’s first language so due to her poor grammar and thick accent, I can barely understand what’s she’s saying.  I pray that I’m making the appropriately sympathetic responses because half of what she says is a complete loss.  It takes a while… and if I had anything else to do I’d excuse myself from the conversation.  But I figure what the hell.  I’m stuck in traffic on the interstate and Melinda clearly needs someone to talk to.

-17:15- I finally arrive at the scene of my latest death and as I heave myself out of the county vehicle… is it my imagination… or do I smell the unmistakable odor of human decomposition?  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been able to smell a body from the street…  It’s something that the TV shows always get wrong, I muse to myself as I unload my bags and equipment.  Those murder mysteries and crime dramas always show the lead characters bent over, face deep in dead bodies as though the scent of putrefaction were barely more troublesome than someone eating a garlicky pizza.  The truth is even the most wizened veterans cannot abide the odor of a decomposition.  We only withstand it because we’re paid to do so… It’s vile.  Never is that fact more obvious than right as I walk into the residence of this decedent, the 43 year old who hasn’t been seen for 6 weeks. She appears to have barricaded herself into her apartment by wedging a large bookcase against the front door.  Then she hid under her bed with a wide array of mind-altering substances nearby.  She’s dressed in a bizarre arrangement of socks and scarves and she looks as though she stumbled off the set of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video… she’s green, oozing with maggots and almost mummified.  One of the police officers at the scene is a rookie and much to the delight of the other officers at the scene, I have this newbie help me roll the body over so I can examine her back for injuries.  Not only is this his first decomp… it’s his first dead body.  He gags a couple of times, but manages to keep his lunch down.  The force is strong with this one.

All the same, I briefly consider a career change to wedding consultant… I can handle vomiting people, right?

I am at this scene for 3 hours, which actually isn’t that bad.  I’ve been on  homicide scenes for up to 12 hours in the past.  The police and I spend that time sifting through the utterly trashed apartment, counting prescription pills and trying to make sense of this woman’s final hours.  In the midst of this process:

-18:30- I get a call from a nursing home.  They are calling to report a death to me.  “Just to let me know,” they say… because they’ve already notified the family and called the funeral home.  I have to explain to the nursing home that unless their patient was in hospice, they can’t release the body to the funeral home and they have to treat the death the same as any other… meaning they still have to call 911, there still must be an investigation… even if the decedent had a DNR.  They sound flabbergasted.  They’re so flabbergasted that it takes me about 20 minutes to convince them that I know what I’m talking about and they need to call non-emergency dispatch.

-19:20- We’re still counting pills at the scene when we hear from dispatch that the officers who were sent to notify our decedent’s mother of the death have come up dry.  The last known address was a wash.  Mom’s not there anymore, she moved away two years ago.  We only have a phone number.  The police with me at the scene look panicked.  I tell them not to worry, that I will make the call.  I’ve done it before.  Back when I was an intern in Arizona, we ONLY did phone notifications… none of this “face-to-face” or “in-person” notification business.  I got to be pretty good at ruining people’s days as gently as possible… and since I cut my professional teeth making such calls, I dial the number and make it happen.  All things considered, Mom takes the news of her daughter’s death pretty well…  Even when I tell her that her daughter has been dead for quite a while and the family probably shouldn’t have any sort of viewing… let alone an open casket.  She tells me she’s surprised… but also not surprised.  This is a common reaction. Still, I consider a career change to an STD clinic nurse… those phone calls HAVE TO be easier… right?

-20:10- I’m literally walking past the requisite crowd of curious neighbors as I leave the scene of the decomp when the pager goes off again.  Instead of going to get something to eat like I was planning, (When is the last time I ate? Was it Starbucks? I’m not sure.  I would know if I’d had any cookies but… well… you know…) I am now going to a different town in my county where a morbidly obese gentleman was found deceased in his room by his roommate.  Apparently, I wasn’t able to hide my exasperation at having to go to another scene from the officer who called me… I know this because he takes pity on me and has a fellow officer run out and grab me a cup of coffee before I arrive at this next scene.  Coffee is better than cookies! I think to myself as I gulp it down upon my arrival. And someone needs to give the Oswald County cops a raise! The death is fairly benign, but it appears the decedent didn’t have a primary physician so his medical history and exact cause of death is a bit hazy.  The roommate who found him tells us that he was an insufferable alcoholic who drank all the time.  But we have to temper this information with the fact that this roommate’s first order of business upon finding the decedent… was to get completely shit-faced herself.  She’s not exactly what you’d call a reliable historian.  Reliable historians don’t wave half-empty bottles of Jim Beam in your face while you’re trying to interview them.

During this scene investigation, the officer with me gets a call from the decedent’s family.  Apparently, the roommate took it upon herself to call and notify them of the death.  The family is understandably upset, however their sadness also has a slight tinge of anger and suspicion.  They believe the roommate’s adult granddaughter… who never liked the decedent and often told her grandmother to kick him out… somehow murdered the decedent.  I’m not sure where they got this idea… likely from an episode of CSI, because in the real world disliking someone doesn’t equate to being their murderer. Still, they insist on talking to me and airing their belief that the granddaughter poisoned the decedent’s food or something.  Their allegation has no basis in reality, but because they threw it out there, the officer and I have to consider the possibility… I’m just glad the family didn’t claim that the decedent was kidnapped by aliens and the body left in his place was a ringer.  I have no idea how we’d disprove THAT.

-22:13- While I’m still dealing with the dead guy, his drunken roommate, the irate granddaughter (who showed up to revel in her enemy’s demise) and the suspicious family… I get another death call.  This is an elderly woman at St. Jerome’s hospital.  Her death is not terribly complicated, but, as always, the nurse with whom I speak has absolutely no information on the decedent.  The nurse gives the usual excuses for this:  She just came on shift and was told to call the M.E.  The decedent wasn’t her patient. She can’t find anything in the chart etc. etc.  I hear these excuses ALL THE TIME…. Leading me to believe that nursing shifts at the hospital must be about 5 minutes long- because everyone is always “just coming on”.  There’s one mysterious nurse who’s in charge of all the patients and who never calls us because we ONLY get called by nurses who claim the dead patient isn’t “theirs”… and perhaps the hospital charts are written in Sanskrit… About 30 minutes go by while I try to make heads or tails of this conversation

In the mean-time, I overhear on the officer’s radio that an ambulance is being dispatched to the local Hannaford Supermarket for a heroin overdose in the bathroom.  Apparently, the officer sees my face as I hear this because he immediately switches his radio feed to his ear-piece and tells me not to worry about it… so I don’t.  If the guy in the Hannaford’s bathroom is dead and I’m about to be dispatched there… the officer would tell me, right?

-22:40- I am leaving the scene of the dysfunctional roommate call after having drawn blood for toxicology… at the request of the family. Because apparently they cannot be dissuaded from their theory that the roommate’s granddaughter is a criminal mastermind.  (Having met her, I am disinclined to agree.  She doesn’t strike me as being overly clever… just really loud) As I crawl back into the county truck, my pager goes off again.  I am being dispatched to a deceased overdose in the bathroom of the local Fred Meyer.  The officer who assured me “not to worry” is nowhere to be seen. Someone needs to fire every patrol officer in Oswald County! I rage to myself as I put the truck in drive and proceed to the Hannaford’s.

-22:50- When I get there, the store is about 10 minutes from closing.  There are a few curious customers still milling about and a handful of store employees.  They are all gathered close by the hallway where the bathrooms can be found.  Anyone who isn’t a cop looks frightened and lost… and that’s probably the only thing that keeps me from purchasing a rotisserie chicken and devouring the entire bird right there using only my hands and teeth… I figure these fine citizens are already traumatized enough.

The deceased young man in the bathroom does not have any illicit substances on him, nor is there a syringe present.  The young man’s cell-phone is also missing. However we do find a syringe cap, as well as a used alcohol wipe… which is weird because most heroin addicts don’t bother to swab their skin clean before injecting.  So maybe this guy was… I don’t know… a really clean heroin user.  The lack of evidence, and lack of cell phone… along with the fact that the bathroom door was unlocked when the guy was found, all of this indicates that when he overdosed someone was in the bathroom with him.  Doubtless, when the young man went unconscious and couldn’t be roused, this other person grabbed any evidence that could link them to the incident and took off.  The police take custody of security camera recordings in the hopes they might see who accompanied the young man into the bathroom… but no one is holding their breath… except the dead guy.  He’s going to be holding it for a long time.

I perform a blood draw and a urine draw so that we can conduct toxicology on this case.  I take the requisite pictures.  And in about 2 hours, I’m leaving the scene, climbing into the county truck when the pager goes off again

-00:30- St. Jerome’s has another death.  He’s 63 years old with a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm.  I blearily write down notes in my notebook… each letter I write looks vaguely like a dancing stick figure at a rave.  I hope I’ll be able to read my writing tomorrow when I find myself mired in paperwork purgatory.

-00:50- I am driving away from the Hannaford’s and I’m halfway home when my pager goes off again.  I go ahead and cuss a few times because I think I’ve earned it and call the number on the pager to find it’s one of the officers at the Hannford’s call. I left my camera there.  I can see my home from where I am, but turn the truck around to drive back the way I came.  The officer offers to meet me halfway and deliver the camera to me in the parking lot of an auto-parts store.  Just like that, the Oswald County Sheriff’s department is, once again, the greatest law enforcement agency in all the world.

When the officer and I meet in the parking lot, I ramble out some smeared, bleary-eyed expression of gratitude and she smiles… because she knows.  Everyone in the county has been listening to the dead bodies roll in over the radio.

-01:00 to 02:00- Even though I should probably go to bed, I stay up and eat some dinner (breakfast?) and get some preliminary case-file writing done… just so I have an outline to follow tomorrow when all of the report writing and phone-calling begins in earnest.  Each case (both partials and full, alike) represents anywhere from 30 minutes to 5 hours of follow up work… depending on the complexity of the story, the availability of the next of kin and the cooperation of multiple other agencies… including, but not limited to law enforcement, hospitals, physicians, funeral homes etc.

At about 2 a.m. I fall into bed… and dream of my new career… as a professional aerobics instructor.  I bet I’d be good at that…

 

 

 

#MedicalExaminerProblems

I have a super cool job, I’m not gonna lie.

This profession has allowed me to do all kinds of nifty stuff.  For example:

There aren’t many jobs out there where you are allowed… and, in fact, encouraged to cut up human beings.

I recently decided that it would be beneficial to get some cross-training with the autopsy/pathology technicians.  It’s been at least a decade since I took Anatomy and Physiology, and it’s a good idea to maintain a solid familiarity with what goes on with people internally, this will help me to evaluate dead people externally.  Furthermore, there are some jurisdictions in the country where the medicolegal death investigators are also the autopsy technicians… so to make myself more marketable in this field (should I ever want to leave my current position… which doesn’t seem likely. But still, never say never) it would behoove me to know how to “cut”.

This is what the pathologists called it when they called me to schedule my autopsy lessons.

“So I understand you want to learn to cut,” they would say, as though I was asking for instruction on how to knit or dance the tango.  “Well that’s just super!  I’ve got a post (short for “a post-mortem exam”) tomorrow morning that I think would be a great way for you to get your feet wet!”

I wasn’t sure if this was a euphemism or not.

(Turns out it was both figurative and literal.)

Anyway, thats how I found myself elbow deep in a dead guy with Dr. Smith standing over me, cheering me on. “That’s it!” he bellowed. “Really get your elbow into it, nice long strokes!”  It turns out, the doctors were enthusiastic about me jumping right in, so to speak, because not long ago, they had something of an autopsy technician drought.  They only had one tech for four doctors. Sure, they could have put out a cattle call for autopsy techs, but apparently it really IS hard to find good help these days.  Posting an add on Craigslist isn’t exactly a great way to find quality “cutters”.  And nobody wanted to deal with an influx of nut-jobs who all clamined to be proficient at chopping people up.

Consequently, when someone relatively known and trustworthy… as in I had already passed an extensive background check… stated that they wanted to learn to “cut”, the doctors were delighted.

Of course the downside of this new training of mine was the fact that I am now WAY TOO familiar with the odor of freshly exposed, ripe, un-preserved human intestines… which is one of the more ghastly aspects of the whole autopsy experience. Human intestines smell just awful.  I mean really, REALLY rank.  And just this morning, when I was about to add some cooked rice to my frittata, I couldn’t help but notice that, when i opened up the tupperware container,  the week old rice gave off a waft of stench that was so acutely similar to that of human intestines, I quietly gagged, fed the offedning substance to my dogs and had to cook a whole new batch of rice.  My breakfast was delayed for half an hour. #MedicalExaminerProblems.

Another cool thing that I get to do is go and look at bones that people dig up.  You may not know this, but the ground around us is simply littered with all manner of bones.  Generally these bones completely disintigrate before we see them.  But things die around us all the time and we don’t typically notice… until something dies and leaves behind a bone that looks like it might be human.

People find bones all the time.  Folks find them when they dig up their garden, when they do home improvements, when they put a new fence in their yard.  Usually these bones are either old, chewed up butcher bones that someone gave to a dog long ago… or they are the bones of a pet that was buried by a previous property owner.

I don’t mind going out to look at bones.  It gives me a chance to interact with the public in a way that doesn’t involve me explaining their loved one’s cause and manner of death.  And besides, so far no one has presented me with anything that was actually a human bone.  However, sometimes I am dealt a wild card.

Last week, I was called out to a rural part of my county for a discovered bone.  I wasn’t busy so I went ahead and drove out to the location, only to find that the sheriff’s deputy that had originally made contact with the property owners and then called me in… he was was long gone.  I rolled up to the location he gave me and I didn’t see a deputy vehicle anywhere.  I called him up to ask if I had the address right and he said he was sorry, but he had to leave.  There was a big car accident nearby (non-fatal, he assured me) and the accident trumped the bone discovery.  “But the property owners are expecting you”.  He said.  “They’ll take you out to the bone.”

That’s how I came to be perched on the back of an ATV, getting carried off into the woods with a couple of complete strangers.  I had my scene bag and some suppplies with me, but otherwise I was defenseless and completely at the mercy of these folks… who seemed very nice and earnest.  But still, for some reason whenever I am being led into a densely wooded area by strangers, I can’t shake the suspicion that they’re taking me out there to kill me.  We parked the ATV  and hiked into a dry river bed on the edge of their property.  On the way into the woodlands they gushed about how they had just moved to the area and how much they loved exploring their new property and , my my, isn’t the fall foliage lovely?  Meanwhile I was following them at a safe distance and evaluating their body mass, muscle-tone and overall fightability i case I had to  fend them off and then run for my truck…. because I don’t always ASSUME the worst, but I like to be prepared for it… just in case.  #MedicalExaminerProblems

My caution was completely forgotten though when they pointed out the bone.

It was utterly magnificent… and marvelously weird.  Here, take a look:

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For those of you who can’t see it too well (because this is a crappy picture taken with my cell-phone)  That’s a long bone shaft with two articulated phalanges, most likely tarsals… OR, in daily-speak.  What you have there is a distal limb- either a front leg or a back leg, with two toes still attached… and in case you hadn’t already picked up on this, No, it’s most decidedly NOT human.

So… it’s weird because it’s actually really big.  This picture doesn’t do it justice because I was in a hurry to get my hands on it and I forgot to put something down next to it to offer scale comparison.   But this little gem here is a DENSE bone, and it’s BIG.  About 1.5 times the length of an average adult human radius (imagine elbow to your wrist).  Length-wise it’s comparable to an average adult human femur (thigh to your knee) but it’s way too thick and the morphology (General shape) is all wrong.  And by the way, yes, I did say there are two toes there… toes that are disproportionately big compared to the rest of the bone… and there’s only two.  There no talus (heel bone) and it didn’t really look like it used to have one and it just fell off or was chewed off by an animal.  All this to say, I had absolutely no fucking CLUE where the hell this bone came from.  It was probably a quadruped, but other than that, the animal that yielded himself to the hereafter and thereby left this bone in a dry river bed… was completely outside my realm of experience.  Leading me to tell the couple who found it that it was from a Minotaur.

They blinked at me.

“Either that or it’s Sasquatch.”

Seriously, though, I followed that up with telling them that I really wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew it wasn’t human and therefore, it was of no LEGAL interest to the county and/or state.  However, since it was something of a mystery, I would be happy to take it off their hands and deliver it to the state forensic anthropologist who liked to get weird animal bones for the sake of comparison and study.  She might know what it was.  They were, above all, delighted to hear that there weren’t human remains scattered on their new real-estate acquisition.  And they were really enthusiastic to hear what the bone was… as was the sheriff’s deputy who I called back to tell him that while he had been dealing with his auto-wreck, I had determined that the bone was non-human.

“Well, if you ever find out what it is, let me know,” he said.  “That shit was way weird.”

I packed up the bone in a paper bag and stowed it in the county vehicle, switching it to my own vehicle at the end of shift because I was planning to head down to the state office to do some more “cutting” on my day off and I figured I’d deliver it to the anthropologist at that time.

I called her before the end of my shift and when she answered, I couldn’t help but gleefully tell her that a dragon bone had been found in our county. (Quickly followed by an explanation that , it wasn’t REALLY a dragon bone.  I simply had no idea what kind of bone it WAS….because I don’t think she would have picked up on that if I hadn’t told her.)

“Cool!” she chirped in response.  “Bring it on in! I can’t wait to see it!”

It took some time, but when I finally did bring the bone in to Dr. Tilly, she was utterly mystified as well.  “I really have no idea what it is,” she murmured.  “I think it really IS a dragon bone.”

The bone actually ended up languishing in my car for a couple of days because I didn’t get down to the state as soon as I thought I would.  I had a bunch of errands to run and mundane tasks to attend to. The dragon bone made my car stink a little bit, but I didn’t notice until a passenger pointed it out… because everything smells like death to me… all the time #MedicalExaminerProblems.

Maybe 24 hours later, I was hanging out with my dog, having a nice little free evening, in which I planned to watch some Netflix, eat some chocolate and basically sleep for a good eight or nine hours.  I meandered over to my dog’s crate where he was chilling and noted with some dismay that he had puked up his breakfast from earlier in the day.

“What’s the matter, little buddy?” I asked as I picked him up and carried him over to the bed where there was more light.  As though in response to the question, my petite terrier-mix rescue pup promptly yarked up a whole gut-full of fluid, foam and bile. “Holy shit!” I shrieked, as the whole mess dumped right onto the clean sheets. I quickly put the dog on the floor and whisked the sheets into a wadded-up knot before the fluids could seep into the mattress pad.  Then I picked up my dog and headed for the door… not really a moment of hesitation.  I know my dog and I’ve seen him vomit up any number of substances. Whatever the hell this business was, it wasn’t benign and it wasn’t normal or okay. My little dog seemed somnolent almost to the point of unconsciousness.  His breathing was sporadic and shallow and he only managed to wag his tail weakly at me as I interrogated him for info. Much as I hated the thought, we were headed to the 24-hour emergency vet.

The wait was agonizing.  After I showed up at their door in my pajamas with a frantic explanation of his symptoms, the vet clinic staff spirited my little dog away for evaluation and treatment.  Despite the fact that I was the only person in the place at midnight, it still took them an hour to come talk to me, and when they did, the conversation wasn’t exactly enlightening.

“Given his presentation, we think it may be some kind of ingestion.  Can you think of anything he might have eaten in the last couple of days that might have been bad for him?”

I couldn’t think of anything he had eaten other than his food, which had all been vomited up.  The vet said that she had given him some anti-nausea meds, but she thought the best course of action was to perform an abdominal x-ray to see what was in there.

Another 2 hours passed, during which I completed every cross-word puzzle in the waiting room.  The vet reappeared and informed me that there seemed to be something spongy in my dog’s colon.  “It might be stuffing from a stuffed animal or something… but it’s causing a bowel obstruction.  That’s where all the vomiting came from.”

“Okay,” I prompted. “So, what can we do about that?  He doesn’t need surgery, does he?”

“No,” she said. “It’s managed to get through his small intestine, which is GOOD.  Now we just have to get it out of his large intestine.  We’ll give him repeated enemas until it comes out… Usually it only takes one, but it might take up to three.  We’ll sedate him first.”

“Okay, that’s fine, great.  Do whatever you have to.”

Another two hours and it was now inching closer to 5 a.m. when a vet technician came to the front desk and started doing some paperwork.

“Hey,” I called to him as I stumbled up from my chair.  “What’s going on with my dog? Is he okay? Did the stuff come out?”

The vet tech looked at me as though I was a ragged-haired, wild-eyed, sleep-deprived crazy person… strange.

“The doctor will be out in a second to let you know what’s going on,” He said haughtily.

When the doctor did come out, a few minutes later, she had a quizzical expression on her face.

“Did it come out? What was it?” I pleaded.

“Well, we’re not sure…” she said. “It turned out to be these little white pellet-like things.  It looked spongy on the x-ray because these little pellets were suspended in his fecal matter.  I’m really not certain what they were.”

“Jeez,” I gaped. “You don’t think they were fertizier pellets or anything, do you?”

“No… they were hard… like they might have been bone or something.  Did he have a bone?”

“Oh my GOD…” I whispered, the truth finally hitting home.  “It was the dragon bone…”

Suddenly, I remembered.  I had taken my little dog to his regular vet to get shots right after the end of my last shift… and hadn’t I run into a Starbucks really quick to grab a cup of coffee?  And hadn’t that bone been sitting on the floor of the front seat?  And hadn’t it smelled… unpleasant by human standards…but probably downright delectable to a dog?  AND hadn’t I noticed a hole in the bag when I dropped it off for the anthropologist… a little ragged hole that I passed off as being from a rough edge of the bone cutting through the paper as I wrapped it up?  Couldn’t that little hole have been caused by a set of little teeth… belonging to a little dog… who just racked up a  BIG vet bill?

$700.00 later…

I have no idea what kind of bone my dog at chewed on. That plugged up his little guts. I’ve called Dr. Tilly a few times, asking her if she’s figured it out yet… and I suspect she thinks my preoccupation with identifying this obviously-non-human bone is a little… obsessive.

What can I say?  If my dog consumed the tissue of a mystical animal… any number of things may happen… so now, here I sit… staring at my little 10-pound terrier mix, waiting for the bomb to drop.  For all I know, at any moment he might sprout wings and… horns… and start flying around the apartment… breathing fire all over the place… Furious and vengeful because I’m the bitch who gave the go ahead for him to have foreign items inserted in his little puppy-butt. “Do whatever you have to do” I told them. When my dog turns into a dragon, he’s gonna kill me…

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… any second now…

PUCK!

…waiting…

#MedicalExaminerProblems