(*the following post is my contest entry for Scribbit's October Write-Away Contest. You can go to her blog to find out about the contest. Entries are accepted until October 17th.)
(**disclaimer: You may not want to read if you have a weak stomach, but hey, it's a Halloween writing contest!)
It is cold in the room. Cold enough for a light jacket, but even that doesn’t stop the shivering. The fluorescent lights are glaring off the white, peeling walls, but the light is better than the heavy darkness of the late hour. It has to be late, because she can only come to work after hours, and after her children are tucked in bed. I come along for the company, and because I’ve always wondered.
He is lying on the bed, not really needing the sheet that veils him, despite the chill of the air conditioning. He wears not a stitch of clothing underneath the sheet, but maybe at his age he is over all those suffocating inhibitions anyway. His salt-and-pepper hair is greasy and stringy, and his face, overgrown with matching facial scruff needs to be shaved. His eyes, half-opened are already deflating, and his open mouth reveals an incomplete set of yellowed teeth, still harboring bits of whatever his last meal happened to be. His overgrown fingernails are caked with black. I don’t even dare guess black what. The muted, blurred tattoo on his left arm reads "Rosie", and I wonder where she is tonight. His tag identifies him as "S. Grenger"; the tag hanging on his pruney white big toe. "S. Grenger" is dead. Here he is, lying right here in front of me. On the gurney at the mortuary where she works. Dead. On Tuesday he was probably sitting at some table in a ghetto Denny’s with other down-and-out Vietnam vets, reliving the good ol’ days, or maybe even reminiscing about Rosie. Today is Friday, and his time was up.
This is probably the weirdest thing about me, but I have always been fascinated by dead bodies. Not dead people, because I don’t believe the bodies are people. The people go on living elsewhere, but their miraculous mortal vehicles get one last spruce-up, and go the way of all the earth. I wanted to see this process.
The first time I remember seeing a dead body was at my Great-grandmother’s funeral, when I was a child. There she was, all done up, lying in her coffin, and while it looked like her, it also looked like a really good imitation, a wax figure. I wanted to touch it, but I didn’t dare. I wasn’t afraid, but I had seen enough movies of the presumed dead suddenly sitting bolt upright and opening their eyes, and I didn’t want to be the one to spark this chain of events. But I was intrigued, and waited for my next chance to see a dead body.
Fortunately for me, my life has been relatively untouched by the deaths of loved ones, but I have had more than my fair share of dead body experiences. My mother attended school to become a massage therapist. She got to go on this fantastic field trip to the College of Naturopathy, to see the dissected cadavers, as part of her training in the human body. "You gotta get me in on that!" I said, when she told me. Luckily for me, another group was scheduled to go the following week, and I was right on board. The anticipation was something else, I’ll tell you. This was my first hands-on experience with the dead, and I didn’t know how to even prepare.
Before entering the cadaver room, we were warned about the smell, and about the possibility of fainting. I was so curious, I couldn’t imagine I would have that drastic of a reaction, but it was hard to know what to expect. As the doors opened, so did my eyes. There were bodies lining both sides of the room, all male, and skinned, except for their finger tips, ears, and genitalia. Many of them had been further dissected for study. We walked from body to body, identifying muscles, bones, and organs, and sometimes looking for clues pertaining to death. Most of the cadavers had been homeless men, and their livers and lungs witnessed of hard lives and substance abuse. One body had the top of its skull sawed off, and hinged back on, so it was like a human puzzle. Open the skull, take out the brain. Hold a human brain. Wow. A human brain! Everything that man had seen, felt, heard, and experienced had been stored right in that firm, rubbery mass of tissue. I took an eye out of socket and gently pulled the attached muscles that opened and closed the eyelid. Miraculous! What had this eye seen? We saw lung cancer, and cirrhosis of the liver, and plaque in the arteries, and more. We stayed for a few hours, and I couldn’t get enough.
When my mortician friend asked if I’d like to accompany her, late one night, to the mortuary, I didn’t even hesitate. Creepy drive down the darkened freeway, during a windstorm aside, I was ready. We pull up to the locked gates of the mortuary, and she gets out to enter her code on the keypad. We park around back, by the entrance that only the morticians use. It’s the same door she sometimes has to wheel badly decomposing bodies through to hose out the maggots before embalming.
The hallway is long and dark, and lined with coffins, empty coffins newly arrived from manufacturers and protected with foam padding and shrink-wrap. The light switch is at the end of the hall, and around the corner. My heart is beating, but I feign perfect ease.
Dead bodies are kept in refrigeration units. Giant ones, like the walk-in-closet you wish you had. I gulp as she opens the door to the freezer. To my left and to my right are bunk bed type structures, with bodies on each level. Then across the floor between the ‘beds’ are gurneys with more bodies. With no pun intended, it is an out-of-body moment for me, while I gather my senses to the scene before me. Two bodies are assigned this night. The first is "S. Grenger", and the second is an overweight female body which has been autopsied, and is now zipped up in a clear vinyl bag, which is pooling with draining bodily juices.
For the next several hours, I watch as bodies and hair are scrubbed down and washed; thick, congealed blood is pumped from the bodies as formaldehyde is pumped in; eyes and mouths are sewn closed; body cavities are drained and embalmed; a face is shaved; and fingernails are trimmed and cleaned. Even lotion is thoughtfully applied and rubbed in. The autopsied body has a longer process to go through. At one point, it lies like a turkey carcass on the embalming table, its two flaps of skin opened to the sides, exposing an empty body cavity and spinal column. The sawed-off ribs are sitting on one counter, next to the top of its skull, and the organs are in a bucket on the floor. It is hosed out before being repacked with internal organs and embalming powder. The skin of the scalp is draped backwards over the face, but all is tenderly reassembled and reconstructed with such care that no closed-casket will be necessary. It is incredible to watch, and I am aware of the beautiful service that is being provided, this last gift given to these mortal bodies, that while living were loved, and who now are mourned. The white, wax-like bodies have seemingly come to life as they have thawed to room temperature and have gained the healthy color that comes from the pink tint of the formaldehyde that now plumps their veins. They are clean and groomed, and sewn back up. Once dressed, no one will be the wiser as to the process that prepared them for this state. They are dressed in their best, and wheeled to the other side of the room, awaiting their final resting spot. No refrigeration is needed after the embalming process.
This does not scare me. None of it. The radio is playing Lionel Richie and I sing along, not affected by the fact that my audience consists of my friend and about six embalmed bodies. I am not fazed or frightened. Not even when the drain in the floor backs up and blood and bodily fluids start creeping towards my feet. Not even when the arm of one of the bodies, propped up on the exposed rib cage, suddenly slips off and falls over the side of the table, dangling life-like. There is this morbid fascination and curiosity that keeps my attention at its peak. I ask every bold question that I have, and am intoxicated by the answers. I don’t want any walls here; I want all the information. And so it can not be kept from me: The one thing that chills me to the bone and haunts my mind and dreams.
In the freezer, on the third bunk up on the left-hand side, is a small bundle wrapped in a hand-woven Mexican blanket. I have to know. I ask. The blanket is pulled back, and there lies the small, peaceful body of a baby boy with long, feathery eyelashes resting on his broad, high-boned chubby cheeks. He has a yellow haze to his brown skin, but otherwise, he looks like someone’s sweet little man, maybe around six months of age. I have a baby the same age sleeping in his crib at home. This isn’t fair. I can’t hold back the tears that fill my eyes. Apparently, he had been waiting for a liver transplant, but a match could not be found in time. Sweet baby boy. How unfair that a mother has empty arms tonight. How terrifying that life can be so cruel at times, that even little ones can be snatched from its grasp. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not terrifying for the little souls called home; it’s gut-wrenchingly agonizing for the parents left behind.
There is something noble about the elderly bodies that take their turn on the table of the mortuary. They wear marks of life: stretch marks from long-ago pregnancies; laugh lines and wisdom creases; tattoos from the war; scars from reckless masculinity; liver spots from work and play in the sun; crippled hands with arthritis borne from years of overuse. I hold a hand; it is so motherly. I imagine the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches it has made, the dishes it has washed, the floors it has swept, the babies it has held. This body has lived a life. But the little one-- he never even got to crawl, or walk, or fall down. A blessing for him, I suppose. A frightful reminder for me, to hold my own a little closer, a little tighter, and not for one single second unaware.
To me, the most unimaginable horror is that I pull down that hand-woven Mexican blanket and see the face of one of my babies, lying there perfect in every way, still and cold. Every freckle and untamed cowlick; little boy knuckles never calloused with the hard work of a man; little girl lips never kissed by the true love of her dreams; eyes closed forever, withholding the life force that lights up hearts and rooms; the babies that grew in my womb, drank desperately from my breast, strengthened my arms and my back, but nearly broke my heart with love that cannot be contained. It would be too painful to endure: me in the warmth of home, collapsed in the bed where he slept, gathering up blankets around my face in a frantic attempt to breathe in his boy-ness, while my child’s sweet softness lies in a freezer. I cannot even imagine my arms giving him up, unlocking the maternal rigor mortis that holds fast the body grown within my own. I would beg to decompose along with him. How is it fair that the dead at least get the preservation of formaldehyde? Pump something into the veins of the grieving parents so that they might look alive! Their color is gone!
May my children never beat me to the embalming table. Please, God.
I come home after midnight, emotionally exhausted. I have seen the stuff of horror films and crime novels, but the only image keeping me from sleep is the still face of the baby boy. My thoughts are of a mother and father blaming a God whose works seem cruel and indifferent. I must check each of my sleeping children: kiss their faces and check for warmth; rest my hand on their backs and check for breath; whisper ‘I love you’ and watch for stirring. And then I kneel to pray that each of them is given the privilege of living enough life to earn laugh lines, stretch marks, and even scars. Let them read every book, sing every song, cook amazing food and share it with hosts of friends, write something powerful, travel to faraway lands, change the world, fall in love, and even suffer heartache. And may I never have to mother them through death’s dark veil.
(*one more note, while this is a true account, names and a few details were changed to protect the living, and the dead.)