Hello to all!
It has been such a long time since I have written. The winter seems to have mostly passed me by, though I have no doubt that Chicago has one last cold spell, perhaps even a snow storm, to bestow upon us before spring really comes. I hear that, really, it does not get warm and lovely here until June, the end of June, even. Smile. We shall see. There is so much news to share and yet there is something impersonal about news, I think, something distant and wanting. This is what I did and then this and this and this, and I went to this place and saw this person. And it was wonderful. Wry smile. Somehow it has not been my style in these musings to share such things too often. There are, however, many things that I could share – things about wet snow that turns immediately to gray slush on the ground but clings whitely to the smallest of tree branches, making the world into a winter wonderland of which Narnia’s White Witch would have been proud, or the first cardinal pair I noticed in late February singing among the shrubbery near Rockefeller Chapel; I could tell of moving into an apartment with a significant other, the challenges and joys of living with another person. I could tell of travels to New York and Vermont, Ohio and Wisconsin, of church services attended with friends, of preaching my first sermon, of visits by friends and by my father, of ice skating for the first time in years. And in some ways, this list tells of this news briefly, leaving the details to your imagination.
For today, today’s story.
Hospitals and medical centers are really designed for people who know how to get around, I think as I follow Dr. Koogler, as we descend into the depths of this building. We enter a hall that looks somehow both bright and dingy in the flourescent lighting. “This would be the perfect setting for some scene in a B-grade horror movie.” My classmate Christian voices my thoughts, and Dr. Koogler laughs as she explains to us what to expect from this upcoming autopsy that we have the priviege to witness. Halfway up the hallway we stop. “I always miss the room,” Dr Koogler tells us, and we turn around and retrace our steps down the bright and dingy hall. We arrive at the stairs from whence we entered. We turn around again, and this time, with the help of a man in scrubs, the technician for the autopsy, as it turns out, we find the proper room. We enter a lecture hall with a stainless steel table in the center and put on plastic gowns (mine sticks to my bear arms), and little booties to cover our shoes (to protect the floor or my shoes, I wonder as I put them on). The autopsy will happen in the next room, the body already awaits us on a stretcher.
I have seen dead bodies before, and this one is no different: I do not touch it, but I can see the cold stiffness in the way the curl of fingers, in the plastic look of the toes. The man was in his mid sixties when he died, a little bit round, someone’s son, husband, father, grandfather, perhaps. I don’t know. I do not believe in souls, but seeing a body after it has been dead for a few days reminds me of seeing a shell, the essence is gone. We sit and Dr Koogler goes into greater detail about what we can expect, the order. They will not do an autopsy of the head and the brain, but she begins to describe what this would entail…. The details go straight to my own brain, and my imagination does wonderful things with them; I feel the blood draining from my face. I grope for a nearby chair and sit, but I can feel my head getting lighter and lighter. “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do this,” I tell Dr Koogler, embarrassed but honest. She suggests that we all go into the other room until the autopsy actually begins. I try to compose myself, walk with my hands on tabletops and chairs until I can sit down again. I remove the plastic gown, my skin has grown clammy beneath it, and sit. Persperation beads on my forehead. I bend my head over my knees and wait for my breath to even out, for my face to cool, for shadow to come back into the world that is turning white.
A dead body. This is what we shall all be some day. A body bereft of life. I did not stay for the autopsy, much as I would have liked to have been able to stay and watch, to witness the wonders of the human body, to watch as this incredible biological entity is systematically deconstructed. Instead I take my body, a bit shaken from nearly passing out, home for a rest. Worn out by what I had seen and my own limitations.
Why tell this story? Because this was my day today. As i think about the dead man, still whole when I went in to see his autopsy performed, I remember a comment a woman who works for Hospice told the students of my class on dealing with death: “You know, most people die the way they lived – if they were surrounded by loved ones in their life, with people always coming and going, they will die like this too; if they were reclusive, shy, reserved, this will be reflected in their death.” It gets me thinking – how I want to die, perhaps that is how I should live. I think also of how separate we keep death, held at arms length, although it will always come close, very close, much closer than we want. We shall be intimate with death. Perhaps some day, it will be our friend. And as such, it is important for us to recognize death, to speak of it when it touches someone that we know. Often not knowing what to say, we remain silent. But perhaps we could find the courage to speak, to recognize the pain and grief, the confusion and anger, sometimes even the relief, that death leaves in its stead. Perhaps we could find the humility to recognize our own humanity and thus our own mortality, and in thinking about how we want to die, we may think about how we want to live.
Smile. Funny how in this time of budding flowers, in this time of spring, I choose death to speak of. Well, such is life. Really.
Much peace and love to all of you.