Memento Mori? I Wish I Could Forget

It takes a lot of cognitive dissonance to get through this life knowing that sooner or later it’s going to end and we don’t know when and we don’t know what happens next. We must accept the grim reality of death every time we lose someone close to us and feel the pain of irretrievable loss and the chilling, inescapable knowledge that, as Shakespeare pointed out, we owe God a death.

I’ve been pondering this since I was 17, when one of my aunts in her mid-40s died of a brain tumor. She had an open-coffin funeral, and that’s the first time I recall seeing a corpse. I remember being greatly impressed at first by the undertaker’s handiwork. At a distance, she didn’t appear to be dead. She seemed to have chosen a very odd place to take a nap, fully clothed.

But when I got closer, the artificiality of her appearance became glaringly apparent. There was something strange about her lying in a coffin looking as though she’d fallen asleep with too much makeup on.

A few years later I saw death without the cosmetics and preservatives when I witnessed an autopsy as an Army medic. It was the summer of 1973 and I was in training at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia. A Navy chief petty officer in his early 50s had gotten up and gone to work like he’d done every day for 30 years, and then dropped dead while on duty. The poor guy began his day like any other and ended up on a cold stainless-steel slab.

The pathologist used his grim gleaming tools to open the man’s thorax. He removed the heart and used a scalpel to cut onionskin-thin slices so he could examine them for signs of a stroke. I was one of four medics, all in our early 20s, standing a respectful distance from the autopsy table.

This was an important part of our training, and the pathologist told us to step closer. “That’s OK,” I said, presuming to speak for the group and trying for a little wry humor. “I can see just fine from here.”

The pathologist, bending over the heart, paused for a moment, his scalpel poised in mid-air. He looked up at me over the rims of his glasses. On his face was an expression of obvious disdain. “This isn’t a pretty process,” he said. “You’ll have to get used to that.”

We reluctantly stepped closer and examined the precise slices of the heart. We also watched as the brain and other organs were removed. A couple hours later we went to the mess hall for lunch. The special was sliced roast beef. Couldn’t even look at it.

A couple years later I was out of the Army and back in school at Belmont Abbey College to get credits I needed for admission to the University of North Carolina. I was home for the weekend before final exams. It was early Sunday morning, and I was eating breakfast and thinking about the ordeal ahead.

The phone rang. My mother answered. It was my aunt, who lived a couple hundred yards down the road. Her husband had had a massive heart attack during the night. Please come, she said.

He was sprawled on the bedroom floor, cold and stiff. The expression frozen on his face indicated that his last moments had been a very unpleasant surprise.

A few more years passed. I was a student at UNC. I was taking a course in film criticism. We watched M*A*S*H”, the classic dark comedy satire directed by Robert Altman about a front-line medical unit during the Korean War.

After the movie, the class divided into discussion seminars. A young woman in my class complained about the doctors, nurses and medics making jokes about death and dying. She thought it was crude, cruel and insensitive.

I raised my hand. I was an Army medic, I said. If youre around that every day, the only way you can stay sane is to make fun of it. If you dont, youll go nuts. 

I thought Id been very helpful. But a long silence fell over the class until the grad student directing the seminar, sensing the awkwardness, changed the subject.

What did I do? I thought. Its true. If youve been there you know. But I didnt say anything more.

I also worked as a pharmacy technician at North Carolina Memorial Hospital. One day I was delivering drugs to a ward when I heard a woman shout from behind a closed door, “I don’t care who you get! Get somebody! Get anybody!”

The door flew open and a nurse stepped quickly into the hallway, looked around hurriedly, and saw me. I was wearing the white jacket that identified me as a member of the hospital staff. She pointed at me and motioned for me to follow her.

I saw two other nurses standing over a huge woman sitting in a wheelchair. She was going into cardiac arrest, and the nurses had to get her out of the wheelchair and onto a bed to perform CPR. I took her legs and two nurses took her shoulders. We struggled to lift her. But the dying woman weighed more than 300 pounds. I felt her slipping from my grasp, so I slid my knee beneath her buttocks to keep from dropping her. I felt something warm and damp on my knee.

At that moment the door burst open and the hospital’s cardiac arrest response team poured noisily into the room. The doctor in charge saw us struggling to lift her onto the bed. “Put her on the floor!” he shouted. We gently lowered her and stepped back. She was instantly surrounded by the medical team as they began the frantic, highly choreographed and ultimately futile struggle to revive her. I figured they didn’t need me any longer so I slipped quietly out the door and went back to my job.

Back in the pharmacy I discovered a brown spot on the left knee of my white corduroy jeans. I realized that the woman had died when I’d slid my knee under her, and at that moment her sphincter relaxed and her bowel emptied.

After I graduated from Carolina I got a job in Georgia covering the cop beat for the Macon Telegraph. My job was to chase cops and firefighters every time they moved. I became part of a small, select group that gathered when someone died violently or of unexplained causes—cops, firefighters, paramedics, the county coroner and me. Soon the cops recognized me when I arrived. They trusted me, and they’d wave me past the police line. I’d join the privileged group studying the death tableau. Sometimes after looking at the gruesome scene I exchanged knowing glances with the others.

I became a familiar sight on local TV stations’ coverage of untimely deaths on the 11 o’clock news. As viewers watched the TV reporters in the foreground do their standup, I’d be seen in the background, wearing aviator sunglasses, a leather flight jacket over a T-shirt or pullover sweater, jeans and sneakers. Walkie-talkie and portable police radio scanner dangling from my belt. Standing in front of flames or a wrecked car that had been torn and twisted and battered out of shape by the savage forces of high-speed impact. Talking to a cop and jotting notes in my notebook.

After a couple years of this I started seeing death as a tragic circus at which my presence was required. Sometimes I loved it. Sometimes I hated having to immerse myself in this public spectacle, learn every sad gory detail of the last moments of someone’s life, and write about it. Part of me got tougher. Another part of me quietly and secretly freaked out. Sometimes I thought I’d scream if I had to see one more stiff. Sometimes after my shift ended at midnight, I’d lie awake staring into the darkness until dawn because I couldn’t scrub a gruesome image or a tragic event from my mind.

Some of the angst gradually faded when I moved on to covering politics for other newspapers, but some of the memories have never left me. The sobbing, grief-stricken mother kneeling over the bleeding body of her toddler son who’d been standing on the sidewalk and was hit by a drunk driver. The horribly mangled farmer who’d fallen backwards off his tractor and been plowed into the Georgia earth by his huge, heavy plow. The teenager fishing from a small two-lane bridge over a creek out in the country who’d hooked a big one, tried to reel him in, forgot where he was, and stepped backwards right into the path of a car doing 60 mph.

As I got older, I realized that my experiences with death separated me from the masses and, like that moment in the film criticism class at UNC, imposed a different view of life on me. Not many people had seen a body clinically disassembled like so many spare parts, or had someone die in their arms, or watched paramedics pick up pieces of human brain after a terrible car wreck. I believed I knew something about life that others didn’t know and didn't want to know. I believed that knowledge had altered my outlook on life and separated me from others. I felt alienated.

When my wife and I lived in South Florida in the 1990s, I discovered that Key West’s dark sense of humor and quirky take on life are reflected in the city’s cemetery, where residents have long thumbed their noses at the Grim Reaper with hilarious epitaphs. A man who died decades ago took a posthumous dig at his doubting friends with the inscription, “I told you I was sick.” Another took a shot at the stratospheric cost of real estate with this parting quip about the only plot of land he could afford in the city: “I always dreamed of owning a small place in Key West.”

My favorite is one apparently written by a wife weary of her late husband’s constant philandering. She had her unfaithful mate’s tombstone inscribed: “At least I know where you’re sleeping tonight.”

Humor, I thought. That’s the only real answer. Show the Reaper you’re not intimidated by him and leave something behind to bring a chuckle to those who happen past your marker years after you've departed.

I searched for a one-liner to sum up my sense of alienation and my reluctant acceptance of life’s inevitable unpleasantness. Eventually something came to me. For the record, I want this inscribed on my tombstone: “At last, I’m part of the majority.”

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