My best friend — my only friend — died when I was in seventh grade. Leukemia.
I didn’t know how to handle it, didn’t know how to cope, but I managed well enough. I was young, and kids have a gift for evolving to survive their situations. I did what most kids do when they lose someone: I cried, I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling and asked God why they could be so cruel, why they would ignore our prayers and pleas, and eventually, I realized that God had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t some all-powerful being’s fault my friend was gone, nor was it the fault of the doctors who did everything in their power to save her and failed. It was the fault of a tiny defect in genetic coding, a fluke, a flaw in the double helix that broke her whole being. I learned that, and I thought I had found the answers to it all. It could be that simple, could be explained so easily. It was genetics or environment; it was a natural disaster or a result of poverty and deprivation; it was a violent attack or a stupid accident. However it happened, it happened for a distinct, explainable reason. Simple as that.
When I turned 16, I followed what had become a fervent, desperate dream and began work as an intern at my local hospital. It was … glorious. I was bathed in this halo of self-righteousness and pride, of this concept that I was “making a difference,” that I could be that person, that key to fixing “it,” whatever “it” may be. At least, I felt that for a while. For a whole year, in fact.
Then I transferred into the ICU, and I watched a patient go code blue. I watched doctors and nurses bustle around him with syringes and gloves, watched them defibrillate him, watched his body arch towards the sky — watched the trajectory of his soul. I watched him die on that table, watched the doctor call the date and time, watched them cover him and leave the room in utter chaos, the floor littered with empty syringe packets and the defibrillator still clunking dully as it printed out map of the final peaks and valleys of his dying heart. I stood in that empty room and stared at the form on the bed, breathless, speechless.
That was my first.
Even then, I was still young enough — I coped, I managed. Then the next one passed, and this one I “packed” myself. I touched and rolled and began to zip them up in a disgustingly impersonal white plastic bag, feeling like a butcher wrapping up a piece of meat to be slung up in a meat locker. The attending nurse was gentle and quiet, explaining to me how to roll them softly, how to tie their wrists together gently so they wouldn’t bruise and wouldn’t freeze in rigor and catch on the edges of the gurney when moved. She told me she still spoke to them even after, still whispered a low apology when tearing bandages and wraps from their skin, taking flecks of hair and tissue with them. She said she sometimes thought that somehow, they were still there and appreciated the sentiment.
I was skeptical, but in the end, she was right. I cringed and hoarsely whispered “sorry” as I pulled out an IV, trailing an oozing dribble of blood onto the starched white sheets. And somehow, it felt less brutal that way. I even said goodbye as I zipped the bag, sealing them away. And it felt better that way. Then there was the third. And the fifth and the seventh. By the last one, my halo had completely faded. As I rolled the form under my hands — still warm with the fading vestiges of life — into that white plastic, I began to wonder why: why the family must mourn beside an unoccupied body for so long, why they must be so selfish — the ER where I worked was packed that day, and others needed this bed more than the stiff did.
I forced myself to swallow my callousness, hating myself for it, and moved on. Ten minutes later there was a zippered bag on a bare hospital bed and that “stiff” was on its way to the icebox.
Sometimes I feel it creeping in at the edges of my being, on the outer limits of my consciousness. I hear it whispering in my ear, feel it settling in the hollows between my bones where the wind rattles through on cold evenings while I walk to my car in the back parking lot after a late shift. I hold my keys between my fingers like claws, the way my mother taught me I always should, as I bounce from puddle to puddle of sickly yellow light cast by the interspersed street lamps leading to my parked car. I finally reach my car, but I don’t get in just yet — no, I look up at the sky, breathe in the sharp air, look at the hazy clusters of stars above my head and listen to the rattle of my being, to the sensations tingling in my mind. It’s fear, it’s anxiety, it’s doubt. I live in a world encompassed by death, and it scares the shit out of me. It’s an inevitability, an unavoidable outcome to an unpredictable event, and yet … and yet, despite its concrete nature, it seems so ethereal, so spiritual.
I can’t help but think about it. I can’t help but remember the pallor of the once-brother, once-father, once-son under my blue-gloved hands, can’t help but recall the limp lilt of his lips or the fixed gaze of his unfocused eyes just before they were hidden behind a sheet and plastic covering. I had built a wall around myself so that these seemingly unnatural components of his being no longer bothered me, so that I could do my work and move on. But there’s something innate and uncontrollable about caring, something that quickly evolves to become toxic and bubbling and contagious. It eats away at that defense system and gnaws at the base of my brain. Like a worm, it burrows into my mind, and I can’t shake the unease built by my uncertainty.
Today, I sit at my grandfather’s funeral. I cry, but not for him — again, call me heartless, call me calloused, but I was young and he was distant. I hardly had a solid image of him in my mind to cry over, hardly a real, concrete personality to mourn. No, I don’t cry for this invisible man, not for this man I had seen time and time again trapped in the bodies of the patients at the hospital whose hands I held while their families stood by, paralyzed in their own personal hells. No, I don’t cry for him. I cry for my father. I cry because when I see my grandfather’s ashes placed on the altar, when I hear them play “Taps” and perform the flag folding ceremony, I don’t see my grandfather. I imagine my father; I see him with a fixed gaze and a flaccid tongue protruding obscenely from his dried lips. I picture my father in a wheelchair, gazing out a window as I sit beside him, ignorant of my presence, of even my name or my love. I envision my father, his memories consumed by a beast in his brain named Alzheimer’s, the Great Eater of Souls. I imagine my father on the altar, and I cry because I am afraid. I am 18, and I bear my fear in silence. It’s a fear I’ve carried with me since that moment, one I can’t make fade. Just like death itself, fear is an unavoidable side effect of life.
I’m 18 and death abounds. I’m 18, and I’ve faced death on an altar and in a gurney, in a school desk and in the mirror. I’m 18 and I’ve danced with death in the bathroom and on a scale, at work and at school, in my words and in my voice. I’m 18 and I’ve touched the dead and found that sometimes, when you can see death, you see the most intimate facets of life within anyone and anything in the world. And that suits me just fine.
Contact Olivia Staser at [email protected]