Saturday, February 24, 2007

Notes from the Morgue

DEB BAKER (Guest blogger)

How shall the burial rite be read?
The solemn song be sung?
The requiem for the loveliest dead,
That ever died so young?
A PAEAN, Edgar Allan Poe

I'm in the autopsy room with the deputy medical examiner. My sixteen-year-old daughter's face is twisted into a mask of agony.

"What am I doing here, anyway?" Ana says, griping in my ear again. It's a good question. Besides the three of us already mentioned, four young males complete the circle around the examining table. Two speeders, two car thieves. Not exactly my daughter's usual circle. Ana’s crime? Misjudging a left hand turn at a light. The oncoming car clipped her bumper. She’s in the morgue because of judge’s orders.

One of the carjackers is trying to stay awake. He shifts back and forth, eyes closing, while the Medical Examiner explains the autopsy procedure. I'm the only one who really wants to be there.

“How can you be absolutely sure the person is dead when they are bagged at the scene?” I ask, seizing the opportunity. I’m a mystery writer. I can’t help myself. “Have you ever bagged a live person?”

I get a poke in the back for my curiosity. “Shhh.” It’s my daughter. I’m embarrassing her. Nervous tittering from the captive audience. I think it’s a good question and wish I had my notebook along.

“That couldn’t possibly happen,” says the deputy medical examiner. “We have ways of knowing.”

Yah, sure. The mystery author in me doesn’t quite believe it. That begs another question. How does the M.E. know? I suspect she’s making it up. Before I can present the question, my daughter is tromping on my toes. She’s five-nine, I’m five-two. She has an advantage.

BTW, Six Feet Under was one of my all time favorite shows.

So my next question? "Do you really tag the body’s toes?"

“Yes,” the deputy M.E. says, frowning a little at my enthusiasm. I’m supposed to be appalled into solemn silence by the morgue, not doing cartwheels. She’s not sure I’m helping her cause.

A police officer shows us pictures, not of bodies, but of vehicles. “This one,” he says, “is a fatality. Three boys dead, the driver of the oncoming car, dead. The driver, sixteen-years-old, was the only survivor.”

More pictures, half of them the same type of accident my daughter had.
It starts to sink in. These kids slept-walked through the cold storage room, the bagging procedure, and graphic autopsy procedures. But accident pictures and the stories behind them have had an effect.

It’s about time.

Each of them believes they are infallible, nothing can hurt them. But they don’t have that same confidence when it comes to their friends’ lives. No one stopped to think about the friends in the car. Before now.

Ana isn’t complaining anymore. Her boyfriend had been in the passenger seat. What if…..? I’m noticeably quiet. Everyone in the room is thinking about what could have been.

All of us are grateful for what was.
The boys start asking question, looking thoughtful.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great post, Deb. Thanks for sharing the experience and mixing the humor and extreme seriousness so deftly. Your daughter should be grateful you didn't pipe up about being a mystery writer--she'd have been even more embarrassed. Liz

Sandra Parshall said...

I think Tess Gerritsen (who is a doctor) would differ with the assertion that declaring a living person dead "could never happen." She says there have been real cases of this happening. She used such an incident in her novel VANISH. The mystery writer in me wants to believe it's possible, of course.