Vagando por las Fronteras

I have worked with dead bodies for most of my life. I’ve been a morgue assistant, a medical student, and for one terrible summer, a member of a cleanup service that cleaned not household grime but the results of murders and suicides. Presently I am the coroner of Orleans Parish. I handle bodies and things that no longer even look like bodies; I sit alone with them late at night; I look into their faces and try to see what, if anything, they knew at the end. I do not fear them.

And yet not long ago I had a dream. In this dream, I knew somehow that my neighbor was in trouble, and I climbed her porch steps to see if I could help. As I stood at her door, I knew with the unquestionable logic of dreams that she was in there, violated and dead. When I touched the door, it swung open, and I could see that the furniture inside was tumbled and smashed.

“I can’t go in,” I said (to whom?), “the burglar might still be in there. I’ll go back home and call the police.” And that was sound reasoning. But truly, I could not enter the house because I feared seeing the body.

It’s not that I am close to this neighbor; with the modern passion for privacy, we’ve spoken no more than twenty words in the years we’ve lived beside each other. It was not her specific body I feared in the dream. I can explain it no more clearly than this: I feared seeing what her body had become.

When I woke up, I couldn’t understand exactly what I had been afraid of. But I know that if the dream ever returns, I will be just as coldly terrified, and just as helpless.

I saw a man die at my gym recently. I have a bad back from lifting so much inert human weight, and I keep it at bay by exercising on Nautilus machines. On my way to the locker room one hot afternoon, I became aware of a commotion in the swimming pool area. A man had just been found on the bottom of the pool. It seemed likely that he had gone into cardiac arrest, and no one knew how long he had been underwater. Two people – another doctor I know and a personal trainer - were giving him CPR as various gym staffers and members swarmed around. There was nothing I could do. I knew the man was probably dying, and I realized that while I had seen thousands of dead people, I had never actually seen anyone die. I didn’t want to see it now, but I couldn’t make myself turn away. He was barely visible through the crowd of people trying to help him: a pale pot belly; a pair of white legs jerking with the motion of artificial respiration but otherwise dreadfully still; the wrinkled soles of his feet; his swim trunks still wet. Somehow the wet swim trunks were the worst. Of course they’re still wet, I thought; he was just pulled out of the pool. But they brought home to me the fact that he was never going to go back to the locker room and pull off the trunks, glad to be rid of their clinging clamminess. They could cling to him throughout eternity and he wouldn’t care.

Eventually the paramedics showed up and shocked him with their defibrillator, put a breathing tube down his throat, gave him a shot of adrenaline. None of it worked. I’m not sure if the man was dead or alive when they finally took him out to the ambulance. The saddest thing was that nobody seemed to know his name. Apparently he’d just joined the gym, another fat New Orleanian determined to finally get in shape, but unable to pace himself. I saw them on my table all the time. People kept asking each other who he was, but no one knew. I hated the idea that he might have died in a place where not only did no one love him, but no one even knew him.

From the moment I realized I couldn’t help him to the moment they strapped him to the stretcher and carried him out, I felt that I shouldn’t be watching. It felt wrong somehow to be looking at him, even though I was holding my St. Joseph medal and praying for him. When I performed autopsies, I didn’t feel this way at all. I knew those people were dead and didn’t give a damn who looked at them, and in many cases I was performing one of the last kind (if brutal) acts anyone was ever going to do for them. But this man was not alive, not dead, not yet ready for my table, no longer a part of the laughing, eating, living world. He was in the borderlands, and it seemed a very personal moment that all of us strangers shouldn’t be looking at…but we all did, as if he might give us the answer to the question we’d been yearning for ever since we were old enough to conceive of our own deaths.

There is no profession, no occupation, no state of jadedness that confers immunity from fear of death. The taboo is too strong; we can lessen it through exposure but never eliminate it entirely. The horror movies are riveting, but, I think, wrong: we do not believe the dead will come back to life and hurt us. Rather, we fear them because they will never come back to life, and because we can never know where they have gone. In that way, we are the ones wandering the borderlands. We are lost and they are found. They know a terrible secret, and they will never share it with us.

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