Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Crutches and Corpses

Once, when I was sent out to play, (or maybe just stay out of the way) I found a pair of crutches in the garage and decided to limp around on them like some poor victim of a terrible accident. I think they belonged to my Dad, as even though I was tall for ten, they were too high and hurt my armpits to hold, even adjusted as best I could. More like sprawled out to either side, looking like if I tried hard enough, I might just turn them into stilts. I fumbled around the driveway like this for a while, dividing my time and energy between making up a story to go along with why I'd need these wooden aids for my pretend injury and feeling utterly alone in my imaginary pain. Who plays "Doctor" alone? I don't even remember what I came up with now, things like inventing games for a party of one tend to blur together as an only child. But I do remember my Dad startling me out of my imagination by suddenly appearing from behind his football haze to let me in on one of his assured life lessons.

"You shouldn't play on crutches," he said with authority, "you might end up on 'em for real." As if I could somehow will a broken ankle into existence. I believed him at the time, as if his adage might be some curse I placed on myself. Luckily for me, I showed him, and to-date the only thing I've ever broken is the pinkie toe on my right foot (and maybe a couple of hearts).

I don't mean to suggest that I was a morbid child, you know, to avoid labeling myself, but my lonely pretending rarely consisted of angels and rainbows. Maybe it was a mix of Catholic guilt, or my mother's career in medicine, but something drove my mind to the darker corners of pretend. When I developed the first signs of still-haunting insomnia, I used to pretend I was in a coma to make myself fall asleep. I would lay still and make up stories as to how I had gotten into this state of being. Funny that now I realize that really I was unintentionally experimenting with Yoga. Corpse Pose. Fitting as when I was eleven I had seen real corpses, though they don't call them that in medical school. Cadavers is more or less easier to swallow when it comes to studying the human body.

In sixth grade, my Mom went back to school to get her Physical Therapist license. She used to pick me up from school and take me with her back to her campus. The semester they studied cadavers was a busy one. One night, as it was starting to get late, my homework complete, and unable to find any trouble to get into in the PT Department of UTC, I had sprawled out on a mat outside the room with the bodies to wait for my Mom. She came out and assured me that we could go home soon. I sighed, in the way that only eleven year old's can, covered in boredom and guilt. Instead of my mom chiding me for my impatience, she got a sly look on her face and simply asked me a yes or no question.

"Do you want to see what I've been doing in this class?" The question lingered in the air as I knew it had to do with dead people, but I didn't know much more than the pictures she's been studying in Grey's Anatomy. I quizzically replied, "Sure?". She nodded her head and pointed a powder-residue covered finger at me. "You stay here, I'll be right back".

I bolted up from the blue mat and stood pacing by the door that lead into the carefully closed off space. I pondered what she could possibly mean by that, was she going to show me another picture? A dead pig in a glass jar like I would eventually see in science class? She emerged, smelling of latex and formaldehyde, holding a large, deeply red (ruby red even), human heart. "Whoa", I said and came to get a closer look. She told me it was an enlarged heart, and because of that, it had killed the women from whom it had been extracted. I looked at it carefully, my own heart beating blindly inside me from excitement, fear, and I think pride. My mother was holding a human heart. Whoa.

The next time she took me with her to school I asked her if she knew the lady whose heart she held. "No, baby. The faces are covered up, we don't want to know who they are, we only want to study them." I already knew about people donating their organs to help other people live, but this was a wholly other kind of donation. Some people, including my mother's wishes on her will, dedicate their bodies to science after death so that medical students can get a real hands on learning, from the inside out. As she spoke, again that almost mischievous look in her eye twitched and she asked me calmly, "Do you want to see a cadaver?"

Do I!? You're damn right I do. Not that I said that, I mean, come on, I was eleven, but you get the idea.

I followed her into the refrigerated room under strict orders not to touch ANYTHING, and peered around to find four tables, holding a body each. Just as she said, no identities were needed, their faces were covered, as well as the parts that were not being studied for that exam. I stood, quiet and reverent as a nun, with my hands tucked neatly behind me, staring at what looked like a man's left leg exposed. My mother again put on her powdered latex gloves and began to explain what I lay before me. There was an incision that ran from the toes to the ankle, but no blood,these donatees had been embalmed. The skin had been peeled back to show the inner workings of the top of the foot. My Mom, cool and calm as the room itself, first pointed at the exposed area, saying things like "tendon", "ligament", "bone", etc, then she carefully placed her fingertips around the tendon of the big toe, looked at me earnestly, excitedly, and said, "Watch this".

With baited breath I obeyed my mother and watched as the big toe pointed up, as if stretching out a Charlie Horse. Her fingers had pulled the tendon just so and it moved the pale toe. She released the tendon and silently made her way down the most twisted version of "This Little Piggy Went to Market", making the toes of a dead man come alive with a simple tug of a tendon. I came out of the cooler feeling like I'd been let in on some big secret. Like when you overhear adults talk about the neighbors and leak out stuff you aren't supposed to know about them. My awe was short lived though, as upon revealing my involvement in Mom's studies, Dad freaked out, voice booming as he became convinced that somehow I had been forever scarred by this meet-and-greet with the Grim Reaper.

Really, I just thought it was cool.

I find myself remembering those days as I contemplate my newly-acquired scars. I used to think the fact that I had no scars to show that I had been through intense surgical trauma meant that it didn't really happen, I mean I know it happened, but who else does? Unless you shave my head you won't find the pocked marks from surgical tools used for radiation or the stitched lines across my skull from my series of unconscious battles with cement, dry wall and hardwood floors. Under the cover of darkness (my hair that is), I have no scars to prove what my body has undergone. Without some kind of visible battle wound, my not-so-pretend injuries remain invisible. Tattoos from years ago don't make up for the lack of proof, but maybe I was thinking ink could somehow bring my scars out into the light. People ask about ink much more than medical bracelets. That leads to unseen scars and long stories. I should have listened to my father and known better than to wish for proof of suffering. Wishes often come true, and they don't say careful what you wish for without reason.

I've got some scars now, well scabs at this point really. My robotic implant has left me looking like I've been in a knife fight and stitched up by a demented seamstress. Not like Silence of the Lambs or anything, but damn, when Dr. Kalhorn said he'd use plastic surgeon-like precision, I should have asked for examples of his work. Dr. K did a better job repairing up the tip of my left ring finger when I nearly lost it to a combination of onion rings and a serrated blade at age 17. It doesn't even bother me that half of that nail is numb... that's actually the only reminder that I have a scar there at all.

Turns out, having visible, vulnerable scars doesn't make me feel anymore like someone out there will get what I've been through. It just makes me feel like I should continue to hope that I don't need crutches some day after all, and that I have more valuable things to spend my imagination on than corpses and wounds.

1 comment:

kmackay said...

wow. i seriously must have clicked on my bookmark for you right as you posted this. intense, interesting, honest.

i can relate to the wishing for proof and later wishing it wasn't there. maybe not wishing, but something.

glad you put this down on "paper"