Thursday, January 7, 2010

It is a slow, and a quiet thing.
Life does not instantly leave us in an abrupt and fatal finale. It recedes, like an ebbing tide.
Last night during my shift at the hospital, one of our patients died and I was asked to help my friend with that patient’s post-mortem care.
It was the first time in my life that I have ever touched a dead person.
As we methodically removed the labyrinth of lines and tunnels of plastic tubing connecting him to this earth and cleansed his body with warm soapy water, I wondered about this man.  Raising his slightly-muscled arm, I noticed his personal tattoos and wondered how old he had been when he received them. I wondered what kind of man he had been, while he was alive. What sorts of things he had seen in his life. How he felt during his last breath.
I hoped he felt safe, and strong, and loved.
We carefully removed and changed his bedding, tucking him into fresh linens so that he would look clean and restful before his family came in to say their final good-byes, and we waited.
That was the worst part. Not the death, but the living beings left behind to keep their heads above water in the wake of it.  I will remember the face of one woman entering that room, for a very long time.
Grief for a loved one is a more terrifying and emotional thing than death, any day.
I know that now.
 After the family finished and departed, we prepared our patient’s eyes for organ donation.
The eyes we irrigated with saline solution may once see again. As my friend and I stood there holding his lids open during the procedure, I wondered who might receive these eyes that ceased to have life and light behind them.  I wondered if those deceased eyes would ever remember anything they had seen thus far.
I wondered if organs have any memory at all. And for some reason, even though I didn’t know this man---but for some crazy reason--- I sort of wished that they did.  I wanted what he had seen, to help in some way.  I wanted them to serve as a guide and maybe protect the person who would peer through them next.
As I held his hand in mine and carefully washed it, he felt warm. And strong. And vital. And alive.
But that too, eventually faded.
We later transported this man’s body to the morgue…which sounds like a scarier process than what it truly is, because what we were transporting was simply a husk of what once was.
A deceased body is a container of life. Not a life itself.
We as human beings are ultimately greater than the sum of our parts.
But those parts do eventually wear out…
And so do we.
It is an intimate experience, death.
I feel honored to have been a part of it.
-Tara Callahan


  1. Gorgeous as always. If you haven't already read Anne Lammott's Bird by Bird - you must. I just finished it. It is about what she tells her writing classes about the joys and pain of writing, and lots more.

  2. What a task. When my grandmother died, it was painful and she was alone in the hospital. We didn't make it in time.

    As hard as that was for us, it was made immeasurably more difficult because no one prepared her body. Her head was thrown back, her mouth hanging open, sheets twisted around her legs. It looked like she passed in agony, all alone while we were speeding on a highway trying to get there. I don't wish that on anyone.

    You gave the family an amazing gift.