Friday, October 13, 2006

17. The Face of Death: Part I

Note: This entry contains strong imagery that may make some readers uncomfortable.

When a counselor friend suggested, in the week following Gregory’s death, that I might want to spend some time alone with his body, my first reaction was one of revulsion and fear. Like most people, my initial thought was to remember Gregory as I had known him in life, as the vital man I had loved.

Joy gently persisted. She suggested that spending time with his body might allow me to find some closure and understand that the man I loved was no longer in the body.

Joy was a wise counselor, whom I respected. Her suggestion reminded me of the time as child when my favorite cat was killed. Though Tiger bore no outward signs of trauma, my overprotective mother refused to let me see him. In retrospect, I always wished I had been able to look at him one more time. Perhaps I knew something intuitively then about what Joy was suggesting now.

Going mostly on faith and not much else, I arranged with the funeral director to spend some time with the body. And once more, I found myself being ushered to a viewing room by the young woman. Closing the door behind me, I asked that I not be disturbed.

Death is not pretty. Whether a person is pumped full of embalming fluid or dolled up with makeup, neither can hide the absence of animation and the flat, lifeless translucence of a corpse. Gregory was neither embalmed nor made up. He was wrapped tightly in sheets and again strapped to a gurney, this time draped with a quilt. His hair was clumsily combed back so as to emphasize his receding hairline. He would not have liked that.

Left alone with the body, I gingerly began to touch the face, Gregory’s face. It was cold, like the inside of the refrigerated facility where he had lain for nearly a week. An opaque waxiness replaced his true coloring. His eyes appeared to be glued shut. There were bits of sticky stuff caught in his eyelashes. With no circulation to support the tissue, his features were slightly flattened and the crook of his nose, sharpened.

Standing at his head, I leaned down so that I might smell his forehead and remember his scent. But I was disappointed: There was only an unfamiliar plastic odor. His scent had vanished in the icy vault. Tentatively I traced the outline of his ear with my finger and followed the crest of his brow and the line of his chin. I was not repulsed.

I tried to push his hair into place. I was struck by the weight of Gregory’s head as I rolled it gently between my hands; it had never seemed so heavy when the life of muscles had supported it. I ran my hand down his neck, his shoulder, his arms to his hands.

I had requested that his whole body be accessible. But instead he was tightly bound from the chest down. I had only his arms and hands and the top of his chest, where little tufts of black hair curled. I drank him in with my hands as well as my eyes.

You can love someone for years and be hazy on the fine details of their features. Now I was intent on incising the memory of every line, every crevasse, the faint mole on his upper lip, the shape of his fingers. I noticed a bruise on the top of his right hand. Is this where he tried to catch himself as he fell? Otherwise he was unscathed, perfect and unscathed, save for the thick black thread where the autopsy incisions were sewn closed. And of course his heart. His heart was broken.

To be continued…

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