the healing muse

Volume 1, 2001

On the Subject of the Anatomical Gift

Anna Olson

"When I die, do not call me Dead.
Say rather, he was dead,
Then, suddenly, he came to life,
And ran off with the Beloved."
~00 Jalaluddin Rumi, 12th Century Sufi Saint

I am accustomed to the dead, their aspects as varied as grains of rice, and as much the same. Some are long limbed, smooth and slender; others bear, on crushed sternum, a cup that fits the heel of my hand, or black bruises where my fingers could not stop the flow of blood.

The end of life, on the front lines of emergency medicine, is never a tidy affair. Some know; they file orders to keep us away, to prevent us from marking their last hours with our madness. Others, jealous of a few more days, or hours, or years, surrender themselves to our good intentions. We do everything we can; we open, close, stitch and sunder, protect, and stabilize.

Our efforts show in the chaos we create. Bodies, ruined, stay behind after something more complex has fled. Gently, using care they will never know, I wash them. Pooling blood is sponged away; chest tubes are double-knotted and covered with a thick dressing. Wounds are bandaged in white gauze, soft and clean, though they will never heal.

This is an act of compassion, my last gift to them. A lover waits outside, a mother, a son; I cannot ask them to remember the things I see. The ritual is always rushed, but the water is as warm as the limp fingers that curl around my own. I want that warmth for their loved ones; it is precious and fleeting, and I work quickly so that I can pass it on to its rightful heir.

How often have I wrapped a steady arm around the waist of a woman who clings to me, stumbling with shock? As often, perhaps, as I have placed the body of a child, swaddled against the chill of his own departure, in the uncomprehending arms of his mother.

I am accustomed to the dead, but this one is different. Someone else held her hand as she lay dying. Someone else washed her face while the last of her body’s heat gave itself to a cold room. I have never even met her, and yet she has given me all that remains of herself to give. She has gone beyond harm; her last act of compassion is that she invites me to join her there. She has set me on a path that leads back to life, toward a future of unknowable possibility.

Hers was an act of immeasurable generosity that I can never repay. I would like to know her as she was before. I would like to tell her what her choice means to me, to thank her. I speak to her, though she cannot hear me. My words, laden with sincerity, seem a thin return. All the same, I imagine she forgives my fumbling, and gracious yet again, understands the spirit of my heartfelt gratitude.

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