April 26, 2007

Conquering The Worm

And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventors’ heads: all this can I
Truly deliver.

Act 5, Scene 2

It was a dank day for dying on the old Dixie Highway that heads north through the prickly palmetto spears and towering Georgia pines. A malfunction of undetermined origin sent the car sliding though the slick grass sideways into the live oak that stands just before the crossroad. The driver was ejected, thrown rudely through the midday gloom into the unforgiving underbrush. His legs broke upon impact. Flames swallowed up the car, quickly consuming the faded paint and tattered upholstery.

Mosquitos and sand gnats agitated the humid air, tag-teaming the rescue workers and the gawkers, all drawn like moths to the flame, the makeshift funeral pyre. As they stood in an irregular circle around the scene I innocently walked up and stuck my head in the driver’s window. A sweet, earthy smell of mud, burnt flesh and spent fire extinguishers nearly gagged me. The passenger had died, trapped in the car. What I first thought was the charred remains of the front seat was his torso. He was truly cooked. The deltoid muscle on his shoulder looked like a turkey drumstick. The skin had burned away from the top of his skull to reveal an egg-shaped indentation from his striking the windshield. I clearly saw the interstitial cracks between the skull bones that look like irregular stitches. This was not the sepulcher white skull of some anatomy class skeleton. This was the skull of a sentient rational being who until a few moments earlier was alive and breathing, full of dreams and despair. This skull still held a warm brain.

It was then that I realized that our frail forms obey the laws of physics. We’re just flesh, bones, skin and water. We roast and char like any other animal on a spit. Entranced by this stranger’s misfortune, I made myself stand and look, glad that it was he and not I curled there in a fetal ball. Even in death he assumed this basic vertebrate position. I felt a peculiar power from not flinching at the face of death. Conquering the worm, as it were.

They were both Mexicans seeking the proverbial better life in rural South Georgia, working in one of the seafood processing plants, up to their elbows in fish or shrimp all day. Around the passenger’s neck, blackened but still whole, was a silver medal of St. Christopher engraved with a likeness of the venerable saint.

At the scene, everyone was joking. Hot tamale. Crispy critter. Burnt toast. It seems cruel but humor in such a horrific situation is a defense mechanism to men and women for whom death is their stock in trade. Men who have seen decapitation, men hardened by necessity, men who have the job of prying him free from the car.

I later learned that after awhile the physical landscape takes on a much more emotional dimension. You find yourself remembering grisly accident scenes, bloody suicides, domestic disputes and a host of other horrors while riding the county. A mental map covered with skulls and crossbones marking where death and destruction visited themselves upon the unsuspecting. But all that was still to come.

This entry was written as a way of coping with the very first death scene to which I ever responded. It was written as the beginning of a fictionalized account of the event, but all the details are true and accurate. It was brought to mind after I responded last week to the suicide of an 83-year-old man. Alzheimer’s was tightening its inexorable grip and I suppose he wanted to die with at least a modicum of dignity. The suicide took place just down the road from one of the most horrific scenes I have ever witnessed. Several years ago a young boy accidentally shot his even younger friend between the eyes at nearly point blank range (in his bedroom) with a .30-06 hunting rifle. I won't go into any details, but it was one of those days after which you know you'll never be the same.

I apologize for the cheapshot blast from the past. I am in the process writing something more current and relevant (and not so grisly).

1 comment:

Dixie said...

I liked the implications of looking at the corpse intentionally...facing death and knowing it holds no power. I read in a blog right after Pascha about a priest singing "Christ is Risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death and to those in the tomb bestowing life." in the cemetary..and I thought "YES!"...what a great way to visit a cemetary.

All that to say...CHRIST IS RISEN! and to once again marvel at the work you do.