Sunday, November 20, 2011

dead bodies are weird

It's been a few days since J.D. died, days packed with J.D.-related events, and I'm still kind of sick and I'm ready to be done with all the mournful socializing. Friday night a bunch of us got together to eat some food and hang together; yesterday a group of mostly the same people went to his house to help out his wife by carrying out his last wishes that his friends take away most of his stuff. He had a pretty solid collection of books, and an absolutely stunning collection of CDs, but since he mostly gathered CDs so he could use them in DJ sets, the collection is incomprehensible to most of us: vast stretches of obscure and usually wonderful electronic music. Nonetheless, we did the best we could, and many of the DJ pals found some exciting stuff in there. I got an Iron & Wine CD (he's even better than I thought), some Apocalyptica, a whole bunch of Bob Dylan, and I think every one of Iain M. Banks's Culture novels. Inexplicably, I also took Sounds of North American Frogs, just because.

I mentioned before that I helped the hospice nurse move the body from the big fluffy chair where J.D. spent most of the past several months, onto the hospital bed where the nurse could do some cleanup and put a shirt on the body so we could have some last moments if we wanted, before the crematory guys came. There was a certain unreality to the whole experience: an hour before, I'd stood in the doorway for a few minutes, hands in my pockets, fascinated by J.D.'s labored breathing as he slept on morphine, watching his clock tick down. That wasn't the J.D. I knew, and yet it was: just a few weeks earlier he had bravely and generously had some folks over to watch movies for my bachelor party. He was vomiting and hiccuping the whole time, and everyone just took it in stride, made sure he had a clean pan to vomit into, and enjoyed each other's company (though not, alas, the movie).

This is the very blunt list of things I noticed about seeing and moving a dead body. I'm not likely to ever forget, but I feel compelled to share.
  • I picked him up and thought, "Wow, he's so lifeless." Which is ridiculous thing to think, because he was dead. But, we have the "lifeless" as an everyday word, and never used for genuinely dead things: it's stuff like artistic performances, or bad food.
  • The nurse thought I might be able to move J.D.'s torso: not a chance. After months of wasting away he still weighed a good 180 pounds. Also, "deadweight" has new meaning.
  • A dead person's head will loll around and backwards in a way that a live person would never tolerate, even when unconscious (I think because it would prevent breathing).
  • The jaw slacks in a certain unmistakably not-alive way.
  • Hands are ice-cold, but the head is still warm, as the brain is the last thing the body tries to protect as it shuts down.
  • That thing on TV where they close someone's eyes? I tried it, and it turns out that's why various cultures put coins on the eyes, which are otherwise determined to stay half-open. There's all kinds of things to say about why that feels creepy.
When I've talked to friends and relatives with hospice experience, they all independently say that no matter how ready you are, death is always shocking. The alive-to-dead transition is a sudden between-the-eyes direct education in how fragile and transient we are.

You often hear someone want to remember a person in a certain way: in their full alive-ness, instead of wasted and dying. And we ourselves always want to choose how we are seen and remembered. My last memory of J.D. is of moving his dead body, but it doesn't bother me. It's just part of the cycle of my J.D. memories. I wanted to be there for the end, partly out of curiosity (like most of us, I've been lucky enough to never see someone die), and partly because I felt it was something important that I could do, and I was right. It is something I can do, and it was a great privilege to be able to do it.

I've always wondered how it would go when it came time for one of us to die, and I have to say that as a community we've done magnificently, in taking care of J.D. and his wife, and in grieving freely and openly together. It's a chance for us to really see each other, and to forget about whatever stories we may habitually tell ourselves about how we see each other or what we can tell each other. We're free to spontaneously start crying, or start giving out hugs. There's a great sense of openness, of everyone creating an accepting space for everyone else.

Given his dedication to community, I can only imagine J.D. would have been overjoyed to see it.

1 comment:

  1. Having just been through this with Mark a few months ago: I agree with all of the things you observed about watching someone die regarding their body immediately being different and so obviously lifeless.

    Mark's wife used pennies on his eyes.

    I'm glad you could be there with J.D.