I’m having a hard time understanding what is happening. I was hoping one of you would talk to me directly and tell me what’s happening, but everyone keeps yelling at each other and talking about my pulse. My realtor found me. If I hadn’t been selling my house, maybe I wouldn’t be in this situation. No one would have been coming to my open house, no one could’ve called an ambulance in time, and perhaps I wouldn’t have made it far enough to be put on a ventilator. I am led to believe that is the suction feeling on my face.
Where I am, what happened, what time it is, and my current medical state would all fall under the umbrella of things I don’t know. Don’t ask me what I see—I don’t see darkness, nor do I see light. It’s just blurry nothing. I won’t waste my time trying to explain it. Just trust me when I say that I can’t see you. I can hear you. I can sense you. I can feel you. But all my mind is blank. I know nothing but what the people say out loud, which is a bunch of acronyms for medical terms that I don’t know. We’re jiggling around in a moving vehicle—I assume the ambulance. The sirens are loud, but not as loud as I thought they would be from inside the truck.
When I first realized something was wrong, which was like thirty minutes ago, I heard my realtor scream in a shockingly shrill pitch. He rattled me around in my bed, but I couldn’t respond. I had heard his heartbeat through his finger when he’d desperately felt for mine. When the paramedics marched into the house, I heard their rubber footsteps stain my freshly cleaned carpet. I was losing my shit at that point. Not because I was in pain or anything—I’m not in pain, I’m not gasping for air, I’m really not doing anything at all. It’s just not very comforting for people to scream when they approach you, and it’s not very comforting for three people to press their fingers against your neck, wrist, foot, and heartbeat every ten seconds. I can’t hear my heartbeat, but I hear everyone else’s. I’m calm now. There’s something on my face and you people are muttering medical terminology, poking me with needles, and taking my blood pressure, so I must be good enough to rescue.
Here is what I know: a migraine had claimed my evening, forcing me to forfeit the work that was accumulating on my desk. It had been interrupting me all day—I was dizzy, working under only candlelight, using earplugs, and drinking so much water I had to pee every five minutes. I don’t know what’s going on. You and the others don’t know about the chronic migraines—I hadn’t told anyone but Jeff—but I would guess a brain aneurysm has caused this.
You guys are still trying to find my medical history. Someone commanded Siri to call my mom, who barely remembers who I am. A nurse kindly explained her state, and recommended they call my boyfriend, Jeff. Jeff isn’t picking up.
“Hello, Jeff. This is Matt. I’m a paramedic for the St. Andrews hospital. We are currently transporting Wendy to the emergency room. Her realtor found her unconscious in her bed. You are the only other emergency contact we were given and we don’t know how to unlock her phone, so please call the front desk when you get this.”
Unconscious? I’m not unconscious. I’m here.
You guys keep taking my vitals and repeating my name. You guys are doctors. Shouldn’t you know that I can’t respond?
I think I’m in the hospital now. I’ve been hoisted rather abruptly into some sort of rolling bed. The sheet is tickling my nose, and my hair is in my mouth, but I can’t move them. All I can do is lie here and listen to people talk about me. When they stop wheeling me, they begin filling out paperwork. More hands start attaching tubes to my face and another nurse inserts a catheter.
“Okay, how old is she?”
“Her license says she’s thirty-two. Organ donor.”
“Hold on, I’m still pulling up her information. Okay…here it is. No kids. She has like no medical history other than her physicals. Normal weight, fine sight, no allergies, no broken bones, no surgeries, nothing. She got annual flu shots and took birth control. No other medication. Damn. This is one of the neatest medical histories I’ve ever seen.”
“Weird,” said someone else.
“Let’s run some more tests when her heart rate stabilizes. Has anyone called the boyfriend again?”
They call Jeff again. They try to give me anesthetics, but I don’t feel anything except fluid pumping through my body. Everything feels like they’re tickling me but I can’t laugh. If I were in a Grey’s Anatomy episode, they would be hooking up fancy wires to my head and encouraging me to think really hard to move a computer cursor up for “yes” and down for “no.”
They run more tests. They shine a light in my eyes—I feel them pull my eyelid up and I hear the click of the ophthalmoscope. I only know the word for it because they kept dropping it and getting a new one. Your coworkers stick a tongue depressor to the back of my throat and I feel them scrape against my uvula. My body doesn’t respond to either of these unpleasant procedures. Like the doctors have discovered, I have never broken a bone, but I would imagine it’s similar to this experience—expecting my body to respond to something and it just not. They tap my knees, my arms, and various other parts of my body and slowly grow quieter. When they pour water into my ears, my body allows it without any protest or response. It hurts like hell, but my body seems indifferent. I want so bad to scream, to twitch my fingers like the patients in movies, or to just blink. By the time you stop the machine that’s been suctioned to my face, I realize what ya’ll are testing.
You’re testing to see if I’m alive.
After another passage of time, seemingly many days from my seat, you declare me dead. You inform Jeff, and my mother, and the lawyer in charge of my last will and testament. Since you uttered that word, I have spiraled into a panic so ineffable I can only but scream in my head. The blood vessels in my body are still distributing my blood, a machine is still performing the heart’s function for it, and the tubes still on my face inhale and exhale. I am not braindead. I am not gone.
Jeff was the last one to see me. He held my hand and cried, telling you it was still warm. He kissed it, he kissed my forehead, he made all sorts of promises if God would just wake my brain up. God, it would seem, abandoned humanity long before me. A woman ushered him away. More than anything, in this position of utter hopelessness, I want to cry. Of all that I took for granted, I want to cry. I assume that when you turn off all of these machines, when the blood stops moving, when my heartbeat abruptly stops, and when you write the word on my charts and file it away, that I will go too. I have thoroughly hated my time in limbo, and even if I go to hell, I would like to not be here anymore. Anything is more preferable than being examined and prodded like a lab rat. Goodbye, whoever you are. I hate you. You should have noticed that I am not dead.
WHY why why w h y whY WHY?!
You aren’t doing a damn thing. Turn it off. Turn it OFF.
Jesus Christ turn it off.
New people. New voices. You’re not even using my name anymore. Do you know my name? Why are you doing this? Why can’t you just kill me?
“So the medical history is completely clean?”
“And an organ donor?”
“Yeah, and the family gave consent.”
“Damn. This almost never happens. Every once in a while we get some good news, but not nearly often enough. Did Lisa get the registries and stuff?”
“Yeah, we just gotta go get prepped. Keep her on the machines ‘til we’re ready.”
Fuck. I want to die. I want to die and not be here.
I don’t even know what to say. How can you do this right in front of me? Why can’t Jeff hear me? Somebody hook the wires back up to my head.
Shit. Please, no. Stop it. Stop touching me. Stop talking about my heart, my liver, my kidneys, just stop. I do not consent. I do not consent. Stop. Oh, my God, stop it.
If your million-dollar machinery were still humming beside me, I would be hyperventilating. I’m confident that even as I am declared braindead, my body would respond to this utter ignorance. I don’t belong in this room. I don’t belong as the subject of this conversation between you guys. Let me out.
We’re moving. I want to grip the sides of this table as they swing me around.
“You seeing Nancy this weekend?”
“Nah man, I’m working a double this weekend and then I’m on call on Monday.”
“Yeah. I’m almost done paying off the loans though, so I don’t mind. If it’s just this stuff, it’ll be fine. At least this is a little interesting.”
“Interesting I guess. I dunno. I hate it. It creeps me out.”
“Apart from the delivery unit, this is like the only happy thing we can do.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“We’re saving seven lives today.”
“True. Do you believe in the anesthesia awareness thing?”
“Anesthesia awareness. It’s where the body is like, paralyzed, but the patient is awake. You don’t even know it til they wake up, but they feel the entire operation or whatever you’re doing.”
“That’s messed up, Sam.”
“I dunno. Do you think that she…?”
“No, man, they declared her brain dead. There’s nothing up there anymore.”
And with that, they push me out of the elevator and into a room that echoes.
“All scrubbed up?”
]In medieval times, they’d do this to people they knew were alive and who were not even paralyzed. They’d do it on purpose. They’d try to save lives by gagging them and opening them up to poke around and see what they find, completely cool with the person wiggling around and screaming. I’m not entirely sure how those people survived their operations, but I know I’m not going to survive this one. There’s no way. They’re removing my organs. Literally all of them. You just said.
I feel them rubbing stuff on my belly, drawing on me like a whiteboard. I can’t wince at the cold wipes, markers, and fingers. I can’t wiggle or squirm or even laugh. It reminds me of when I got my ears pierced or when I got my flu shots. I wish my mom were here. Everyone is quiet. Someone says something and then, as unceremoniously as they’d dropped me on this table, I feel them rip open my abdomen.
At least four hands grab the sides of my skin and hold it with stints. Others excavate, their lights radiating my burning body.
Your latex gloves are a strange texture. You act so delicate, grabbing my innards gingerly with your fingers and tweezers, cutting them quietly. Your fingers are warm. Everything feels as though it is burning. Everything sounds like macaroni and cheese.
You run into trouble trying to take my heart out. It would appear that my heart has a subtle defect they hadn’t detected on any tests. You guys are the shittiest investigators. All of you. You argue whether or not to remove it, but ultimately you would rather be safe than sorry. How freaking heroic. For all the trouble you take with all the other ones, this one happens fast. One minute I feel a weight in my chest, the next, it’s gone. The most symbolic of organs has been placed in frozen incubation like this is one big grocery shopping trip.
At some point, you must have pried my ribcage open, because all of you start feeling around for my lungs. I am offended that it does not affect me at all to have my lungs removed. I really am not breathing. It’s harder and harder to imagine at what point I cease. This isn’t like the flu shot. I can’t find a happy thought to distract me for even half a second. I am forced to attend the most horrific theater production in history.
At first, I think you’re pulling out my uterus, but then you begin tugging. You’re a magician pulling scarves and ribbons out of my sleeves. I feel the last bit of my large intestine carefully, painfully, slowly detach itself from my body. It makes a sick, soggy noise in the bucket. There’s silence while the seamstress prepares it for shipment. You ask for the time. 6:08pm. You guys started two hours ago. You’re quick according to a textbook, but you are taking your excruciating time in my book.
The removal of my kidneys is a unique pain. Like the cramps I’d get in middle school when our P.E. teacher made us run The Mile, my lower back erupted in volcanic ash. The lava oozed out onto the fingers of the archeologists. Someone says they’re feeling nauseas and you take over. It burns. At some point, I assumed I would just stop feeling all of it, but that is not the case. With every drill, every touch to the bone, every human hand, a new form of pain reveals itself. Hell can’t be this bad. They rip, they pull, they push, they stretch, they search, and they chat.
The next target is my liver. The seamstress confirms that she’s ready and a fresh set of gloves make contact with the prize. I can’t figure out which one of you is doing what, or how far along you are in the process. I only know that the pain comes in frequent waves. I’ve never had children, but I’d imagine contractions hurt like this. The sharp lacerations mingle together and I begin hearing a high pitched whistle. It’s not enough to be helpful. I get the pleasure of hearing them cup my liver in their palms and lift it out like a cesarean section. The slippery gloves are replaced with ready, nervous new hands holding onto the edges of me.
Honestly, I forgot I had a pancreas. I feel like only diabetic people really remember why that one matters. I know I’d sure taken advantage of it. The pain feels as I would imagine snake venom does. I have no bloodstream to distribute the poison, but it washes over me and climbs all the way up to my neck and down to my toes. I’ve given up trying to understand how I continue to feel all this despite having a dead nervous system.
I’ve given up reason. This is God’s cruel punishment. An indifferent world wouldn’t do this to me. Maybe I would be eaten, but I wouldn’t be dissected and emptied. I wish I’d just been eaten. I can’t feel all of this if I’m all ripped up, right?
They all clap and sigh and laugh and shuffle around the room. The seamstress asks if we should start sewing me up, but an irritable, low voice immediately says not yet.
“The next round is coming in five. We just gotta clear out our equipment.”
“They’re going to take more?”
“Hell yeah. You know how many people need bone marrow? You know how many people need eyes?”
There is a small period where the pain dies down. The sandpaper feeling of gloves, metal, gauze, and ripping fades into one dull moan. Nothing hurts like the sound of more footsteps, though. These ones are fresh, still excited about the prospect of finding some more gems. Someone asks where the anesthesiologist is, and you all laugh. Hahaha! So funny, Carol! Thanks so fucking much!
They are definitely more removed from their context than the first batch. They talk about their best and worst sex. The one male in this group says that he doesn’t mind when women have small breasts. The other women are shocked by this because they’ve been rejected for those same offenses.
They yank out bones like the dad that tells his kid it’s better if he just pulls the loose tooth out instead of letting it wiggle while he eats an apple. It sounds like someone is breaking branches off a tree. It hurts, but I prefer this kind because it’s quick. They tug at my bone and then it’s gone. It’s primitive, but it’s fast. The blood vessels are a little more complex. I’m not sure how they’re grabbing those after removing all the organs to which they were originally attached, but they go about it like they’re charming a snake. I’m not sure what you do next because none of you so much as narrate where the body parts are supposed to be placed. I’m able to listen to your conversation at one point. I’m able to actually hear their words in context without losing focus.
“Did you think you’d be here?”
“No, I always pictured myself just being a nurse. I think I’d honestly be content with being a nurse. I just like to know all this stuff and then if I’m going to pay for all that to be explained, I might as well get paid to know it. Like, this kind of stuff is just sad. I’d much rather sit with a patient than stand over them.”
“Yeah, but usually you sit with a patient to tell them they’re going to die.”
“I don’t know. I’m glad I don’t do that. I couldn’t just, like, see the family deal with it and all. That’d be too much.”
A brief pause in speech happens when they scrape the last bit of usable pieces of my upper body. You sigh, like this is the most exhausting thing you’ve ever done.
“Are we done?”
“Jesus, Karen, we still have to sew her up.”
“Yeah, but we’re done with the…the…harvesting…?”
“Well, we’re done with it. Terry is going to come in to do the eyes and ears. He’s an artist with it and he always asks to do it.”
You have got to be kidding me. Am I just a sport? You toss me around like a football. You pass the baton when you’ve run enough laps.
You don’t have a formal seamstress. Instead, you all continue talking about where you all went to school as you stitch me up. You aren’t very sensitive about restructuring my remaining bones. You just kind of pull them back over me and hold the sides of my abdomen while someone else runs their needle in, out, up, down, in, out, up, down. They reach my sternum, just below my neck, and tie a knot.
“We did it, ladies!” the man cheers.
“Woo. Hoo.” You say dryly.
They leave some of the unused tools where they are, and three more people walk in. I can hear each voice distinctly. The room feels quieter. You are all groggy. I can tell. One of you yawns, and Terry orders you to put your surgical mask back on. I was curious if pulling my eyelids back would reveal anything, but it doesn’t. I’m a little relieved. How creepy would it be if they pulled them open and I was looking at them, my pupils still moving.
Terry makes the procedure really quick. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t horrible. The only way I can describe it, and I’m having great difficulty at this point, is like having your eyeball fall asleep the way your feet do, and then having immense pressure exacerbate it.
When Terry tugs my eardrums out, no change in regards to my seat in this production occurs. My state of being could care less that he’d just removed the last sensory aspect of my body without so much as muffling the noise. It was trippy hearing them fish out the part of my ear that is supposed to be “hearing.” All that is left in me are my uterus, my bladder, and my stomach. I guess nobody really wants those. Those three entities feel especially heavy in the absence of the others. I don’t understand how I haven’t turned into a wet blanket. I don’t understand what they do to my body to make me look like a person again. It felt as though they were trying to mend a Barbie doll that had undergone the tortuous treatment of a meddlesome brother. All at once, I heard them click off some lights and rip off their latex gloves. Someone rolled me away, shut a door, and locked it.
When I was little, my dad was in a bad car accident and the glass of the windshield ripped a good inch or two into his arm, his skull was dangerously concussed, and some ligaments had separated from their positions. When mom finally let us see him, the nurse had told us that he had passed out in pain. She said it wasn’t uncommon and that he would make a full recovery—which he did. I had assumed that people who faint in pain are not in pain while they are out. I had assumed that patients given opioids and sleeping did not feel the pain. I’m not sure if that’s an assumption doctors have made too, or if some people don’t talk about their anesthesia awareness. Dad never mentioned pain while he was laying there with drool pooling outside his mouth and an IV sticking out of his arm. When he died last year, I had assumed that he was at peace. I had assumed that he was either in heaven or just no longer in existence. He believed in God. I don’t think I do. Not sure where I stand, to be honest. I’m very upset with Him, but if I’m mad at Him, there’s some sort of implication that He’s even there. And if God were here right now, He really broke every promise he made in that book everyone loves so much. No, I don’t believe in God. Not now. Especially not now.
I can hear you shuffling around the room in your fancy lab coat, your rubber gloves squeaking as you dump me on a table like a clunky suitcase. I wish I didn’t feel the cold gloves and frozen fingers. I can’t form a mental picture of myself. They don’t really show you this part in the Grey’s Anatomy episode. At this point, I just know that in the timeline of a dead body’s descent into dirt, they are studied and preserved and beautified in the most morbid way, and I am both undeniably dead and inexplicably awake.
I’m not sure when my funeral is, if I’m even having a funeral. Days could have passed, or maybe it’s only been a handful of hours. I’m not sure who all knows that I’m at the St. Andrews Mortuary bare naked, chemicals currently rinsing all over me, but I would very much prefer to be forgotten over being remembered this way.
Your team is slow, methodical, and quiet. Someone pumps stuff into my body while others scrub me down. The stitches hurt considerably. Even after the surgery, I suffer. When do I leave? When they lower me into the ground?
“Mmmmkay. Date of birth?”
“Ummm…. January 22, 1985.”
“And date of death?”
“Monday, December 4, 2017.”
“Umm… okay, you know what Jared? Can you tackle the paperwork? I can do the dirty work if you want.”
“Sure, I would prefer that.”
“Alright, see you in the office.”
The door creaks open and Jared walks out. It’s just me and the mortician. He continues to add insult to injury, pouring preservatives over me like a food processing plant.
“You are going to be quite difficult to dress up,” the man says. “Sixty stitches. No eyes. No ears. Your hair isn’t long enough, so we’re going to have to order a wig or something.”
I don’t want to wear a wig. My mom has a difficult enough time recognizing me. He sticks little glass balls in my sockets and he might as well have sprinkled salt on them. They burn. I have no tear ducts or blinking reflex. I experience pain but I have no way to release it.
The man continues to talk to me, telling me about all the bodies he sees, all the times he’s seen disfigured bodies. He tells me that he’s done all that he can, he promises, and then he lays a blue sheet over me and puts me back on the shelf.
I realize as you pull me out and load me up to go to the funeral home that I cannot sleep. There is no divide between consciousness and unconsciousness; there is only my thoughts. I can’t even itch my nose.
With each transfer, people become a little less delicate. By the time a man named Franklin wheels me into his parlor, they’ve banged my feet on doors, grabbed me by my neck, my foot, my arm, and they’ve ceased to refer to me as a human. I am a cadaver. I am a vegetable. I am an inanimate object.
I remember my favorite movie, My Girl, as a woman brushes eyeshadow, foundation, blush, eyeliner, mascara, and perfume on me. I wonder what colors have been chosen and what wig they’ve prepared. I wonder who is planning my funeral. I wonder why anyone would prefer an open casket to cremation after they’ve recycled all my organs.
From the sound of shuffling feet, I would guess that maybe fifty people are in attendance. Rebecca, my goddaughter, thanks everyone for coming and asks everyone to take a seat. A minister comes to speak. A woman comes and sings. I can remember almost no one. Everyone sings a hymn. I wonder what picture of me is on the bulletins and printed for the front. At the end of the ceremony, the crowd is invited to come say goodbye to me.
I hear my boss, Melinda, tell me that I will be missed. Jeff stands by me for a long time. He speaks to me from a distance. I don’t think he can look at me. Others touch my hand, my cheek, my “hair.” People from high school identify themselves, where others speak in hushed whispers so faint I can hardly hear them, let alone identify them. They cart me into the hearse and drive me to a cemetery.
The panic I’d felt when they’d first told everyone I’m dead came back. It suddenly occurs to me that I am about to be buried. They are about to lower me six feet into the earth in a metal box under the assumption I am dead. There is nothing I can do. I am being buried.
Another few words are spoken. Less people seem to attend this part. They almost drop me at one point. I scream, but nothing escapes beyond my own ears. I cry, but nothing escapes beyond my own eye sockets. I bang on the casket, kicking, fighting, trying everything to just get my ghost lungs to inhale oxygen. Jeff asks to see me one more time, but his mother pulls him away.
I move into the ground slower than the operation. With each increment lower, I begin to hear others. At first I think it’s funeral attendants crying, or another service underway, but the lower I go, the louder they become. As the coffin thuds, I am overcome by the screams of others. I hear banging, hitting, kicking, muffled cries, throat-burning wails. I hear babies, I hear women, I hear girls, I hear boys, I hear men, I hear elderly, I hear disabled, I hear soldiers, I hear mothers, I hear fathers, I hear miscarriages, I hear the sick, I hear the poor, I hear the cynics, I hear the optimists, I hear the famous, I hear the forgotten. We are all abandoned six feet under the ground.
The burial workers start dumping dirt on top of me. With every bang, I whimper. For a while, I lose my own voice in the sea of others. Soon, I can no longer hear them scooping the dirt. Soon, I can no longer hear the dirt falling. Soon, I can only hear the others. Screaming. Tortured. Indefinite.
Abbey McLaughlin is a recent graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University with a degree in English and Creative Writing. She has been published twice and hopes to continue engaging readers with works of fiction. She is from Grand Rapids, but currently lives in Indiana.