I have known many dead bodies. Now, I have one of my own. Soon, I’ll leave for Tempe, Arizona for five days of human dissection with Tom Myers and Tony Garcia at the Laboratory for Anatomical Enlightenment. Don’t you just love that name? With a name like that, by weeks end, I should be able to teleport my body to faraway countries or at the very least levitate from my cushion, cross-legged, and beautific. Enlightenment. That’s pretty much exactly why I’m going. So I hope that answers that. Because every time I explain what I’m doing, most people wrinkle their noses, shiver, rub their arms and ask, “Why on earth would you want to do THAT?”
Before I left on a cycle trip to Ireland, I had two goals: don’t crash your bike and end up in the emergency room. And, ride every mile to the end, don’t get in the support van. Now, my goals for this trip are: don’t throw up when your olfactory system gets overloaded. And, don’t catch pneumonia from working eight hours a day, five days a week inside what is essentially, a meat locker. Someday, I’d like to just sit on a Mexican beach and get pantie-dropping drunk on pina coladas, you know, normal stuff.
Like I said, I’m no stranger to the dead. As a crime reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, I stood over a women’s body after her unborn baby had been sawed out of her abdomen with a set of car keys; reported from an accident scene where a child was struck with such force by a drunk driver, her feet stayed in her shoes as her body flew 30 feet; took notes on a breakfast table where a man shot his wife in the head, then himself, both bodies slumped over cereal bowls, still holding hands. In New York, I watched a man run after his errant soup can, right onto the subway tracks, only to get smeared across the side of the F train. In San Francisco, I watched a couple in a sporty silver convertible get decapitated while driving through a construction zone. So yeah, ain’t my first rodeo.
Last April, my mom, my brother and I were at a funeral home, waiting for whoever was in charge of my dad’s body to take the Italian suit and custom fedora my mother had picked out. We waited. And waited. And waited. I am not a patient person, by any stripe, so I wandered. I pushed open the door of a side chapel and felt my heart clench. A body was laid out on a slab, covered in a sheet. I knew, I just knew…that was my dad. Because it was so small, barely a lump. Cancer took every bit of him. In that moment, I knew I was going to walk over, pull off that sheet and immediately regret pulling off that sheet, but I was going to do it anyway because really, how could I not, that’s my dad. Moral of the story: don’t wander around a funeral home unattended. You might find what you’re looking for.
More startling than his waxy hands misshapen by embalming fluid or his wooden face, void of all personality…the arms and legs were each wrapped tightly in plastic wrap to keep him from…um, leaking. If there was ever an argument for cremation, this was it. Your brain’s circuitry frantically flickers on and off when you’re crazy with grief. My first thought: Thanksgiving leftovers. Gross, I know. But the inside of a grief-stricken mind is full of Coen brother movies and stupid fart jokes, not just lit candles and Hallmark cards. So of course I did what any self-respecting, middle-aged woman does in that situation. I ran out of the room screaming for my mommy.
Why have I always wanted to take a scalpel to the diaphragm, the vagus nerve, psoas, kidneys, thoracolumbar fascia and brain of a human being? Isn’t strapping on some Lululemons and memorizing a few Mary Oliver poems in preparation for yet ANOTHER yoga workshop a better use of my continuing education budget? I’m doing this because I want to know more. The machines at the gym have it wrong: you cannot be divvied up into a lat pulldown, a shoulder press, a hamstring curl. Your body is a miracle of organic cohesive action, working across multiple joints, fascial lines, tendons and muscle layers. It moves in the sagittal, coronal and transverse planes against gravity (sometimes with!) accumulating and distributing force that it has to then figure out how and when to accelerate and decelerate. I want to know more. Consider the ground reactive forces of a biped versus a quadruped and what that does to the spine over time. Or, the boundless energetics behind neural plasticity, how new neural connections can constantly be constructed and reengineered, influencing cognition and creating new pathways. I want to know more. Because I believe in the Web. Each of us is influenced by mirror neurons…it’s how we feel empathy and joy for one another. We share a planet, a Web of human experience, a vibration, a consciousness. I want to know more. So the clients I work with every day can know more. I want to pull things apart so I can pull them together. But mostly…mostly, I just want to experience the magic. Of how death can teach us how to live.
I don’t know if the body I’m working on will be a man or a woman, young or old, Democrat or Republican. But I will, in fact, say a prayer before I pull back that sheet. For the family that misses them. For the full and rich life lived. For the spirit having flown up to meet the Universe. And I will make a promise: “Thank you for giving me this opportunity to learn. I will always treat you with respect, and be worthy of your gift to science. I’m by your side with a curious mind, a kind heart and grateful hands. You’re doing your job. And now, I will quietly do mine.”