Is My Husband’s Autopsy Covered?

By Richie Smith

Iweb lead our first-year residents to my husband’s Path Lab, down to the lowest level of the airport, far below the parking garage. From their comments, you can tell this is a deranged bunch of physicians. Who, after all, chooses to become a pathologist? A pathologist in an airport?

Walt was the first of us. The Hangar Clinic was a natural refuge for a man once admonished at the dinner table by his jet-set parents for dissecting tendons out of his lamp chops.

“I’m blessed with an active autonomic nervous system,” he said the day he rescued me. “A sympathetic guy, obsessed with flight and fright—well suited as an airport medical examiner.”

We’re forced to take the stairs single file, retreating from the reek of jet fuel down to scents more comforting, a warm breeze of fabric softener tinged with the friendly organic compounds my husband and I soak in daily.

Pathology labs are always located in the basement, as if they want to ease your body parts into the ground even before they finish admiring your first tumor.

Downstairs, the laundry room hisses. It’s where they steam-clean shit stains from the seats of pilot trousers. Next door is a fading plastic sign announcing “Pauling Walters, MD, Chief of Pathology,” the entrance to my husband’s freak-show museum, diligently dressed up with ironic pink ribbons and travel posters.

Sunsets from the Greek Island of Santorini highlight Walt’s obsession with calderas—precipitous drops off volcanic lips—displayed only a few feet away from the real prizes of his work, vis-à-vis exploded nasal cavities from depressurization accidents, skydivers following parachute deployment failures condensed into crepe-thin discs. The upper shelves are adorned with charred remnants of arms and legs—their toasted flesh preserved in amber—all proudly displayed in a showcase, as if Walt runs a museum gift shop or maybe a malevolent gourmet deli.

My husband greets us with a visceral expression, the corners of his once youthful smile faded by the bright overhead lights. Like pet owners, they say we pathologists take on the traits of those organs near and dear to us. Walt’s ruddy cheeks are pocked with the texture of spleen, his oversized ears curved like Kofi, his pet kidney. Every morning in the mirror, I now sense my own nose dimpling into the shape of a brainstem. Wendy has a nasal steeplechase, and I—a medulla oblongata.

I hand off the residents and sense the paradox of Walt’s excitement. He’s irked by the living, the fidgeting; antsy shakes of the knees and the clearings of throats. Nervous small talk makes him want to resect their vocal cords. But nothing is more special to my husband than seasoning the optimism of youth with his own favorite flavor of death.

“Welcome to Airport Pathology, boys and girls. You’re all being given a great gift,” he whispers. “This is . . . the one field where a mixed-up medication or a botched incision won’t hold you back from your dreams.”

Despite chronically stooping over specimens, Walt stands tall in his stained lab coat with dark eyes shaded by that formaldehyde-laden toupee. Steel wool and wiry after more than three decades, Walt’s “hair” has taken on the same grisly tint as the pickled specimens in the beakers surrounding him.

The young doctors interact until their apprehensive eyes survey the shelves stuffed with organs floating in jars. It brings me back to Walt and I on one of our first dates, only a month or so after the traumatic day we met. I still hadn’t made up my mind about residency.

“Gynecology,” he laughed. “You can’t be serious. Why do you want patients that talk to you?”

We stood in the very same spot slicing livers like a normal couple would do on granite-top counters in remodeled kitchens or perhaps during an introductory cooking class.

“You want to angle it like this, Zara.” Walt held my wrist softly, guiding the knife through the waxy organ. “That way you guarantee a slice straight-on through the portal vein.”

He looked up at me with gray, un-jaundiced eyes and a still, unaffected smile seemingly happy about a future he imagined for us together—dicing the dearly departed along with the growths that got them there.

“I just can’t see you spending the next three decades between the stinking legs of histrionic women. I know people, Zara. I can tell. You’re a pathologist at heart.”

At the time, he was wrong, because until the day we met, all that mattered for me was the miracle of life. Growth. Seeds. The union of sperm and egg. How and where it happened.  I was fascinated by tubes of all kinds—especially the fallopians. At the site of conception was where love should begin. Back then, I wanted to meet my future soul mate in a tunnel of love.

The weakest of the new bunch, a pale Dr. Mason, totters in the back of the group. I hand him a tissue, and he wipes the film of sweat from his chin.

Dr. Isles heaves, and I offer a vomit bag, ushering her back to the torn vinyl couch next to the fire extinguisher.

Walt continues with fragmented phrases, his speech center finally disintegrating from all that formaldehyde.

“Behold . . . the an . . . anencephalic child . . .”

He holds up a glass jar like Simba in The Lion King, taunting the residents to accept his dare.

“An orphan of the sky, born without a skull, brainless alongside the smorgasbord of other specimens worthy of toothpicks and cocktail flags.”

Dr. Prem Lee pushes to the front of the group and stares into the green face of the

one-eyed fetus, its brain poking out of a skull like Oyster Newburg. Behind him, Dr. Mason sweats profusely.

Dr. Kasm recoils with pulsating jugulars. “That’s some nasty shit.”

“Watch your language,” I say.

“Looks mighty tasty,” says Dr. Lee.

Dr. Mason faints.

So begins the internship for another unremarkable cast.

What made them become pathologists, I wonder.

It was true that during med school rotations I might have been more a blood-and-guts type than most of the hot-shot jocks in our class destined for bone-cracking careers as orthopods, but if I took the gore home with me, I preferred something menstrual or at least vaguely uterine dotting the bottom of my scrubs, blood from life’s origin or at least its attempt at one, not from its demise.

Yet pathologists know better than to try and tempt fate.

A few weeks into the month of July, the first batch of neglected infants roll in, baked in hot cars like ceramics. When did I begin to accept the final common pathway of life’s unspeakable tragedies as something routine?

Our routine sings through the swoosh of the revolving airport terminal door. It transitions from the excitement of those who depart amid joyous goodbyes and humid curbside thrusts of luggage to those who depart scraped onto slides in the morbid silence of our lab with its frigid, conditioned air and interns soon conditioned by the routine of tragedy itself.

This is the life Walt and I teach, the life we made for each other. I only hope I can remember what’s left of it.

There’s a fine meal at the Hangar Steak Diner in the Fuse-A-Lodge Inn, highlighted by Walt’s insistence on a doggy bag to later test the mercury content of their mako shark, Walt and I wooed by mesothelioma lawyers at Flaps Down, a murder-suicide in a Piper Cub, then an animated debate about the malignant characteristics of a United steward’s prostate while we stand on line at the dry cleaners.

And that’s it.

The next day, Walt, my husband—is dead.

I find him slumped at his desk, his head in his arms with all the innocence of a preschool kid taking a nap after milk and cookies.

Innocent Walt—even paler than usual, his dried lips blue.

A dissecting aneurysm. He’s gone out with a bang. A tear to be exact.

A fellow pathologist’s dream, his aorta has shredded like our old tax returns inside his chest.

As hospital pathologist, it’s my responsibility to complete Walt’s autopsy. The administrator doesn’t like this.

“Dr. Z, no one wants to dissect their own husband.”

He’s a bulky man with a lisp, a retired pilot. Once he had a colon polyp the size of a golf ball, which Walt later mounted for him on a refrigerator magnet.

He hands me a tissue. Everyone keeps handing me tissues, as if I have God-forsaken refractory rhinitis.

“It’s not that I didn’t love Walt,” I explain. “It’s my job. It’s what he would have wanted.”

The administrator stares with nervous disbelief, a not-uncommon affliction for pilots burdened by excessive bird strikes.

“No, you can’t autopsy Walt. That wouldn’t be good. Let Dr. Lee do it.”

But I don’t trust Dr. Lee; he’s liable to try and eat part of my husband. I don’t trust any of these incompetent new interns.

“What I need is to continue my routine so things will still feel normal.”

“Maybe what you really need is some time off,” he says. “Even pathologists need time to grieve.”

“I’m not the grieving type.”

“When’s the funeral?”

“There is none. And don’t bother following me to the cemetery,” I say. “Walt’s being cremated.”

I defer my bereavement days and still insist on doing Walt’s autopsy.

It’s exactly what he would have wanted—if he couldn’t be there to do it himself.

 

POSTMORTEM REPORT:

The patient is a 62-year-old male. Childless.

We never had time to make kids.

Whose fault was that?

I’m still not sure why I had the hysterectomy, but sometimes, when I really need to think things over—like now, I go to visit my womb, still preserved in an antique milk bottle on Walt’s desk, to the left of Kofi.

I offer my husband the dignity of the same routine I do for the others.

His horn-rimmed glasses are removed, placed alongside with his other personal items: the platinum whistle he used to hail cabs, his key to the safe-deposit box, and the ostentatious Harvard ring he was always so proud of.

I check again to make sure it’s really my husband lying down in front of me.

Poor Walt on the slab.

For the first time I don’t know how to read his expression. His face has been blank for so long.

I wonder about his mercury levels.

Walt’s bald pate shines. Without the toupee his head seems wide and dented like a roadside hubcap. The wispy tufts of hair along the temples are comic-book blue—that Superman color, dyed from the hair tonic he sprinkled on every morning in a vain attempt to thicken the roots.

The eyes opaque with upturned lids are reminiscent of the shark we ate during our last dinner together. Now Walt’s nostrils are full, and they flare just as they did every time he complained the soup was too cold. I could never heat things enough for him.

Inspection inside his mouth reveals a scorched, hard palate—skin dripping down like stalactites.

We leave his bridgework inside.

The trachea is midline.

He used to have a goiter, but the thyroid was removed along with the parathyroid and stored in the guest room in the olive-oil jar we brought back from Sicily.

His chest and abdomen reveal more sites of forced entry than the front door of our first apartment across the street from the projects.

I try my best to be gentle and make a Y-incision along my husband’s torso with the scalpel, softly with the same motion I used to run my fingers across the hair on his chest, but a bit more force is required to get through the heavy piano wire holding his sternum together after his previous bypass operation.

Eventually I resort to heavy-duty gardening shears.

I remember the chest pain that led to this. Walt’s failed attempts to defer the drinking and eating during the dinner party because of an upcoming presentation laced with his corrupted Emersonian theories.

“True self-enlightenment,” he argued, “has to begin at the most visceral level—a literal familiarity with one’s own organs.”

And at the dinner after his lecture, I couldn’t get him to stop.

“If it’s inside me, why shouldn’t I be a part of it?”

From then on, Walt was obsessed with observing all of his own diagnostic studies.

We microwaved popcorn during a DVD of his colonoscopy and wall-papered the foyer with his old MRIs.

And when simply viewing his own medical tests wasn’t enough, Walt insisted on inspecting the organs after they were removed. He made me bring home his cystic kidney, which he nicknamed “Kofi.”

“Gynecology was never your thing.”

Maybe it would have been my thing if, unlike Walt, I didn’t fear my own insides.

It just so happened I was now deathly afraid of long and dark passages, petrified to wind up alongside the other women Walt cut up in our lab like a mad serial killer, some of them mothers, whose narrowed pelvises assured their deaths in childbirth miles above the nearest birthing center.

Walt tried so hard to show me the way.

But he’s gone and there’s nothing more I can do.

At night, I can’t tell if I’m dreaming, but the voices speak.

“Stop cutting up Dr. Walters. Stop cutting and leave whatever’s left of him alone.”

The next day I cremate the shell of my husband, but leave the good stuff—his preserved organs—behind.

Then there’s nothing much left to do for Walt except rummage through his things.

That’s when I find the video on his cell phone.

Where else would it have been filmed but Walt’s pathology lab? It’s from the night he claimed he had indigestion and told me to go home early. He’s seated behind his desk and he speaks with stoic glumness into the phone, like a demented newscaster overdosing on Zoloft.

“Hi, I’m Pauling Walters. As I sit here you can see I’ve commandeered this ultrasound probe from my cardiology colleagues. If I rub it over my chest, I can transmit to you . . . real-time images of the events taking place inside me. You see that wavy line flapping inside my aorta? That’s a tear. And as pain radiates down my back, you can see the ripping of my aorta inside.”

There is uncharacteristic sweat beading on Walt’s forehead. He takes a sip from his coffee mug.

“Now I can feel the pressure going into my back,” he grimaces. “Yes, the pain’s going into my spine . . . and into my chest, and I’m Dr. Pauling Walters, and I hope you’ll bear with me to the end, at which time my wife, Dr. Zara Walters, will prepare me en bloc in the appropriate manner—that is, if she’s willing to honor my last request.”

Then Walt pauses, clearly less alert.

“Sorry, I’m feeling lightheaded now. Breathing’s become difficult . . . I’m a bit faint . . . you can see from the images . . . there’s some bleeding going back . . . into the sack around my heart.”

“It’s pressing . . . on my left ventricle.

“Feels as if I’m driving into a long, endless passage. I know the place.

“A tunnel under a mountain.

“Laerdal, in Norway. We met there, Zara and I, after I made my way back from the fiords—not sure what was more mesmerizing—the endless flashing lights in those fifteen miles of tunnel or the Munch paintings back at the museum in Oslo, bold colors reflecting tales of pain and loneliness.”

Our life together began in that tunnel.

Fifteen miles—deep under a Norwegian mountain.

Perhaps I would have been a gynecologist if it wasn’t for that day.

I try to picture Walt but all I can see now are his organs on the scale, then memories of driving alone, pulling over in the cavernous tunnel rest area; pleasing shades of violet and yellow designed to mimic the sunset.

My first trip to Europe, a rented car to take me to a girlfriend in Bergen—I stopped to take pictures of the rock formations under that beautiful light in such a unique location.

There’s a rumbling in the distance. It intensifies to a high-pitched whine, and then the arrival of a sleek European white Volvo—innocent enough.

Volvo, epitomizing safety.

I remember the car squeezing next to mine.

Furtive glances from a bleached-blond Nordic man.

“Ya, I just want to make sure things are in order,” he said calmly, like a concerned citizen, and departed, only to return seconds later, opening my car door and forcing himself on me.

Walt continues to ramble, at times incoherently, in his video, but all I can recall is my own violation by that soft-spoken Nord in his Dale sweater, snowflakes embroidered on the same shoulders he pressed into my carotid, diminishing vital blood flow to my brain—a mechanism not much different from the one I now watch wipe away the mind of my dying husband.

Was I good enough to him?

When did our love grow into complacency?

When did I stop admiring Walt’s curiosity, his need to explore, to slide into the deepest recess of an antique store—or a body—to uncover secrets of the past, the same curiosity that enticed him to pull over and honk his horn on that random afternoon, a sufficient distraction that stopped my attacker from penetrating.

“Soon you’ll watch without me,” Walt swallows his words in short gasps. “But my examination will continue.”

And then he collapses—head-into-arms on the desk, just the way I found him.

I flick the phone off, shocked, suddenly traumatized by something that ordinarily would have been farcical, so typically Walt.

I tremble, reliving the shock of the assault after simultaneously watching the real-time  demise of my husband.

For the first time, death really is painful.

How did I have the heart to be the one to eviscerate him?

Even pathologists need to grieve.

The sounds I omit are visceral gurgles, like penetrating knife wounds in a thoracic cavity, until I wail in the crescendo reminiscent of the arrival of Walt’s car in the tunnel—the roar of rubber on pavement that changed the direction of my life.

Two days later at a small graveside ceremony, with the administrator and the interns present, I lower the urn with Walt’s ashes into the soil, along with jars I’ve gathered from his lab and from home containing the remainder of his preserved organs.

I wave goodbye to Kofi.

Then, as if draping a coffin with a flag, I drop in the furry remnants of my husband’s toupee.

“Goodbye, honey. I love you,” I say, and head off.

I head off beyond the headstones I refuse to recognize, where a haze of departing planes obscures my path.

___

I am a writer, performer, and physician, and my work has appeared or is forthcoming online (ducts.org), in print (580 Split, The Briar Cliff Review, Cairn, Compass Rose, Confrontation, The Distillery, The Dos Passos Review, Eleven Eleven, Fox Cry Review, The Griffin, G.W. Review, Mudfish, Pebble Lake Review, Quiddity, Red Cedar Review, Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, Slipstream, Sulphur River Literary Review, The Texas Review), and on stage at The Poetry Project. I have had multiple publications in scientific journals and recently completed my first novel, Medical Idol, a satire about health care. Website: richiesmithwriter.com.


Comments are closed.