It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead person, or what looked like a dead person. (I ought to warn you. Don’t be eating something when you read this. There are a few icky parts.) That time was almost 50 years ago, at the UMass/Worcester Medical School, where a college friend, who had decided in her mid-twenties to study medicine, was giving me a tour on a slow Sunday afternoon. We walked into the aptly named Gross Anatomy Lab, a large, brightly lit room with many tables and a cadaver on top of each one. Kathy’s cadaver for the term was lying on a table near the center, with its white plastic storage bag off to one side. She had already been working on it for some weeks, and it had been incomplete to begin with, lacking limbs, so at first it didn’t look as if it could once have been a living human. The colors and textures were . . . off. I had expected the discoloration of preserved skin, and perhaps some dried puddles of blackened blood. But it struck me that what the cadaver mostly resembled was a cold leftover roast turkey. It was, initially, no more disconcerting than that. Kathy picked up a stylus and began to point out various features: the lungs, the larynx, the cavity where the brain had been. I noticed that there were many layers of thin tissue lining this cavity, softly nesting against each other like an old book’s yellowed pages, or maybe like leaves of . . . baklava (no, not turkey now). And without being aware that my senses were being overwhelmed, I began to feel lightheaded. Not sickened, really, just . . . woozy. My brain (still safely within its own cavity) wanted to draw the curtains against what my eyes were seeing. Kathy had seen this reaction before and asked me if I’d like to step outside for some fresh air. I nodded vigorously.
Generally I’m not a person who reacts quickly in adrenaline situations. A purse-snatching happens, and I stay rooted to the spot, trying to figure out if I’ve really seen what I’ve just seen. If a toddler were to fall out of a high window, I wouldn’t be the hero to rush forward and make a diving catch. I just don’t make decisions that fast. (In somewhat the same way, I’m easily baffled when I listen to two people having an argument over something like politics or policy or religion; first this one’s views seem so reasonable, and then the other one’s views seem even more reasonable, but they can’t both be 100% right. It makes my head hurt, and I have to take time to think it through, for days, or weeks, or even years, trying to decide what it is that I believe, or ought to believe.)
And yet. One sunny summer morning about 20 years ago, I was driving with my wife Annie in our sensible Toyota sedan up the main avenue in our small suburb, headed north through the downtown neighborhood. Here, another road from the east intersects with this principal north-south artery, called Washington Street. There are gas stations here, and churches and the library and several blocks of stores, and crosswalks as well. Today, there are clusters of traffic lights here too, black-bodied and long-limbed like an alien race of police with brightly-colored eyes. But they weren’t here back then, only some rudimentary signals that were supposed to protect the crosswalks. Drivers often ignored them.
As we shuffled through this major intersection, I became aware that the SUV in front of me had stopped in the middle of it, though the lane ahead seemed to be clear. So I stopped too. A moment later, the driver threw his door open and leaped out, with his cell phone clapped to his left ear. He was talking excitedly to someone on the other end and looking all around him, everywhere but at the piece of street right in front of his car.
Did I mention that I process things slowly? It seemed to me that this man must be having car trouble and was calling for help. So that Annie and I could get out of the situation and continue on our way, I carefully turned my car to the left and tiptoed around him. When we got past his front bumper, I looked to the right and saw a body lying in the street.
It was a man, and he was prostrate and motionless. His head was turned to the right, his eyes were shut, his legs were bent. He looked somehow crumpled, and there was a shadow on him. I could see no blood pooling on the street around him — that at least was a good sign. But in that moment I thought he must be mortally injured, or already dead. And of course I remembered the cadaver.
As it happened, no police, fire, or emergency people, on-duty or off, were in the town center when the accident occurred, an unusual thing for our small town. No sirens sounded, no blue lights flashed. I could have hit the gas and gotten out of there, but without hesitating I pulled to the curb and got out, strode past the man lying in the road, and began directing traffic.
I don’t know how to direct traffic (and I know even less about emergency medicine), and though I’m tall, I don’t emanate an air of authority. But I thought, maybe this guy’s not dead yet, but before long, somebody is going to come along and not see him lying down there and run him over, and then he really will be dead, and that will be too much of a shame. Looking up, I saw there were workers painting a building nearby, standing on scaffolding, unmoving now, just staring down at the body in the road, their paintbrushes dripping on the sidewalk below. They made no move to clamber down. I didn’t know it at the time, but Annie had also left our car and run out into the street, to stand protectively beside the injured man. No one else was stepping forward.
I planted myself, facing south, in the northbound lane where the man lay, and stuck my palms up and out at the oncoming cars and trucks. STOP! Then I waved both arms to my left –– go down this side street, go away, get away from here! I kept making these stopping/waving gestures, wondering how long it would be until help arrived. Most of the drivers did turn away or at least slowed down, but in the confusion not everybody wanted to play along. Cars honked at me and tried to squeeze by to my left, quite close to the body in the road. One car in particular came on into the intersection, straight towards me, and I realized that people in their morning driving routine can see you right in front of them and yet not see you at all, or the life-and-death scene unfolding right in the middle of their lane.
The fact is, I’m not the only one who takes time to process things. Folks can react far less quickly than they might have imagined. Miffed, some of them, to find you in their way, only gradually do they realize that they have to change what they’re doing. I was never so glad, after what seemed like many minutes, to hear the sound of approaching sirens. The professionals were finally on their way, and soon I’d be able to take a deep breath, and stop trying so hard to do the right thing.