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The Coroner's Gurney
written by: Freya North
"I did my research" the young man sighed, "hanging myself was close to the bottom of my list," I asked Dr. Shara, she said, "I've heard it hurts." Faith, an unassuming middle-aged woman, was sitting in-between the other patients, all of them young, in their early twenties, she assumed. Seemingly in-patients, at a psychiatric clinic while waiting for her own appointment. The conversation flowed around her. She had picked up they were all part of the same group, doing individual and group therapy, and waiting to see Dr. Shara.
Faith had felt a deep spasm in her solar plexus at this statement and kept her head down while biting her tongue. At that moment, she had experienced overwhelming sincere regret and sadness, being an unwilling party to the conversation. She found herself trapped in her seat between these people. With her blonde hair hanging down to cover her face, she pretended to frantically search for something in her handbag. Faith could have cried for this young man.
There to see her own Doctor about her ongoing neurological and psychiatric health problems this conversation had aggravated two of those, namely her own PTSD and anxiety. Glancing at her phone to focus on Facebook or Twitter rather than listen to the conversation around her. However, in such close quarters, this was entirely impossible. The chairs were pushed right up next to one another, in a very narrow corridor.
"The usual questions," the young man was remarking jadedly. Faith looked at his finely beautiful face. The chiselled cheekbones, the full lips of an African man, light coffee complexion and dimples when he smiled back at her politely. His hoodie up for the cold weather had given him a softer profile. He noted "Have you had thoughts of hurting yourself? Have you had thoughts of harming someone else? Have you ever hurt an animal? You know? The usual drill." How often in his short life, had he been in similar corridors, with a similar group of people? Going through the same process before?
The man who had been sitting quietly to Faith's right, hunched over his diary, marking off dates that meant only something to him. Smelling of cigarette smoke which gave Faith a pang of longing for a smoke, looked up and asked: "Have you had thoughts of harming someone else?" Faith couldn't help noticing her neighbour when he'd sat up straighter, and she'd glanced at his face, that he had the hardened look of someone who'd been living on the edge for far too long. Yet he had startling blue eyes. She felt a vague attraction to him as well as some empathy for whatever reasons had brought him to this place. He was wound tightly but asked with a hint at humour rather than as a serious question.
"I've had the thoughts" the young man had replied, "I've never put them into action." A flippant response, and Faith wondered about this young man's bravado. How fragile, was he really? Something has brought him here, and not for the first time. He'd leaned and then slid down the wall into a seated position on the floor, still smiling and joking; he addressed the girl to Faith's left. "So? What do we all have in common?" "Mental Illnesses" she sighed back, seeming defeated, and nervous. She was fiddling with her book. Rereading the pages of her diary, and phaffing with sticking something down. "What is the order again?" she asked, "thought, feeling, urge, action?" "Something like that" the young man exhaled his response, suddenly looking not so brave, and somehow smaller seated against the wall in his very fashionable clothing but looking to Faith so much like just a small little boy. Her heart broke again. "Oh, I've had the urge" he had assured the young woman "I've definitely had the urge." Faith had found herself holding her breath, she didn't want to hear that he'd taken any action.
Someone else arrived, a pale older woman and noting how many people were waiting asked: "are you all here for Dr. Shara?" She seemed distressed that this queue was so long. "Yup, all here for the same reason" the young man assured her cheerfully acknowledging his double meaning. She hesitated to take a sip of her water and seemed unsure whether to wait or go.
An order was discussed for appointments with Dr. Shara and who was to go in first and next etc. Dr. Shara's door opened, and the young man was called in. "See you in a while" he jumped to his feet and entered her room with a flourish, making the others laugh a little. So much of life in him, so little will for it. The archetypal clown, who is deeply wounded away from the jokes and the laughter.
Fortunately for Faith, her own Doctor called her into her appointment. She was able to escape the group and the discussion and moved gratefully into her doctor's room carrying her last MRI/MRA Scans and reports with her. Faith sank onto the couch still rattled by the conversation outside, suddenly didn't know where to start.
Dr. Prince saved her from this by stating, "I see you've brought your latest scans." Scans yes, she'd forgotten she was holding a large envelope and had handed them over. "My neurosurgeon had a look at them. He says there is nothing serious to worry about. However, the lesion on my brain is quite visible in the occipital region." "He said it is still likely the cause of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, he wants another twenty-four-hour EEG done."
Faith didn't mention the overheard conversation in the waiting room, although it was still very present in her mind. "It's the anxiety that is still worrying me the most," she had remarked instead. "There are still more days than less that it is out of control, I'm still having – for lack of a better word – seizures or are they panic attacks? I can't tell". She mentioned "There are two different types, one originates from my head, I get pins and needles on my scalp, the pain of the seizure is mostly in my face and eyes and jaw. The other originates in my chest and travels up to my throat and into my jaw and ears."
Faith thought for a moment "my heart rate is also elevated and erratic, especially during an attack. It is still high even when I'm calm". Looking at her Fitbit, she confirmed, "right now it's at 103 bpm." Probably because I'm wound up about the conversation outside your door. The discussion turned to her medication. Another epileptic drug was added to the list of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs, along with her blood pressure medication and a muscle relaxant. Faith agreed to book the EEG test for a few weeks later, and when she left, she noticed that most of the people from the previous group had gone.
Faith made it to her car and was relieved to be leaving, driving carefully out into the seasonal downpour. Alone in her car with her thoughts, her mind immediately rewound to the waiting room. I should have said something, and immediately cancelled that thought, no, better than I left it unsaid. I could so easily have messed around with any one of those kids' therapeutic processes. For Faith though, this is a train of thought that couldn't so easily be let go of. It sat, lodged in her chest like a cold stone. The memories came flooding back as she drove cautiously.
Suicide ideation is something that Faith is intimately familiar with. There isn't a day that goes by that she doesn't at least once have the thought "I don't want to be here." Not that she would do it that way, the young man was right, it's at the bottom of her list too. Realising, this was the direction her thoughts were taking; Faith had to pull herself back to the present moment. She wondered what would happen if she told either her therapist or her psychiatrist, she had these thoughts daily. Not surprisingly Faith herself would probably end up joining the group outside in the waiting room in short order.
Faith knew, though, that she wouldn't do that. She thought of her family, her mother and her brother, and most of all, she thought of her daughter Tyra and her partner Martin.
No, that is not something that she would do, as entertaining in a dark and comforting way those thoughts could be, she also understood that she could never bring herself to that. She considered her own musings about suicide, how she would do it, when, where etc. and realised that it is her comfort zone. She turns to these thoughts when she is in a state of despair, and finds them comforting, in the back of her mind, she always admits that there is still that if it gets too unbearable. She'd been through in the last 10 years she understands that as unacceptable as things had been, and would still probably get, she has no desire to commit suicide.
But the memories were now pushing to find a space in her head as she made her way home. Memories she'd been putting off for two and a half years. Faith couldn't put them off any longer as they made their way into her consciousness on that drive home.
It had been the most ordinary of days. Nothing about the start of that day gave any warning of what was to come. Dean's door had been closed early on that morning when she'd set off to work as a photographic assistant. That was nothing unusual, there were often days when he'd only open his door and appear late morning. She had been unconcerned that she hadn't seen him that morning. Later, she would remember hearing an unusually loud thud from his room, at about 9 pm the previous evening. She’d started in bed, she'd almost been asleep, and thought "what the hell was that?" However, hearing nothing more, she'd turned over and drifted off to sleep.
Earlier that evening he'd cooked dinner for everyone. Faith had noticed that his mood was darker than usual, his dark brown eyes were almost black, but then Dean was moody and looking back now with hindsight vision, he had been in a dark mood for a while. But none of them had paid attention, we should have noticed, she rebuked herself. I should have seen, I who is usually so sensitive to everyone around me should have noticed.
Faith sometimes wonders if she isn't a psychopath or something like that. She can often remember all these details in stark clarity. Still, the emotions are removed from the memories. Even when they come as they had, unbidden, she could think through all of this in the minutia of detail and not shed a tear. Yet on other days, she cries for no reason at all, tears flow when she's driving around on an ordinary day, with no real reason to cry. Faith always cries alone in her car, when she's driving, and her mind has a chance to wander, and when she doesn't keep her own thoughts in check, she finds she's been crying without even realising it.
But on that day, she had shed no tears. Not even after all was said and done. Unusually, her daughter was with her when she had arrived home that afternoon just after 1 pm. More unusual still, she had fallen asleep in the car on the way home. Faith had parked the car under a tree with all the doors open to let her continue her nap and went inside, her shopping bags over her arm, treats, tea, coffee etc. for the photographic club meeting that evening.
She still had all her shopping bags over her arm and her cell phone in her hand, when Dean's young girlfriend approached her as she was walking through the door. She immediately said to Faith "I haven't seen Dean all day, I'm worried, his door is still closed." Faith had also had a WhatsApp message from Dean's therapist, as he had not been answering her calls. She'd wanted to move his appointment to an earlier slot for that day, asking Faith to please get him to call her.
That's when Faith's skin crawled, a sense of horrible foreboding overtook her as she felt herself already going numb, she knocked on the door and called "Dean? Can I come in?" having no answer she had knocked on the door again. This time pushed the door open, with Erika standing one step behind her she saw what she already knew she was going to find. Dean was hanging by a noose from his neck and from what Faith could tell he was dead.
Slamming the door shut, she turned to Erika and barked "Go fetch Tyra from my car, go to your cottage and DO NOT come out unless I personally come to tell you that it's okay to leave." Then just as suddenly, she hadn't known what to do. In shock and her thoughts and emotions roiling in her stomach, she looked down at the phone in her hand, the last number she had dialled was the photographer she worked with.
Erin, Erika's mother, who also lived in the cottage with Erika, was still sitting quietly at an outside table, and Faith went outside to her. She had no words only hand gestures as she called Erin to come back to the room with her. Together they had opened the door, and to Faith's most profound and most heartbroken regret, the scene had not changed. Dean's feet were only maybe half an inch from the floor. The small brown stool he'd made himself in one of his woodworking projects was toppled over, and when Faith had touched his arm, gave it a gentle squeeze, it was cold. Faith only then realised that she had her shopping bags still over her arm and her phone in her hand, putting the shopping down, she realised she had to make some decisions and act on them, but she didn't know what to do.
She could not think clearly, and Erin was in as flat out a panic as she was, heartbreak already streaming down her face. Faith had looked down at her phone, and without thinking dialled the last number she had used on it, it was Jarred the photographer. She called him "Jarred, I've just found Martin's son hanging in his bedroom, he's dead, I can't make our meeting tonight" is all she can remember saying. Jarred was, as usual, calm and reassuring and issued instructions calmly "the first thing you need to do is call the police, I'll call you back in 10 minutes". Faith could not remember how to call the police and asked Erin blankly, frantically thinking a thousand other thoughts at the same time and remembering Martin in another heart-shattering thought, 'Oh, my God, Martin.'
Finally, she'd spotted the panic remote for their home armed security company and not knowing what else to do she press the button, repeatedly. Then the order of her thinking returned, and she realised that she would have to decide for her own child too. She called her mother and brother to come and fetch Tyra as fast as possible, she briefly explained what had happened. She then called Dean's therapist, who was the therapist to the whole family. Unfortunately, Thora unable to answer the phone, didn't take the call and Faith sent a WhatsApp "Thora, Dean, is dead, he's hung himself, I don't know what to do." Thora, although in shock called back and responded calmly and instructed Faith not to tell Martin until she was almost at their house and explained that she was on her way. "Once I'm almost there, I will call and break the news to him, and you need to go to his office and fetch him."
In the meantime, the armed response had reacted to the distress call and had arrived at the gate, Faith let them in and led them to Dean's bedroom. They stepped inside and touched nothing other than to reconfirm that he was dead. Faith would forever be grateful to them for then taking over and phoning the police. There was nothing to do but wait. Faith can't remember how long that was, but she recalls thinking, 'it's just an ordinary day, nothing has really changed, and everything has changed', but the house looked the same. The garden looked the same. Everything had its place in the kitchen. Nothing seemed out of place, yet nothing would ever be in place again.
Erin had gone back to the table outside and sat with the emergency response company, who were kind enough to wait for the police to arrive, they arrived within 10 minutes of being called. Faith was worried about taking Tyra past the police to her brother's car as he and her mom had also arrived in record time. The huge police sergeant and his constable made this more natural, as she explained to them how she didn't want to frighten her child. "Never mind, I'll handle your daughter nicely" he promised, and he did. When Faith went to fetch Tyra from the cottage, she brought her around the side of the house, not through the house. The Sgt approached Tyra holding out his hand he went down on one knee, eye level with the child and said: "I'm Sgt Themba, and this is constable Molefe, and we're visiting all the houses in your street just to make sure everyone is okay and safe." Tyra was immensely pleased and proud to be greeted so importantly. She then accepted her mother's explanation that Dean was very sick. So, she'd have to spend a night at Granny's house, and without question, Tyra went off happily with her mom and brother. Faith remembers her mom's eyes brimming with tears, and her brother's face severe and pale.
Thora called "I'm five minutes from your house, go and fetch Martin from work." Faith can't remember the drive there, she only knows that she found him standing on the pavement outside his office, from his demeanour already a broken man. Yet, when he got into her car, the first thing he asked was "Is he dead?" "Yes," she answered but could find nothing, no word or phrase to convey how sorry she was. She could only drive hopelessly inadequate to do anything to alleviate his pain and listening to his dry wracking sobs.
Arriving at home, Thora was already waiting in the driveway. She hugged Martin, and together she and Faith had assisted him upstairs to the main bedroom, where he had collapsed on the bed. He mentioned that he should see Dean. Both Faith and Thora immediately advised against this, and he asked to please be moved to a mental health facility immediately, as he could not stay in the house. To this, Thora agreed quickly and took him there straight away in her car and helped him to check-in.
For Faith, the remaining day was still going to be a long one with much to do. Later she reflected that death and its immediate aftermath is a strange thing. More recently being with a friend who'd died from cancer, while she was with him, also contributed to this thought. Self-Automation kicked in on both occasions and on the day of Dean's death, she found that she got through the rest of that day robotically.
Dean's body was still exactly where she'd found it, the coroner was still due to arrive, and suddenly there had been so many things to do. Another blinding stab of pain, she realised that his mom, brother and grandparents would have to be told. Walking into the garden, she'd called Martin's brother, still amazed at the normalcy the day promised, out in the sunshine, birds in the trees. "Hi, Peter? I'm so sorry to have to tell you this, but I found Dean hanging in his bedroom, he's dead." She hadn't bothered with a preamble or any niceties. It was the only way she could get her message out. Baldly and to the point. "I'm still waiting on the coroner to arrive, but we'll have to go and tell your parents." She wasn't crying, saying everything without emotion, she made arrangements to meet him at his home later that evening to go to see Dean's grandparents.
Thora had advised against telling Dean's brother David until his mom had returned from her business trip. Faith was torn with grief for this woman who had to receive the news of her son's death while stuck alone in a hotel room in another country. Later that evening Faith reached out to her in a WhatsApp message. There was nothing really to say only to express her immense sadness and sorrow and to offer to help in any way she could.
She also had to make the call to his two best friends, one of whom was already living abroad, the other at home with his mom. Faith can't remember anymore what she said when she made those calls, save for the state of shock it put them both into. She arranged with Serge to collect him from his mom the following day, and bring him back to the house, the family would need his support in the coming days and weeks. Having been as close a family member as anyone for a long time, he needed to be as close as possible.
Finally, in the parade of strangers through the house that day, the coroner's van had arrived. Not the nicely decorated ones from private funeral homes, but plain police marked van, in all its steel and simplistic cruelty. Erika had joined her mother at the table outside, realising that they were about to move Dean's body to the van, Faith made a snap decision. "Erika, we're going to the shop to buy smokes." Faith had not smoked in over 6 years, and now suddenly more than anything wanted a cigarette. More than that, she wanted to get Erika out of the house when they moved Dean's body. Hell, she wanted to get herself out of the house when they moved his body. Somewhat selfishly, she would later think, left Erin sitting alone at the table outside when this was done.
Faith had miscalculated how long this would take though, and on arriving back from the shop as she pulled into the driveway, the coroner's van, with the back open was still parked inside. With a shock both she and Erika saw the noose – as ever in true Dean style, exquisitely made, lying on the coroner's gurney, they still hadn't moved Dean's body. Smartly reversing out of the drive, Faith parked her car, facing away from the driveway on the pavement outside. She and Erika waited for them to eventually back out and carry Dean away with them.
When Faith remembers that day, she doesn't remember so much the site of his body hanging from that noose, looking entirely peaceful, just with his neck at an odd angle. She remembers the image of that same noose, lying on the steel tray that they would lay him on too. Dean had done his calculations, for him, it didn't hurt. His neck had broken cleanly, and when she'd found his body, feet almost touching the floor, hands turned palm out, he could have been sleeping. He'd made sure that there was no ugly mess to find. In his meticulous way, Dean's death had been planned as well as other projects he'd taken on.
Knocking on the door to Martin's parents' home felt surreal. "What's going on", Martin's mom's voice filled with dread, "I think you'd better sit down." Peter guided them both to the sofa, sitting together so frail and fearful, Faith's heart ached yet another time that day. "Dean has passed away," Peter told them gently. The how's and what happened were immediate questions that could not be avoided. Faith told them as mildly as she could leaving out many details that he had committed suicide. After making them tea and sitting with them for a while, she and Peter went back to his home. The offer to spend the night there was made which Faith declined. She still had to go and take an overnight bag to Martin.
Faith left a bag at the reception for Martin, it'd felt so strange to do this and not to see him, although she would be seeing him at 7:15 the following morning. Having done this, she suddenly didn't want to go home, and she didn't want to go anywhere else either. She found herself sitting in the parking lot of the shopping centre outside the clinic. Alone with her racing thoughts in her car and unable to find the will to move.
Finally, she called Jarred, but could not get hold of him. With nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, she had driven home slowly and carefully to an empty bed. Her life partner in broken pieces in the clinic she'd just left. She drove meticulously and almost aimlessly, allowing the part of her brain that knew the route home to guide her there, without really seeing where she was going.
Alone at home, she had put all the dogs on the bed with her, took a sleeping tablet and tried to sleep. The worst was still to come, the endless days of pain and guilt. The never-ending questions about how she could have changed things or done anything differently to change this outcome. The days, weeks, months and then years of watching Martin's pain and loss. Seeing both Dean's mom and his brother both try to come to terms with his death and putting her own grieving on hold.
Yes, she drove home carefully that night, as she had done in the downpour when she left her psychiatric appointment. Barely realising where she was, but going slowly as the memories intruded.
Should she have said something to that young man back in the waiting room "my stepson hung himself, I found him." She mused though over the possible implications this could have had for this young man and his group and was glad she said nothing.
Having found a body hanging from a noose not yet two and a half years ago, did not dissuade her from having suicide ideation thoughts herself. Yet, Faith had experienced first-hand the trauma and damage done to those left behind, and she thinks of Martin, his oldest son had left so much pain and hurt behind when he'd hung himself.
Faith also rightly or wrongly felt that she has no right to mourn Dean. That other more important people in his life had that right first and knowing how deeply Martin was still mourning the loss of his child, Faith feels that she couldn't add to that burden with her own grief, and guilt.
She was glad she said nothing to the kids in the waiting room and simultaneously guilty, maybe speaking up would have helped them, perhaps not. Having been through years of trauma counselling herself, she realised that saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to that group could have easily caused more harm than good. Still, she hoped that the young man would tear up his list, that his family would never have to experience what her family had. Best she said nothing, yet that young man, just like Dean, would live on in her memory forever.