I was shocked by what I saw. But also relieved. I didn’t know the man on the steel cot. I had never met him at a party or seen him on a motorbike. But more than that “he” did not look like a man at all. “He” looked more like a display of a man at the Smithsonian, set next to a reconstructed velociraptor or a twisted piece of art at MOMA– fake skeleton wrapped in dehydrated tofu with a hint of yellow. Still, this was the first time I had ever seen a dead person.
I exhaled. My shoulders dropped an inch. Then I pushed through the crowd of student gawkers to stand very close to the former man. I brushed the edge of the table with the back of my hand. It was smooth and very cold. I looked the former man up and down slowly. His devastating dehydration took my breath away. Suddenly I became aware of how juicy I was. I could lick my lips five times in a row for no clear reason because I had plenty of saliva ready and waiting. Heck, I had a whole river of blood running in bursts from heart to head and toes. And back to heart again. I could blink, think and sweat because I was full of fluids. The biggest difference between that cadaver and I? I was sopping wet inside but he was dry like paper.
I left class that Friday lighter. I walked the mile back home with several friends and faster than usual. I would not talk to anyone about my first cadaver encounter for years. None of my classmates did either, at least not within my earshot. But we all stood a little taller that day on, like we knew something ordinary people didn’t. I had seen death and for its lack of visible connection to life it did not scare me. Two days later I returned dissection kit in hand to clean out, one square centimeter at a time, bits of a different cadaver. Over the next months the morgue amphitheater’s formaldehyde smell wove into my clothes, seeped into my skin and smoothed my hair. It proved I was who I wanted to be the Fall before my nineteenth birthday– a first year student of medicine.