Touch: The Journal of Healing



A Lifetime with Death

    by Stephen Gilchrist

I thought that I knew everything about death. I thought that my heart had frozen over, become as placid as a winter lake. I thought that I was no longer susceptible to the chill of Death's icy grip, a grip that had caused violent shiverings in so many others throughout the ages. I thought that the endless hours that I'd spent sweating in feverish emergency rooms and quarantined operating theaters had finally boiled my senses down to a cool, professional distillate, a distillate of necessary numbness. But I was wrong, very wrong, and I soon discovered that the anesthetic I'd been administered was only local, and that instead of a dull callous, my exposure had resulted in a highly sensitive burn.

It all began a few years ago, when, in a stroke of luck, I had been allowed to leave the hospital when the sun was still up; a rare occasion for a third-year resident such as myself. I had been accustomed to heading home in the wee hours of the morning, if at all, and as such, I looked at this unexpected change in a highly favorable light. My levity was short-lived, however, and as I drove along the monstrous highway that yawned from one end of the city to the other, I noticed a crumpled mass slumped over on the shoulder lane. Though there was nothing particularly alive-looking about it, I felt compelled to pull over anyway, and so I did.

It was a dog; an unloved stray, from the looks of him. His matted blond fur, which probably hadn't seen a brush in many years, if ever, was mingled with dirt and blood. His caved-in chest rose and fell, quickly and shallowly; it was obvious that he was close to expiration. It appeared that he had been mowed down by a careless motorist and subsequently left for dead. The accumulated knowledge from years of training, training that was supposed to equip me for just such events, was conspicuously absent; my mind became a blank tablet. I was dumbfounded and frozen in panicky ignorance. The best that I could think to do was to pet his head. When I did, there was no response. Within a minute, he was dead.

Later that night, despite the fact that I was at home, in a comfortable bed, at a human hour, I couldn't sleep. I laid awake for countless anxious hours, scraping my tongue against my teeth in a futile attempt to remove a faint, acrid taste from my mouth. It was familiar yet distant, an atavism I thought had been burned years before in the sterile pyres of the hospital. But as time melted away, it became more distinct, and despite my initial protestations, it was soon undeniable; it was the specter of death, come to terrify me again. I had been tracked down by his guide, a shaggy golden dog.

I was ashamed with myself — ashamed that a dog's death affected me deeper than a man's. Ashamed that I was obviously misanthropic: despondent over the passing of some unloved stray, but seemingly unaffected by the countless human deaths that I had witnessed over the years. But from the depths of my shame came a profound understanding — at least profound to me, if not to anyone else. I realized that in the hospital, or in the clinic, or in the office, death had always come wearing latex gloves and a surgical mask, holding scalpels and stethoscopes, and manifesting itself through gunshot wounds and strokes and slow cancerous wasting. However it came, it always came with sterility, with a noxious smell of plastic and disinfectant that I had breathed in safely through a mask of filter paper. I had finally witnessed death in its natural habitat, free of artifice, with unalloyed indignity and cruelty, and realized that I had been partitioned from true death my whole life; that all along I had been battered and benumbed by nothing but a toothless, hygienic effigy.

But my time for reflection eventually ended; duty called, and I returned to the hospital. Though at first bleary-eyed and disillusioned, as the days turned to weeks, then months, then years, the accumulated din and clamor of my surroundings eventually effaced most of the worn image of that dog from my mind. But he's not completely absent; his faint, shaggy outline exists there even now. Since that day beside the highway I've always carried a burden, a burden of fear that has morphed slowly from hopeless nihilism to equanimous acceptance. It's a fear that acknowledges that some day I'll have to face Death once again, in all of his crude ugliness, and that when I do, it won't be within the sterile white walls of a hospital.

© 2012  Stephen Gilchrist

Stephen Gilchrist is an emerging writer from Long Island, New York. As someone who teetered on the brink of physicianhood and writership himself, though eventually casting in his lot with the latter, he has a special affinity for stories involving healing, both physical and spiritual. He's currently writing like mad, everything from short stories to poetry.

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Touch: The Journal of Healing

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