I didn’t think much of it the first time I saw a corpse. It was just dead. If anything, I was surprised at the nothingness of it.
I cringe a little when someone’s eyes fill up with star drops as they talk about the life-changing, magical experiences they had travelling. In my experience, these are the sort of people who spend their time hanging out with other middle class kids; who want to rough it for a month or two, maybe longer. Who find themselves in the glorious ‘backpacker bubble’ and participate as little as possible, who visit churches and temples and eat at the English speaking restaurants. Who want to polish their souls and refine their personalities by drinking into oblivion and fucking strangers on a nightly basis. To, you know, peel back the veil and touch the face of God through hedonism. That sort of thing.
I was walking down one of many forgettable Kuala Lumpur streets the night I stumbled across the corpse. I blew most of the little money I had left on a five-day bender in Pai, so I took my last one hundred dollars and an overnight bus to wait out my last week in Southeast Asia. I wasn’t interested in the photos anymore, I wasn’t interested in expanding my horizons through life changing half-day friendships and I wasn’t interested in sharing the cliché drunken wisdom acquired from four months of living in a fantastical substitute reality. I knew where I was going, and that was to nowhere in particular. Just swigging from my small bottle of local whiskey, trying to take the place in.
The funny thing was that as I walked further away from the tourist hub, the smell seemed to take on a new kind of density. It wasn’t humidity, it was more of a heaviness. As if the smell crossed a threshold and established a physicality inside my nose. All I could see were the buildings and the people, all I could smell was the city. It was black and humid and unpleasant and I kept thinking how miserable it must be to live in the outer high rise apartments and it just smelled like there were too many people living too close to each other and I kept walking faster and faster trying to get away from it, but the heavy physical air just left me short of breath. I was looking so desperately for something intangible, and I was so distracted by the oppression of the smell, that when I saw the corpse, I just stood there looking at it.
It was just dead. If anything, I was surprised at the nothingness of it.
Three years before I picked up Hemingway’s A Natural History of the Dead, I stood there on that nowhere street and I looked at the corpse. It was lying there, face down, in the blood pooling around its head. A steady, pulsating, dolloping excretion trickling down its left cheek. I looked at its clothes; skinny jeans tucked into leather boots, a white blood-stained t-shirt and a leather jacket. The ground smelled heavy, like old stale noodles that had been fried in dirty oil and I noticed the way its jacket collar turned up at the corners. Funny the things you remember. I could see the lifelessness of the corpse and it was profoundly amusing in a macabre kind of way. I stared at it long enough to imagine it must have been pushed off, or had fallen from the broken down apartment building behind it. Maybe the poor bastard jumped into eternal Catholic damnation. It was irrelevant by that stage.
There were two policemen standing under a lamp post near it, but they weren’t really doing much. One of them was smoking a cigarette; maybe they both were, I can’t remember. But the tall one was speaking in Malaysian to the other. Maybe they were waiting for me to leave, maybe they were waiting for an ambulance. Whatever they were doing, there was no urgency about them. I hung around for a bit but they were staring at me with beady, expressionless eyes and it made my hands shake, so I kept walking. I had some whiskey left and half a packet of cigarettes.
I flipped through my travel journals last night. I guess I was looking for some sort of insight into that strange encounter, but there was only one entry drunkenly scrawled onto the page in blue pen.
“I saw a dead body last night, it didn’t even bother me, it was just a part of the city. It could have been me. How fantastic!”
I think I came to a kind of esoteric understanding of death that night. It is the great zero. It is life’s non-existence. How you define it can be a problem, whether you are of the medical opinion that it is the lungs and the brain that defines death, or it is the spine shutting down that defines it, it seems to change depending on the opinion of the people sitting up on their philosopher’s thrones. For matey, spattered on the pavement that muggy April night, deaths distinctions meant nothing.
I think about what it means to be dead sometimes. I mean, I don’t think it’s meaningless; it is the second most important day of your life.
I think about what it means to be dead sometimes. I mean, I don’t think it’s meaningless; it is the second most important day of your life. It is just a nothingness, maybe the most perfect nothingness there is. When you die, you vacate your body and that’s that. There is nothing nice about it, but it is a logical fallacy to assume that death is intrinsically bad for the person who’s died, Epicurus said it over two thousand years ago, and most religions believe something similar, that once you’re dead your body is no longer connected to you.
Flesh and bones are just flesh and bones. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You know how it goes. We cremate or bury our dead, and we mourn them because we know the person who used to occupy that corpse is no longer in there. How you get there, and where you go afterwards is up for debate, but we’re all going to take our tickets one day.
I caught my flight home a couple of nights after seeing the corpse. I tried my best to avoid the same stories I was sick of telling. Everyone wanted to know: had I seen the Angkor temples? Did I like the islands? How was the food? I think of all the questions I hate the most, it’s the “How was the food?” question. I mean you go to a foreign place, you are literally inside another culture, and if you’re lucky enough, or dumb enough, you can ever so lightly touch the pulse of a place and look outwards from the inside. And all anyone wants to know about is the food.
I told a lot of the rehearsed stories to my friends, the same ones I’d been telling as formalities for months. I told stories about the food and the temples, “Oh you should have seen Angkor Wat at sunrise!” But I didn’t tell anyone about the corpse. No one cares what you really learn about yourself when you travel.
I got a call from Mum on a Wednesday afternoon last August saying that she and Dad were driving down from the country. Nan’s surgery had gone horribly wrong and there was massive internal bleeding. By the time I got to the hospital it was too late. Nan had slipped into unconsciousness and was finally peaceful after a pretty traumatic episode. We all sat there, my brothers and cousins, my uncles and aunties, and my great aunty and prepared ourselves to wait for Nan to die.
All we know about Nan’s childhood is from watered down Chinese whispers. Her father, from all accounts, was a kind man, but not a good man. A distinction that can be made only by those who understand the difference. When Nan’s mother died it destroyed my great grandfather, he took to drinking and gave away his four daughters, three to a villainous, evil step-mother type, and his youngest daughter to South African family friends. We never met any of her brothers, two died of polio, which Nan survived; and one—we found out—lost his mind and moved to Japan. It’s all Chinese whispers though, and I certainly never heard her speak of them. I guess it was a time where people didn’t air their bullshit out to the world. Nan, Grandad, their six children, and Nan’s two other sisters moved from Trinidad to Perth in the seventies. She was always pretty stoic about the tribulations of her life and she was a devout Catholic. Dad said in his eulogy that she “Did not fear death. As a Christian…death would no longer have the last word. It would no longer have the last laugh.”
I would walk past all of the other sad-faced lonely looking people, whose own ungrateful shits of grandchildren probably didn’t come to see them often enough either, and there she would be.
I didn’t see her as much as I should have in her final years. But when I did, I would follow the same pink line above the same hand rail on the same grey wall, down the old grey carpeted corridors and their grey white ceilings, past the politely smiling orderlies, to her room. Number 107. I would walk past all of the other sad-faced lonely looking people, whose own ungrateful shits of grandchildren probably didn’t come to see them often enough either, and there she would be. Sitting upright in her favorite chair by the bed, white-haired in her crisp blue dressing gown, deaf as a post, with a crossword or a Sudoku in her hand, vigorously filling in the blank squares.
The last time I followed the pink line down the grey corridor, we watched the football game and drank some tea. I’d printed off some photos from my travelling and talked her through my adventures in Africa and Southeast Asia. She laughed with her thick, rolling Caribbean chuckle, “Oh lord, you have been everywhere.” I put them back in the envelope and told her she could keep them, “You’re such a good boy,” Nan smiled at me in her warm way. There was a picture on her bedside table of the whole family from the last Mother’s Day Grandad was still alive. Grandad’s cancer had robbed him of all but his last efforts by that stage, but Nan was still sitting there sharp eyed and smiling.
“Gosh. You know, when we were all together that last time I looked at your grandad and I said to him “Look at what we have done.” We raised six children together, we have thirteen grandchildren and two great grandchildren and you are all doing so well.” She smiled and put her hand on mine. “I think that it’s time to go though, everyone is happy and doing so well and I think it’s time to go and see Grandad.” She looked down at the ground.
It was one of the last things she ever said to me.
I can quite clearly recall the presence of death entering the hospital room as we sat around somber, trying to make small talk. I first noticed death hanging in a room as a smell. It hangs like the smell of a newborn’s unwashed blanket, it descends into something macabre once it starts to mix with stale air and shit. It isn’t the smell exactly, it is a feeling. It is a heaviness, a hanging presence that builds slowly in your stomach and rises up till it is sitting right there behind your eyes. It is an anticipation.
Hemingway was right. You can watch death creep up heavy onto the chest of someone who’s dying; slowly getting heavier as it pushes down on their lungs. In that hospital room I felt the presence increase, as if death was replacing the air with some heavier version of itself. I can still see my great auntie watching her sister. I can see her hunched in the chair with her neck hanging low and exposed out of her great, grey coat; staring down at her sister, anticipating her own stint in that bed. I saw myself one day, lying in that unmarked bed with death sitting heavy on my chest. I think we all did.
And so that’s what you do, you just sit and wait.
It is a heaviness, a hanging presence that builds slowly in your stomach and rises up till it is sitting right there behind your eyes. It is an anticipation.
I assumed it would be over fast. I assumed we would just wait and be present and somehow, from the other side of unconsciousness, Nan would know we were there. But death didn’t behave like that. There was a sort of non-linear rhythm to its movements. Hemingway said “Never believe any of that about a scythe and a skull… it can be two bicycle policemen as easily, or be it a bird. Or it can have a wide snout like a hyena.” In that hospital bed, it was the sound of Nan’s breathing that death used to announce its comings and goings. Her breathing would go from peaceful to rhythmic, to a desperate struggle, to a muted scream, to a moan, to a guttural utterance, to a shriek, to a cry, to a weep, and then back to soft breathing.
I think we were all secretly hoping she wouldn’t wake up again. No one deserves to be in pain.
Two nurses lifted her up—out of unconsciousness—and began to remove her clothes and she began shrieking and flailing her arms in no direction in particular. The tubes and the wires and the big tube attached to the mask all started pulling loose and her drip nearly ripped right out of her arm. We were moved out into the corridor and stood around as she started to make these choking, non-syllable sounds. It was like someone was beating her internal organs with a blunt object. It was a completely natural, non-syllable, void of utterance growling. There wasn’t even an “ahh”to it. No one made eye contact in the corridor.
When a patient becomes palliative, they are not coming out of the hospital. The goal of palliative care is to achieve the best quality of life for patients and their families. After the nurses had been struggling with her, talking softly and trying their best not to cause her any more pain for twenty minutes or so, my uncle demanded they stop it, there was some protest about giving due care, and making sure she was properly looked after, but they laid her back down eventually. To be lawful, palliative care must never involve an intention to end the patient’s life, but euthanasia is seen as different from withholding life sustaining treatment. I don’t understand the difference. If the intention must be to relieve pain, yet under no circumstances hasten the death of a palliative patient, how does it allow for compassion? When someone’s only waking moments are defined by layers of pain, where is the humanity in these ethics? Nan screamed out the same non-syllable growls till the nurse upped the dose of sedatives and she went back to sleep. It was cruel what they did to her, whether or not there was intention in it, it was cruel to wake her up and man handle her like that. It was cruel to strip her down naked and bathe her for bedsores she would never see.
I guess I thought I knew a thing or two about cruelty. In Morocco, the mules in the medina stand still, emaciated and crazy eyed kind of looking at you, kind of looking at nothing. I heard that when they get so weak not even a whip or metal pole will make them walk, the owner breaks their legs and leaves them to die in the sun.
In Phnom Pen, silent tears streamed down my face as I walked over the bones that are still rising out of the ground towards the Killing Tree. That’s where the Khmer Rouge would hold down and rape the mothers as they made them watch their babies and toddlers, held by the ankles, have their brains smashed out against the Killing Tree. They’d cut the mothers throats with razor palm branches after that and toss them into the big pit with the other babies and toddlers and mothers, and throw bags of lime over all the wriggling bodies. There were still teeth stuck in the bark.
It was cruel to strip her down naked and bathe her for bedsores she would never see.
I met ex-child soldiers and the orphans of war in Uganda. Most of the children wouldn’t talk about the horror and the tragedy they faced at the hands of evil men. Their lives were irreparably scarred before they found their way to the orphanage, normally before they were eight.
I have had a few encounters with cruelty, but I never imagined a cruelty so peculiar or particular as what I saw in the palliative care unit. These imperatives developed by lawmakers, and the ethics pondered by philosophers as a best fit solution, have in some ways completely reduced dying to a process of legal obligations to keep someone alive.
Nan would have never opted for euthanasia. She was far too devout a Catholic to commit a mortal sin. But we got to watch death have its last laugh because of an imperative to keep her alive at all costs.
We have these waiting rooms. Graves before the grave. Transient places where dying people wait out their last days or hours to be “as comfortable as possible.” They didn’t even put a name on her door. She’d said all her goodbyes. Still, they put a tube down her windpipe so she couldn’t stop breathing in her sleep.
I left the hospital angry, and nearly a year later, I am still confused about it all. I don’t think the nurses, or anyone, could have done any better given their legal obligations, but that makes it so much worse. I don’t know how the corpse in Kuala Lumpur, all those years ago, found its way to the pavement, but it didn’t have to go through that very particular cruelty reserved for the dying. It feels like someone sitting in their lofty tower of ethical deliberation has failed, they haven’t split those philosopher’s hairs down to fine-enough strands to consider the humanity in life’s second most important day. If we can change the way death is defined just by thinking about it hard enough, surely we can change the ways we think about dying. I just feel like she was robbed of something.
Gerard McArtney is a twenty-eight-year-old writer from Perth, Western Australia. He has spent the last four years travelling the world collecting stories and memories. He returned to Perth this year to complete a Master's degree in Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University.