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Archive for October, 2017

When we die, our families remember our smiles and laughter, tears and tantrums, the animals we cuddled and the games we enjoyed. Our mothers remember what we smelled like. Our fathers remember how helpless we made them feel. Friends and relatives alike linger on our photos, mentally caressing the memories.

An autopsy report is the opposite. It is striking for its clinical distance, the dispassion that renders a human being into a collection of anatomical descriptions. It carries and conveys no memory or warmth, just the immediate nature of the cold, decaying tissue on the table in front of the medical examiner, who tries to thoroughly document what was and was not wrong with the body before it died, and especially what precisely may have killed it.

“The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished, adult Caucasian woman who appears consistent with the stated age.”

Her stated age was 18. She died in Lenoir. In family photos she has long, straight, light-brown hair and a radiant smile, whether standing alone modeling a dress or cuddling with a younger brother.

She arrived at the medical examiner’s office at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem in a body bag, her hair 16 inches long. She wore black shorts, a black shirt, a black bra, and an ankle band with her name on it. “Personal effects accompanying the body include a hair tie and flip-flops,” the autopsy report said.

In its way, the report describes a young woman who by all appearances had many years ahead – a young woman who matched the one her family and friends could see in their treasured photos. The clinical version of that, though, is the absence of abnormality, the cataloguing of healthy tissue, using the same terms over and over.

“The ears are not unusual. The lips and gums are pale and atraumatic. The teeth are natural and in fair condition. … well-developed … without injuries … unremarkable … symmetrical … intact … free of abnormality … normal … intact … intact … smooth … usual … unremarkable … unremarkable … intact … free … unremarkable … unremarkable … unremarkable … unobstructed … unremarkable … unremarkable … unremarkable … unremarkable … normal … without focal abnormality … not unusual.”

The medical examiner noted a spot of bleeding under her scalp near the base of the skull – perhaps from where she fell backward and hit her head as she died? The report doesn’t offer the examiner’s opinion.

She had only two other injuries, extremely minor, that could have come from everyday activity: a very small bruise over her right shin, and a slightly larger, lighter, yellowish bruise over her left shin.

She had a very small amount (less than 5 percent) of abnormal or scar tissue in her heart, which may or may not have pointed to future heart disease many years ahead.

The answer to what killed her came not from anything on the table in front of the medical examiner that September day in Winston-Salem, but from blood drawn from an artery in the young woman’s thigh the summer day she was found dead.

She had taken cocaine apparently mixed with a few other things, but the fatal mix was cocaine and cyclopropylfentanyl – a chemical cousin to a powerful opiate, fentanyl, that has been implicated in a rapidly escalating number of drug overdoses and deaths nationwide.

There probably wasn’t much cyclopropylfentanyl at all. In fact, there was nearly 10,000 times more cocaine in her blood, and there was less than half a gram of cocaine. If all the cyclopropylfentanyl in her system were spread as powder on your living room table, you wouldn’t notice it among the dust — but it could still kill you.

That’s all it takes to end a life. One day perhaps your life.

Your laughter, your tears, your rages, hugs, joys all pass into memory, while you and that poison in your blood lie inert, waiting to be coldly examined by a stranger.

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I never wanted the cat. I hadn’t even wanted the first one, who was born to a semi-stray under our back porch in Richmond, Virginia. I had no control over that or my wife crawling under the porch and falling in love with the runt of the litter.

But the second one more or less was my fault. I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t want it, but I didn’t keep my mouth shut, so it was my fault.

Two or three months after the semi-stray’s litter under our porch, in the early morning dark as I took a bag of garbage out to the bin in the alley I heard a kitten-ish peeping. I went back in the house, got a flashlight and went hunting for the source of the sound. Eventually, the sound led me to the concrete landing of the apartment building next door. Under that landing was a small gap, and in that gap two tiny eyes glowed in the flashlight beam.

I went back in the house. I figured the mother cat would come and find the kitten. Before I left for work, though, I told my wife what I heard and found.

About two hours later, my wife called me at the office. That little, tiny kitten was climbing the outside stairs of the apartment building outside her study. The stairs had a large gap between each stair, and she worried it would get very high up, then fall through a gap to the concrete pad. I told her to relax, it will be fine, it’s so tiny it can’t possibly climb very far. I hung up.

I turned to a co-worker and said, “There will be two cats in my house when I get home from work.”

I was right.

The first cat was still a kitten but, as quickly as kittens grow, loomed like a giant over the second, who hunched his back to make himself as big as possible and jumped sideways at the first cat, who stared at the odd sight.

We soon learned that wherever the new kitten had come from, he was being paper-trained. We found out because the room where we kept him had bags of old magazines and paperback books, and one day I found him dumping on top of one stack. I remember holding him upside down, poop trailing over his belly, as I tried to carry him someplace where he would not leave a holy mess. A short while later I explored and found his previous visits to our library stacks.

With all other paper removed from that room except a large square of newspaper around the litter box, he chose to poop and pee on the newspaper, not in the box.

But it occurred to me: If he wants to pee on paper, try putting a square of newspaper inside the litter box. It worked! Over time, I put narrower and narrower pieces of paper in, until one day he was litter-trained. Voila! I’m a genius!

He was an adventurous boy, but odd. He got in my lap exactly one time, for just a few minutes. Then he jumped down, never to return again. He didn’t resist being picked up, but he stiffened. It reminded me of stories about babies born to women addicted to crack, “crack babies” was the term. I called him a “crack kitten.”

We did not let the cats roam, but in Richmond we had a second-floor porch, and we put a kitty door in the screen door to it, so the cats had, except in very cold weather, free access to an outdoor area pretty much 24 hours a day. Then one night we couldn’t find him. I went around the house calling for him, then went out on the second floor porch, wondering if he was under a chair in the dark. I called his name. From the distance, on the ground below, he meowed. I ran inside, grabbed a flashlight and ran out the kitchen door. I called him, he meowed, and the flashlight fell on him, his eyes shining back.

Instinctively I ran toward him — and instinctively he bolted through a hole in the fence.

For the next three days we searched around, and I walked the alley at night, calling his name. Research told me that indoor cats that get out tend not to wander very far because they are afraid, but he seemed to be too afraid to call out. One evening he did, and I followed his sound. I called him, he meowed. I advanced. I called him, he meowed, I advanced. I was getting close — and then a car with an extremely loud muffler roared down the alley. He didn’t answer me anymore.

The next night, I waited until after 11 p.m., when it was quieter out, and went out and called his name. He meowed from what sounded like the neighbor’s yard. I went out the front door and around to the neighbor’s side gate. Luckily, it didn’t have a lock on it. I went in and sat on the back steps and called the cat. After I called a few times, he emerged from the darkness and rubbed up against me. I petted him and petted him and called his name. Then I gently scooped him up, cradled him and started the walk back home. As we neared our front porch, a loud car came rumbling down the street, and the cat tensed in my arms, so I locked my arms down on him and hurried to the front door. The car passed, the cat relaxed, I opened the door, and I dropped him gently to the floor.

“Percy’s home!” I called out as I wept.

In Lenoir, we have no outdoor porch for cats to lounge on and stare hungrily at birds, but we have plenty of windows. Lots of big, tall windows, so lots of sun, morning, noon and late afternoon. And a big staircase, with high ledges looking down the stairs to the first floor. It’s a good house for a cat.

But cats don’t stay kittens. Age catches up. During the past couple of years, he developed an auto-immune disorder, and then diabetes, and then a little more than a week ago something like a severe sinus infection. He stopped eating. The vet also found lesions inside his mouth. Because of the diabetes, he already had been losing weight, but without eating his weight plummeted. On Thursday we decided we had to put him down.

For years I have lamented the burdens of these cats. I never wanted him in the first place. When the hell will I stop crying?

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