The next to last week of anatomy lab, when we were supposed to be dissecting the head, the air conditioner went out all over campus. Lab was cancelled, and while the laboratory grew steaming hot, tons of ice were brought in to keep the cadavers cold.
Each body got about 180 pounds of ice over the course of the week. The ice stayed in the tank and melted, so that when we came back, our bodies were sunk in reddish, chemical-stinking water.
The following week we played catchup. On one crazy day, my group bisected the head, separated the head from the spine, and sawed the body in half at the waist. It was all big, blunt cuts with the hand-saw and the chisel.
On the phone with an old friend that night, I fell silent a lot. How do you describe what your days are like when your days are spent in anatomy lab?
“I was sawing the head open, and –,” It doesn’t make for easy conversation.
Anatomy lab initiates you into the secrets of the body; at the same time your life drifts away from the continent of normal people and normal conversation, it, too, becomes a kind of secret. We’re preparing for a life of secret-keeping, on behalf of our patients.
My friend and I hung up, and I went back to studying.
The next day, we bisected the pelvis and saw the origin of the thick, ropy, sciatic nerve. The muscles in there, at the base of the pelvis, were smooth and gleaming, with a net of arteries lying over them.
We finished anatomy lab. We dissected the leg in two days, running our gloved hands over and over each muscle as we memorized its name and function.
The foot came last. Then there was another exam just like the first one, where we moved from cadaver to cadaver at the sound of a buzzer for over an hour.
I passed Peggy, named a muscle in her leg, and patted her shoulder goodbye.
Now it’s over. I understand what’s inside people; I see it when I close my eyes; I can put my hand onto my own ankle and name the bright blue Saphenous vein, then the tendons next to it, the unseeable ligaments and the bones underneath.
And, in a certain sense, I know more about a couple of particular bodies than the people they were, or the people who loved them, ever did.
With scientific precision and detachment, I weighed a woman’s heart. I even calculated the error in my measurement, and decided that it was from residual blood clots rather than from lost love, or maybe evil thoughts, or a soul like a small white bird that flew up at the moment she died.
In another sense, only she could know what her heart weighed.
Certain secrets of hers are only hers, and went silent forever sometime just before we met.