Gross Anatomy

Dead silence.

The med students surrounding me stood, slouched yet tense. They avoided making eye contact with each other almost as much as they avoided looking at the white-draped corpses.

The professor broke the silence, her voice cold and sterile as the room’s steel tables and tile floors. She began with stern warnings and scholarly reminders. For a moment, her clinical tone seemed to freeze all hearts, firming everyone into objective, detached scientists.  

Then, her voice softened and she spoke of the donors’ lives as teachers, preachers, farmers, parents, grandparents, lovers, and friends.  Her tone warmed enough to thaw some students into mush.

Solid ice or warm mush? The students looked unsure of how they should feel.

I also felt confused. Was that buzzing in my soul anxiety or excitement? 

When it was time, the students in each group turned to face their respective tables and dead bodies. They readied their anatomical atlases and tools. In the group where I stood, a young blonde woman with a high ponytail and magenta scrubs picked off the first bits of draping.

Skin. A wide, bare back peeked out.  

As the students looked over the flesh and folds, I saw things no one else could see.

There was the mole I’d always hated. The one that grew a hair when I turned 40 and that sat right where I couldn’t reach it to pluck that hair out.

A petite student with a perfect circle face held her breath and cut into my former flesh. She pressed hard, then harder still, awkwardly fighting the unexpected toughness of the layers. She got the hang of it and so did the next student that cut and the next and the next.  

The days blurred. Darkness followed fluorescent lighting followed darkness.

Deeper and deeper the students cut. They found things I didn’t know were there, enlarged veins and pre-cancerous moles. They uncovered empty spaces for things they didn’t know were missing, like the tonsils that I traded for bright orange sherbet when I was five.

I saw my lungs, dark as the smoke from my first cigarette, and from my thousandth, and every one after that. I saw the flickers in the students’ eyes. They learned something from my lungs. Something for their patients. Something for themselves.

A tall male student held my heart in his hands. He peered into the tunnels that had carried my blood. Empty. “I thought it would weigh more,” he said. I wished I could tell him that I took the feelings that my heart once held with me. My passion and hope and joy weren’t left in my heart’s chambers.

Despite my light and empty heart, I hoped the students would look elsewhere and find proof of love. The plaque in my arteries made unlikely evidence. The students scowled, and scribbled notes about that. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so many of father’s roasted chestnuts. Maybe I shouldn’t have used two pounds of butter in the Christmas cookies I baked with mother (and later with my own daughters and grandkids). Maybe I shouldn’t have gone on that cruise with my fattest, sassiest sister after my husband’s funeral. I don’t regret any of those things. I doubt the students would consider the plaque a sign of feeling loved. Would they see the other signs?

Would they miss my favorite? There, right there--the scar from when my youngest was born. One young man eventually noticed. “Cesarean,” he said. The scar looked like an exclamation point, but the students treated it more like a period. They couldn’t guess the panic I felt the day I went into labor, nor the joy and relief that overwhelmed me when I finally held Emily in my arms. They couldn’t know that Emily would touch “her scar” at the beach every summer and ask to hear the story of her birth. They couldn’t know that, for me, the scar meant love.

One student noticed my ring finger, slightly indented and discolored from the golden band I wore for 59 years. He stared a long second at his own ring finger, which didn’t show any of these same signs, yet.  

I wish my body could have taught the students more about love. If nothing else, I wish they could have realized that love was the only thing I took with me when I died. And I wish they knew how much my doctors helped me feel loved toward the end of my life. And how loving they were to my family, as they had been to me when my husband couldn’t be saved.

The day the drapes were removed from my head, a student touched one soft, white curl of hair and said, “My grandmother’s hair looks just like this.” This student was chosen to reveal my face. As she peeled back the draping, she only quickly looked at my eyes before her own darted back up to those familiar, safe curls. I didn’t mind. I suppose the love I took with me also took the warmth from my eyes and the joy from my mouth and cheeks. The student whispered a brief prayer before examining my face. She included my family in that prayer. Nobody at the table scowled. Nobody told her she wasn’t going to be a good doctor if she took the time to pray. Not even the brains that seemed like devout atheists said a word. Oh, those brains.

How they looked at my brain. How they held it in their hands and stood, lost in quiet. I felt my spirit quiet with wonder, too. How could it be true that all of my thoughts and memories had once fit in that small, wrinkly thing? How could something so light have been the source of worries and fears that felt heavy enough to crush me? How could something so homely have held the pleasures and beauty of my grandest daydreams?

The final day, we all said goodbye to my body. What remained no longer looked like me. It looked more like a house where I used to live than a place I could still call home. I let it go. I didn’t even feel remorse, later, when an urn was filled with my ashes.
The same professor that led the students in my dissection led them in my memorial. My Emily attended. Somewhere in the audience, a baby cried. A pregnant mother rushed to the bathroom. A student’s phone buzzed with an urgent text about a heart attack. A future doctor held the hand of his future wife. A widower mourned.

Programs littered tables and benches as people shuffled out of the room. One line on a folded page said that in life I had been a teacher. I wanted to take a red pen and cross through “in life.” These medical students were my students, too. I let them take me apart so they could learn to put others back together again. Still, I ached to tell them that people were more than just their parts. I dreaded knowing I had to move on with this lesson left unlearned.

Then I saw them, still sitting next to one another, alone in the empty room.

In their weeks stressing, learning, and growing together, they had indeed discovered more than the parts mapped in their anatomical atlases. They had found in each other what I had taken with me. They lingered, shoulders touching. They embraced. They comforted. They celebrated.

They loved.

Elizabeth Parker Garcia studied Health Communication, Communication Training and Development, and Children's Literature. She lives in McAllen, TX and teaches at the University of Texas - Pan American Department of Communication.