A Link to the Living

In the silence of an anatomy lab more than the mysteries of the body is revealed

YOU can imagine how startling it was when my daughter the medical student inquired, "Would you like to see my cadaver?" A glance at her eager young face filled with cheerful expectancy made me soften the fervor of my denial to "Oh, no, darling, no -- I don't think so. No. No."

But then I thought, How often does a person, a lay person, have an opportunity like this -- to look inside the body of another human being? You'll be forever sorry if you pass up this chance. I glanced at her again. She was waiting for me to come round. As she always did -- as kids do. "Well," I said, "what would it be like?"

So off we went, in the warm dusk of the New Hampshire evening. I found myself fighting off my apprehension and hoping I would be able to control my queasiness. As we descended the stairs heading deep into the cavernous basement of the medical-school building where the anatomy lab was housed, she began to prepare me. It will be cold, because -- you know. And there will be a smell of formaldehyde -- don't mind it; you get used to it.

We entered the dimly lit lab. I want to say, we crossed the threshold -- "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." I put my trust in her, like Dante following Virgil into the underworld. We wound our way among the sleek gurneys with their sheet-shrouded burdens. Not another soul breathed in that vast space. The smell of formaldehyde was an assault. The silence was thick, as if the bodies had absorbed all the sound, like flannel, like blankets, like snow.

She showed me first the trays of parts, stainless-steel basins of raw things -- one full of kidneys, another of livers -- like offerings in a meat market. She spoke in hushed tones, as if we were in an intensive-care room or a nursery. We approached the gurney that bore the cadaver she had been dissecting. Slowly, gently, she turned back the cover from the thin white feet and legs. "We'll start here," she said. "The head is so very personal." I knew she was allowing me time to prepare for the intimacy of that encounter.

She pointed to a clipboard on a low wall, where the history of the cadaver was detailed. He was an old man -- and an old cadaver, having been in storage for many months. I don't remember why he died. She told me that in some medical-school labs the students make dark jokes and horse around, probably in an effort to handle their feelings. She was grateful that the attitude here was different.

She raised the sheet from the lower torso, which was laid open like a display package. I was astonished to see that our bodies' essential parts are all neatly organized, many in their own little membranes like plastic-wrapped leftovers in a well-maintained refrigerator. I had always assumed that the coils of intestines, the stomach, the liver, the spleen, would be jumbled up together. The tidy reality was strangely satisfying.

She had been working on a section of colon, I think it was. I watched in fascination as she carefully removed the covering from the head. She said, "It is so important to us students to have this experience. And if people are willing to donate their bodies for us, we must, must give them due respect."

I gazed at the small face of an old man, an old man who somehow linked my daughter and me and all human flesh together, in the semi-dark, in this timeless moment.

Outside, green, growing leaves were gleaming softly under a star-studded sky. Up into the freshness of evening we came, full of a sense of the enduring connectedness of all living things, and of the child who becomes the parent and the parent the child.

Patsy Garlan has written poetry, memoirs, stories, college texts, and a musical play.

The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; A Link to the Living - 00.05; Volume 285, No. 5; page 46-47.