We named her Alice. She was seventy-four years old and 119 pounds at the time of her death. We did not know how she died. We did not have her story, only the story of her life written in her body.
Dear Alice, You looked as if you had kind eyes, as if you were a kind person. I really have no way of knowing that, but I know that you donated your body for people like me to learn. You gave the gift of your very flesh and its history—the most literally visceral part of your story for some of us to actually touch with our bodies. This seeing and touching of the no longer living human form is something that very few people have the opportunity (or even the desire) to do. Yet I feel connected to you and not because I held your bodily tissues in my hands. I feel connected to you in a way that I cannot even articulate, though I am trying to do so here on this page.
I want to thank you for your gift you gave. I want to thank you for penetrating my own defenses, for cutting into me though you were not the one to wield the scalpel. I held the scalpel; you pierced me. Your body moved its way into my nose, hands and my imagination. It slipped and seeped into my heart, and I will never be the same. You gave all of us such an immeasurable gift. The gift of our own insight.
We were a group of about forty people. There were massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, yoga and movement therapists, exercise physiologists, and personal trainers. We were all there to learn. We were all there because we were curious. We were there because learning is, for some of us, what gets us up in the morning, what keeps us up at night.
I was not able to sleep very well on the nights of your dissection, Alice. For those three nights my sleep was light. At first there was nervous excitement. Your body felt like an ocean, and I was in its depths. In my mind I was in f Jules Verne’s Fantastic Voyage, swimming through your adipose tissue, searching and searching night after night. It was a fluid, viscous, greasy, smelly, yet wondrous and watery world. There were rough places—like the posterior surface of your patella (knee cap) and what looked like a painful osteoarthritis of the knee, extreme muscle wasting and rough articulating surfaces that seemed to have limited your ability to move. It was difficult to properly dissect your quadriceps, as well as your other leg and hip muscles, due to the wasting of this tissue. I suspect you were not able to move, and that you were in pain. We assumed that you might have more rough surfaces, more worn-out cartilage, the signs of arthritis, in other joints in your body—but that was not the case. Your gleno-humeral joint was especially smooth and shiny. And truthfully everything was in its own odd way so very beautiful. The smooth and the rough. The thick and the thin. The ample and the wasted.
The master dissector at our table felt that Alice might have been obese at some point in her life, perhaps losing a lot of weight before her death. Her muscles were almost non-existent—practically translucent with patches of red. And there was so much fat, gobs and gobs of bright golden yellow fat that was literally everywhere--filling cavities, surrounding, enveloping . . . How could this body only be 119 pounds, we asked? We were shocked by it all, but were reminded not to demonize adipose tissue (fat)—we all have it and we all need it! But this body was so different than our other cadavers in that way. And they were all so different from one other. All unique. All so miraculous, and again—and I know this might sound strange, but so very beautiful.
Now the smell . . . the smell was not beautiful. These were untreated cadavers. No formaldehyde. I learned after the first full morning of dissection that I needed to use essential oils in my surgical mask. Thankfully my classmates had plenty. It certainly helped. I have never smelled that particular smell. It was not that of decaying flesh which we all know--it was different. It was new, and yes--noxious.
The tactile, the olfactory, the auditory, and the visual senses were inundated in this process of discovery. A flat, two-dimensional surface or 3D replication can never hold the sensorial scope of our actual embodiment. And then there is the unutterable. The place where words don’t exit. This thing we call life--and lack of life--this thing experience. I don’t know that everyone felt as I did—but it seemed that all of us were in a deeply personal place even as we engaged in dissection and discussion together. Our eyes behind the goggles, when they did not know they were being looked at, said so much.
We were quiet the morning before we began. Gathered in a room (not in the lab just yet) chatting and drinking coffee. There was the expected nervous excitement and trepidation that one might expect. One of our teachers encouraged us to pause, and come back to our senses of perception time and time again. He said when you enter the lab look around. Really look and notice your surroundings. Be observant with all of yourself. Feel your feet beneath you, the movement of your breath. Sound familiar? This was my language—the language of yoga.
And he was right, there was a lot to pay attention to. Logistical and safety considerations like keeping all of the cadaver tissue in one place—even the paper towels that we used to wipe the bodily fluids off the steel tables were to go back with the remains. Each cadavers flesh--and the paper towels that held the extraneous bits and pieces were to go back to the donor program with the cadaver. It was an act of care, of respect.
We needed to be mindful of the very sharp scalpels we were learning to use along with the other tools of the dissection—all handled with precision and all kept in their respective places. Lab door must be closed at all times. If you leave, tell someone.
Before entering the lab, we viewed some short lecture materials in our lab coats and scrubs before going into the lab. There was aforementioned nervous chatting, casual introductions, etc. Then we we entered the lab, and a silence descended, the nervous chatting stopped. We donned our blue shoe covers and protective eye wear and surgical gloves and masks. We learned where everything was, how to open and close the cold metal tables that held our cadavers. We learned how to put them back in the cooler when we were finished with our days work.
The quiet of the first morning was eery, but by the end of that session our lead instructor had to work hard to get us to chime down. That lab of quiet, trepidatious adults became a room of somewhat raucously curious children, totally and even giddily absorbed in whatever project they were working on. I know this might sound strange—but it was like those in the lab were in a kind of play-state. One that was highly focused and respectful—but one that had the atmosphere of excited kids surrounding something weird that they were allowed to explore. This spirit of absorption continued for most of the remainder of the dissection. The dislocation of the femur from its socket and subsequent insertion, replete with loud, natural sound effects, and repeated again and again, elicited the expected laughter and groans. Touching the diaphragm rendered many speechless—it is pristine in its strong yet delicate beauty.
And it was hard not to wonder. To wonder about our Alice. Who was she? What was her other story?
I remember vividly a moment during our first day of dissection. It was when I saw her hand. HER hand. It might seem obvious and sound even silly but I kept thinking: THIS was a human being who did things with this hand. She touched other human beings with these fingertips. She used this hand to hold the hands of others. Who held this hand of hers before she died? Her hands touched me--though they did not move until we started pulling on tendons in her forearm. We watched the fingers move. We giggled a bit and fell silent again. We then dissected her hands. The fat was there too. And still--these were not just hands. They were HER hands.
Alice’s hands reminded me of the hands of one of my theater professors in college. Her name was Dr. Lee Gallup. She was one of the kindest, funniest people you could ever meet. So much humor, so much compassion. She changed me—by accepting me. She taught me to see detail, and to love the characters and movements I embodied. She was patient, and assertive too. I hadn’t really thought about Lee, or about her hands, in decades. Alice reminded me of Lee. Or rather—it was her hands. How strange is that? People affect us in ways we might never be fully aware of at the time. They alter us, and can change the trajectory of our lives. If we are lucky enough, years later, we might still feel them—or we recognize some essence of them in another. We might find ourselves reminded once again how connected we all are—to each other—and to everything.
I told my teacher, when he asked about our first day in the lab, that I experienced both attraction and aversion—two pillars from my yoga teachings that took on a new level of humanness now. The notion that the body is merely a bag of noxious substances, which is how the physical body is sometimes described in some of the yogic texts, struck me again as disrespectful and grossly inadequate. In yoga as in many religious traditions the spirit or soul (whatever that is…) is considered to be the pure, eternal, indestructible part of us, and the body an impermanent cloth or bag containing noxious substances.
And though that perception of embodiment never felt accurate to me, I can see how those who are routinely surrounded by death, in ways that we are not subjected to in our modern culture, especially in the developed world, might think the body this way. I can imagine if you were to see, or poke, a bloated smelly corpse (human or animal) that it can easily be viewed as a smelly disgusting bag containing smelly disgusting stuff. And the truth of our biology might be just too much for some of us to bear. We are not matter, it is said, we are spirit.
This explanation also never felt complete or even true to me. I feel we are matter and maybe more. And maybe there is beauty in that which is matter, and that which is mortal. Maybe there is as much beauty in decay as there is in the blossoming, the spirit, or the imagined eternal. It depends on how you look, on who is looking, on what we are willing to see.
I remember after my dad died my mother and I decided to close the curtain that surrounded his bed in the critical care unit and have private time with him. My husband and brother went for walk around the hospital, choosing to leave the two of us alone with him. Once they left, and the curtain was closed something instinctive and primitive commenced. In that small space, it was as if hundreds of thousands of years of our lives as female humans took over our bodies. We took off the sheets that covered his body, moving together, synchronized as if this were an ancient dance. We did not decide to do this unveiling or even how to do it. Something from within the both of us was moved to do it and we did. We uncovered him, we looked at him and we started to touch him. We felt his cool body, his thin soft skin, and rested our hands on his chest directly above his heart which was still warm from the life not long departed. We looked down his throat as his neck was still is a position of extension, his head thrown back, his mouth wide open. We looked deep inside, really looked at all the rawness and scraping that came from the processes of intubation that he had to endure in the last days of his life. We looked, we touched, and we loved this beautiful no longer living body. This body that had lived well over eight decades at the point of his death.
His body had been a vessel of service. He fought for four years as a young man in the South Pacific during World War II. He had successfully battled cancer, heart disease and more until he took a simple fall on a warm sunny day when getting out of a lawn chair. He liked to set up this chair on the sloping hill below our yellow stucco house in rural New Mexico. The view of the hills and old coal mine in the distance. He loved to sit there and enjoy the sun, the breeze, and the birdsong of the magpies. But on that day, he got up too quickly and lost his balance. He hit his head hard on a rock as he fell backwards and began a trajectory that one month later ended his life.
I think I understood more about my father in the last days of his life than I had over decades of knowing him. He really looked at me before he died. His mouth was not able to form words but his eyes spoke all they needed to say. I heard him--and maybe for the first time.
He was at peace and felt immense love. I felt accepted, and appreciated for just being--being his daughter, being the person that I was. I felt these same feelings of love and acceptance toward him. My gratitude for that day, for that love, will be with me forever. Sometimes I stop--just stop what I am doing and remember, as I did after that day in the dissection lab.
My dad struggled in his life. He was a good teacher and a perfectly imperfect person as we all are. I know that he really tried to live and act with kindness and with love, though it often came out in awkward ways. He changed throughout his life. He evolved. And he devolved at times when fear took over. And somehow his life ended in a state of grace and gratitude. I saw that in his eyes and it has never left me. It never will.
He was, in his life and in his death, a beautiful being. His lifeless body was also beautiful and no, it was not just a bag of noxious substances holding a spirit.
I saw beauty in Alice’s hands too—I saw humanity in her hands, a “whole person” in her hands. Even as we dissected her forearm, wrist, palm and fingers, even as I pondered the amount of fat in her fingers and thought about my theater professor with similarly plump fingers. I saw something I can't even describe. Call it whatever you want. I don't need to call it anything at all. I know it as something felt--something remembered.
I found myself looking at Alice's eyes often through the entire process. Even after we (basically) removed her face. I felt myself communicating to her, reassuring her, and reassuring myself. “I am here with you. We are here with you. Thank you. Thank you."
No—not a bag of noxious substances.
We humans are storytellers. Our lives are stories. I think our ability to tell stories, to create and share narrative is perhaps one of the things that distinguishes us as a species. And our body tells a story. It is in how look, listen, love, and connect to each other in this brief story that we live that creates the meaning in our lives. This is what makes the “noxious bag” meaningful, and beautiful.
Whomever you were, wherever you are, Thank you. You gave us a window into what it means to be called human. You changed us. You most definitely changed me. Our teachers told us this experience would change us. I will admit that though I believed them, I also thought their claims might be bit exaggerated. Well—they were right. I am not the same person I was before I met you. Your life, which for all practical purposes had already left your body, changed forever a group of people you never met. Exactly how we have been changed is hard to articulate, except to say it is a felt thing. This language of love, like the language of movement, is spoken in feeling. And I feel my body and the life I am so lucky to live differently now.
Photos: Jamey Welch, Adobe Stock