Lynn Davis

Autopsy and Dreams

an essay

Soon after my father's funeral, my aunt has a dream that my father visits her in her bedroom. My mother sees him in her dreams as well, and he says that everything is okay. I have a dream that I take my father's body to the bowling alley with me. I try to have fun, but his body begins to smell, and eventually I have to allow it to be taken away and buried. I want to see my father alive.

I get my father's autopsy and toxicology reports two weeks after I get his cause of death, five months after my mother and I found him unresponsive on the couch from what we now know was heart failure. I'm working at the front desk of the public library, and there they are, in my e-mail inbox. I quickly scan over the documents, but I have a job to do. Finally, once I am home, I open the documents, beer in hand.

The report says his heart weighed 430 grams. Google says this is the same weight as a healthy 22-week-old human fetus, a properly inflated American football, a well-made violin. I remember being a child, and my father would come home from his medical office still wearing his stethoscope, and I would sit on his lap while he relaxed and read a book. I loved to use the stethoscope to listen to his heartbeat.

I think of a riddle he used to tell my brother and me: "What weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold?" We always said feathers the first time.

What weighs more: my 213-pound father sitting next to me at the ballet a month before he passed, or his 213-pound body lying on an autopsy table?

My father's brain weighed 1620 grams. The report says his leptomeninges are thin, delicate, and clear. A Google search tells me that leptomeninges are membranes surrounding the brain.

I read this line while I am work: "Sectioning the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem reveals normal architecture without focal lesions or hemorrhage."

I read it aloud to a coworker and ask him, "Does that mean they cut his brain open?"

My coworkers shrugs, and someone else, a woman the same age as my mother, interjects: "What are you reading?"

"My dad's autopsy report."

"Honey," she says, with a note of concern, "Maybe you should read that in privacy, with your family maybe."

No one will make eye contact with me. The knowledge that we are all organs and blood and tissues is not welcome here. So I close the document and go upstairs to shelve books.

The autopsy report says his skin is unremarkable. His lymph nodes are unremarkable. So are his musculoskeletal system, thyroid glands, adrenal glands, pancreas, spleen, larynx, and trachea. Unremarkable. Unremarkable. I can't help but be offended. I know what it means, that these parts of him are unremarkable from the point of view of a medical examiner, but I prickle at the thought. My father was far from unremarkable. Troubled, yes. Addiction, depression; didn't come out until he was almost forty. His parents never knew. Then a manipulative relationship, mountains of debt. But in the 90s, in addition to working full-time as a physician, my father volunteered at a local AIDS shelter run by the Sisters of Mercy. This was in the Bible Belt. At my father's funeral, the director of the shelter said, "John would go to Wal-Mart and purchase clothes specifically in the sizes for our patients. In the early 90s, this kind of care simply was not done." Throughout my life, I encountered people who claimed my father had saved their lives. A classmate said, "Your dad diagnosed my dad with a rare blood condition that his last doctor never discovered!" My French teacher said, "I came to your father with stomach pains, and he told me to go to the emergency room immediately, and that saved my life. Tell him I said thank you." My father fought cancer and won. My father had personal demons that I can only imagine, but I would not be surprised if they were similar to my own: constant inadequacy, struggle to connect with other people, a desire to numb ourselves because we are sensitive people in a brutal world. Remarkable.

My father is that laughter, still echoing in my brain, which for reasons that I don't want to believe still functions while his does not. My father is the gangly college boy in the photo I have of him on my wall, where he's wearing a sweater on a grassy hill somewhere, smiling, his future self almost unrecognizable, and he is the man carrying me on his shoulders as we walk across the beach at night, just the two of us, and he talks while I rub my hands around his balding scalp. He is the man who shared a bed with my mother for eight years, and when I would crawl in with them, he always had his back turned away from my mother and me, and I would lay there and run my fingers along his spine, as if examining every minute bend and bump. My father is the way my cheeks look when I smile with a closed mouth.

The death has been ruled an accident, but the autopsy report says that he had 9.3 mg/L of a weight loss drug called phentermine in his system. I Google the amount of phentermine needed to kill a person. The answer is 1.5 - 7.6 mg/L. My mother says medical examiners often rule physician suicides as accidents out of respect and to save the family pain. My father did not die by accident. My father took his own life.

Finally, one night, my father visits me. I am in bed, naked as I was when I went to sleep. He walks into the room with his face down looking at the iPad in his hands, the way he always did in public. I ask him: "Dad, are you okay?"

"Yes," he says.

"Are you happy?"

"Yes, I am happy. I told you."

Then he leaves the room, and I fall back to sleep. ❦


Lynn Davis is partially disabled and lives on a farm in rural North Carolina, where she tutors mathematics, is building a small library of her father's books, and is collecting the history of her family, who have lived in the same town--current population 850--since before the Civil War. She is in the process of editing a novel she wrote.


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