THE CHAPLAIN Series
The Tattooed Corpse
The two women rolled the dead, naked man from side-to-side, giggling, and taking pictures with a small disposable camera. The hospital chaplain stood watching, hoping that the corpse wouldn’t tumble off the sliding tray. The body had been stored in the stainless steel hospital cooler since death earlier that evening. All that protected the man now from these determined women was a rather skimpy, white sheet.
Lydia had been awakened an hour earlier by the strident beeeep of the pager she had set beside her bed just moments before. It was 3 A.M. A blizzard raged outside, which explained why the two women who were now with her in this hospital morgue, were unable to arrive before their father had died.
The blizzard offered no excuse for Lydia. She was on-call and expected to arrive at the hospital within twenty minutes of being summoned by the little vibrating, screetching box. When she walked through the door, Lydia thought she had beaten the clock, but apparently not. She was met by an irritated nursing supervisor.
“The daughters are here,” the nurse announced, “They’ve been drinking.” She wanted nothing more than to pass off this pair to Lydia as quickly as possible.
“God knows we tried to get here earlier,” the taller of the two women began to explain.
“I got the call first,” the shorter woman interrupted. “Getting emergency tickets is no small task and it didn’t help that your airport kept threatening to close!”
“And that taxi driver was rude,” the first one added.
“Well, he had a right to be rude after you insulted his religion, his ethnic heritage and his ability to perform the essential functions of his job.”
The chaplain looked from one woman to the other and then over to the supervisor, whose eyes were narrowing.
“Where’s Dad?” the women asked in unison.
“He’s in the morgue,” the supervisor answered, “The hospital needed his bed.”
Lydia cringed, but truth was truth. “This way,” the supervisor stated, pointing down the hall.
Lydia and the sisters followed the woman down a back elevator and through a series of windowless, narrow hallways to the morgue. Lydia had walked many a back hallway in this institution, but she had never been to The Room. The supervisor took out a large key and opened an unmarked door. Inside was black. The supervisor reached around and found the light switch.
Fluorescent glare, painful-to-the-eyes bright. Stainless steel fixtures, a drain in the floor, and a bank of extra-large file cabinets along the wall. The supervisor knelt down and pulled out the bottom file drawer. It was actually a flat tray – with a body on it. Turning around, and without further word of encouragement, she left, letting the heavy door close behind her.
“This is going to be a different kind of spiritual experience,” Lydia whispered.
I am here, came the response from the Presence who always seemed to join her when she needed a Companion. We’ll walk through this together, and we’ll bring these two daughters with us.
Lydia took a breath and was about to offer a prayer for the large lump under the sheet, when the two women, without hesitation, pulled back the covering to look at the dead man. For a moment, they were quiet, then began to explain that they had once been close to their father but had not seen him for many years. Giggles.
The women had spent their travel time both grieving and drinking, and were totally bereft of standard protocol regarding the dead, or so it seemed to a tired Lydia.
Your first job is to not show that growing irritation, came the Voice.
Chaplain Lydia had attended many deaths, easing the transition for the dying and comforting those remaining behind. Normally, it was a silent, reverent time, except for the tears and quiet recounting of the deceased’s time here on earth. The giggling was a new element for the chaplain.
It’s okay. They’re nervous, the Presence whispered. Patience, Lydia. These women want to tell someone about their father as they understood him. It’s important. Just listen, Lydia.
So Lydia listened.
“Do you mind if we take pictures?” the first sister asked. Dark hair cut short, she wore jeans with a dark pink t-shirt. She looked about 40 years old, a little rounder than her younger sister. No makeup, Lydia noticed, but her nails were carefully manicured.
Just tell her ‘yes,’ forget the personal evaluation.
“Yes, pictures would be fine,” the chaplain answered.
The second sister, the one with the broken nails, well-worn jeans and angular features, rummaged through her backpack until she found the disposable camera. She laughed.
“My dad had the most beautiful tattoos all over his body,” the first sister offered. “See?”
“Ooh,” responded the chaplain. Lydia noted that the tattoos were, indeed, intricate and colorful. These weren’t pictures of skulls and cross-bones, she noted, but rather more like cave paintings of horses and bison in colors chosen by Paul Gauguin.
The sisters snapped a photo of their dad’s right shoulder and arm. It took two of them to re-position the body to photograph the left shoulder. They began sharing the history of each of the pictures engraved on their father’s skin.
“I always liked this one,” the second sister said, pointing to the Lascaux horse. “In fact, that’s why we bought the camera at the airport. I want to have a tattoo done just like this one, only on my back. We need the design to give the tattoo guy.”
“Don’t you think that would look cool?” she asked Lydia.
“Possibly so,” the chaplain acknowledged.
Lydia’s curiosity, even appreciation, for this family was growing, but the night was getting long. The chaplain, the women, and their father had been locked up together in this morgue for more than an hour. The house supervisor never returned. Lydia thought the visitation should come to a close and broached the subject with the two sisters. The women were receptive, willing to finish up the photo shoot and find a hotel room for what remained of the night.
It was time to slide Dad back into the file cabinet. Body re-positioned and sheet in place, they made an attempt to do so with some reverence and decorum. Nothing. The tray did not move. The chaplain joined in the effort, jiggling and pushing, and pulling on the drawer, giving Dad a bit of a bouncing. The drawer was stuck. Perhaps, it had slid off the tracks or maybe it was bent with all the activity of the past hour.
“Lord, bless and keep this gentleman and make your face to shine upon him now and throughout eternity,” Lydia quietly prayed, “And keep this room cool until someone can come and fix this drawer, please.”
Petition granted, said the Presence.
Lydia explained to the sisters that further effort to close the drawer would be futile. She then escorted them out of the room, leaving the deceased lying on the open, unmovable tray. Thinking of the absent house supervisor, she reached back and clicked off the light just before letting the heavy, unmarked door close behind her.
Better try to find that supervisor, said the Voice, as Lydia was driving from the hospital.
“Okay,” she said, dialing the switchboard from her cell phone. The operator put her on hold while the supervisor was paged. No answer. Lydia called in a second time with the same result.
“I did what I could,” she told the Presence, “and the room was pretty cool.”
It’s still cold. Keep your eyes on the road, came the Response. You almost went over the edge there. You need some sleep. I’ll keep an eye on Mr. Lascaux.
“You are an answer to prayer,” she said, smiling.
Chaplain Lydia was married with two children living at home. She dragged back to the house about the time her family was awakening.
“Somebody die?” one daughter asked. It was her children’s standard inquiry when she returned from work.
“Yes,” she answered.
“You have a depressing job,” her husband said.
“Not so depressing. I’m glad it was me who was called for this one. But I need a nap.” Lydia slept for two hours and returned to the hospital sometime mid-to-late morning.
“Hey, Lydia, you are late,” greeted the priest. “Last night’s supervisor wants to talk to you. Sounds like she stumbled over a corpse. Thinks it’s your fault.”
“Probably was,” Lydia answered as she hung up her coat and sat down to make the call.
“I leave it in your hands,” she prayed in the general direction of the Presence.
I’ve got it, the Presence replied.
“I really did try to beep you last night to tell you about the problem,” Lydia began when she reached the supervisor’s office. “I sure wish you’d come back to check on me. The daughters were a handful. They spent some time with their father and left happy, I think. Not sure how the tray got stuck.”
Lydia remained employed.
Nicely done, commented the Presence, as they scurried down the hall in answer to a call from the neonatal intensive care unit -- the place where babies were kept in clear plastic wombs until their parents could safely take them home.
Lydia wondered for a moment if the man’s daughters had found a hotel room. The supervisor would help them make arrangements for their father, so the chaplain would not see them again. Would the one sister really have the horse and bison tattooed on her own body?
“I’d like to have known them better,” she whispered to the Presence. “Even the father, especially the father, I wish I’d known him, too.”
Then the visit was a success, the Presence said.
A herd of ancient bison appeared, like moving pictures projected against the white hospital walls. Lydia saw two young girls standing on a rock watching both the animals and a man in his prime running along side them. The vision would accompany her for many days, especially when she thought of the father, his daughters, and the really cool tattoos.