CONTENT WARNING: This post discusses death, blood/needles.
It’s mid-November. The daylight hours are becoming more and more scarce, and so I am pleased that the large lecture hall for this semester’s English 110 class has a large row of windows. The sleepy students need all the sunlight they can get, especially as the term winds down and the long nights of studying and last-minute paper-writing start to catch up with them. They clutch mugs of tea and coffee, trying to keep warm and awake. From my perch at the back of the lecture hall, sitting alongside my fellow teaching assistants, I see the students crack open their books, flip open their laptops, and settle in for the day’s lecture. A few of them fiddle with their cell phones. I try not to be annoyed that they’re texting in class, or checking Facebook, but it’s their tuition dollars that are being spent, not mine. I open my own notebook, uncap a pen.
As the clock strikes eleven, Dr. Moss starts in on her lecture. Today, we’re talking about bioethics and medicine. Perhaps not what you’d expect in an English class, but you see, we’re reading Vincent Lam’s collection of short stories, Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures (2006), and weaving in questions of literature with questions of culture, gender, race, ethics, and science. Lam, who is an emergency room physician at Toronto’s East General Hospital, published his stories to great acclaim, including Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The stories, based on Lam’s experiences as a medical student, trace the journeys of four students—Chen, Fitzgerald, Ming, and Sri—as they navigate the emotional, intellectual, and interpersonal challenges of becoming physicians. We’re reading a selection of stories from the book for the class. One of the earliest stories, “Take All of Murphy,” details the four medical students as they perform an autopsy. We’re reading about death, in all of its cold, surgical reality.
I should probably note at this point that I’m not squeamish. When it comes to any medical show or documentary about surgical procedures, you’ll find me glued to the screen, though I know those aren’t people I love or know and that makes it easier to disconnect. I do like to watch when I’m getting my blood-work done, watch my platelets and red blood cells and plasma fill up those little vials.
I should probably also note at this point that people I’ve cared for have died. I’ve never been to a put-the-body-in the ground funeral, but I’ve been to memorials. I’ve never actually watched someone die, but I know what grief is like. When I was 15, the younger sister of a childhood friend died of a particularly nasty form of cancer. She was only 12 years old. In my apartment building, I’ve seen the elders I’ve known and greeted for years die off, one by one. My aunt, whose dementia is worsening, will likely not live another five years. Dying while forgetting is a terrible way to go. My mother worked in geriatric psych nursing for years, and so death was just a part of the stories she came home with from work.
So with all of this, it somehow takes me by surprise that while I’m sitting in this class, listening as Dr. Moss lectures on various aspects of this fictional autopsy, my heart is racing. I mean, I’m feeling really sick. I’m sitting in class and my head is spinning and I can’t stop thinking about the fact that in the past three weeks, two people I have loved – people from formative parts of my life – have died.
Two of them. Dead. Just like Murphy in the story. Corpses.
My former French teacher died suddenly, at the end of October, on a hiking trip in Japan. Totally unexpected. He was an avid long-distance walker, every day, back and forth to school, during his 30+ years as a teacher. Beloved, dedicated. Just a few months earlier, I’d run into him on the path near my house, and we’d had a lovely chat about teaching and life. And then, at the age of 62, less than a year into his retirement: myocardial infarction. A heart attack. And now he’s gone.
A dear friend from theatre school died in November, one day before her 29th birthday, when the cancer finally caught up to her. A lump in her breast, discovered three years earlier. She was well again, for a while. The walnut-sized lump had shrunk. Her hair grew back. She traveled to India. But all those metastasized cells eventually consumed everything in its path. I’d just talked to her, a few days earlier. “Hospital birthday!” she’d written merrily on her Facebook wall as she prepared to be admitted. And now she’s gone.
Back to class.
Dr. Moss is still lecturing.
I’m trying to listen, real hard. I straighten up in my seat and I focus on holding my pen. I listen to Dr. Moss’s voice. I try to find comfort in its familiarity, the lilt and phrasing I’ve come to know well.
In the story, the body they’re autopsying has all these tattoos. When it comes to making a incision, the characters debate whether or not to cut through a tattoo, or to cut around it.
“It’s bad luck,” said Sri. “Cut around here.” He traced the ornate heart with the handle of his scalpel.
“It’s a nice cross,” agreed Chen.
“You guys.” Ming didn’t look up. She traced the incision lines on the arm. “It’s not going to work. Don’t you want to see the bicipital groove?”
“You should respect a man’s symbols,” said Sri. “My mother told me that. Look at his arm. These are his symbols. (Lam 43)
My friend Ali had plenty of tattoos, gorgeous ones, a whole gallery of art on her skin. I start to feel sad that the art has died with her. When people say that tattoos are forever, and that as a result, you’ll regret it, they’re lying. They’re lying and they’re in denial because they don’t want to admit that one day, body-canvases will be dead. And buried. Embalmed. Maybe burned to ashes. There is no forever, so you really don’t have to feel to badly about that Tweety-Bird tattoo or the name of a former lover that you etched into your arm. Everything comes to an end. Sometimes sooner than later. I start to think about their cold bodies. I have a hard time not seeing them just sleeping, in my imagination. When I picture them, I think that their eyes will fly open and it will all be as it was.
It’s noon, and we take a 10-minute break.
I find myself in the bathroom downstairs, sitting in the salmon-pink stall, and I’m trying to weep quietly. It’s not because I’m worried that someone else will come in—after all, most everyone uses the upstairs bathroom just a few paces away from the lecture hall, rather than this secret one near the loading dock—but because crying alone in an echoey bathroom just sounds so fucking sad. It’s one of the loneliest, most pathetic sounds I can think of. When it’s time to head back to lecture, I dab my eyes and blow my nose, arrange my hair around my face so that it doesn’t look like I’ve been crying. Fuck death, I think. Fuck this PhD. Fuck teaching. Fuck reading this story about cutting into dead bodies when I can’t get the thoughts of people I love just being cold dead flesh. I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in an afterlife but you know that would actually be really fucking comforting right now but I still don’t and so death is just death there is no after. Fuck death and fuck life and fuck everything.
I have a teaching evaluation a few weeks later. It goes well: I enjoy teaching, and my tutorial is full of brilliant thinkers. My students hand in their final projects and papers. I mark exams. I cry in the bathroom stall during lecture-breaks a few more times. The people I love are still dead, and I have work to do. Life goes on, but when I see Vincent Lam’s book on my shelf, I try to hide from its gaze. That book has undone me, in more ways than I even know.
There are two reasons why I’m finally writing about all of this.
First, it’s been long enough that my grief has started to temper itself. I can think about my dead beloved ones without bursting into tears, although I still sometimes walk the river-path near my house and half-expect to run into Jacques-André on his familiar route, and I still expect Ali to announce that she’s off on some wondrous adventure around the world, sleeping on beaches in Australia or building cob-huts in Mexico. In late November, I attended a beautiful memorial for my teacher. This summer, I planted a tree for Ali on my property in the country. I’m dealing with the anxiety I have about more people I love dying, and accepting the fact that death is inevitable.
Second, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that literature impacts our lives, how we can reach out to it for comfort, or wander unknowingly into it and finding ourselves bruised and battered, full of shock and awe, as I did, facing the blustery chill of Lam’s prose. In the year following the deaths of my beloved ones, the activist and academic worlds have been embroiled in an impassioned debate about the value and necessity of so-called “Trigger Warnings,” or ways of flagging that disturbing or graphic content may lie ahead for readers and viewers. From Inside Higher Education to The Chronicle to The Globe and Mail to The Guardian, students, professors, and cultural critics alike have waded into the debate. On the one hand, the inclusion of trigger warnings is seen as censorship or coddling; on the other hand, understanding the effects of graphic depictions of violence is understood to be a necessary part of acknowledging the need for sensitivity, and beyond that, the ways in which mental health issues (especially Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) can be aggravated by having to read or view difficult material. As Melissa McEwan writes, “The only reason I can imagine resistance to trigger warnings, or whatever variation, is that their ubiquity will create an expectation of sensitivity with which people can’t be bothered. The sort of people who say that people who need trigger warnings are too sensitive, rather than conceding that maybe it is they who are simply not sensitive enough.” McEwan continues: “Trigger warnings don’t make people “oversensitive.” They acknowledge that there is a lot of garbage in the world that causes people lasting harm. If for no other reason, I defend my use of content notes on the basis that to fail to use them is to abet the damnable lie that everything’s pretty much okay for everyone, and people who have been harmed are outliers” (“Triggered”, n.p.)
As someone who studies Canadian Literature, as well as trauma and sexual violence in particular, the use value of trigger or content warnings is not lost on me, even though I am not generally affected by graphic content. Whether it’s simply a result of intellectualization, or of desensitization, or who knows what else, I don’t feel anything visceral when I read about rape or torture or most forms of violence. I just don’t, and sometimes I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But I do feel other things, with regards to other subjects and other forms. I feel anger. I feel outrage. I feel sadness. Canadian Literature, true in some ways to the analyses that Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood and John Moss made more than 40 years ago, is a difficult literature, full of victims and survival and bleakness. “SadLit,” I sometimes call it. Canada, like all countries, has a difficult history. And beyond that, humans have difficult histories. Even when literature is not directly reflecting the violence and trauma of so many nationalisms, including our own here in Canada, it is reflecting the human condition, and that can be a terrible thing to write and read about. We are haunted by stories.
I recognize the lump in the throat and the racing thoughts, the thump-a-thump of the heart as our eyes scan the page and the story unfolds, leaks onto us, cuts into us. I see and hear my students and colleagues wrestle with hard words, words which seem to have a literal hardness: the sharp edges of language. The syllables of colonialist violence, the letters of sexual trauma, the alphabets of absolutely awful things. We all know that these are representations, not actual incidents of violence. Even when the representations are of real-life experiences, we ultimately know that these are just splotches of black ink on white pages. And yet.
And yet…we are undone. I am undone. You are undone. We are undone. To various extents, of course. Some of us have to turn the page, skip a scene, or close the book outright. Some of us choose not to read at all. Some of us read onwards, knowing the sting that will come, bracing for it, yet never quite managing to outwit the sharp sting. Some of us lash out. Some of us don’t flinch. It all depends on who we are, where we are, and what is happening to us. The moments of confluence between life and literature can be wholly unexpected.
I’m not angry at the books or stories that don’t envelop me in some sort of fantasy world, which don’t soothe me or provide me with happy endings. In fact, I’ve learned that I’ve come to love them in a strange way. For all my weeping and wailing and stomach-turning while reading Lam’s story, I know, I do, that he is just describing it the way it is. Amidst the backdrop of clinical sterility, “Take All of Murphy” illustrates that death is more than just one thing: it is a fact, it is the object of scientific study and progress, it is a source of philosophical confusion. It is. And I know, too, that in any other time and place, perhaps the story would have had no impact on me at all.
In any case, I am grateful. I am grateful that because of Lam’s story (for which I was obviously prepared, but one can never be fully prepared, can one?) I was able to let my grief spill out. Perhaps it was more necessary than I ever realized. I am grateful for conversations with my students, with whom I talk about some really, really fucking hard stuff, and we do so with respect. I am grateful for generous lectures by the professors with whom I have had the privilege of working, lectures which do not sugar-coat, but offer at least some cushions for the hard blows.
It’s mid-August. I try to remember my beloved ones’ bodies as they once were: vibrant, alive. Each walk I take, I can walk it with the memory of Jacques-André in my footsteps. I trace the tattoo on my arm, think of Ali’s adorned skin. I re-read a poem she loved and taste its words in my mouth as she once did in hers.
I still dream about them sometimes. But I am, as they say, trying to move on.
Lam, Vincent. Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures. Toronto: Doubleday, 2006. Print.
McEwan, Melissa. “Triggered.” Shakesville. 4 Mar. 2014. Web.