We’ve come inside from the road, a welcome reprieve from the brutally hot southern Arizona desert. Our host, the chief medical examiner, begins a thorough explanation of the death investigation services the Pima County morgue provides for Unidentified Border Crossers (UBCs). My companions and I have just traversed all of Mexico. We’ve been visiting migrant shelters for the last month.
“The combination of the intense sun and scavenging critters can pick a corpse clean in a matter of days. Tattered clothing might be the only clues we can work with.”
I bow my head at these words and try to shake off images of young men I have recently met – guys who might end up as nothing more than a pile of bones and tattered clothes. When I pick my head back up, I’m relieved our group has started moving down the hallway. We emerge into a brightly lit examination room. The stench hits me suddenly and hard. My childhood dog would smell like this after he had a good romp with an animal carcass in the cornfield.
On the steel table in front of us is a neatly ordered skeleton. It provokes memories of Frank or Tom or whatever-the-name of that plastic skeleton in my high school biology classroom was. Except the mostly-complete skeleton in front of me is pure collagen and calcium. The bones are clean, betraying what I thought would accompany the stench. If this skeleton is not identified, it will eventually be buried in the pauper’s corner of the Pima County cemetery.
We huddle in a circle after walking among the mass of UBCs gravestones.They die because they can’t carry on and their companions leave them. They lie down in the desert sand, starved, dehydrated, afraid, and abandoned. Then they turn into skeletons. The priest among us says Mass beside those graves. Somewhere, somebody else is praying for these skeletons by name.
Every November 2nd since 2004, I think of Trent and Zach.
Trent and Zach were my friends in high school. Both were the class below me. Trent and I had spent much of the spring and summer traveling together to compete in off-season wrestling meets. Zach was a fellow parishioner and sang with me in a couple of youth choirs. To say their tragic death in a car accident was traumatic would be an understatement.
At our school, all of our gear that year – sports equipment, tshirts, car decals – had their initials on it. Their names on the outside gave a glimpse of the terrible pain we carried on the inside, a profound vacancy we felt acutely in the activities we once engaged with them.
Somewhere in a box in an attic, that gear is buried away. But I don’t need their initials on my clothes. Though they’ve been gone and long time, they remain with me.
Students pour into the classroom at the beginning of the passing period. I’m busy pulling up my PowerPoint slides as quickly as possible so as not to waste time with it during the class period.
“You know what I did this weekend, Mr. Hanson?” It’s Catrina, and I wish she hadn’t asked. This particular period is rowdy. The slightest pause on my part could lead to total chaos. These few minutes before the bell rings are crucial. “What’s that?” I gave in.
“My brother was an organ donor, and I met the guy who got his heart.”
I immediately look up and set the wireless keyboard aside. “Wait, what?”
“Yeah, at first we weren’t going to meet the guy cuz he didn’t want to but then he changed his mind so me and my mom met him on Saturday. I got to listen to his heart – my brother’s heart.”
I stare speechless into Catrina’s eyes. Tears start to well up in mine, which causes her to tear up, which causes me to tear up even more. The chaotic noise of the rest of the students resisting the beginning of class fades into the background.
I rip two tissues from the kleenex box on my desk, handing one to her and dabbing my eyes with the other. We turn slightly toward the window, attempting to protect the sanctity of this moment by giving our backs to the rest of the classroom.
A skeleton on a cold metal table and a mass grave filled with the bones of unnamed people. The initials of friends who died too soon. The still-beating heart of a brother who passed away.
In the month of November, when I remember my beloved dead, I’m reminded of how they remain with me; how my relationship with them has not ended. They remain part of the present while giving a glimpse of the future. Somehow, through this reminder, their bones gain flesh again, I hear them speak their own names, and their hearts beat on.