You know, you get so used to your life that sometimes you fail to recognize how odd it is. Or how odd it seems to other people.
I was reminded of this recently. It was a pretty ordinary situation; I was with a friend in a dimly-lit hallway and there was a bit of light peeking out from beneath a closed door. I must have hesitated a bit before opening the door. Well, no, I know I hesitated a moment. I always do.
“What was that about?” my friend asked.
“What was what about?”
“That pause before you opened the door.”
I don’t talk about myself very often. I don’t really spend much time thinking about myself. I’m not very self-reflective. I’ve lived with myself my entire life, so there’s nothing really new there for me to learn. I’m aware that other people don’t hesitate before opening a door that has a light shining underneath it — but it doesn’t occur to me that it’s odd that I do it.
But when somebody else notices it, you sort of have to explain. And how do you do that? How do you tell somebody that when you approach a door in a dimly-lit hallway — a door with a light shining underneath it — that you hesitate because you always remember opening a similar door with a similar light and finding a dead guy hanging from a pipe? How do you do that without sounding all dramatic?
Because it’s really not dramatic. There’s just a moment — and seriously, it’s just a very brief moment — when you have to suppress an old spark of fear. I know I’m not going to open that door and see a dead guy hanging from a pipe. But my brain always says “Okay, prepare yourself for something horrible, then open the door.” And I open it and everything is okay.
I was a medic in the military. For most of my military career I was assigned to a large medical center, in a unit called Special Functions. I was part of a team that responded primarily to respiratory and cardiac emergencies. Most of what we did took place within the medical center; cardiac arrests, respiratory arrests, that sort of thing. But sometimes we’d be sent out on ambulance runs.
I don’t recall what sparked this particular run; somebody must have assumed there was a living person in some sort of respiratory distress. But there wasn’t. We responded to a hotel where somebody from the base worked part-time on a maintenance crew. The hotel staff directed us to the basement. Some sort of heating and air-conditioning facility.
So…dimly-lit hallway, light shining out from under the door.
The guy had been dead for a few days. All the bodily fluids had drained to his extremities, so his arms and legs were bloated and dark purple. His neck had stretched about a foot, so his feet were almost touching the floor. We were afraid that if we cut him down, the impact would cause his bloated feet to explode, so another medic and I had to support him while a third cut the — I don’t recall if it was a rope or a belt or a cord. Whatever he’d hung himself with. And, of course, there was the stink of putrefaction.
The whole event was pretty ghastly, but really it was just one of a number of ghastly things I’ve seen or done. I won’t say you get used to ghastly stuff, but you do become sort of inured to it. There have been other experiences that gave me nightmares for years, but that wasn’t one of them.
And yet I still flash on the image when I’m in a dimly-lit hallway and I see light under a doorway. To me, it’s not a big deal. Explaining it to somebody, though, is sort of embarrassing. Not because of what happened, but because of the way they look at you.
My friend said “You should talk about that stuff. You should write about it. Maybe you’ll get over it. Put it behind you.” So I said I would, because that was the easiest thing to say.
But here’s the thing: why would I want to put it behind me? Ugly things happen. They happen to everybody. I don’t want to forget them. I don’t mind that the memory of ugly things sometimes cause some minor disruption in my life. Ugly things are supposed to cause some disruption.
I know now what I should have said to my friend: “I still open the door. I always open the door. I’ll keep opening the door.” Because as long as you can open the door, that’s really all that matters.