Nicole Harris Drowning in Weakness HMHV 201 Drowning in

Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
Drowning in Weakness
The four of us walked through the doors of the autopsy room together. The room was well-lit,
but somehow still very dark at the same time. There are five large metal tabletops, each about three to
four feet high, dispersed throughout the large, empty room. Connected to each table top, there is a
small countertop area, with a sink and drain, sitting about half- a-foot lower than the actual table, low
enough to catch each patient’s spilt blood, urine, and fecal matter . The slits in the drains are small
enough to catch the fat deposits that often seep from the patient during an autopsy. By glancing, I can
see the bloodstains left by previous patients, encrusted into the rusty metal where their bodies had lay.
In recycled butter tubs throughout the room, floats the tissues of each of these former cadavers, in a
mixture of water and bodily fluids. There are also large buckets labeled “brain buckets” sitting on the
floor around the room, filled with the science’s most recent brain collections. As for the remaining
organs, they are stuffed into a clear, plastic trash bag, placed into the body’s emptied chest cavity, and
enclosed by cracked ribs and butchered flesh at the conclusion of the autopsy, and taken to a morgue
where they are disposed of.
This is my first autopsy. I’m not as strong as I’d thought I’d be. The bodies haven’t even been
rolled in yet and already, I am disgusted. I clench my fists, trying to hold back the fury. My lip begins to
quiver, as it always does before I burst into tears. I retaliate by digging my teeth deep down into the
meat of my lip, as it is usually very effective at preventing a crying episode. I don’t know if it’s the sight
of the room or the inescapable aura of death that disturbs me, but whatever the case, I must remain
calm. In an attempt to hide all signs of weakness, I stare off in a direction opposite that of the other
three pre-med students, drying away the nearly-escaped tears that had been resting in the corner each
eye socket.
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
I focus on the bright red, wobbly arrow vibrating on the face of a scale hanging from the ceiling.
It was the same scale used at grocery stores to weigh fruits and vegetables. Only, these scales are used
by pathologists to weigh the organs of the many deceased patients that are brought in and out each
day. Since there is a specific weight for each organ in the body, pathologists can easily compare the
weight of any patient’s one organ to that of its normal weight, to determine whether the organ was
abnormal at the time of death. If so, cause of death may be attributed to that particular organ. In
essence, mutiny, one’s own organs turning against him. I glare at the red arrow as it moves from side to
side, and imagine the many spleens, gall bladders, and kidneys that must have committed such acts of
Finally, my thoughts are disrupted as in roll the four bodies, each still clothed in the black body
bag they’d been draped in when they were pronounced dead. I study each one thoroughly, to ensure
myself that no children were underneath. The bodies are taken to separate areas of the room, where
each is placed next to one of the metal tables used for dissection. It’s time to begin.
Before the autopsies are performed, the fellows, the trainees working under the pathologist,
must first read the typed summary of each patient’s death aloud, and assign each fellow to work on a
case, or body. To me, this always sounded like the boring part of the job, being informed on what is
already known. I was more intrigued with the mystery behind the work, detecting what is not yet
known, which in most cases was how a patient died.
I barely listen as each case is read. Instead, I scan the room one last time and reassure myself
once again, that there are no children. Children have always been my weakness, and I want to feel
confident that I will not draw any type emotional attachment to any of the patients today. I want to
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
know that I will not cry, that I won’t be the first and only one to have to leave the room. After much
assurance, I tune back into the reading, and in just enough time to hear the last two cases in detail.
“Jacob Kapote. Fourteen years old. Found hanging from frame of bunk bed, with belt wrapped around
neck. Dead on arrival. No foul play suspected.”
I was wrong. There was a kid. I strain to keep every emotion hidden.
“Rob Harris. Forty-three years old. Found by passer-byer, passed out and smelling of alcohol, under
bridge. Given oxygen and taken to hospital. Died before arrival.”
It feels as if the atomic bomb had just been shoved down my pharynx. I stand there, speechless,
as the others students find their way to a body and watch as each fellow begins to crack open their
patient’s rib cage with what resembles hedge scissors. Only about two of the four fellows have started.
The other two are barely unzipping their patients from the body bags. After they’re both uncovered, the
two fellows make their way to the body closest to me. He is a feeble, gray-haired man. Beneath his
blue jeans and T-shirt, his flesh is extremely sunken in, as if he’d had a vacuum put to his mouth and his
soul sucked from its carcass. Yet, he’s still wearing the oxygen mask that he died in. He is Rob, the man
found under the bridge, but he is also so much more. He is my mother. This six-foot tall, sunken corpse
is my mother.
She picked up her first beer when she was nineteen years old, during her first few weeks of
military basic training. She was young, alone, and foreign to the state of Massachusetts, so as most of
the other soldiers did, she started going to the bar.
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
There, she met my father, Jerry, whom had somehow managed to sweep her off her feet.
Within two weeks, they had gotten married. My dad also adopted my older sister, Tamika, who was
two years old at the time. It was during their marriage that my mom’s drinking became a habit. As my
father became more and more militarized, he started to abuse my mom. You couldn’t tell by looking at
her, but deep, down inside where no one could see, she’d drowned away all of her burdens in liters of
One night, as they were pulling into the driveway of our two-story home in Wildflecken, my
mom and dad began to argue. My dad abruptly stopped the car and parked. He got out, slammed the
door behind him, and waiting for my six-month pregnant mother to follow in diligently behind him. But
instead, she stayed in the car and locked herself in. She refused to give him the satisfaction. It angered
my dad so, that he walked back to the passenger side window, punched it out with his fist, and pulled
my mom out by her arms, dragging her body against the broken, jagged glass- my mom never said what
she did to retaliate, even though she’d always proudly exclaimed it when she made a good comeback.
But I didn’t have to hear it from my mom. I already knew what she had done to retaliate, and that it
wasn’t a comeback she was pleased with. As she had done after previous confrontations, she turned to
her bottle.
After a while, she was no longer allowed to have very many friends, especially Caucasians. My
dad tended to be very closed-minded at times. Luckily, my dad’s ignorance didn’t rub off on my mom,
and she tried as hard as she could to keep the friendships that she’d developed intact. But it became
difficult when my dad would answer the phone, and tell her best friend and “tell the bitch to stop
calling.” The remaining friends she did have rarely visited. They despised my father and simply avoided
him at all costs. As her alcohol consumption increased, it became more of a problem for my dad.
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
Eventually he gave my mom an ultimatum; either she enroll herself in a rehabilitation program, or he’d
file for divorce. As usual, my mom complied. But after rehabilitation proved to be ineffective, my dad
filed for divorce. By 1992, it was final. Their fourteen year marriage had ended.
The fellows proceed by cutting Rob’s t-shirt and blue jeans from around his corpse. After
everything is cut, one fellow grabs his leg as the other grabs his arm. At the count of three, both fellows
give Rob’s limbs a harsh tug, lifting him into the air and flinging him from the rolling cart to the autopsy
table, where his naked body lies ready to be studied.
His assigned fellow begins by making an incision across his chest, cutting diagonally, up from his
left shoulder and down to the midline between his collar bone, then from his right shoulder down to his
collar bone. He makes a cut from the collar bone, where the previous two incisions meet in a v-shape,
down past his hip bone. With each cut, he is sure to press deep enough so that he can feel the scalpel
graze the bones beneath the flesh.
I shamefully fight back the tears as I force myself to watch his ribcage crack open, rib by rib, at
the jaws of what resembles hedge shears. The fellow pulls back the torn skin encompassing the broken
bones, and lifts Rob’s divided ribcage to expose his idle organs. I can see that there is still urine in his
bladder. I figure it’s the alcohol he’d drank while he was under the bridge. Instead of digesting the
toxins as he usually had time to do, he let himself be ingested in its toxicity.
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
Back then, it seemed like my mom was handling the situation very calmly. I don’t remember
ever hearing her cry on the phone or complain to a friend. In fact, she didn’t have many friends. After
the divorce, my brother moved to Maryland, with my dad. My sister, mother and I, moved to Pensacola,
Florida to make new memories together. We had a few neighbors, but my mom no longer surrounded
herself with many people. Instead, she’d come home from work and pop open a can of Bud light, or it if
was a really bad day, twist open a pint of whiskey. I’d grimace as I’d walk into the kitchen and pass the
brown grocery bag on the floor, filled to the top with that day’s recycled beer cans. I saw how the
alcohol had began to change her, and it outraged me.
I remember getting dressed for school one morning, and waiting hours on end, for my mom to
wake up and take me to the bus stop. I shook her as hard as my small, kindergarten muscles could
possibly shake. I shook her arms, patted her cheeks, and continually yelled out, “ma-a-a-a-.” Finally,
after hours of trying, I decided to just join my mom and take a nap with her. When I woke, my mom was
devastated that she hadn’t woken up.
“If I ever, do that again,” she warned, “put a cold, damp rag on my face. That will wake me up.”
I didn’t think it would happen again. But I can recall the many times following that morning, that I did
actually have resort to the rag technique in order to get to school. She was always in a deep sleep.
When she was awake and not at work, she’d wasn’t tired, but she wasn’t always herself. She was
usually intoxicated. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was her way of crying out, only she cried out in
the wrong direction.
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
After the urine is emptied from his bladder, the fellow begins to remove the damaged organs
resting peacefully in Rob’s chest. He begins with the heart, the most vital organ. He carefully cuts at
the vessels with a scalpel, trying to prevent as much blood from squirting out as he possibly can. He lifts
the heart from Rob’s chest and places it in the bowl of the scale. 10 ounces, the perfect size for a man.
Finally, after about two weeks of self-indulgence, my mom sought comfort elsewhere. She met
Kendel, handsome, robust man with a caramel complexion and declarative tone. His voice boomed as
he spoke. Kendel was also in the army. We all took a liking to him rather quickly, especially my mom.
He treated her like his queen.
It was a Sunday morning. Tamika and I had just come back from a spontaneous visit with my
father in Maryland. When my mom opened the door to welcome us in, we all stood paralyzed, jaws
agape. We were looking at the most valuable evidence of attempted murder. Cuts ran from all corners
of her face. There were at least twenty stitches sewn into the skin around her nose.
“It’s okay, Nikki,” she says to assure me. “It doesn’t even hurt. I’ll be fine, the dentist did a
really good job!”
Kendel had carved into her nose so deeply, that only a dentist was familiar with working with
such delicacy her stitching had required. My mom had entrusted Kendel with her heart because,
mistakenly, she thought that she knew his. When she finally gained the nerve to flee from his constant
beatings and emotional hostility that she’d kept hidden from us, he refused to let her go before making
sure that “no other man would ever want her.”
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
The fellow removes the heart from the scale and places it into a clear, plastic bag. He goes back
to Rob’s chest cavity and begins fondling the organs, snipping each one, weighing them, and placing
each into the plastic bag with his heart. One by one, the spleen, gallbladder, kidneys, and pancreas are
taken out. None of them look as if they’d been working very well for Rob. The fellow reaches into Rob’s
chest, pulls out his liver, and stretches his hand towards me, for me to grab it. I lean in and let it plop
down into my palms of my hands. Against my thick gloves, it felt extremely cold, as if it had been dead
much long ago. It’s much heavier than I thought it’d be, but feels just the way the fellow had predicted
it would after reading Rob’s case-impenetrable.
I don’t even think she waited for her stitches to be removed before she picked up yet another
beer to swallow. At the time, my mom must not have realized what that beer was really doing to her. If
she would have known the extent of the consequences, she may have tried put the alcohol down much
Excessive alcohol consumption often leads to Hepatitis, inflammation of the liver. With
continual abuse, an addict may develop cirrhosis of the liver, which is scarring of the liver tissue. With
even more perpetual abuse, they may develop liver cancer or exhaust their liver to the point where it
must shut itself down, and can no longer remove the toxins being ingested.
Unfortunately, my mom failed to realize this bitter reality. She continued to drink, even during
the months that she had no job, no income, no home, food, gas, or electricity.
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
After the incident with Kendel, we packed some of our possessions and went to live with my
Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Freddie in Austin, Texas. At the time, my uncle was suffering from AIDS and was
being cared for by my aunt. He was nearly bedridden, so Aunt Carolyn patiently aided him to ensure
that he was at least comfortable. During the months that we stayed there, I became very attached to
Uncle Freddie. I’d often go into his room and sit at his bedside just to chit chat. I loved to “give em’ sum
dap” when I saw him. It was our way of saying “hello” and “goodbye!”
One day when I walked into his room, I noticed that he was wearing a diaper instead of his usual
boxers, and was being spoon-fed.
“Are you gonna be okay Uncle Freddie?,” I asked frightened.
“No baby, I’m not. Uncle Freddie’s gonna pass away soon.,” he replied honestly.
About a week later, my mom and Uncle Freddie had gotten into an argument. The
confrontation had gotten really heated and my mother yelled hysterically as her and I walked out the
door. My uncle managed to slip in a few allegations about my mother being a drug and alcohol abuser.
“Look at you. You’re sitting there rotting because you use to shoot dope!,” my yelled back.
It was harsh, I know. I must admit, I had never felt shamed by my mother’s alcoholism until that
moment. Before, it had only been a problem that my sister and I had to experience. But now, it was
something that my aunt, uncle, and cousins knew about. Our family secret was out.
nn the midst of feeling angry and embarrassed, I also empathized with my mother. I
understood how she could say something so crude. Like most other alcohol abusers, my mom became
angry when she drank. It started to do more than ease her pain, it intensified it. I could see the
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
transformation as it took place within her. My mom would transform into a hostile, furious savage. Her
eyes would become heavily bloodshot. Beneath her heavy eyelids, there’d rage the Red Sea. I had seen
it for eighteen years of my life, but I had also seen witnessed her tender, loving care that she’d never
failed to show, even in the midst of staggering down the hall and slurring her every word.
I hand him back the cold, heavy liver for him to weigh. The fellow drops the liver in the bowl of
the scale and waits for the arrow to decide makes it way to a number. As expected, Rob’s liver is not as
heavy as a normal liver should be. It’s only a little over two pounds, nearly a pound lighter than that of a
normal liver.
The fellow proceeds by extracting each of the remaining organs. Once he’s collected all of the
organs into the trash bag, he ties it and places it in Rob’s emptied chest cavity, encloses it with his ribs,
and sews his skin shut over it with a long needle and thick thread. Once Rob’s chest is sewn shut, the
fellow begins cutting at the hairline, so that he can peel the forehead back and cut through the skull
with a cast saw. He cuts a through the skull, starting from the forehead and ending there. Then he
removes the top portion of his detached skull and clenches the brain with both hands to extract it from
it’s socket.
Rob’s brain has dark, somewhat purple veins running across its top portion, indicative of a
stroke. Rob must have also experience the blackouts and memory lapses that often accompany
alcoholism. As I run my finger along each dark path, I can’t help but wonder if the damage had gone
beyond Rob’s physical ailments, and had effected who he was. I hope not that it hadn’t.
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
I had seen it for eighteen years of my life. All at once, my mom would transform into a hostile,
furious savage. Her eyes would become heavily bloodshot. Beneath her heavy eyelids, there’d rage the
Red Sea. By now, it had become a part of who she was. But although I knew that it had a huge
influence on her, I knew that alcohol wasn’t all that she was.
We were homeless for a while after the confrontation between my mother and Uncle Freddie.,
and eventually found ourselves in Tucson, Arizona, by the time that I’d turned eight years old. My sister
refused to “live homeless” in a new city, so she stayed with my Aunt Carolyn in Austin for the next six
During the time that we lived in Tucson, Arizona, my mother and I traveled from place to place,
sleeping in various domestic violence shelters, churches, apartments, occasionally cars, and sometimes
even outside. Our longest stay was at the Women’s Brewster Center, a domestic violence shelter right
around the corner from the University of Arizona. It was the one place I considered home. We lived
there for a year. During our stay, my mother and I grew very strong bonds with the other families at the
shelter. My mom often babysat the other children on weekends, which would always excite me because
it gave me someone to play with. I met many friends as new families moved in. But when one family
moved in, that meant that one family was moving out. As I’d gain one new acquaintance, I’d lose a close
When a family would leave to yet another shelter because they’d been spotted, or to a new home for a
new beginning, my heart would sink. Friends were one of the few things I possessed, and were always
few in numbers. Every time my mom and I would lose one, it was as if we were stripped of all valuable
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
possessions. I always looked forward to coming home to the same, familiar, faces. Home was my
favorite place to be.
One freezing night, my mother and I missed the bus and didn’t make it home until about 11:30
P.M, and found ourselves locked out of the gate of Brewster’s Center. Since it was a domestic violence
shelter, there was a strict curfew set to ensure the safety of the families. Absolutely no one, was ever
let into the gate after 10 P.M. Since the busses had just stopped running, and we had no other place to
go within walking distance, we began walking over to the University of Arizona’s campus to look for a
cozy place to sleep. We found ourselves at the top of a cement staircase, leading up to the fifth floor of
one of the buildings. Luckily, there were cement benches at the top, one for each of us to sleep on. I
took my place on one, wrapped myself up in my pink hand-me-down jacket my mom had waited all day
in line to get, and closed my eyes in an attempt to fall asleep. My mom sat, thinking intently, from the
other bench as she stared at me. As I began to doze off, she walked over to me, took off her only jacket,
and gently placed it over my jacket, covering my fetus-positioned body. She always made sure that I was
happy, even before she was. Even though she’d been drinking, she didn’t let it impair her judgment so
that it ever posed a threat to my health or safety. It was my health that she was concerned for.
I hand the brain over to another pre-med student, who was eagerly awaiting to feel the mass
between his fingertips. The brain is passed around, and placed into the brain bucket sitting on the floor,
and once again, my mind begins to wonder. Did Rob know that he was at risk of death? If so, did he
even bother telling anyone, such as family or friends? Did he have anyone to tell?
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
We’d only spent about four years moving about in Tucson, before we moved to Texico, New
Mexico, to be closer to my maternal grandparents. I had spent all my junior high and high school years
at Texico and had grown to love the small town of 300 inhabitants.
I had just graduated as Valedictorian, and had just been accepted into the BA/MD program at
the University of New Mexico, which gave me a reserved seat as a medical student at the School of
Medicine. I was super ecstatic to start life and begin my undergraduate studies.
My mom, on the other hand, had been dreading the day that I went off to college. She and I
had always joked and said, “I can’t wait…,” but we both knew that it was a bunch of bull. Every day for
the last five months of my senior year in high school, she had made sure to have an article ready and
waiting to read to me whenever I walked in from school. They usually read something like, “Girl slain in
mountains” or “Boy gunned down in club shooting…” She always made sure to find really startling ones
to try to break me. At the end of every reading she’d always say, “see, now you know you’d be scared
down there all by yourself wit’ them crazy people runnin’ all around and goin’ ohn.” But the idea of me
living in the city didn’t frighten me at all, not as much as it did my mom, at least. So I knew that when
the time came for me to leave, we’d have another one of those sappy, mother/daughter talks, in which
she’d warn me about the dangerous areas of Albuquerque such as the “war zone,” and about sneaky,
college boys that would be up to no good.
It was a Sunday afternoon, about two weeks before I’d be leaving. We had just gone shopping
for deodorant, toothpaste, and all of the other necessities our mother’s send us off with. As we pulled
into the driveway, my mom said, “I wanna talk to you, Nikki.“ Now, it wasn’t one of those authoritative
parent requests we get when we need to improve our grades or get a job, it was more like her plea to
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
get something off her chest. The last time she’d sounded that way was when she’d had suspicions that I
was sexually active. I prepared myself for the worst.
I’m sick, Nikki,” she continued…“But I’ve been to the doctor, and I’ve been taking medication
and everything. I know I’m getting better.”
“…been to the doctor, been taking medication!” How long had she known?
“Sick with what,” I inquired nonchalantly.
I knew that I couldn’t act too distraught in front of my mom. Whatever the sickness, I had to be
strong for her.
“Well, I know I’m getting better. I’ve been takin’ medication to help me get better. You know
those B-12 pills that I take? The doctor prescribed them to me a while back and I’ve been takin’ ‘em for
a while already. I can tell they’re helping. And you know Carolyn prayed for me at her church, and she
and the other deacons put their hands on me. I really felt like I was healed when I walked away.”
Healed huh, just like that? And how long had she kept this from me? Did anyone else know?
And why was she avoiding my question? What was it that she was sick with?
“…So, what’s wrong with you?,” I asked again, hoping to get an answer.
“Well, I”ve had cirrhosis for a while, but now I have Hepatitis C, but like I said Nikki, I know I’m
“Prayer doesn’t just make things go away like that, mom. It doesn’t work like that!,” I exclaim.
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
As usual, my distress had come out as anger. In an attempt to hide my concern, I had become
accustomed to masking my weakness under an alternate emotion, usually anger or extreme happiness.
“Well, I really do believe in the power of prayer. And I’ve been prayin,’ every night too. I know
that God will heal me,” my mom declared.
It wasn’t the answer I was looking for. It just wasn’t logical to think that she was healed by God.
She hadn’t even sought much medical treatment. All she’d done was take some over-the-counter
vitamins for an extended period. Already healed! Scientifically impossible.
“Well okay, mom. If you feel like you’re healed, then you’re healed,” I lied.
But I knew the truth. Just as I’d been afraid it would, my mother’s alcoholism escalated to her
having a more serious, chronic illness, Hepatitis C. Now it had given her cirrhosis of the liver. Who knew
what lay ahead?
Finally, it’s time for me to say goodbye to my patient. As one fellow grabs Rob’s arm, and the
other a leg, they give him a strong tug, transporting him back onto the metal cart he was rolled in on.
The zip him back up into his bag, and wheel him out through the swinging doors of the autopsy room.
On the table, there is his spilt blood, urine, and fecal matter. I walk out the double doors and into the
locker room, rushing to takeoff my scrubs, face mask, gloves and other forms of protectant I’d been
wearing. After I’m done changing, I bust through the doors of the Office of Medical Investigation, to
inhale the fresh, crisp air outside, only to find that it’s raining. As I walk home, I dial up my mom to tell
her everything I’d failed to tell her the day she told me she was sick.
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
“Hey, mom!,” I exclaim when I hear her “hello.”
“Hey honey!,” she responds excitedly. “How was the autopsy.”
“Well…,” I begin. “It was hard. And I just wanna let you know that…well…,” I try hard to gather all my
strength. “ I think you did a good thing by not letting them perform an autopsy on Grandpa,” I blurt out.
It wasn’t at all what I had planned to say. I wanted to tell her that although I don’t ask many
questions, I care about her health. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t fair that she’d kept information
about her sickness from me, while her and Tamika had known. Even more, I wanted to tell her that it’s
not always okay. You can’t always assume that things will turn out In your favor, and you can’t hide the
fact that they haven’t by drinking yourself into another state of mind.
I wanted to tell her how bad it hurt to know that she was sick, or as Danielle Ofri describes, the
“burden of knowledge” that lay upon my mind. I wanted to tell her to call at the beginning of every
morning to say good morning and not wait until lunch, because when I wake up in the morning the first
thought that runs through my heads is whether or not my mom has passed out drunk during the night,
never to awaken again. I wanted to tell her that I was afraid she’d leave me before I fulfilled my most
desirable dream, buying her a house in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Lastly, I wanted to thank her for every
hardship, for it only made me stronger, but tell her that I was afraid of becoming too strong. But I
“Really, Nikki! Thank you. I’m really glad you told me that because everyone was so mad at me
for not requesting an autopsy,” she responds. “I knew I didn’t want any of my parents to go through
Nicole Harris
Drowning in Weakness
HMHV 201
“Yeah,” I say. “Me too.”
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