Everyone wants to know.
No one wants to know about my best day on the job; about times when I really came through for someone or went far above and beyond or made old Mrs. Jones smile when she saw that I remembered to put the teddy bear in the casket. They want to hear things that will make them cringe and make them glad they work in an office with a desk and a lamp.
Specifically, they are looking for gore. I have a few stories I can pull out of the pile that will satisfy them and make them think I have truly told them about the worst thing ever.
I will never tell you. I scarcely permit myself to think of it. There are things that nightmares and failed marriages are made of; things that are reasons for substance abuse and social isolation. I know it’s not what you want to hear, so if you ask me, you’re getting the story of the guy found in the bathtub with all the maggots.
In reality, the worst things I have ever seen are the unlimited horrors one person can inflict upon another. Chances are, what you worry about possibly happening to your child, or your wife, I have seen. What you pay money to watch in a slasher movie, I can see just by showing up at work tomorrow.
I never watch scary movies anymore. It’s not entertainment. It’s a personal tragedy that I will deal with from every angle. While you’re watching people die or get dismembered on screen, I’m picking up the pieces. Literally. And still talking to the surviving family a year later.
To you, an old guy who died in a nursing home would not qualify. That story would bore you. He was old and died and probably wasn’t even all mangled. But when I see a diaper that was obviously not changed all day, and bedsores, and ill-fitting dentures, knowing this man died isolated and probably ignored and in pain…that’s bad.
It’s bad to me when I work on dead soldiers, am told ahead of time, “They will all be suicides,” and the military officer who inspects my work gives me a fist-bump and says, “See you next week!” and I know he’s right. He knows there will be another one, and that no one is in any hurry to do something about it. It’s just accepted that young men will kill themselves and old men will die of neglect.
There are things one can see that will change them forever. I’ve been asked a lot by people on and off the job how I have not yet gone mad. I have. It happened long ago and affected me so profoundly that I did the craziest thing anyone in that situation ever would: showed up for work the next day like nothing happened. But I was different. I had begun…to hate.
I was 26 when I started this work. I had my first drink at age 28. My dentist would later tell me that I had to stop grinding my teeth. I have an ongoing valium prescription. And I never want to do any other kind of work.
One Mother’s Day I had to cancel plans with my own children and spend the day with someone else’s baby. Her mother called me every hour, screaming that she had to see her right now. I told her, each time, I still had hours of work ahead of me. This baby died of neglect. I could not say that, as her mother, if you had bothered to see her when it mattered, we would not be in this situation. It’s supposed to be comforting when you tell a bereaved parent that “It’s not your fault,” but in this case, it was. And nothing was done about it. The police interrupted my work numerous times and nothing was done. It was an unintentional death. Just a mishap.
One of the worst things to me is that medical advances don’t mean everyone is safe. One two-year-old boy never woke up from his nap. No reason was ever found. Aren’t we beyond that now? Don’t we get a little worried when our children are in that two- to four-months-old range, and then start feeling relieved, and don’t run into their room frantic when they sleep through the night? Can’t we put a two-year-old to bed and not worry that he won’t wake up? Can’t we find a reason why he never did?
He had a twin brother. I already know what happened. He asked his mom and dad where his brother was, and couldn’t understand what was going on, but saw that mom and dad were sad every time he asked, and he didn’t want them to be sad, so he stopped asking. Forever. And now that kid’s birthday is going to suck for the rest of his life.
That was probably one of the worst things I have ever seen. Maybe because…I didn’t really see it? I just know it was bad, and will always be bad, for that entire family.
One body I received as a shipment was a young child homicide; killed by his father. The mother’s family hired private security to keep the father’s family from attending the funeral. They lost that kid too. But they were not permitted to grieve, because you never mess with a mother who has lost her child. Her decision outweighs everything.
And no, that wasn’t the worst.
Freak accidents. Horrible because there is no way to prevent them. The 5th-grader who died when a ball hit him in the chest. No bruise, no broken bone, no history of medical problems, and the ball-thrower was another little kid. He went to school and tried to catch a ball at recess and it hit him in the chest and he died. A little toy football.
The medical examiner said it was literally a one-in-a-million shot. The parents didn’t believe him and are still fighting with the school and the state and the police.
Luckily it’s rare that I see absolute brutality, knowing that the killer deliberately went slowly and intended to cause suffering. But I do see it. And I never forget a face.
So, for the worst thing I have ever seen…if general human suffering and depravity is not enough for you…how about that time last week I got sprayed with a person’s stomach contents when my aspirator hose disconnected? Yeah…that was a bad day.