You’ve got to keep the boredom at bay somehow. And the tiredness. It’s 5 a.m. and you work the janitorial shift in the Life Science Building. Sometimes you vacuum all of the floors. Sometimes you burnish the tile. Other times you mop the anatomy labs of the second floor. Those are the most entertaining days. If entertaining is the right word.
You start by sweeping. You always reach for the lights as quickly as you can when crossing from one anatomy lab to the other; there’s something slightly disturbing about being alone in the darkness with a multitude of cadavers and shelves full of preserved body parts. It’s that not that you’re scared of a zombie army, rather, you’re scared of bumping into the wrong thing and ending up in a pile of severed arms. It’s a bit irrational and you know it but you leave the lights on anyways so that you don’t have to face the darkness again when you come back to mop.
With no smartphone and no music, your mind is free to wander as you sweep and mop, back and forth, back and forth. The smell of formaldehyde is sickly sweet and after a while, makes you slightly lightheaded. Over the many times you’ve been in these rooms, you’ve noticed different things… the cadavers were the first, of course. The fetuses in jars second (and eternally more disturbing). The preserved legs and arms that look almost petrified, held in glass cases.
And yesterday, you actually read the labels of the bins on the shelves and floor, a realization all by itself: large ones labeled “Upper” and “Lower,” others “Hearts,” “Urinary System,” “Female Reproductive Organs,” “Lungs” and so on. There’s one that says “Misc. (Knees, Hips, and Feet)” in every room and you wonder why those parts are specifically miscellaneous. There’s a very small one labeled “Eyes (Students)” and it takes you a second to realize that it doesn’t mean the eyes of students.
You start singing “Dancing Through Life” from Wicked because it is very stuck in your head.
You’ve taken to naming all of the skeletons and larger body system models. Claire is headless and displays the digestion system. Frederick is a skeleton with a sophisticated chin, and Nearly Headless Nick is the one who’s forehead is always fallen open. The one missing a leg is the “One Eyed Pirate” (galumping around on a peg… the poem goes on about something like “taking the pistol he fires it,” and you spend a couple minutes trying to think of the words).
You’re still working on a name for the skeleton who is biting his fingernails. But you understand the emotion. You’d feel that way if you resided in the anatomy labs, too. You wonder if you should give him a bow-tie for April Fools. You’ve become rather friendly, after all. Maybe you’ll become pen pals when you leave for the summer. You’d learn his name that way, since he’d have to sign the letter.
Everyday you read the names of the cadavers, taped on the sides of the metal containers. Don was a CPA, and had Parkinson’s. James was a movie industry driver and died of multi-system organ failure. You wonder what in his life made him decide to donate his body to science. You wonder what it was like driving movie people around. Lonely? Boring? Did he have to travel, or could he go home every night to his wife? Or was he married?
Then there’s Charles, who only has three question marks beneath his name. You think about him often, even when you’re not at work. Did he want to be more anonymous? Who was he really? You suppose it would take great purpose and courage to give your body to science, from the person and their family. You wonder once again why they did. You respect them for it, and you’re glad they still have their names.
But before your thoughts can get too deep about the histories and choices of the people who lived in these bodies, you spot something pink on the floor. Is that… bl….? No, you don’t even want to go there. You mop it up and move on. Darn that slightly morbid air in the room.
You go to cross into the next lab, through the in-between TA room that contains more cadavers and all of those things on the shelves. But just before you turn the light on, you realize you can actually see something peeking out of the cloth of a slightly opened bin… you lean closer… it’s large, and obviously human, and… well, you’re not that curious after all. You swallow down that slight adrenaline pressure in your chest and step away with a self-deprecating laugh. Until you see the small whiteboard with a list titled “Dissection To-Do’s.”
The first item is “Dismember Judith.” You have to give a chuckle because the statement is just so absurd on a To-Do list. You picture a harried professor talking to the TA, “Make sure you get those quiz grades online before class tomorrow, and find out who had the no-namer, and oh, don’t forget to dismember Judith while you’re at it.”
The linguistic part of your brain kicks on (that’s your major, after all), and for several minutes you try to decide why the phrase “dismember Judith” has such a nice ring to it. It’s not because you have a thing against Judith’s. You decide it’s something to do with the repetition of consonants but after saying the phrase many times slowly and with different stresses, out loud to the listening room, but before you really figure it out you start thinking about what to write for your semantics research paper, due in three weeks. It’s a topic that’s returned to frequently, as it’s getting a little desperate.
You start humming “A Whole New World” because now that’s the song in your head. And eventually, you leave the anatomy labs to go on and mop the geology and blood and animal anatomy labs, saying hi to that one guy from church who is always sitting in that one chair. You still don’t know his name, and you are not good at remembering to ask.
You always feel the need to laugh at yourself in those anatomy labs, to alleviate that slight fear and morbid curiosity that comes with the room. You know that most of that fear is irrational, but being the only thing alive in a room full of cadavers at 5 a.m. does things to you. At some level, you understand why your friends in anatomy classes act so eager and excited whenever it’s brought up, especially in the face of those who are appalled. There’s a measure of bravado needed to face death and dissection, the poking and prodding at the innards of a human body. Humor is necessary, along with the respect that comes as you learn how this body, this miracle works. No matter how great the cause and the knowledge, you will always have a heightened awareness and an extra heart beat when you enter a room that smells of formaldehyde.
Now to lighten the mood a little, here is a cow pie clock from the animal anatomy lab. It says, “A gift so you won’t forget me!” It’s a real one.