Gettin’ Up There: Unforgettable reminders from the departed

Sunday Signal

By Diana Sevanian, Signal Staff Writer

Way back when I was a young nurse, I found an illuminating, albeit heartrending, place to visit on my Thursday afternoons off – the basement of the San Fernando Valley medical center where I worked. For there within its pathology lab, post-mortems – aka autopsies – were conducted. Once a week, for a few hours, I watched in fascination the dissection of these amazing human bodies we inhabit and learned about why people died. 

Beyond any morbid curiosity, however, was borne my intense and lasting appreciation for how certain people lived. 

One cadaver, who has never left my memory, was a lovely little woman in her 80s. With her curly-cute, short silver coiffure and freshly painted pink fingernails, she looked like she had just been to the beauty shop. Hints of pink frosted lipstick remained on her pale expressionless lips. A deep indentation was easily observed on her slender wedding finger, suggesting someone, probably many people, loved this lady. Empathy swelled within my heart as I wondered why she wound up on a cold steel table on this Thursday afternoon.

Once the pathologist exposed her naked body, I saw that her swollen abdomen and small chest had numerous old surgical scars – the telltale dermal histories of what must have been a great deal of illness and recoveries. As he performed his longitudinal cut from her clavicle area on down, a large whoosh of foul gasses escaped. The doctor, who knew me and appreciated my weekly interest in his field, said one word, “Cancer.”

At that point I knew that the decedent must have been a remarkably brave and optimistic woman. Despite all the fear, suffering and never really knowing how to fill in her long-term planner, she kept herself looking beautiful, looking ahead and ready for living.

Surviving life is no easy victory. I have thought of her many times through the years, especially when adversity, sadness and broken trusts and body parts have near-whupped me. It has been from her “Unsinkable Molly Brown” attitude that I’ve told myself, if she could still rebound and doll herself up even on what might have been her last day of life, anything is possible with a positive frame of mind.

Another hospital patient had a similarly profound effect on me. He was a terminally-ill, mid-50s schoolteacher confined to the skilled-nursing facility where I occasionally floated for night shifts. It was early December, when most folks are getting into the holiday spirit. He, and many other men and women, were there during the last holidays of their lives.

As I arrived one night, I was told he had died that day. But before he passed, he hand-wrote his Christmas cards, addressed the envelopes and applied postage stamps. He didn’t want to leave without letting others know he was thinking of them. I could only imagine how touched his family and friends must have been to receive those precious cards. Since this early 1990’s experience, I’ve thought of that selfless man every time I’ve made out my own holiday greetings. Some years it’s the impetus to make me do it.

These two deceased patients left indelible marks on my psyche, yet I was never able to thank them. Perhaps telling others of their approach to living – and dying – might evoke more optimism and thoughtfulness this world. Sort of a “Paying It Forward” from the “Other Side.”

Despite our challenges, worries and hesitation over how to fill out those long-term planners, it’s imperative that we apply the lipstick, keep those cards and letters going, and always remain eager for life. 

Diana Sevanian is a retired registered nurse and longtime Signal features writer and columnist.

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