Death and Chocolate
A conversation sparks a sad memory
My wife and I are a bit of a cliche.
She's a nurse and I was a cop. Nurses and cops seem to be a common match. I'd like to think that it's because they understand each other. Both jobs seeing the worst that humanity can experience. In reality I suspect that it's more probably the proximity rule. With seven billion people in the world, our search for a soulmate seems to only extend to the several thousand people in our immediate proximity. Cops are always in hospitals, seeing victims, guarding bad guys and helping with psych patients so cops and nurses are always in close contact.
Our relationship is atypical in that sense. My wife started training as a nurse a couple of years after I met her. By that time I was leaving the police service, around twenty years ago.
There are many things I saw and did during my time that I don't tend to think about on a daily basis. It was another life and frankly there were some things that I'd prefer to forget.
Sometimes something will trigger a memory and it will all come back to me.
Last night I went to pick my wife up from work at close to midnight. I prefer to drop her off and pick her up as it's a long walk to the carpark at her hospital and it's just something I feel better for doing.
On the way home we were talking about her shift as we normally do and she spoke about a sad case she dealt with in the Emergency ward that night. An elderly lady had fallen at home alone and had lay there injured for around eight hours before she was found. While we were speaking about it and how sad it was for elderly people living on their own, I had a flashback to a case I dealt with many years ago.
I had been in the job for less than a year at the time. I'd just turned nineteen and so the combination of youth and inexperience meant that I was learning daily about the world we dealt with.
On that day I was working with another constable who had maybe five years service. He was a pretty laid back kind of guy and he approached each incident with as much casualness as I did eagerness. Brett was his name.
We were working general duties, which meant that we spent our time being sent by the dispatcher to whatever type of job came up next. Working in Cairns at that point meant that this was a real lottery. It could be anything from a passed out drunk on the Esplanade to a shots fired in the suburbs.
In this case, we were sent out to a 501, which was code for a sudden death.
These were always interesting. Our first task was to make sure that the area was safe, then to find the deceased and determine whether there appeared to be any suspicious circumstances. If there were, then we'd secure the scene and call in the detectives. If it looked like natural causes or suicide then we'd handle it.
These weren't popular jobs for general duties cops. If there were no suspicious circumstances then we would have to be the ones to follow it all through, attend the post-mortem and then write the report for the coroner. All in all, a lot more paperwork than most other jobs we could attend.
When we arrived at the scene, we were told that a neighbour hadn't seen the deceased for a few days and had gone to check on her, knowing that she lived on her own. He'd let himself in through the unlocked back door and found the deceased, Edith, in the hallway.
The neighbours name was Barry and he was in a bit of a state when we started speaking with him. He was convinced that someone had murdered Edith as the scene apparently looked pretty gruesome.
We took it pretty seriously at that point. A potential murder scene isn't something to be taken lightly. We put on our gloves and went in through the back door.
The scene was as Barry had described it, with the body of an elderly lady lying in the hallway and a fair bit of blood and mess around her. We checked first to make sure that she was in fact dead. She was. I know that step sounds redundant but I'd had what I thought was a corpse wake up on me in the past so I was always careful to check.
Once we explored further down the hallway we quickly came to realise that while the scene was gruesome, it didn't look suspicious. There was a chip out of the sink in the bathroom and some pooled blood around it suggesting that she had slipped over on the wet tiles.
The drag marks and bloodied handprints along the floor showed that Edith appeared to have crawled or dragged herself up the hallway to where she had died. The blood was very congealed and dried in some places so it had happened a few days ago by our estimation.
With all of the blood and other fluids everywhere it had been impossible for us not to step in the mess and track footprints on our way through. Ours were the only footprints at the scene so that effectively ruled out any suspicious circumstances. Case closed for us.
We went outside and Brett radioed the results in while I spoke to Barry and took down some details. The radio dispatcher told us that the coroners van would be out in about an hours time to collect the body, so we had to look after the scene in the meantime.
I left Brett in the kitchen while I went down to the bedroom to see if I could find any contact details for next of kin. Being the rookie, this would be my job so I had to collect as much information as I could. I would also have to break the news to the next of kin and assist in the post-mortem to determine the cause of death.
Most of the windows in the house were shut which wasn't uncommon amongst elderly people, even in the heat of Cairns. It did make this situation more difficult for us as the smell was not insignificant. The smell of blood left a metallic taste in the back of my throat. In the trail from the bathroom to the hallway were lumps of excrement and puddles of urine. I felt sad for Edith for the lack of dignity in her passing.
In the bedroom I found photos of Edith with other people her age but nothing that seemed to indicate either children or a partner. I couldn't find any signs of other people in her life. This was what it was like to die alone.
As I went back over the scene from the bathroom to where she lay even my relatively untrained eye could tell that the blood and faeces nearest to her body was fresher. What slowly began to dawn on me was later confirmed by the post-mortem, Edith had broken her hip and suffered internal bleeding from the fall along with a head injury. That hadn't killed her. She had died from dehydration after laying in the hallway for probably three days.
I didn't know at that point the cause of her death but I could see that she had survived for a quite a while. In that moment I could visualise her dying alone, helpless and in pain. I guess I'm soft because I felt such a wretched sadness for her.
I pulled myself together and walked out into the kitchen. Brett was sitting at the table, eating a slice of chocolate cake.
To this day I can't describe how that hit me. He had looked through the fridge and found the cake. Knowing that nobody would be coming to claim anything from Edith his matter of fact view of the world was that it shouldn't go to waste.
I was horrified. I wanted to do something, to vent or shout. I felt so emotive about what had happened to this lady and yet he was so distanced from it. He could just help himself to her food because we all knew that no one cared. This was how little her life and death mattered to him and to the world.
I did nothing. I was young and we had all been taught not to make waves. I regret not standing up for her now.
I can't describe the depth of sadness that I felt for this woman. This moment changed my view of the world and made me realise how alone so many of us are and how little the world cares about us. I think that even though it wasn't until years later that I quit the job, it was that moment at the start of my career that I put my first foot out the door.