“Are you there? God! It’s me!”
These weren’t things I’d normally say, especially at three in the goddamn morning. Yet here I was, at that exact time on a summer Friday in the year 2000, standing just outside the beat-up, red metal door to my great grandmother’s midtown apartment. I was an easily irritated twenty year old, and I’d already had words with her asshole superintendent. Why, of all people, did she reach out to me? Did she know the humidity was keeping me awake tonight while I peeled myself off my couch for glasses of water?
Then again, how could an old woman in the throes of Alzheimer’s know much of anything?
“Bisabuela!” (Great grandmother) I knocked on the door pretty hard, not remembering if she was also hard of hearing.
Three years ago, during a particularly strange visit, Bisabuela forgot that my name is Alex, and she called me “Daniel” over and over again. Both her Spanish accent and a sense of desperation thickened with each utterance until I was sure she’d choke on her own seemingly baseless fear. She kept mentioning troubling things about “my childhood” that weren’t true at all, and it took me a few frantic minutes to realize her dementia was getting worse.
“Daniel” is my father’s name.
I didn’t come by much after that visit.
After another series of knocks, I sighed in frustration, but I couldn’t keep the slight tremor from my breath. I’d had nightmares about being the one family member to find “bisabuela” cold and lifeless, her sightless, grey eyes staring up into the void.
“Bisabuela Tela!” I choked out a silly childhood nickname she let me use on her when I was both happy and afraid. I cringed at the image of her mortality, a dark visage I’d just conjured up from having seen too many horror movies. But there was something else in the air tonight; a sense of the inevitable I was loath to face, especially alone.
I wanted to kick down my bisabuela’s door and run in. However, a strange tightness in my gut told me I wasn’t supposed to disturb the cocoon of silence that suddenly enveloped her apartment. I felt compelled to deep reverence for a moment I wasn’t even sure was upon me.
Fuck you, Universe.
By the time I used the spare key she’d given me and quietly opened the door to her studio apartment, I knew what to expect.
The door to her apartment “snapped” shut behind me as I walked in, and I nearly jumped. After catching my breath, I tiptoed toward her bed and paused, waiting for her to stir. When bisabuela didn’t move, I took in her image. Her eyes remained closed, and her lips were pressed together, the corners of her mouth turned slightly upward as though she’d just thought of something amusing while lying in bed, on her back, relaxing.
I knew I had to check for breathing and a pulse, but I didn’t want to touch her. Using a trick I once saw in a movie, I removed my eyeglasses and placed one of the lenses just beneath her exposed nostrils. I stared hard, waiting for the fug of her breath to blur my lense, anticipating the gentle rise and fall of her chest. I saw none of those things.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I repeated like a man with a sudden bout of Tourettes.
My palms began to sweat while my heart engaged in a heavy metal blast-beat against my rib cage. With a gasp, I yanked my glasses back as though I’d burnt my hand. But my knuckles somehow grazed against my relative’s body, and I instantly knew that something was very, very wrong.
I fought through the acid burn of tears so I could pull out my mobile phone and dial 911. I tamped down the shakiness in my voice long enough to tell a kind 911 dispatcher that I’d found my great grandmother dead in her own bed.
I don’t remember, even today, if I hung up the phone before I crashed to my knees and sobbed my guts out. But I do recall pulling myself together eventually, raising my head to face bisabuela, and inhaling deeply.
“Are you there, God? It’s me,” I muttered before issuing a wet sniff. “I think-“
But I cut myself off when I heard the echoing footfalls and radio static of EMT’s with walkie-talkies traveling up the hallway staircase.
“Please, God,” I whispered as I stood up and turned toward the dilapidated red door. “Take her home.”
Still standing next to my Bisabuela’s bed, I stared at her front door, anticipating the booming knock of a first responder arriving on the scene, ready for whatever may come. Before the lead EMT even reached his destination, the red door opened of its accord at the sound of a “click” that would forever echo through my soul.
The face of a tall, broad-shouldered black man that looked to be in his early twenties seemed to melt into view as the heavy, metal door slowly swung open toward me. Wide eyed, mouth agape, the EMT shifted his body weight back as though prepared to dodge a potential blow.
The EMT and I mirrored one another’s confusion and terror. The door opened, yet I’d been standing too far away to physically reach it. Worse, the door had an automatic locking mechanism. The responder would not have been able to open the door on his own without kicking it in. A breeze wouldn’t be enough to push the heavy door aside easily. That would have required gale force winds
The air had been perfectly still.
Members of my family know most of that story, but I left out the part where I talked to God and my great grandmother’s spirit might have opened her own door and left to find the grace we all look for while still alive. I couldn’t even tell my own wife that part of the story until we got drunk on plum wine one night at a sushi dinner date.
Still, that fateful moment stayed with me throughout my adulthood. The subsequent connection I seemed to develop with the newly departed helped keep that particular memory fresh.
Almost twenty years after my great grandmother’s passing, I became aware of my bizarre connection to the dead while launching a career in the medical field.
As a Patient Transporter at a metropolitan hospital, I was trained to move living patients from one place to another. However, a Patient Transporter is occasionally tasked with the relocation of dead bodies. Though rare, the assignment requires a strong stomach, at least for a newbie. I found that after moving two or three “packages,” which is code for “the living impaired,” I was able to handle the grim task without the nausea and sweaty palms. “Package delivery” was just an assignment, like any other, and I took all my duties seriously.
To keep my own anxiety at bay, I also began to perform a small, private ritual before moving the corpses. After checking to see that there were two matching “toe tags” for each package, I would make the sign of the cross (born and raised Catholic), and I would try to say something pleasant to send the spirit on their next journey. These blessings ranged from “May flights of angels bring you to the light,” to Dios te bendiga (God bless you), and may have once included something silly like “So long, and thanks for all the fish” when I was trying to keep the mood light during a particularly dark experience involving a deceased infant.
I almost lost my shit, however, when I was transporting a rather cumbersome package. During an early Saturday morning, I borrowed a special metal gondola from the hospital mortuary, brought it to the adult ER, and, like normal, prepared a package for transport. After leaving the ER with the loaded gondola, I came to a point where I needed to travel down an incline to stop in front of a pair of magnetically sealed doors. The doors required the use of a magnetic strip within my ID card to open them.
Before I could come to a safe stop, I stumbled, almost losing my grip on the gondola completely. The out-of control vehicle was about to crash into the sealed double doors when they suddenly “whooshed” open just in time for me to skid through them, tug back on the gondola, make a sharp turn, and come to a safe stop with the package unharmed, Tokyo Drift style.
Assuming that someone going in the opposite direction had opened the doors and leaped out of the way, I quickly turned around to thank them for their timely arrival, only to find that I was all alone.
With no one living to interact with, I marched on, though the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand on end, and waves of cold dread plunged down my spine. By the time I parked the heavy gondola in front of the large, metal mortuary entrance, I realized I hadn’t run into another living soul since leaving the ER with the body.
Had this remained an isolated incident, I might have dismissed it as an odd coincidence or a magnetic seal malfunction. Afterall, I worked at a woefully underfunded city hospital, and I was used to a degree of dysfunction that often included the use of “less than optimal” equipment.
However, magnetically sealed doors began to spring open for me only while I was transporting a package, and they would open on their own in seemingly impossible ways, often when I was completely alone and struggling to move an increasingly broken down gondola with poor shock absorption and worn out breaks.
With every mysterious incident, I would remember my bisabuela, and get goosebumps. But then, my mood would shift, and I would utter a small “thank you” to the air around me, just in case. After all, nobody was ever on the other side of these doors during what I can only describe as an unusual sort of luck or a relatively calm and polite form of supernatural assistance.
Covid-19 altered the very landscape of my city by adversely affecting the lives of its inhabitants. No aspect of life seemed immune. Healthcare workers would face the seemingly never-ending one-two combo of working with afflicted patients while trying not to bring Covid home to their own families.
There was a macabre sort of math attached to Covid-19’s presence at my job. Spring of 2020 represented the first major surge of cases, and hospitals were overwhelmed.
Along with a spike in the number of Covid patients came a wave of death. The quantity of packages my coworkers and I needed to deliver to the morgue more than tripled during the first two weeks of March. By April, I might be moving four to seven packages on my own each day. Each of my coworkers faced the same odds, especially if they’d somehow avoided succumbing to the virus while the rest of our department got sidelined one by one.
The number of victims killed by Covid was so overwhelming, extra “refrigerated mobile units” (aka- cold truck trailers) were sent to various hospitals throughout the city for the sole purpose of storing the dead. By the beginning of April, 2020, my hospital received two units in addition to the one already onsite.
These three units would be filled every two days.
I wasn’t sure what to think of these new patterns. While working at my hospital’s Emergency Department, I learned and understood the seasonal and the daily norms of patient arrivals, departures, and acuity levels. None of these paradigms had been shifted this badly by a pandemic since AIDS, and I somehow never expected them to be!
I now felt foolish and helpless in the face of an invisible enemy that cared nothing for race, creed, social stature or wealth.
My “relationship” with the departed also seemed to change, though not in a way that I’d ever imagined.
It took me longer than I would have guessed to understand that shift, as I’d somehow avoided having to load patients onto a refrigerated trailer until the second week of April. When my turn finally came, I was less than enthusiastic.
It didn’t help that interdepartmental communication was poor, and infection control protocols were in constant flux. My hospital usually exhibited serious deficiencies in those two categories. Covid-19’s presence merely exacerbated those deficiencies to the point where management could no longer afford to hide from them.
This time, communication and infection control policy had been strained to the point of incredulity. A live, Covid-negative patient had unknowingly been left in a room with a person who’d expired due to Covid-19. My new assignment was to remove the deceased Covid victim, and deliver them to the morgue.
By the time I donned all my personal protective equipment and reluctantly found my way into the room in question, I didn’t smell a corpse. When the live patient blurted out a swear word behind the curtain that was drawn in the middle of the room, I smelled a potential lawsuit.
What the hell was our management thinking?
Still, a job was a job, and no matter what I said to the contrary, I thanked the powers that be that I still had one despite the damaged economy. I focused on my work, loading the package carefully on the mortuary gondola. The one notable change to this process was that I’d been instructed not to open the body bag to check for a toe tag. There were now supposed to be two toe tags attached to the bottom of a body bag.
Only one tag was present.
After a frightening twenty or so minutes in which I was left standing next to the deceased, I obtained the second toe tag and was finally on my way with the package.
I wasn’t told until I arrived at the hospital mortuary, still fully clad in extra special protective gear, sweat dripping down the small of my back, that I was going to have to help load this obnoxiously heavy package onto a freezing, narrow trailer.
Now, I’ll need to illustrate what I was wearing on my face in order to complete this sordid tale. I was told to wear one n95 respirator. On top of that, I was to wear a surgical mask. Over my regular prescription glasses, I donned a pair of oversized goggles that I was forced to tighten over two head coverings. The pain at my orbitals was constant. The headache I would sport after this job was complete would be one of the worst of my life.
Edward, the mortuary attendant, led me to the back of a thirty foot trailer and up a tiny ramp. Shoving that ridiculously rickety and overloaded gondola up a mini ramp, even with Edward’s help, was a Herculean feat.
But it was the sight of body after body, stacked four high and two wide on either side of me that sent a bolt of fear shooting up my spine, and very nearly caused me to regurgitate my breakfast underneath a pair of masks.
As if this horrific visage wasn’t frightening enough, my goggles began to fog up.
I’d forgotten that the mild spring temperature outside was so vastly different from the temperature within the trailer that such a debilitating occurrence was possible.
“Son of a bitch!” I exclaimed, not bothering to hide the tremor in my suddenly squeaky voice. My mouth went dry, and my heart felt as though it wanted to leap up and out of my throat. I helped set the package where it needed to be, whirled around, and attempted to speed walk the hell off this trailer of death.
Unfortunately, my goggles had completely blurred over. Knowing that I was suddenly blind and surrounded by dead victims of Covid was just too much. I attempted to jog off the trailer, but was brought up short by what I swore was the movement of a fucking corpse!
“Shit!” I cried out as I stepped back. But I tried to set my back foot too soon, lost my balance, and toppled backward.
To my relief, I felt a pair of large hands brace against the small of my back. With a gentle push from behind, I was able to regain my balance quickly, and avoid disaster.
Without a second thought, I removed both my goggles and my glasses and turned around, determined to look Edward in the eye as I thanked him for his help.
What I discovered when I turned around, however, was that Edward was still near the back of the thirty foot trailer, and I was somewhere in the middle, a good twelve to fifteen feet away from him. Even without my glasses on, the distance between us was obvious. Unless he’d developed telekinesis, found a way to stretch his arms far out in front of him, or learned of a way to bend time and space to his will, there was absolutely no way Edward could have rescued me from where he was. Moreover, I’d removed my eyewear and turned around too fast not to have seen him walk or run away after rescuing me, which would have been a strange move on his part anyway.
I felt the full effect of this reality when I put my glasses on and saw my confusion reflected on Edward’s face.
“You okay, Alex?”
To my surprise, I found myself suddenly smiling beneath my masks.
“Yeah, I think so, Edward. Goggles fogged up. Lost my balance.” I shrugged. “No biggie.”
“Okay, then,” Edward replied with a nod. “Thanks a lot for the help.”
“No, thank you!” I exclaimed rather loudly to both Edward and whomever or whatever else might be listening.
Thanks for everything!