Waiting for the Coroner by Kate Washington

close-up of chicken noodle soup in pot

It turns out the coroner has a pamphlet to give the next of kin. It is a single trifold sheet, with the crooked wavy text of multiple generations of photocopying. (Budget cuts.) It comes along with his card featuring the county seal embossed on it in gold. The confident gold leaf makes it all seem terribly official, and stands in stark contrast to the mournful, degraded gray of the same seal on the front of the pamphlet.

Of course, I thought. Of course there is a pamphlet. It tells you that you will not be charged for storage of the body, and that your funeral home can transport the body after a certain number of days, and other information that I’ve forgotten. It tells you because they know you will forget all the things the coroner tells you in person, because you will be in a state of shock. I briefly wondered what it would be like to be handed this pamphlet if your child, or spouse, or—in the funereal phrase—other loved one had been murdered, or if you’d walked in your home to find his or her head blown off. I was lucky. I had not had to see my mother’s body in her house, the scene of her suicide.

The coroner handed me the pamphlet at what seemed like the end of a long Monday night, though really it was only the beginning. It was about ten o’clock when I left my mother’s house and went home, and there were nine long, cold, utterly sleepless hours of February night yet to come, before day dawned and the months-long business of handling death began.

My mother’s death, or rather the discovery of it, was both shocking and totally expected: a surprise with so many clues—suicide threats over the preceding month, unanswered phone calls over the preceding day—that it seemed an inevitability.

I knew she was dead that night when I saw her purse, slumped soft and a bit sideways on the kitchen counter. Or, rather, that sight was the most wrenchingly clear of a series of moments of knowing. That was the one that hit me with the sure, deep-down certainty that my mother was dead somewhere in her house. I had never known her to leave the house without her purse.

I had started knowing she was dead that afternoon, when my brother called, saying he couldn’t reach her for his daily check-in call. I said I would run over to her house and check after dinner, when the baby was asleep.

I knew when I pulled up outside the house and there were papers on the porch and a porch light on, that I was not going to make the evening yoga class for which I had hopefully, foolishly brought along my mat.

I knew when I rang the neighbors’ doorbells to ask if anyone had seen her that day, and nobody had.

I knew when I walked around to the side yard and tried to look in the garage window, only to feel relieved that it was blocked, for fear of what I might see hanging there.

Her plan, she had told me a few weeks before, had been to hang herself. “But it wouldn’t have worked anyway,” she said, her voice thin and bitter with self-disgust even as she lied to reassure me. She had told her therapist, and he had insisted that she tell me, she said. Of course she wouldn’t go through with it, she said. It was just a threat, she said.

That day may have been the first time my mother—always too honest for her own comfort in this world—ever told me a deliberate, significant lie. She did abandon the hanging plan, though when I looked through the kitchen window I saw a ladder, left by one of the contractors she’d had endlessly fixing the endless problems with her new house (bought, impulsively, in a fit of mania the preceding summer, before that last winter of depression set in), set up next to the dining-room table.

When I peered through the back windows and saw the sideways angle of her purse next to her soft gray coat with its faux-fur hood hanging limply on a dining room chair, a shocked flurry of thoughts volleyed through my mind—she would never have left the house without her purse and jacket, I’d better call 911, I don’t have a house key, I should have charged my phone this afternoon, that coat always made her look older and sadder, be careful not to trip and fall in the pool on the way out of the backyard. But underneath it all was a profound relief that the limp angles and bruised grays I saw were not a snapped neck and a morbid face.

I knew. But I didn’t know.

The police came and found the key and found the body, and one of them told me she was dead while I stood, cold in my stupid yoga pants, by my car. The coroner showed up and the police left and the police chaplains brought a fleece blanket, printed with an oversized golden police seal, and made me sit on a chair on the tiny porch, where I waited outside while the coroner began his mysterious, hours-long business of ministering to and carrying off my dead mother.

The police officer—Officer Faulkner, a name my literarily inclined mind immediately, irrelevantly, thought of as all too gothically appropriate—came back later, after he’d gone off shift. When he came back the coroner was finishing up. She died peacefully in her bed, Officer Faulkner said. It might be natural causes, the coroner said. There was a pot of chicken soup on the counter.

Maybe she didn’t feel well. She had health problems, the coroner said too, with a slight questioning inflection, and I confirmed. High blood pressure. A ruptured aortic aneurysm years before. Migraines. More ailments than her 64 years might suggest. But also bipolar disorder, and a recent history of suicide threats.

You never know, said the coroner. (But I knew.) There would be an autopsy. It would take four to five months for the state to run the bloodwork. “Budget cuts,” the coroner said. Meanwhile, the death certificates we ordered according to the instructions in the pamphlet—all twenty of them; we needed a lot for the business of death and the estate—all bore at the bottom the single, stark word PENDING, preceded by inches of blank space where the causes of death should have been.

A year later, the coroner’s card still lay in my desk drawer. Five years later, it lay there still.

At the funeral, people asked what had happened, how she had died, and I said we didn’t know for sure. It was a lie. We had pieced together the outlines of the day she died. She went to church and when she got home she waved to the neighbors on the way inside. At home, she sent out an email saying she couldn’t make it to a dinner party she had planned to attend. She googled for pill combinations. My brother found the searches on her hard drive. She wrote an angry journal entry saying that we had been keeping her from dying, which was all she wanted. My brother read it; I never did. She warmed up a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and ate a little and left the pot of cooling soup on the counter, locked the house doors but left the side door to the garage unlocked, took the cordless phone off the hook and pushed the talk button so we would get a busy signal when we called. She took an overdose of pills and lay down in bed and died.

The busy signal my brother got when he called wasn’t unusual, at first. My mother never signed up for call waiting—she thought it was rude. But when the busy signal changed, the next day, to no answer, he deduced, correctly, that the phone, left off the hook and on to produce a busy signal, had run out of batteries. And so he called me, and the business with the coroner began.

The next morning was a blur of exhaustion and adrenaline and more phone calls, call after call: to my great-aunts and an aunt, to my mother’s friends, to my therapist to schedule an appointment as soon as I could get in. I thought about what to say to the family and friends. I led with, “I’m afraid I have some very bad news.” I found myself comforting a lot of people.

One of my mother’s longtime friends, a sorority sister, blurted, “She did it herself, didn’t she?”

We didn’t know for sure, I said. You never know, I said. The coroner said it could have been natural causes.

That friend didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe myself. My mother had been in an agitated, manic state all the previous summer: angry at everyone, picking fights, falling out with this friend or that, waging campaigns against various large companies who had done her wrong, excitable and irritable and prickly. And then after Christmas her mood fell off a cliff, into despair, into threats of suicide in her therapist’s office. My brother had come up to Sacramento and we agreed on a plan of check-in calls at a family meeting. I wrote the number of a suicide hotline on a piece of paper in Sharpie marker and made my mother promise she would call it, or me, or someone, if she felt that way again. We told her we loved her. She cried and said she felt so pathetic, and thanked us and said she was feeling better and she wouldn’t think of suicide again. But she lied.

I think I knew it was a lie even then, and some part of me knew it for sure after that night with the coroner’s empty reassurances. But at her funeral, to her friends and to relatives, I had to tell the partial lie, not just to others but to myself. It could have been natural causes. You never knew.

When she had been dead a year and a half, we needed more death certificates. When she died it had hardly seemed possible that more than twenty entities would need official proof of my mother’s death—that she was dead was, after all, so glaringly obvious to me, the central fact of my life at the time—but as the long and unbelievably tedious process of settling the estate dragged on, and on, and on, well past the time when we thought we ought to be done, we finally ran out. We needed more copies of my grandfather’s death certificate, too, for a complicated issue of proving the chain of inheritance.

I had just one copy left of each of those starkly different certificates. On Sacramento County’s death certificates, nearly half the space is reserved for causes of death, primary, secondary, tertiary, and beyond. On my grandfather’s, the pale pink and blue engraved paper, with its official-looking scrollwork and elaborate patterns, was filled, from top to bottom, with official information and diagnoses. Most of the lower half was taken up with the causes of death, primary, secondary, tertiary, and beyond: cardiopulmonary arrest, spontaneous retroperitoneal bleed, anticoagulopathy secondary to Coumadin, chronic atrial fibrillation, Parkinson’s disease, a familiar if painful story of old age and cascading health problems.

On my mother’s death certificate, all that space was quietly blank. The top half looked much the same as on her father’s certificate. The small boxes of officialdom reduced her life to a few checks and terse words: Age 64; race, Caucasian; occupation, computer programmer; years living in Sacramento County, 20; information provided by, daughter; place of death, residence. Below that, all the space left to be filled by the details of dying—the hard-endured pains and ailments of old age—were uncertainly blank, boiled down to that single word: PENDING.

I never wanted to haunt the coroner’s office, requesting the full autopsy report. I thought I knew what the story was, and I thought I feared seeing a wrong determination. I feared the coroner, or one of his associates, would have made the wrong inference from my mother’s various health problems. Maybe they would think she had mixed up her medications or that the chicken soup on the counter was proof she had been not feeling well, and they wouldn’t rule it a suicide. Maybe the autopsy would be inconclusive. Maybe it wouldn’t.

There was nobody else waiting at the county records office that warm October afternoon, and I had filled out the forms in advance. I had checked the box certifying that I was a parent, legal guardian, child, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, spouse, or domestic partner of the descendant’s. I wrote a check, twelve dollars per copy, and then I stood at the counter while the county worker printed out the certificates and collated things and generally did her job. It was a perfectly mundane bureaucratic transaction in a perfectly mundane wood-paneled, air-conditioned 70s-era office building, and I was sweating and my heart was beating fast. She finished her work and slid the neat stack of official-looking papers over to me.

Nervously, I looked down. The blank spaces were still blank. The word PENDING still jumped out at me. Without meaning to, I said, “That’s funny. I’d have thought there would be a cause of death listed by now.” I tried hard to control my voice, but it sounded shaky, even to me.

The “oh, honey” look she gave me should have told me everything, but she also gently said, “There’s a second page.” I turned it over to look.

The second page was headed “Coroner’s Amendment.” Most of the page was taken up by a two-column list: “Information as it appears on official record” was the first column, and “Information as it should appear” was the second. The first column was mostly blank; the second read:

ACUTE VERAPAMIL AND NORTRIPTYLINE INTOXICATION

HYPERTENSIVE CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE, DEPRESSION

SUICIDE

SUBJECT INGESTED MEDICATIONS

“Yep, those would do it,” said a physician friend later, when I called and asked about the medications listed. One was a blood pressure med; the other an antidepressant that is often also used to treat migraines and that I didn’t know was ever prescribed for my mother. But even though I didn’t know the drugs, the determination was clear enough, and it was correct. It was what I knew it should be, what I thought it should be. And yet it almost knocked me down. I called my husband, and my brother. Nobody seemed surprised. I wasn’t surprised either, and yet in some way I was.

It turns out that underneath my fear that the coroner would make a wrong determination had lurked another, much deeper hope: Maybe she didn’t actually kill herself. Maybe the autopsy would reveal that she had a heart attack or a massive stroke or something that I didn’t think of or know about. Maybe my mother hadn’t wanted to leave me and my daughters and this world, after all. But now I knew: She had.

Maybe it didn’t make a difference, that official pronouncement, that ruling in black ink on embossed paper. Before I turned that page, I already knew, and I didn’t know. I always knew what really happened, and I can never know what really happened in the dark, deep recesses of her mind, in the hours before she died, in the silence of her house in the hours after. How long did it take? What did she think? Did she wish, however fleetingly, that she hadn’t done it, that she could come back and tell me she loved me, give me one last kiss goodbye, hold my children one more time?

No matter how long I wait, the coroner will never rule on those questions. I know, and yet I will never know.

KateW ashingtonKate Washington is a writer in Sacramento, California. Her work has appeared in Avidly, The Billfold, The Bellingham Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Brain, Child, and many other venues. She is at work on her first book, a feminist hybrid memoir and cultural critique of the unpaid work of family caregivers.

 

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Todd Awbrey
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