Life of death

Lezlie Lowe reconnects with an old friend.

I sang along to “Auld Lang Syne” this New Year’s, in blithe contradiction to that part about auld acquaintances being forgotten. You see, 2005 was the year I found my long-lost best friend, my first best friend, Karen.

We talked about entering kindergarten together, about rollerskating shows we put on in my basement and how your best friend is your entire world when you’re five years old. We talked about how divorce makes no sense when you’re a kid and how when it means you have to move halfway across the country, it’s the end of the world.

I could tell you all sorts of things about Karen that I’ve learned in the few months since we reconnected – the difficult way she left her common-law husband; how she broke her ankle in a St. John’s bar this summer; about her husband, who’s from Newfoundland and a peach of a fellow. But mostly I want to tell you about the exploding guy in the apartment who was so bloated they had to try to fit him into two body bags.

Karen is a coroner.

She’s the person who shows up at the apartment where the smell’s been getting worse every day for three weeks. She’s the person who has learned to strip off her leather jacket and her belt before she goes into that apartment because she knows the stench will never come out. She’s the person who can tell you the right way to lay a towel on the distended body and the right speed at which to run away because the mere pressure from the towel makes the skin, which is the colour of a blueberry, pop “like a water balloon.”

Her job covers 12 cities and a population of 1.33 million. She investigates six or seven deaths each day — car accidents, suicides, gang shootings and “undetermined deaths” like the exploding guy in the apartment. She has ripped newborn babies out of their mothers’ arms. “If I get more than one child death in a day,” she says, “they eat me alive.”

The taxing work is tempered by the reward of helping people through some of the hardest times in their lives — “I can give answers,” she says. And that’s exactly why she took on the job, after an epiphanic five-day relief-work stint at the Twin Towers’ ground zero in her eighth year as a city cop. “In policing you’re kicking ass all the time, you’re not helping people,” she says. “It’s all about getting the bad guys. That’s not me. I needed to take care of people.”

That means, for her, putting aside personal bias and “giving my full attention” to the death investigation of a convicted pedophile, putting on a good face when the parents of a child whose death she classifies as “undetermined” want her fired and dealing with the family of a man wearing his wife’s lingerie who’s accidentally hanged himself on top of the washing machine.

“Can you imagine being this woman?” Karen asks me. “You’ve been married for 25 years and you walk in on him and he’s in your lingerie and he’s dead? Dealing with bodies is one thing. But you have to deal with the survivors and that’s the thing that takes more skill. You have to put your tap shoes on and you have to dance.”

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