ASA Student Writing Competition Fiction Winner: Ben Drum
"A Matter of Dust"
Fire is the rapid oxidation of a combustible material releasing heat, light, carbon dioxide, and water. Depending on the substances alight, and any impurities, the color of the flame and the fire's intensity vary. Fire in its most virile form is conflagration, an uncontrolled burning that threatens human life.
When I was five, my pet cat Flower, as my mom put it, went to the big litter box in the sky. One day she strayed from the house and never returned. We found her later, a couple blocks away, under a bush. She was alone and looked overwhelmingly peaceful.
One of the most enduring and unfortunate myths about organ harvesting is that it is performed on patients who are still alive, that doctors circle dying patients like sharks waiting to snap up their organs. Organ transplantation is serious business, but so is death, and hospital staff and doctors take death very seriously.
In moral, ethical, and political discussions, dignity is a term used to signify that a being has an innate right to respect and ethical treatment. Dignity is generally proscriptive and cautionary. In more colloquial settings it is used to suggest that someone is not receiving a proper degree of respect, or even that they are failing to treat themselves with due respect.
Back when we still lived in Lake Oswego, my family would take the boat onto the water to watch the firework shows on the Fourth of July. From one bay, we had prime view of three displays, the kaleidoscope of colors burgeoning in the sky. At the end, my cousin Billy would play taps on his trumpet and the other boaters would cheer as he yelled “Freedom!” after finishing the last note, the dust hanging in the air obscuring our eyes, the burnt chemicals still in our noses.
Cancer has a scent, and I caught an inkling of that smell this morning in the hospital. It's a combination of Clorox, Lysol, and alcohol foam, mixed with the heavier, musky odor of illness, bodily fluids, and, at times, necrosis. It's a chilling, cowardly smell, and I found myself holding my breath and hurrying forward.
It’s said that insurrection, even in the strongest of peoples, will reduce a nation to its knees. There is nothing more precarious and vulnerable than a country fighting itself, where every casualty is against the same country, and freedom is an argument of semantics.
My mother, a “new thought” Christian, believes that every cell in her body carries her spirit, and that donating organs would blend her spirit with someone else’s. She believes the heart is the center of love, the viscera the center of the conscience, and that her modus operandi would hijack that of the organ recipient. When I suggest that there is not one case of a person acting differently in any organ transplant case, even a heart transplant, she shrugs and says “they” have hidden the results. I blame the pain medications she is on, but respect her wishes.
When the doctor sat down with me and mentioned “palliative care,” it was as if part of myself, the ghost that was devoted to keeping my mother alive, stopped hovering over her. Did she have a place she could be more comfortable? Would she enjoy a palliative care facility? When my mom told me she wanted the facility, that she refused to stay and be a burden on me, all I could think about was how part of her body had turned on itself, had insurrected and was going to complete its coupe d’état.
Your brain—its psychological and emotional processes—can affect your experience of pain. In fact, how you interpret and tolerate pain can be affected by your emotion and psychological state, memories of past pain experiences, upbringing, age, sex, beliefs and values, social and cultural influences, attitude, and expectations. Likewise, pain can effect your emotions and psychological state, creating a feed-forward cycle.
While trying to decide if medicine was the right profession for me, I watched a quadruple bypass surgery, an operation at once both gruesome in its details and awesome in its power. For the bulk of the surgery, the patient’s heart stops beating, lungs stop inhaling, and she appears to be dead before being systematically brought back to life. Although the surgery was four hours long, all I can remember is the smell of burning bone as the surgeon sawed through the sternum. It reminded me faintly of fireworks.
Euphemisms for death I’ve heard in the last four days:
• Pushing up daisies • Stone cold • Gone to meet her maker • Resting in peace • Joined the invisible choir • In a better place • Lost to a conflagration • Gone to the big church in the sky • Snuffed out • Sprouted wings • No longer with you • Return to the dust • Gave up the ghost • Freed herself
John Edwards, former professor at the University of Washington, revels in his life motto: “Do what you can by what the frame imposes.” He means this in two ways. One, humans cannot help but frame everything they see in order to conceptualize and comprehend it. And, two, in a twist of irony, humans are themselves framed by time.
Most of my friends know virtually nothing about cancer, except that it’s supposed to be curable if you catch it early enough. The moment you find out you have cancer, all the pain and sickness you were supposed to feel from the onset of the disease hits you all at once. Your body, that which is most intimately yours, betrayed you and become uncontrollable.
In their last days, it is hypothesized that the animal’s dying body creates chemical messengers that make the familiar scents of home disturbing, causing it to seek entirely new habitat. The animal dies, and its descendants and near relatives gain the benefit of its “sacrificial” act. Even though the trait is not beneficial for the individual, it does benefit its species, and directly favors its most close associates, who are likely to have similar genetic characteristics.
I keep putting myself in the space between “we can fight this” and “we’ve tried everything we can.” I can’t reconcile the strength of my mother’s resolve—the endurance that coached me through a severe speech impediment, the tenacity that yelled back at the soccer coaches, the steady love that kept me from trouble—with the apparent weakness of her fight against her disease. When doctors told me everyone, and every cancer, is different, I always pictured my mom being in the upper tier of the possible prognoses, not limping along into deeper troubles.
Ruben Navarro, a 25-year-old disabled man who died with dignity just days before my mother, was an organ donor. "Do you think this goes against God?" one of his nurses asked as the surgeon who had been sent to harvest the organs ordered that more medication be given to him to hasten his death. When it didn’t work, the doctor got on the phone while the patient lay there frothing from the mouth and shivering. He ultimately died seven hours later, at a point when his organs were no longer viable and the transplant team had long since departed.
The one fact that keeps me awake at night, though, is that the average life span of a terminal cancer patient in a hospice bed is 154 days, and the average time it takes for a person to associate a place with “home” is 150 days. Mom lasted 141 days.
A few hundred years ago the Church of Rome burnt the bodies of some ‘heretics,’ hoping that when Christ returned, it would be impossible for them to be resurrected. But 2000 years since Jesus’ ascension, Mom was not concerned about her cremation, or even her dignified suicide. She wanted to turn her body to fire, believing that from dust we came, to dust we shall return.