Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist


La Petite Morte

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Evelyn had arrived early for the meeting. The curtains were closed on the first floor windows of the motel room. It didn’t matter. The only view was an empty parking lot, on this weekday at lunchtime. A Reader’s Digest lay abandoned on an end table next to a plastic cup of water. Rumpled linens covered the bed, spilling partway to the floor. A black negligee peeked out from under the duvet.

Evelyn and Leonard always got the deluxe room with the king-sized bed. They were generous tippers and regular customers for fifteen years. Working in the same office, they maintained discretion, never socializing outside of this weekly tryst.

Her perfectly coifed hair retained the aroma of the beauty salon. The beehive style suited her at 65 years of age, quaint and retro. With blond tresses, she looked younger than the decade-old driver’s license from her wallet. The DMV photo also revealed a thinner woman. Yet she had the same blue irises, and a distinctive Marilyn Monroe-type birthmark. Fresh makeup included pink lips, matching a tube of “Yum-yum” colored gloss in her purse.

Evelyn lay naked on the floor next to the bed, except for the cardiac patches the EMTs left behind after pronouncing her.

Leonard sat at the small desk, the chair creaking as he shifted his weight. Thinning hair ridged his head. The back of his neck was shaven clean, the way a barber would do. He was dressed in a starched shirt, and pressed trousers. A neatly folded tie, watch, and wedding ring sat on the other bed stand. He stood up, barefoot, shirt mis-buttoned, and pants fly open. The police and coroner had already interviewed him. Now it was my turn as the forensic pathologist.

“I’m sorry we have to do this,” I said. He slowly repeated the sequence of events.  When we got to the final moments of her life, he bent his head down, rubbing his eyes. “I know this is hard but it’s very important to hear it directly from you. You were with her when she died.”

He sighed. Evelyn had apparently been an enthusiastic lover, but when she cried out as they were having sex, she startled him. Her head slumped to the side and an arm hung limply off the side of the bed. She wasn’t breathing. 9-1-1 convinced him to move her to the floor and perform CPR. He pushed on her sternum and timed the mouth to mouth breathing, but she was gone.

After he finished the story, Leonard looked up, face puffy, and red, “Can I say goodbye?”

The examination of the body revealed no foul play or trauma. He had already been intimate with this woman before and after her death. Once she left this room, Lenny would never see Evie again. His wife and her husband wouldn’t want him at the funeral.

I nodded.

He got up and knelt beside her on the floor. Gently he leaned over and kissed her – the forehead, each cheek, and finally her lips – an intimate ritual of farewell.

“I love you, Evie,” he whispered. He seemed to wait for a reply. Calmly, he closed her eyelids.

“Where can I get in touch with you?” I asked. Leonard provided contact numbers – home, mobile, work – and told me to try the cell phone first.

I did the autopsy that afternoon. A myocardial infarction had ruptured open from a heart attack days earlier. She hadn’t known or maybe she was stoic. It had damaged a large region of her left ventricle, the main pumping chamber of the heart. Her pressure rising during lovemaking had caused the dead muscle to tear. The blood spilled into the surrounding sack resulting in cardiac arrest.

After speaking at length with the family, I called Leonard and explained the physical findings.

“So I killed her?” he said, voice quavering.

“No, no, no,” I said, “Evelyn had a heart attack at least three or four days ago.”

“But it might not have ruptured if we hadn’t been,” he paused, searching for the word before settling on, “in bed.”

“A big part of the heart was already dead,” I said, “It’s surprising she didn’t die when it happened earlier in the week.” Heavy breathing punctuated by sobs filled my ear. “Leonard?”

“Doctor, thank you for that.” He added, “I’m glad I got to see Evie one last time then. Thank you…for everything.”

I found myself wondering what Leonard was going to do from now on, Thursdays at noon.

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