72 – The Little Things

After a grueling three week stint of Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) work in earthquake and tsunami stricken Northern Japan, Grissom returns to Vegas having discovered that in the face of overwhelming tragedy, ultimately it is the little things that matter most.

Takes place Spring 2011.

*******

“There are only two ways to live your life.

One is as though nothing is a miracle.

The other is as if everything is,” Albert Einstein

*******

Grissom

While it is always good to come home to you, there are some homecomings you never forget. Like seeing you for that first time in Costa Rica where there was nothing in the world more amazing than the sight of you.

This was like that. Where I felt so fortunate to find myself back home with you.

Most of the time you can’t make it to meet me at the airport. And understandably so. Work is work and Vegas is Vegas and the hours as unforgiving as always. Yet somehow there you are, waiting in that trying not to be anxious and yet failing at it way you often do.

But then our eyes meet and you smile, broad and bright and beautiful.

Even if you never think of yourself that way, you are so breathtakingly beautiful, Sara.

And that smile makes all the hours and days and weeks we’ve been apart melt into memory.

I always miss you, I do. But, God, it’s good to see you. And however overplayed and clichéd as it might be, I don’t care. I can’t get to you quick enough. Can’t hold you tight enough. Long enough. You who are now more than ever, light and color and warmth and breath and life.

*******

Hank is there, both anxious and eager, to greet us at the door. Instinctively, he seems to sense things are different and lets me lavish as much attention on him as I want or my knees can take at the moment.

You ask if I want dinner, but after a twenty-three hour flight, honestly, all I want is a shower and sleep and you.

What I don’t tell you is I haven’t been hungry for weeks. Or sleeping. I don’t need to. That concerned expression of yours says you already know. And I do have to admire your best attempts not to fuss. Which I know isn’t always easy.

Although it is easy, far too easy, to lose track of time in the white-noised warmth of the shower. Particularly when you’re already beyond beat. I simply stand there, eyes closed, head bowed beneath the spray. That I can manage even this at the moment feels like an accomplishment. All I know is I’m too tired to move, let alone soap up and shampoo. So I am heartened to feel you join me, not to chastise or chase me out, but to help ease my head back to wet my hair.

There is the sudden spritz of citrus, that heady, almost over-clean scent.

Ultimately, I am unsurprised for the need of it. After three weeks, my nose might have become inured to the smell, but apparently not even freshly shorn and shaved and cleaned up as best as I could manage with very little water (hot or not) and certainly no lemons, has made little real dent in the stench. Nor probably would have all the perfumes of Arabia. Death doesn’t so readily wash away. Still you scrub, trying I know to be both as firm and gentle as you can.

But before long your touch turns tender, though no less purposeful.

Beneath your nimble fingers, the numbness begins to thaw and that chill not even the heat of the steam can ameliorate yields to your warmth and I am warm, truly warm, for the first time in weeks.

Here and there your hands linger, taking silent stock of the changes you find and you sigh but say nothing. Just as wordlessly, your palm settles over my heart before you draw up close and we are quiet, you and I, and I know you are listening not to the rhythmic rat-tat of the water against the tile, but for breath.

So am I.

We two, desperate for reassurance, to ensure that this is all indeed real and finding it is, I relax further into you, my face buried in your sweet smelling hair.

And I don’t even have to ask if you are going into work tonight. The rush of lavender which greets me tells me no. Turns out not tomorrow either or the next day, or so you whisper. All thanks to Catherine and the others who’ve rearranged their schedules without ever having been asked. Or bothering to inform you until that morning.

Which goes to prove one can never be too grateful for one’s friends.

We share a smile at this and a soft, slightly damp kiss.

*******

The towels are still warm from the dryer. As are the clean clothes I find neatly folded on the basin. And the bed sheets welcoming, despite their freshly washed crispness.

There is the click of the bedside light, then you drawing me to you in the dark until I rest beside you, my head on your chest, now nestling near enough that I can hear the ever-reassuring tattoo of your heart beating beneath my ear.

It’s always so much easier to succumb to sleep in your arms.

And so I do.

*******

Although not even you can keep the nightmares at bay for long.

I wake panting and breathless, the dreams all too real to be so lightly cast off. And yet after too many days and nights of too little rest, I am too tired to resist the pull of sleep.

And so it repeats itself, this twisted, sick sort of cycle. Not once. Not twice. After the third time, I roll over, not wishing to wake you again. Too late of course. So much for you getting any rest of your own on your days off.

But you neither grumble nor moan. Nor is there the slightest sign of your usual having been prematurely woken crankiness. Instead, you mold your body along mine, wrap your arms about me, hug me close and press a kiss into my shoulder. There is the whisper of your breath along my neck. Your quiet murmur of I love you, which while the words are always welcome, I don’t really need to hear them. I can feel them.

*******

With all my restlessness you couldn’t have slept well or long and yet when I come to investigate the strange smells emanating from our kitchen late that next morning, you pause in your slicing fruit to greet me with a smile.

I lift the lid on the pot on the stove and lean in for a better whiff and I am not mistaken. There is chicken soup simmering there.

From your mother, you supply when I look at you askance. Then add, Who seems to think I can’t cook for some reason, Gil.

At least your tone and that ghost of a grin you can’t quite suppress suggests you are more amused than irked at this.

And you remind me to make sure to call her later saying, Mothers worry.

You’ve been worried, too. I know that look. The way your hand lingers on my cheek, how that smile of yours slips into concern. Yet you make no comment except to proceed to ladle enough soup for three into a bowl before placing it in front of me, hoping I will take the hint to eat. And I can’t rightly balk, having used the same technique on you during those times when you weren’t eating and I was the one who worried.

And I try to eat. I do.

Apparently you and Mom are thick as thieves now, or at least as co-conspirators and newfound allies. Which is a strange — if welcome — development.

Amusing, too, as you, with an apologetic preface of My signing still needs work, succeed quite well despite your protests to pass on her parting message. Your bemusement even more so, when you sheepishly confess to not having a clue as to what she’d said, having been unable to find a translation anywhere on your own and after the last couple of chats, being more than a little afraid to ask.

My lips can’t help but turn up into a smirk.

I’ll tell you later, I promise, I rejoin. And can’t help but laugh, No, dear, in reply to your almost long-suffering sigh of Just tell me it has nothing to do with our sex life.

*******

The next few days pass in a blur of blissful normality. No grand plans. No surprises. Just quiet, uncomplicated, uneventful, ordinary, plan-less, plotless hours filled with the ease and laughter and joy of everyday life. And all the more precious and wonderful for it.

Pancakes for breakfast. Dinners of take out (ever your specialty). Un pique-nique à la française one afternoon when the weather was just too fine to stay all cooped up inside, Hank busy for much of it off scampering after a particularly prototypically hairy specimen of Paracotalpa puncticollis. An occurrence which comes as no surprise to you or so you say, he being after all my dog — curiosity, bugs, snoring and all.

I finally catch my first baseball game of the season, with you and I perched on the couch shelling peanuts. Both of us — even you now (what Hank must think) — chucking the occasional few — okay, admittedly not entirely few– along with some well-earned taunts, jeers and disparaging remarks about the umpire at the TV. Much good does it do. We still lose. But then as you patiently remind me, we always do.

Although you aren’t always so sanguine about losing. That night I have to remind you after my having you in check (for the second time) in under twelve moves (and you rather loudly grumbling about said fact) that it was after all your idea to engage in mental chess as a means of combating our mutual insomnia. If your rolling over and pretending to give me the silent treatment before launching a playful swipe to my head with your pillow was any indication, you didn’t much appreciate my cheek.

There were no call-ins. No texts or emails. No interruptions.

Not until that last night do I finally sit down to sort through the mail which has over the last two months been building — and I’d swear replicating — on my desk. I must be hours into to the process and yet it feels like I’ve barely made the slightest dent, when you enter dressed for bed, toting a much-welcomed mug of tea for me.

Your hand comes to rest on my shoulder, your thumb brushing along the inside of my neck as you lean in to take in my progress — or more aptly, the lack there of — and I don’t even need to look up to know you’re shaking your head as you sleepily caution, Don’t work too late.

We both opt to ignore the hypocrisy inherent in this.

And I can hear you pad off down the hall. But I don’t return to my correspondence. I know better than to over linger or to turn down one last night in bed with you before your schedule leaves me to find other ways to occupy my evening hours on my own. Besides, the work will all still be there tomorrow.

*******

Sometime after midnight, I wake to that same bolt-upright gut-wrenching wide-eyed heart-pounding blood-rushing breathlessness which has sadly become all too de rigueur these days. Although worse — far worse — than it’s been in a very long time.

Struck momentarily deaf by the persistent thumping in my head, I don’t hear you stir, only feel the quiet, steadying presence of your hand on my back.

You know all too well how it works. How cold sweats both burn and freeze all at once. How long it sometimes takes until breath returns. The heart slows. And dreams begin to lose their staggering cinematic clarity.

And not for the first time, nor likely the last, do I seriously contemplate which is worse: the seemingly interminable insomnia or the inevitable nightmares which come after. And I am half-tempted to ask you, but with a hurried whisper of be right back, you’ve already left.

Yet you’re not gone long. When you return, it is to press a cup into my hands; a kiss onto the top of my bowed head.

Not milk, you offer when I more stare than sip. It’s ordinary tap water and you’re having gone to get it, more a pretense to give me a moment on my own – one I sorely need.

More for something to do I diligently drink.

After a while your palm slides along my cheek, just as intimate and tender and invigorating a touch as it was the first time all those years ago.

Gil – you say softly, concern come again. Concern I know I can’t just attempt to smile away, so I don’t even bother to try.

It’s time.

You haven’t asked. Not because you don’t want to know or don’t care to, but because you know there will be time to talk about it all later when I’m ready. Time to tell you everything I didn’t and couldn’t during our far too infrequent (though not for want of trying) phone calls over the last few weeks.

Not the least bit eager or desirous to return to sleep, I take one last deep, bracing breath and then tell you everything I can find the words for. Even if the list of things I still don’t stretches far longer.

For even now, I can barely wrap my head around it. Any of it.

*******

Robert Frost once wrote about being one acquainted with the night. I suppose I could say the same. And not just about the night that is the opposite of day. Almost as far back as I can or care to remember, I’ve lived with death and life’s darker sides. Even collected and dissected and in an attempt to contain it, bottled it. Spent nearly half a lifetime trying to understand it. And I know death to some degree. Understand its biology. Its steps and stages. What happens once the heart stops beating, the lungs stop breathing, the mind thinking, the person stops being.

After almost 25 years as a CSI, investigating and having borne witness to more than 2,000 homicides and nearly that many other deaths besides, you would think I’d have been prepared.

We’ve had scenes with two, three, five, thirteen, even dozens dead, thankfully the later very rarely, but nothing like this.

Two hundred known dead become five hundred. Five hundred soon turns to a thousand. Then two thousand bodies wash up along a single shore. Victim estimates hit five, ten thousand. With nearly twice that many still known to be missing, the counts only rise.

We don’t see all of them. Not nearly. But we see plenty. I stop attempting to keep track after my 200th case.

But these are the practicalities no one wants to have to face or deal with and understandably so: how do you ID and respectfully dispose of the remains of that many?

Even it being nearly a month in by the time I arrive, it was even more a race against time, against de-comp, against ever-increasing radiation fears.

I suppose it really is the stuff that nightmares are made of. And mostly there just aren’t words for. But then horrors often have few descriptors. It’s certainly something I’m not about to forget anytime soon.

Slowly, I tell you about that first day. About arriving to a world literally turned upside down. Cars, boats, even ships perched atop a few standing apartment buildings. Mostly there are these vast seas of virtually unidentifiable debris, the old streets, old landmarks, centuries of history and families gone. Villages once bustling with people rendered virtually instantly into ghost towns. Mostly, it was quiet — deathly quiet. Even when I was losing my hearing, I don’t think I’ve ever heard such silence.

No wonder we encounter so many blank faces, slumped shoulders, shuffling feet. The weeks have yet to wear away at the profound loss. Most escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs. Most have lived cramped cheek by jowl in poorly heated school gymnasiums. Huddle at night in the dark under whatever thick quilts can be found to fight off the biting, unforgiving cold. And yet despite the near daily food, fuel, power, water shortages — the relief still slow to reach everyone — attempting to eek out some semblance of normalcy.

And it’s not always solemn. Above the snores and infant cries, the low rustle and rumble of too many people cramped into too tight a space, there is still the occasional bright laughter of kids at play. Thank goodness for the resilience of youth.

But mostly it is a life of waiting. And they wait. In lines for steaming bowls of ramen and rice. For clothes. For baths and toilets. For the daily radiation screenings. For word of still missing family members, friends, neighbors.

Many return day after day to visit the expansive message boards set up at each shelter, painstakingly scanning each posting, looking for news, any news at all, whether good or bad.

Amongst the official lists and schedules for busses running to the makeshift morgues for body identification there are hastily scribbled notes in hundreds of hands, pleas for information, descriptions and photos of the missing, promises of returns, messages of hope.

If I ever need a reminder of why I’d come, I’d only ever need to take in those fluttering pages.

There are just some things you do because you can’t just sit there and watch them happen and do nothing. Not when there is something you can do.

The nameless dead deserve that one last dignity, the return of that most fundamental of all human rights: that of identity. And their families, closure; no longer having to live in that limbo of not knowing.

It’s what I would want if something happened to you.

I’ve heard people lament how cold and calculating, clinical those who deal with the dead can be. How callous, unfeeling, impersonal. How crass it is to smile and make jokes over dead bodies. What they don’t realize is you have to be objective, almost numb. You have to be separate. You have to have science and rigor and distance, otherwise all too soon it becomes much too much and then you’re no good to anyone.

Even then, there’s good cause for limiting DVI work to three weeks. Beyond that, you surpass burnout.

But yes, you have to have method. It’s what keeps us from madness. Allows us to do what needs to be done.

Which is what everyone does.

They have to. The work is staggering and unending.

Once search and rescue gave way to recovery, firemen, police, military and civilian volunteers work to reclaim bodies from among the wreckage. There aren’t near enough body bags. Most come wrapped in old quilts. Are laid out on whatever empty floor space is available. These makeshift morgues have no refrigeration, are, with all the rolling blackouts, frequently without power. In this at least the icy weather is a blessing in disguise. It retards decomposition but also makes it hard to hold a pen or operate a camera after a while.

Sadly, it does little for the smell. I thought I’d long become inured to the fetor of decay, but it’s weeks before the gut-wrenching smell gives way to tolerable.

But none of that matters. You have to focus solely on the victim in front of you and only that person. Nothing else. They have to be the only person that matters at the moment. Not the ten you’ve already processed or the fourteen you know you still have left to do.

There’s no rush. Nothing hurried. Mud and sand and debris are carefully washed away before the body is meticulously examined. Every detail counts. Evidence of medical procedures, scars, moles, birthmarks, tattoos, piercings (though there are little of the latter) are noted. Jewelry. Clothing, too. Every pocket, every fold gone through, contents collected, examined, documented, photographed then secured. Teeth are x-rayed. Fingerprints taken. Then DNA. Blood is of little use after so many weeks, so parts of the rib are removed to be analyzed instead. Ultimately, these are the samples that frequently prove most useful. Trauma, long exposure to the elements and varied stages of decomposition make visual identifications difficult. And familial spot IDs are frequently problematic at best.

It is nothing short of grunt-work: detailed, dirty, difficult but necessary.

Children are the hardest. But then they always are. Those lives unduly cut short before they’ve barely begun.

But there is some satisfaction to be found when after all that data goes into the computers, the matches bring the victims back home to their families where they belong.

*******

By the time I finish telling you all of this, your cheeks are wet. So are mine.

And have been I would imagine for some time, though neither of us seems to realize it until this moment.

I hate to see you cry. Almost as much as you hate being seen to. But thankfully we’ve passed the point of pretense and pretending, you and I. At least most of the time. And these I know are very different sorts of tears.

Though throughout this, you haven’t said much, intent and content to let me get it out, get it all out. And now that it is, I watch you. Your lips move to speak, but nothing comes out. Not then, not after the second or third attempt either. You try a breath. Go to briskly wipe the tears away with the back of your hand.

Sara — I begin before I, too, am in want of words.

Yet I can feel my lips start to tug into the first hints of a soft smile. They can’t seem to help it, mirroring as they instinctively do, your expression as I slide my hands around your cheeks.

Except your eyes are still sad, heavy with a sudden sense of remorse I certainly don’t expect. And I am genuinely taken aback to hear you speak of regretting not having been there. How you wish you could have been, so I didn’t have go through it on my own.

For you were, Sara. Every minute. Every day. You always are. And you did help, more than I can say.

You let me go. When I called you from Peru telling you what I was wanting to do, you didn’t protest or question even though I was scheduled to be returning home that week. Even though we’ve been more apart than together this spring.

You understood. You understood that driving need to do something. And when I deplaned at Yakota, I found the bag of cold weather gear you’d packed waiting for me.

At the end of some of the hardest days I’ve ever known, yours was the welcome voice on the other end of the line. Maybe we didn’t get to talk every day. With the long hours, time difference, spotty cell coverage, rolling blackouts, it was impossible. But you tried every day. Left texts and messages when you couldn’t get through. And it was so good to hear your voice, if only for a moment or two, that on those difficult days, I would close my eyes and just listen, embraced by the sound of your voice.

And in all the times in between, you were there, too.

Even though we’re far apart, I can see you as clearly as if you were here with me — those words are only even more true than they were when I first wrote them four years and almost a lifetime ago.

Je pense tout le temps à toi, they say in France. I think of you always. And I do.

I carry you with me wherever I go. For thou not farther than my thoughts canst move. The memories of your smile, your laugh. The feel of your touch as electric as it is soothing.

I carry a picture of you in my mind and heart as real and vibrant as that photo of the two of us in front of la Fontana di Trevi I found tucked into the pages of the antique volume of Shakespearean Sonnets you’d slipped into my bag. I couldn’t help but smile to find it bookmarking Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark…

Perhaps it was coincidence. Perhaps and more probably not.

Of course that didn’t keep me from carrying that snapshot with me wherever I went. So now it is more than a little worn about the edges.

It’s the twin to the one you’d emailed me just after I’d gotten back from our spring holiday last year, the one I had, obedient to your instructions (though I would have done it any way), posted on the fridge of our Quartier Latin apartment.

You know, I’ve heard women lament how age somehow succeeds in stealing their beauty. But I’d swear, Sara, you are even more lovely today than you were more than a decade ago on that day in San Francisco when we had our first picture taken together.

Although some things don’t change. The Be safe. I love you, scrawled on the reverse is in that ever-untidy chicken scratch of yours which while practically illegible, the sentiment is no less appreciated.

But I don’t know how to tell you this. Any of it. Any more than I did in that letter I never quite had the courage to send.

I keep hoping that someday you will read to the bottom of my heart. Sometimes I fancy you already do.

For now, while in the end my words are few, I hope you understand how rich they are in meaning:

Honey, you were. You were.

*******

We talk long into the night, not quite until it was light, but only barely just. And it is good to talk about it. Good to get it all out.

And I slept — we both did — sound and well and deep. But not so deep that I miss the light brush of your lips against my cheek. I know you don’t intend to wake me, but you do and I don’t care. You don’t seem to mind when before you can retreat, I draw you in for a proper kiss, then tug you back to bed.

We make love that morning. Lay there curled up together for a while.

Apparently over long, for upon your remarking the time, you are in that instant, in a whirlwind of a rush, bustling me out of bed and into the shower. As you soon join me, I don’t really have much of a chance to complain. Or cause.

We’re both washed and dressed and I’m just about to contemplate what to serve for an admittedly very late breakfast when there comes an abrupt, unexpected rap on the door.

Unexpected at least on my end. You, however, don’t seem the least bit surprised. So I am fairly certain you have to be in on it. Whatever this it is that brings Nick, Greg and Hodges to our front door.

Which I suppose does explain your sudden hurry for us to be up and about. I’m not exactly keen on being caught en déshabille either.

When I joke about them having come to issue work summons in person these days, it turns out they’re not here for you, but rather for me and only me. For when I ask as you blithely hand me my jacket and keys if you are coming, you only intone, Man date – No girls allowed, before leaning in to give me a quick kiss on the cheek and telling me to Try to stay out of trouble.

I’m fairly certain it is the kiss and not the caution that leaves Nick and Greg smirking. Though at least they are smart enough not to say anything.

Thankfully, man date in this case is simply code for breakfast out with the guys at Franks. Though I have to confess they did have me a little concerned until we pull into that very familiar parking lot.

We’ll even let you treat, Nick laughs as he holds open the door.

Unsurprisingly, they are much more interested in hearing about the Moche and Peru. Something I might have once chalked up to a desire to learn more about the customs and practices of ancient societies, if you hadn’t ratted them and their rather avid interest in Mochincan sex pots out months ago.

*******

When I return home several pleasantly passed hours later, it is to find the place asleep. Which is normal for Hank about this time of day, not so much for you.

Although knowing as I do, that you haven’t as of late — even before I, or more precisely my nightmares, keep rousing you several times a night — been getting all that much sleep, I’m not all that surprised to find you dozing over the latest edition of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Knowing, too, better than to wake you as more likely than not, you’ll have to be into work sooner rather than later, I simply tuck a blanket around you before sitting down on the sofa to set in on the stack of crossword puzzles you’ve clipped and kept for me while I was away.

Hank stirs only long enough to clamber onto the couch and drop his sleep heavy head in my lap, which isn’t exactly conducive to the completing of crosswords.

Nor is your snoring either. It being not all that dissimilar to what Thoreau once termed the slumbrous breathing of contented Oecanthus specimens.  It’s an observation I keep to myself even hours later when you wake, doubting as I do that you will exactly thrill at the cricket comparison.

But I am grateful, even for that. And even more so for the last few blissfully uneventful days. After spending so much time with the dead, it is good to spend it with the living, to have life time again.

There are some experiences that can’t help but change you. Things you see and do and feel and think that become forever a part of you.

And I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I got to return home when the job was done to friends and family — a life — still intact and unmolested by fate and chance. Back in Northern Japan, the rebuilding that’s just begun will take years. The grieving even longer.

I know, too, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in all the chaos and mundanities of everyday life. Easy to loose track of the beauty and wonders of each day. To forget just how precious life really is and the present, a gift. Easy to lose sight of the fact that life, plain and simple and beautiful as it is, is found in the little things, those things these last few days you’ve given me.

*******

Author’s Note: When disaster strikes, most of us can’t go off at moment’s notice to lend a helping hand like Grissom does. We don’t have the talent, the resources, the time or opportunity. It’s both easy and hard to feel powerless and overwhelmed and that there’s nothing we can do. It’s easy, too, to forget when things stop being front-page news that the need and the suffering still continues on. And while money is tight for everyone these days, helping can be as easy as skipping that morning cup of coffee – or that trip out for lunch or dinner. It might not seem like much, but it can make a world of difference. So please donate – time, money, whatever you can. It’s the highest compliment you can give.

*******

Have a question or want to leave a comment or concern and don’t have a wordpress account? Please feel free to email me at kadhmercer@gmail.com

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. vegawriters
    Apr 18, 2011 @ 15:12:01

    There are no words, other than thank you for writing this. Thank you.

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