On a fateful day in August 2002, a bicycle knocked my friend, Milli down. I rushed her to a hospital in Accra,Ghana. I reassured her she would be fine. After all, what real damage can a bicycle do? In the emergency room, I held Milli in my arms. She was bleeding profusely from her head as I pleaded with the nurses and doctors to help her.
"She will be fine" they responded.
She was not fine. She died.
I could dwell on the unfairness of her death...if only the hospital had been better equipped...if only the doctors and nurses had done more...if only the proper medication had been administered on time...if only ...if only...if only....but there is no point in lingering on such things.
Last year I wrote something of her death; it was a strange piece but somehow it helped me to put it all to rest- here is the piece- join me on this journey of the senses-
The Smell of Death
Milli was gone. It happened so fast I didn’t know what to think. One minute she was alive and well, the next moment she was lying lifeless in a morgue.
“You have to go in and clean and dress her up,” the robust nurse informed me.
The words just didn’t compute. What did she mean, I had to go in and clean her up? Surely there were attendants trained to handle this kind of situation. Apparently there were no designated people to do the clean up at the Korle-bu Hospital in downtown Accra, Ghana.
“Where do I go?” I asked, not really wanting to know.
After getting directions, I headed off towards the morgue. The building looked insignificant enough. The front doors swung open with a light push. One push propelled me into my own horror film. The next thing I knew my nostrils were paralyzed with the worst smell in the world. It was more of a stench, then a smell. I gagged and almost fell back outside, but an attendant motioned me forward. My hand instinctively flew to cover my nose in a futile attempt to keep the foul odor out.
“Come, your friend is here.” The attendant directed me to follow him deeper into the building. As I moved towards the inner doors, the smell became even more repugnant. It was a mixture between the smell of rotting flesh and some sort of chemical. I gagged again. As I moved through the second doors, I finally saw where the smell was coming from. There were bodies laying everywhere in various stages of decomposition. I stepped over a few bodies and tried to analyze the smell. The sickeningly sweet smell was tinged with the stench of dead rat flesh. I had to think of this analytically, or else I would faint.
The hospital worker pointed me through to a smaller room. I peeked in, before entering, and saw Milli laid out on a desk. Her body, although small, hung off both ends of the desk. I forgot about the man who had directed me to her. I forgot for a brief moment about the overpowering stench. I just wanted to try and bring dignity to my dear friend. She who in life was so prim and proper. I wanted to cover her naked body from the prying eyes of those who surrounded me.
“Oh, Milli, oh, Milli…” I leaned over and touched her arm. My nose was once again assaulted by the pungent odor of a mix between rotten eggs and formaldehyde. I gagged again, this time my throat stung from the burning liquid that came up in the back of my mouth. My free hand went back up to my nose, my other hand held onto the clothes I had brought to dress Milli in.
The attendant crept up behind me, “You must work fast, no embalming. She spoils quickly.”
I had no choice but to be strong. Pulling my hand away from my nose, I began to breathe through my mouth. Slowly, I washed her cold skin. She was defrosting, like a piece of chicken that had been taken out of the freezer. I finished up the cleaning and quickly worked at putting her underwear on. Have you ever tried to put underwear on a stiff, cold corpse? It is no easy task.
“Oh, Milli, why did you decide to walk to meet me that night? Why didn’t you just take a taxi?” Her facial expression remained frozen as I murmured my questions to her. Why had a bicycle come out of nowhere and knocked her down? How could a bicycle kill a person? It just didn’t make sense. I breathed in deeply from my nose and coughed when the vile scent of the room filled my throat. I had forgotten to keep breathing through my mouth.
It seemed like an eternity, but finally Milli was dressed beautifully. She would have been proud to see how pretty I’d made her look. I gathered my things and glanced back at Milli one more time, and then I left for the church. They would bring the body to the church and we were instructed to bury her within two hours. Her body was decomposing rapidly.
Once out in the fresh air, I took a deep breath trying to purge my body of the smell which invaded every pore. One gulp, two gulps, but the smell would not leave. The smell of death was there to stay. The funeral went well. Some say it was the most beautiful funeral they had ever been to. I can’t say, because I was too busy trying to get rid of the smell lodged up in my nostrils. That night I fell asleep smelling dead flesh and chemicals. I dreamt of dressing dead bodies and gagging. I awoke with the smell of death still on me. The dreams continued night after night for a week.
“Can you smell it, Daniel?” I asked my husband.
He said, “No, it is all in your mind. It’s been a week; you can’t possibly smell it.”
The smell of death is powerful. It doesn’t leave you easily. It had taken up residence in my nose and it didn’t want to be evicted. I had been around dead bodies before, but they were nicely cleaned and in sterile conditions. The smell of uncontained decomposition is a powerful stench that will not go away politely. One morning I woke up to the realization that I was finally free from the smell. I was finally able to think of Milli and all she meant to me without being overcome with a strong desire to gag. I could sit and think about the happy times we had shared, without remembering the last day I saw her in the morgue.