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What the Autopsy Won’t Tell Me

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

I was surprised when the woman from the coroner’s office told me she had already completed the exam. Having only just heard the news myself, for some reason I imagined it would be weeks before we would get the whole story. And knowing the whole story, the insatiable hunger I felt for knowing, was absolutely at the center of my grief. I wanted to know the exact timeline, who called 911, and how many days it had been since she had spoken to anyone. I wanted to know if there were pills on the nightstand? A glass of wine? Was there blood? Lacerations? Where was her body and in what position? Did she know she was dying? Where was her phone and who did she last call? Did it look like she knew she was going to die or was the stage set for a simple, early-to-bed kind of evening?

Narrowing in on the details is both a strength and weakness of mine. It’s a strength in that I know how to get at the specificity of the thing. It’s a weakness in that, until I get the information I desire, I am possessed, all-consumed. I can think of a little else. In this way, the call to the coroner was a huge disappointment. Although the exam was complete, the autopsy wouldn’t be finalized until the toxicology report was in. As a verified family member, I would have access to the finalized report, but it would be at least two more months before I could get the whole story. I wondered if the woman would ask me why I didn't have more information about her myself and what I would say if she did. She didn't ask. Why would she? This wasn't her story.

Today, in the exact moment I am writing this, members of my family, as well as strangers, are gathering in the home of my sister to celebrate her life, which ended fifteen days ago. I want to be there, but I am not allowed. Instead of a plane ticket, I purchased flowers that included a note addressed to my niece and nephew, who I have only met three times in twenty three years. Writing the note carried a lot of significance for me. I found myself fantasizing how I would string together just the right combination of words that would make up for all the time lost between us. It was imperative that I strike the perfect tone. There was so much to say - so many stories to be told, so much context to be given. I wanted to say hi, and I love you, and I miss you, and I’m sorry, and I tried, and there’s so much you don’t know… Instead , I played it safe, careful not to say anything that could be misinterpreted, a measure I had perfected over a lifetime with my sister. In the end, the note was only a tad more personal than boilerplate condolence-speak.

I assume everyone cobbles their own life stories into one narrative form or another - songs, novels, screenplays, comic books... Some players get cast as heroes, others as villains. Some characters are perfunctory, there for exposition, like The Doctor in A Streetcar Named Desire. There’s a story - possibly apocryphal- about an actor who performed this role on Broadway. His character appears in only the last scene of the play, but when interviewed about the plot by members of the press on opening night, he began with, "Well, it’s a play about a doctor…”. For an actor, this is a winning approach. If you see yourself as the central character - even in a play where your name might appear at the end of the credits - your performance is much more likely to be memorable. When it comes to being a real person, this approach is essential - the only way you can see yourself well enough to evolve.

One of the things that happens to people who grow up too fast - who are incentivized to skip childhood in the service of not adding to the drama that already exists in our family - is that we struggle to know ourselves. I mean even basic knowledge, like what’s my ideal vacation and what kind of food do I like? Therefore, we find it difficult to write the outline of our own stories because we can’t see ourselves in the protagonist role. As a writer of stories meant to be performed, I see my own story in script form, and because it took me so long to realize that my story is about me, I am just in the second act of what I hope is at least a three act play.

Turning to writing as a way to make sense of my life is a relatively new habit. I did not grow up journaling, or even documenting my experience in any meaningful way. I have a diary that I received when I was still young enough to think those little locks actually kept prying eyes away, and it contains, on average, about one entry per seven years. Each page is a version of a review of the previous entry and an apology to myself for not writing more.

Three years ago, with no prospect of ever reuniting with Chloe* or my already-deceased father, I wrote a play about us. An actual play, not the metaphorical one I’ve been describing. I put the characters of my life on a little stage, making them stand in one place long enough for me to take a good, long look. The character based on my dad still has the stereotypical costume that I have always dressed him in, but I wrote him in a much more layered way than I was able to experience him in life. The character based on me was a tougher nut to crack. I vacillated between milquetoast and shrew, finally settling on a more realistic character, but one still very much in development. The character based on my sister surprised me at nearly every turn, so much so that by the end, I felt my own anger with her diminished by half. I even looked forward to the eventual moment I would share the play with her, confident she would find my assessment of her tough but fair, truthful but empathic. Even though it had been so long since we behaved as sisters, I felt certain that we would reach an age when we knew that play time was over, that the curtain would be coming down on us both, and that we needed to leave this foolishness behind us.

The first several drafts of the play ended with the character based on my sister’s husband killing the character based on my sister. I took creative license here. To my knowledge, her real life husband, Ian*, never killed anyone. However, from the moment we all began to uncover his wild, improbable, complicated lies, I knew he could. A few years after I last spoke to Chloe, Laci Peterson’s body, as well as that of her unborn son, washed up near the dog park we frequented in Oakland, CA. Seeing the look in Scott Peterson’s eyes gave me a click of recognition that made me drop my newspaper. For a split second, I thought the man in the picture was actually my brother-in-law. Later, I realized why I had made the connection. These were two men who would not let anything - man, woman, or child - interfere with their agendas. They were people who behaved in ways that belied what the actual stakes were. To them, it might have just been a play. To me, the drama was frighteningly real.

Not long after, I located Ian’s first wife to get her story. After an hour-long phone call in which a lot more of his treachery was revealed, her voice dropped as she told me, “Whatever you’re looking for, don’t.”. She added, “there’s a reason I’m grateful I got away from him only having stolen money from me, and nothing worse.” Her story was dramatic and plausible, and I feared even more for Chloe’s life than I ever had. Despite believing her, I had no intention of relenting in my quest to know more.

At the end of a months-long effort to finish my play, I received feedback from my playwriting teacher and a coterie of fellow writers. The consensus was that the ending was “too dark”.

In the years of my estrangement from my sister, I have relied almost entirely on a few close contacts to apprise me of the broad strokes of Chloe’s life - not quite a full outline. I would hear through the grapevine scant bits about where she was working, what sports the kids were playing and where they were headed for college, as well as where she spread our father’s ashes. I did a silent dance with these precious informants. I knew they had to tread lightly lest they betray Chloe's trust. I knew I had to tread lightly or risk being shut out altogether. What I could glean from these ephemeral snippets might have been enough to form some of the bones for a play, but was not enough to approximate a kinship, not enough to resemble sisterhood. In my own play, I relied upon my strong but distant understanding of the way she saw the world, but the absence of her presence in my life made me wonder how she might have evolved, what the arc of her actual character might have been.

One of the reasons it pains me not to attend her memorial service is that grief is alleviated by communal mourning. Not unlike the group experience of art, there is something inherent about the gathering of a tribe that has lost one of its own - in which the community cries, laughs, and tells stories - that’s a kind of balm for the survivors. In our shared ritual, we feel our loss validated by those around us who share in it. We all wear the same costume, eat from the same cold cut trays, and do the same choreography with all the same people we saw at the last funeral. In some cases, we learn something surprising about the loved one -a plot twist. In others, we glide comfortably into a predictable ending - loose ends tied up, a natural closure to a story well told. We may leave with lingering grief, but we have participated in a ceremony that gives voice to our unspeakable sorrow.

I have put together a decently well-rounded narrative of my family’s history. Our foundation is in poverty but we have fulfilled the American Dream. We vaulted from subsistence farming and tenement dwelling to careers as doctors and captains of industry. We are hard-workers, fun-lovers, and prideful people. We have some great minds and some addled ones. We tend toward anxiety, have control issues, and are fierce competitors. We are strong, independent, and feelings-averse. We are funny, gregarious, raconteurs. I have identified enough about the DNA my husband and I have passed onto our children to notice when the genes - good and bad - are expressed in them. I can point out that the way my son uses his hands to fix things is just like his grandfather and great-grandfather did. I can draw connections between my daughter’s love of science and that of the many medical professionals in her lineage. When my son, in a fit of rage, has the urge to break his tennis racket, I can tell him he comes by it honestly. And I can say to all of them: you have a story, too. You are the hero, and you get to decide how you want your story to arc, which characters you want to feature, and what you want people to learn from your lived experiences.

Given that we share these genes, I can apply this knowledge to Chloe, too - to fill in the blanks - but it’s ultimately unsatisfying. I still don’t know the whole story. And not just because of the last seventeen years, but because I never knew her whole story. Maybe she didn’t, either. Maybe she was the one waiting for direction, waiting for someone to tell her what part she was playing. Right now I’m hung up on what I’m going to eventually read in her autopsy, imagining my demand for more story being satisfied. But if I'm honest, I know it won’t give me much solace. What I really want to know is what story Chloe told herself - about herself, about our dad and mom, and about us. I don’t know if she ever learned she had more to offer the world than her ingenue’s beauty. I don’t know how she felt about the way she was treated by men, if she ever came into her authentic self, or if she ever felt happy. I want to know how she made meaning of her own life. I want to know if and how she understood the connection between our estrangement and all the other rifts in our family’s history. I don’t know if she could see she was more than a bit player, offering exposition for someone else’s drama. And, no matter how many plays I write, I never will.


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