A Brush with the Morgue

This morning I was listening to the radio. Rosie Ayliffe, the mother of murdered British backpacker, Mia Ayliffe-Chung, was speaking about her daughter. Specifically she was speaking about seeing her daughter in the morgue. She then went on to speak about how the place she felt the closest to Mia: Sydney.

In a rush I was immediately back in the morgue in Glebe in Sydney, a week after the death at home of my nine-year old daughter, Zuzu Frances Marie Smith, looking at her little body again. The top of her post-mortem Y-scar was stark. I gave the morgue assistant the new green dress and shoes I’d bought in for Zuzu as her change of clothes for her cremation. I was obviously in disbelief, still in disbelief. Zu’ was waxy but her hair had grown a little and I wanted to brush it.

“Can I brush her hair?” I asked.

“Do you really want to? She won’t feel the same. It might hurt your memory.” 

I was taken by the phrase. I wanted to pick Zu’ up and brush her hair, which I’d cut in previous years into a bob. I wanted to hug her. But I understood what I was being told. I’d picked Zuzu up when I’d found her dead in her bed that morning a week previously. She wasn’t quite cold. But there are no details here. No reader benefits from that sort of picture, a least not now, still not almost 12 years to the day since I walked in.

I’ve still not created a stabilised, decent – yes decent – image to convey those details yet. I doubt I ever will.

I’m not even sure if there is even any value in repeating that scene in words.

Back in the morgue, the assistant asked again, “Are you sure?” I was sure, I did want to tidy Zuzu’s hair just a bit. Just one final element of a relationship of father to daughter. Just one last touch. I brushed back her hair, tidy, and I kissed her forehead, gently. She smelled of morgue and post-mortem table and distance. She also smelled, fleetingly, of her.

I was crying from my gut and the only reason I knew that was that the assistant passed me a paper wipe for my face. I took a moment to look around the room. Surprisingly now I only have a faint, washy, hallucinogenic view of that room, probably wrong.

It was bright, high contrast, white light unlike the bright, chilly, damp winter light from outside. At least behind me it was. Looking at where Zuzu had been laid out, it was darker.

That terrible haircut by dad.
That terrible haircut by dad.

The assistant took the paper wipe from my hand and, to this day I remember this most clearly. She said, “Don’t worry, there’s somebody here at all times. She won’t be alone. And we never turn the lights out, so she won’t be in the dark.”

At first, I had no idea why she was saying this but it made me feel slightly better. 

“So, I’m sorry, no you can’t stay with her. We have other people waiting to come in to see their family. I am so sorry, but I will take care of Zuzu. I will make sure she’s ok.” She emphasised the word, “will”. I believed her. 

I left the morgue, and sat in my car. Zuzu’s wheelchair was still in the back and my next task was the work out what to do with it. But first, it was time to drive me and Zuzu’s memory to the Domain in Sydney, down to Mrs Macquarie’s chair. 

The point of this venting post?

That morgue assistant had a terrible, horrible job to do. I can’t imagine how she felt when she got home that night. A man, sobbing and shaking and trying to brush his little dead girl’s hair. A man staring into the distance in pieces, and this public servant dragged up from the depths of her experience, soul and good heart some beautiful, supporting and decent words.

I still remember them. They still help even when memories burst in of the morgue itself.

Thank you for your service.

The other point of this post is to “Say it out loud”. I spent quite a while, swimming in drink, tied to the house like a wheel I was being broken on, scared to go out because other people and their daughters would be there before I realised that dealing face on with the morgue and Zuzu’s hair, the Y-scar and the cold would never go away so I’d better deal with them if I wasn’t going to let my daughter die again and again and again in my heart and mind.

So, here we go. When it hurts, I write. 

This also means that I took to Twitter this morning almost immediately after I was struck by the memories. I blurted.

Out it came in 140 characters, my blurt; self-centred, self-absorbed, self, self, self. Why? Simply because Twitter enables me to blurt – to exorcise, to dismantle the pain that otherwise stacks up into a monolithic structure unless it is dealt with.

Twitter either ignores the tweet, enabling it to blow away on the digital wind but ensuring it is out, ephemera can be salving. Or Twitter can bring alleviation and calm with the most human of support.

“I don’t know how to help, and I hardly know you, but I’d like to on both counts”. Less than 140 characters. Lovely.

6 thoughts on “A Brush with the Morgue

  1. Here are my tears for your loss. It’s all I can offer. Im trying to imagine what, if anything would help if my nearly 9yr old passed – perhaps the tears of others everytime I was brave enough to share my loss would be a small part.

  2. Tears rolling down my cheeks. What unimaginable pain. And what compassion in the midst of it. My heart breaks for you

Comments are closed.