Standing Next to a Corpse
By Anthony Lock
I will always remember well the day I almost died. We probably measure the biggest things in life by contrast. Poverty and wealth; love and hate; beauty and ugliness. I’ve only done it for a couple of minutes, but nothing makes one feel more intensely and disgustingly alive than standing next to a corpse when it was you or them. It’s an internal injection of sickness and shameful relief, and it repeats with varying strength in moments in the days and years afterward. On television, in newspapers, all you see is a corpse. Next to one, you see yourself.
I have seen many tragedies, and in the years since being in the CBD during the 2011 earthquake that hit the city of Christchurch, I continue to witness many tragedies. So does everyone else. These tragedies, things many people experience around the world daily, are a continual feed of highly consumed entertainment, whether you like it or not.
It’s condescending and pointless to tell people “you have to experience it to understand”. Scores of people continue to watch Amitabh’s Sikandar die before Raakhee’s Kaamna after a lifetime of distant adoration; to see Puccini’s Butterfly arranged as Kim’s ultimate sacrifice for her son Tam. Soap opera or classic novel, you transfer with characters. It’s why we love art. If you didn’t experience the emotional plateaus of Muqaddar Ka Sikander or Miss Saigon, you wouldn’t bother watching them. What matters about standing next to a corpse after concrete rain ceases, is not so much that it almost happened to you, either. It’s that a part of you really was hair-breaths from termination.
The lesson it’s taken me years to learn is that if one is to discover things from a near-death experience, you cannot “move on” from it. Rather, it is something that you keep near, advice written, and re-written continually, to yourself. It’s probably the same with any deep moment in life. Close shaves don’t always make a wound that can return. Unless you knew a loved one who perished, one can begin to see the tragedy one was present at like any other of the hundreds of horrors that the planet plays stage to each revolution of its axis. See enough disasters in repeated digital image, tweeted with what feels like practically everyone’s comments and journalistic gusto, pile on time, and it becomes like a sports event. One went to the arena to see this one, that’s all. This is a corpse of its own.
The sky was a wonderful summer blue, a couple of hours earlier I had been informed that the building I was in had been rebuilt some decades earlier and could bear force if there was “another big quake”, a 7.1 magnitude quake having occurred outside the city less than six months before during the night. I nodded, as did others; I scoffed privately, because any aftershock wasn’t going to be as large as the first quake. Outside for food, I sat next to a man I had met that day, and we began talking. A minute passed, and during a silence between us, admiration of the still was broken by a tremendous roar. I was puzzled for the half-second before the rumbling reached where we were. Then I realized that the noise was the crash of something that could cross kilometers in seconds, like a giant running over the country at the speed of sound. Screams erupted in the shopping street and people started to run and cower.
On my left, the man next to me – amazing how vivid and formative an experience this is, and has been, to me, and yet I cannot remember his name – put his hand on my shoulder. During all this time I believed it would fade in seconds. After about ten seconds, the shaking softened. My new companion took his hand away, and I turned to him and uttered stupidly “it’s okay, don’t worry”. In the instant it took to turn around to the right to investigate the newly expected calm I saw part of the building in which I had spent most of the morning in mid-freefall. The pause I felt was like the few seconds of calm before a storm. The energy release was just beginning of what was although a “smaller” quake at 6.3 on the Richter scale, to date the strongest quake ever recorded for shaking intensity, recording the highest peak ground acceleration, measurement of force against gravity.
I learned later that the people I had left conversing in that room were still there when the outside walls collapsed, though they were in the half of the room which did not collapse. I saw this fall onto people, though like the distinctiveness of such an experience, this is a unique statement. I discovered quickly that although one can watch this happen to people – one has to because one has to monitor the surroundings in order to not suffer the same fate, and one has no control over what happens with what you see far away – an inbuilt psychological state can kick in. Although I saw this horror occur, I only observed the dead bodies after the dust cleared a minute later. Whether such delayed acknowledgment of what one saw is something humans do unconsciously to better cope, or in these circumstances you really cannot see, I don’t know.
It was only when about three buildings had either fully or partially decayed that I understood this was far worse than the previous earthquake. I realized quickly that I was in a safe place in the center of the street. Rubble reached a meter to me on either side, not from falling but rolling – only after did I become conscious that the tree behind me could have toppled and that there was a larger danger in that spot than I had known. My thoughts were I’d always said in such a situation I would “meet the test”, though as I looked around, grappling with the realization that such an event was happening, I understood that I couldn’t rescue anyone from where I was until the shaking stopped. If I had tried, I would have run into the masses fleeing the buildings and the adjacent rock fall. As I saw the whole street collapsing, I felt those time-honored notions about family and friends, but my first main thought was understanding I was at the center of what would now be the top news story around the world for the coming days. I feel this exposes something deep in my character, as I’m certain that isn’t a thought that occurs to many people in those circumstances. Again, what exactly, I know not.
As distant viewer, an emotional reaction that connects fully with all of the tragedies that occur in the world would drive you insane. Truly understanding what these situations are like for those who suffer takes an act of placing oneself somewhere in the scenario that is similar to watching or reading an emotional drama. This takes time to both think and feel, and time, as one learns from entering the mortal danger-zone, is, contradictorily, the most precious thing, and the thing we have in most abundance. It makes sense that someone who hasn’t been almost killed becomes desensitized to the torrent of tragic news forced upon us every day – we have to because we cannot cope if we become transfixed for too long to this news, and it can distract us from thinking about and doing other things we need to contemplate. The same goes for someone who has been near death. But strangely, I have found that those who have experienced events like these firsthand become desensitized to their near-miss experience with their own untimely death. Is this moving on, or forgetting what should be so life-provoking to them?
What the pictures of earthquake devastation don’t usually show is the dust that accumulates. About half-way through the quake it had become difficult to see and I couldn’t discern the casualties, though I knew they were there. When I could finally move, I was greeted with a coughing fit from breathing the dust. It’s one of the things you don’t think about, even if you see it. I had to unbutton my shirt to cover my mouth. Once the dust moved, I could see the destruction more clearly and the bodies of the dead. I wandered through the street seeing if there was anyone I could help, and shouted into buildings trying to listen for voices. I tried to phone emergency services to give specific information about where to find the injured, but the phones were out. I found no one who was unattended, so with a lack of need for me, I headed for Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, the city’s main open space and cultural meeting point, to see if my friend who worked nearby was there. Somehow, despite the chaos with the phones, I received a text from her when I arrived. It was only when I got there that the first aftershock happened. It brought down further debris and I realized for the first time that there would be many more aftershocks and that they would be dangerous. And it was only when I got home that I discovered the cathedral’s steeple had come down. I hadn’t registered its collapse despite being right next to it, nor that I hadn’t seen the man next to me since I had asininely told him “not to worry”. I pondered what had happened to him until I saw him again some months later and he told me he had run away as soon as the shaking stopped.
When speaking of the dead, everyone always says it’s such a waste, such a shame. I’ve seen this directly. Standing next to a corpse is to stand next to thousands of corpses. They had thousands of different things to do, thousands of different things they could have done. Then and now, even though I know the greatest horror was the loss of life, I felt the greatest evil – even if nature is not conscious, its tragedies are still evil – was that those who died got no warning. In paying the ultimate price for living on a crust of broken tectonic plates, as people with families and friends, smiles they can share, stories and laughs and games and the joys of life before them, the sorrow I felt standing next to them was feeling that they should have been told. They deserved to at least know before their time came. But they did not. Without this, the event seemed to dismiss them as individuals. People who had the supreme expression of which I know within each one of their bodies: their lives, and the time to mix their potentials and wonder into these lives. Like everyone, as someone who has lost family and friends unexpectedly, I know that the deepest sadness of the loss is that your loved one had countless threads before them, theirs to half-choose and half-be-given, to use the analogy from Chinese literature. At the feet of someone who has just perished without warning, however, thinking of the thousand
things that they could have been and done didn’t seem to go far
enough in treating them rightly, even though it is just as integral a part of
the disaster. Standing there, I felt at least letting them know what was going
to happen would have given them some of the respect they deserved. Of course,
how would an earthquake do that? Such feelings mean little when they are
afterthoughts, and afterthoughts from the fortunate.
“Moving on” can be taken at least two ways. Usually, it’s interpreted as “getting over” something. However, unless you carry with you the moments of brushing death, you don’t “move on”. You can revert to who you were. Moving on can be either forgetting a painful episode or using it to deepen one’s experiences and enrichment of the masterpiece each day is, or at least should be. What would you do, if you were there, time froze and a crackly voice somewhere in the distance said “Sorry, but today is not your day. Five seconds after I resume time, falling debris, currently poised thirty meters from your head, will end your life. You have a minute to reflect on what you would have done.” At any other point in most of your existence, you would probably give a restrained answer. Even the most ambitious plans are still restrained to a large degree by practicality. In this moment of last minute, everything becomes an ever expanding balloon of opportunities, the entirety of which you could never do because time is too short and doing one thing excludes others. But that doesn’t matter when the possibility of at least having a chance at life’s countless opportunities and wonders is, or was, going to be taken from you. It’s what I call choosing your paths when your thoughts are always larger. The months after the earthquake transformed me in this sense, and only recently has the fever it lit within me become tempered. This only occurred when I understood that the things I had attempted to juggle within my twenty-four hours were always seven too many and always left me with many I would have rather done.
As I said earlier, it can be pointless to make arguments that require a “you should have been there” component, let alone how patronizing such arguments can be. I have tried with furious editing to scrub unintended haughtiness from this entry. It remains, impossible to erase fully. I try to not lecture those who, time since, have wanted to hear what I felt. It’s none of my business to lecture people. Besides, I’m one person; I’ve seen how people react differently to events. I just tell those who ask what it was like for me. If they haven’t experienced it firsthand, like an artwork, I try to let them experience secondhand what it was like. How has it been for me? After standing next to corpses, I now see corpses everywhere. They are the possible futures missed. That, for me, in my random luckiness, is the worst I’ve dealt with personally from the episode, and in dealing with these sights of paths ahead, I am led more every day to my favorite line from Shakespeare, when Coriolanus’ mother says that “in such business, action is eloquence”. It’s a futile wish when the world is filled with catastrophes we cannot control, but I still hope no one experiences what I went through. I have seen those who die, and even if you had no responsibility for or influence over nature’s actions, indifferent to humanity’s presence, you cannot help but feel guilty that you live. On television, there is a body, its message diluted by numbers. Next to the body, in a private meeting, it tells you of the possible futures it had, before it leaves with them forever. The person you never met, yet whom you meet so intimately in that moment, then leaves you alone, alone to see those possibilities deep in yourself.
Copyright©2015 by Anthony Lock – All Rights Reserved