In February, my chaplaincy class went on a two-day retreat at the Insight Retreat Center, in Scotts Valley. I took the train down to Redwood City on a Thursday evening and one of my classmates picked several of us up there for transport to the retreat center, which is a beautiful place and has luxurious accommodations, relatively speaking. It was once an old folks’ home, and there is one bathroom per two bedrooms. (At Spirit Rock, there is one bathroom per about 10 bedrooms, though each room has its own little sink.)
I’d never gotten a response to my email to the fellow who made the remark considered by most to be racist, so I approached him in the dining room that evening to say I hoped I hadn’t made anything worse. He was very warm and friendly, and said that my note had been fine; there had been a death in his family. He and I sat together at one meal and chatted away, and he also gave me a very nice compliment during a group session. We addressed the topic one final time, to see if anyone had anything more to say, but by this time, it was pretty clear we were past it, and not only that, we were tighter as a group for having worked through something difficult together. The mood was relaxed and congenial.
On Friday, we went to the anatomy lab at Cabrillo College to see their cadavers. They had two, one quite intact (if you don’t count being dead), with tattoos and chest hair visible, and one that had been very thoroughly dissected. The last dead body I saw was Carlos’s, and when they wheeled in the first body bag, I cried. One classmate never entered the room at all, but stayed outside with one of our teachers. I and one other student took up a position as far as possible from the cadavers, and the rest of us, including our other two teachers, examined the dissected human with interest. It wasn’t a large room, so I could easily see what looked like (and in fact was) a pile of little scraps of meat. At one point, the anatomy teacher who was hosting us (a very stylishly dressed woman) sort of casually heaped up the bits of meat and laid a big dried-out flap of skin over them. The heads of both cadavers were concealed, but my classmates wanted to see the face of the dissected cadaver, so the teacher removed the covering. I ventured closer but couldn’t see the head, which was just as well—I gather it looked like a lump of meat with eyeballs in it—and then the smell and general horror of the whole thing overwhelmed me and I left the room.
We had nearly a full day of class on Saturday and then my buddy gave me and one of the teachers a ride back to San Francisco, and then she and I went out to dinner at Esperpento.
The next day I noticed that one effect of seeing the two cadavers was feeling thrilled to be not dead. Noticing my aging body in the mirror, I thought, you know the great thing about this body? It’s alive!