Posted by: Kate | June 5, 2008

Absolute Stillness

The human body is meant to be in motion. The heart pumps, the blood flows, the neurons fire; we move. Some of us consider it enough to move from the fridge to the couch, others run ultramarathons and look for more. It takes work to be truly, absolutely still.

Or it takes death.

I wished for a camera in the emergency room last night, though if I’d had one I would never have been so intrusive as to actually take a picture. It’s in my head, though, the scene I glimpsed.

The whispers came first. Words like suicide, and hanging. Words like coding and call it. Words like death.

It had been a busy night, and no one had the luxury of a moment to stop and reflect. There were two screaming babies, one an infant with a piercing, anguished shriek and another a toddler with an outraged, frustrated whine. There were several patients in beds in the hallway, waiting for space to be pulled out of the middle of everything, away from the curiosity of strangers and the chilling, directed efficiency of staff members striding past with careful, studied avoidance of eye contact. There was a heart attack, a stroke, and a confusing mass of motor vehicle accident victims. There were two psychiatric patients, one young and one middle-aged, both of whom used the word “suicide” when they really meant “despair.” There was a controlled chaos, with the attention, as it should be, directed toward those who could still be helped.

And in this one room, in the middle of it all, there was no motion at all. A uniformed police officer stood, arms crossed, legs planted firmly, eyes focused precisely on something invisible in the middle distance. Inside the room, a stretcher, mostly concealed by a sheet, but with face and bare feet clearly visible. The profile was strongly masculine, the body substantial. The color was not right, a mottled, flat gray. The machines had been removed, but the harsh fluorescent lights screamed overhead.

At his side, a woman, dressed nicely in professional clothing, but with disheveled hair and a raincoat thrown hastily over her shoulders. As though she had woken that morning and taken some care with her appearance, had applied makeup and selected an outfit with the expectation of communicating some form of competence to the outside world. And then, as if she had heard news, terrible news, shocking news, which jolted her out of her seat and sent her rushing for her car, barely snatching her coat on her way past, running worried hands through her hair, clinging to some vague hope. That maybe there was a mistake, maybe they had gotten there in time, maybe it wasn’t over.

And now she sat in this hospital, next to a bed, in the sharp lights, amidst all that activity, and joined the stillness. She must have breathed. Her heart must have continued to beat. Some corner of her brain kept the basic systems in check. But none of that was visible. She sat so absolutely still, so exquisitely motionless, that she looked like a sculpture, shaped from wax. As though she, too, would be cold to the touch. But with a fragility, as well, as though that same touch would shatter her into a million pieces, and no one would ever be able to put them back together in quite the right order again.

So she remained, alone, in the middle of so much motion, motionless. Protected by an equally motionless sentry at the door, holding off the rest of the world for a few more minutes. Suspended, for just a moment more, before the inevitable.



  1. This was not someone I’d assessed; not someone who had ever been assessed by any of my coworkers. Most of the completed suicides happen without warning, without the option of intervention.

    Because if you truly believe that it will never, ever get better, that none of your thinking and trying has come up with a better solution, why let anyone else interfere? I guess. I can’t really know what goes on in their minds beforehand.

  2. you left me breathless.

  3. Amazing writing, I too was breathless, but my heart was racing at the same time.

  4. Kate, this is incredible. I’m just shaking my head here. You captured this moment perfectly (although ‘perfectly’ seems like the worst word to use given the subject). I’m so glad you write. Because you make me think.

  5. Kate, I applaud what you do. I applaud what you do for those disenchanted people you meet in the course of your work. I also applaud for your sharing of your stories so that we can all share the moments; some good, some bad.

    I don’t know why you write. I’m sure you have your reasons. But, if you write to insprire, you’re succeeding.

  6. Wow. My best friend who lives in another state is just now dealing with the suicide death of their across the street neighbor (a 31 yr old femlae physician). Apparently, she lingered for a few days with no brain activity before her family switched off the machines. So sad.

  7. That should be female, not femlae. Just woke up from nap – still groggy. :-/

  8. The picture is sharp, the emotions sharper. Sometime, somehow, you need to publish these, ala Elissa Ely, so that these images take their impact to a larger, non-blog audience.

  9. Kate-

    What a beautiful article and exquisite writing. Very vivid, haunting, and strangely familiar. Thank you for sharing it.

    When my grandmother died, I had been asked to stand up and say the eulogy. I wanted people to know the sunny woman I loved so much and who everyone called “Nanny” whether they were 7 or 70. But I also wanted them to know about our last days with her– the sounds, smells, and sights of the nursing facility that seemed to be like an alternate universe.

    Elderly women and men, close to death, wheeled out in brightly lit hallways so that the staff can keep a better watch on all of them. A religious woman shouting at the ceiling that she was ready to go, another moaning in pain, and my little grandmother bent over her wheelchair as if the life was just leaking out of her like air from a balloon. It was so visceral that I just had to explain it. I felt blessed that she had one final lucid moment with me before I had to leave her for the last time– when she put her hand over mine and told me that she loved me.

    Sometimes the most precious moments in life are the most sad, strange, and haunting.

    Thank you again for sharing. It was beautiful.

    Warm regards,

    Dr. Robyn

  10. God, the way you write.

    I wish so very much for you to write a book. Won’t you, please? I will promote it to the ends of the earth, if you would just write a book.

    Wow, Kate.

  11. Kate I’ve never had a suicide in my family but I’ve experienced that stillness four times in the last 20 years. You have captured the moment so exquisitely. That dumbfounded stillness where crying won’t come and disbelief hits home and others haven’t arrived to share your grief. Perfectly put. I too applaud what you do. Many would lose their sensitivity amongst such daily chaos but you seem to have retained your humanity which is so admirable I can’t find the words to describe it. Beautifully put.

  12. Can I say that this was beautiful to read? Terrible, sad, frightening and tragic, yet beautiful too.

  13. Wow I couldn’t stop reading that. What an amazing insightful and sad story. Your writing was great! I was entranced through the whole thing.

  14. Suicide is so scary, if “they” knew just how much they are loved. Great job Kate, I so admire what you do and wish I could have the sensitivity to do 1/2 the job you do. You are such and asset to the community inwhich you serve, thank you.

  15. Your way with words slays me. I echo the above sentiments about you writing a book.

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