It will be 29 years in April, but I still vividly remember the day my mother died. She hadn't felt good for a week, but, on the day she died decided she was okay and even went out to run some errands and pick up a prescription nearby. After returning to her apartment she collapsed just as she put her keys into the outdoor door. I was told it was a massive coronary event and that she had died instantly. What I remember most to this day, though, is the insistence by one kind policeman to wait for me at the hospital instead of sending my mom to the Cook County Morgue. And now I understand why!
I had always considered myself the dutiful son, and as such, made regular visits as well as daily phone calls. Weekly grocery trips and a sit down lunch at any of the various restaurants she enjoyed around Lincoln Square and/or North Town was the norm.
The day she died, though, was a weekday and at the time was working in the Franklin Park area. I received a message that the boss would like to talk with me and I naturally assumed it was about one of the projects. I will never forget the nervousness of a usually confidant boss while telling me I needed to get home right away. I said, "hey I just came back from there, you know I eat lunch at home every day and let the pooch out." He said he understood, but that my girlfriend at the time needed some assistance. Okay, Okay, already.
I got back to my place and there was my girlfriend crying as I pulled up and she kept saying how sorry she was - and I am like alright, what the hell you pulled me out of work - what is the problem? She told that she had gotten a call and that my mother was at Ravenswood Hospital and suffered a heart attack. At the risk of sounding a little cruel I asked "what do you mean? Did she die? You know she has had heart problems?" Silence and then "You need to get to the hospital."
You know it is kind of funny. Here are two people - one a boss known for matter of facts and the other a girlfriend who was never shy about telling it like it is, ever. Yet, both had struggled to tell me an obvious truth. To this day I am sure it was well-meaning, but, I have have reservations about that sort of thing. You see, up until that point, I had basically seen and experienced pretty much everything I would need from this sometimes cruel life of ours. So, I kind of like things straight!
As I drove to Ravenswood Hospital from Franklin Park, I didn't do the rush - rush. Instead I kept it safe and reflected upon my mom's life. I have to admit, though, I already knew my mom died. I knew my mom and I knew her health history well. Besides, I am good at reading peoples eyes.
What I was to learn later, though, would be something special. This request for a next of kin was done at the insistence of one Chicago Policeman. I am sure he knew that my mom should probably have been transported to the morgue earlier, but, he still insisted on waiting despite the fact it would take awhile to get there. When I finally did arrive, a harried nurse and that policeman greeted me. They explained what had happened and that everything that could have been done for my mom, had in fact been. But they were sorry for not being able to save her. I could see that the harried nurse looked a bit relieved.
According to the policeman, the nurse had tried to get him to take my mother's remains to the Cook County Morgue because my mom had technically died on the street. The standard protocol, at the time, called for remains to be transported to the morgue for an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death. The policeman, on the other hand, told the nurse that he preferred to confirm his suspicions that this woman had had a history of heart issues and would rather wait for a next of kin to arrive before closing out his paperwork. He didn't think we needed the added fuss of the morgue.
I think that I have written before of my growing up in two neighborhoods of the city. But, it was in Lincoln Square where I was fortunate enough to have met many a good people and that includes some really good cops too. Somehow, this officer had remembered me from before my move to the suburbs and really insisted upon sparing me from making a trip to the morgue. He took me aside and said, "Son - if that were my mom, I wouldn't want her to go over there. You just have no idea what sort of things go on there. So, if you think there isn't a good reason to have them cut her open, then I think we should just close the matter."
I thanked him and told him "Yes, I had spoken with the family doctor on the way in and he felt that the cause of death was a massive coronary. He would take care of the death certificate if I agreed." I told the officer that I had, given my mom's medical history. The policeman then asked if I had seen my mother's body yet and I said no, I hadn't. The policeman then put his arms around my shoulders and we walked up and around the hallway to enter a side room. My mom lay there on a gurney, eyes wide open staring out into the neighborhood. I kissed her forehead and closed her eyes. All the while, though, the policeman stuck to me like glue. After we left the room, I thanked him and then asked the nurse if she would call for a priest. I thought it appropriate that the Holy Sacrament of Last Rites be given her before the funeral home came to pick up her remains. I could see the nurse getting a little edgy but insisted just the same. The policeman, meanwhile, had to now leave. I thanked him again for going above and beyond the call of duty.
I'd like to tell you a little something more about this policeman, though. It turned out that he was one of the regular neighborhood Beat Cops who had on an occasion or two walked this drunken soul home from Arno's Place. No doubt we had talked about the many things I had seen or done during my time away from the old neighborhood. I am sure we even talked about some of the ghosts a few of us have a hard time shaking. Still, there he was night after night always willing to lend an ear without giving most an earful. Somehow, this man understood this human condition of ours. I will say this - he was one of the genuine good guys who you rarely get to meet along the way. And I can't tell you how much his presence meant to me that day. This may sound strange, but, its almost as if this man was tending to his flock.
He did not have to do what he did. Still, he insisted upon waiting and didn't want my mother going to the Cook County Morgue. Maybe he really did know what sort of things routinely happened there and preferred to spare us from something.
And after what learned this past week - I think I understand.
The Cook County Morgue is not where you want a loved one!