Reflection on My Uncle's
Originally published in SAD Mag, Issue No. 30 Death. Purchase here.
The report of my Uncle Alan's autopsy is five pages long. The blank white sheets are filled with a thick, black font emitted from a typewriter. Holding it in my hands I am reminded of late nights hustling to finish zines; my printed manuscripts, run through a low-cost photocopier then stapled together.
There is a faded stamp marring the upper left corner of his autopsy report. The imprint hints at the information it was meant to convey. I can make out "AUG 18" and "Coroners" and "MUNICIPALITY" eclipsed by a ring of numbers. There is a second less decorative, but more legible mark at the bottom of the first page. A bold rectangle reading "D. K. L. AUG 19 1970." I have no idea what the initals stand for, but the date makes sense.
When my Uncle shot himself in the head on July 7, 1970, he was 19 years old. Between newspaper reports and family lore, I'm not sure if it was Russian Roulette, suicide, or as some speculate, a successfully covered-up murder. Acquiring the full coroner's file from the Office of the Chief Coroner - including this transcription of the autopsy - is the first step to learning more about my Dad's dead brother and the cause of his demise.
In the opening paragraph of the post-mortem, the scene is set with the details surrounding the examination of my Uncle's corpse. At 10:15 AM on the eighth day of July in 1970, the pathologist, Dr. McLean, in the presence of Mr. Leo Kann, commenced the procedure. It was thirteenth and a half hours after my Uncle's death, and his six-foot, 147 lb frame, described as "tall and lean, but well developed," was dressed only in a hospital shroud. The particulars of his face are noted. His hair is described as brown and long, his teeth are his own and good. His eyes are brown, the pupils are "round, equal, and fixed in the centre."
While I try to not imagine the doctor staring into my dead Uncle's blank expression - holding his gaze as a lover would - I am taken with the notion that this description would almost pass for my corpse as well. Although I am five inches shorter and three pounds heavier, my hair is shoulder length and a deep chestnut, the shade of my irises enable me to sing along with Van Morrison's tune. I feel the first sensation of kinship between us, despite our identical last names.
The report describes the mark of violence: a single gunshot wound measuring 5 x 6 mm on the right side of his head, 5.5 cm above his ear canal. The entry point is nestled within his long brunette hair, the edges of it coloured with a dark reddish-brown and crusted with blood. When the blood is washed away it reveals a halo of bruising.
Throughout my childhood, a veil of shame overhung his death, as it was mired in such deep tragedy. He was dismissed as stupid, demeaned as a possible drug user and potentially a closeted gay man. Rarely was he spoken of, but when he was, it was in a hushed whisper. As I grew and made choices that could be defined as stupid, experimenting with drugs and coming to terms with my own repressed queerness, the veil lifted and what emerged were feelings of compassion and curiosity. A curiosity I assuage by accumulating tidbits about him. The purpose of my inquiry into his death is to collect these factoids and build an understanding, not only of how he died but how he lived. To learn about him as a flawed human, a teenage boy.
My Uncle wears a large ring on his left hand and a large earring in his right ear, above which he pointed the gun. This preference for the right side causes me to think that he was right-handed. A fact that is seemingly irrelevant, other than it is another small detail acquired about my dead Uncle.
His brain weighs 1.6 kg, about the same heft as a small bag of flour. The hemispheres are symmetrical. The shape his brain takes as it folds in upon itself is normal, save for the gouge caused by the penetrating bullet. The path of the projective is about 1.5 cm in diameter and on level with what's known as the Sylvian fissure, a structure separating the front and parietal lobes from the temporal lobes below. Making its way from right to left, front to back and in an upward motion, the bullet's course is filled with blood and scattered splinters of bone and lead.
This grim description teaches me nothing about my Uncle's personality. It does not aid or accommodate the grief my father and his parents felt at the young man's passing. The graphic retelling barely stands as a memorial for my Uncle's death. However, it does fill the void built by ignorance as I learn more about him. It's liberating to speak of the dead out loud, shame-free.