Do you know the feeling of a limp handshake? The awkward, intimate moment when you get a window into someone’s soul and you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at? That’s what it’s like greeting the hand of a dead man. To be fair, it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t a purposeful salutation, but as far as first impressions go, not one I’ll likely forget. 

Todd was an elderly man. I have no idea what he did for a living, whether he had a family or not, or whether his life had been happy or sad. But there he lay, on his back, on top of a white bag in the basin of a steel table designed to catch all the people-juice. This was part of the preamble, the prologue to the next four years of school. Anatomy lab was officially underway.

Our instructor cruised by in a long white coat.

“Go ahead and flip him so we can get started.”

This was problematic. Todd hadn’t suffered from the normal shrinking that many octogenarians undergo. He was broad-shouldered, north of 160lbs, and had the mobility of a frozen pizza. I made eye contact with my colleagues across the table. We’d only known each other for a few days, so it was unclear who would take charge in a “just flip him” situation. Our instructor returned, wearing a slightly amused expression, and placed us strategically around the body. I was assigned the torso – the most unwieldy part due to its inconvenient attachment to the arms, legs, and head. Thankfully, Todd’s eyes were closed.

On an anxious three-count, we began shifting, sliding, and rotating the body. Just as we were reaching the tipping point, ready to let gravity take over, Todd’s left arm slipped its way under his body, preventing further movement. He wavered, balancing precariously on one side.

“We’re losing him!”

“You’re not pushing hard enough!”

“You have to slide and push.”

Suddenly everyone was an expert in body flipping, and Todd was beginning to return to his original position, unknowingly but diligently resisting our efforts. Without thinking, I squeezed my hand under his left hip, grasped his wrist, and pulled. As I did, the rest of the body followed, and Todd ended up face-down with a metallic thud, his hand firmly grasped in mine.

Todd didn’t return the grasp, our fingers didn’t interlace, but nonetheless I experienced an eerie closeness with him. I thought of what Todd’s family or friends might think of his current predicament, or whether he had any family or friends to think of him at all. I thought of the people in my life who this could’ve been or could be. I released Todd’s hand, and as I prepared to make the first incision, a sense of reverence filled the air. I wasn’t sure whether I would choose this for myself, whether I liked the thought of a group of students rifling around my insides, lamenting that my body didn’t match the generic textbook images. Despite my own reservations, or perhaps because of them, I found myself admiring someone I knew almost nothing about.