Jonathan and I never touched because I always wore gloves, and the lab instructors wouldn’t answer my questions about him.
“Knowing less is better, Julia,” one warned me. “Minimize your distractions. This is Human Anatomy; it’s a cadaver.”
“Think about him as a tool, like your scalpel,” another added.
So, as a first year medical student, I agreed and kept my distance.
Still, I wished Jonathan could’ve known something. When talking about him I called him my mentor, because of what he taught me and the way he did it. He showed me how perfection nestles next to imperfection in each of us. Health and healing neighbor disease and injury. We are living mosaics because our past leaves an indelible record. I saw every scar. He displayed them silently yet no teacher spoke with more clarity or held a student’s attention more tightly. His were penetrating, visual lessons; the kind you remember.
The instructors revealed a few things. I learned Jonathan was a veteran and that he earned a Purple Heart. My dad earned one too, though his was a different war and a different time. After fighting the Gulf War in 1990 Dad fought crime, while Jonathan fought fires after World War II. I liked to imagine they would’ve been close friends. They both chose to keep serving, and even at the very end Jonathan didn’t stop.
I developed great respect for Jonathan but locked up the rest. His injuries, blemishes and weaknesses encouraged analysis, not compassion for him or his family. I just used my tool.
Until I brushed back the ID tag on his ear and noticed his neck.
“Who was Sarah?” I recall several of the other students looked up from their dissection with smiles after my question. They shook their heads and went back to work.
They must’ve been doing fine in 1965. That was the number cradled perfectly inside the heart along with her name. It seemed strange, but after the hours we’d spent together I felt the three of us were connected; I was jealous.
And I had questions. Were they together for long or was the tattoo a mistake? The only certainty here was his real heart; I’d seen it and it was flawless. Maybe they spent a lifetime together. Jonathan deserved that.
After jotting down a few changes to my notes I close my eyes and try to relax. It’s time to tell his family about us. They need to hear what he’s done for me. Hopefully, Sarah will be there. She can let me know who this man was in 1965. As we all meet for the first time, Jonathan and I will have already parted for the last time. He can finally rest. His work is done.
I join the other students sitting in chairs next to a podium.
The room is small, appropriate for an intimate gathering, and the podium faces about ten rows of seats filled with family. Several speak quietly while the rest look at us. They’re trying to smile but failing. Old photographs of the donors are lit warmly by candles on a table near the families. One image of Jonathan, youthful and vibrant, startles me and my heart races. It shows him with a young woman, possibly Sarah.
The Dean begins speaking.
“Today we’ve come to thank and remember your loved ones. Even after death these men and women found one more way to contribute. They donated their bodies to our school.”
I look at the families, anxious to find a resemblance to the woman in the photograph, but see none.
“They gave themselves so the future physicians sitting before you could learn the incredible complexities of human anatomy.”
An older woman who is focused on the Dean sits in the front row. She wears an expression similar to the others, a composite of equal parts, pride and sadness.
“Now, several of our medical students wish to express their gratitude personally.”
After the Dean calls my name I walk to the podium, take out my notes and begin.
“The greatest lessons I learned this year came from my most valuable anatomy instructor, my mentor, Jonathan.”
Pausing a moment, I spot the woman again. She’s the only one in the audience smiling. Then, as she turns her head towards a younger man sitting beside her, something below her ear momentarily catches my attention. When she turns back we make eye contact, and I smile and touch my neck. She immediately smiles back, nods her head and whispers yes.
Prior short story fiction by Barry Yedvobnick has appeared in Tales to Terrify, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, Kzine, Night to Dawn Magazine, Aphelion, East of the Web and AntipodeanSF. His nonfiction writing experience includes 35 scientific research publications and currently a newspaper health column.