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On The Ethics of Tonka Trucks:
A Letter to My Cadaver


Dear Cadaver G11,

That first day felt like Christmas Day. But we were all too old now for Barbie dolls, or Tonka Trucks bundled under warm Christmas evergreen. Now we were mature medical students ready to move onto something bigger. We huddled around our cold, metal table, on top of which sat our very own, specially wrapped present: you.
And I must tell you, this wrapping paper you sent your gift in is really in fine shape, much better than I expected after that excruciating delivery. But you know that small twist of guilt you felt as a kid when you ripped the wrapping paper off a present? Because you knew how much time your mother spent to put it together? That wrapping paper represented her love, taped carefully and neatly to form a crisp, attractive package.

And I felt that exact same guilt when I cut your skin off. So once the skin came off, I held it tenderly for two entire seconds. For two heartbeats, your skin, your wrapping paper, was the most important thing in the world. I had to protect it, as it once protected you in a crisp, attractive package.

And after those full two seconds of consideration, your skin’s destiny became the same as the wrapping paper’s. After all of that time spent delicately putting it together, whether it was my mother going out to the store and carefully picking out the perfect pattern, or your 61 year journey of miraculously holding yourself together, both ended up in a trash bin. But why, you might ask, why if I cared so much about that wrapping paper, would I just chuck it under the table?

My mother didn’t give me gifts for the wrapping paper or the box. She gave me gifts for the heart of it, for what lay inside. You had given us your body so we could see your heart and what made it tick. So I could not waste time appraising your now useless skin. The bell has rung, and thus ends this exciting first day of dismembering you. I’ll have to wait until next lab to cut out your heart and toss it away.

And so went the other organs. So went the lungs, which had suffused you with 385 million breaths over your life. Who knows what fragrances had floated through, what wonderful sights caused one of those three hundred million breaths to be taken away? I’ll never know. All I know is the tobacco tar and emphysema and cancer. That it was these organs that ultimately failed you, that your last breath must have been extremely painful.

More gifts lay south, under the diaphragm. And so went more wrapping paper, and this time it went quicker and easier, and fat was carved away with more dexterous hands. I have felt your caked blood that infused you with spirit, your last meal half-digested, and your life-giving nerves that made physical your soul.

And I did not care. I cared instead about the pattern of the brachial plexus, the anatomy of the abdominal muscles, the organization of your blood supply.

But when we cut you in half, with unthinking brutality, something changed for me. I remembered that damn green Tonka Truck, how happy I was to load it with dirt and carry it to a special, secret dump site where I would play for hours and hours. And after what felt like a lifetime with that truck, there was a moment I wasn’t paying attention, because for just a second I forgot to care, I left it on the driveway and some kid ran it over with his bike, breaking it in half.

Wait, what am I doing? Am I really comparing you to a chunk of plastic? Did I really cry over that stupid green truck, and not over your gracious remnants?

I have been told, to comfort me, that the dead do not care, and so I shouldn’t either. But if you do not care, oh sweet cadaver, why do you have so much fight left in you? Why are your worn bones so hard to break, your torn muscles so nobly protecting your vulnerable nerves and arteries? Why is your tortured body still so defiant, why are you making this interrogation so hard?

Though we have shattered your body, you have played a clever trick. Dig as we might, we will never find your humanity. No matter how many jokes we crack, how much we judge you on how many packs you smoked or how much fat you ate (because we apparently have the right to judge) we cannot take anything from you, our Gifter, no matter how ultimately we destroy your gift.

They gave us your body, but they didn’t give us your name. We broke your spine, but not your courage. We cut out your heart, but couldn’t find love. Those things are with other people, wrapped in different paper.

There’s a difference between the Gifter and the gift. One had hopes and dreams, had loved and lost. The other just looks like him.

Dear former owner of cadaver G11, I thank you for your gift. I hope I used it well.

                    Yours truly,


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