Creative Nonfiction

The Whole Body Houses Grief by Amber Carpenter


The human heart is an organ. There are four chambers, four valves. Meet the chambers: left atrium, right atrium, left ventricle and right ventricle. Blood exits the heart through arteries, through the aorta and pulmonary artery. Blood enters the heart via tiny highways, our veins: pulmonary veins, the superior vena cava and inferior vena cava.

When the human heart stops beating, blood flow halts.

Imagine river rapids suspended in mid-air.

When I entered the den, my father pledged allegiance to the white popcorn ceiling, right hand over heart, eyes and mouth open.

I often slept with my mouth open; Dad joked, Amber Lee, you were catching flies in your sleep. Minutes before he died, Mom and the hospice nurse escorted his unsteady body to the bathroom. Dressed in bare skin and boxer shorts, he fell to the cool, tiled floor.

They say this exhausted his heart. On the pull-out couch [a makeshift bed], he suffered from sudden cardiac arrest. The human heart stopped. I felt everything and nothing.

What I wish I could say: Dad, you were catching flies in your sleep.


Above each kidney, adrenal glands produce hormones. Cortisol and aldosterone are two of the most significant adrenal hormones. When these glands do not generate enough cortisol, symptoms may include: fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea, weight loss, and decreased appetite.

Amber, he’s not going to make it through the weekend, my mother said. You don’t need to worry about doing your homework right now. She closed my Algebra textbook, a piece of loose-leaf paper buried between pages. Through vinyl blinds, sunlight started to cast long, dark shadows in our two-story home. Partially chewed Wendy’s chicken nuggets and fries lay across the wooden coffee table, cold and forgotten.

He died at dusk, as the sun lowered itself into the ground.

I remember the bathroom light, my mother getting in and out of bed, entering and exiting the bathroom for short periods of time. Neither one of us slept; instead, the pitch-black bedroom enveloped our restless bodies, our loss. We witnessed the passing of night – the black, suffocating air, the kind that smothers you in your sleep. No matter how loud I begged and screamed, he never woke up; you cannot wake the dead.

When we want to preserve meat, we put it into Ziploc bags and shelve it in our freezers. Human flesh is not meant to be placed in bags. Here is a list of items that do belong in bags: fruits, vegetables, knickknacks, supplies, clothes, and trash.

Like waste collectors, men collected my dad and disposed of the body.


The immune system defends the body against infectious organisms, diseases, and other invaders. It consists of cells, tissues, and organs, all of which work together to protect the body. White blood cells, also known as leukocytes, circulate between the organs and nodes through lymphatic vessels and blood vessels.

My body is not immune to suffering, to death and dying.

Is that an animal? I ask, slowing my gait. Yes, Audrey answers. We pause on the sidewalk. It is August in Chicago. Up ahead, the city’s jagged skyline climbs into a blue sky; cumulus clouds mingle among buildings. One-hundred degrees of unforgiving heat. Sunscreen and sweat run down my cheeks.

A gray rat lay dead on its side, its whiskers and narrow head facing the sun. I bet it crawled out of a nearby poison box, one of several aligning our complex. The rodent decided that a poison box was not a suitable place to die. It wanted to feel warmth in its final moments. We continue to stare. Audrey recommends that we cross the street. I often become visibly shaken at the sight of a dead animal, rodent or not. I tell her no, that it’s fine. To avoid other animals or humans getting ahold of it, she takes her pool towel and drags the rat from sidewalk to dirt, beneath colorful perennials. We walk to the pool in silence. Once there, she says, He’s just sleeping; he peacefully fell asleep in the sun. But I know better.

Dad is still in his box.


The brain contains three main parts: the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry signals throughout the brain. Experts believe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder directly relates to levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter. An illness or traumatic event may trigger the symptoms of OCD in a person who is genetically prone to develop the disorder.

I am that person.

In college, I learned the psychology of sexual behaviors, how to write research papers and interpret literature. What I also learned: seeing scissors and knives causes panic attacks, regular visits to therapists and psychiatrists, and bottled prescriptions. I spent days in Prozac-induced fogs; I skipped classes and slept. My ex-girlfriend held my trembling body and waited for panic to pass. She hid scissors in dorm room drawers. I feared myself; but mostly, I feared intrusive thoughts, of things that would never happen, of jabbing sharp edges into loved ones. I asked my brain to stop, stop, STOP. Please stop. It never listened.

Now I take medication that comes with a warning label:

  • May cause drowsiness. Alcohol may intensify this effect. Use care when operating a vehicle, vessel (e.g., boat), or machinery.
  • May cause dizziness.
  • Use during the third trimester of pregnancy may cause serious health problems or withdrawal symptoms in the newborn. Discuss with your doctor or pharmacist.
  • This is the same medication you have been getting. Color, size or shape may appear different.
  • This medicine is dispensed as a blue, oblong-shaped, scored, film-coated-tablet with A imprinted on one side and 1 7 imprinted on the other side.

A is for Amber, for me.


The whole body houses grief.

The whole body crawls into bed and closes the blinds.

The whole body lashes out at inanimate objects.

The whole body rests its weight on granite headstones.

The whole body collapses into a fragile pile on the floor.

The whole body reaches for intimacy.

The whole body collects memories.

The whole body yearns for sensation, to feel again.

The whole body must move forward, not backward.

The whole body adjusts and readjusts itself.

The whole body steps outside the body.

The whole body remembers the dead.

The whole body wants more time, wants more –

Amber Carpenter
Amber Carpenter

Amber Carpenter is an MFA candidate within the Creative Nonfiction program at Columbia College Chicago. She completed her MA in English from East Carolina University in 2012 with a concentration in both poetry and nonfiction. Her work, which includes writing and photography, has been published in Sinister Wisdom, Mount Hope Magazine, and Glassworks Magazine.