The Way Back
A young man’s seizure leaves him in what is believed to be a vegetative state. It was not. But as his mind unravels, he learns there are worse things than Death.
I heard your brain takes seven minutes to stop thinking after you die.
Seven minutes for your life, compressed as you know it, to slowly unwind, to run through your mind, that construct of id, ego, superego and for you to un-become everything you spent your entire life becoming.
When my seven minutes came it was during my graduation ceremony, during the speech given by the valedictorian. Hotter than hell, outside in the blazing sun, my mother had me wearing a suit, complete with jacket, with our polyester robe on top. In hindsight, I should have said no. I was certain all of this contributed to my as yet, unknown condition. I found my way on stage because I was a student on the honor roll but I was happy just to be sitting on the stage with nothing to say. My new shoes pinched my feet which felt as if they had swollen two sizes that afternoon.
Mindy Yin was giving a dazzling speech, something that was both wise and still funny. Her compatriots in school fell into an easy rhythm with her speech which could have doubled as a comedy routine. Even the teachers and the normally wooden puppets that called themselves the administration slowly came to life. A chuckle, a snicker, a guffaw and then full out peals of laughter. It was the happiest I think I had ever seen my university. Ever.
Yin was killing them.
Yin was killing me, too. The laughter, combined with the heat, triggered a massive stroke. One moment, I was sitting laughing uncontrollably when I suddenly stopped being able to understand the conversation. I realized she was talking but I could no longer tell you what she was saying. Language stopped making sense and I was only hearing a noise, I could no longer identify.
I tried to speak and it was as if there was a giant standing with one foot on my head and the other on my chest. I was speechless and unable to even remember what speech sounded like. In that moment, I couldn’t tell you what speech was, let alone be capable of it.
It was then my mind began to think solely in numbers.
I could see into the room and there were three hundred and seventy four graduating students. There were five hundred and twenty guests not wearing our purple and yellow robes. How did I know this? At that moment, I couldn’t have told you but all forms of numbers became apparent to me. Things I knew I never would have noticed before stood out in crystal clarity.
Fourteen lights to light the stage, six yellow, four white, two red and two blue. I was even calculating the amount of time each was on. Not only did I see the lights above the stage, there were fifty two around the edge of the auditorium, and twenty five hanging down over the room casting a soft light onto the room.
Then there was the second hand on the clock in the auditorium. First it seemed to stop moving when I stopped being able to speak. It hung there between the eleven and the twelve for what seemed like two or three minutes. The roar in my ears filled them and language stopped being something I understood to something I couldn’t use.
Then the hands began to move. The seconds between my inability to read, hear, listen or think cogently in language, moved in rich syncopation with my increased numerical awareness. I began to see the seconds in segments of a second, perfect stopwatch precision.
I began to pitch forward in the second minute. One hundred and twenty six seconds to be exact. The fall took three very long seconds. I watched the stage wood, a beautifully cared for dark pine, cut into tiny inch wide slats, each three feet long and offset twelve inches making a textured wooden mosaic coming up to meet me. I focused on one particular piece. Darker than the ones around it, it became the central focus of my existence for three entire seconds, as I saw the faces of people trying to reach me.
I wanted to believe they were upset about what I thought was happening but I stopped being able to interpret their expressions.
Thirty two eyes, thirty two hands, sixteen mouths open in what I hoped was shock but I could no longer see that. Sixteen hearts leaped and bodies moved toward me.
I was unconscious for sixteen minutes. The only thing I could remember were the EMTs rolling me out the building. One with the bluest eyes I ever saw, he stared at me, flashing a light in my eyes. I couldn’t interpret that look on his face, but his increased movements, in relation to the flow of time, told me he was worried.
I couldn’t move. They immobilized me. A spinal board, keeping my head still and strapped to the table. They needn’t have bothered. I couldn’t feel my body.
Not in the normal sense. I felt as if I was trapped in a heavy meat suit. I was aware of me. I could feel at least half of me. The other half didn’t exist. The second EMT, a brown-skinned man who had stolen his voice from an angel. I couldn’t understand him, but his words felt like honey flowing over me.
I was no longer afraid.
But what was I… Oh god what is this pain?
I lost the feeling in the other half of my body and I could not longer interpret anything at all. It was a thing outside of my experience to be able to be a part of a space, yet have no true awareness of that space. No sense of its dimensions, barely able to comprehend the difference between inside and outside the ambulance.
My sense of time, was still perfect. Seven minutes to arrive at the hospital.
The brown EMT sat with me. Saying something good. Can’t tell you how I knew. It’s warmth was soothing, his eyes filled with compassion, I knew what it was now in my final minutes.
Clarity of mind seemed to be returning, but it wasn’t the clarity of someone who is getting better. It was the clarity of neurons firing, trying to reset themselves, trying to fight for life, my life.
He wiped my nose and mouth and crimson stained the gauze he used. I knew that look. Its was the same look my father gave me when our dog was hit out in front of the house when I was ten or eleven. My mother kept saying it was going to be alright. My father never said a word but his face told me everything he didn’t say. That thin line of his mouth, his eyes hardened, tightened and when he looked at me, he told me without saying a thing.
Be strong, be focused. Be there.
This EMT was there. He had done all he could do for the next seven minutes and I saw my dog taken away by Animal Control. I saw my sister being born when I was twelve. I saw my older brother break his arm when I was fifteen. I saw my mother and father fighting when I was six or seven, drinking, throwing things around, screaming at the top of their lungs. I remember Caroline Winters kissing me at sixteen at a school event. My first kiss, terrifying, wonderful, heady and filled with possibility. The clarity was fading. It was getting harder to remember, skipping around in my memories.
I thought this was supposed to be orderly. Neat, a procession of your life stories, playing out like a movie. This was not that. This was scary. This made me think ‘I’m dying’.
How long had it been since I couldn’t feel my body? Six minutes, ten seconds.
The EMT with the honey in his voice was moving around again and I saw Blue Eyes helping me from the ambulance, pushing me into the hospital. Other faces, other voices, too many, bearded man, gravelly voice, young woman, maybe twenty-five, smelled of lilac. My favorite.
It’s so bright now. Just want to sleep. No Honey voice, Blue Eyes, don’t leave me. This bearded man smelled of malice and anger. Alcohol too.
He’s was in charge, I was at the seven minute mark. I didn’t feel them touching me, I didn’t understand the looks on their faces. Nothing was making sense anymore.
The light was brighter, forming a tunnel and I didn’t see anything else. Just the light.
I don’t remember when I started thinking again. I just did. I felt as if I had been asleep. A rugged sleep, something gained at a cost. Not restful. Speaking of restful, I still couldn’t feel my body. Proprioception, the doctor called it.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Levette. He’s had a massive stroke. We have no idea how long it’s going to take for him to recover. A good percentage of his brain activity has been altered. We just don’t know. We will keep running tests until we know all of our options. This coma is his body’s attempt to pull it together, so we won’t count him out yet.”
All I heard for a while was her crying. My mother was always a bit blubbery. When dad died last year she cried for months, spontaneously and without warning. We learned to keep someone near her at all times until she got it together. Now this happened.
Wait a minute, count me out? I just got here and they want to call it a day? Hey, I’m living here!
The days faded in and out but the words that stuck to me most were ‘vegetative state’, ‘not waking up’, ‘shutting down the respiratory support’. That’s when I realized, they thought I was dead. They thought I couldn’t hear them. Why were they talking about me like I wasn’t there? Of course, I’m getting better. I can hear everything you’re saying about me.
I see you trying to kill me under the guise of kindness. Saving my family money, you say. Ending my suffering, you say. I am suffering, because I am listening to you all of you, nurses, doctors, chaplains standing over me telling me I can’t be saved. Get that damn chaplain out of here. Mom, if you knew anything about me, you would know I am atheist. I don’t believe in God. Cause if I did, I would be screaming to this unfeeling fucking universe, save me.
I don’t want to die like this.
They’re gonna do it. They are going to shut it all off. And there isn’t a thing I can do to stop them. You would be surprised what you come to think about and value when you can’t move, can’t open your eyes, only have your ears and to a lesser extent your nose to guide you to the world around you.
Its been seven hundred and seventy sunrises and sunsets that have taken place since I have taken up residence in this coma ward. They care for me, sometimes better than others, I have learned to recognize the shifts, the people who touch me and how. Big Hands, Rough Scrubber will be on today. He only has to wash me once in any month but he hates it. He scrubs me raw. I started feeling my body again late last year. Nothing like before, mostly pins and needles, but Big Hands is both welcome and hateful. I can feel him, but he so poorly suited to this work, his discomfort is palpable even to me.
The voices, the ideas, the secrets; I hear them all. I listened to all of my attendants. They all talk to me. Most not saying anything important. Some tell me about their lives, things they’ve done that week. A couple talk about their own families. A few grouse about their working conditions, or the quality of the hospital or the doctors they hate.
People have so many secrets they never share with each other. Only with the vegetables in the hospital cabbage patch.
Then there’s Kalie, my little sister. She’s a teenager now. She’s rebellious and tells me all about how things are going at home. How my bills are bankrupting the family, how my older brother and my mother fight all the time now about what to do with me. She squeezes my hand and I feel it.
I want to say something to her. I want to let her know I’m here.
“You look like hell, Big Brother.” You have tubes coming out of every part of you. I know you wouldn’t want this. But I can’t let you go.”
You have to. No one is going to save me.
“I know you are in there. I can feel you.”
Not useful. Subjective, without evidence. Won’t move a doctor or Mom.
“Tell me what to do.”
Go home. Stop coming here. Be like Mom and Carl. Forget I exist except when the bills come. Makes turning it off easier.
“I won’t let them do it.”
She is as good as her word. She shows her ass for the next three years and for three more years, I sit. Listening. Hearing their fights. Listening to interns fucking in the empty beds next to mine. God. I’m so jealous. I never even had sex. But it sounds so wonderful. Their muffled laughter. Their giggling. Their panting, their stifled screams of ecstasy. At least I hope that’s what it is.
I have a life, without the ability to participate.
Do you know what’s the hardest thing to bear?
The silence. The godforsaken silence. The aliens in Doctor Who. The Silence. Capital T, Capital S. It inhabits you. It holds you close, it permeates your pores.
You don’t know quiet. You only think you know what its like to be quiet.
Imagine your house, right now. Now listen to the background. The hum of your refrigerator, the power supplies of your computer and power strips. Your cable boxes and console games. Your feng shui water fountain in the corner of the room, gurgling away.
Now imagine you are suddenly in a blackout. Nothing makes a sound. Now your house is quiet, truly quiet. But your neighbors are in an uproar so the silence is still broken by conversation and grousing about the failures of the power companies.
Move yourself toward the quietest place you know in the wilderness. The darkest most remote mountain forest, with the smell of old pine needles rising up as you walk through a place no one has seen. You stop moving, realizing there is no breeze. It’s late in the year, there are no insect sounds, no animals. Just you and the mountain. A stillness that aches within you.
Alone in your coma, your inner stillness is deeper than that.
And deeper still when there is no one on the ward. No machines near you. No lights on. Not in your room, if the door is open, not in the hall. That familiar hum which tells you the fluorescent lights are on above you. All you might hear is the squeak of the heel of a nurse at the very far end of the hallway, nothing more.
You strain your ears for any sound. The whisper of a fan, the creak of a door, the muted unintelligible sound of a distant TV. These sounds, when you are craving to hear them, and you didn’t know you would miss them, become more precious than gold. Move valuable than water in a desert, slaking thirst.
These are the sounds which hold you to the idea, there is even a reason to be alive. There must be a reason I am here. What am I learning? For the first time in my life I realized learning was for moments like these. It would fill the silence with science, with reason, with an effort to understand the real meaning of life, as best I could without research materials, wise words from ancient scholars, I would have to pare back reality to find truth on my own.
These were the worst nights. Nights when the silence couldn’t be countered with reason. Couldn’t be countered with silent rage filled tirades against my family, against my gene pool that cursed me with this immobile hell.
Why didn’t I just die? What is the evolutionary benefit of living as a vegetable? Was this a sign my ancestors had cared for an ailing relative for longer than they should and he managed to spread his defective genes? Or was this some congenital failure bred into the family line by accident, by mutation, by natural selection, reducing the lesser quality gene combinations until only superior specimens survived. Oh, and me.
I am in tune with nature.
I looked forward to visiting day. But for you to understand, know it wasn’t because my family were consistent visitors. God, knows they weren’t. But I loved to hear the sounds of relatives when they visited the coma ward. They would talk to their loved ones, voices quiet, talking of old times, young children, favored past times. Sometimes, I would hear illicit conversations with the spouses of those who had not come to grips with their loved one’s condition.
They might talk of lost passions and sometimes of renewed passions for someone new. There would be begging for forgiveness and then the quiet mathematical curve of reduction in their visits. In the time they would stay, the number of visits per month, what they would say while they were there.
After a while, I knew when the last visit would be. The curve would dip down in conversation until they would eventually come and say nothing the entire visit. This meant they had reached the resolution, the acceptance of the condition, that the person didn’t hear them, couldn’t hear them and would never hear them again.
They realized no words were necessary, nor would they matter.
They would make two two three more visits. Speaking a little more each time, tidying up, closing down the relationship from their end. Undoing their bridge that connected them to the person. They will go back, but at this point it will be when they felt obligated. When they felt guilty about being happy in their new life.
When their new life wasn’t happening.
I wept on the day of silence. When a visitor came and did not speak, I screamed out in pain. “Talk to me. I need you. I wait for you to come. I want to hear your voice. I don’t care what you are talking about. I just don’t want you to stop.”
They sit quietly. Sometimes I imagine the uncomfortable silence. The rustle of the clothing. The awkward downward staring, shoe string wondering, how long before the urge to leave, overpowers the obligation to sit, just a bit longer. On the day of silence, I want to scream at them. “How could you leave them? They need you. They loved you. You can’t go on with your life. You just can’t.”
It’s probably good no one can hear me. I eventually realize I’m wrong. They deserve to get on with their lives. How long can they live their life on hold?
How long can you live without sight?
As far as I can tell I stopped really seeing things in my mind after the third year. In the beginning I could still see everything like it was right in front of me. My spatial skills were always good. In my architecture class, 3D visualization, the ability to see a space from a blueprint was consider a great skill to have. I didn’t have the heart to tell my professor it came from years of playing DOOM and running through virtual dungeons.
Better that he thought I was a genius.
This power stood me in good stead in the early years. I imagined my route home from every location I had ever been able to roll over in a car. I would replay the journey from the house to the school to the market, to grandma’s to the hardware store, to my buddy Paul’s house, to the arcade, to the ice skating rink in the snow, in the rain, the burning hot summer, reflecting off the blacktop, heat ribbons distorting the distance into a visual curtain obscuring the future.
I miss those. It has been a long time since I could visualize an entire journey in sense-around 3D. After the fifth year, my distance vision faded. The breath of my visual illusion faded, my 160 degrees narrowed to 120 degrees and eventually to 90 degrees. I had to concentrate harder to maintain my sense of where I was, what things looked like, I had to focus on how to get there and nothing else.
It took longer. I got lost. Soon, I couldn’t see anything . I could, like a strobe light, see things close up, for a brief second in high relief, and then everything turned black again. I could make it home less and less often. My dreams, if I started in the hospital could never take me home again. If I woke up in home, I was okay. I could still see my house. I was more familiar with it than any place else in the world.
Eventually I gave up trying to drive home and just visualized myself in the house without the journey. I ultimately realized I would lose those memories if I didn’t use them but after seven years, I decided to conserve my mental energy for what was most useful.
I didn’t travel any more. I just teleported where I wanted to be. Closed my mental eye, visualize where I was going and bang. I was there. If I was stupid enough to open a door, there was nothing out there but blackness. Or super-bright whiteness, which can act just like black.
I was able to travel to these virtual places for another year before the only place I could remember was home. It had been eight years before I began to forget things in the house. A lamp here. A trashcan there.
By Christmas of the eight year, I could no longer remember anything about my home, except my family and a small brown and yellow teddy bear. My first teddy. Teddy.
Christmas Day, Carl, Kalie and Mom came to visit collectively for the first time in two years. I could hear it in their voices, something unspoken, still unresolved and contentious, their voices were strident, sharp, cutting and angry, even while they pretended they were having this conversation without rancor.
Once I got over hearing their voices, I listened to what they had to say and the most important part was that I would be moved into an inner city hospital where I would become a ward of the state.
I tried to be stoic. How much worse could my life be?
Last time we talked I told you about the loss of mental imagery. My inner landscape, the way that I see the world had faded from my mind. I lost the ability to visualize anything using what I used to think of as memory.
Impossible you think. No way to find yourself unable to create a mental representation of something. What if you hadn’t seen anything for three thousand seven hundred days. No, I don’t mean like a convict sitting in solitary confinement. He can still see the walls, the floors, he can draw, he can create representations that help him retain the ability to see the world, even if he is trapped in a cell. He can still see his guard, smell his stinking breath, eat low quality and tasteless food. He can walk around for an hour a day and remember what his body feels like. He can maintain a connection to the world.
I have no sight; the primary sensory system of the human being. My sense of smell is, as is the lot of humans, pretty pitiful compared to our natural cousins, but now, my nose can detect the tiniest scents as they waft in my open door. The scents of this new hospital are vile. I smell piss all around me. I think it might even BE me. My body hasn’t been handled nearly as much and I hear one or two people a day bustle in and out and then I am alone with my thoughts and a crappy, static-filled television. Thankfully, the last person who came to visit turned it off and it’s stayed off since.
My hearing not the most acute of senses drinks in every sound now. The wails of what I suspect is a nearby psych ward does not comfort me. I suspect the care I am getting is what I can afford, which at this point is little to none. A cry of despair, possibly from a visitor, I can’t sort them out yet, reinforces what I have been loathe to admit to myself.
I hate this new hospital. I think I’m going to die here.
All I have left now is the dream. I see an angel, okay, I don’t see her, I feel her. In a place filled with the glow of nature, plants, animals and this angel. This heavenly presence which makes me feel calm comes to me more and more often. When I first felt it I thought I might be imagining it. Having lost my inner sight, all I had to go on was the feeling.
Whenever I was alone, I could feel her. She didn’t say anything though I hoped she might. She stood by me during the nights when I think I was cold, lost and alone. The only residual self image I had was of my body as I remembered me. A young man of twenty-two. I hadn’t been that man for a decade now. I tried to imagine myself and when I could start the imagination engine, I envisioned a sorry specimen. Underfed, starved, physically weak, once prominent cheekbones now gaunt and tight over the feeble skeleton beneath.
I turned off my imagination engine and sat in the comfort of the mental emptiness which was now my mind. Filled with nothing but the raw essence of thought, I formed a tiny spark and just watched it. I turned it into a classic atom of my childhood, with a tiny swirling light around an oversized neutron, proton core. Then I refined it to a more appropriate thing where the electrons were a cloud of gnats around an invisible center. I did this again and again, adding to it until I could remember what a carbon atom looked like. I began to rebuild the periodic table in my mind, keeping busy while I was going insane.
She was there more and more. She began to help me. We rebuild matter and I could see making simple constructs, things made from wood. But this wasn’t any particular wood, it was just Wood. The perfect embodiment of the substance. Heavy, but not too heavy. Strong and with my new envisioned Rock, I could begin shaping it. I used Rocks to shape new Rocks and with Wood, I rebuilt my world.
I had rediscovered Logos. The realm of perfect things as envisioned by men. The year flew by. As my body received the minimum care required for it to survive, I could tell things were different. Nurses came to see me and their horror was evident. It seems I was developing pressure sores. The night nurse was fired and I was given a series of antibiotics while I tried to heal.
A body as weak as mine doesn’t do anything fast or well. The new nursing staff were a bit more diligent but I can’t say I knew anything about them. They didn’t talk to me. They performed their work and were gone as quick as they could stand it.
No sense talking to the dead, I guess.
My loneliness increased. Only me, my angel and my island paradise. I had managed to rebuild a perfect reality crafted from the very essence of matter itself. It was all I could see, I had to painstakingly recreate everything. Every blade of grass, every tree, even the sand was lovingly created a handful at a time. Once I had completed the beach, I created the perfect ocean, blue-green reflecting the perfect sky-blue sky. Coconut trees, complete with coconuts heavy with milk fell only when I needed them to. I drank in their nectar, sweet, oily, natural. The first time I had envisioned eating anything in a long time.
Then I saw them. My angel complete with wings and another young woman. Beautiful, because in Logos everything is, they were everything I thought they should be, flawless, without blemish, without humanity, little more than living statues. As they should be here.
“I need to leave you for a time.” My angel’s lips didn’t move but I heard her perfectly.
“Who is she?” I pointed to her young friend, who appeared to be in her early twenties, her blond hair and pert breasts were no longer the distraction they might have been in the earlier, and imperfect world.
“She is the young woman in the room with you. She has been recovering from a terrible car accident. Her coma is not like yours. She held fiercely to life, but can no longer bear it. I must see her to her afterlife. Will you be alright for a while?”
“I’ll abide. I think I am going to try and create some animals today, maybe some fish.”
“That should keep you busy until I get back.”
“You’re the angel of Death, aren’t you?”
“Only if you wish me to be. Otherwise I am just your Companion, helping you pass the time. Her time has come.”
The young girl laid down and my Companion lifted her and raised her into the air. The two of them not touching began to float skyward and soon disappeared into my newly created sun. I was still proud of that. I think it wasn’t bright enough and didn’t quite move like the real thing, but it was perfect to me. I could watch them disappear into the light and I didn’t need to shield my eyes.
She was gone for ten days. During that time Kalie came back with friends.
She wept for quite some time at my condition. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know it would be like this. I’m so sorry. We’re going to get you out of here.”
Don’t worry about it, Bunny. I have found a way to keep myself busy. I’ve become God.
“Grant, I know I have been away for a while but I think these doctors will be able to help you.”
Help me what, Bunny? Contemplate my navel? Create the perfect fish for my perfect ocean? There is only enough room in here for one, Bunny.
“Today they’re going to run some tests and if they look good, we are going to go on a trip where they can work with you under better conditions. Everything is going to be fine, I promise, Grant.”
You know better than to promise things are going to get better, Kalie. It hasn’t happened yet.
The scientist doctors talked over my head while they set up their equipment. There was much lamenting about the conditions of the hospital up to the squishing of insect pests. They spoke German some of the time, so I wasn’t going to be following their conversation much anyway.
After ten days, my Companion returned. We reconstructed the scene as best we could imagine it. Connected to dozens of electrodes, my head encased in a tight fitting scanner device. Computer screens surround my bed. And the incomprehensible displays each tracked some individual aspect of my being.
“Grant, I am Dr. Astor, and we are going to be running some tests. We need you to help us. Can you do that?”
I was in the middle of making my first fish, when I realized he was talking to me. I continued with the fish. No sense in stopping in the middle of it. I visualized what the perfect fish would look like and by the end of the first week of Dr. Astor’s testing and prompting, nothing conclusive had been determined.
My first fish was, however, a success. He looked similar to a pirahna with a slightly better dental plan.
“Ms Kalie, we are seeing activity in his brain, that appears consistent with a dream state. But very little tells me he is anything but a normal coma patient. Perhaps if you talk with him we can get something conclusive to work with.”
“Grant. I know you are there. I have always known it. Now you need to prove it to these nice doctors.”
Kalie’s voice thundered in the sky around me. Different than any other time she talked with me. I was frightened.
She touched me. I could feel the connection. My Companion put her hand on my cheek and then I could feel Kalie’s warm and alive touch.
“Good, good, Ms. Kalie. That was the first time we have seen this kind of response. Keep talking to him.” Astor sounded hopeful, but from where I was sitting he was a distant storm on the horizon.
“Mom passed away last year. I wanted to come and tell you.”
I already knew. My Companion looked strangely like Mom. I think I knew when I saw her last, she wasn’t well. The winds was picking up and my perfect sky was now being obscured by the mother of all storms. Slow arriving, bringing in the surf, washing up on my once pristine beach.
Stop it, Kalie. You don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t want to care about you. Or Mom. Or Carl. Or these damned doctors and their scary equipment. I am perfectly adjusting to creating islands, plants, sand and now fish. At this rate, I could have an entire ecosystem in a decade. It only took me two hours to create ants. And another hour to decide I didn’t need them yet, and made them go away. You want me to come to you and pretend my life as a living cadaver is better than being here.
Honestly, I considered being dead as an improvement. My Companion, took my hand as the storm grew stronger. The waves swept over my island and began to destroy it.
“Carl doesn’t even acknowledge you exist, anymore. He won’t even talk to me about you.”
Lightning strikes and stinging rain begin to fall cutting into my residual image of myself. My Companion spreads her wings and wraps them around us, as the waves lap over our feet.
“I don’t want to care about her. Please let her know. I whispered to my Companion. I just want this to be over. I can’t go back to being a pair of ears in a ward of the dead and dying.”
“If I do this, you can’t go back.”
“Is this what being dead is like? The recreation of the self, the redevelopment of the psyche, where I recreate everything anew?”
“No. This is your mind slipping into madness, trying to hold on desperately to what you know about the universe at large. This is not Death. Not at all.”
“Then tell me about it.”
“Death is the sound of one hand clapping. Death is the gurgle of a child dying from SIDS in its crib at night while its parents are less than ten feet away. Death is the falling of pipes from a building on a construction worker, killing him instantly. Death is starvation in a small village in the Himalayas. Death is as near as your next breath and as far away as a gamma-ray burst in another galaxy. Are you truly ready to give up on living?”
She had to shout over the storm of Kalie’s will battering me, trying to push me back to choosing to live.
What did I have to live for? Didn’t you have to have a reason to live, something to fight for? A thing that makes life worth living? I had spent the last ten years freeing myself from all of those things. I wanted nothing, needed nothing. I was able to live silently with the sounds of my manufactured waves and winds. The slapping of tree fronds in the night breeze. I had even created stars so my nights were as perfect as my days.
My lie, my self-deception was almost complete. Once I was done, I would have laid down and she would have taken me away. All I was doing was making myself a very elaborate, self-defined, self-described coffin.
My Companion smiled at me. She kissed me fully on the lips, a sensation both magnificent and terrifying. The island was covered by a tsunami and swept away into my ocean. Death and I stood on the surface of the ocean, my stars above me.
And then I was alone again. Everything faded to black.
“Grant, I know it’s hard but we need you to be able to communicate with us. Right now, we have attached a series of electrodes that will respond to your brainwaves. We need you to think of two colors, red and green. It won’t matter which one you think of first. The first one will be red and we will mark it such. All you have to do is turn the light on. Can you do that?”
No. And I can’t believe you asked me to try. I was perfectly happy in my schizophrenia, thank you. I didn’t ask you to bring your pet doctors here, to map my brain and discover I was actually in here. Instead of dying happy, I am sitting here in a lab being pampered, IV dripped, cleaned and treated better than I have since Mom was alive. Yes, I resent this. Make a light come on? I want to beat you about the head and shoulders until I feel better.
“Yes, that’s it. We’re going to call that red. Can you hold that feeling?”
Why, yes I can. I can stay angry at you all day.
“That is very good Mr. Washington. Now we need you to stop thinking about Red. We need another state for the Green light. We have no idea what is triggering this for you, so we have triggered the signature of the first state to only work for the Red light. You will need to think of something equally powerful for the second.”
Okay. If I am going to do this, I have to put myself into it. Be calm. Be centered. Think about your first atom. Singular hydrogen. The probability cloud of the electron. Keep it in your mind. Focus on it, be the hydrogen atom. I exist.
“Oh that is very good. It’s a strong signal. You were right, Ms. Kalie. Your brother is very much alive and awake.”
Then there was the game of twenty-thousand questions. How do you feel? Do you feel good or bad? Can you feel this? How about this? Should we speak louder? After six hours of Yes, No, came the important questions.
“Do you hate us for not trying harder?”
“Do you think Mom was wrong for sending you away?”
“Do you want me to get Carl?”
“Do you want to be taken off the ventilator?”
Kalie came and sat by my head, we had decided though I could hear from all over the room, close to my head was the sweet spot. “Your body is currently still very weak. It will be quite some time before you are able to breathe on your own again. Now that we know you are there, we have to ask, would you like to be removed from the life support equipment? I’ve been selfish and refused to consider anyone’s view but my own. This is really your decision.”
In the weeks I have had the ability to answer yes and no, I had refined the mental states necessary to control my lights. But this question didn’t have an easy answer. Both lights came on.
“I think he is very tired, Ms. Kalie. We will come back in the morning. He doesn’t have to rush. Mr. Washington, you are welcome here for as long as you like. Your family won’t be burdened with your costs and if you allow it, we will map as much of your brain and health in order to see if there are others like you out there. We hope you will choose to stay with us for at least a while, you can make a difference in the world.” Dr. Astor’s German accent was mild but I enjoyed listening to him talk. And his speech was compelling.
If I was going to be here. There were going to have to be some changes made. I flashed Yes.
It’s been two years since the night I agreed to stay. Kalie has completed her doctorate and I was able to listen to her graduation ceremony and her dedication was directed toward me. Once she was done, I turned off the computer video stream. I visualized a moment of silence and the speaker went offline.
Kalie spent the last two years helping me create a new way of thinking where my brain could distinctly create signals that would replicate the alphabet and an interface that would allow me to put my thoughts in a data stream.
She says, as we refine the technology, we may be able to get the software to recognize words instead of letters. But she always prefaces her ideas with “no promises.”
Until then, I get to write my memories of my beautiful madness and my fascination with Death one letter at a time.
That night I dream of my Companion and my beach. She has a bonfire and a group of laughing smiling people who seem to be enjoying themselves.
“Who are these people?”
“People with voices, who once had none. Now they flirt with me but refuse to come with me. They have you to thank.”
I look away. I’m no hero. Just someone who was too afraid to die.
“You would be surprised how many heroes say those very words, even as they do. Now get off my island. You have some writing to finish. Make sure I am beautiful.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I leave. There’s nothing there for me now.
And Death was beautiful to me, once, for about seven minutes.
Listening as the World Walks By © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
ABOUT THE STORY: I wrote this story back in 2013 during one of my 30 Short Stories in 30 days contests. It was nothing more than a thought exercise I decided to write up in a more narrative format.
Yesterday, I discovered this video of a man, Martin Pistorius who had lived this and would using electronic technology relay his experiences to the world at a TED conference. I have included the video if you are interested in his fascinating account.
Thaddeus Howze is a popular and recently awarded Top Writer, 2016 recipient on the Q&A site Quora.com. He is also a moderator and contributor to theScience Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange with over fourteen hundred articles in a four year period.
His speculative fiction has appeared online at Medium, Scifiideas.com, and theAu Courant Press Journal. He has appeared in twelve different anthologies in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. A list of his published work appears on his website, Hub City Blues.