“I’m gonna die!” she managed to cough out.
I smiled. The sight of a living paradox made me want to laugh. In fact, it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen, I thought. Well, perhaps not ha-ha funny, but it was certainly absurd, and I found the absurd absolutely hilarious. Katy’s marijuana-induced dilemma was no exception.
We both knew Katy wasn’t going to die, not from smoking pot, anyway. She sat, cross-legged, on the floor next to the stereo and I correctly suspected Dr. John would be crooning his Voo-Doo melodies very soon and that was fine with me. Katy was my girlfriend, and it seemed I could forecast her every move. Dr. John finished walking on gilded splinters, and Katy deftly raised the album from the turntable. I knew The Moody Blues would soothe us into the finale of a blissful evening.
Our days drifted by uneventfully and we drifted in and out of them. We both worked and made enough money for rent and tickets for concerts and of course, for drugs. We seldom indulged in anything stronger than pot or the occasional hashish that had somehow made it into New Orleans. Our tickets for the Hendrix concert lay, unused, on the rickety table next to the stereo. We thought it prudent to stay where we were, sitting on the floor, our backs against the wall in the living room of our uptown apartment. Neither of us dared try to drive.
Most days were good. It was summer in New Orleans and then a brief fall heralding a mild winter. Suddenly, it was summer once again. The French Quarter was its own little world, and at any given time of the day or night, it was reasonable to assume that about half of the people you met were stoned. It was the “Dawning of Aquarius” we told ourselves.
This particular Friday evening was young, and Katy had driven the hundred-mile trip to visit her family. I was considering taking a “disco” nap so I could party all night. It had been a while since I had been “single” and I was looking forward to visiting a few old haunts. A rather loud and persistent knock at the front door interrupted my plans and my sometime friend, Rodney, and another guy with hair down to his butt, stood at the front door. The two guys pushed their way into the apartment, mumbling “hey, man,” and then fell into chairs at the dining room table at the same time.
They exhaled simultaneous sighs of what I took to be relief.
“Man, it’s intense out there!” one of them said.
“It’s Friday night in the Quarter,” I answered.
“Yeah, man, I know. But the Quarter is full of cops. Something’s going on, man. I got some really heavy vibes.” Rodney was paranoid and rightly so, as he was a walking pharmacy and usually pretty coked up.
“You want some wine?” I asked them both. Rodney had neglected to introduce me.
“It’s Mateus,” I bragged.
“Sure, man, I would love some,” Rodney’s friend said. “I’m Ronnie.”
He handed me a joint, and I knew it was going to be a long evening.
Rodney was busy excavating a smallish mirror from his backpack. He soon began slicing through some lumps of white powder with a single edge razor blade.
“This is the best shit I’ve ever had,” Rodney said with the sincerity of a true druggie. “You gotta try it, man. It’s free – on me.” He rolled a dollar bill into a straw and made three neat, thin lines of white powder. It looked harmless enough, and I had never tried coke. Katy was far away and I did want to party tonight.
I never really figured out what the white substance was that I so willingly snorted. My nose immediately began to burn but Rodney assured me this was normal and would pass. I could feel it ripping into my throat. I was cool. I could handle it. What’s the worst that could happen? I had smoked enough good pot to handle a little trip.
I vaguely remember a fireman slapping my face and calling my name. He was so far away; I could not answer him. My throat burned, and my stomach was now on fire as well. When the EMTs came, I thought they were part of the dream – part of the trip. I guess Rodney had called them before he took off.
“Stay with me,” an unfamiliar voice coaxed.
“Stay with me,” the same voice demanded now.
Something was pulling at me – a hundred tiny hands clawed at me and tried to jerk me free of the firemen and the EMTs and the tubes and needles. My next lucid moment was in a room that smelled of hospital with walls of green tile with black trim. I glanced down to see my body on the gurney.
“No response,” a man’s voice said.
“Come on, now, my brother! Stay with us!” a woman’s voice almost cried.
I thought it odd that this woman should refer to me as “my brother” and the urgency in her voice gave me pause. I came close to returning to the body that lay slack on the table, but I wasn’t sure how that would be possible.
“Oh, I don’t think so, sister,” I thought, and I took off like a backyard bottle rocket, acquiescing to the hundreds of hands that subsequently whisked me away, up and out through the ceiling of the green-and-black tiled hospital room. It was scary but undeniably exhilarating.
“I’m free!” I said to no one. “Holy shit! I’m free!” My euphoria was short-lived.
A high-pitched laughter spilled out from nowhere. It was a horrid, unearthly cackle, and it echoed in my head, evil and tainted, hopeless and tormented. The laughter of a hundred doomed souls.
Suddenly, pure terror consumed me.
“Oh, my God!” I thought. “What have I done?”
I was young and had not given much thought to dying, but when I did consider the unlikely possibility, I convinced myself that I was not afraid of death. I wasn’t too worried. I had never done anything truly terrible in my twenty-one years on Earth. I had never robbed or stolen or killed anyone. I had vacillated between worrying about whether I would make it into heaven (if there really was such a place), or if my being would simply cease to exist. Secretly, I leaned toward a more spiritual experience and had considered death the ultimate trip, a cosmic journey that would provide the answers to all my questions.
With friends and others, however, I would call upon the bravado only a 21-year-old could muster. Rather than profess a cosmic bend, I would confidently assert that I wasn’t afraid of anything, certainly not death.
“What’s there to be afraid of?” I would ask, my sophomoric wisdom betraying my ignorance.
“You die. There is no God. There is no Heaven or Hell. You just stop being. You stop feeling anything at all.”
I wasn’t afraid because I had no idea what real fear was. Now, as the tiny hands hurtled me through a darkness that was blacker than the blackest of blacks, and steered me through a seemingly infinite universe, I knew what fear really was. A single star, shining a million miles away, faded into oblivion. My hope faded as the light diminished. The tiny hands that had grabbed my body now clawed at my soul. I knew there was no escape. There was only the forlorn sensation of being taken – taken through the endless darkness. I was alone, and I was lost. That is fear. That is terror.
I tried to escape. I could not move. I had nobody with which to manage the slightest of struggles. I tried in vain to fight off the hands that clung to me, taking me deeper and deeper into a destiny that I had only imagined and stupidly dismissed. I knew I was going to somewhere I did not want to go, a place I did not want to know. I don’t know how I knew this – I was not thinking consciously – It was an overwhelming feeling, and the ensuing sensation of helplessness was unbearable.
“Please! Someone help me!” I screamed, but I had no voice and made no sound. I sobbed, but there were no tears. I begged for help, but no one heard me. The high-pitched laughter penetrated the core of my being and I knew that I was not dreaming. I was not hallucinating. This was not some horrible nightmare. I was dead, and I was terrified.
* * * * * *
I could see nothing. Pitch-Black darkness enveloped me. I was neither sitting or lying down or standing. I realized I had left my human body behind, lying lifeless on the hospital gurney. “So, this is it?” I thought. “Will I spend an eternity in blackness? In this black hole? This nothingness?” I realized I was still capable of profound fear, of terror, of hopelessness. My thoughts and emotions were intact. “I” was intact. I was just dead.
“Oh, God!” I screamed without making a sound. “Oh, God! Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God!”
“You called?” I heard a woman’s voice answer.
I could see a figure approaching through the darkness. It was a woman. Her face shone with a beauty beyond human comprehension. Her long brown hair waved over her shoulders, and she was dressed in a simple, white, linen-like robe. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
“How can I help you?” she asked without speaking.
“Please, please help me. I’m dead, and I haven’t even lived yet!” I realized I sounded like a whiny wimp. “Please! I didn’t mean to die. It was an accident. I’m not ready to die!” I lamented.
“What exactly is it you want of me?” she asked.
“I want to live,” I said simply.
“And what exactly would you do with your life should you live?” she asked.
At once, I realized that I had no plans for my life, and my past had been unremarkable – really, I was a waste of space. I had done nothing to improve myself or the lives of others. I just “was.”
“I don’t know, exactly,” I answered in a whisper of silence. “I’ve never thought about it.”
“Well, be here now and consider it,” she said sternly. “Consider your life and how you would like to create it – which direction you would take if you could, perhaps even how you could make the world a better place.” She stopped, and the corners of her mouth turned down ever so slightly. “Or not,” she continued. “Perhaps you would choose to create wealth for yourself, or simply continue to work for money, ingest drugs, and simply exist. That is your choice. That is your free will. I will return when you are ready.”
Holy crap, I thought. What just happened?
The beautiful woman’s words echoed in the blackness. I was compelled to review my life and that I did. I remembered being a child and exploring the wonders of a new and wonderful world. Every flower, every weed, was a wondrous thing. The azure blue of the sky was breath-taking. Each blade of grass was a new discovery. Someday, I promised myself at age six or so, I would be a grown-up and study flowers and butterflies. I would learn all about this world, and I would share it with others. In the blackness, I remembered that childhood promise.
I saw my life as I aged, became a teenage brat and then, became a nothing – a nothing who worked at a useless job to pay the rent and buy food and drugs. My life had been a waste. It was no wonder that I died. I had forgotten to appreciate all that life offered. It was the saddest thing – this lost potential. I felt like crying an ocean of tears, but none came. They were deep inside me now. Now I knew.
I have no idea how much time might have passed before the lady came back. There was no time where I was. There was only nothingness. She finally appeared, lovely and white, and stood silently, looking at me with the kindest of gazes. There was no need for words. We communicated with pure energy, an energy far beyond words. She knew that I knew. And she smiled the most glorious smile.
My throat burned.
“He’s back!” I heard someone say. “He’s back!”
My body ached, but I was thrilled to feel the pain.
“I’m back. I’m back!” I thought. I could not speak as there seemed to be something blocking my voice. I would learn later that I had been intubated and kept alive by the ER staff for over six minutes. They were a few seconds away from “calling it” when my heart began to beat on its own. They removed the tube, and I inhaled the sweetness of the air. I was back.
I was released from the hospital after a few days. I knew my life would take an entirely different course, and when I got home, the first thing I did was research the local universities. I began to navigate through the enrollment procedure for the next semester. I enrolled at the university as a Biology major and never looked back. I worked hard at a part-time job and even harder when it came to my studies, which I enjoyed immensely.
Today I am an assistant professor. I have a family that I love more than my life. I’m not perfect, but I do my best. Each day is a gift, and I try to do something to deserve it.
I was asked by a student today if it hurts when you die. I told him and the class this story. I guess the answer all depends upon your definition of “hurt”.
Credit: Janis Kent
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