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.
Part 1 of 3 – Jump to part 2
Listening as the World Walks By © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved