And it is a dream at sea such as was never dreamt, and it is the Sea in us that will dream it: The Sea, woven in us, to the last weaving of its tangled night, the Sea, in us, weaving its great hours of light and its great trials of darkness Saint-John Perse, Seamarks
I’ve touched death twice and come back. I feel like a cat, though I’m not counting on nine. I was told as a child that I would not live even thirty years due to severe asthma. In my early twenties, I wheezed ceaselessly for two years, even with intravenous steroids during monthly hospitalizations. At this time I was told I’d be dead by twenty-five due to a rare form of asthma that afflicts fewer than two percent of asthmatics, most of whom are seventy or older. Now, long past thirty, I know that no one can predict another’s fate.
The first time I touched death, I was seventeen. After spending several days trying to stabilize a particularly bad attack, during which I could only walk with assistance, could barely eat, and couldn’t lie down, I called my physician, Doctor K, who wanted to meet me in the emergency room.
Driving proved slow and difficult with such labored breathing, but after I parked near the hospital’s entrance, I inched toward the automatic doors by leaning against cars, poles, the rough white wall for support, and paused to catch my breath after each step as if climbing at twenty-six thousand feet.
Just before I reached the door’s sensor, a nurse rushed out, slid a wheelchair under me, and rushed me to the sterile emergency room where I was transferred to a metal-railed bed. Veiled behind pale vinyl curtains, I rocked back and forth in spasmodic rhythm, my airways severely constricted. A nurse paged my doctor as another nurse gave me an adrenaline shot, which accelerated my heart and made me shake uncontrollably. My breathing worsened.
Another nurse tied a blue tourniquet below my left biceps, slapped the inside of my arm to raise the knotted veins, aimed for the largest, and stabbed the IV needle through the skin. The vein rolled. Her second attempt was also unsuccessful since this vein was scarred from scores of previous IV needles, so she turned my hand palm down and speared the largest vein running between slender hand bones. Blood spurted up the needle’s tube before it flushed back through my body in a stream of saline released from the bottle she hooked to the metal bar above my head. Blood gases were then drawn. A respiration therapist once told me that these are so painful that he’s watched people in comas jerk, even sit up, when these were drawn. I cried from exhaustion and pain, but immediately choked, the extra phlegm further congesting restricted airways.
Once Doctor K came through the curtain’s opening, I relaxed. He ordered steroids, blood tests, and more than I needed to think about as I struggled for bits of air. Telling me to drink, the nurse handed me a liter of water, then pulled green plastic tubes over my head and shoved their ends in my nostrils so pure oxygen could return my blue lips and nails to pink. A breathing machine was rolled in to transform liquid drugs to mist, which I inhaled through a thin tube and disposable mouthpiece. After four days of labored breathing, my head ached from lack of oxygen and my back felt as if I’d been beaten repeatedly with a wooden chair.
Still I strained for air and shivered from exhaustion and medicine that was cold as embalming fluid yet stimulating as speed. The nurse gave me a bedpan since using the bathroom required too much effort yet I needed to keep drinking and the IV kept flowing. My body rejected the onslaught of medicine and cold water. I vomited, mostly fluid and dry heaves, despite my need for hydration, lips and throat cracked, muscles in spasm. My wheezing worsened. Doctor K fired orders at those trying to stabilize my breathing.
An hour later, not wanting to lose his first patient in twelve years of practice, Doctor K ordered the nurses to transfer me back to the wheelchair. He then got behind the chair and pushed me to the sixth floor intensive care unit where nurses lifted me onto another bed and adhered oval sensors to my chest and back so they could track my heart visually and audibly on monitors above my bed and in the nurses’ station. Sharp rivulets of pain shot from my spine across my back, through my skull, and down my limbs, while my head throbbed, a clenched knot. But pain held no authority; my existence depended solely on the mechanics of breath. Concentrating, I focused on the task: lean forward, inhale; sit up, exhale; lean forward, inhale; sit up, exhale.
Suddenly, it was effortless. My muscles and head no longer ached. I felt calm, peaceful, no longer straining for air, but instead enveloped in an expansive quietude. As if floating just beyond the high florescent-lit ceiling, I marveled at the tenuous thread connecting me to my body, pale and rocking on the bed, and felt love and acceptance for everything and everyone–pain, resentment, alliances, released. No white light, no one beckoning, simply unconditional love and absolute peace.
Working hard, Doctor K and the nurses tried to revive me, their faces clenched, muscles taut in rapid fire action. I wanted to tell them that there was no need for concern, nothing to save me from. I was okay, out of pain. And then I was looking up at their faces, now so close I could feel their breath as they stared at me. In that first moment I was prone, but they helped me sit again, took my vitals, my body still rocking with the effort of breath, though not as forcefully.
Doctor K’s dark eyes met mine for the first time since we entered the elevator. Despite beads of sweat on his brow, he appeared comparatively relaxed as he said, “Welcome back.”
“Thanks,” I mouthed.
“You didn’t just come close to dying,” he said, “you touched death and came back.”
On a deep level my entire being reflected this. When I was released a week later, nothing looked the same. Blue sky was no longer simply blue, but also composed of gold to pink hues, while foliage overwhelmed my senses with its infinite shades of green, red, grey, all of which were more vibrant than I’d previously perceived. This heightened awareness may also be the result of a week spent amidst neutral walls, floors, curtains, bedding, since I’ve read that prisoners also experience an overwhelming sense of color saturation when released from our monochromatic institutions. As I drove home, what had previously appeared mundane–buildings, windows, traffic, stoplights, overhead cables–interwove exquisite geometric patterns throughout the city. Transfigured, this world revealed itself to be indivisible, electric, mesmeric.
Nothing in my home seemed familiar except Shanti, my Malamute, who greeted me with exuberant joy. When I kneeled to hug him, he surprised me by placing his forelegs on my shoulders, curling his clawed paws into my back and pulling me to him as he pressed his soft large head against the side of my neck. He held me like this for several minutes.
Years later, I had an experience that was so similar, I know I touched death again. I’d been camping in a valley that, overnight, filled unexpectedly with fog, which I’m highly reactive to. At daybreak I had to be rushed to the nearest hospital, an hour away. As my boyfriend sped us down the highway, my world once more reduced to breath despite the various types of pain screaming for attention throughout my body. Though shivering and wheezing intensely, I remained calm as I focused on breathing, feet to pelvis, knees to chin, so I could rest, my torso wedged fetal-like between my legs and the seat’s back as I rocked in rhythm with my breath to aid the expansion and contraction of lungs and diaphragm.
And then, as if I were floating above the hood, I looked through the windshield at my lover driving and my body on the seat beside him, a sliver of brown cord the only connection between my body and me. It felt as if the effortless course would be to drift farther away, release the cord, and never wheeze or hurt again. Resentment and pain had been replaced by the warm expansiveness of love and repose, none of life’s struggles carried beyond the parameters of the body.
But as I looked at my boyfriend, I realized he’d blame himself if I died in the car since he hadn’t taken the severity of my asthma attack seriously, had delayed our leaving even though I urged him, hours earlier, to drive me to the hospital. Too, it is possible that whatever the circumstance, I would have created a pressing reason to live. This time, however, the effort to return almost proved too much.
With no more than thin arms and hands, I pulled the dead weight of my legs and torso along the slender filament rising from my body’s navel. Though I was descending, the effort was as extreme as if I were pulling myself up the insurmountable face of a thousand foot cliff, that despite my focus and will I would not be able to reenter my body. But I kept placing hand before hand as I pulled myself closer and closer till the pain of wheezing filled me once more.
With these fragile resilient bodies we bleed, can be violated, may hurt so much that we long for death, or at least release, but we also touch, make love, feel the sun on our skin, perceive color, texture, and the range of experience from rapture to numbness to extreme pleasure. And sometimes we are able to choose whether to live or die, which may be what Florida Scott-Maxwell alludes to when she writes, “…it may matter deeply how we end so mysterious a thing as living,” though what enables us to make this choice remains as mysterious as the actuality of life itself.
I do not fear death since I’ve felt its intimate wholeness; however, death’s perpetual presence makes me anxious, no certainty harbored that I’ll see those I love again. Though I’ve experienced the compassion and unconditional peace that exists in death, I am unable to maintain that lack of pettiness, judgement and attachment while alive. Instead, a peculiar ledger of rights and wrongs permeates the psyche, as if the tension holding molecules in physical form requires some kind of passion. Yet, whether measured as a whole or a moment, life remains transient and miraculous, a miracle we honor with our keen presence and compassion, both of which expand to the exclusion of all else once free of this exquisite existence.
Thank you to the editors of Cezanne’s Carrot for first publishing this piece.