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Near death

Fight for your life, become a better person

Several times a week, I drive past a building that, until about a year ago, never stood out.

I guess it blended in with the menagerie of buildings and bushes in that part of the city, or maybe I didn’t care about it enough to notice. But I see it now on its perch at the side of the freeway, standing there as a looming beacon of life and death, a sort of way station of joy and grief, hope and loss, a place of second chances, or curtain calls, all bound together and ensconced in steel and glass.

It’s a complicated place. Some people are born there, some die, others pass through. In my case, I was neither born nor died, at least not in the literal sense, but something happened beyond just passing through. And, for a time, I had the big corner room on the top floor, with the best view in the building.

The journey that brought my pen to this paper is still evolving. But there is this one instance, the second time I went there — to that building, without an appointment — that feels trapped within me, its meaning seeping out only when I let my guard down. It weighs on me in a way I’ve never known.

We have all probably cheated death a time or two; in that regard, I am no different. Two times, death was at my door, and I fled to that building. And it is undeniable: I would have died had nature been allowed to run its course. Twice, drastic medical intervention by surgeons saved me.

Here is my story:

February 2010, I’m making decent bank as a credit manager of a large manufacturer, raising a couple of teenage boys. Life’s been better, and life’s been worse. I seem to be existing more than living, but that’s okay.

The previous November, my colon had ruptured. It was deadly serious, and I went to that building. I had a couple of surgeries. After a few months of difficult recovery, I was back to the grind. I had shaken off that brush with death and its ass-kicking recovery like a dog shaking off water after a bath. My resilience and perseverance had been confirmed. It was not such a big deal, after all. That ugly shit was over. Now: next.

It’s my third day back from the colon-rupture mess, people at the office still welcoming me, congratulating me on my recovery and asking questions about the experience. In the meantime, I’m trying to get back into the work groove. I still don’t feel so hot. By the end of the day, people are asking if I am okay. I am, sort of. But the happy face I’ve put on is getting heavy, and that best foot forward, well, it’s not as steady as I’d like. But that’s all I’ve got, so I figure that if I can just make it through today, tomorrow will be better.

It isn’t. Day four rolls in, and I’m feeling sick, like I have the flu, and sore in my stomach, big time. But the economy is in the tank, I just took three months off, and I’m no pussy. I’m going to make it through this day, just like I make it through everything else. This is what I tell myself as I head off to work.

I’m not there long before I notice that this whole working thing feels like a huge burden. People notice that I look pale and say I should go to the doctor. I blow it off, at first, but then I start thinking that this seems a lot like the last time my colon ruptured. Something serious is happening to me, and it’s happening fast.

To chill out my coworkers, I tell them I’m going to see the doctor. One thinks I should go in an ambulance. When I say, “No way,” she pulls my truck up to the front of the building, so I don’t have to walk far. I tell her that I’m fine, I’m going to the doctor straight away, and I will see everyone tomorrow.

Alone in my truck, I don’t have to pretend. I’m sick. OMG, I’m really sick. I need to do something. I feel so weird. It dawns on me that I’m dying — I’ve begun a journey that will end in my death. It’s unreal, a feeling like what you see in the movies, when someone knows they’re about to die, and then they do. Suddenly, that’s me. I get to script my own ending.

It hurts so bad as I drive, and with that odd feeling creeping on me, I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to go to the hospital. Been there, done that. I think of cowboys and Indians. I think of dogs and pyres. I embrace myself, realizing with the clarity of reading a fortune cookie that if I take no action: all that I had ever done, everything I ever thought I was, was everything I would ever be. For the first time in my life, I accept myself, in my entirety. All the good of me, all the bad of me. Forty-six years of living life my way is over. Regrets, forget about it. Soon I’ll be forgotten, too; that’s how life works. I need to go home and hold my children before I leave Earth. Yes, I tell myself, man up. It’s the final hour. No time to punk out. Stay strong. Tell those boys you love them. Lie down and die in your own bed. It’s been a good life.

When I get home, the kids are scared. I don’t look good, and they know something is wrong. I tell them I’m fine and that if can just hold them, I will be even better. I need to kiss their heads, to feel them in my arms so I can remember what love feels like. I hold them, tell them I love them, assure them I’m fine. Then I lie down on my bed, feeling at peace, if not for the incredible pain. But my story that I am fine is not holding up. The boys call my sister, and she rushes over.

She drives me to that building. We don’t have an appointment. I won’t get out in front. I insist that I will walk from the parking lot. I have a sense of dread looking at that building. My plan had been to ride out the pain and die, but I know now that that is over. As soon as I enter that building, a fight will begin. I will at least walk to the fight like everyone else.

It is a long and painful walk to the lobby — that was a bigger parking garage than it looked. Right away, they want me in the back, and they want me to take a wheelchair to the bed. “No, I’ll walk,” I tell them. I need to. Scared, is what I am. I know I am about to surrender myself, but not to my Maker as seems natural. I am going to surrender myself to my fellow man, place my fate in their hands, as they battle the natural order of life. Surrendering my fate to others goes against my nature, but after signing a few forms, that’s what I’ve done. It’s surreal. The stakes are so high, like a mountain in front of me.

Yes, I’m walking to the bed. They get a young orderly, a big kid — in some way he reminds me of my oldest boy. He hovers like a hawk as we go, my sister on one side, him on the other. Me swaggering in the middle. This is the hardest walk of my life. It hurts so bad. I hate where we are going, I hate why we are going there, I hate what I think they are going to do. I want to curl up and have it just go away.

When we make it to the bed, I begin to disassociate myself from the totality of my situation and lie there quietly. Soon, I’m in a gown under warm blankets, my ID now a bracelet on my wrist that’s constantly checked, an IV dripping in my arm, and everyone talking to me is wearing a uniform. They all look at me like they are sorry I’m lying there like I am, and I can tell I’m screwed. But it’s clear they are rallying around me, ready to do anything to keep me alive.

The tests indicate that my intestines have ruptured again. Now, they are planning the next course of action. This includes major surgery, or else I will die. Wow, all these decisions. The possibilities and uncertainty of it all spin as I lie here, thinking.

I’m spending the night, so my sister makes arrangements for my kids. She calls the rest of the family to tell them I’m at the emergency room, waiting to be admitted to the hospital. A nurse comes in and apologizes to me. A man in cardiac arrest is coming in to the next space, and she warns me that it might be loud. She is concerned I won’t rest with the commotion. WTF? Is this for real?

They wheel the guy in, and an army of people descend on him. An immensely organized effort is launched to save this man’s life. It is loud, so many people working in tandem, as if choreographed, as they try every method they can to revive him. After the defibrillator is used and all else seems to fail, they bring in that strapping kid who escorted me to my bed to do chest compressions. He works at it until the man’s heart starts again. Suddenly, there is hope in the air, as the monitor beeps the rhythm of his heart. The team congratulates the kid on his effort. And now begins the task of keeping the man’s heart beating.

My head is swimming…this is surreal. Suddenly, I don’t have a good feeling anymore. It all seems too serious, so for-keeps, while being forgiving in an unforgiving kind of way. When that machine stops beeping the sounds of the man’s heart, everyone again goes into overdrive. But he dies anyway.

I am stunned at this turn of events, at how quickly what happened, happened. Me and my sister look at each other; no words need to be said. As I wait my turn, I pray for the man’s soul. What went on in that 20 minutes has been eye-opening. What happened was that the man had collapsed at the gym. Now his daughter is on the way. She doesn’t know yet that he’s died. They begin cleaning up the area so she won’t see a mess. They clean him up, too, and then I can hear the daughter crying. OMG, how I want to cry, too, not from my eyes but from deep within. That man was here. They fought to save him. He died. And now they are already working on the next person. Never missing a beat, never showing indifference or weakness. They are continuing the urgent tasks at hand. I wonder if I am next. Will they clean my body and comfort my family before they move on? I promise myself that I will remember that man and what they did for him. And this is the first time I believe I will live, the first time I realize that I want to remember.

Soon, I enter a blur of medications, pain, and emotional funk. I understand that they are going to cut me open, with somewhere in the neighborhood of a 12-inch cut on my stomach, so they can see what’s doing in there. Not sure what they will do about it, but it’s serious and has to be dealt with immediately. I sign the papers and am carted down the long halls leading to the surgery area. It’s been a whirlwind…and I’m getting sicker and sicker. It’s harder and harder to care about what happens next. My instinct to cooperate is going away.

As I roll into the bright white of the operating room, a team of people snaps into action, a choreographed effort like what I saw them do with the man from the gym. I feel a surrendering come over me. Whatever will be is now in their hands, whoever they are, those people in hairnets and masks. They reassure me that all will be okay. I look around the room, thoughts about life swirling through my head, and I feel a bizarre indifference, a c’est la vie moment as I drift off, surrounded by the sounds of clamoring people busy at work, on me.

Later, I drift awake, in great distress. This is way worse than I imagined. I can’t breath. I can’t move. I am in unfamiliar surroundings that seem lab-like. A woman sits outside a sliding-glass door, working on a computer. She looks at me in a curious way, seeing that I have stirred. I can tell she’s thinking that everything is fine. I’m not sure why I can’t breathe or move, or why she doesn’t seem to get that I’m having an issue here. It’s like a bad dream. Can’t she tell that I’m on the verge of drowning? Life seems so heavy on me.

The totality of everything comes rushing in. I am not drowning. I am at the hospital. They were going to operate on me — if I remember correctly — so…what happened? For a while, I felt as if I’d been transported to some twilight zone and found myself at a crossroads. I felt God communicating to me that it was okay, everything was going to be okay. I instinctively understood that to mean that I had fought enough, I had done enough, I would be forgiven if I wanted to go with Him now, that everyone would be fine if I didn’t return from this.

Then His voice becomes my sister’s. I can’t see her, but I feel like she is reassuring me, saying that it’s okay. In fact, she is saying exactly that. She appears from behind me. I’m surprised that she’s here, but my real concern is that I need her to shut up. I’m trying to make up my mind here alone. But she won’t stop with the it’s okay stuff, and it’s not okay, I’m fairly certain. I do the only thing I can, under the circumstances. I flip her the bird. I’m weak, and it’s more of a curled finger on a slightly waving hand, but she notices. The nurse thinks it can’t be, until I rotate the hand toward her. I become focused on shutting them both up, before I buy the farm, before I make up my mind whether I am even a farmer or not.

The nurse tells my sister that I am too sedated to be communicating and not to worry about me. But my sister is worrying, I can tell. Worse, she is still telling me that it’s going to be okay, when I know it isn’t. Somewhere in here, with no fanfare or warning, God withdraws His offer. Maybe it’s my hesitation, the need for more time to decide that has decided for me. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I need my right hand unbound. I need a pen and paper so I can convey a message. My sister makes that happen while the nurse ups my dose of meds. I’m too sedated to be this aware, the nurse insists. And, holy shit, the Dilaudid is hitting me hard. But I’ve been loaded before a time or two, I must admit, so I start writing what I can’t say. I’m not sure what I write on the pages — although my sister shows me the pages later, and I don’t know how she even read them, as my writing is so sloppy — but it’s clear I need that breathing machine out of my throat, and pronto. I am going to fight to live, not fight against that thing.

A couple of hours later, I am cleared to have the tube removed, and they pull it out. It is like I have won a war. I am now in charge of my breathing again. Finally, a breath when I want it, not when that machine pushes one into me. All that other stuff is still hooked up, those three IVs, but they are child’s play as far as I’m concerned. I can move a bit more, but ohh, does it hurt everywhere.

Yeah…what’s up with that? What happened with the surgery? I remember to think about that now that I have caught my breath. It’s hard to tell what’s going on, but it looks like my intestine is sticking out of my side into a clear plastic bag. I have all these bandages on my stomach, and I feel so strange. I’m horrified yet somehow indifferent. It all seems unreal. I want to panic but realize I already must have done that because I just can’t anymore. It’s as if I am on a boat, floating between wanting to overcome what is happening and wanting to pretend it isn’t happening, with neither offering safe harbor. It takes two or three days before I can accept my situation, before I realize that overcoming it is the only option left. No matter how much I sleep, I’m going to wake up from this. It looks as if I am going to stay alive.

Unbeknownst to me, during those first few days, there were two versions of the same event unfolding: mine and everyone else’s. On my end, I was busy contemplating life-and-death issues, drifting between denial and acceptance, while lying there in a suspended state. I was alternately in tremendous pain and deep in the haze of heavy-duty narcotics. This was a time of reflection, so much was weighing on me, about me. I really didn’t consider anything beyond myself. I just was lying there, trying not to move, think, or feel. But there was a hustle and bustle going on around me. I wasn’t the only one who knew I was sick. The doctor had told my family the seriousness of my situation. My sister, who had taken me to the hospital, vowed to stay with me until I recovered enough to tell her to go home to her husband and family. People who knew of my situation told others, and they collectively prayed for me, however they saw fit. My family agonized to see me like this again and endured the drama of this kind of event. The medical team hovered over me, with all the monitoring, measuring, and medicating. My employer stood by me, as they also made preparations to continue without me.

Meanwhile, back at the pad, mail was piling up in my locked mailbox, dishes remained in my sink, and the milk in the fridge turned into cottage cheese. Mold, it grew. I had left some lights on — cha ching. All the plants on my patio were dying, and my fish tank was all lights, no food. Not to mention, the trash can in the kitchen was ripening.

That’s all while I had that big corner room on the that building’s top floor. A peaceful place with a roomy floor plan, so they can bring the equipment to you when you’re too sick to go to the equipment. At close to $35,000 a night, they were very attentive. Many of the staff in the ward knew me. I had been there before. Some of the nurses and caregivers stopped by to see me when they heard I was back. The hard work by my medical team insured my recovery, and a couple of weeks later, I left that building and went home, again. My insurance company was probably glad to hear I was headed home — I racked up medical bills in excess of a million dollars. I hope I was worth it.

Now, as I drive by, looking in from outside, I wonder how many people are lying there in need of prayers. How many people will start life in there? How many will leave life? How many are just passing through? I look at the cars around me and wonder if they notice that building. Are they aware of the battles being waged inside it? Not like the petty battles waged in the office buildings down the road, but the kind of battles that define our mortality. Battles that turn who you were into memories, who you are into question, and who you will become into one of the greatest challenges you will ever get a chance to redefine.

I’m still redefining myself. The old me is distant, and the new me is so challenging, I still surprise myself with myself. I suppose that’s better than surrounding myself with myself. I don’t want to move back to square one. I just want to move on, and I am, sometimes in leaps, in bounds, and sometimes in baby steps and flip-flops. But I’m still moving, headed to where I want to be, making trails in uncharted territories within. And, sometimes, I cry when I think back or when I see that building. It’s a strange kind of sorrow that I’m sure is draped in self-pity, but it is also burdened with a humbleness that my ego finds heavy to carry. I put up the fight of a lifetime, and I’m the prize. Fuck me. I didn’t see it coming. I would have tried to be a better person sooner. Oh, well. ■

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