The Angel of Death or The Metaphysical Mundane
A sliver of (my) life in the instant of (my) death.
If I tell the date, it will have that sort of metallic or machinelike or at least clanging emphasis, the tone of facticity, if not ploy: date numbers with the peremptory statement of records, or even the news data banality that becomes its own kind of abstraction. And ephemera. If I don't tell the date, it's left to greater abstraction, that of tales and anecdotes and parables and supposition and fiction and perhaps worst of all, morals, at least the worst kind of morals. Either way, there was the moment my heart stopped.
I got a shock. My heart started again. As my friend who had gone through a struggle with lymphoma a year before asked me, yes, there was that detachment, that remove, that gives the lie to natural and supernatural at once: not an out of body experience, but an all too trapped in body experience that shows in its own way how we are not at home, always having to catch up to our own organism, material means, perception and consciousness always this tourist naivete at existence itself. To some extent this is also a kind of shock, a defense mechanism, the same way that as an airline flight for a big trip approaches, I find myself forgetting or acting as if I'm not going, to avoid the anxiety of preparation, being on time, forgetting things. I'm forgetting, to keep from worrying about forgetting, among other things. If you ask me, I will tell you this is what I'm doing, although that then blows the whole scheme of being unconscious about it.
It's both conscious and unconscious at the same time, and it's really the idea that these two can be distinct, like objects in separate labeled containers, that is the most untenable, not to say ridiculous. What me is left over from the strands of thought, like veins, like the tubes and electrical lines and catheters tying me to the hospital, that wind and tangle and cover each other and trail off?
To some extent, as already said, this is "consciousness," perception itself, not a special state of shock. It's the cascade of after-the-fact reaction and reflection, in general for anyone. Thus to some extent it's me in any state. To some extent, this is me in particular, for it's also what I cultivate. Call it what a writer does, if you want, although that's inapt for lots of reasons, most of all because it rests on no condition of any specific writing, certainly not publication -- which is also more particularly "the story of my life" for all that a dramatic moment of mortality, near death or after death experience, is
supposed to invoke of fortune, fate, fulfillment, regret, remorse, etc.
I don't ever like to presume the pat value, status or title "writer." For one, because I prefer to think of it as an operation, an activity, an action, when and how it is done, and not a noun or a property. I'm not a writer, I'm writing. And most of all because I prefer to think of it already as thinking, and beyond even that, as play, the play Nietzsche spoke of, although he may have been a bit arrogant in claiming it only for great minds. Perhaps there is some greatness in a mind that can do it even in what are supposed to be the most dire circumstances, perhaps the very possibility for that mind itself. For the mind to play, with things (with "things" -- but that's a whole other discussion, a whole other life's worth of play), is also to see, as in the flicker of an instant, the interval by which even time's stopping relentlessly moves on, in a word, a heartbeat, the extent of the insignificant, the play itself of significance between momentous and infinitesimal, the fractal, memory and forgetting swallowing each other, cosmic grandiosity and the utterly -- but then what would this measure be -- mundane bound up in the irony (humor and tragedy always contaminated, too, some Kafka, perhaps some Woody Allen) of dis-lo(d)gic, im/pertinence, the detail of distraction or divergence that then teeter-totters the big picture.
Because some of you have asked, and because others have not, I'm going to tell you this way "what it's like," whether it means anything at all the way this meant to me.
The very earnest doctor who presided over my catheter procedure and thus my revival -- to perhaps whom I owe my life -- and I promise I was not without an overflowing measure of such feeling for this and for him, too -- told me immediately after the procedure, while I was still laid out there on the table. He said my name in that way to call me to attention from my drugged indefiniteness, and then said, "Your heart stopped." No beating around the bush or sugar coating it, or withholding till perhaps a time of better constitution. This same doctor came to see me each day I was in the hospital after, to repeat this to me. He would look at me first speechless with that sort of squaring up, to then deliver in his gravest, yet still friendly way, the lesson. There is only a 30% success rate with defibrillation in cardiac arrest. Those were my odds, slim enough to measure an even greater moral of the responsibility I should now take. He wanted me to stop smoking. Something any and every doctor would and did say, but now backed up with a Lazarus experience.
What about the odds and chances, the luck, of a bad heart? I speculated on all the scales of that, during the 12 more hours I had to lie flat due to the catheters and pump run up one side of me from the groin. This was a torture because of my other bad throw of the congenital dice, ankylosing spondylitis, causing me clenching pain in my lower back that usually came with less than six hours of stillness while sleeping (hardly). My father and his mother both suffered massive heart attacks. I had none of their corroborating factors, such as high blood pressure, high-skillet diet, weight or diabetes. But I got two obstructed
arteries -- a bad ticker.
The lower back pain triggered me to move, sit up, stand up, walk around, get in a hot shower. The preponderance of my skinny-framed, wimpy constitution, bad tolerance for drugs, rheumatological life has made me a kind of skitterer, like a bird or jackal, avoiding positions and situations in a sort of goofy paradox: don't sit still for long, but also don't do much either. This was perhaps the most frightening "lesson" of all now that struck me for life after a heart attack, the reduction of existence to the most basic zero sum bad rap: you can't move and you can't stay still. You can't stand out and you can't blend in. You can't take risks, and you can't avoid the risks you must take in order to live. To that earnest doctor who revived me -- and I asked him his name so that I would remember it, and directly expressed my gratitude as well -- I could've said: Do me a favor.
On the table during the procedure, I did not know that moment my heart stopped. I was out at the time, on the drugs that, despite my intolerance for coming on and coming off them, I would not want to do without for any such procedure. If you want to know if I saw tunnels or lights, my life passing by, or the whole procedure including my own body laid out from somewhere above, my answer is, no, nothing. I was out. Even what I may have been dreaming at the time is lost to me, like countless sleep moments of my life. Perhaps this will disappoint you, but to me it can only be "evidence" -- conundrum there too -- that there is a not conscious -- please notice the order of words here, that "a" comes before "not" -- wherein others, the rest, perhaps existence itself, does not depend on my awareness or me to go on. I can be told about it should I wake up. (In my intensive care room, after the procedure, the glass covering the light fixture above my bed gave me a funny little version of this out of body experience, seeing myself laid out there, with my functions connected to devices of expression, which beeped to tell on me.)
The shock of course woke me, but even then I didn't know what had happened. The thing I then had to be conscious of was that I was going to throw up. I felt it seizing up inside me and called out that I needed to. I was frightened that I was on my back and couldn't move, but a voice behind me told me to just turn my head. I did to the left and was strangely sort of pleasantly surprised -- in that detached, as if somehow removed from it at the same time way -- at how easily it came out of me that way. Now I was awake, however, and all sorts of too un-detached reactions were kicking in, if somewhat still dulled by the drugs. I was strapped down, splayed out. I felt a terrible jittery feeling inside my chest, and my freer left leg began to spasm as if a reaction to
this. Or maybe it was because I was cold, the outside of me exposed while the inside was probed. I opened my eyes at one point to see a video screen with silhouette puppets of dancing threads. But the one thing that took over, that became my focus: my right hand was falling asleep, getting worse, hurting. My right wrist was also where they went in with a catheter, so they had to strap my wrist, palm turned up awkwardly, to the rail of the bed. I moved my fingers and began to protest in my sickened moaning way.
"My hand is asleep."
And when the point seemed lost, "It hurts."
They told me not to move it. They said I needed to be still because they had to finish. Nurses who had attended to my vomit tried to offer me comforting words. I had to wait through the rest of the procedure this way, the pain in my hand increasing from falling dead on its own. Then when it was finally over came the doctor leaning in to offer me that upshot, as if almost a wag of the finger at all my piddling waking concerns and unruliness. "Your heart stopped."
I had not known it, and all I could think of was, get me out of here, my hand hurts. For life, in life, the reflex is mundane and not a cosmic life or death matter. This in turn is not an escape, from the trap of physics any more than metaphysics.
It occurred to me that if I'd had an after death experience, this was purgatory. My private intensive care room was a jail and a resort. I had a bed that, after it had been my torture rack and I was allowed to bend, folded into a position that was better for my back than anything I'd ever slept on. But I could not stray far from this bed because I was attached by wires to the machines over it. To some the easy exposure of lower parts, even to piss in bed, may be a freedom. To me, comfort and freedom was in the privacy of underwear, pants and shoes to get to a restroom. I, too, could enjoy lying around and doing nothing for days. I finally got up when I wanted, walked around the ward a couple of times a day, and ordered food when I wanted it, though I had little appetite and even that for the blandest of hospital food. And there was cable TV -- another kind of limbo. An apparent bounty of choice that is fool's gold, where five minutes of anything you might be interested in is paid for by five minutes of commercials, making it all the more blatantly insane that anyone pays for this, instead of only being forced to watch when traveling or ill.
I did manage to land on some interesting pictures, things I knew already but now enjoyed in special light: "Groundhog Day," "The Loved One," "Roman Holiday." When I told one nurse about the significance I drew from "Groundhog Day," seeing in it's own salty way my having another chance at life, his reply, "You wouldn't want that day," led me straight to a more ghastly significance I hadn't thought of for my Eternal Return. Evelyn Waugh and Terry Southern (via interpreters like Tony Richardson, Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, John Gielgud, Rod Steiger, Anjanette Comer -- whose character is named Thanatogenous) provided just the sort of black comedy take on the ghastly spectacle of obsequy I would always want to avoid, and for anyone who doesn't know me well enough already, let this hereby serve as will and testament not to remember me in that manner, a painted whore of ceremony.
It seemed there was an army of attendants who could show up out of nowhere to help me. They were my guards, and had to survey things like my urination. But they were also watching over me, guarding my health, and they were all -- surgeons, doctors, specialists, nurses, even the cleaning staff -- intent, focused, passionate and dispassionate, personable, caring, in the best possible way. To have the best care for my own life and health as a mere abstraction, by people who do not have a busybodyish interest in my soul, has always been a comforting idea to me. It's in the very word, "hospital." These are the names I want to tell, the facts I want my jaunty parable, my ghostly story, to link up to: doctors Shanta, Staffey, Mancuso; nurses Sara, John, Nate, Meagan, Tara, Taylor. And there are others whose names I regretfully don't remember.
The night of my heart attack, before it started, I was writing an e-mail to a friend about losing touch to the point of not knowing if anything bad happened. One of my nurses, as part of required questions for my stay, asked me if I had felt violated. I was so surprised by the question, I exclaimed, "What do you mean?"
"Did anyone treat you in a way you felt was bad or threatening?"
"Oh, my gosh, no. Everyone has been so wonderful."
That's when I had my post-traumatic release. I have as hard a time crying in front of someone as peeing. But I let the tears out. To think of this human care from these strangers that was closer than anything I had in my life at the time. This was the sadness of living on with as much no one to matter as to matter to no one. But this was only possible because that moment my heart stopped was not the definitive one.
The nurse had also asked me if I had any special requests based on cultural or religious beliefs and if I wanted to see a chaplain. I said no. A chaplain came nevertheless. He managed to slot himself in inconspicuously because of the train of other specialist visitors, dietitians, discharge agents, etc. I was sitting in a recliner at that point and he walked up and started introducing himself. I was caught with my face ready when he said he was a chaplain. And then an awkward pause, as I had nothing to say, no question for him. He said if I needed anything, to let him know, and left with the same polite smile.
In that moment of my polite deferral -- politeness leading me to say nothing rather than anything -- I wondered if it would be polite to discuss this in the manner I have just done above. Later I wondered more about quoting Epicurus' version of my feeling about that moment: when I'm here death is not, when death is here I am not. Or Blanchot and Derrida's version of this, which, even more first person, also shows how it is the experience of the other we are for. Surviving such a moment only serves to emphasize that we are always survivors. I wondered if it would have been bold or rude of me to say that the interest of my soul was not comforting to me, at least not in the sense of the cosmos being some special pact that would favor me in basketball games or mass killings, caused by whatever forces. No, I think I liked my chances better, and in fact there's something much more comforting about their slimness.
Must I be the angel of death for all the symbols and symptoms of interest in life? Do I pass over the home as an outside shadow whose vicarious existence subtracts all the major keys, the windows that are the pictures of warmth and bounty as a perpetual inside, deferred, obscured, withheld, all the assertions and extensions of ego that in their way become pat and colorless and bland? Am I not already made up of the grain of this living? Is it too much to ask, too much not to ask -- instead of a selfie with God, the looks, the touch, the brushes with each other we are, even in things?
What does it matter. All that remains is the feeling of lightness that is death itself or, to put it more precisely, the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance.
-- Maurice Blanchot, "The Instant of My Death"
Dying means: you are dead already, in an immemorial past, by a death that was not your own, which you have thus neither known nor lived, but under the threat of which you believe you are called to live; you await it henceforth in the future, constructing a future to take place and will belong to the realm of experience.
To write is no longer to put in the future a death always already past, but to accept that one must endure it without making it present and without making oneself present to it; it is to know that death has taken place even though it has not been experienced, and to recognize it in the forgetting that it leaves, whose traces, which can be erased, call upon one to exempt oneself from the cosmic order, where disaster makes the real impossible and desire undesirable.
This uncertain death, always anterior, the attestation to a past without present, is never individual, just as it overflows the whole.
-- Blanchot: The Writing of the Disaster
Beyond, then, what I could've said to the doctor who wanted to level the truth of death/life at me, to the friend who asked if I, too, felt detached, from either, both, from anyone and all finally, as if there is this to say: what does this have to do with me? What does any of this, which includes me, have to do with me? This is the material and chance of me belonging to the rest, that will leave me, remains. You can see it in the strange moment when pain consumes you as a fate, but you're still thinking, not as an existential cry, but as a kind of impertinent indifference, I want to be doing something else. There, too, the thought, the consciousness, that holds things, but that is held by things. Swallowing and swallowed. Consumed.
So am I now to tell you, o my friends, where there are no friends? Am I to tell you of the wonderful potential that has kept so many from the actual? Do I tell you, anyone, this way, the friends who aren't there, speaking both so directly and indirectly? To you? Who might only have remembered me had I died? But may never have known. Do I tell you after the fact of this almost posthumous state?
Again, I say, eternity is an alibi. We experience only the other's death, the loss of the other, and we are all survivors. This is my moral for you. Remember, everyone is forgotten. And in writing, already the possibility, the factor, of the posthumous.
Copyright April 2016 by Greg Macon