Death is coming…Make friends with it.
Here’s an embarrassing story about the time I died: I’d been festering in a hospital bed for a few days after a kidney transplant that had so far been unsuccessful. As far I could tell at that time, the only immediate benefits to having been through surgery were the free morphine on tap and the throngs of solicitous relatives that came to visit every so often to feed me fruit or ice cream from the overpriced convenience store downstairs.
My body bruised and swollen, my head a cloud of broken thoughts and drug-induced non sequiturs, I had a drain in my side that served as a conduit for a constant stream of blood, puss, and ooze; all quite normal after a kidney transplant, but as the flow of the oozing increased tenfold, I began to suspect that there might be something wrong.
Being relatively late at night, there were only a few nurses on call. I remember I tried to get the attention of the nurse who was actually in charge of the patients at that time (let’s call him ‘Fred’) to inform him of my ever-increasing drainage issues; he ignored me, perhaps assuming that I was simply some simplistic, impetuous youth that was making a mountain out of a molehill. Over the course of half an hour or so, my supplications for attention escalated, as did his dismissals, eventually culminating in the nonchalant flourish of his hand and the curt assertion that he was ‘dealing with the patients who are really sick.’ Uh oh.
A few minutes after hearing this infamous utterance, still languishing in my hospital bed, I began to feel my temperature rise. I felt a kind of sinking sensation in my stomach. Clambering up out of the bed, unsure of where I was headed or why, I continued to feel hotter and hotter. Looking around the room at the patients who were really sick and the nurses that were dealing with them, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of panic. My heart started to pound within my chest harder, faster, and stronger than you can possibly imagine. I locked eyes with a patient in the opposite bed who had received a kidney from the same donor; the look of ineffable fear upon his face as he sensed something was happening to me made me panic even more.
Time stopped to the soundtrack of my beating heart smashing against my ribcage. I felt myself drifting down towards the floor but blacked out before I got there. A female nurse shouted my name. It was the last thing I heard before I died.
Now for the embarrassing part: After dying twice on an operating table, having the transplanted kidney removed, thirty-something blood transfusions, and a refreshing week-long slumber in ICU, I awoke with a flurry of excitement on an undulating bed as my mother and (ex)girlfriend looked upon me with tears in their eyes and I spouted a stream of gibberish that confirmed their apprehensions that I would be brain damaged upon return to the land of the living.
“F**k off”, I said to my poor old Mother, from my vantage point on the ceiling (thanks drugs!);“Go Green!”, I yelled at my bewildered Japanese girlfriend. How embarrassing to have been reduced to such a pitiful state! What a besmirching of my own reputation! What on earth would the people witnessing this ungodly scene think of me? And what the hell did ‘Go Green’ mean? Allow me to explain.
Whilst relaxing in my coma, I had a potent dream in which I played the role of a disembodied voice overlooking a dusty mountain, around which streamed, from bottom to top, a single-file procession of small, bug-like creatures. I can still see this image quite clearly when I think about it. In my disembodied state I was able to give these creatures instructions to somehow enter the real world (whatever that might be) and leave a sign for my girlfriend to follow so that we could be reunited in eternity. The agreement that I came to with these creatures was that this sign would be green; hence ‘Go Green’ being one of my first utterances upon resurrection.
As heart-warming as all that might be, I don’t think that this vision was anything more than my brain fighting to stay active whilst I was in the coma. I guess on a deeper level, it might demonstrate what my priorities were at the time (always was a sucker for romance), but I don’t think there was anything supernatural or unearthly taking place. In fact, I remember being kind of disappointed by the whole experience; no tunnels of light, no holy revelations, no astral projection. The whole experience demystified death for me completely: When I regained my senses, I had the utterly profound sensation that this is it; once you’re gone you’re gone. Since then I have been almost neurotically overawed by the fact that life is incredibly fragile and that we’re all clinging on to it by the skin of our teeth alone.
Though I like to think I’ve learned a lot of important lessons from this brush with death and the chain of events that led up to it, I think that the most important of these is an awareness of the imminence and inevitability of it all. It is there constantly, behind everything we do. I remember the surgeon who removed the transplanted kidney (which had burst at the seams) coming into see me upon waking in ICU. The look on his face when he saw that I was moving and communicating and, dare I say, living, was one of total shock and incredulousness; but, as absurd as it might sound, that’s how I since find myself looking at all kinds of people.
In the years since I ‘came back’, many people have described my survival as ‘miraculous’ and I guess in statistical terms it is pretty close to being so; but when I look around at all the people plodding and breathing about me, and when I consider all of the things that can go wrong in their lives, I think it’s pretty miraculous that any of us are here (actually, I don’t believe in ‘miracles’ — I just think that sometimes things happen and sometimes they don’t). So many people seem so jaded and so fed up of things these days, and I think part of that is because they don’t reflect on how the sands are inexorably falling through the hourglass and how thoroughly incredible it is to even be here in the first place.
We’re all on a limited contract, only some of us don’t realise it. The rest of this post is about death and how embracing it can change your life for the better.
How to make friends with death:
The clock is ticking; death makes time precious, whether you want it to be or not — Every so often you might hear an elderly person joking in a very English way on account of failing eyesight or a gammy, arthritic knee that they’re ‘falling to pieces’. The joke here of course is that this isn’t a joke; they are describing the literal decline of their bodies; the slow crumbling and ebbing away that will happen to all if us if we don’t somehow beat the clock and leave a young and good