I remember the first time I died.
About five months ago, I was hiking up a gravel path through the national forest with a large backpack on my back when I suddenly collapsed. I had just stepped over a fallen tree that blocked the path when I fell on my face. My right cheek pressed against the ground, dirt and rocks inches from my open mouth. I could see but I could not move. I could hear but I could not feel anything. I couldnt blink, I couldnt move any part of my body. I was no longer breathing and my heart lay still in my chest.
I was dead. Or, more accurately, helplessly alive.
For 7 hours I laid face-down on that narrow, twisting path, completely paralyzed. My arms faced forward, bent at the elbows. My legs lay lifelessly behind me, slightly bent at the knees. My bulky pack pushed me into the dirt under its weight. I laid there as mobile as the dead log behind me, and waited for something, anything to happen. I was camping alone and had not seen anyone on the trail for 2 days - I knew no one would find me there in that thick, dark forest. I had no idea how long I would be there, whether I would die or remain partially alive.
Then, suddenly, my body bolted to life again. My whole system sparked back on in a large surge, like appliances and lights awakening after an electrical outage; the T.V. squawks, the lights beam, the stereo blares, the refrigerator hums, everything powers-up simultaneously in an abrupt thrust of sound and light. I could move my limbs again, I could breath, my heart pumped strongly. My muscles ached like never been before and extreme hunger gnawed my stomach, but I was alive again. My legs shook as I slowly, cautiously stood up, but they quickly regained their strength. I wiped the leaves, dirt, and rocks from my clothes and stared at my hands as I flexed them. I pumped my legs. I twirled my arms in circles. I examined myself, searching for some lingering damage, but I was perfectly fine aside from the stiffness.
I decided to cut my trip short. I turned around and hiked back 10 miles to my car. Freaked out by what had happened, I went for a medical exam. The doctor said I was in perfect health. I was relieved to not have some life-threatening disease but I was still distressed about my collapse in the woods. I told my mother about it and she was horrified. She made me get a second opinion but another doctor said the same thing: I was perfectly healthy. After about a week I forgot all about it. Until it happened again - to someone else.
A 13 year-old girl collapsed in her classroom during show-and-tell - dropped right to the floor like a bag of bricks. An ambulance rushed to the school but the EMT could not save her - she was pronounced dead 15 minutes later as her classmates stood outside in the hallway, bewildered by what they had seen.
The ambulance was rolling slowly down a gray street carrying her body to the hospital when she woke up screaming. Her parents were sitting in the back, crying over her dead body when she snapped back to life. Everyone was dumb-struck, their emotions burning across the spectrum in seconds. Her mother fainted. The girl complained of a painful chest and lungs - attributed to the vigorous efforts of the EMT trying to revive her - but after a thorough examination, she was released from the hospital that same night.
The story entranced the nation - they proclaimed it a miracle, and the media coverage brought joy to our dank, somber small town.
The girl appeared on all the T.V. talk shows to tell her amazing story. I saw her on one of the shows and listened to her relate the experience to the host. She said that she could see and hear everything. She described how she watched helplessly as the EMT pumped her chest and blew into her mouth, and later, from the stretcher in the ambulance, how she saw the suffocating pain in her mothers eyes. She heard all the terrified cries and panicked shouts around her but could do nothing to quell them. She explained how after pronouncing her dead, the paramedics tried to shut her eyelids, but they refused to stay down, like stubborn window shades. I listened in utter amazement as she described exactly what I had experienced out there in the woods. My mother was also watching with grave concern on her face.
Michael, I want you to see a specialist. What if it happens to you again? What if you are driving when it happens? she asked.
Mom, Ive done everything I can. Ive seen two doctors and they both said the same thing, I said. What else can I do? She looked from me back to the T.V. with worry heavy on her face. She knew I had done everything I could but she wanted an answer. I tried to ease her mind but as I looked towards the screen again I felt the crawl of electric spiders up my spine as the talk show host listened in wonder to the once-dead girl. I wondered what disease she and I had. Were we the first two victims of some unknown medical condition? Would it happen again? To me? To her? To others?
I continued to worry about it every time I saw her face on T.V. but it wasn't long before she was forgotten. The media moved on from her and our little town.
Until it happened again.
A few weeks later, four local friends were watching a movie at the theater when they all slumped over in their front row seats. No one noticed them until after the show. The usher thought they were passed out on drugs so he firmly shook one of the men by the shoulders but his dead eyes just stared blankly ahead, a box of popcorn in his lap and a half-empty diet coke in the drink holder next to him. Paramedics were called but they could do nothing for the men who had already been dead for 2 hours. The bodies were hauled off to the hospital and, due to the peculiar circumstances of the deaths, had autopsies performed upon them immediately. The pathologist was carving the first stem of the Y-shaped incision in the cadaver from the armpit to the bottom of the sternum when the deceased man woke up. The pathologist - after his initial shock - regained his composure, sewed the mans chest shut in time to save his life, and then quit his job. The other three men awoke as they lay in the frosty drawers of the morgue. Their families all sued the hospital.
A quadruple miracle they called it . Our usually lonely, depressed town shone once again under the national spotlight.
Comparisons to the case a month earlier quickly followed. The media focused on the miracle of life after apparent death, but our cynical townspeople wondered why seemingly healthy people were dropping dead. All five victims were in excellent health before their sudden deaths and, aside from a massive, bubbling scar on the one, remained so afterwards. The four men described how they felt during their ordeal and it exactly matched the experience of the little girl. What was going on in our town?
I became worried again and my mother wouldnt leave me alone about it. She was convinced it would happen to me again.
I couldnt bear seeing you like that, she would say every time the subject came up.
We were very close. I lived at home even though I was in my 30s. My two brothers did too. When our father had passed away we all had moved back into the family house to spend more time with our mother. We all got along so well. We often invited friends over and had small parties - we enjoyed our lives together, enjoyed the strong bond we had to one another. When mom lost dad she needed us around and we were happy to be there for her.
But this strange disease in town put a strain on our family. My mother was terrified of it happening to me again or to my brothers. Like most people who lost someone they dearly loved, she clung to those she had left, so scared to experience another loss. She had never fully adapted to not having dad around - he had died just 5 years earlier. Mom had nursed him for 2 years as cancer slowly ate him - two unbearable years of struggling against the relentless hand of death, as it methodically pulled her life's love away.
We were all worried about this disease. I couldn't imagine watching it seize my mother and I certainly didn't want to go through it myself again either. At least I was left alone in the woods I thought; I wasn't lying helplessly on a table while a doctor sliced open my chest. I shuddered to think of what that man must have gone through. I read his horrifying description of it once; he was screaming inside for the doctor to stop but he couldn't communicate. He felt no pain until his system switched back on again - and then the pain was staggering.
At first our citizens enjoyed the attention we received from the little girl's miraculous recovery. It had lifted the spirits of our dreary town, a normally depressing place. Surrounded by steel factories, a landfill, and smokestacks, it had always been an undesirable place to live, but her story had injected an energy into it. Eventually however, since it's recurrence in the four men, it was seen as the harbinger of a terrible affliction rather than a miracle. The joy vanished and dread took it's place. And it had only just begun.
People began dropping dead in the streets. Most came to minutes or hours later but it kept happening again and again and the town was stricken with terror. Of course some people actually stayed dead, but no one could distinguish those who would wake up from those who wouldnt. Those who came back described the exact same feelings: the incapability of movement, but the retention of sight and hearing. They first felt disbelief, then anger, then sadness, then acceptance. At that point they prayed for the next stage - life or death, not really caring which came, they just wanted something to happen. The suspended state between life and death was like losing your stomach on a drop that had no end. They clawed for a door to walk through, some place to go, but they could only just hang there in the unknown.
Everyone who went through it questioned what the process of death was. When you died for real, were you in this kind of state before passing on? Did all dead people experience this? Experts streamed into town to examine us. Everyone had desperate questions for them.
But no answers came.
Doctors fiercely studied the deaths and the indeterminate state of suspended life afterwards but the disease just steamrolled through town and no solutions were ever found. We were eventually left alone to deal with the problem. People sank into deep depression, down a dark shaft that seemed bottomless. The disease lashed at us with a fiery whip that we were defenseless against. The fear of the unknown starting a soul-consuming fire in the citizens of our downcast, isolated town.
The relentless crush irreversibly destroyed the frail reason of the townspeople. The concepts of life and death were no longer understood; their definitions were marred and confused. The disease muscled the sanity right out of town. People had been buried alive, autopsies had been performed on living persons, and a few cremations had been halted (and then reprehensibly continued) when the body began to scream. Preventing these kinds of incidents was paramount but the way to do so was not clear. After weeks of discussion and debate, the city council, a team of doctors, and the mayor came up with a solution that would be regretted forever. One night in the box-like, drab town-hall, a resolution was proposed, discussed, and then passed, mostly without objection. The solution, morose and deplorable to fit its cause, was to create Revival Square.
In early December, in an old, dirty square of town - one long-deserted by the city and left for street gangs and gatherings of other nefarious characters - the town council set-up Revival Square, a place for family members to keep and observe their dead relatives until, hopefully, they came back. The idea was to keep the dead all in one place, on the surface, where they could be observed by family members and the few experts who remained in town determined to explain the mysterious sickness.
The square was a large rectangular concrete slab, surrounded on the perimeter by inward-facing stone chairs behind which stood a black, spindly tree. The empty chairs once held marble statues of greek and roman gods but they had all been stolen after the city abandoned the square - the neighborhood had turned and people had become reluctant to visit it, so the city stopped maintaining it.
During that horrible winter of the squares stint as an outdoor crypt, dead, gray clouds seemed to permanently attach themselves to the ceiling of the sky. A funereal cold wind ran through the cheerless space, stirring up litter and black leaves around the chairs stained from car exhaust and years of neglect. Weeping families dressed in dull clothing, droning priests reading in whispered tones from bibles, and gloomy doctors making examinations and scribbling notes on clipboards populated the square that winter. They all were there to mourn or pray or observe that which sat in each massive throne: a staring, inanimate, human body.
As a corpse sat propped up in a chair, he gazed lifelessly out into the square at his relatives who prayed and begged for his revitalization. Doctors surrounded those bodies that were ignored, poking at them with various medical instruments. Throughout the day, persons would revitalize and walk away with loved ones, everyone crying and hugging. That brought a temporary joy to the gruesome place, but not to those left forlorn in front of their dead brother, sister, mother, father, child, or friend. Revival Square was where, for a day or two, you hoped that your loved one came back, but much longer and you prayed that they wouldnt. When elderly people were bitten by the disease they usually took a long time to come back, sometimes a week, or even a month. They often returned to a partially decomposed body and then suffered horribly through their remaining days. Revival Square was such a miserable, unbearable place that people eventually ceased to celebrate the resurrections of their loved ones. Cheering and rejoicing were inappropriate around a woman who might have been applying lotion to the rotting face of her dead husband.
Some relatives brushed hair, trimmed fingernails, or applied make-up on the cadavers, trying to keep their bodies as fresh and preserved as possible until revival. Most people never abandoned the hope that their loved one would come back. Euthanasia was illegal. You could always bury or cremate someone 48 hours after the disease struck but almost no one wanted to burn someone who might be able to watch the flames consume him and smell his own burning flesh. Or bury someone who might wake up under 6 feet of earth. Drugs did nothing - there was no circulation in the cadavers to carry the poison through the body. A shotgun blast to the head was the most effective way to euthanize someone but you would be prosecuted for murder if you resorted to that.
So Revival Square was all we had. It was a despicable, grievous solution but it was the law; you had to place a family member in a stone chair of that open, reeking, temporary cemetery within 12 hours of his death or risk imprisonment. People complained of the smell and of the cruelty, of the abhorrent solution to the problem, but the inexplicable horror that had descended on our town clouded the minds of the towns council and no other solution was explored.
I spent a lot of time at home then, but I became anxious. I had always lived an interesting life, one full of travel, music, adventure, family, parties, friends, and good times, but the mood around town, and in our house, discouraged that. I talked with my mother often about it, but she became more and more troubled about what might happen. She spoke of Revival Square with pure disgust, vowing never to put a loved one in there.
But eventually she had to. I died while at a family picnic and was set up in a stone throne a few hours later. When I awoke at three in the morning, my family was huddled before me, pale-faced and distraught. My mother ran to me, the bags sagging beneath her tear-streaked eyes. She gripped me like a non-swimmer in the ocean.
I cant take this Mikey, she sobbed, I cant take this. Dont leave me again, dont leave me. We walked home together, crying, past the thrones of dead bodies and the desperate families gathered before them.
Nationwide, most everyone was appalled at what was happening and how we were dealing with it. Those who studied us stepped up their efforts to halt the miserable deaths. One man interviewed fifty of the estimated five hundred victims and proposed a disturbing theory about the cause: people were enjoying themselves too much. He showed that in all cases, every single one of them, the people died while engaged in a pleasurable activity. I was watching the same talk show the miracle girl had been on four months earlier when I heard that theory for the first time. I thought back to what I was doing when I had died: hiking in the mountains, at a concert, skiing, and attending a family party - all the things I enjoyed doing the most. My mother heard it too and seemed to immediately accept it.
I didnt though. I had traveled, I had made friends, I had enjoyed my life and could not believe that we were all somehow cursed for desiring happiness. I urged my mother not to believe the latest proposed solution, which essentially was to shut down our lives, but she commanded my brothers to behave accordingly, to live simply like she was going to. She could not handle losing any of us, even for a few hours. She begged me to follow her lead but I had always been a free-spirit, an individual, despite the deep love I felt for my family, so I refused to live that way.
As for the cause of the revivals, another expert, a pathologist, theorized that the process of death was somehow getting lost. As it made its way toward absolute death, it halted. And then, not knowing how to proceed, went back to where it started - back to life. We regarded it with a shrug; it was merely another non-explanation that further frustrated our lost town. Those few who had continued to study us eventually dismissed us as a lost cause, refusing to continue to try to explain the inexplicable. The nation chose to forget we existed rather than try to help us solve our terrible problem. We were isolated from the world.
People became afraid to enjoy themselves so they worked constantly. They stopped traveling, they stopped attending movies or concerts. The bars in town shut down and the restaurants closed. And the revivals eventually ceased - when someone in town died it was permanent. The theory was accepted as fact and happiness died. We had gained control of what death was again, we knew the boundaries and that eased our minds. Life and death became familiar again, became comfortable, known entities again.
But the cost was so great. The enjoyment of life disappeared from town. If you were caught having a good time, people scolded you. Entertainment disappeared and everyone worked around the clock. Sex stopped and people no longer had babies - we were on the road to extinction. Our airport scaled back its flights - people traveled for business only. There was no music or sports. Conversations became so dull that people eventually stopped talking altogether. Walking through the city streets was like visiting a cemetery.
You could go to another town for entertainment but it was dangerous if you died temporarily amongst people who didnt know that you were likely coming back to life. People were scared. If you had to go out of town on business you were required to wear a special bracelet so people knew how to deal with you - the entire world knew about us. I died several times while out traveling and was always dealt with properly because of my bracelet but people got impatient with it and were scared of anyone from our town so we were eventually all quarantined within our borders.
I had to stay in the small lifeless town where people said no to their lives. It amazed me how people accepted the new conditions of life and continued to live worthless lives; ones without music, without travel, without exotic food, without hiking, biking, climbing, skiing. Without sex. Some people thought like me, that the lives we lived were worse than death, that the only point of life became surviving it, not enjoying it. But I could not convince my family to live again.
The strong love we once had for each other, our tight bond, the enjoyment of each others company, all of it disappeared. I couldnt understand how the fear of dying temporarily scared them so - there seemed to be no long-term effects of the short-term deaths. How could they shut down their lives? How could they choose a long boring life over an interesting one? How could they abandon the wonderful times we always had together? Fear could easily control a human life I concluded. It could alter life into an existence that rendered it useless.
My family dragged through the sullen days of their vapid lives but I could not stand to see them that way. They became frustrated and fed up with me and refused to let me smile around them. My mother told me that my constant death and recovery broke her heart and sent her on an emotional roller-coaster that she could no longer ride. I could empathize with her but I could not live a dull life. She and my brothers considered me a bad influence and were embarrassed by my speeches to them and to others about their banal existences. It seemed hopeless sometimes and I grew tired but I loved my family dearly and felt I could change them. Despite my heavy heart and my feelings of isolation, I spoke to my mother incessantly about facing fear and living despite it. I pushed and pushed but my mother would cry as I spoke and ask me to stop. She, nor my brothers, would change she said.
But finally, yesterday, it seemed she would. It appeared as though my constant pleading and preaching had finally reached her. I walked into the door after work and immediately noticed that more lights than usual were on. I could smell burning incense. My mother emerged from the living room with a guitar in her hand. A flood of joy spread through me as I looked into her eyes. She looked at me tiredly with a small, cautious smile on her face.
I want you to play, she said. I cannot live like this any longer. This has got to change.
Mom, I am so happy, I said as I dropped my bag and took the guitar from her. I dragged a chair from the desk in the foyer and sat down on it, propping the guitar on my knee. It had been so long since I had heard music in my house, a place that had once permanently reverberated with it, that I couldnt wait to play. I strummed the strings and adjusted the tuning. My mother sat across from me on another chair with a resigned look on her face. She was scared of something, perhaps of letting go of the fear and living freely again. But I felt so proud that she had found courage and that I had been partly responsible for that. I had influenced my mother and I could tell that we would all be happy again.
Tears gathered in my eyes as I played an upbeat song. I sang loudly, emotion swelling in my chest. My mother had tears in her eyes also. She looked vibrant again in her plain, green dress. Her hands were folded, resting between her knees, as she listened to me play. I loved playing guitar and singing, and the breakthrough of this occasion increased my enjoyment to the point of euphoria - it had been so long since I had seen my mother smile.
But then it happened.
I worked myself up so much and felt so good about what I was doing that I collapsed on the floor. My mothers countenance underwent a frightening change - she didnt get up to help but just looked down at me with a dead, plain stare. I was laying on top of the guitar, the neck of it bending under my weight. I watched as my mother slowly stood up and walked to the phone on the desk. She dialed it, spoke softly for a moment, and then laid it carefully back on the cradle. I lay there helplessly looking up at her. She walked off, switching off most of the lights, and then snapped the incense stick in half with her fingers. The house was silent and dark again.
She walked back to where I lay and looked down at me. She was frowning deeply, her eyes sagged with a dark weight. She crouched down and whispered in my ear, this ends now. You have died for the last time.
My stagnant blood went cold - my own mother had set me up, my dear mother who I loved so much. She knew what would happen when I played guitar for her, she had counted on it. She had never intended on changing her behavior; she intended on changing mine, permanently, in the only way that she could.
She stood up again and disappeared down the hall, her face buried in her hands. I watched in helpless horror as my younger brothers emerged stone-faced from their bedrooms wearing black hats and carrying shovels.........
I remember the times I really lived. I remember the countries Ive seen, the people Ive met, the mountains Ive climbed, the oceans Ive swum, the food Ive tasted, the music Ive heard and played. The women Ive loved. I remember the look on my nieces face when I bought her that perfect birthday present. I remember the high-fives of my teammates when I scored the winning goal of a soccer game. I remember the house I grew up in and how it was always filled with family, friends, and guests as music played, laughter resounded, and stories were shared. I remember the joy in my mothers eyes on christmas mornings. I remember the way life used to be, before death learned an inexplicable strange dance.
But right now I am thinking mostly about the times I died. I am analyzing the feelings, trying to figure out how and why the process of death gets stuck within us. I am wondering if this partial consciousness is part of real death - I am hopeful that it is. I am thinking about the first time I died, the second time - all the times - and, of course, this last time...
It has been 12 hours since it happened but I still have not regained life, and - as I lie here in this wooden casket, buried by my own family under 20 feet of earth - I can only hope that I never do.
May 2005 - Melbourne, Australia