Oh, the drama of a near-death experience. The intense rush of complicated emotions. The heart-racing fear. The mad dash to a hospital where a dozen people paw at your body as you lay there, helpless. If you’re lucky, at some point, you might hear a choir of angels and have a moment of clarity. The kind of clarity that can only be found at the edge of your own grave.
No! Stop. Halt. Proceed no further! What’s the problem?
That’s too morbid and grim. Who thinks about these things? Who talks about it? We’re genetically hardwired to run from death, and give it an obscene gesture. You can’t put those words on a page and make it public. Come on! What’s wrong with you?
Death isn’t something we talk about in polite company. It gives us the shivers, and the mere thought of our life’s cessation is abhorrent. The idea, word, and imagery is taboo. Ew, no, don’t even mention its name. Seriously, just bite your tongue and keep quiet. We don’t need to tempt fate or invite trouble. Never, ever, say that word again.
What word? Oh, you mean death. Is that it? Why shouldn’t we talk about it? Why can’t we explore the idea? Genetic programming aside, is death really something we can’t talk about until we’re forced to face it? Even then, the conversation is full of platitudes. We dance around the subject without landing on the bullseye. It’s like playing Hot Potato and Twister.
I may be able to have a two-sided conversation with myself, but I’m not that flexible. I can toss the overheated vegetable, or I can put my left hand on yellow. Which one do you want? Unless you’re offering to butter that potato, sprinkle on some salt, and serve it up with a cute garnish. Well, you do that, and I’ll put my hand on any colour you like.
It’s uncomfortable for most people, right? Not the outdated game references, even though that was a little questionable. Death is an uncomfortable topic, and yes, I said the word. I’ll say it a few more times before our time is up. A little immersion therapy to start your weekend? Rip off the bandaid of the good old R.I.P.
See what I did there? I felt clever for approximately 2.5 seconds. It’s the small things that make the big things palatable. Even, brace yourself, death. Can something as weighted as our impermanence become something as trivial as a buttery potato? Can we joke about it, laugh at it, and shrug it off like a half-baked quip with a short shelf life?
I’ve had many near death, and actual death, experience so narrowing them down is a bit of a challenge. Did that sound like a very strange brag? Weird flex, sis. Sorry, I didn’t mean for it to sound puffed up, and I’m not looking for sympathy. It’s simply a statement of fact. I had to dig through the archives, and this moment gave me the giggles for, uh, reasons.
Several years ago, I experienced a ruptured aneurysm in my lower gastrointestinal tract. Here comes a little science for some context. An aneurysm occurs when a major blood vessel weakens and bulges. When it bursts, it can cause massive blood loss, and that’s a life-threatening situation.
Insert dramatic pause?
I was at a doctor’s appointment when I felt a sharp pain in my stomach. Waves of dizziness came and went. I was conscious the whole time, but it felt like something was trying to pull me out of my body. It was as if my consciousness was tethered to my bones by a strange gummy, tacky, gelatine. I was pulled out, but this substance kept pulling me back in.
Worst yoyo trick ever!
My vision would go, and I’d squeeze my eyes shut until the force pulling me out gave up. I snapped back into place, and my vision returned. There was a short interlude, and then the tug of war resumed.
It was exhausting. I was freezing. My body was trembling uncontrollably, and I was drenched in sweat. There was this immense pressure in my stomach, and I felt like I would explode. Which, I suppose, was technically correct. The blood started pouring out of my body but, by then, I was in the emergency room.
How lucky was that? My appointment was at an office right across the street from the hospital. The only way I could’ve received faster treatment was if I’d already been admitted. I really should’ve bought a lottery ticket, but I was a bit busy.
I knew I was in bad shape when the ER doctor exclaimed, after looking at my hemoglobin levels, “How the hell is she still alive?” Normal hemoglobin levels sit at around 120 (in Canadian laboratory measurements), but my level had dropped to 29. That’s a lot of blood loss, so his confusion was understandable.
Again, I was still conscious, awake, and alert. The nurse working the rapid transfuser, a machine that delivers donated blood very quickly, looked down at me, winked, and yelled, “She can hear you too.”
Why did that give me the giggles? Was it the blood loss, or is my sense of humour warped? We may never know, but I laughed waved. Sorry, my bad. I’ll try hard next time? What do you want me to say here? I’m alive, awake, and I think I taste blood in the back of my throat. Is that normal? Yes, it’s from the transfusion. Cool, just checking because blood tastes gross.
Poor vampires, I don’t know how you do it.
Thankfully, the bleeding stopped on its own, and I didn’t need surgery to repair any damage. I ended up receiving close to thirty units of blood over the next few days but, I stabilized remarkably quickly, given the circumstance. It could’ve gone another way and if I hadn’t received such quick care, it just might’ve.
I was incredibly fortunate.
Which is what my primary doctor pointed out the next day, but she wasn’t satisfied with my response. It wasn’t a big emotional moment. I didn’t wipe sweat from my brow, blow out a long breath, and fall to my knees in relief. It was a shrug, nod, and a thumbs up for saving my life. Seriously, I appreciate your hard work.
I was a little too unvexed by the experience, which is why she said, “I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation. You almost died.”
My reply was simply, “I don’t think you understand how often I almost die.” It’s almost as often as you might treat yourself to an entire box of cookies. Take a vacation, go to the gym, or out for dinner. I don’t know your lifestyle, but suffice it to say, it happens a lot.
I thought it was funny. Sure, it wasn’t laugh out loud, or soil the undergarments kind of funny. A chuckle would’ve been nice. A smile would’ve been appreciated. I almost died! The least she could’ve done was humour me.
Alas, she was not amused, and I mean that in the royal sense. A frown, shake of the head, and a weary sigh. Why must I put up with the riffraff? It’s my burden to bear. I shall sit here, in silence, and glare at you until you feel properly chastised.
Fine, I’m exaggerating, but I think, as she sat there scowling at me, she seriously considered calling for a psych consult. Something must’ve gone wrong with the mechanical parts of my psyche. There must be a loose knob or a cog out of alignment. It was the only explanation!
Well, the jokes on her because I would not have been opposed to the consult. It would’ve been nice to have someone to talk to about life and its many absurdities. After all, despite my calm demeanour and copious amounts of practice, a near-death experience can leave an unsettling feeling in the pit of the stomach. Or, and I’m just spitballing here, I need an antacid.
Then again, I can’t say that I was overly traumatized by one event. I barely felt shaken up. There was a shot of adrenaline that took its sweet time wearing off. My body ached for a couple of weeks. I was leery of toilet visits for awhile. Seeing blood evacuate your posterior is a bit unsettling. Other than that, the pit in my stomach quickly vanished, and I went back to my old, neurotic, self in no time.
I think, after numerous near-death experiences, death has lost its ability to shock me. It doesn’t terrify me as much as it should. I don’t know when that happened. It was long before an aneurysm ruptured, that’s for sure. Either way, these moments have happened so often that they’ve become rather blasé.
Is that sad? It feels like it should be a sad thing to write. Some moments are supposed to be sacred and precious. The birth of a new life and the end of an old life, for example. These things shouldn’t lose their power to astound or their ability to inspire. They should take our breaths away, but when they become commonplace, then what?
What can inspire us if these things no longer move us to feel anything?
I sat down to write this after a conversation with a friend. We were laughing at the absurdity of death, as well as life. We wondered why people always get so hung up on their own mortality? Death is a normal part of life, so what’s the big deal?
That conversation got me thinking about laughing in the face of death. Why we take it so seriously? Why is it such a forbidden topic when it’s something we all have to face? Why can’t we laugh at it the way we laugh at life?
I was going to point out the foolishness of that mindset but, as I’m writing this, I’m seeing my own bias peaking through the sentences. My bias, when it comes to death, is a numbness and a complete lack of emotional connection. When I think about my mortality, I feel nothing. No fear, doubt, or dread. My end will come, and I’ve made peace with that a long time ago.
Or, did I just become indifferent?
It’s a disconnect that lets me face my illness, and its consequences, with a joke and a laugh. It takes the edge off. It lets me walk into an operating room or ride in the back of an ambulance with a sense of calm. It takes something that was, or should be, a painful experience and turns it into something as ordinary as brushing my teeth before bed.
If the internet has taught us anything? Everyone loves a good hack. I suppose this falls into the survival category. When faced with a life-threatening situation, the best thing you can do is stay calm, don’t panic, and give yourself a shot of endorphins by laughing out loud. It gets you through the moment, but don’t let the moment numb you out.
If we can’t be present in the worst moments of our lives, it’s hard to be present in the best. Or, that’s been my experience. I’ve spent so much time staring into my own grave that I just see a pile of dirt. It’s just a hole in the ground, and the sun is just setting. The birds are just singing. A baby is just being born. Life becomes so full of “just,” and when that happens, living becomes boring.
Life shouldn’t be boring! It should be magical and wonderful. We should be able to laugh and cry whenever the mood strikes. There should be moments of awe and inspiration. I want to look at a sunset and let it take my breath away. I want to sip a cup of tea and savour the warmth. I want to laugh at the absurdities of life and death with a good friend because I lived through that moment. I didn’t just surviving it.
I can’t do any of that that if I feel numb, which is what happens when I forget that every moment is sacred and precious.