Not Dead Yet

Home from the Hospital, Independence Day 2023

Dearest Readers (I feel by now as if I am addressing beloved friends out there, like a letter-writer in an Austen novel) —

I am home at last from the second hospital — the “vortex hospital,” the hospital of near-no-return — and, per the title of this update, I am:

Not Dead Yet.

I can’t yet describe fully what I experienced at the Vortex Hospital — since I am not yet entirely out of medical danger, and I still need their staff’s help in the near future in order to remove a device, the details of which I will spare you. But suffice to say that my stay there involved the final three of what had been five days with no food or water, as I had lain, hooked up to an IV, with an acute abdominal infection, post-appendectomy.

I watched my “vitals” being taken again and again, and saw that over time my blood oxygen levels had started sinking into the 80s; I could not get them back up into the safe 90s range, no matter how hard I inhaled and exhaled. I knew that when blood oxygen levels drop too low, people are intubated, and I knew that meant that the lungs can get damaged irrevocably. The internal infection raged on.

The morning of what was supposed to have been the day on which my procedure was to have taken place, we sustained a four and a half hour power outage (“Unprecedented”, as the staff said wonderingly), leaving the massive brand-new hospital facility in unnerving darkness, even as the small, cozy, 1970s-era original right next door, trundled along with all its lights on.

By the end of my Day Five with no food or water, the staff at the Vortex Hospital told me that, due to the power outage, the procedure for which I had been transferred to that facility — one to treat the severe abdominal infection — -was being delayed further and further into the future.

Maybe tomorrow, said the RN vaguely….maybe the day after.

When I expressed panic that that would mean seven days or more without food or water, the RN said, with no emotion, “People can live for seven days without food or water.”

The unsaid observation was: “Then, they can’t.”

And then she “reassured me”: “If you don’t get seen after Day Seven we’ll just put you on a feeding tube.” This terrified me. Finally she said flatly: “your vitals are stable.”

After this exchange, I truly panicked. I knew that while my vitals might look fine, I could feel that I was losing the ability to keep fighting for my life. I felt the subsiding of my will to fight, as clearly as if I were watching water swirling around an emptying drain.

I was exhausted, and had stopped caring about outcomes. I just wanted the suffering to end, in whichever way it might. In conventional nursing, I am sure that that collapse of my will to live would have been visible to a caring observer, no matter what my “vitals” had to say. But the machinery of data-based management ground on.

When I could fight no longer, I thought weakly of my loved ones; and realized that even though I no longer cared if I survived or not, they would care if this was indeed the end of my life.

So I asked God to please save my life. I also told God that if He spared my life I would write all the things I was currently scared to write — I knew He knew exactly what those things were — and then I collapsed into a feverish dream.

I found myself coming to consciousness free of pain, and feeling light and small. For good reason: I was myself, but I was now a nine year old version of myself, and I was all spirit. It felt good and very simple — as if I was made of light and energy. I was on a beach, and my dad (who has passed away) was there with me.

The beach was incredibly peaceful. But there were some unusual things about it. It faded into mist in both distances, so that all I could see clearly was the stretch where my father and I were present together. And it was “pearly.” So much so that I almost laughed. “Really?” The waves were edged with a bioluminescent quality, even though, as I watched a single wave break near my foot, the water itself was extraordinarily clear. The mists were edged with a silvery and lavender glow.

Then there was my dad — whom I felt completely unsurprised to see, just as he seemed to take seeing me there, very much in stride. His age and mine in that scene were not in accordance with our earthly timelines. He was not the forty-plus father of my actual childhood in the 1960s; here on this beach he looked about 35. He was dressed the way old photos show him to have dressed in the late 1950s, before I was born — before the crazy 1960s.

Here, he wore a pale moss-green fishermen’s sweater, and chinos with the ankles rolled up. His feet were bare. (“Mom: did Dad have a moss-green fishermen’s sweater, and did he wear chinos, in the 1950s?” Mom: “Yes.”)

He looked extremely well; his hair was fully black, not streaked with grey as it had been from my earliest memory of him. My father had had very distinctive feet, with high arches, in life; those were indeed his elegant feet. His hands were dry and warm, in life; he put his right hand gently on my hair and yes, that was his hand.

Then we had a calm, serious, direct talk. It did not matter that I was nine and he was 35, or that I was alive — somewhere – and that he was dead. It seemed as if that talk was the purpose of this encounter.

After my father’s death, I had learned about certain aspects of his life that had confused me, and that had led me to struggle with his memory. These questions had become a barrier to my properly mourning him, and certainly they had kept me from feeling his presence. But in this chat we were having — thoughtful, father to daughter, transparent, not sentimental — I got to ask him every question that had haunted me, and he answered them one by one, and the answers set my mind entirely at ease. As that conversation unfolded, and he was accountable to me in my questions, I felt the spiritual connection I had had with him, which had been blocked, reopen like a channel; and all the love that he felt for me — and that I felt for him — sluiced through to connect us once more, undeniable, as it was intended to do, death or no death.

At one point, I asked him what God had thought about a certain issue. My dad replied, in the context of explaining that God was more forgiving than humans — “God is different from you and me.” That was another moment in which I enjoyed evidence that this really was my Dad; that is just the kind of thing he would have said; he was an English literature professor; and that is a witty paraphrase of a famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote.

After all the questions had been answered, I asked, neutrally curious, if I was staying there. He gestured toward a broad silvery stream, like the runnels on an estuary, that cut off the wet sand on that strand of beach, from some other place; and indicated that no, I was now to cross back over that shimmering divide.

There wasn’t a leave-taking or anything else dramatic — I simply found myself again at length lying on my bed of pain, the infection raging still.

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