Whatever’s After

I was given a prompt to write about my perception of any kind of afterlife. This is probably a meandering mess of a thing, but I came up with this:

A golden city with jasper walls. Agates and sapphires, onyx and chrysolite, and whatever jacinth is.

I remember my first taste of Heaven, from under a down comforter in the middle of winter, snowflakes falling through my window with a backdrop sky so black it rang blue. I was young, borderline manic with an active mind, and so I had trouble sleeping. I’d rest my back against a cabinet set up at the head of my bed, one side of a sliding set of doors moved aside where rested a cassette player.

Classical music. That’s what helped me drift off at night. Elegant birds swimming through my mind to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Two lonesome lovers dancing in a dark, empty ballroom to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. A yearlong journey of whimsy and growth through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The music played at my back, behind my head, through my ears, so gracefully behind the lids of my eyes.

Because of that,because I was such an imaginative child that I pulled things into my dreams, I often found myself also being affected by the books I read. Creepy crawlers terrifying me after the latest Goosebumps novel saw me to bedtime. Magic spells lighting up the sky like fireworks after tearing through whatever fantasy novel I ordered from the school book drive.

So yes, I remember my first taste of Heaven.

Twelve gates of pearl, and streets of gold so clear they may as well be glass. Eternal day that lights the paths of the pure.

My grandmother was a woman of God and wanted to bring me up on a path of righteousness, or – at the very least – general goodness. I was no stranger to prayer, though I struggled at keeping still with closed eyes while someone used their words to speak for me. I worked as a deacon in the church, collecting, counting and cataloging the weekly tithe. Most importantly (to me), I read the Bible nightly. No particular passages, but rather cover to cover (though I would regularly reread the stories that meant the most to me, or that I found particularly compelling). So I remember the winter night I first found myself in the book of Revelations, reading about this New Jerusalem, this city for the chosen loved of God while elsewhere burned a pit of fire. For the unrighteous. For the generally bad.

But in the city, there was no death, no sorrow.  No crying, nor any pain. I dreamed of these things, and this mountain city that was itself a divine temple. I dreamed of the crisp and clear air, and the laughter from within bejeweled walls.

But my fitful sleeping mind would take it further. I dreamed of walking to the cliffside, a dirt path laid out before me, surrounded on either side by snow that gave off no cold. I dreamed of looking down into a deep, green valley, one hand on a singular, twisting tree the rich brown of polished mahogany, capped with leaves of all different colors.

I dreamed that somewhere back behind one of those pearl gates, my always-absent parents were finally always-present and always-patient, waiting for me to return so that we could share just one meal together that didn’t end in yelling.

But I am not dead. And so that taste of Heaven, be it a true and wholesome thing, has yet to reach past the tip of my tongue.

And, undead, I have traveled through these years dipping my fingers into the afterlife whipped cream and licking celestial inevitability from them. I have sampled Sheol and its dead earth, feared the heat of Gehinnom. I have longed for the pleasures awaiting me after my second life and my second death, in olam haba. Or perhaps it would be a seat in the presence of Our Lord and alternatively a great nothingness should I not find the greatness necessary to fill my place beside Him.

In times of pain and anger, I’ve wondered if my struggles would qualify me for a seat in Valhalla should my eternal battle with depression finally trigger an aneurysm. I wondered how lonely the realm of Hel might be if not. Or perhaps it would be the realm of Hades, neglected and unfairly judged brother of Poseidon and Zeus. And after I take that journey across Styx, likely infuriating Charon with questions and observations, would Hades at least allow me the company of Persephone during the long winter months? Not for anything untoward. Just to talk for a while. Just to compare tastes in music. Would Handel be held favorably up to Amphion? Would Chopin be as admired as Orpheus?

These tastes of Heaven and Hell, of Eden and oblivion, of spectral realms and mead-filled halls, these tastes are exotic, they are ancient, they are unclear.

But I am not dead. And so these tastes leave my throat dry and my stomach uncertain of a meal.

Because maybe there is nothing. Maybe my good deeds and my mistakes and my pleasures and my sins will not be held accountable against a feather at the end of my life. Perhaps my heart is in no danger of being consumed by Ammit, forever damning me and barring my escape into the sun-lit fields of Aaru. Maybe my heart is destined only to be consumed by worms and I’m left leaving only memories for those still living behind me.

That would be a shame. That would be a shame, because it means I would have no chance to connect again with you. To see the way your right cheek dimples when you smile, and the way your eyes dart that same direction when you laugh. It would mean I never get to say sorry. It would mean I never get to tell you I love you every day until the very last star shudders one last flicker of light and the very last molecule stops its steady movement, freezing us in a picture we never got to take. One last still-frame before turning the lights off on the universe.

Or maybe we’ll resurrect. Resurrection is an option, too. And I feel I’d be a dung beetle, but maybe I’d turn into a caterpillar and you would be one too, and we could make a cocoon somewhere nice and safe and warm, melt ourselves down into a gooey pile of memories and love, reinvent ourselves as two beautiful butterflies and find each other again. Somewhere without nets. Somewhere without birds.

Maybe that will be our heaven, our Heaven, our Nevaeh (because after reading that Bible cover to cover, I read it back again): a cyclical chance to love and be loved again.

Because I can tell you one thing for sure: I don’t need to have died to know that life here without you is already Hell.

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Life Was Simpler When I Was Dying

I went to bed on a Wednesday night in May last year, not long after my birthday. I had the next day off, so I was a little high, a little drunk and I planned on sleeping in the next day. Instead, I woke up around 9AM, violently nauseous. I ran to the bathroom, hurled up what I could and staggered out of the bathroom. Was I hungover? Seemed like it.

One of my two roommates at the time, Matt, was getting ready to head down the hill. He knew I was sick, and I debated staying home, but I really wanted to see the new Star Trek movie. He agreed to drop me off at the mall and I walked up to the theater with a body that feeled ten times heavier than normal. I bought my ticket and a soda and sat down.

I threw up twice more within the first 30 minutes of the movie.

I don’t know if you’ve ever vomited so hard that you sat, back against the wall with your legs tucked against your chest, crying in the handical stall of a shitty theater bathroom but let me tell you, it isn’t ideal. At this point I thought it was the flu or some kind of food poisoning I got from the seafood I had the day before. Only one thing to do in that situation: sleep it off.

I left the theater, Star Trek thirst unquenched and walked down the escalator. One of my former bosses was walking by and waved to me. I didn’t notice. She told me later that I looked blue (physically, I mean. Not sad, although I was that, too) and she thought I was fucked up out of my mind. I mean, kind of. I had no idea.

I cabbed it back to my house. I barely remember the ride. It must have been around 11, 11:30. Matt swung back by. He had been to the gym and was no prepping for work. He could tell I was seriously ill. Let me tell you something about Matt: I firmly believe that he has zero respect for me at all. He’s always first to shit on me, has never congratulated me on an accomplishment and never had my back in a fight. On this morning, he was so worried about me that he made me soup while I was laid out on the couch, hesitated leaving and called our other roommate out of concern. It was serious shit.

I spent the next 9 hours fucked up. I was in and out of consciousness on the couch. My phone was untouched on the floor. I had two cups next to me. One was full of water that I could only sip out of because anything more triggered vomiting (and I was dry-heaving pretty well on my own at that point) and the other, disgustingly, was reserved for whatever phlegmy spit I could muster. I had no concept of time or self beyond pain and suffocation.

Around 9PM, I found myself in the bathroom yet again, trying to find something other than stomach bile to bring up. My throat was so raw that I was spitting a little blood. My other roommate, RJ, got home. He had tried to call me twice, neither of which I had noticed because I had practically forgot I owned a phone. He knocked on the door and said, “What, you’re too good to answer my phone calls now?” I told him I was spitting up blood. He asked if we needed to go to the hospital. I told him I didn’t know.

I walked, poorly, out of the bathroom. I was pale, he said. RJ used to be an EMT and he sat me down on the couch, my prison for twelve hours, to take my pulse. He couldn’t find it. “We’re going to the hospital.”

They checked me in at the hospital. The triage doctor, who had a particularly active cold, was a huge dick who disbelieved the seriousness of my situation and blamed my low blood pressure on the equipment. RJ, God bless him, argued that no, something was very wrong with me.

I was in the emergency room from 10PM until 4AM, with RJ by my side. My blood pressure was 80 over 40. My temperature was 103 degrees. My heart was going three times the rate it was supposed to. I was almost completely dehydrated. My magnesium and potassium levels were almost nonexistent. My body was shutting down, and that’s when I got the news: I had septicemia. Septic shock. Blood poisoning.

I knew it was bad. That is bad. Shit. But it has levels, right? So I asked the nurse, “How bad is it?” and she looked me dead in the eye.

“Well, you could die.”

I looked over at RJ, RJ looked at the nurse. I let out a laugh that was a few pitches higher than I’m proud of and laid my head down on the bed and struggled not to cry, tried not to panic.

After 6 hours of fluids and tests (“Maybe it’s a UTI that went septic. Nope? Okay, a kidney infection? No? Huh. Well. This is, uh…hm.”), they admitted me eaaaarly Friday morning.

I spent four days in the hospital. I had multiple IVs in me the entire time. The saline was constant until I checked out. The magnesium wasn’t so bad. I opted for potassium pills every two hours because turns out liquid potassium burns like a motherfucker when it’s being pumped into you, a fact no one told me until I was writhing in pain on my gurney while my roommate (hospital, not RJ or Matt) shit on the floor.

I couldn’t piss until Saturday. Didn’t have the fluids in me. My blood pressure and temperature didn’t even out until Saturday night. I slept like shit and finally asked the nurse to give me some percocet so I could even try. Saturday night I got moved into a different room, one with a window and the first sunlight I had seen in three days. The doctor told me, “Wish these things opened up more but some lady tried to kill herself jumping out of it, broke both of her legs.” He went on to tell me that he had no idea what happened to me to put me in septic shock but it seemed to be under control. Prescribed me some medication,  let me check out as soon as I showered and felt up to it.

So there’s the bare bones of it. My brush with death. Once it looked like I was going to be okay one of the nurses told me, “Hey, man. You were hours away from dying. If you had waited until the next morning to come in, if you had made it, it would have been weeks in the ICU, minimum.” Several times while I was in the hospital, I thought,  “Hey, it could be worse” and then immediately reminded myself that at that point, worse was dead.

Now, you find out certain things when you’re on your deathbed. Like who gives a shit. Turns out, for me, it wasn’t many. Word got around on FB between my friends and I. I mentioned how serious it was. I texted some people to tell them I loved them when things were still looking shaky. A woman I care about very much but who was on the outs with me texted me to make sure I was going to be okay. The girl I loved and knew for years? Not even a text.

I would come out of delirium to find the last people I expected there to make sure I was alright. Seriously. These were people I cared about a lot but was by no means close with. They brought me thoughtful gifts. Superhero writing materials. Books to read. A flute. They kept me company.

I cannot express to you the emotions that come from not getting love and concern from the people you expect it from and then getting it from people you never expected. That’s a rough ride.

Now, here’s another thing I didn’t expect. Dying gives you a sort of perspective on life. What matters and what doesn’t. The things you haven’t finished or haven’t done. The words you wished you had said. The people you want to see again. I left that hospital with a sense of zen that lasted for almost three months. I stopped worrying about money, relationships, where I was at in life. It eventually crept back in and wore me down, but I was so content. Euphoric. It was beautiful, truly.

I didn’t expect that and when the shit started piling back up, I didn’t expect wishing I could be back there. It suuuucked. It hurt and I was exhausted for a month afterwards because of what my body went through. But people worried about me and gave a shit and things were much more clear-cut.

“Things were so much simpler when I was dying” is a tweet I sent and there’s a macabre truth to that. It sucks when you have a birthday where nobody shows up, like this year. Especially following a birthday party for a friend where a hundred fucking people showed up. That sucks. And it’s hard not to long for waking up and seeing someone unexpected who cares about your well-being.

These are weird feelings. They come and go and stay gone longer than they linger. Honestly, if I should take anything from it, it should be that zen perspective I got upon walking out ibto the sunshine and not the cascading disbelief that came with the bill for $22,000.

I almost died and it taught me that I don’t want to die. That I love love and I love life and I love people even when I hate them because over a decade of retail work demands it. It taught me attention is addictive, especially when it distracts from a lack of accomplishment. It taught me that if you live one life, you can sometimes find more in less.

It also taught me not to get septic shock, because that shit sucks hard.