Entries and Exits
[part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [part 4] [part 5]
I'm lying next to a woman who's swearing like a pirate. She's in her mid-eighties. The night nurse is laughing. He asks her, in Spanish: "Are you from Cuba or from Haiti?" She ignores him and continues to concentrate her energies on spewing profanities. Speaking in English, he turns to me and says, "I haven't heard cuss words like these since I was a boy." Loudly, he asks again: "Where are you from?" Clearly irritated, this time she bellows back: "from Puerto Rico you fool."
This is our second night together. The first one I had spent beside her in a panic. Back then, I'd mistakenly thought she was there because she was close to death. I had also incorrectly assumed that she was always sleeping. And when she locked her eyes onto mine via the mirror that sat at the foot of our beds, I came to what seemed an obvious conclusion: I was hallucinating. The woman was sleeping, probably in a coma, how could she be staring at me? Ultimately, I surrendered to her silent stare (it was calming me down). As a result, all I began to see in the darkened room, was a black triangle forming between us, the apex being the mirrored reflection of our eyes. After a long while, she began showing me pictures of her childhood. The images would playfully travel down her side of the triangle only to end up in the mirror. I could tell she wanted me to send her pictures of mine. I tried, but they weren't as good. The next day, when my friends came to visit, no one seemed to notice her at all.
A year ago, November 1997, I almost died. It was sudden and unexpected. Had I crossed over, it would've been the sort of early melodramatic ending to my life that I had once fantasized about as an adolescent then trapped in a life and a desert city where endless dust storms obfuscated the avenues of transcendence. However, over the ensuing years I'd become deeply attached to my mortal coil and luckily my life was saved by three miracles: health insurance, an excellent physician of my own choosing who is part of a major US medical facility, and the good sense to be a bad team player and not to go into work on the day a blood clot had decided to completely close up the Venus artery ruling my Libra body. I remember the look of utter horror on my doctor's face when I showed her my swollen limb. Subsequently, I saw the same look on the army of medical personnel who admitted me to the hospital. Their compassion was unmistakable. So too was the overwhelming feeling that their non-committal and fundamentally mute response to questions about my condition had to do with the dictates of insurance companies and their overseers, hospital administrators. As my terror increased in direct proportion to my caregivers' fear of litigation, I began to feel dehumanized as though I was a sentient object. Irrationally, I pictured myself as the celluloid matter of a horror film, miraculously able to watch its own audience as they, in turn, watched the unfolding of my illustrated body.
My instinct tells me not to break the stare. The curtain between our two beds begins to dissolve. As it does, the darkened room becomes lighter. I continue to look into the mirror but, as things become more illuminated the TV apparatus above my head unexpectedly moves its robotic arm and smoothly places the set directly in my face. Just as I notice that I can see through the blank grey screen to the mirror beyond, the television spontaneously turns itself on. At first I am startled and blinded by a burst of electronic white light but then I calm down as an image appears. I can't tell whether I'm watching Entertainment Tonight or a local LA news program. It turns out to be the latter. A young woman appears, blond, perky, and outfitted in a powder blue suit to connote innocence. She says: "Welcome connie samaras, tonight I'm here to report to you on what life is like after death. Any questions?" "What's it like?" I ask. "Well, pretty much the same as on earth except everything is much, much easier." Suddenly, the camera pans to a shot of all the people who are newly dead. There are thousands, perhaps millions. The queue is unimaginable. I realize then that there's nothing unique about my particular death. The crowds start to make me feel claustrophobic. I can't stand the idea of waiting in such a long line so I decide to leave. However, before I do, the newscaster pops back into my face and suggests an alternate freeway route home.
That night, as I lie in the hospital, my abject terror falls away as soon as I realize that the narrative structure of a "near death experience" I'm having is far too playful and creative. It's source is more a combination of my love of Philip K. Dick's writings and my interest in shaman cultures than a state of consciousness I've yet to encounter. The experience is completely unlike the time when, many years ago, I found my mother sitting in the living room staring intently, through open doors, at the yard in back of our house. I'd just brought her home from another round of radiation treatments and I was concerned that her trance may not be simply a state of contemplation. "What are you looking at?" I ask as though trying to resuscitate her. "I've never seen this before," she answers. "Nothing looks real, everything looks like a prop." I look out to where she's been staring and, as soon as I do, I become frightened because I can see exactly what she's talking about.