My death smells like cold steel and hot vomit. I touch my head and feel the cranial cap tightly holding in the fragments of my skull. I also have three metal snowflakes in there. My chest is covered with those little surgeon masks, all rocking with my retch. I’m still tossing up. The anesthesiologist told me some people get violently sick. I laughed it off. I never get sick. Except when I’m dead.
The neurosurgeon showed me the snowflakes before I went under.
I’ve been dead three times now in my forty–eight years. As a kid I went through a windshield while my drunk father was hightailing it from a minor fender–bender, running from the cops. I was technically ghosted for three and a half minutes.
I met another end a few years later in my freshman semester when I got drunk at a party, sat in an open second–story window of a dorm, and slipped out and plunged onto a brick walkway.
And now the neurosurgeon just plucked a tumor out of my head the size of a golf ball. He explained how he was going to saw my skull apart and replace it with three titanium plates. The plates were tiny. They didn’t look like any version of the word plate that I ever imagined. They were pretty and delicate and had teeny little screws in them to be screwed into bone. I can picture him with a screwdriver giving a last twist.
The plates are sending signals. I can’t quite understand what they’re saying, but they’re screaming it. The vibrations hurt my ears and teeth. I hurl again. I have to grab a nurse as the gurney wheels by.
“Can you clean these masks off me?”
She does so without hesitation. I also want to ask if she can hear the plates shouting, but I’m afraid she’ll say no, or even worse, yes.
They wheel me up and down the corridors. The guy pushing me might be a male nurse, a security guard, or a candy striper, I have no idea. He’s trying to kill time, pushing me the long way around the floor, slowly. He says hello to other people walking in the halls. My metal plates repeat his hellos and his howyadoins. They have their own voices. They don’t sound alike and they don’t sound like me.
My room is in ICU, so I’m not allowed to have flowers and balloons. It makes the titanium snowflakes distraught. They bitch and whine about how much nicer the room would look with more color.
I don’t know how to address the plates. I ask their names. They don’t have any, and ask plaintively for me to name them. I give it a go with Tom, Dick, and Harry. They badger me that for an imaginative person I certainly stink at name–giving. I try Fester, Gomez, and Lurch. They seem happier. They gleefully giggle like children.
They ring together striking mad chords in my brain. I grunt in agony and grab the skull cap in both my hands, pushing in on my temples to keep such awful noise locked away. I’m wheeled past a moaning old woman who rises slightly from her pillows and glares at me. She hisses like a cat and covers her own ears.
Gomez asks, “The hell’s her problem?”
“Nasty old woman,” Fester puts in.
They begin ringing together in Christmas carols.
The gurney keeps moving down the burning lit hall. I still can’t see who’s pushing me. We pass a ten year old girl with bandaged eyes in a wheelchair and she wishes us, “Merry Christmas!”
“You too!” Lurch calls.
It’s not Christmas, but who am I to ruin the mood?
A grizzled old jarhead with USMC tats all over his forearms is walking by alone, holding onto his IV pole for support. He turns his chin slightly in my direction. Gomez states quite clearly, “And thank, you, sir, for your service to our country!”
The marine taps his left ear and squints as if in pain.
My scalp scars are itchy as hell. I brush my right frontal lobe gently and here the plates chime. Fester gives a laugh. He’s ticklish, apparently.
The marine takes a stutter–step and nearly falls on his face. Instead, he catches himself in time to merely drop to one knee. He whispers, “Who’s laughing at me?” His eyes dart to me. I flap my hands innocently.
Next on the gurney journey is a twenty–nothing with no legs. He has the bruised haunted look of a veteran who’s given everything and received only a purple heart back. The guy pushing me slows a step. The kid nods. Fester rings a high C. I lift my hand and wave as we pass. I look down at my legs and wonder if I’ll ever walk again, and if I’ll ever be as grateful for walking as the kid might be. Gomez clangs.
“Where the hell are we?” I ask. “How much further?”
The guy pushing doesn’t respond. I wish we’d pass a mirror.
“Can you see who’s walking with us?” I ask the metal plates.
They all chime no.
I wonder if I’m dead already. It would answer a few questions. It might even take the fear away.
“Are you God?” I ask.
I sound insane, but that’s okay. The skull–cap plays into the look of madness. And who am I showing off for anyway? My skull fragments?
Lurch tings and says, “It’s not God.”
Who am I to argue?
One corridor merges into another and another and so on. The hall lights are blinding white. I try to count the seconds off but I keep losing my place. I ask Lurch to keep count but he has trouble with it too.
“Is it purgatory?” I ask. “Is this The Waiting Room?”
“I don’t want to wait around forever!” Fester gasps.
“Neither do I.”
“None of us do.”
A girl with a broken brain like mine approaches on crutches, her head swathed as mine is swathed beneath the skull cap. Her eyes are dim but focused on whoever’s pushing the gurney. She smiles and nods. I smile and nod back. She doesn’t see it. Fester, Gomez, and Lurch also smile and nod. She does note them.
“Your mother and father are right behind me, Tommy Pic.”
My mother was ten years dead and my father more than forty. Still I searched the corridor. I had a lot of regrets, a lot of things I still needed to say to each of them. I tried to lift my head from the gurney but the plates rang and vibrated through my teeth painfully.
“I think she’s lying,” said Gomez.
“Me too,” put in Fester.
“No,” Lurch intoned. “It’s the truth. See them? Here they are.”
I didn’t see them but I couldn’t see much. I tried to list my sins and wondered which of them was bad enough to keep me out of heaven, or was it a cumulative effect? The thought of it made my head and my heart ache. I wanted more time to make things right, but I didn’t know what things they might be. Still, I had to try.
I said, “Stop pushing me. I want to get off.”
I didn’t wait for the nurse or angel or demon to stop. I made an effort to swing my legs over the side and rolled aside and splatted on my face.
“That was stupid,” Fester said.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
I looked up at the guy pushing the gurney. It wasn’t my father, it wasn’t Jesus, he didn’t have wings. He had a name badge on that said his name was Darrel. He was black and weighed in the neighborhood of four hundred pounds. He looked at me without expression. He made no move to help me up. I reached for the gurney and got to my feet.
“Who are you, Darrel?”
“The guy who’s supposed to be bringing you to post–op recovery.”
“That can’t be all.”
“He’s lying too,” Gomez said.
“I know,” I told him.
“Then why’d you ask?” Darrel asked.
It snows in my head, a blizzard of noise and voices.
Darrel may not be death but he might as well be. He moves with the endless and immutable emotionless motion forward, just like death. My head rebels at the thought, but also accepts the potential truth of the moment.
“This isn’t ICU,” I say.
“No, it’s not.”
“So where are we?”
Gomez says, “I’m hungry.”
“Steel snowflakes don’t get hungry,” I tell him, although I really wouldn’t know.
“Me too,” Fester agrees.
“And me,” Lurch intones with a deep brooding resonance.
One more thing about Darrel: he was made of shadow. The shadow is almost as loud as the snowfall.
I hold onto the wall and start stumbling down the hall. I don’t know where I’m going, and I’m not sure that I can get there from here, but I like being on my feet again, alive, moving, welcoming all the others as they approach. Family, friends, smiling faces, bandaged children. They step to me casually, but eventually I begin to laugh and run.