“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”-Norman Cousins
Chapter 1: The Mariner
My brother and I sat in the near-bare hospital room to watch as my father inhaled his last living breaths of air. It seemed they had made rooms like that, just for that specific moment. With nothing but a lamp in the corner, a withering plant by its side, and a few hangings on the walls, its tone was as bleak as the event, yet as simple as its outcome.
Months prior, the doctors had told us that there was nothing more that they could do to stop the cancer; there were no more lung snippets to take without suffocating the man I had grown to respect. Weeks later, he made this hospital bed permanent, shrinking into it like a deflating blow-up doll. Minutes before his final living breath, my father spoke his last words, which were simply, “It’s about time.” So we sat there, waiting for the flat line, and the answer to our long awaited question.
It finally came, and the high-pitched tone of the machine was as deafening as screeching wheels on a train toward a head-on collision. We bowed our heads in respect to the long-awaited derailment.
Then our father opened his eyes.
“Well?” my brother, Jared, asked anxiously.
“Well, nothing,” said our father as he looked around the room as if he hadn’t done so before. “Get me out of this bed and take me home, now! If I have to eat any more Jell-O out of that fairy nurse’s hands I swear he’ll be in this bed next.” He tried to sit up, but it looked as if all his energy had depleted through his protests. “You should’ve seen him when he washed my backside; spent a whole hour down there, I swear. It’s weird, I tell ya.”
My brother’s shoulders sank. “Dad,” he started, “tell us what it’s like! What’d you feel?”
“It feels like I crapped the sheets,” Dad said. He turned his sunken face toward me. “Casper, can you check down there and see? Better you than that damn nurse.”
This would turn out to be my first up-close, personal encounter with death. At the time, I was twelve and my brother was fourteen. Our aunt had started taking care of us once my father had become bedridden. She had left us with him so that we could be there for his final moments of life and so that we could get the answers that we had eagerly anticipated. Instead, I was stuck reaching behind my dad, checking his soiled linens.
“Dad, there’s nothing there that I can feel or see,” I said. “It’s wet though.”
“Eh, must be piss,” he said, sounding relieved. “I guess the textbooks were right. Sit my damn bed up.” Jared pushed the button to lean him up just as the door behind us swung open and the nurse my father spoke so highly of pushed his way in. “Ah, damn it,” Dad said. He had hated this place since the day of his admission, stating, “What’s the point? It’s not like dead is dead anymore anyway,” so I knew that he was in a rush to get out of there.
“Mr. Carson,” said the nurse as he turned off the EKG machine, “how was it?” He asked it as if my father had just eaten at the steakhouse he had suggested to him earlier.
“Well, it wasn’t all blowjobs and butterflies, if that’s what you’re asking,” Dad said. “I’m sure you know enough about those, though.”
The nurse, Jimmy, laughed and placed his hand on my father’s shoulder. “You’re lucky I like you Mr. Carson,” he said. “Only you would be able to guess my two favorite things in life, but just so you know, you’re also included on that list.”
“Ah, shit, Jimmy,” my father said, and placed his hand over the nurse’s, “it hurt till the end. I don’t wish this on no one.”
“Well,” said Jimmy, releasing his hand and turning to us, “it’s over, and I’m sure your boys are wondering what it was like, aren’t you boys?”
“Sure are!” we said in unison.
My father looked down, sobering his thoughts like he usually did before his words became serious, which had been rare. “I know you two have been waiting for an answer since this whole mess started,” he said, “but I’m afraid you’ll have to find it all out for yourselves, and God willing, that won’t be until you’re too old to care.” My dad reached over and touched my hand, also rare, for any occasion. “Some things in life, or whatever the hell this is, are meant to be experienced, Casper, not explained.”
We took him home that night after my aunt signed some paperwork, and continued to watch after him for the next few months that he was around. He ate and drank normally, which had baffled me, and my constant questioning of things soon became just wind in his ear. I would ask, “How are you still hungry? You can still get drunk? What’s that horrible smell?”
“Listen, son,” he’d say, in an increasingly weathered voice, “I didn’t make the rules of this gig, I just abide by them. Stop asking so many goddamn questions, ya hear? I’ll make sure and take them to the top of the ranks when I get there.”
That smell, I later learned, was his body eating itself. His skin began to hang further and further from his withered muscles, soon tearing from his body from the slightest touch. His eyes became yellow, then red, and then shriveled and disappeared from their sockets. He could no longer walk, because soon his bones would not hold together and would break from any pressure. Although he could no longer feel pain after his nerves had died out, the expression remained in his face and his features, like a lingering impression of the addition to his suffering. He died again in his bed after a few months, completely rotted from the inside out.
I finally cried for my deceased father.
Bright lights, walking through a tunnel, total darkness, angels, a meet and greet with Saint Peter, long lost loved ones, feelings of ultimate ecstasy—everyone got it wrong. The first to try to explain death in full detail after his rerising said that he really couldn’t put the feeling of passing into words. The next few said that it was like being kissed everywhere inside yourself, all at one moment. Some say it’s like being turned inside out, or imploding within. After a while, it just seemed like everyone was trying to outdo each other with their descriptions; no one seemed to be able to fully describe it right. One would overhear idiocy about tasting rainbows, shitting candy, flying, and everything else imaginable and in between. It all just became so unrelated to the real world; there was nothing on earth like it. Unless you were an enthusiastic eater of Skittles, who really knew what it were like to die, besides the dead themselves? It became a cult topic among many theorists who sat around talking and shaking their heads on television like it would solve anything, but like every other pressing matter on earth, mankind seemed to think that talking about it was the best solution.
My father passed over twenty years ago, and society has now adapted to the rerisings as well as it does with these types of things. It seems to me that there has always been shit that goes on unexplained in this world that we, as imperfect humans, just learn to accept as normal happenings: objects in the sky, airline disappearances, and whole societies and species from a time long ago that just seem to go up in smoke. There are even the daily questionable situations: why your farts never seem to stink as bad as others’, if Elvis or Tupac are really dead or not, and why we insist on still keeping up with the damn Kardashians. All these things seem to matter but they are unsolvable to the point of acceptance. When the dead started walking, it was just another question of life that joined the list.
I ran into my fist postmort—as they eventually came to be called for obvious reasons—on my way to school one day. They had been on the news for years but I had yet to see one up close and personal. He was a homeless man whose greying skin hung from him in folds. It grossly reminded me of the time that I had accidentally walked in on my grandma undressing; she had her back to me and her underwear was hanging from her age-worn behind. Seeing that man back then, it was something, but for some reason, seeing my grandma like that, all near-naked and exposed, it still haunts me to this day.
The postmort had asked me for change, which I provided, and then I just went on with my day. At the time, my father had just been diagnosed, so death to me was still just a big question mark. The conception of the word death was just something that ran along merrily with others, such as God, heaven, and sex. It was only three years later that I could stick those four words into a sentence without so much as a flinch. They just were. Who cares and life goes on.
But soon after my father’s death, my life went to shit. It’s a sob story like the best types one can see the American Idol judges falling for on TV, but I’ll just sum it up and say that I thought life was worse than it really was and couldn’t handle the feelings that came along with it, so I drank to compensate for everything I presumed I was missing, just like good-ol’ Dad. I just wanted to remove myself from it all—the thoughts, the emotions, the regrets. I wanted to hide. It didn’t work, so I drank more, and my life soon became an echo of the Saturday Night Serenity stories that I’ve heard on a weekly basis—full of loneliness and false hope.
I became a cynic like the worst of critics, and the world became a literal spinning reminder of the cycle we addicts loop ourselves into, with each day just running into the other. Even my brother pushed away from me, gained a new family, and moved as far from Seattle as possible. Things weren’t the same without him nearby, but I adapted. It’s what we do, as humans, at least those still alive. We adapt. We live on. We go until we can’t.
Tonight’s meeting thus far is a disaster. People around me stir around anxiously as the speaker, a damn postmort, spills his guts to the room—and I don’t mean in the figurative sense. The room smells of stale coffee, stale perfume, and his grotesque, stale innards. He shows us the scars of the surgeries that did no good and pictures of his dead liver that finally gave out after years of abuse. He tells us of his failed marriage and of the two kids that he is leaving behind in his wake. With each minute that I sit and stare at this talking failure, who is trying to tell me how to live my already failed life, I grow increasingly annoyed that no one has spoken up and said how much of a walking contradiction this guy is. How dare he try to give us hope and tell us how to live life after he has already failed so miserably with his? Not only that, but the man forces his smell onto us, which he tries to mask with some Versace knockoff that he no doubt bought at the Bath & Body Works in the downtown square.
I can no longer take it. When it’s time for us to share, I let my voice be heard. “I’m Casper and I’m—I drink a lot,” I start to say when it’s my turn to speak. I hate saying the word alcoholic; it’s so absolute. “Most days I just sit here and listen,” I continue, “I like to hear the stories. It makes me feel like my life isn’t so shitty in the moment. Other days I really feel compelled to share but just can’t think of the words to say.” I stop to take a deep breath, and think about if I should go on. Yes, today there is no holding back. “Then there are days—rare, but like today, they do happen—when someone’s diarrhea of the mouth reeks of such idiosyncratic ignorance and hypocrisy that I can just no longer hold my tongue!” There are gasps around the room, but I don’t care. My whole body feels red with a sort of fiery relief.
I point my finger in the postmort’s direction and speak out to the exclamations: “Everything that man just said is such bullshit, that I don’t know how half of us haven’t run out to grab a drink to drown the sorrow that he has just put us all in. Or better yet, run out and get hit by a bus, because at this point, even that seems like a more solid solution.” More gasps come. “I mean, it’s fucking outrageous how he can sit there and be so calm about dying and then try to tell us that things are going to turn out okay! What’s the damn point of this if we are just going to end up like this guy and be miserable, despite it all?” I stop and try to breathe through the rush I’ve recieved.
“Casper,” someone says behind me after the room calms and there is a brief moment of silence.
“No,” I say. “I am entitled to my opinion—” I turn to see who mouthed my name, “Gene.” I turn back to the dead man. “Seriously man, you’re dead. What right do you have to come in here and tell us how to do things? Isn’t it just supposed to be ‘what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now’? How is your life now, umm—“
“Colton,” says the stiff, while squinting at me with his stare of death.
“How is it Colton?” I say with a spurt. “How’s life for you now?” I cross my arms and lean back in my chair. I inhale deeply as I try to calm my thoughts of rage entwined with pride.
“I was merely—“
“No,” interrupts the secretary. “We will not turn this into a discussion. Casper, if you’re uncomfortable with the speaker, then you’re welcome to—“
“Yeah, I’m going,” I say. I push my chair back and ensure that it scrapes the ground loud enough to cause a ruckus before turning to leave past all of the shaking heads of disappointment.
Outside, the rain falls on my sweaty hair as I step out on to the curb. To my right stands the bus stop, which leads home. To my left, the corner mart’s double doors stare at me and mock me from afar.
I fish in my right pocket with my hand and feel for the matted up bills within. I take them out to count them; there is just enough. Perhaps I was too harsh on the guy. I cough into my hand which shakes the thoughts and I take five steps toward the bus stop. I should go back in and apologize. I fish in my left pocket and grab the cigarette pack within. I light one up, look to the ground for six seconds, and turn toward the corner mart. There is no going back. I enter the store to buy my beer.
We go until we can’t; I always told myself that, and I believed it too, until the doctor told me that I was going to die.