Despite this paucity of hard data the afterlife continues to enjoy a rich following of hobbyists and enthusiasts, evidenced by the abundance of podcasts, blogs, e-books and infomercials available on the subject, if not by the sheer byte-count of heated debate exposed in the edit commentary of certain Wikipedia pages.
Pre-death experience does not get the same spotlight as post-death. Polls indicate a strong correlation in people's minds between dying and unpleasantness. Most would prefer to focus on the loving light of post-death transition or, in some circles, the mathematically perfect peace of non-existence.
The deceased in this essay was an avid student of the transition to the afterlife. The deceased consumed the subject voraciously, and would happily opine as armchair theologian on the validity of various theorized forms his post-death experience might take, according to his research. He looked forward to knowing for sure which was right.
So, death itself wasn't an issue for him. It was the dying.
The deceased not a dying virgin, however. He had been dying three times previously, which is more than most people accomplish without the situation metastasizing into full-blown death.
The first time he was dying was during World War II, when different parties were lobbing ordnance at one another where the deceased lived. In the intervals between the lobbings he and his siblings would sometimes poke around in the rubble. One day the deceased found a small bit of ordnance that was yet to fulfill its full destiny. He poked it. They told his parents he wouldn't live. He lost sight in one eye.
The second time he was dying was after working as a diver in South America and contracting an aggressive liver disease popular in those parts. They told his wife he wouldn't live. But later he gave them a spittle-flecked talking to and they were happy to see him leave the hospital under his own power, his wife on his arm.
The third time the deceased was dying was the result of an unfortunate philosophical disagreement with a colleague that became as heated as the edit commentary of a Wikipedia page. Because his colleague was holding an iron girder at the time of the dispute he elected made his ultimate position clear by smashing in the front of the deceased's skull. They told his wife and kids that he wouldn't live. But eventually the coma wore off and the deceased got out of bed and wanted fried food.
That's how it works. You're either alive or you're not. We're all on our way to death. But some of us make loop-de-loops along the way.
The fourth time the deceased was dying was the result of a degenerative neurological condition whose features included progressive paralysis from the extremities upward. They told his wife and adult children and me that he was lucky he didn't have the kind that started at the top, because then he would die quickly and probably become demented on the way. Instead he could look forward to a longer period with intact mental faculties enjoying the full panoply of sensory experience promised by losing control of your body an inch at a time.
Even the quacks had no cure.
The deceased was an outdoorsman, so he took it hard. The deceased had previously suffered two brain injuries, so him taking it hard was sometimes hard to take. The deceased had also been diagnosed with a bi-polar mood disorder, so some days it was especially hard to take how hard he was taking it.
To add colour and context I should probably point out that the deceased and I debated frequently. We did not agree about the afterlife, we did not agree about the development of life on Earth, and we did not agree on the metaphysical purpose of human life. Despite initiating these debates, the deceased often became disproportionately upset by the outcomes. Because he was bi-polar he had difficulty sorting his emotions, so frustration at being unable to persuade me to adopt his point of view tainted his appraisal of my character as a whole. He had come to conclude it was likely that my wife and I were fundamentally less noble creatures than himself, due to the obstinance of our opinions on subjects he held dear.
We all lived together in this old schoolhouse, so when he said he wanted to do his dying in the family home it wasn't a request we could deny. Where else would he go? Dying of a fatal disease without complications isn't something hospitals have interventions for, so we couldn't score a free bed there. Besides, the deceased hated hospitals.
We got him a wheelchair and pushed it around, cracking Stephen Hawking jokes.
Like a nursery rhyme his body failed part by part. Getting him into and out of the wheelchair became a tricky bit of engineering by two or more able-bodied adults. He started spending most of his time in bed. We gave him a little bell, and he would ring it when he wanted his wife to bring him something.
Later we got an electric hoist, so we could levitate him right out of the bed to change the sheets and wipe his bottom. He peed into a little plastic jug that spilled everywhere only occasionally, and only once on my work trousers. He stopped using the very thin laptop to surf afterlife blogs because his fingers were failing him. They were turning into useless numb sausages. He couldn't double-click to save his life.
We had applied for a nurse from the public system to help tend to him. The waiting list was long. But one day she arrived, smiling and ready to lend a hand. She was a nice lady. She started stealing things from the deceased's home so we let her go.
The deceased's insurer provided an oxygen machine. The public system provided tanks of oxygen. We had diapers delivered by the dozen. Somewhere in there somebody helped themselves to the deceased's very thin laptop.
"You know," he said to his daughter one day, "you and your husband have really changed. You're good people now."
She may have said, "Thanks."
He went on to explain to her that he wanted to go before he died. That is to say he wished to hasten the process. Decaying into morbidity day by day was taxing to himself and to us, and he had formed a plan to cut to the chase. He wished to execute his plan while he was still able. He did not ask for assistance, only complicity.
The new nurse wasn't as chatty as the old nurse but she didn't steal anything. She came three days a week. The deceased was beginning to dement. He seemed very interested in tracking the nurse's comings and goings but for the life of him couldn't keep it straight.
His wife went out shopping. She was surprised at how long and how deeply the deceased was sleeping, and asked me to check in on him. So I did.
The sick room was dark. The oxygen machine was silent. I stepped around the hoist to approach the bed.
A still moment. Very quiet. And then one shallow, brief, gurgling breath. He was living, but he did not stir at being touched or at the sound of his name. A moment later he breathed again, so subtle you could miss it.
On the night stand was an empty bottle of his wife's very potent narcotic pain medication. A few were spilled on the floor, scattered on a pee stain.
It dawned on me what moment I was in.
I backed out of the sick room. That's what he wanted, I knew. But it felt weird to follow through. I pulled the door half-way closed. This was his plan. Today was the day.
But the deceased had fucked up. It was a nurse day.
My wife recognized this immediately and came home. She dealt with the pill bottle. On our way out we met the nurse on her way in. She wanted to know how the deceased was doing. We said he was sleeping. She went in to check on him.
When she came out of the sick room we all knew what was going on. The nurse was conflicted. She explained she was duty-bound to call in first responders.
I looked at my wife. She looked at me. "Call it in," I said. "We're not going to put you in a position."
Firetrucks, ambulance, police. The paramedics deduced that the deceased was in a narcotic coma and aspirating vomit. My wife presented them the deceased's do-not-resuscitate order, which they advised her to present at the hospital. They cleared his passages with a suction device and loaded him up on a gurney.
Neighbourhood kids parked their bikes and hung out around the schoolhouse to watch them load him up into the ambulance. The deceased's wife and daughter got in the back of the ambulance with him and rode off to the hospital.
With a chuff of its brakes the firetruck departed. But the police cruiser stayed. It was parked in the driveway behind my car.
"We'd rather you remain here at the premises, sir, confining yourself to the upstairs level, for the time being," explained the unfriendly police man. "Until we determine whether the dwelling is a crime scene."
More police men and women came to help him determine that. They spent a lot of time hanging around on the front lawn, turning their heads to talk into radios attached to their epaulettes. Squelch and beep, muttering.
My wife called. The hospital had insisted on resuscitating the deceased despite the paper order. And the deceased was really, really put out about it. He'd been betrayed. We'd caused him to awake in a literal Hell. None of us would ever be forgiven. That sort of thing.
A moment later the police cruiser pulled out of the driveway and drove away. I guess he got the call, too.
At the hospital the deceased was making a zealous case for his death. He was not favourably disposed toward the caregivers present, and explicated his feelings in colourful terms. He shouted repeatedly about his goal of death on his own terms. But instead of bringing the caregivers around to his point of view they responded to that by strapping the paralyzed man to his hospital bed and posting guards at the door of his room. The deceased was put in handcuffs. They jammed a tube down his throat for feed.
He remained a guest of a hospital for a few days. His body kept trying to die while he there but the hospital staff kept saving his life. The conflict was exhausting. Those nurses sure were happy to see him go.
An ambulance brought him home. Back in bed he found he wasn't able to ring his little bell anymore. Being brought back to life had weakened him. Nor could he raise his voice to call for assistance. He was, more than ever, helpless. The window for personal action had closed. He was no longer able to physically affect his own fate; he could only whisper to plead.
We were very fortunate to score him a spot in a hospice supported by private benefactors. Very nice. Lots of ferns and flowers. It had ten beds, for ten people whose bodies had committed them to dying. Great, sunny kitchen. Spaces for families to commiserate on comfy chairs and loveseats. A games room for the tots, with four Wii wands and all the accessories.
We visited and brought the grandchildren who taped up their drawings on the wall of the deceased's room. Some people didn't visit much, but there are always those in every family who find it too hard.
"He's having trouble swallowing," they observed.
"What happens when he can't swallow?" asked my wife.
"We start using a feeding tube. Or we don't."
"What does that mean exactly?"
"You understand we can't allow anyone to starve here."
"So what happens?"
"We turn up the morphine."
There was to be no tube. We didn't have to be more explicit than that. The hospice people were always respectfully elliptical – and legally elliptical, too. They knew how to dance the dance. Nobody was going to get in trouble.
Ten days later the deceased stopped swallowing. Morphine helped him slip away.
By the time I got there he was gone. He'd left a corpse. Even just an hour later there was no mistaking it for a living thing. The family solemnly accompanied it as it was wheeled through the hospice and out the front door to the trunk of a waiting SUV. It would be transported to another facility for burning before being returned to us in the urn of our choice.
His widow chose the cheap one. Why go fancy on something you're just going to ceremoniously dump somebody out of, anyway? The wind would be a suitably beautiful container.
The deceased requested no funeral. Easily done.
His widow says the deceased has indeed made contact with her from the afterlife, so I guess it all worked out in the end from his point of view. I was never charged as an accessory to attempted assisted suicide or depraved indifference to human life, so I came out on top as well. Before he crossed over he even forgave us for having such stupid opinions, and told his daughter what a great person she had become. Even though he could not understand how we justified functioning as moral beings, he conceded that we had acted properly somehow anyway.
Getting all his credit cards cancelled and accounts closed turned out to be a real bitch.
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