By Andrew Sharp
Richard Magee had sometimes wondered what it was like to die. But when he actually did, during what he had thought was going to be the middle of his life, his mind was too clouded to analyze and understand it. Does anyone know the moment he falls asleep?
They’re going to be celebrating the Fourth of July, and I’ll be gone, Richard thought as he lay in the hospital two days before he died. Thinking was about all he could still do. Without the ability to act on his thoughts, he felt increasingly as if he were living in an imaginary world, his bed a tether that kept him from roaming as far as he wanted to.
Yesterday, he had been worried about paying the gas bill, whether he could talk his wife out of a European vacation, whether he’d get caught for fudging his time sheets at work, and whether the Phillies’ pitching was really this bad.
He’d been looking forward to watching the fireworks this weekend.
Now he was watching the ceiling in the hospital, and it seemed likely the fireworks would go off after his grand finale. This was not a morbid gut instinct. He had heard the doctor tell his family the end would be soon. That was a relief. He wouldn’t want to linger on for years asking for more pain medication with eye blinks. They kept asking him if he understood, and he blinked at them, and then they still talked as if he wasn’t in the room. Why don’t you ask me if I feel horrible and want to die? he thought. I’ll blink yes for that.
And where would he be, while everyone watched the fireworks? He used to think that life must go on in some way after death. He had been raised believing in God, and had taken comfort in the chance that, assuming he got a passing grade after his expiration date, he had more future than as a skeleton in a coffin.
But that hope had gone down with the loss of all hands years ago. He saw the random disaster that destroyed innocent children and saintly grandparents alike, while criminals enjoyed wealth and happiness. He learned how hurtling space rocks changed the futures of entire planets with chance impacts. He grew to accept the hard scientific understanding that consciousness is just a complex organic computer program. Religion, he realized against his will, was a masquerade. It was useful in that it gave color to the lives of ordinary humans, a structure to order their short lives around, but it was not a truth that provided real hope. Despite all the prayers, struggles, and faith, the pious were just nasty ordinary people underneath. There were no miracles.
He remembered the day he finally knew, against his will, deep down to his very core, that when he prayed, no heavenly being heard it. That his father was not “safe in the arms of Jesus” but very literally becoming a worm, or rather a worm’s feces, his atoms redistributed to the eager benefit of the life that was still lucky enough to be squirming.
The doctor was right. Richard’s last day did not procrastinate. He recognized it when it came, and knew the light streaming in through the cracks in the curtains was his last sunrise, which he had missed because he was flat on his back. He watched the light crawl up the opposite wall, and he breathed disinfectant fumes instead of the foggy morning air that was a few feet away on the other side of the drywall and brick.
Death stripped away sentimentality like a nest of beetles. For the victim, anyway. His wife and two of his children were gathered in the room, ready to send him out with tears and ceremony.
He wished they would just go to work like usual. They would die too; why make such a fuss about his passing and waste the time they had left? This sentiment was too complicated to blink, so he let it be.
It became hard to form thoughts. He knew his wife was holding his hand. His chest hurt, even through the drugs. There was a baseball game. A bowl of oatmeal. A commotion on a highway with yellow stripes, and he was tripping on something. Wings flapping. He was falling. A weight pushed down on his chest and he tried to grab it and push it off. He worked to remember something important. Then he felt as if he were in tiny pieces, specks spread far, spread everywhere, a great horrifying gap, too much distance, too much space. Everything was a mist that was rushing inward, growing tighter and more solid. His perception was not a thought, but a restless knowing, like a dream during sickness.
Something is pushing all over my body, he thought. The weight. Then he knew what he had been trying to remember. I’m dying. I don’t want to die.
He fought to breathe and tried to thrash his arms. No one came to help. Suddenly the weight gave way and he sat up, gasping in breaths of air. He was up to his waist in black, leafy dirt in a patch of ferns. A mosquito whined at his ear and bit his neck. He crushed it.
He brushed a long tendril of moss out of his face and looked around.
“Christ!” he said.