A Familiar Way of Dieing

April 8, 2009
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Swish, gasp…swish, gasp…

I’m still alive; the machine has made sure of that. My ventilator stands solemnly at my bedside, the oxygen mask fastened securely over my nose and mouth. I lay still under sanitary white blankets. They are thin and have lost all warm. The air conditioner makes this room an ice box. It causes my pale hands to grow a twinge pinker than the white blankets they rest lifelessly on at my sides. I don’t move. I never move.

The noises, the smells, even the colors of this miserable place seem common to me, as if it has slipped under my skin. The electrical buzz of the florescent, white tubes above are maddening, almost more so than the faint beeping of the medical apparatuses that monitor my vital signs. They are plugged into me all over my body by EKG patches; my temples, my abdomen, my chest, to be sure that I’m still alive. The constant swish of air in and out of the ventilator to my useless lungs marks every painful moment I lay here. All I have known is this hospital bed. I am disgusted with this world.
The infirmary smells like death and cleanliness. It’s a mixture of decaying skin, sanitizing soap, and plastic. The nurses wear crisp white uniforms, bleached to death and reeking of unimaginative purpose. They are stiff and make a horrible scraping sound when they walk down the halls. The halls themselves are painted that sickly green color, like a half-hearted effort at sea-foam that missed by a long shot. It hurts my eyes and turns my stomach sour.
I was born in this hospital and shortly after that I was diagnosed. I have never been outside of these walls. I have never known anything else. I can’t because my lungs don’t work. That’s what they mean when they give me that long-winded, important-sounding explanation. I don’t understand half of the words they use to describe my condition. But I know I can’t breathe on my own…so they have to help me.
And day after day I have air forced down my throat, in and out of my lungs. Inhale…exhale…my day revolves around this undulating, mechanical swish of air. This is how you breathe. This is how you breathe; the ventilator tells me again and again. But my lungs refuse to learn…I refuse to learn. I’ve been forced to breathe for so long that I wish only to stop, to turn off the machines.
“Just because I am alive doesn’t mean that I am living,” I want to remind the pasty nurses as they move past my room. But even if I could find the air to speak, they would not listen. I am just their job. As long as I am alive from 9 to 5, they still get their paycheck. They don’t get paid extra for talking to me and making me feel less like a corpse. But that’s all that I am; a glorified corpse, suspended somewhere between life and death like some nightmarish waiting room.
All I have experienced from the outside world where people breathe on their own is magazines; pictures of other people experiencing life. The glossy covers plaster a small desk wedged between my gurney and beeping machines. The people are having fun and laughing, something I rarely see here as an infirmed patient, and it seems pleasant enough. But it looks like work. How do these people climb those mountains and paddle those canoes? How do they laugh and talk and play without losing their breath? I could never do that. But somewhere deep inside of me, I want to.
The smiling faces are so beautiful and the colors are so bright; I sometimes wonder if these are pictures taken from another world. The world I live in is washed out from harsh florescent tubes and sickly green paint. It’s so different.
I don’t read the magazines. Their words have never applied to me. But I like the pictures. Pictures of ladies in dresses and men in suits; pictures of animals I have never seen and never will; but best of all, pictures of mountains, beautiful, azure, snow-capped giants thrusting their heads to the sky and their arms jutting up between clouds. Such pictures would take my breath away…if not for the ventilator.

Once a week, the nurses have me walk around the third floor of the infirmary to stretch my weak legs. And around the second corner, half-hidden by cream curtains, is a window. And out that window are mountains more glorious and more beautiful than any magazine could be. It’s the exciting part of my week, walking on shaky legs so unaccustomed to regular exercise and the nurses pushing my machines along on either side of me. Those machines have been so long attached to me that they are like appendages of my body; the EKG patches as familiar to me as my own birthmarks. The only place I will go without them is the grave.
But when I pass by that window, it all melts away. I no longer hear the beeping that signals another heartbeat or the movement of air in the ventilator. I cannot smell the acrid cleanliness of the nurses’ uniforms or hear the terrible noise of their thighs scraping together. The floor beneath my bare feet isn’t cold and my hospital gown isn’t hanging off me, nearly revealing my backside. I am somewhere else completely. Where that place is, I’m not sure. All I know is that for a few seconds each week when I catch a glimpse of those mountains, I’m no longer an infirmed corpse hanging between life and death. Numbness replaces the pain and I realize how small I am. It’s awful in the most delicious way.
I dreamt of those mountains last night. Often times I don’t dream at all, but last night I did. They were looming above me and I saw people climbing them. It looked like difficult work. I watched the muscles strain and the sweat bead off of them. I watched their lungs pump air in and out with powerful gasps and their heartbeats shake their bodies. It looked exhausting and yet…I wanted to try it. For the first time, I wanted to breathe; really breathe through healthy lungs and not through plastic tubes. I wanted to walk and not with the help of nurses; walk on my own two legs.

Today is the day for me to walk around the third floor. I want to see the mountains more than ever; just to look at them for a few moments and feel that delicious numbness sweep over me, making me forget that I cannot breathe on my own.
And then when I turn the corner, barely walking on my own but held up by dull nurses, I find the curtains closed and the mountains completely hidden. I stop just for a moment feeling as if my stomach has turned to stone. I can almost hear it thud at the bottom of my abdomen, like a rock at the bottom of an empty pit.
“Come now, let’s not make this longer than it has to be,” a nurse urges me in an annoyed monotone. They move me along but all I can do is watch after the window, confused and shocked and hurt. It’s not there anymore. The one bright spot that gets me through the week is hidden by disgusting cream-stained curtains.
The nurses put me in the elevator and take me back to my room. My machine keeps beeping, the ventilator keeps pumping, and my IV’s keep dripping into my veins but all I can do is stare straight ahead. I am trying to holding back tears that sting my eyes and burn my nostrils. However, I cannot stop them from lining up like stubborn soldiers along my lower lid, ready to fall. The nurses put me in my bed and I stay there until night, never moving and thinking of nothing other than the mountains.
By nightfall, it’s maddening. I contemplate escaping to the third floor and tearing the curtains off of the window so that I will always be able to see them. But they would think that I’ve lost my mind and move me to a different kind of hospital. I would never see the mountains again.
I turn it over and over again in my mind. Then slowly, like a bubble of air in my IV bag rising to the surface, a thought forms in the back of my mind and moves forward. It lurks just beyond the conscious attentions that could entertain it. But still, there it was; an absurd idea that plays on the hopelessness of my situation and my love of the mountains, both striving for one goal. And that goal, though I do not acknowledge it fully as I push back my blankets and swing my legs over the side of the bed, is to get me out of the infirmary.
I don’t quite understand what I am doing as I rise to my feet. But that doesn’t seem to matter. My legs feel strong and solid underneath me, not awkward and watery at the knees as they do when the nurses carry me. I take one real, honest step forward on my own. It is small and not unlike many I have taken before, but this step now means something. It is a step in the direction of the door; the one shadowed in red light from the exit sign above. I can see it clearly as I take yet another step and then another. I am moving with my own legs under me, not a wheel chair or even a walker to stabilize me. I am going to see the mountains.
I walk. Past a darkened waiting room, past a suspicious-looking drinking fountain, past empty rooms I walk. My machines follow me, pulled tightly by patches and wires. Soon one comes off and falls to the floor and one machine stops…then another and another, leaving a mess of patches, wires and medical apparatuses behind me.
All that is left is my ventilator and my IV. I close my eyes and stop for a moment. I can’t pull my IV any longer. Either I stopped here or I leave my IV behind. I almost go back to my room. Then I see how far I have come when I turn around; all my other machines left behind. In one quick, decisive moment, I pull the IV out and feel the pain shooting up my arm. A bubble of inky blood forms on my arm but I wipe it away and hold the small wound tightly. I walk on.
It is then that I make a discovery, alone in that hall. There are others like me, each held in their glass rooms and lying so still in their beds that, had not their machines been beeping steadily, I might have thought them dead. The other patients are hooked to ventilators and machines to keep them alive, but in all reality it is killing them just as it has been killing me. It’s a familiar way of dieing.
They tilt their heads up to look at me as I pass. Emotion is difficult to read on the stony faces of the infirmed, but I know, in the disappearing crinkles around their eyes and the wide dilation of their pupils, they are shocked and silent with awe. A patient like them is leaving. Maybe they can walk as well.
Yet the test is not in walking. I have walked by myself several times in my life. But I had never once breathed without the ventilator. I don’t know if my lungs even work. If what the nurses had told me was true, I will suffocate shortly after removing the mask; unable to draw air into my lungs. I don’t care anymore. I can’t live like this. Either I will breathe on my own, which is better a fate than being hooked to a ventilator, or I will die, which is also better a fate than being hooked to a ventilator.
I feel the cold tile floor beneath my bare feet with each step. The pat, pat of each solid footstep I take towards the door echoes against the sickly green walls. More footsteps fall in rhythm with mine. Other patients have made the decision to leave the hospital. Medical apparatuses are left alone in the halls and EKG patches litter the floor. It’s beautiful.
The exit sign shines against my pallid face as I look up at it for just a moment. I push the door open. There the mountains await me, glowing in the light of the spangled sky. I am not numb anymore. I am filled with something much more wonderful. Peace. My shoulders drop and I just watched the mountains for a moment, the tears spilling over my cheeks and running along the sides of my oxygen mask.
I look over my shoulder at the others. They are enraptured at their first sight of the mountains, not even able to form tears, just watching.
If I leave the infirmary, I know I will not be safe. Many dangers lurk outside. Animals that can make a feast of me, pitfalls to capture me and cold that can freeze me solid. Every ounce of logic pulls me back to the safety of the hospital. But my heart thuds against my ribs, aching to be out in the mountains. I let it pull me forward just slightly until my toes curl over the edge of the door, tingling deliciously with the cold.
Knowing exactly what it will mean and what the consciences might be, I pull my mask off. It clatters against the floor but I do not hear the sound. All I can hear is the sound of my first breath of fresh air as I gasp and pull it into me. I understand. For a single moment as I taste the air, I know. So, I think with a smile, this is how you breathe.





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(kristin) said...
Apr. 15, 2009 at 1:04 am
this is beautiful!
 
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