I never believed in any God.
I tried to at times but it was in the times that I desperately needed to try that confirmed to me I was on my own.
Prayer didn’t stop life from being cruel and mostly circular, It didn’t stop the noise and the meanness of others. It didn’t fix a pinched face or dampen down the dark nightmares and visceral fears. Maybe Paul the cowboy preacher was right? Maybe I simply wasn’t doing it right?
“Look at you! You’re sitting up!”
It’s my respiratory therapist. Sitting up like this I notice that he’s as fine-boned as I am, and almost as tall.
“What the heck is that?” he asks me.
“It’s juice from one of God’s most innovative ideas- the tobacky plant. Mind your feet there.” Paul the cowboy preacher has brought in an Ass Wiper with a mop and the room is suddenly crowded.
Baldeeny is snoring exceptionally loud again and Caroline pokes her head in the door. “When you’re done with that we need you in three-twenty-one. Hi Walter!”
“Are you ready to blow, Walter? Remember this device?”
I try and keep up.
“What in tarnation is that?”
My respiratory therapist has placed a plastic toy-like device in my mouth and I blow hard, trying to make a tiny red ball bounce around in a clear plastic chamber.
Paul the cowboy preacher finds this curious and he leans in for a closer look. He’s made his bushy eyebrows into the shape of a mustache.
“It makes his cheeks puff out a bit, don’t it? Sort of fills out his face there where it’s all pinched in.”
“It helps to clear his lungs. Will you back away please? Okay. Blow again.”
I blow again.
I make the little red ball bounce cheerfully around. It seems like such a happy little red ball.
“Good,” says my respiratory guy. “Keep at it.”
I use Baldeeny’s snoring to find a rhythm and I just keep breathing in and blowing out, making the ball dance around inside the plastic toy shoved in my mouth while the Ass Wiper swirls his mop around and Paul the cowboy preacher does some amusing side stepping to keep out of the swabbing mop’s path spilling more spit from the rim of his cup…
“Dag nabbit! I think it’s time to empty this!”
My head is woozy and I stop blowing... The room itself begins going around and round…
I close my eyes and see red and feel red inside my head…
The lights go out.
There is a bright white light.
I’m in bed.
The lights are coming on slowly like old fluorescent bulbs.
Sometimes I even seem to flicker.
The bright white light flickers too.
“Walter?” asks my doctor. “Is that you in there?”
It’s me in here. Well I’m assuming it is me. What if I went away and someone else came in and took my place? Could ‘they’ be ‘me’ for me?
How could they be? How could ‘me’ go anywhere without my brain? My brain creates me and I become me inside of its many lobes and folds. If part of my brain is missing then part of me is missing too. If all of my brain is left behind, what would be left to create me? If I were to leave my brain and travel all over hill and dale, I would have to travel upon air. What structure is there in air to sustain me? To ‘create” me? To keep me being me?
And what structure would there be to sustain another? My interloper who would then become me? He would have to travel across space and time sustained by nothing in order to take up residence inside my brain and use my cranial facilities.
“Yes, it’s me in here.”
“Very good! Very good! For awhile there, we’d thought we’d lost you again. Scared us all. Any idea how long you’ve been gone?”
I can’t say. One minute I was having sex with Caroline, and the next minute I don’t remember. Then there was a bright white light in my eyes and a doctor hovering over me.
I remember my doctor because I like him. My doctor cares about ‘me’.
“I don’t know… An hour? Two?”
My doctor looks at his watch. “Two hours and a day. Twenty six hours altogether. How are you feeling?”
“Like I just woke up. How’s Caroline? Did I upset her?”
“Oh my yes!” says my doctor. “She was very distraught about you. She’s really fond of you, you know.”
“I know. I like her too. Where is she? I’d like to tell her I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt her like that. I just couldn’t help myself.”
My doctor chuckles.
“She’s out on the floor somewhere. She’ll be happy to hear you’ve come around and I’m sure she’ll come in for a visit when she does. Are you feeling any pain, Walter? Your stomach? Anywhere else?”
I stop thinking about Caroline’s body and concentrate on my own.
They used to scan bodies on Star Trek all the time. My head aches a little and there is a tickle in my throat. My back is full of pesky, burny-itchy spots and my catheter is tight down there. I think I’ve had an erection but I only have half of one now. I wonder if my doctor noticed?
“I feel okay,” I tell him. “Not great but just okay.”
“Do you know where you’ve been, Walter?”
“Been? I’ve been right here.”
My doctor chuckles again. “No. ‘In your mind’. Do you know where you were in your mind? Were you sleeping? Did you dream? When you left us for 26 hours, ‘where did you go‘?”
I never left anywhere. I was always right here. I was sitting in a chair and then I woke up in bed. But I was with Caroline? And the two of us certainly were ‘not here‘.
“I took a trip out to a hotel near the coast. I had a date.”
My doctor bursts out laughing.
I suppose that is funny and I can’t help but smile.
I’m funny. My doctor thinks I’m funny. I never used to be funny before I was kicked in the head by those violent black boots beneath those massive hairy bellies.
There is an irony there.
“Maybe I dreamed all of it?”
“Which part of it?”
“All of it. Maybe nothing ever happened to me and even this is a dream? Maybe…”
“Well I’m certainly not dreaming, Walter. So unless you somehow trapped me inside your dream, I’d say you experienced much of it and you dreamed some of it. The brain has trouble knowing the difference. It takes the mind to sort out what is real and what is imagined. The brain creates the mind and the mind controls the brain. Your mind tells you what is real and what is a dream. It’s up to you to train it as you grow up to discern the difference.”
“I can control all of my brain?”
“Well except for the autonomic system, of course. That’s the part of the brain that goes behind the back of the mind and takes care of different systems in your body that need taking care of. Your mind gets left out of those decisions.”
My doctor laughs.
“I prefer to call it ‘fascinating’, Walter. The human brain is the most amazing thing that the human mind can think of, in my opinion. Small areas of the brain are dedicated to perform specific tasks and then these tasks are all blended into what we call consciousness. Did you know there is an area of your brain dedicated specifically to recognizing faces? If that tiny area gets damaged you can recognize everything around you but you won’t recognize the face of your very own mother. And Ol’ Baldeeny over there? He’s got a switching problem in the brain centers that control sleep. Apparently his switch is stuck in the sleep position and he’ll have trouble waking if we can’t figure out how to fix it.”
“He’ll snore like that forever?”
“Well not forever, of course. But he’ll sleep away his life I’m afraid.”
“He dreams, you know.”
“Oh I know! We’ve tested him. He sleeps normal sleep cycles, only they repeat themselves without the normal seventeen hour break in-between.”
“Maybe his dreams are better than his real life? Maybe he likes dreaming his life away, rather than living it?”
“That’s hard for me to answer, Walter. I’ve never met the man and don’t know anything about his life.”
“I met the old girl and she seemed rather nice. I bet he dreams about her all the time.”
My doctor chuckles. “You sure have some interesting thoughts inside that mind of yours, Walter!”
My doctor taps my forehead with his pointer-finger. “There appears to be quite a bit of brain left in there!”
I’ve never been touched this much in my entire life. Or had people be this nice to me. While I want it to go on and on my doctor changes focus and begins to show signs of leaving.
“On that note I must continue on my rounds, young man. We’ll try and figure out why you lapsed into unconsciousness so maybe we can do something about it. I’m sure you don’t want to dream your life away?”
I smile… and think of Caroline in my dream.
“I just might.” I try and add a wry smile but I don’t think my doctor notices.
I stare at the white and shiny ceiling.
And think about my mind all over again.
It’s mine and it comes from me. The murmuring people I hear out in the hallway have their own minds unlike mine. There are things going on inside their brains that I’ll never understand unless they share, and even if they share they’ll never be able to ‘really’ share because a mind described is not really the mind at all. A word- a sentence- a long explanation- cannot begin to transfer one consciousness into the consciousness of another.
We are truly on our own inside our heads.
I have itchy back sores and feet that smear into oblivion. I have my endless circles and fixed routines and favorite foods and mad, mad crushes. I have my sister Isabella- just the memory of her but in my mind she lives and breathes and plays with dinosaurs. It’s all in here along with ‘me’. It’s all in here and it ‘is me’.
Nobody but me can be what I am inside my head.
You can’t even try because you wouldn’t know where to start. You’d have to ‘be’ me and that would be impossible because that’s who I am. I’m unique and for the first time in my entire life I think I really don’t mind who I am.
My doctor touches ‘me’ and it makes me feel good just to be me. At least the me that occupies the brain that creates the me that knows he has a brain.
I stare at the white and shiny ceiling.
‘I’ stare at the white and shiny ceiling.
It’s me in here. Staring out there.
Just me. Created by my damaged brain.
“I knew you hadn’t gone yet!”
I know that voice.
“When they leave you can feel them go. With you it was different. You just sort of stepped-aside or some such thing. Like you slipped behind a curtain in your mind and hid from all of us for a spell. Spllttt.”
It’s Paul the cowboy preacher.
“But that’s the second warning you just got, buster. The man upstairs is getting mighty short with you. Third times a charm is the way I hear it and if’n you go under again you’re prolly toast and going to purgatory for an evaluation. You need the good book to save you before your last dip into the netherworld- I’m here to give you the good word and make sure you get streets paved in gold and angels and harps!”
“I used to sweep the streets in my StromboneXXX. I can’t imagine getting too excited about streets paved in gold. They sound hard to keep clean if you ask me.”
“Oh good gracious and glory be to kingdom come!”
Paul is doing that thing with his hat again. He has taken it off his head and mimed throwing it on the ground. Now he’s pretending to stomp on it even though I can plainly see it in his hand.
“You don’t have to sweep the streets in heaven, man! What are you, some kind of degenerate Yankee? It’s ‘heaven’ you mischievous varmint. You just mosey on around and enjoy the reward you’ve earned because you were smart enough to read the good book and take on Jesus as your savior.”
“I don’t get it.” I honestly did not get it. “None of that makes any sense.”
“Of course it makes perfectly good sense! It’s in the good book and God himself wrote that book through his prophets so that even miscreants like you could find salvation in it. Don’t you wanna find salvation, buster?”
“I don’t understand salvation, either. What is ‘salvation’?”
“You don’t understand salvation? Didn’t you go to Sunday school when you were a child? That’s where they teach you all about living forever and being saved and meeting your maker and Noah’s ark and all that good stuff. Salvation is just a part of all that. Salvation is where you are… well… you are ‘salvated’ and allowed in to the good-people-club up in heaven. Splltt. Don’tcha wanna hang out forever with the good people, buster?
“Can I hang out with just one or two good people? I don’t like crowds. Is it crowded in heaven?”
“Wha? Crowded? Heaven’s no! There’s room for everyone. It’s infinite like space itself.”
“You’ve been there? “
“Do I look ghostly to you? Of course I ain’t been there! I’ve got to die first and then I ascend upwards like a hot air balloon until I arrive at the Pearly Gates . Splltt! Then I get let in for reading the good book and I get to rub shoulders with the likes of John Wayne and Lee Marvin. My dream is to swagger on up to a bar between the two of them dudes and order up a double shot of whiskey. I slam it down, look the two of them straight in the eye and say, “That hit the spot.” You got a fantasy you want fulfilled when you get to heaven?”
I think about Caroline and smile. “Do they allow sex in heaven?”
“Wha? Heaven’s no! It’s a family place! Full of good, wholesome people! You go there for good clean fun- not to be fulfilling any of your earthly, sinful wishes!”
I have no answer to this. Paul the cowboy preacher has no follow-up. Baldeeny snoots and shuffles in that familiar Baldeeny way while out in the halls of the hospital, I imagine I can hear my Caroline calling for help in that sweet-maraschino-cherry voice of hers.
Paul seems like he’s waiting for a response from me but I’m too tired and I let my head sink deep into my pillow.
Splltt! He spits into his disgusting cup again.
“So… uh… how about it?” he asks finally. “You reckon you want to be salvated? I can come everyday and preach to you the good word and you can read from the scriptures… and if you happen to have another one of your… uh… ‘episodes’ and don’t return from it, you’ll be sure to have your ticket handy into the greatest place ever imagined. Are you ready to take on Jesus Christ as your savior, buster? He’s the guy who gives you the thumbs up or down about where you spend your afterlife.”
“There was no afterlife.” I say meekly and quietly.
“Wha? What’d you just say?”
“There was no afterlife. There is nothing there. It’s all just blackness and emptiness.”
“Nonsense! There’s of course an afterlife! What in tarnation is wrong with you? It’s that brain damage, ain’t it? Makes you loopy and loony as a go-go dancer.”
“Well I certainly didn’t experience it that way. For me it was like a switch got turned off. I’m here. I’m on. I’m thinking. I’m me. Then “click”. I’m none of those things. I’m just not anything anymore. “
“That can’t be true!”
“That’s how it was for me. No place beyond this place. This is the place to be if you want to be someplace. Right here. Right now.”
“You can’t possibly know that! You didn’t actually die. How far’d you get? Halfway? That’s like goin’ halfway to Barstow. You only go halfway, you’re in the friggin’ desert, man!”
“Well I went as far as nowhere. I went to the place where there was absolutely nothing. It didn’t bother me a bit.”
“That’s just nonsense!” You can sense Paul growing angry inside of himself. “Without someplace to reward you for your life here on earth, you’d have chaos, man! People’d be running around humpin’ flagpoles and stealing whatever it is they wanted. God made sure we all behaved by giving us a great place to look forward to when we leave this hell-hole for greener pastures. Can’t you see the divinity in that plan? Doesn’t it make perfectly good common practical sense to you?”
“No. It makes no sense at all. I don’t believe any of it.”
“You gotta believe it’s true! That’s how it works! You believe it’s true and it becomes true, man! That‘s why they call it a “leap“ of faith. There is all that stuff in the middle there you’re supposed to ignore. Just jump over it, ya know? Jump to the other side like a bullfrog’ll jump over a hot piece of tarmac. Ya see? Then you get to live forever and go to heaven. Gospel truth!”
“Is Paul bothering you, Walter?”
It’s Caroline. Standing behind Paul she is half a foot taller than he is and, of course, way prettier.
“We’re just talking.”
“Uh… preaching, ma’am. I was doing my due diligence and spreading the good word to Walter here who can sure use some boning up on his scriptures.”
“I think what Walter really needs is some medicine and a bath. We’ve all heard the good word enough for one day. Thank you, Paul.”
Caroline gestures toward the door and Paul removes his hat and bows. “And blessed are you who serve the sick and the poor. I bid you both adieu, then. Adieu adieu!”