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NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Grace” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
On February 21, 1993, at about 7:45pm, I was granted a form of grace that has shaped the rest of my life. On that evening I came within minutes of bleeding to death. Grace is a tough one, sometimes.
The initial warning sign was moderate gastrointestinal bleeding which, on the second day, brought me into the emergency room of St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, NY. The tentative diagnosis was lower bowel ulcers induced by a month on Motrin I’d taken for a shoulder injury. It was a crisp Saturday afternoon, I had things to do, and I expected to have a few tests and go home. I allowed them to admit me only because the ER doctor warned that, although they couldn’t run any tests till Monday, “Sometimes these things really let loose. You may not be able to get back here in time.”
At first I was merely irritated by the inconvenience and the potential cost. I became concerned only when the gastroenterologist they assigned to me said she didn’t think they’d have to transfuse, but she was ordering blood of my type “just in case.” She also said she didn’t think they’d have to operate. Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that they might transfuse, or operate, or that there was really anything seriously wrong. Except for a little weakness, I felt fine.
I remained at St. Peter’s all of Saturday and Sunday, drinking clear liquids and receiving IV fluids. By Sunday night the bleeding had stopped. The doctor ordered a strong laxative prep so they could “scope” me the following morning. Her hope, and by then mine, was that they would find large surface ulcers, inject them with something to prevent further bleeding, and send me home in a couple of days with medications and a bland diet. I wanted to wait – it seemed like a bad idea to stir up tissues that had bled for three days – but the doctor insisted that short of exploratory surgery, this was the only way to find out what was wrong. Reluctantly, I agreed to the prep.
An hour later, on my way back from my fourth trip to the bathroom, I blacked out before I could reach the nurse’s call button. I remember weakly crying out “Help” and collapsing to my knees, fearing that my call would go unheard.
This fear was not groundless. A hospital is never quiet. Around the corner were two geriatric patients who moaned or cried out all day and fairly late into the night. A nearby monitor’s periodic beeps seemed to trigger their moans and cries, much as a siren might excite the neighborhood dogs. Even with ear plugs, I had been unable to screen them out.
“I’d rather be dead than end up like that,” I had said to my girlfriend earlier that day.
“You shouldn’t say that!” she scolded. “God will hear!”
As I lost consciousness, I realized that my own call for help would sound no different from theirs, and I feared that, like the boy who cried wolf, nobody would distinguish the real emergency from the false alarm, perhaps not even God.
The next thing I remember is two nurses crouching beside me as I lay on my back in a pool of blood. They had found me, I later learned, only because my roommate, a stroke victim, had heard me fall and stumbled into the hallway for help. When they roused me, my blood pressure was 70/30, and I felt very cold.
The nurses put a sheet under me, got a couple of people from the hallway, and with their help hoisted me onto the bed, where they inserted a second IV. At first they thought they could stabilize me with fluids, and I did feel a little stronger, but as my blood pressure began to rise, more blood poured out, bathing me in its sudden warmth.
The gastroenterologist arrived and started a transfusion, and that, too, seemed to help at first, but again I started to bleed heavily, this time pumping blood out faster than they could pump it back in. “I’m cold,” I kept telling them. They kept saying, “You’re not going to die, don’t worry, you’re not going to die.” They attempted to start a second unit of blood, but they couldn’t find a vein – my blood pressure was so low that the ones in my arms had collapsed. Then they stopped telling me I was going to be all right and started calling for things stat.
Until then, I had been curiously detached from my situation, as if I were at home watching TV and all this fuss was happening to someone else. But when I saw that the doctor and nurses were no longer in control, it became clear to me that I might have only a couple of minutes left to live.
I was completely unafraid. As the room began to fade out, I stopped paying attention to the doctor and the nurses and my focus shifted to an interior landscape. In my mind’s eye, I saw a series of line graphs, one laid on top of another like the maps of the human body’s systems in anatomy textbooks. Each graph represented how close I had been to following my path. The one on top tracked my vocation; it dipped down in the bad times – the longest being my recent decade as a technical writer – and up again after I quit the business world and returned to graduate school. Lower charts showed similar patterns in other aspects of my life: family, romantic relationships, spirituality, others I no longer recall. There was a break in each of the charts at what I took to be the present, and then suddenly all the lines extended sharply upward, into my uncertain future.
As I lost all bodily sensation, I felt a surge of regret not so much for the things I had done as for what I might never get the chance to do. The graphs vanished. In their place, hanging in the darkness, the Scales of Justice appeared, on which were equally balanced the plusses and minuses of my life. The image passed, and with it my regret, and I felt ready to face with equanimity whatever was to come.
Yet I didn’t want to die. So with my last conscious thought, I made a request: “If there is a God, and you’re listening, I think I know what to do with my life now, and I’d like a chance to complete it.” Then the room and my body faded out and “I” went into another space entirely.
I was in a black, amorphous cave whose surfaces glinted like moonlight on choppy seas. In the distance was a vague, greenish pool of light. I had no sense of a body or of ever having had one, or of being “in” anything. I was simply an awareness. I felt no anxiety, heard no sounds, had no memories, thought no thoughts. I was more alone than I’d ever been, but it didn’t bother me at all. I was unaware of the passage of time and felt a calmness more pervasive than any I had ever experienced.
Then my consciousness moved forward and I saw that the light came from a figure seated at a small, square table made of fuzzy tubes of greenish-white light. My view of this figure, also constructed from the same light, was from behind. He looked like a child’s sketch of a man, with a circle for a head, an oval for a body, and stick-like arms and legs. He appeared to be leaning on the table with his left arm, chin in hand, while his right hand, in which he may have held a pen, rested on the table as if he were poised in thought.
My sense was that this creature was me, the me I was born with, the me I would die with, my essential Self; that it was waiting; and that it could wait indefinitely. I did not wonder what would happen next. I, too, was content to wait, being him and watching him at the same time.
My consciousness zoomed forward again, and as it did, the figure at the table turned his head toward me. I could see the outline of his face, the sharp angle of his chin, his nose pointed and elongated, his mouth frozen in a half smile that startled me and felt oddly chilling.
A moment later I was back in my hospital bed, new blood flowing into both arms from three IV needles. A nurse was reading off my blood pressure: “70/30. 80/50. 90/60….” The doctor’s narrow face loomed over me, a nervous smile. “There, that’s better,” she said, flushed and sweaty. “Isn’t that better?”
Had I known then what I have come to know since, I’m not sure what I would have answered. The near-death figure’s ironic half-smile may have hinted at what was to come.
The last 20 years of recovery, reintegration, and reorientation have been a good news, bad news state of affairs. The bad news is that coming back was far more difficult than I could have imagined, that cold night in 1993. The good news is that it has also been a gift, a form of grace that has extended far beyond getting what I think of as “extra time.”
First the bad news.
There were many physical changes. From the bleeding incident itself, I had damage to my vision and my hearing, and the way my mind works has been subtly altered. Left-brain functions such as math, logic, and spelling became much more difficult (though creativity and intuition increased). Early that Monday morning, I bled again, briefly, and surgery was performed that my medical malpractice attorneys would later prove was drastic and unnecessary. After surgery, I experienced pain I did not know a person could feel without losing consciousness, numerous permanent negative changes to my body, and required many medical treatments and two additional surgeries to partially correct the damages done.
Then there were the life changes. The St. Peter’s Hospital incident destroyed me financially, cost me a relationship that likely would have led to marriage and a family, and derailed my English PhD. It produced in me a return to a child-like innocence that allowed dangerous people to enter my life. It also fostered the naïve belief that, because I had beaten death, none of the rules I’d lived by necessarily applied, and I made decisions that, in retrospect, were incredibly reckless and had substantial negative impact, though they made complete sense to me at the time.
Initially uplifting, the near-death experience itself produced a sense of profound disorientation. For nearly a decade, I felt as if I were floating between two worlds, not quite who I had been, not yet who I was becoming. In ways both obvious and subtle, my life – my very nature – was no longer, as the Talking Heads once put it, “The same as it ever was. The same as it ever was. The same as it ever was….”
The good news is a shorter but more potent list.
This second time around, I have been able, finally, to forgive my parents and to overcome the limitations my childhood defenses and resentments had propagated. I became an artist and then a therapist, and these activities have given me a purposeful way to live. I am not afraid of death (though I am in no hurry to get there).
And then there is the question, Why am I still here? Given the amount of blood I’d lost and the rapidity with which I’d lost it, I should have died. The bleeding stopped only because my blood pressure was so low – 50/0, “the blood pressure of a corpse,” as the chief resident involved in my case later put it – that clotting finally occurred.
This question has been the impetus for most of the positive changes I have made. For 20 years, I have returned to the vision of the graphs of my path and have tried to keep the lines moving in an upward direction. It has been critically important to complete the life I imagined just before I lost consciousness on that day.
Perhaps most significant are the changes to my personality and awareness. I no longer take anything for granted. I am startled, daily, by grace: by the miraculousness of everything that is, all of which seems as improbable as my own second chance.
Overall, the gains in understanding, increased intuition and empathy, and finding a vocational purpose and spiritual path outweigh the losses. I seem, still, to be evolving, refining, and recombining. I don’t know what the future will bring.
But then, nobody else does, either.