The ambulance ride wasn’t altogether unpleasant…what little I remembered of it. They allowed my mother to ride along; a practice that was not encouraged then and all but forbidden now. However, under the circumstances, logic suggests that they had enough compassion to not want me to die alone, doing 80 mph down the interstate, in a metal box. Later that night I took up temporary or terminal residence at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, only God knew which and only time would tell.
The next morning brought a refreshed, if only temporary, clarity; unable to move without pain and with nothing better to do—television. However it was within my few hours of consciousness, shared with the idiot box, which I found my will and reason to live…at least a few more days. On Thursday night (three days away) at 8:00 pm EST, TBS would be playing the 1969 musical western- “Paint Your Wagon” starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Forever a fan of the man with no name, here was an Eastwood western I had never seen and it was a musical. The weirdness of it all, and the chance to see if Clint could carry a tune, would serve as inspiration.
Then the clarity was gone. The daylight hours were spent in and out of coherence. They drew blood, then more blood and then talked that maybe I needed a transfusion, because I was running out of blood for them to take. IV bags were switched out every couple of hours, with an endless supply of heated blankets. The splotchy discoloration shifted and moved restlessly under my skin. Burning alive, freezing to death, it was an endlessly, repetitive, restless purgatory. But the nights were far worse, as the darkness was filled with retching gasps for breath. Dry heaving fits would produce a brackish green syrupy fluid—my own stomach acid. It burned my throat, scorched my palette and ate through my lips. Even now I still always have chap-stick on hand in commemoration of that nightmare. Miraculously I survived the next three days.
Thursday had arrived, as had my eldest sister; by this point my family was staying with me in shifts, so I wouldn’t be alone when…if…just in case. I managed to rest most of the day hoping to remain conscious for the only viable highlight of my week. Finally 8 o’clock arrived with weak, yet eager anticipation. My sister, ever a bundle of positive good nature, talked to me and laughed, where I could only produce a weary smile in response. They found gold in a grave, Clint sang, a Mormon girl came to the mining camp, Lee Marvin dunked himself in the creek, the television turned gray?
Slowly, subtly and suddenly everything in the room took on a gray tinge. It was as though a curtain of clouds had been drawn round and lowered around my field of vision. Turning to see if my sister had taken notice of this phenomenon, through the haze she looked at me with a smile commenting on Mr. Marvin’s zany antics. Everything went gray…except the spot on the ceiling directly above it had become a flat, dead white.
From its center bloomed a black rose. Its liquid velvet petals spread like billowing smoke as they crawled across the ceiling, encompassing the white in its entirety. A face without feature, a grayed skull, emerged from the blossom and gazed upon me with emotionless empty eye sockets.
There was no hint of malice or evil in the reaper’s gaze, nor was there pity or compassion. Just a grim determination to do what need be done. It was then, in my darkest final moments, through my raw throat and cracked bloody lips I found my final voice, my dying words- “Not…just…yet.”
It is hard to explain how a face without a face, with no capacity for expression of emotion, came to possess a look of fascination and utter bewilderment, but the reaper’s had. With what seemed to be a shrug, he left as he had come and the fog lifted on cue with his hasty departure.
In those moments, where I teetered between this world and whatever lies beyond, time had not stood still, but it did back up. Lee Marvin once again plunged headlong into the creek and my sister laughed and asked if I’d seen. I nodded in response and smiled; I most certainly had.
The next morning I insisted the curtains be opened, let the sunshine in and what do I got to do to get something to eat in this joint? Within days I pulled a full recovery in what the medical professionals called nothing short of a miracle. A few weeks later life (minus 35 pounds) was back in full swing. Yet I had not forgotten my encounter with death…nor had he. In the following months I saw him time and time again, standing on a street corner, a face in a crowded theatre, atop a steeple in one instance; though no one else did.
The following year, the air crisp with the chill of autumn, found me wandering among tombstones in an old cemetery. This was the third visited this month and paranoid, delusional insanity was becoming my personal diagnosis. The large stone set in the yard’s left side read JAMES. It was there I sat, lit a cigarette and sank deep into pondering thought.
There was a light tap on my shoulder and I wasn’t shocked nor surprised to see a now familiar faceless face. He pointed to my pocket, with a smoker’s universal language—be wary of Death, for he is a mooch. So he bummed a smoke and we stood in stark silence for some time. He didn’t turn to me, or try to draw my attention with grand gestures of higher powers. I respected that. Though he had no lips, mouth, tongue, throat…he’s a skeleton, duh, so he lacked the parts we humans consider necessary to communicate. Regardless of this, as the wind rustled o’er the still falling leaves, he spoke one simple sentence without speaking: “They call me Frank.”
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