A Field Guide To Dying

Last night, I had another dream about death. That's not unusual; they usually come to me at least once or twice a week, but this one had the pleasure of being even more terrifying than usual. I was living in a house that was a strange mashup of both my apartment and my parents' house. My husband had divorced me, so I spent my days mostly avoiding everyone, crying, and raising litters of abandoned animals. The problem with doing this, however, is that people would often abandon deformed, sick, and dying pets in my backyard without my knowledge.

My dream kept going on repeat, where I would wake up every evening, go out to feed the animals, only to find a new litter of kittens, ducklings, puppies, ferrets (yes, ferrets) crying, mostly malformed, and reduced to eating each other because they were starving. I could not save most of them. The dream kept repeating throughout the night and each time, the outcome was a little worse. I had to decide who lived and who died. By the time I finally woke this morning, every animal was dead and I was burying them.

Most nights I have to take Trazadone to keep from panicking about losing consciousness. That is an aspect of PTSD that seriously sucks: my brain cannot differentiate between needing to sleep and the time that I died.

It's strange to even be talking about this, to be honest. I have referenced my feelings around living after dying before. It's not like most people on GT don't know that I went through "something really fucking awful that left me with half of an intestine, damaged kidneys, liver, a permanently damaged heart valve, and severe muscle atrophy." It's easy to talk about living with physical problems after you know that this is the lot you're going to be living with, living being the operative word.

But none of that answers the question that we all have: What is it like to die? I have never answered that question for anyone before. Now I'm going to.

Death is part of who we are. It guides us. It shapes us. It drives us to madness. Can you still be human if you have no mortal end?

Not to be all Sylvia Plath, but every one of us thinks about death to some degree. As with most other aspects of my life, even in this I needed to be an overachiever. When I was 13, a teacher asked where I would be in 10 years. My answer was, "I don't know, but I don't think I'm going to live past 18."

When I was 18, I couldn't imagine living to graduate from university. That was my first brush with death - in December of 2000, I had so many gallstones that they had blocked blood vessels to many vital organs, and I was walking around with a septic gall bladder, severe pancreatitis, a liver infection, and jaundice. The ER doctors had to restrain me because I tried to leave (it was a week before finals, and I didn't want to miss them).

Then I was convinced I wouldn't see 25. At 23 I had a pretty intense cancer scare - a large lump behind my ear that actually turned out to be scar tissue growing out of control because there was dormant TB in one of my salivary glands. So now I was down a gall bladder and a salivary gland, and on a course of six antibiotics for a YEAR to deal with apparent TB.

By the time I got to 25, and then 26, I was in a panic. I was convinced that I had long overstayed my welcome on planet Earth and that it was only a matter of time before I died and would not see 30. I was having at least one surgery a year by that time. Playdates with Death became something of a regular pastime for me. I was terrified, but I kept opening the door when he came knocking, feeling that, as long as I knew where Death was, I did not have to fear it surprising me.

June 16, 2010 - I was 29 years old. I was in a lot of pain that day, but I was afraid to leave work early. I finally gave up around 4:30pm, lying to the line producer's assistant, saying I thought I had the flu. The last conscious thought I had between then and screaming at my husband to call an ambulance at 9:30 that night was that I needed to drive back roads and side streets, where traffic was sparse, in case I passed out and had a car accident. I don't remember the 45 minute drive home or even getting back into my apartment.

I'll never forget my first encounter with the attending on duty at the ER that night. He stomped into the room where I was being held and shouted, "Just what THE FUCK is wrong with you! You're scaring the hell out of my other patients!" and stormed back out after telling the nurse to give me a shot of morphine to shut me up. I lost consciousness less than 10 minutes later. I still wonder what happened to that doctor, and if he ever felt guilty for shouting at me.

I flat lined once in the ER, and twice more during the first emergency surgery. I believe it may have happened during my second and third emergency surgeries as well, but my family refuses to confirm or deny it.

Death strips all men of dignity.

You know what sucks about flatlining? You have no idea that it happened. I remember being in the ER, crying uncontrollably, begging the nurses to let me sit up because I was in so much pain. I can't remember how many people were in the room. It seemed like a lot. Everything was too bright, too loud, too cold, too red. I realized belatedly that I wasn't imagining the red. I was throwing up blood - huge gobs of partially congealed dark red and black goo, through my nose, and through my tear ducts. I remember a lot of screaming, but I didn't realize that it was me screaming; it was me shouting at the doctors and nurses to put me out of my misery. One of the nurses slipped and fell on the blood I had thrown up onto the floor. I remember going blind - screaming that I couldn't see, that I was afraid. I remember a nurse saying my blood pressure was 40 over 20. Then it was black.

I don't know how much time passed, but I came to by unceremoniously throwing up more blood all over a nurse named Glenn, who wore a steel and gold rimmed watch. There was also a clock on the wall in front of my gurney. It was an old schoolroom model, black and white, with a flimsy cage over it to protect the glass. I have trouble remembering anything else, but I remember the timepieces, so clearly it physically hurts.

A surgeon walked into the room:

"Ah, Miss Sidwell - my name is Doctor Mehrizi. Looks like you're having quite a night, huh?"

"Well doc, I've had better days."†

I don't remember the timeline or if I passed out again, but I remember being rushed into emergency surgery, and I looked back at the ER room that had been cleared for me. I have never seen that much blood and general human mess in one place before. For some reason, I always remember a certain sneaker imprint and skid marks where people must have slipped. It was a New Balance shoe, by the way - I recognized the tread, as I had the same shoes at home in my closet.

I threw up blood into the first oxygen mask they tried to give me for surgery. The anesthesiologist was trying to talk to me in a soothing voice and say I was just going to go to sleep for a little while.

"NO! NO, I'M NOT READY!"

Death strips us bare, leaving us with nothing but the nakedness of our souls, looking into the abyss and hoping that some good will come of it.

For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come.

You know what the most frightening part is? It's the not knowing that death is stalking, sitting close, waiting patiently. You float in a wasteland of warmth and love, see visions of the most beautiful things, but the whole time, it guides you gently by the hand, slowly making you forget the life you were so intent on holding on to.

A warm blanket of love to wrap you up; it will be so easy to let the pain go. It whispers and seductively beckons; Death shows you the most amazing things with such heartbreaking and filling clarity that the idea of ever being the same again is as foreign as the idea that you are, indeed, experiencing death.

I saw long tendrils of pulsing and iridescent blue energy, connecting me to my brother and aunt holding my hands, to my parents holding each other in the waiting room, and my boyfriend praying by himself, as though his own life depended on it. I could see his thoughts. He didn't know what to do with our cats. Or my clothes. Or the frying pans and pots that I used to cook dinner. I could hear him whispering the Our Father, even though I was lying in an ICU far removed from the waiting room where he was forced to stay.

I could hear the whispers everywhere, falling into and onto each other, a gentle waterfall of soft sound tumbling over the body I could no longer feel. Come with me, one breathed clearly.

Why not? I am so tired, and it would be so comforting to lie in this warmth, to feel this peace and love forever. I want to stay in this place where I am safe. Nothing hurts; don't cry anymore. I love you all, I love you so much. Please stay so I can feel you, always.

That was death for me. There are no words that can adequately contain it, give it form; no picture I can draw that will be recognized and understood by anyone who hasn't experienced it. What I felt, heard, saw, and experienced transcended every good and bad thing that had ever happened to me by an order of magnitude too staggering to imagine. There is no faith or science in that moment. There is nothing rational about it. It is everything and nothing all at once, which sounds terrifying, but it was the most perfect peace I have ever felt.

And then it was over.

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to Heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life.

Living was not remarkable to me. It hurt, I hated it, I cried almost all the time and being on a ventilator while conscious is hands down one of the shittiest things it is possible to experience. The only thing is remarkable to me about living at all is that I was prepared to die and asked to come back.

I have a very clear memory of following that whisper somewhere that I cannot explain. There is only one thing I said: Please don't make me go where my best friend can't follow.

The next thing I remember is waking up.

One day can make your life. One day can ruin your life. That's all life is: four or five days that change everything.

How do I deal with it now? Not particularly well, in my opinion, but I'm learning day by day. There are hours when I think it's the greatest gift I was given, and nights when I cry my eyes out, berating myself for being so stupid to leave that place of peace to come back to the chaos and mess of every day living.

The hardest thing I struggle with philosophically is how...permeable the curtain between life and death is. Before this happened, I thought of death as a final cut off, a strict division between what we do here, and what happens over there. But it's so much more complicated than that and I can't even wrap my head around it.

I think the struggle I have now is how my relationship with Death has changed. I neither welcome it, but I don't deny it either. I feel like, when I die, it will be like greeting an old friend, a bartender making up my favorite drink and remarking (unremarkably), "I was wondering when you'd be back."

That's the oddest thing - when you don't fear death anymore, what do you do with your life? I'm not sure, but I have some time to figure it out.

After all, it was just one day that made my life.

Quotes, in order of appearance:

1. Christopher Paolini, Brisingr

2. Tobsha Learner, The Witch of Cologne

3. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene I, line 66

4. Steve Jobs

5. Beverly Donofrio

Excerpt from Three Days, by Amanda Sidwell Smith

Photograph, Dockweiler Beach At Sunset @Smithwellette

† Yes, I really did say that. My surgeon and Glenn the nurse confirmed it for me more than a week later.

**Disclaimer: This is my personal experience with death. I speak only for myself. Feel free to treat this as an AMA.**