Ten Seconds

I don’t see dead people very much any more. Sometimes I feel cursed to have seen them, other times blessed, but for now I feel relieved. When I made a choice to work in the hospital at the age of twenty, rather than shoot at people in Vietnam, I never really thought that I would be washing cadavers and hauling them off to the basement morgue. I was so repulsed with having to look at death that I did not think I would last a day as a nursing assistant. Yet slowly I became more easy around death, as though we had become good friends. It was an odd experience for me, so full of life and energy, young, carefree, strong, and an outdoorsman who liked risk and adventure, who laughed at people who were serious about anything. My exuberance for living had not prepared me for working closely with people who were no longer alive.

I got pretty good at not being scared around them. I’m not sure that confident is the right word to describe my progress. I just became more at ease when I knew I had to go into a hospital ward, strip back the bed covers from a person freshly blue-tinted, remove any bandages, intravenous feeding tubes, breathing apparatuses, catheters, and give them a nice wash down with some hot soapy water. If I knew earlier in the day that they were going to die that day I would sometimes give them a shave before they died. It seemed so much easier and I knew I might get busy later on, plus grieving relatives might be standing around out in the hall, waiting for the chance to give a last kiss or hug, and I didn’t want to mess up their face by nicking it with a dull, cheap, plastic, hospital razor. Then there might be a minister coming along behind and performing a brief, sacred ceremony. I got to become somewhat of a death expert, at least in my own mind, mastering the ability to be alone doing delicate work with those who are no longer here.

Hospitals had a policy, maybe they still do, that a male nurse could not be in a room alone with a dead female. That was fine with me. I was married to a live female, so had no longing to spend time with a dead one. I did have to learn how to sort of laugh off death and become comfortable with my position as somewhat of a gate keeper between heaven and earth. Often when I was close by someone I would watch them very carefully at their moment of death. I never could see a soul slip away from them. What I did see was a funny sort of breathing, a death rattle it is called, or cheyne stokes respiration.

I never could quite get over the notion that one of the dead might suddenly wake up, and perhaps start talking to me. I anticipated that possibility by psychologically preparing myself. I am not sure how best to prepare for the impossible. There might be some quick tricks, such as self-hypnosis, or taking some magic pill, or maybe even have a club close by to beat them back down if they should get up. I was not then clever enough to instigate any of these safety measures, so I would just tell myself over and over that it was not going to happen. When I would lift an arm from the sheets and lather it in soapy, sudsy water, I would look at the fingers, wrists, joints, and elbows, and think to myself how they had been useful earlier in that same day, but now were good for nothing since their owner was absent.

I recall that the first dead person I had to work on was an elderly man. I had been hired with several other young men opposed to the war. One of them, a bright young Japanese American, was assigned to work along beside me for the first few weeks, so we both worked on our first dead assignment together. Our patient had an organic brain syndrome and had been in the hospital, unresponsive, for quite some time. We were both clumsy with our thoughts and emotions. The best we could do was build a rapport between the two of us that was somewhat a mockery of the sick and dying, by cracking jokes, and by pointing out to each other how pathetic it is to spend your last days on earth in a hospital bed with a couple of disinterested people hovering over you. Somehow we were able to get through that first one together. Get him washed, dress him up in his shroud, stick his dentures back into his mouth the best we could to make them fit before the rigor mortis, the obstinate stiffness of death, kicked in, and caused his cheeks to cave in. We had been told that morticians would appreciate that added touch. We laughed about how we were going out of our way to keep the mortician pleased. Once we had him all prettied up, we had to make sure his arms and legs were positioned at his side, posed in a form of salute, as he entered or was denied entrance into pearly gate estates. Then we’d put the toe tag on him so he would not get mixed up with other dead people, and gurney him off to the cold room.

None of this is news to medical folks. It is such a daily, common experience, that it is hardly worth their recollection or reflection. That’s how I became after several years of this kind of work. I had grown up in a home that was churched. My mother would go out of her way to talk about the ways of God, read the Bible, and haul us kids off to Sunday School to make sure we were familiar with Matthew and Luke and that crowd. Life, we were told, was a special gift, had a purpose, and some accountability at the end. I didn’t mind church too much when young. I think church was more mainstream than it is now, so young people I knew all shared the same experience. All that seems to have changed in the town where I live. When I was old enough to choose or develop my own attitudes and creeds, church was one of the first things I dumped. By the age of twenty when I became a nursing assistant I had successfully eradicated any belief system. I would think that being close to many dead people on nearly a daily basis would cause the teachings from my upbringing to spring back to life, but I had blunted them pretty good. There were other explanations for the meaning of life as good as the one I’d been raised on.

When I think back on those years I see a person confused within. My acceptance into the world of working and living with the dead was based upon the US government acknowledging my declaration as a conscientious objector. The heart of my argument with them was what I had learned from the Quakers on campus, where I had been going to school; this notion that God is alive, directs us through our conscience, and had placed into my conscience the rule that it was immoral for me to kill or help kill people. Once I won that argument, with help from the Quakers, I felt relieved from having to go to Vietnam, but then new duties and obligations faced me when I had to serve as a nursing assistant for two years. I resented a lot of what society required of me when I was young, head strong to make my own destiny, and wanting to bolt for freedom from the system.

My girl friend and I married and moved into the mountains that first year of hospital work. She wanted to paint and I wanted to write and we figured living in the redwoods would help us find our creative side, our inner voice that would speak to us more clearly than that of the mass media culture, and that of eagerly materialistic friends that encouraged us to morph into something we did not truly want to become. Then one of my oldest friends came up to our house one day to play his guitar and suddenly started talking about Jesus. Oh boy, here it goes! Heard this crap all my life and now I get to hear even more! The thing will never die! I knew all the prattle so well from my tender, influentially pliable years, that I could easily have placed my hand over his mouth to still him, and speak everything to him that he was trying to say to me. I had known him for so long that I could not dismiss him or engage him deeply in argument over a subject of which I had little interest in the first place.

He left our house that afternoon with me promising him that I would pray and ask God for a sign to let me know that he is real. Sure, I’ll do that. No problem, but only for you, my friend, because I know how silly this is, and I’ve already made up my mind years ago, as soon as I was able to escape the religious fascism of my mother. I really have better things to do, a more real and actual experiential, artistic level of living that is not conducted vicariously through old stories and meticulously, over-worked, colored windows that do not allow one to see beyond the walls of the compound. Even the Quaker stuff, helping people stay out of the war machine, was borderline pretend. Speaking through one’s conscience? To me, conscience was learned behavior, a human concept I had been immersed in since a child. Speaking about conscience to the people at the draft board had worked its magic on them. I saw power in the idea, but really only thought in terms of it being an out-dated, philosophical oddity that one could easily side-step and avoid. Truly, I thought, we have no clearly -defined thing inside of us called a conscience, and, more to the point, one that conducted messages from invisible forces. If this were true, there would be no wars. It was quite apparent to me.

I have some ideas about why I was so nervous on my knees while mumbling a few words in the dark to myself. I said something like “tell me if you’re real”, then rolled over and went back to sleep. There, I’d followed up and made good on my promise to my friend. I had to get up early the next morning and drive twenty-five miles to work in the hospital. I had bodies to bathe, beds to make, wheel chairs to push, bed pans to dump. I might even get to haul a stiff one that had given up on life off to the morgue. I had stayed on with hospital work, putting in about six years instead of the mandatory two. No good sense of purpose or direction could move me beyond this occupation, so I had learned to adapt and accept my spot in life among the dead and dying. That morning in the hospital my work load was rather light, which lifted my spirits, because I knew I could perform my necessary tasks at a more leisurely pace, routine as they might be. In one room lay two old men who looked as if they were about to exit the planet, so I would wash and shave, wash and shave, get them up in wheel chairs if their doctors approved, make the beds, then hopefully I could head down to the cafeteria for a long morning coffee break and chit chat with other nursing staff members.

As I pulled the privacy curtains around one of the patients, preparing to give him a bed bath, I thought I heard the hospital walls shake very slightly. Being an early morning riser for a few years, I would occasionally drink too much strong coffee and become slightly jittery. I must have a weak nervous system. The shaking did not stop, but became audible. I could now hear the walls around me shaking. Okay, it’s an earthquake, I think, and is not a quick jolt, but one of those slow rollers Californians experience that may or may not intensify. No one in the room is conscious and responding but me. Just me. A deep and powerful voice came out of the rumbling and shaking. It was both inside of me and outside of me, but was not me. It said “I am Christ the Lord”, very slowly and very deliberately, not like the fleeting thoughts that often run swiftly through my mind. The voice came at once, unexpectedly, and unmistakably clear. The walls continued to rumble another second or two, then the sound became a quiet hum, and suddenly stopped. The entire duration of this disruptive event in my well-managed life occurred within a span of about ten seconds. I’ve gone over it many times since in my mind; more than five, but less than fifteen seconds.

I stepped out into the hospital corridor. A visitor, an elderly woman, stood there waiting to see one of my patients. I asked her if she had just felt anything, such as an earthquake, and she assured me that she had felt nothing, nada, zip. So I was the only one around singled out for this. I knew then that if I told anyone what had just happened to me…well, how could I even begin to explain any of it? I’ve written different accounts of that day and the events in my life occurring before then. Thirty-seven years later and the experience still has a grip on me. I feel as though it is still unfolding. The voice spoke only once. I waited eagerly for a long time to hear more, but those ten seconds are apparently all the time that has been given to me in the here and now.

I have learned since of others having a quite similar experience, hearing the audible voice of God. More often than not, I have encountered unsympathetic, argumentative ears. I anticipated that within the first few moments after the experience. I knew it was way beyond the spectrum of normal human experience, so was careful not to tell anybody about it for three days, while I had to think it over more carefully, so that I might come to a settled conclusion about whether it was some weird inexplicable working of my imagination, or maybe a delusion? Maybe the voice was going to say more? I considered that if it did say more, I might want to check into an asylum for rest and therapy. When I describe the experience today to some they look at me as if I am completely nuts.

I’m still frustrated with religion, with churches, and even with speaking to very many people about my thoughts on life and our place in the stars, but most certainly uneasy when trying to describe this ten seconds of my life. One might think that I thereafter became a religious fanatic, a Bible thumper, a street-corner preacher, a tent revivalist, a Sunday morning talk show host, or some other purveyor of religious thought. I did some of that for awhile, mostly because I thought that’s what was behind the experience, some sort of calling, as with Jonah or the apostle Paul. I soon tired of that role, however, because, rather than talk about my ten seconds I found myself arguing about evolution versus creation, and a host of other controversial subjects that had clouded my mind earlier in life and had caused me to give up all belief.

Since then it’s been quite a bumpy journey. Moments of wonder, joy, exhilaration, and sense of being singled out, then days come when the telescope is turned around and I see my life as very tiny and of little consequence or meaning. Part of what has smoothed me out is a curiosity in what others think and feel about their own circumstances and their place in life. Reading helps, but I try to stay in alignment with my ten-second experience. There are way too many books and I have purchased too many to read, so as time moves on I stick to a few that I wade through continuously that speak to me in a way that human conversation cannot. No ten seconds of human conversation, not a whole day’s worth, has given me more insight and understanding than the voice that spoke from out of the vibrating walls, but some writing verifies the authenticity and the intensity of the experience for me. I often find myself in dialog with the words, letting them sort of run free for awhile inside my mind and see where they will go, see if anything–words, ideas, thoughts–might echo back to me. Often they do, but never in an audible voice.

I often think my life has been an oddity, a series of confusing and befuddling circumstances that somehow have carried me this far. I don’t have any particular psychological complex that I am aware of, nor any magical capabilities, no extraordinary zeal or passion, no miraculous healing power. What I do think, though, is that if I had not had my ten-second experience I might have destroyed myself through my own narcissistic foolishness or caused myself much great grief through fear and anxiety, rather than keeping guard over a simple inner peace.

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