It’s like an accidental fall off a fourth-story balcony. You hadn’t been looking at the edge, because you were so busy, and besides, you’re strong and you know what you’re doing. (Either you believed you were, or you pretended it because other people believed it — people who don’t have balconies.)
Then you’re over the railing, unable to tell forward from backward from left from right. All your ability to make decisions is gone, and nothing anybody can do will give it back. You free-fall.
Forever and an instant later, you hit bottom so hard it knocks everything out of you. Your breath, your sense, your emotions, your awareness. You black out.
They say a person in a coma can hear voices around them, even though they can’t respond. They say maybe even touch and smell, and who knows, maybe the light the doctor shines in one eyeball and then the next.
If there is a limbo, a place on the edge of hell that’s neither the living world nor an active purgatory, you’ve found it. It’s a place where you don’t have to sin to enter its dark waters. It just takes you, because you fell.
Voices murmur in the background, prayers and beseechings for the release of your soul. Some of them beg you to release yourself, to release them from the obligation of their prayers. Others try to shoulder the burden of bringing you to an afterlife, hauling your soul along in their hearts. It’s impossible to tell them apart, and none of them make sense, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is hearing something from the living side, like sounds through water.
The doctor comes. Your case is experimental. Your brain is in a self-protective shutdown. No more feeling. No more thinking. He messes around with drugs. All the prayers go silent, drowned in the deepening fog of wherever you are.
You have no idea how much of your life you’ve lost. In limbo, no one is saved by counting those things. So no one tries.
There’s a rock on top of your shoulders, and you push at it. It moves a fraction of a degree, then falls back harder. You lose ground. The effort of keeping it from crushing you is a nearly intolerable kind of pain.
For some reason, you keep pushing back at it.
As long as I can. I don’t know if I can go another day. I don’t know if I can go another hour.
The doctor tries another drug. Your body is lying on a bed somewhere while your spirit fails to be Sisyphus.
You have no idea how much of your life you’ve lost.
When your eyes open, you realize you’re still lying in the street. It’s night and the streetlights are out. No cars. No voices. No one is coming to help. They can’t find the route to the scene of the accident. There’s nothing but abandoned buildings like bones. At the farthest end of the street, if it’s not too painful to turn your head that way, your old life sits like a painting. You can see the sunshine and grass and mundane busywork sketched two-dimensionally, but it doesn’t call to you. It’s just a picture.
Slowly, very slowly, your brain performs a systems check. You lie on this bone-shattering patch of concrete for months, not minutes. Maybe for years. Reflexively, your body tries to get up and resume normal movement. It can’t. Besides, if you walk through a canvas you only break the image. You stay where you are and try to feel what you used to feel, but that painting of the former life isn’t coming to you, and you’re not going to it.
Slowly, very slowly, you find the pieces of yourself. Memory is here. Task execution is around somewhere. It’s racked up so much vacation time from repeating emergency drills from one end of limbo to the other that it’s not in the office reliably.
You find your simple financial math skills in a dusty corner, along with your ruined budget. Sufficient focus for reading comes back on like a construction spotlight in an abandoned subway corridor. Numbers keep turning to dust, and the light flickers in and out. Either the wiring or the power source still needs work.
Slowly, very slowly, you find the branching limbs of your psyche, but you still can’t feel them. This is the most terrifying of all. All your core nerves were probably crushed in the fall. Does this mean permanent paralysis?
In small increments, you try things that have helped you heal in the past. Oddly, it’s the really old things that work, things that lie closest to remembered pain from when you were too young to absorb it. Things that got buried more than healed.
There are people walking past. You pull yourself upright and hope they don’t notice your broken limbs, your unwashed clothes, and your inability to walk. Your friends and family greet you. You try for old relationships, because maybe there’s comfort in them. Like pages in a crumbling book, no comfort lies there. Only the same old stories. Just when you thought maybe those connections were healing waters, they drown you.
Slowly, very slowly, you realize this is what it means to feel again. it feels painful all the time. It’s fresh and unexpected, like being wounded for the first time as a child. The same old stories hurt even more than their disappointments and disconnections did the first time. The pavement that broke you has turned to tar, and you’re stuck in it. You wallow on the edge of something dark and sucking, trying not to get swallowed by the gyre.
You look normal to everyone else, and they don’t understand why you disappoint them. They’re done praying, now, aren’t they? It’s time for you to hold a job and keep a schedule, engage in hobbies and do all the things a good consumer bobs around the surface of life doing. They have their life jackets, their brightly-coloured inflatable rafts and their snorkels in case they dip below the surface a little.
Your head goes under the waves again, and you wonder how inflatable rafts can float down the black road that killed you. There’s so much fog, and reality still isn’t quite real.
This is life. People seem happy with how senseless it is. This is normal.
The lights are on again. You don’t want to read the book.
A whisper you haven’t heard before snaps you out of it like an electric shock. Your eyes open for real this time. The lights aren’t just on; the morning sun is brilliant. Blue sparkles surround you, rising and falling. You’re cradled in the warmth of a Gulf current that rocks gently like a father’s arms. When you first gasp a full breath, the air tastes like tears. You choke and fight and everything is awful for a second.
It wasn’t pavement that tried to kill you, it was water that saved you. It wasn’t a balcony and you didn’t do something stupid. It was a plane crash, and you weren’t the pilot, just a passenger. You don’t know who else will be found a survivor. A lot of people die from this.
You’re not one of them. In this moment, that’s all. You’re alive, and you can swim. The ocean pulls you forward, and the salt-spice scent of seagrass finds you as the sand comes up beneath your feet. The water hushes against the land, then trickles away.
It was a long way to get back, but somehow, you’re here. So many things are still gone. As you look around, you wonder if you’ll ever fully take stock of them all.
You’re pretty mad at the pilot.
You stand up and walk up the beach, aching and exhausted, but somehow whole. It hardly seems natural. You’re clear of the wreckage, although some of it is still washing into shore with you. The flotsam of your finances. Broken bits of opportunity and responsibilities. You’ll be picking up the bits of your memory for awhile yet, finding unexpected pieces missing due to defensive mechanisms triggered by the trauma of facing the void.
Looking back, feeling your way through it all again in a diagnostic that’s finally lucid, you realize the pilot brought you down where you wouldn’t be killed. It was wisdom, not negligence, in the face of something that happened because life is broken. In spite of it all, you were brought to where your life was saved.
Your dearest loved ones, who were travelling with you, are bruised and struggling forward. Here in the sunlight, now that you’re done trying not to die, you help them to safety. You sit down on the sand and breathe. Seagulls run the shore, and the grasses wave in a cool, brisk wind. Shells lie everywhere like gems. When did the world get so clean?
You lost everything in the crash, but the parts of you that are needed are the ones that have survived. The parts you couldn’t get rid of, no matter how hard you tried, the baggage you thought you’d never be done carrying around… that’s what’s gone.
You sit on the shore with your loved ones and weep. These tears taste like the sea and all its freedom.
O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.
You have enclosed me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.
For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.
How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand.
When I awake, I am still with You.