***The following entry was written in my journal at age 18, after a near death experience at Yosemite National Park. In an effort to preserve authenticity, it has not been altered. I’ll provide no preface other than this: I ask that you keep an open mind.***
January 5, 2008
I died today.
I don’t expect you to believe me, I probably wouldn’t in your shoes, but it’s true. I’m willing to bet my life on it… again.
We’re still in Yosemite. One of my favorite parts of the trip has always been to worm my way up and around the large and plentiful boulders that nature dropped like pebbles around the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. It makes me feel like a warrior, trekking my way up toward the thundering waterfall, past the sign that said in big crimson letters: “DANGEROUS TO CLIMB BEYOND THIS POINT.”
This is the first year that Christianne, at age 8, was deemed old enough to attempt the feat, walking single file in between me, leading the excursion, and my mom, bringing up the rear. Dad, with his failing back and sore ankles, was left to hold the purses and wait at the trailhead to take pictures of us by the waterfall once we reached the top.
It was halfway up, about, when my breathing got a little ropy. A lifetime asthmatic, I generally have a firm grasp on my lungs’ limitations, and was confident that I could hold out until the top. At which point I would stop, pose triumphantly for a picture, and then hasten back to my dad and purse and breathing inhaler.
Just a few too-steep rocks later, though, and my pace had slowed enough for my mom and Christianne to have caught up with me. I contemplated sitting down for a minute and catching my breath, but we were just so close. We were already past the halfway mark, and I was sure I could almost see the base of the waterfall. My breathing had been short before, and I’d certainly suffered much worse than this. I pressed on.
I didn’t make it another ten steps before involuntarily sitting down on one of the wet boulders. Snowflakes settled in my hair and shoulders. The oxygen around me felt poisonous, each breath coiling around my lungs in sharp tendrils. It became abundantly clear that the absolute only way this problem was going to be solved was with the little plastic blue miracle-worker in the front pocket of my purse.
My mom disappeared immediately to retrieve it, and Christianne stayed – doing her best to comfort me without wholly knowing the problem. Her tiny mittened hands patted my now-dripping back, cooing phrases she only knew because they had at some point been similarly cooed to her. “It’s all right, you’re going to be okay.”
Her words melted into the wet ground around my feet without entering my consciousness – all of my mental energy being narrowly focused on inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Each curtailed breath was so pitifully noisy that it almost drowned out the roaring sound of water against granite. I ached for the medicine that would wrench my lungs free of the cold fists that clutched them.
I willed myself not to think about the fact that I would likely be wheezing for the better part of the next hour before deliverance came.
Don’t think about where Mom is on the journey at this moment. Don’t think about her, right now, reaching into the front pocket of my purse and darting back toward the trailhead. Don’t think about how long it’ll take her to climb back up. Don’t think about it.
My fingers and toes were starting to grow numb – a sensation any asthmatic is all too familiar with. My body was so devoid of oxygen that it was giving up on supplying blood to my appendages, and instead concentrating on keeping my vitals in working order. I labored over each breath in desperation, and waited.
Each inhale was like a bouquet of needles blossoming in my lungs, and yet I choked for air like a drowning man. At some point Christianne left, perhaps to look for my mom.
I was alone with my murderer, and he took hold with a vengeance I had never before encountered. The pressure on my chest was so great that I was sure someone was actually holding my lungs down. I kept bringing my hand to my heart, expecting to feel some invisible force field pushing against my ribcage. My breathing came in short panic breaths, like a dog’s panting but musical – like trying to inhale through a wet sponge. My hands and feet were so stiff and numb that to flex my fingers in front of my face, and to see them being flexed, were to actions so entirely separate from each other that it gave me chills.
I knew from experience that the next step in oxygen deprivation was hallucination… and sure enough, before long I was dizzy and light-headed, and the mossy rocks in front of me were swimming in my vision.
Time became abstract. How long had it been? Hours? Days?
Tears welled up in my eyes as I accepted with absolute certainty that I would die here. They would find my body among the rocks, my face dropping with snow and lips blue, eyes probably still open but my chest at least relaxed.
The tears came faster now, dripping with the same intensity as the wet snowflakes that showered around me.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but my most immediate thoughts were superficial. I’d never voiced any particular wishes for burial versus cremation. If they buried me, what would they dress me in? A thought occurred to me then, one that horrified me more than death itself – they would read my journal. Suddenly every secret I’d ever held reared its ugly head. They would know. Everything.
The worst part of all of it was that no one would ever understand. From what they could tell, I was just out of breath and gave up on catching it again. (How many asthmatics have been told, with increasing exasperation, “Just breathe“?) They could never know the pain I was enduring, the evils I was expected to face on my drenched chunk of granite in the snow.
It was at this moment that I died.
The rocks were still blending into each other, weaving to and fro, when one broke free and wiggled into the sky. I followed it with my eyes until it exploded into a bottom black that rained around me, until the world was drowned out.
I was not in pain, I was not cold; I was not anything.
I had a sensation I didn’t recognize, until it presented itself more familiarly. It was sound… music, in fact. Not just any music, but – as I realized a few moments in – Brick House by the Commodores. But then the music shifted, immediately, to Kokomo, by the Beach Boys. The moment I identified that song, it changed again. Yesterday, the Beatles. The world of blackness had become a medley of every song I’d ever loved. Was this what they meant when they said your life flashes before your eyes? Every song generated a new memory, each genre represented a different stage of my life.
I was not unhappy here. It was far from how I imagined Heaven, but it most certainly was not Hell.
I heard the faraway voice of my sister. At first I thought it was part of the afterlife – maybe you heard the voices of loved ones the same way you heard the choruses of favorite songs. I listened more carefully, and she was calling my name.
And suddenly my eyes opened, and the door to my black musical world snapped shut, and the roaring waterfall and wheezy breathing and cold, wet snow were back. I was aware that I was looking at a moist ground covered in twigs and mossy boulders, and Christianne was yelling my name from a few rocks away. My mom was running precariously, arm outstretched, inhaler in hand. I reached toward her, and in one dramatic moment my savior was passed.
Needless to say, I did not die. It took a few minutes of pumping the medicine into my chest in short desperate gasps, but eventually my wheezing cleared. Still lightheaded, hands still numb but now shaky with the effects of too much medicine, we started back down.
My dad was especially sensitive when we arrived back at the bridge. Being the only one not having bore witness, his visions of the situation probably mirrored mine. He walked with my hand at his chest as if he thought I was about to topple over. Mom and Christianne, similarly, kept looking at me as though they still half-expected me to fall back into convulsions. I stopped trying to convince them I was fine.
I wasn’t fine, though. My breathing had steadied, my toes and fingers would surely have feeling again within the hour, but I was upset. Embarrassed, first of all, that I hadn’t made it to the top. Or at the very least, died, so that I’d have a better excuse for making such a fuss. I was mad at myself for not being stronger – or smarter, to remember to throw my inhaler in my pocket. I was mad at the universe for creating a thing like asthma.
But, to be completely honest, I was mostly just sad that the door of my black music box was shut before I knew what it was or had time to ponder over it.
Don’t get me wrong. But if that was death, I can’t imagine why I was ever afraid of it.