This winter one of my brothers, he’s 14, had a near-death experience. In fact, he experienced death as a result of complications from a rare form of bronchitis. My mother is writing a little book about it and asked for contributions. This is mine, it’s entirely non-fiction.
In a swift departure from our normal topics of conversation (feminist theory, progressive politics, how much I love and miss her), I received this text from my dear, sweet, glowing-with-all-that-is-good-in-the-world baby sister:
Mary Madeleine Shaw: Okay Jamie coded. They got his heart beat back and he is stable for now. Checking for brain bleeding ASAP.
It was 7:39pm in Seattle and I was at my spa between massage clients. Apparently, my fourteen year old brother just died for a little bit. I think my mother had told me that he was in the hospital but I remembered Jamie as the type who’s always a little bit sick. I hadn’t thought much of it.
Me: Wait, coded as in flatlined?
Me: What is happening?
MMS: His heart stopped for 30 minutes yes. But he was on an oxygen thing so hopefully no brain damage. They’re checking.
Me: What the fuck. What’s wrong? I thought he just had bronchitis and shit in his lungs what’s wrong with his heart?
MMS: That’s the thing we don’t know that’s why they’re checking for brain bleeding. He’s on a blood thinner so it’s a higher risk and that can cause cardiac arrest.
MMS: The doctors said they’re at a loss to explain why this happened. He was stable all day and all of the sudden his blood pressure started dropping and then he flatlined.
Me: Texting seems so hollow right now. I wish I was with you all.
Me: That’s terrifying.
Me: He might have had a stroke?
MMS: I know. I was the one who picked up the phone when they called it was scary as fuck. Either a blood clot or a bleed is what they are looking for so it’s possible that it was a stroke.
Me: Oh god. At 14…
MMS: I know. I’ll update you as soon as we know anything. Mom and I are going home now but dad is there if you want to text him and see what’s going on.
Me: I almost wish I had something to pray to, I don’t know what to do with this feeling.
MMS: That’s how I feel. Mom is so like at peace sort of she keeps saying it’s in God’s hands and I’m over here freaking the hell out.
Me: Please do keep me in the loop. I’m at work so I have another massage in a few minutes. Poor mom and dad!
MMS: Yes I know dad is not doing well at all. As soon as we get results or news or anything I’ll let you know.
Me: God, brain damage is the scariest thing. I mean, of course there is a scale and all that. But I would be more afraid of that than death I think.
MMS: Me too.
I told the girl next to me in the break room, “My fourteen year old brother just died for half an hour. Hope I don’t rub these weird vibes into my client.”
My client didn’t seem to notice. She said she felt great after.
My co-workers asked me what happened. I told them all I knew, which wasn’t much. I sort of wanted to feel more than I did but you can’t force that kind of thing. Frankly, he’s ten years younger than me. There are three other siblings between us, plus two older than me and two younger than him. I moved out of that house at 17, when he would have been seven. I don’t remember the last time we talked. I can’t swear to it that we’d ever had one-on-one time. And now he was 2,300 miles away, possibly dying.
I feel a certain familial love—the kind of love that truly understands—towards all of my siblings but honestly the younger ones are more like nieces and nephews. Plus, we’re not the most demonstrative family—my perhaps overly-lovey relationship with the brilliant, talented, and infallible Mary Madeleine notwithstanding. I’ve done some light daydreaming about “meeting” the kids for the first time once they’ve joined me in adulthood. It had never occurred to me that adulthood is not guaranteed.
At 9:19pm Seattle time, I messaged my darling sister.
Me: If I would have died at 14 I would have left one angry shit of a ghost. The kid has lived NOTHING of life!
MMS: Yeah same I was a weird little fuck at that age who wants to die at that awkward stage.
MMS: You don’t even know who you are.
Me: It really just gets better from 14. That’s kind of the nadir. God, I don’t even know Jamie that well. Just that he’s big with blue wideset eyes and always with a stuffy nose. I don’t know anything about his hopes and dreams! I don’t know if he feels love or hate!
Me: What if he’s a beautiful poet?
MMS: I know I don’t know him either it’s scaring me.
MMS: I hope he has time to find himself.
Me: This is awful.
MMS: I’m not getting any sleep tonight.
Me: I wish I could get no sleep with ya (tearful emoji)
MMS: Me too it sucks that you and Jerry are so far away (exhausted emoji)
Me: Wah I love you, girl.
Me: But you knew that. If you were really ill, I would know that you know that I love you.
MMS: I love you too my dear (heart) Oh yes, I know! There would be no doubt in my mind that you all love me. It’s a great feeling actually. I just hope Jamie knows… he’s going to be out for days. Probably longer than a week.
Me: I can’t imagine that. He’s going to wake up so confused.
MMS: Yeah especially since he’s been on ketamine. Apparently when they ween you off of that you wake up very disoriented. That’s going to be interesting.
Me: Oh jeez. Yeah I’ve done ketamine, it’s quite disorienting. I didn’t know they gave it to humans.
MMS: Yeah lol they’ve been giving him a lot. He’s a big kid. So he’s going to be very, very confused and probably won’t remember going into the hospital, they gave him the drug that makes you lose your ability to form short term memories so he won’t remember any pain.
Me: That’s good, I suppose.
With the days and weeks that followed, I received scores of texts most days. Because of the time difference, they would usually start around 5am. I started sleeping with my phone in airplane mode. His condition was continually improving so I didn’t feel guilty about that. My life didn’t change really at all. I didn’t tell any of my friends in Seattle about the incident until much later, fishing around for stories to swap. An old friend from Cincinnati called to see how I was doing and I told her I was fine. More fine than I wanted to be. I resolved to write Jamie a long letter full of love and peace but that project got bumped down on my to-do list after things like,
-blog post about mechanization/the future of work
-report lost & apply for new passport
-pay parking ticket
-secret santa present
-2nd hpv vaccine
This does not feel good to write. I feel frankly like a villain—a sensation likely familiar to many an ex-Catholic. My relationship with my fourth brother is just as nonexistent as it was. Nothing changed. And if he would have died, I would have never met him. Maybe he is a beautiful poet, maybe he has the secret to enlightenment. But he’s still but one of my eight siblings, still a teenaged boy, and still far away. And I’m still mostly id, still sorting through my own shit, and still far away.
I’ve always taken a rather cavalier attitude towards death. I’m sure that when I’m confronted with it, I will piss my pants. But in the abstract, I see it as a net positive in a world so unnaturally replete with human beings. What stuck with me and haunted my dreams was the idea that someone could get through so much of childhood, so much of the painful installation of rules, norms, superego, and be incredibly close to being born on the other side but not quite making it. Why be born at all? Why be a screaming toddler, beginning to realize that you’re not the only being in the world? Why feel the unbearable sting of seeing an ill homeless person muttering to himself, knowing that your $20 will not fix anything? Those years when your eyes are opened, when you eat from the tree of knowledge and see that the garden was a trash heap all along, they can be painful. Everything is so black and white, right and wrong are so clear. Every edge is sharp, every prick draws blood. And there’s nothing you can do. Nothing will soften for years to come. The blissful ignorance of childhood blazes suddenly and is gone forever. It’s a long time before the slow trickle of acceptance nurtures new growth. And some of us die in that fire. I’m grateful to have made it and I’m grateful that my brother will make it. But still, as ever, grateful from far away.