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I died three days ago.
I never saw it coming. It had been a difficult day at the hospital, shocking even—but when was it ever different? St. Benedict’s is one complication after another, especially in my line of work. There are too many patients, too many bureaucrats, and too few happy endings. Midday, I took a long stroll through the children’s ward just to hear the high-pitched voices raised in song or play. Even when there is great pain, the young always seem capable of mustering optimism and innocence, two qualities I see too infrequently.
“Dr. Thomas, you’re pretty.”
“Thank you, Jonathan.”
“My dad thinks you’re pretty, too.”
“I’m flattered.” And I was, genuinely. Compliments are sparse in my line of work.
“When I get better, do you think you could come over for dinner? Not for me. But I think my dad gets lonesome sometimes . . .
“I’m married, Jonathan.”
“Oh . . .
“But I’d still love to have dinner with you sometime.”
With innocence can also travel disappointment, but here at the hospital, time travels like quicksilver and long-term consequences are overwhelmed by the need for emotional satisfaction in the here and now. I was so accustomed to thinking of my patients’ immediate happiness, I never realized how quickly my own happiness could be curtailed.
This was not a day like any other. What I saw in the hot lab disturbed me, perhaps more than I was willing to admit to myself. I didn’t know how to respond. I did not perceive it as a tolling of the bell, as a sign that the End of Days was upon me. I climbed into my Land Rover and headed for home. The drive to Skiatook is almost forty minutes even if I don’t get caught in a traffic snag, and the drive down Lombard Lane is always dark. Too many curvy country roads with little traffic and no witnesses. Deep ravines on either side. Not the place to be driving after a long hard day’s work in the healing arts. A girl had to be careful.
All I saw was a flash of light and suddenly I lost control of the Rover. Heat, squealing tires, heart racing, eyes searching desperately for the road. The impact was sudden, shattering. The wheel wrenched out of my grasp, sending slivers of pain racing up my right arm. My Rover lurched off the road into a ravine, fell for what seemed an eternity, and crashed. Did I hit a tree? A house? I still don’t know. I only know it hurt. I blacked out. Not from the impact, though that was fantastic, unlike anything I had experienced in my life. I blacked out from the pain. And then I died.
I awoke many hours later, unsure of anything. Where was I? What had happened? I had no answers. Answers are for the living, not the dead. I tried to make an inventory of everything I knew, everything about which I could be certain. I could not move. Not an inch. Not so much as to scratch my nose. I was in excruciating agony—I would describe it as unbearable, except that I did bear it, I had to, I had no choice. I still have no choice.
There’s something sharp and metallic piercing my left leg! Please, God, is there no mercy? I’ve helped so many others cope with their pain, can no one help me? It’s bleeding and infected and I can’t move and I can’t even see and I just want this torture to be over. I don’t care how. It hurts so badly. Oh, God, it hurts, it hurts!
I catch my breath, inhale deeply, murmur my mantra, and try to block the agony out of my mind. No help has come. I have no reasonable expectation of rescue. Dennis and I chose to build out in the far reaches of Skiatook for a reason. We were on a spiritual journey, trying to nourish our souls and find a better way of life. We sought seclusion, the peace that comes from knowing that you have removed yourself from the bustle and impurity of the city. What I never realized was that we had traded one form of danger for another. No one would come out here, no one but my husband. He will never see me, and no one else will have any cause to come this way. I am off the navigational charts of the rest of humanity, dead to the world.
The accident was three days ago. Since then, I have remained trapped here, mired in my own blood and waste, scared and angry and filled with a bitter pain that blackens my tongue and my thoughts and makes every breath an ordeal. As a physician, I am all too able to assess my hopeless situation—and all too unable to do anything about it. For days, I ran the standard ER checklist through my head. Check for concussion. Rather difficult to do when you’re pinned down like a butterfly in a collector’s tray. What’s my white blood cell count? Who knows? Multiple lacerations, severe abrasions, internal bleeding— did this mean anything? They were just words, they had nothing to do with my body, with the life essence I could feel seeping away from me.
This much I know: My clavicle is broken in two places. At least two of my ribs, also. My shoulder is dislocated and something traumatic has happened to my left leg. I not only can’t move it—I can’t feel it any longer. That leg is gone; no science known to man could bring it back to me. I feel an aching in my gut that the scientist within recognizes as kidney failure, the sure product of dehydration. How long has it been since there was anything in my mouth other than the taste of my own blood? Too long. Far too long.
It was almost a year ago that I first expressed my unhappiness to Dennis, not with him, not even with our life, but with myself. I had once considered myself a spiritual person, but that spiritual side had been lost somewhere in the shuffle of quotidian duty, the drudgery of medical school, the internal ravaging that comes from watching so many people die, day after day. That was when I started attending the Shambhala retreat, where they taught me about meditation, hypnotherapy, Buddhism. Not a religion, they told me. A way of life. A way of incorporating harmony and balance and peace into your own soul. Initially, I wasn’t very good at it. What was the point of all the breathing and humming? Did it matter how I held my hands?
And now it seems that’s all I have left. I cannot block out the pain, but I can distract myself. I can’t have a moment of tenderness, but I can breathe, and hum, and try to clear my mind. The Paramhansa Yogananda taught his followers to outwit the stars, that we may be guided by these heavenly sentinels but needn’t be controlled by them. This is what I must do, at least until I become one of them. If nothing else, I can ease the passage.
The last drop of life may not have seeped away from me, but I am truly dead, just as surely as if my heart had stopped beating and blood had stopped circulating through my veins. Death, I remember hearing a yogi say, is not an ending. It is when the soul separates from the body. This ordeal is so intense, so intolerable, it pierces my spirit and leaves me unable to feel anything else. I miss my life, my work, my husband, the children I never knew. But I can no longer feel that aching, because the new one is so intense, so overpowering. When existence in the body becomes intolerable, the soul seeks other lodging, safe havens, snug harbors.
I can see the sky at night and it fills me with regret. So much I could have done, so much I never did. So much I needed to tell my husband. That is perhaps the greatest pain of all. Can I find another path, another way? Can I wring something positive out of this bitter ending? My teacher said it’s all perfect, that things happen for a reason, that we are capable of turning poison into medicine. But what good can come from the suffering?
My meditation may save my sanity, but what will save my soul?
Physician, heal thyself. I must find a way to triumph. I will find a way to make this matter. I will remain on my path. I may not have planned this, may never have seen it coming. But I am stronger than the rippling tide of human happenstance. I can still make my life count for something. I can outwit the stars.
Dennis Thomas took the proffered chair beside Detective Sentz’s desk. Could it possibly be? Had he finally found someone who would listen?
“I understand you’ve filed a report.”
“Yes. A missing person.”
Sentz pressed his lips together. “Who is it?”
“My wife. Joslyn Thomas.”
“Why do you think she’s missing?”
Dennis looked at him, desperation etched in every line of his face. “She hasn’t come home for three days.”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“Well, frankly, no.”
Dennis gripped the armrests tightly, trying to contain himself. He’d been fighting this bureaucracy for days. Three days now he’d come to the Tulsa Uniform Division East station and the Skiatook police station. Three days he’d tried to motivate the police to take action. Without success. The only person doing anything was him. He had talked to all of Joslyn’s friends, all her co-workers. No one knew anything. He’d searched the hospitals, called her relatives, driven back and forth over the roads she normally traveled, all without success. He had done everything he knew how to do and he still hadn’t found her. Couldn’t the police help? Wasn’t that why the police existed? So far, he had not been successful at getting anyone to do anything. He’d filed a report the first day—a COS (Check Own Satisfaction) call issued—and he was told it was forwarded to a police detective who would decide what action, if any, would be taken. He’d come to the downtown Detective Division to see why nothing was happening.
“My wife wouldn’t disappear for no reason. Certainly not without telling me.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve been married to her for seven years!”
Sentz made a grunting noise. “Seven-year itch.”
“You don’t know her.”
“No, friend, I don’t know her, but I have been at this desk for eighteen years. Two years and I can take early retirement. I’ve seen many guys like you walk through the door complaining that their wives have disappeared. It’s always the same. Girl decides she’s had enough, has to get out, doesn’t have the guts to tell you face to face.”
“That’s not what happened.”
“You’ll probably get a call in a couple weeks, once she’s safely settled into what she’s running to. Parents, boyfriend, whatever.”
“That’s a lie!”
“Hey, don’t kill the messenger, pal. I’m just telling you what I’ve seen. Over and over again.”
“That man at the front desk—Sergeant Torres—he said you’d help me.”
“I am helping you. You just can’t see it yet.”
Dennis felt his jaw tightening, felt the sinking feeling that told him this was just another false hope dashed, that there would be no more action now than there had been before. “I demand that you do something! I’ve reported a crime.”
“But that’s just it, buddy—you haven’t. All you’ve reported is that your wife hasn’t come home. And not coming home is not a crime.”
“What about kidnapping? Is kidnapping a crime?”
“Do you have any evidence that she was kidnapped?”
“I’ll take that as a no.”
Dennis reached across the desk. “Please. There must be something you can do. They told me in Skiatook you could initiate an investigation once she’s been gone twenty-four hours.”
“Only if special circumstances are present.” Sentz cleared his throat. “There aren’t any here.”
“How many days must she be gone before you take action?”
“It’s not a matter of days. It’s the absence of a crime. She could be gone a year and there still wouldn’t be any evidence of a crime.”
“Do you have any evidence of foul play?”
“She wouldn’t not come home without a reason.”
“But you don’t know what that reason is.”
“Something must’ve happened to her.”
“Does she have any special vulnerability?”
“Well, I gather she’s not a minor.”
“Or elderly. Does she have a mental condition? Dementia?”
“Of course not. She’s a doctor!”
“Like that proves anything. Is she off her meds?”
“The only thing she takes is omega-three.”
“History of drug abuse? Alcohol?”
“No! I mean—she works in a cancer ward treating women with inoperable diseases. It’s not exactly a good time. But she isn’t mentally ill!”
“Then I can’t—”
Dennis rose to his feet. “Are you telling me that since she’s a normal healthy adult you’re not going to do anything?”
Sentz shrugged. “If you want to put it that way.”
“Listen. I know my wife. I know what she would do and would not do. Something has happened to her. Something bad.”
“I know you’re worried. But if we went running after everyone who doesn’t come home on time, that’s all we’d ever do. It’s a manpower issue. We have to prioritize serious crimes. We can’t look for everyone.”
“I’m not asking you to look for everyone. I’m asking you to look for my wife.”
“Look, go home, try to get some rest. Chances are she’ll turn up or at least call in a few days—”
Dennis lurched forward and grabbed his arm. “My wife has not run off with another man. She’s in trouble! And if you don’t—”
“Whoa, whoa, let’s all calm down now.” The man Dennis recognized from the front desk, Sergeant Torres, stepped between them, breaking Dennis’s grip. “No need to let things get out of control.”
Sentz scowled. “Why did you send this man to me? You know there’s nothing I can do.”
“Oh, there’s always something we can do,” Torres said, smiling. “Maybe just give him some good advice.”
“I did. I told him to go home and wait.”
Dennis’s face was flushed and covered with perspiration. “My wife is . . . is . . . maybe hurt, trapped, kidnapped.”
Torres cleared his throat. “Well . . . actually, I don’t think that’s true.”
“How would you know?”
“She’s disappeared before, hasn’t she?”
Dennis fell silent.