What I Learned On The Ventilator.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I am not a whole person.
I’m basically a shawl of half-stitched insecurities, wrapped around someone stronger.  I have been lucky enough to find Gini, who gives people the illusion that I am a competent person; when I break down in despair, she argues me back into hope.  When I stray, she kicks my ass to remind me of the standards I set for myself.  When I fail, she still loves me.  We are, in many ways, a single organism, each compensating for the others’ weaknesses, a symbiont held together by nothing more than pure love.
Then I had my heart attack.  And that took her away from me.

My world has been reduced to a thin, warm puff of air, a moist whiff of oxygen deposited into the bottom of my lungs.
It’s not enough.  My lungs close spasmodically around each shipment as it arrives, pulling it apart, trying desperately to extract all the energy from this precious, life-giving nothingness.  But within a second, my body realizes this is all the oxygen this plastic tube shoved down my throat has deigned to offer, and it’s not enough, and so my body starts shuttering down this biological factory.  There’s that panic of feeling cell death, followed by the dizziness of realizing that I’m blacking out, and the realization that this confused panic might be the last thought I ever have, and it’s not significant at all, it’s just me flailing, wishing for more, and there’s nothing I can do but shut up and fucking die.
I do not remember my name.  I do not remember where I am.  I am just a biological organism, plagued by ghosts of the sensation that I used to be more….
…and then another shipment arrives.  A wheeze of stale breath.  And I wake up just enough to hope that maybe this breath will be the big one, the one that sustains me, and my lungs fight over this zephyr of air like starving cats fighting over a food bowl, and no.  No.
It’s not enough.
This is every breath I take, for hours.  Waking, to be told how I’ll die.  Thrashing, recognizing that panic isn’t something you can meditate through, meditation requires enough active brain cells to assemble thoughts, and there is no complex cogitation when death is this close.  The plastic tube rubs up against my uvula, makes me want to vomit; I am a wet machine shutting down, and the alarms are going off, and the alarms will never stop going off.
Breathing until now had always been an active activity – I pulled in air in gouts, breathed it out whenever I damn well saw fit.  Even on the rare occasions that air wasn’t available to me, I thrashed like a fish on the end of a line, fighting for precious oxygen, my diaphragm flexing in and out.  All those fine muscles in my chest have been shut down like businesses in poverty-struck neighborhoods, shuttered due to lack of funds.  Opening my eyes would be like lifting a pickup truck over my head.  I’m not even aware I have eyes, they’re so fucking useless to me in this moment, because all that matters are these lungs.  These lungs.  Please.  Get that puff of air.
Finally, there is convulsive movement: my stomach.  The tube’s finally triggered my vomit reflex, and I feel myself doubling over – no, no, that’s too much energy, I can’t lift myself up, but this isn’t under my control, my body’s decided against my will that puking is the life-saving decision.
Thin acidic fluid fills the tube, sloshes back down, cuts off the flow of oxygen.
I’m choking to death.  I have no arms, they’re dead now.  No legs.  No motive power.  All I can do is make little old-man gurgle noises of distress as the last of that air dissolves and I discover what a real death is.  My body gives up and stops fighting as something grabs the back of my head and shoves a tube in…

Gini was there.
Not two feet away from me, Gini was there.  She tells me her hand was on mine.
She might have been on Alpha Centauri, for all I knew.  This was the worst moment of my life, and I am experiencing it alone.

I’d always been really “Whatevs” about death, because death isn’t gonna be bad.  Basically, if I’m right about what I believe, then I’ll be escorted to some unknowable form of a next-level existence, which if I’m being irrational enough to believe in religion then why the fuck not believe that it’s a good and merciful place, in which case dying isn’t really an end but merely a door that we step through.
Or it’s nothing.  In which case, I’m not around to care.  Also not a big deal.  I’ve been not-around before – copiously so, at least before that precious year of 1969 – and have experienced no trauma from nonexistence.
So death’s always been kind of a win/win for me.  I’ve had a few bad moments – notably, the last time I got stoned over a decade ago, I obsessed over the idea that this was all the life I had to live and spent the next two hours facing the void in the eye, which was unpleasant – but in most cases, I’m like hey, when that day comes, it’s the end-cakes, baby.
If anything, death’s a great spur for a slacker like me.  I’ll sit down and feel that cold shiver of the unknowable touch my shoulder and be like, Welp, better get some writing done, because maybe I’ll be dead in a decade!  Death’s kind of an old buddy in that sense, knocking on the door and asking whether I’d like to shuffle off to the void having accomplished nothing more today than having watched reruns of Hotel Impossible.
And death means that when I snuggle down with Gini at night, I damn well appreciate her.  This is transitory.  Death means the universe is forever crumbling and reshaping itself from parts, and that includes everything from love to yogurt.  I tell myself that Gini and I are meant to be 2getha 4eva, but all it’d take is a good stroke and maybe Gini hates me, or maybe she meets some other guy who’s not quite as caul-strangly as I am, so you know what?  I’d better hug the shit out of her tonight, and stuff my face in her hair, and remember that floral-and-musk scent that is no one else in the world but my precious wife because that whole experience could be gone tomorrow.  All gone.
That’s the way I live, man.  I hate getting colds.  I hate that feeling of having all your nostrils so gooped up with mucus that you can’t remember what it’s like to take a fine, deep breath through your nose.  Except that years ago, I vowed to just sit around when I was healthy and succcccck in that air so I could appreciate this flashing moment of perfect nasal clarity.
Do it now.
Breathe in.
Some day, you’ll have a head cold, and you’ll feel gladder that you treasured this completely fucking mundane moment, because by God the mundane can die with startling rapidity.
Okay.  And you know what?
I can’t treasure this life any more.
Some day I’m gonna be back on the machine.

The reason I started contemplating this is because Robert J. Bennett and Amy Sundberg both wrote these long essays on mortality, and they’re both beautifully written, and because I was a part of the Twitter-conversation I feel an urge to complete it.  It’s like a death-triptych, where you’ve got the two people who wrung this comforting lesson from death, and Ferrett, what did you learn from being spatchcocked, rendered helpless, and learning that you could be separated from your wife in every way that matters?
It’s not good, man.  It’s not good.

What I learned on that ventilator is that there’s worse than death.  Death is a shut door, merciful, final.  What’s not death is endlessly cycling between almost-alive and the cellular panic of termination, so helpless that you cannot communicate your fears in any way, so degraded that you are nothing but fears, all of those bold psychologist techniques stripped away because there’s not enough processing power to activate them.
What’s not death?  That old man pissing himself on the wheelchair at the nursing home, making toothless noises of despair and raising his finger in an attempt to communicate some deep concern of his – a concern that is a mystery, because nobody speaks his degenerate stew of communication.  He’s locked inside a failing body, so useless that anyone can ignore him, and all he is is a mixture of untranslatable needs and wants.
That day is coming.
Old age is coming.
I don’t fear death, but goddamn I fear old age.

And the worst of old age is not having Gini.  She was there.  She was there.  And yet there was no way the two of us could have talked.  I’m sure she said something, but my fears were locked in a box that she could not penetrate, and my desires were walled off from her.
I don’t know.  If you’re a writer, you know how shitty words are.  People who don’t write tend to think that words can heal anything, but they’re stupid.  Words only communicate intents and thoughts, and when you fling them at certain unalienable aspects of the human condition, they break down just like we do.  There’s nothing you can say to someone who’s lost his son that will make him feel better, and so even the best writer finds himself saying the same stupid shit of “I’m sorry” and “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” and “By the way, the endless grief you are feeling can in no way be affected by any platitude or thought I can haul out of my bucket right now, but I’m going to keep making these dumb animal noises because it makes me feel like I’m doing something.”
And I’ve been staring at this post for a solid fucking week now, and I can’t get across to you how it was to be separated from Gini.  She’s my lighthouse.  She’s my star I steer by.  And the skies were so dark I could not see her – so dark I could not remember the existence of her.
That ventilator made me forget the best thing in my life, and somewhere in my future there may well be another day so dark I forget her.
And if I can forget the best thing that ever happened to me, the woman who made everything else happen, then what the fuck are we here for?

About three times a week, I plan Gini’s funeral.
I don’t mean to.  It’s an aftereffect of the trauma, and I think in some way it means I’m trying to process.  But she’s out, like she is now, with a client, and I imagine getting the call that she’s dead, and I map out all the things I’d have to do afterwards.  Sometimes I kill myself.  Sometimes I soldier bravely on.  The dog helps, because now I have to take care of a dog.  But I spend five minutes lost in this gruesome fantasy, and it’s somehow comforting.
And only now, as I write this gout of words down, do I realize why:
I remember her.
In those death-futures, I remember her.
And I remember shamefully confessing to Gini that I had these weird-ass fantasies, and she told me that she did too about me, all the time, had done ever since the surgery, and we hugged and somehow we both feel better about that.
We’re twisted by death now.  And it’s not a comfort.  The old death was a kind of happy spur, but this new death – let’s call it Death of Experience – shows up and says, “Hey, all those words you’re writing?  One day you won’t even be able to talk!  You’ll be a helpless beast fishhooked to a ventilator, and all of these so-called accomplishments you’ve piled up will not be a factor.  No one in the nursing home will know.  Hell, you won’t even know.  So why bother?”
And note, dear reader, how this is the only portion of my internal monologue in this essay that gets quotation marks, because it’s the only one speaking loudly enough that it makes me pause in mid-step.
I don’t know why I do bother.
I don’t know why I do anything, these days.
And I wish I had a nice, comforting rhythm to end this essay on, like Robert did by awww, look at his kid-love or Amy did by awww, we must make the best of this scarce time, because both those essays are good and true and reflective of the best parts of the human condition.  But I don’t.  I’m doing all the same things I did before, but there’s a part of me that wonders whether I’m just a broken machine, shambling forward out of some dim instinct – and I want to believe this is the proper thing to do, moving forward is healing, but I don’t sense that.  I’m still writing and cuddling and laughing and making jokes about corduroy pillows, God, the corduroy pillows, and they’re good things, but they’re all now backlit by this sense of transition that I’m never not finding unsettling.
About once a week, I think about what it was like being on that ventilator, the absolute helplessness a human being can have, and I freeze.  Gini notes it when it happens, because we’re two halves of the same whole.  She knows what I’m thinking.  She asks, “Flashing back again?”  I nod, and she hugs me, and hugs are good.  Gini is good.
And I think: Gini is not a guarantee.  There is literally nothing in my life that is a guarantee now.  And I think: You were foolish to think that it ever was.
And I think: But it was sure a nice illusion to warm my hands by, wasn’t it?


  1. Tathāgata
    Feb 13, 2014

    Thanks for this. I find what you’ve put across here far more provocative, enlightening, and valuable than the other two “essays” you mentioned. I hope people really contemplate it. Best wishes to all.

  2. NotBraveEnoughtoShare
    May 1, 2014

    Thank you… you’re the first person who has expressed something I’ve been grappling with for a few years now. You articulated something that I haven’t been able to express, but that has been pummeling the hell out of me so much that it’s hard to wake up sometimes. For me, it wasn’t caused by a near death experience… just too many hard experiences at once… too many losses so that ever since, part of me has been functionally unable to bounce back… even though I was always the Queen of bouncing back and making the best of before…


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