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I died on a Tuesday when I was thirty-one years old, in November, my least favorite month in my least favorite season. Bare-naked trees, bleak skies, and twilight falling before the end of Oprah. Altogether a depressing time.
Nothing good ever happened to me in autumn. There was the September when I got food poisoning at my aunt's annual Labor Day picnic and spent the remainder of the weekend on my knees before the porcelain god. Or the October I got so frightened by a plastic skeleton dangling over a door at the second-grade's haunted house that I started to cry and all the kids laughed and pointed. And it was November when I chose to shuffle off my mortal coil. I, Judith Ratner McBride, being of sound mind and body ... make that being of sound mind ... let's just say I died and leave it at that.
I was nobody extraordinary. Just a nice Jewish physical therapist, happily married to a nice Jewish professional man with an unlikely Irish surname who didn't mind my chunky thighs and frizzy yellow-brown hair. I never won raffles nor was the tenth caller with the correct answer to the radio station's trivia question. So who would have thought my end would come like this?
I know what you must be thinking, but I didn't commit suicide. Yet I did choose to die on that day, in that month, that year, all part of a plan hatched a lifetime ago. But I'll get into all that later.
Somehow I managed to fall into that minuscule percentage of patients who experience one of those possible-but-improbable complications during a routine endoscopy.
Anyone who has ever undergone any kind of invasive medical procedure is familiar with those caveats we tend to glossover on the required waivers: This procedure can result in certain complications, including death. When you really think about it, though, what purpose does the warning serve? If the procedure is necessary, you're going to have it done anyway. And when I died, it's not as though I said to myself, "Well, I can't say they didn't warn me."
In fact, I wasn't even sure what was happening to me, though I did have the proverbial out-of-body experience. I had the sensation of floating out through the top of my head and rising towards the ceiling, watching as the medical team tried to resuscitate me. Staff members began scurrying at once in different directions to their Assigned Responsibilities in the Event of a Life-Threatening Situation.
"I'm not getting a BP, Doctor," reported a nurse.
"One milligram of epinephrine," Dr. Kreske ordered without missing a beat.
The nurse prepared a syringe and plunged it right into my heart. The team waited and watched as one-forever, it seemed.
"Still no reading, Doctor."
Dr. Kreske's pucker factor must have gone into high gear when epinephrine didn't do the trick. He back-kicked a metal stool out of the way. It rolled into the wall and toppled over with a loud crash, but no one even blinked.
"Begin CPR," Dr. Kreske ordered. A couple of assistants readied the crash cart, while someone else yanked open my hospital gown to lay bare my breast. Once upon a time, I had fantasized about some handsome Jewish doctor doing just that, after which he would sweep me into his strong arms and carry me off to Nordstrom.
Good Dr. Kreske, unmoved by the breasts splayed over the sides of my rib cage, situated the paddles and called out, "Clear!"
I arched an eyebrow at such a dramatic warning. It wasn't as though they stood in front of an airplane propeller.
The electricity made contact, jerking my supine body several inches off the gurney. Five faces looked toward the heart monitor with anticipation that turned to dismay at the persistent flat line. Dr. Kreske once more replaced the paddles and gave his throttle-up warning. My torso arched a little higher, thrusting my bosom upward in a macabre imitation of the seductive pose tempestuous vixens assume while in the throes of ecstasy.
I may have been tempestuous, but I was no vixen and nobody there was ecstatic. About forty minutes later, the team conceded the battle. Time of death was recorded as 1:17 p.m.
The whole situation had been so embarrassing from the start. It wasn't humbling enough in the first place that I had to see a gastroenterologist and describe in great detail my elimination patterns, complete with illustrations. It wasn't sufficient that I, who usually avoided doctors in general, subjected myself to undignified tests while in humiliating, butt-baring positions.
A couple of visits later, I left Dr. Kreske's office with a prescription for a type of laxative new to this child of Generation X-Lax. Oh, I was familiar with over-the-counter pills and the fiber powders stirred into water to concoct a gritty, citrusy beverage, but this stuff resembled something between birdseed and chocolate jimmies. While tempted to feed it to the birds, I was not about to sprinkle it over ice cream. So I did as the label instructed, swallowing a heaping teaspoonful of the dry granules, and chasing it with a full glass of water.
Once in the stomach, the granules were supposed to absorb the water and spur the bowel into action. But the mission was sabotaged by a condition I didn't even know I had. A narrowing of my esophagus caused the granules to bottleneck, unable to proceed to their final destination. Gridlocked at this stricture, they absorbed the water I had drunk until swollen twice their volume, blocking the passage completely. It was like having a matzo ball stuck in your throat that you couldn't get down.
I could still breathe, so I didn't panic. I phoned Dr. Kreske's office, feeling silly and distraught as I explained the problem in between dry heaves. The receptionist told me to have someone bring me to the hospital where Dr. Kreske would 'work me in between procedures.' I knew what that meant. He was going to push the offending stuff down with-gulp-an endoscope.
Reluctant to drag my husband Saul away from his office, I knew I could count on my friend Micaela to drive me to the hospital. She had the week off from work, anyway, and said she'd be happy to pinch-hit for Saul.
I worked my way through the hospital's administrative cubicles: one for registration, one for insurance information, one to find out where to go to wait to be told where to go next. At each stop I was obliged to repeat the mortifying explanation of my Ripleyesque problem until at last I was escorted to the procedure room.
They gave me a lovely cocktail of Demerol and Valium which promptly sent me into la-la-land, a desirable place to be when having a large medical implement inserted in your throat. I was grateful for my particular vulnerability to barbiturates (a single antihistamine could knock me out cold), as I didn't want to be the least bit aware of the unwieldy instrument about to send my gag reflexes into overdrive.
When it was all over, the staff tried to rouse me but I didn't respond to repeated attempts. The mood in the room immediately changed from routine to tense. Dr. Kreske maintained an even strain, but I could almost feel the prickle of anxious sweat starting under his arms. Losing me would not be a feather in his surgical cap.
I'm sure no one anticipated such a virulent reaction to the narcotic night-night. Or maybe the barbiturate barkeep poured just wee bit too generously that day. Whatever the reason, the result was the same. But there was a bright side: at least I didn't have to wake up to find a jackhammer down my gullet. As the saying goes, I never knew what hit me.
I had no mystical revelation that I was about to expire, no defining moment when I came face to face with my own mortality. No fanfare of choir voices came to accompany me to the Great Beyond. I simply floated out of the body and rose upward like a balloon, observing the scene below with detached fascination from a corner just a foot or two below the ceiling, while the medical team worked on the body.
Notice that I said 'the' body instead of 'my' body because the lifeless shell on the gurney with a sheet over its head wasn't me anymore. The me that is Judith McBride was still very much alive and aware, encased now in another kind of body. Not flesh and bone, but something lighter and more whole. A dead ringer, you should pardon the expression, for the physical vessel my soul had just vacated.
My spirit body was as tangible to me as the earthly body had been, yet there were subtle differences I noticed right off. I felt more vital and energetic than I ever had on earth, alert to the slightest stimulus, like I'd just awakened from a thirty-one year nap. A deep tranquility banished any fears or uncertainties of the transition taking place.
Despite the rather odd circumstances surrounding my demise, I didn't feel angry or sad that I had died. Oh, a little annoyed, maybe. After all, nothing got my knickers in a twist more than the best-laid plans of mice, men, and Judith going astray. All through high school, Micaela had teased me about being a control freak; she would go to town with this scenario. Judith McBride, dying when she didn't plan on it? Unthinkable.
I took a moment to examine this etheric body of mine and check out the new and improved me. I liked what I found. I ran my hands over my hair, noticing a silky thickness I hadn't known before. This wasn't the turmeric chaff I used to have. I tilted a shiny auburn lock this way and that, marveling at the color and texture. This was the hair I'd always dreamed of having, much the way women with poker-straight hair get perms and dishwater blondes go sun-kissed. Gone was the accursed frizz I'd had to flat iron straight every morning of my life. I felt like Cinderella after the fairy godmother changed her rags into a ball gown.
My hands slid down the smooth skin of my abdomen to my thighs, where they froze. I brought my hand back up to my belly. For the first time in my life, I had a stomach so flat it was almost concave. I had never been much of a fashion maven, mind you, but it would have been nice to shop for anything that struck my fancy instead of ferreting out styles to drape over the small pot that made me look like I'd swallowed a papaya, whole. There is a God, and he's a celestial plastic surgeon. I wondered if they had bikinis in heaven...
I turned to the nurses hovering near the mannequin-like corpse on the gurney. "Hey," I called to them. "What on earth happened?"