One Foot in the Grave, by Cassandra Delaney
Whoever said “dying is easy, comedy is hard,” hadn’t actually died yet, so they were just guessing about the first part. Having had the experience, I know for a fact that dying can be difficult. It’s like sex, a perfectly natural biological function. Everybody does it, but that doesn’t mean something can’t go wrong.
At least my death was painless. I was up on a ladder trying to dust the blades on my ceiling fan when my foot slipped and I fell. On the way down, my head caught the corner of the coffee table. The impact made sauce out of a small but very necessary section of my brain.
I was unconscious for a while. Then, even though I stayed unconscious, I started to notice that I could see through my eye lids. There wasn’t anything much to look at. I hadn’t even left the television on. I sprawled there in the shape of a chalk outline, watching the blank television screen through my closed eyelids and wishing my day had gone differently.
A strange, unpleasant sensation came over me, somewhere between poison ivy and the feeling you get when your foot falls asleep. I couldn’t move my hands to scratch but I could squirm a little. There seemed to be a hair’s breath of space between me and my skin. I squirmed harder, in the process, shifting a few inches to the side and out of my body.
It was a relief. The itching stopped and I was able to move more freely. I stood up and looked at my body, still prone on the carpet. There wasn’t much blood. I looked as if I’d fallen asleep on the living room floor in an especially awkward position.
I wondered why I wasn’t hovering over the scene at ceiling level. There was no white light or tunnel, either. I was about to check the rest of the apartment for portals, but when I tried to step away from my body, I snapped back like a spring. That’s when I noticed my foot was stuck. It was still attached to the corresponding foot on my body.
I tugged hard but it wouldn’t come loose. I tried prying it out as if it was stuck in a tight shoe. I pulled, twisted, wrenched, and yanked. None of that worked. I tried to relax and slip it out gently. That didn’t work either. I sat back down and tried to think of something I hadn‘t tried yet. I even tried not trying.
It occurred to me that it might take days for anyone to miss me. I was new in the city and I didn’t know that many people. I wondered what condition I’d be in when someone finally found me. My apartment was on the warm side. Soon I’d start to smell bad. I was mortified. Dying alone and decomposing in your own home is the sort of end people associate with spinsters and shut-ins. Happy, well-adjusted people don’t molder until they’re in the ground.
Fortunately, before getting up on the step stool to clean the fan blades, I’d put a frozen dinner in the oven. It burned and smoked. That set off the fire alarm, which brought the fireman who found me.
There was one exiting moment when the person working on me called out, “She’s breathing!”
I thought maybe I was having a near-death experience instead of a real death experience. They put my body on a stretcher and rushed it out to the waiting ambulance. It happened so fast, I lost my balance and got dragged half-way down the stairs before I could get my other foot under me and hop along side to keep up.
In my opinion, dying is something you should have a chance to practice ahead of time, like skydiving or Lamaze. No one just shoves you out an airplane. They show you where the parachute cord is and tell you when to pull it. Pregnant women take classes months before they’re due.
Dying isn’t like that. It’s all guess work for the person involved. I had to listen in on the doctor’s conversation to find out I wasn’t having a near death experience after all. I was brain dead, so for practical purposes, my life was over.
They put me on life support and contacted my nearest living relative. My mother flew in the next day to sign papers declaring me legally brain dead. They brought her in to see me. She looked at me with the same bland resignation she always did when circumstances forced her to acknowledge my existence.
I hoped the situation with my foot was a result of being brain dead instead of corpse dead. I was operating under the assumption that, when they finally pulled the plug, my foot would come loose and I’d be able to move on.
In the meantime, I was obliged to attend my own organ harvest. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Being dead seems to have some narcotic properties, similar to psilocybin mushrooms or an intense romantic infatuation. That would explain the way I felt when my heart was removed.
It came out looking bloody and horrible but the doctor held it up like a trophy. Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing to look at it. They all agreed it was in excellent condition.
They packed my heart in ice and hurried it away on a cart. I wish I could have followed to see who got it. Instead, I was stuck staring into the open cavity of my body while the doctor went on salvaging all the usable parts left in me.
As I watched myself being disassembled, I became transfixed by the rich shade of red I was on the inside. Red has always been my favorite color and this was the best red I’d ever seen. When I was alive, I was always trying to find household items in that color: sheets, towels, small kitchen appliances. How satisfying to know that I’d been that color all along. I could have made throw pillows out of me.
Finally, the doctor finished up and turned off the life support. He noted the time and draped a sheet over my body. All medical personnel filed out and I was alone again. My foot didn’t feel any different.
I didn’t panic right away. I gave it some time. When nothing happened after that, I panicked. I kicked, wept, prayed and screamed obscenities at the four blank walls.
Eventually, someone came and wheeled me down to the morgue. By then I was more or less resigned and sitting quietly on the edge of my gurney. That was good, because otherwise I might have missed the word he spoke and, it was a kind word.
He flipped up the edge of the sheet that covered my face and looked at me for a minute. Then he said, “waste.”
That would have been enough of a memorial service for me, but my mother is the type of person who likes to see that things are done right. I had a wake and a funeral. They were exactly as depressing as I thought they would be.
The attendees were mostly work friends. Many of them felt the need to say to something to my mother, who thanked them in the polite monotone of a telephone operator.
“She was a very nice girl.”
“So sorry for your loss.”
“We’ll miss her very much.”
I wish I could say it would have been different if the service had been held in the town where I grew up, but I don’t think so. My best friend, Zach, died a year after we graduated from high school. I never made another.
I socialized, but all the people I knew were the type that wanted to go somewhere, do something, see or be seen by someone. It’s not the same as having friends. I thought things would be different in a new place. That’s why I moved. Unfortunately, the expression, “Wherever you go, there you are,” – that one’s actually true.
I spent a lot of time worrying about whether I’d be buried or cremated. There was a good argument for cremation. It seemed unlikely that I would stay stuck to my body once it had been reduced to ash. On the other hand, the idea of sitting inside an oven watching my body burn to cinders was extremely unappealing.
My mother opted for burial, which was less dramatic but unpleasant in its own way. It was like standing at the bottom of the deep end of a swimming pool filled with dirt. I took me a while to find the surface. I could just barely stick my head out. So far as I could tell, I was the only dead person there.
The living came and went. They brought flowers and cried and talked to the empty air. It was boring and lonely but, honestly, it wasn’t all that much worse than being alive.
Things got better once Zach showed up. Officially, Zach died from an accidental overdose, but I’d always wondered. He’d been depressed for a while. The first thing I noticed was how much better he looked.
“Hey!” I held my hands up to him and he got down on the ground to hug me around the head.
“How’ve you been?”
“My foot’s stuck.”
“Do you want me to see what I can do?”
Zach got a grip on me and pulled. At first, it seemed like it was working. A few times I felt something give. With him pulling and me pushing we managed to get my torso and hips above ground. Beyond that, my foot would not budge. At least I could sit on the edge of my grave and talk to Zach face to face.
“How’d you find me?”
“The shuttle bus dropped me off.”
“You took a bus? From where?”
Zach puts his hand to his heart.
“On my best friend’s grave.”
“Funny… So, what’s it like?”
“I’m not completely sure. I’m only a first level.”
“There are levels?”
“I think so.”
“What’s it like where you are now.”
“Like a really, really big shopping mall that’s always open and everything’s free.”
“There’s an excellent food court.”
“When I say excellent food court, I mean an ultra gourmet all-you-can-eat Vegas style buffet with every kind of food you can imagine, but none of it makes you fat.”
“Exactly. Some people just go straight to the food court and stay there. They don’t even bother to look around at the rest of the place.”
The next day Zach is back with take-out and two huge shopping bags.
“You didn’t have to do all this.”
“Are you kidding? Do you know how long it’s been since I had some one to shop for? Everyone in Heaven already has everything they ever wanted. So, gift-giving is sort of pointless.
“What do you do in Heaven?”
Zach shrugs, “pretty much anything you want.”
“No, I mean what do you do?”
“Oh, me? The usual… shop, eat, dance…”
“Angels play harps and you dance?”
“Who could dance to a harp? I go to clubs. They have live music, free drinks and no closing time.”
Zach unbuttons his jacket to show me the T-shirt he’s wearing. On the front, in metallic gold script it says: Disco died and went to Heaven. He twists around so I can read the back: Party on at Club Infinity.
“You go out a lot?”
“Have you met anyone?”
“I’ve met everyone! Andy Warhol. Elvis, Freud…”
“What’s Freud like?”
“Nice. Weird… but nice.
“Have you met anyone special?”
“Ohhh…” Zach sighed and rolled his eyes. “No, not really, a few ‘almost-special’s’ but never ‘the one.’ Dead people can be so shallow, especially the recently deceased.”
“You know, you can look any way you want in Heaven, which is great except everyone ends up looking the same. Perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect abs, perfect ass.”
“How do you tell each other apart?”
“It’s like penguins, once you get to know someone, you can pick them out of a crowd.
“Do you have a lot of friends?”
“I’ve met some really good people.”
Zach had a lot more confidence than I did that we’d find a solution to my foot problem. He tried soap, snake oil, a crowbar, a pulley and a battery powered winch. Apparently, Heaven had a well stocked hardware store.
When none of those things had any effect, I gave in and said the thing I’d been trying not to say.
“Do you think I’m stuck because my life was so pathetic?” Zach was setting up the wireless internet he’d brought for me and downloading all our old favorite television shows so we could watch them together.
“People get stuck in life because of unresolved issues. Maybe I’m stuck in death because I was so… unfulfilled.
When Zach turned around I was relieved to see him looking at me as if I‘ve grown scales.
“God no! I was nothing but unfulfilled when I died, and I peeled out like a ripe banana.”
“Did you go straight to Heaven?”
“And you’re completely happy now?”
Zach didn’t answer right away.
“Have I told you about the escalator?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Some people say the real Heaven is up there and where we are, on the first level, is only the waiting room.”
“What’s up there?”
“No one knows. None of the people who ride the escalator ever come back down again. It could be anything up there.”
Zach starts ticking off possibilities on his fingers “clouds and angels, further enlightenment, reincarnation, oblivion, union with God. It could just be better stores and clubs.”
“Exactly. I’m not in any rush, but someday, I think I’m going to have to ride the escalator. How can you go through all of eternity with a question like that hanging over your head?”
“I see your point.”
“You think you’d ever want to go together?”
“Seriously maybe or humoring-me maybe?”
“Let’s make a pact that if either of us goes we’ll go together”
We locked pinkie fingers and swore on it. Zach rummaged in a shopping bag. He handed me a box of pastries and hot cup of cappuccino.
“I’ve been asking around about your foot situation and everyone says the same thing. You just need to pull really hard.”
“But, that’s what we’ve been doing.”
“It’s not working.”
“I think we need more people.”
Whoever said “you’re born alone and you die alone,” was dead wrong. I don’t know how any statement that’s so obviously inaccurate got to be so popular. Someone is always there when you’re born. Your mother is there, and usually, at least one other person. To be born, you have to be pushed out or pulled out or even cut out. Dying can be the same way.
My merry band of midwives came trouping off the shuttle bus, looking exactly how Zach described them – roughly one dozen persons, all perfectly attractive. Zach pointed me out to them. A chorus of sympathetic cries and murmurs ensued.
“Look at her just sitting there in the grass.”
“Don’t worry; we’ll have you out of there in a minute.”
One person grabbed me at the wrist, another at the elbow. Someone got a hold of my free foot by reaching down under the grass. Zach smiled reassuringly.
Zach was right. We needed more people. They pulled me loose almost instantly. I fell in to their arms. With much clamor and congratulations I was borne off to heaven on the shuttle bus, content in the knowledge that I did not die alone.
Cassandra Delaney is a member of the Delmar Writer’s Group. Her work has been published in * 82 Review and Pear Noir. She has an MA in Counseling from New Mexico State University. She lives in upstate NY with her husband and two elderly cats. It’s been years since she’s done anything illegal.
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Tags: Cassandra Delaney, death, friendship, relationships