So that's what I heard right after I heard “You may experience death.” I believe I can be excused from not hearing “anaphylactic shock” after the shock of hearing “you may experience death.” Blame it on age; I don't recoil as fast as I used to.
Okay, look. I'm 53 years old. Three years ago I missed being hit by a bolt of lightning the size of a tree trunk by less than a foot. The damn thing blew my chunky ass off a rock face and dumped me eight feet away. I survived viral meningitis when I was eight; the doctors told my mother not to get her hopes up. I was almost beheaded on the number one IRT train playing Chicken in between the cars. (The memory of that one still makes me twitch uncontrollably.) I had five concussions by the time I was nine. FIVE, people. I had pneumonia three times before my tenth birthday. A quack doctor almost killed me when I was five by botching my fucking tonsillectomy. Chronic asthma caused me to spend two weeks in an oxygen tent a year later. My appendix burst when I was seventeen. A giggling four-year-old girl in Baghdad in July 2003 threw a live mortar in my direction. Into a three-foot pile of other live mortars.
Somehow I have survived until now. Hopefully I will continue to survive for many years to come. (Sometimes I wonder if I am actually indeed dead and just too obnoxiously stubborn to decompose.) I distinctly remember that in the 7.5 nanoseconds after/as the lightning hit (Canadian lightning, by the way) as I felt it course up through my limbs and through my body and as I felt my body get blown off the too-solid Earth, that my internal dialogue was this: “Really? This is it?? This is just fucking stupid.”
I'm a member of the news team for WRFI 88.1 Ithaca Community Radio. One of the stories I had to compile for today was of a woman bicyclist who was killed as she pulled out of a parking lot. Rear-ended by someone who was texting at the wheel. And just last week a dear cyclist friend was broadsided by some pathetic dipshit who was texting as she was making a turn in a very busy intersection. Luckily my friend escaped with nothing more than severe bruises and some very severe shock. And the week before a man I know only tangentially lost two of his grandkids in a freak automobile accident.
As I said, I'm 53. I have outlived Jesus Christ, Michael Jackson, Dylan Thomas, John Lennon, Edgar Allan Poe, Mata Hari (with whom I share a birthday), Elvis Presley, John Belushi, Keith Moon, Gilda Radner, Baruch Spinoza, Wendy O. Williams, Joey Ramone, Douglas Adams, Malcolm X, Steve McQueen, Hervé Villechaize, Che Guevara, Dimebag Darrell, Vincent Van Gogh, Lady Di, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Napoleon, Houdini, Shakespeare, and Frank Zappa.
(But not Keith Richards. Yet, anyway. Rock on, brother.)
The point is this: According to my allergist, I can be completely undone, my ticket cancelled, made cosmologically redundant, shorn of my mortal coil, harried into Potter's field, made to assume room temperature, hear the fat lady finish, pick parsnips with a step ladder—all of these--by a fucking wasp. Maybe. Possibly. No one wants to say for sure, but in the interests of possible malpractice suits, it has to be there on the table.
Because they have discovered that I am critically allergic to yellow jackets and several types of wasp.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with anaphylactic shock, let me catch you up:
According to www.webmd.com:
Anaphylaxis is a rare, generalized, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to a particular substance (allergen) to which individuals have previously developed an extreme sensitivity (hypersensitivity). The reaction typically occurs within seconds or minutes or, more rarely, up to a few hours after exposure to such an allergen. Allergens may include insect venom, certain foods, medications, vaccines, chemicals, or other substances. An anaphylactic reaction may be characterized by development of an itchy, reddish rash (hives); a severe drop in blood pressure; swelling and obstruction of the mouth, nose, and throat; abdominal cramps; nausea and vomiting; diarrhea; and severe difficulties breathing. Without immediate, appropriate treatment, the condition may rapidly lead to a state of unconsciousness (coma) and life-threatening complications.
Pretty nasty stuff.
So now I have to carry on my person--at all times--a pair of Epipens. (No, this is not a endorsement of a product. Not a paid one, anyway.) Each of these devices contains two things: a solution of epinephrine, and (as you can see) a huge fucking needle with which I will have to stab myself in the thigh in order to introduce said epinephrine. (Knowing me, I'll probably stab myself half a dozen times just to make sure. I'll probably die from blood loss instead.)
I understand that we all live with a basic idea of the fragility of life, that at any given moment, without warning, without decent mental or spiritual preparation, we can be cut off. And no, it's not fair. Lots of things on this planet are not “fair.” But they are inevitable, unchanging, irrevocable, and you sure as hell can't argue with Death. You can't play chess with it, you can't offer up a substitute, and you can't bargain.
But we, that is most of us in the modernized first world, live largely and nearly free from the ever-looming shade of the Grim Reaper. Most of us don't worry about where we're gonna sleep, what we're gonna eat, what we have to wear. Or when the next roving band of psychopathic killers will wheel through our village, bringing savagery, turmoil, and tragedy. Or if some mysterious virus of which we have no access to treatment from will arrive in the form of conquistadors or monkeys and wipe us the fuck out. And on the other hand, while we may not be as rich as Ted Turner, with all of his access to top-level medical care, many of us aren't begging for scraps. In short, most of us are, despite the Rube Goldberg model of medical care here in the good old U.S. of A., in varying levels of relativity, fortunate.
So we go our (somewhat) fortunate ways and we keep the notion of The End in the backs of our heads. Wouldn't do much good to whine about it anyway; it's like relatives; you gotta put up with them eventually. Most of us pretend to forget about it and get on with our existences.
We can't ever truly forget it, though, so we dally with it, in literature, movies, and such. We “explore” the theoretical possibilities of an afterlife through religion or philosophy or paranormal science. We seek answers. Any clue at all would be helpful, but it's all a joke. No one's come back yet to tell us what's on the other side. Could be nothing: could be the complete and utter absence of being and consciousness. Could be reincarnation. Could be fluffy clouds and harp lessons and a giant old guy with a big beard. To posit the myriad phenomenae or to profess its supposed truth, what you will: it's all nothing more than ontological masturbation, no matter what anyone says.
And for the thousands of our kith and kin who are nearing the exit door, who know for certain the direction and sometimes the forward distance of their lives, death becomes a Kubler-Ross progression. Finally settling on acceptance and knowing the end is way more than a theoretical concept, actually seeing it ahead, feeling it, may sometimes help the journey become less frightening; there is a knowledge of what's to come, and demystifying the near future could possibly aid in the mental ability to move through the days that follow.
Our modern day idea of death is unlike any that has come before. Think of it: it's only been within the last hundred years or so, through medical advances, that humankind has managed to stave off the immediacy of death. We've made life last significantly longer. For the first time in our history as sentient, upright beings, we can effectively postpone Death. We also possess the means by which we can make it easier, more bearable, and less painful. We can even refuse it entrance, as in the cases where individuals are kept at a basic functioning level, a technical sort of life by biological reasoning; all by machines.
But even this is no cure; it's only a stopgap measure. We can't cure Death, and I'm sure we shouldn't try. For one thing, we already number over six billion on this planet; just think about trying to find a decent apartment.
I've been lucky so far (knocking wood). Epinephrine and I now have a close, no doubt lifelong, relationship. That's okay. One more thing to adapt to.
And life does indeed go in circles. As with the moment where I met the lightning, I now think: Really? Fucking wasps??? That's just so unbelievably stupid.