Sleeping with the Lights OnBy Mag Gabbert
January 09, 2014
I have never come extremely close to dying—let me just say that up front. I have been very sick and in very bad situations, but my body has never begun the process of actually, physically failing.
The closest I ever came to death, at least to my knowledge, was when I was seven. My mom took a friend and me to see a play—it was If You Give A Mouse A Cookie performed at the Dallas Children’s Theater. During the play it began to storm. We could hear the rain and thunder from inside, patting and rolling across the building like clumsily manned machines. By the time the play was over, as we neared the glass walls of the lobby, we could see that the water was ankle-high. We sloshed through, wetting our sneakers and socks. Our hair slicked onto our foreheads and necks. When we finally slopped into the car I watched the rain cover the windshield in beautiful, layered sheets, each one a second or two apart.
We drove slowly on the highway, passing cars and trucks stopped under bridges. I remember trying to make them out; they were just vaguely shaped lights, sometimes flashing: red, yellow, white. I couldn’t see how high the water had risen, but there was a kind of tangible pull against the car as we moved. Maybe five or ten minutes after leaving the theater—it couldn’t have been very long—my mom decided we needed to stop. She didn’t want to strand us under a bridge, though, so she headed slowly down the exit ramp looking for a place to go. A restaurant was what she had in mind, hopefully with games of some kind or at least a TV to keep my friend and me entertained.
Once on the access road Mom saw a sign for Humperdinck’s, exactly the kind of place she was looking for. She turned right onto Greenville Avenue. In that instant, the second we turned, the water was up to our windows. Mom couldn’t see that the street slanted downward and the water on Greenville was much deeper. She put the car in reverse and tried to back out, but it was too late. We drifted. The doors were pressed shut by the force of the water. Before the car died, mom rolled down her window. The water glistened just beneath it, reflecting the streetlights in facets. She shoved her left arm out the window and held up two fingers. She started to lean her head out but the car tipped and water splashed in.
“Two kids!” She was screaming. “I have two kids in the car! Help!”
When I heard the sound of her voice I understood the kind of danger we were in. I understood—though I didn’t fully comprehend—the fact that we might die. My friend and I knelt on the floorboard in the backseat and started to pray out loud. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” We pressed our hands tightly together. We did it because it was a thing we could do, like thumbing a rosary or folding clothes or eating a piece of bread. I don’t know whether I believed that praying might save us, but I do believe I hoped.
My mother kept screaming for several more minutes. By this point the car was dead, still floating. Then she started to yell, “Hurry! Hurry!” and wave her hand frantically. I peered over her shoulder and saw a man coming towards us. He was wearing a yellow raincoat and hat. The water was up to his chest. He moved slowly against the current. “Hayleigh, come up here,” mom called, and motioned her towards the front seat. “Someone’s here to rescue us.” Mom handed my friend to the man through the window. The car tipped again and more water came in. She told me to climb up front and held me in her lap. She said, “If we start to sink get yourself out.”
It seemed like a long time before the man came back. He had another man with him this time. Mom handed me out to the first man and a shock of cold water rushed over my legs. It moved heavily against us. The landscape was black and surreal, like a lit-up sea of oil. I couldn’t turn my head to look back; I was holding on too tightly.
* * *
Once, I heard a woman say that she’d almost drowned in her youth. She said that when she reached the point of inhaling water, she began to very seriously consider the way in which her soul was meant to exit her body. She didn’t do this on purpose; it just occurred to her naturally, as if she’d known but forgotten. Was it the top of my head, or the bottom of my feet? That’s what she remembered thinking. Not, Am I going to die? Or, I’m scared. Or, What about my family? I’ve never come that close to death; my instinct never took over the night of the flood, my body was never even harmed. The flood posed a tangible threat to me, yes. One that could be measured against the doors of our car. One that could be felt rushing along the fabric of my clothes, beckoning them and my body. But somewhere deep down, that risk wasn’t enough. I wanted to know what happened next. I don’t mean to say that I wanted to die. In fact, maybe what I wanted was the furthest thing from wanting to die, a manifestation of the deepest, most uncontrollable type of fear, the kind you can’t look away from.
* * *
Perhaps because of the flood, or perhaps just because of my nature, I think about death in a real way. When I think about death I don’t think about people I know who have died, or about the simple fact we all senselessly know and repeat—that we will, of course, someday die. Death isn’t abstract to me. I can imagine the sensation of death with pristine clarity, and I often imagine myself dying, though not necessarily by choice. I slip into those thoughts while I’m sitting on the couch across from a friend, nodding and smiling, enjoying my life. Or I think of it as I wait to cross the street with my dog, as I tug on his leash to keep him near me. I don’t usually imagine the manner in which it will come; it’s the internal, physical experience I know best. I can tell you what it’s like:
You’ll get cold, first of all. It’s a damp, hollow type of cold that comes from within. Your vision will blur and then become flecked with black spots. The spots will float around and multiply and grow until everything is black. This all happens very quickly. If you’re not lying down you will fall. There’s a pain that begins to spread from your center. It’s heavy and non-descript. It feels kind of like a crushing sensation, or the moment when you’re holding your breath and everything starts to hurt and you realize you have to breathe right then even if it means losing the contest or taking in water or breathing in smoke or that horrible smell or whatever. It’s that kind of pain. It may be masked by another, more acute pain depending on your trauma. At this point, however, you’re still breathing, unless you’re dying from lack of breath. If you are still breathing it becomes shallow and comes in bursts. The sensation is more like swallowing than breathing. The air has a taste to it: mineral or metal. This is the point at which you realize you’re dying. You can choose to let go or not. If you let go you will die. If you don’t you’ll have about 120 seconds before you don’t get to choose anymore. This is not a medical assessment; I have no scientific knowledge of this, it’s just what I feel when I go to that real place of really dying for real.
What happens next, the part that comes right after? That’s the part I can never get to. I try. I try to push past the feeling of letting go—past that last exhale, the final pain (or lack of it), the blackness—and go into the thing that follows, whatever that thing might be. But without actually risking your life, you can’t do it. You can’t. And those who claim they can are merely imagining, whether they want to admit it or not. We all want to get to that part without really having to go there. We all want to peer over the ledge and see what’s down at the bottom without really having to fall.
* * *
It’s that kind of desire, the same one I felt rushing through me as I was carried through the water on Greenville that drove me to want to meet a psychic medium. It’s one of the many ways in which I’ve imagined making peace with my components, their terminal nature. In 2012 I finally had my chance; I went to an event with Chip Coffey, who has been featured on many paranormal TV shows and is a world-renowned medium. My grandmother bought my ticket as an early birthday present. The event was held at The Adolphus hotel in downtown Dallas, which is an historic building with Victorian décor—very much the kind of place where you might imagine seeing old women holding hands in a circle, releasing ectoplasm from their mouths.
I made my way to the small parlor where Chip would be speaking and performing a group reading about an hour before the scheduled start time. I counted twenty rows of chairs in the room. As each person filed in behind me, I watched them examine the rows of chairs, assessing their chance of being noticed, and therefore of getting a reading. Maybe he’ll purposefully choose someone from the back. Or, If I sit here in the third row I won’t seem too eager, but I’ll still have a window to be seen. That was me. I sat in the third row, hoping to be chosen.
Some time later, after Chip had introduced himself and presented a brief lecture on his experience as a paranormal investigator, it was time for the psychic reading to begin. We were told that if we wanted a reading we should silently raise one hand—not all the way up, just as high as our faces—and wait for him to call on someone. Then Chip would attempt to communicate with the deceased loved ones of the person he had called on and afterward the process would begin again.
Each time our hands went up they went a little higher. Some people flickered them back and forth a bit; some smiled or raised their eyebrows, straining to make eye contact. Others, like me, tried to appear nonchalant. I would glance down at my lap, pretending to pick a small piece of lint off my pants with the hand that wasn’t raised. Then I’d slowly scan the room, making a conscious effort to look at anyone besides Chip.
Every person’s hand was raised; every person wanted their chance to hear from the people or person they’d lost. It was written all over their faces, including my own face I’m sure. We each craned our necks to be seen, to have our pain acknowledged. The grief we brought with us hovered above our heads, like a white balloon tied to the wrist of each raised hand. We grieved for our loved ones, of course, but more than that—I think—we grieved for ourselves. We wondered who would seek us out when we were gone. We wondered if they would be chosen. When we looked into the faces around us—of a man silently crying, holding his baseball cap to his chest, a single tear lining the crevice of his cheek, or of the woman—anxious, exhausted—wiggling her fingertips like a school girl, hoping for her chance—we looked into our own fears; we confronted our own fates. My fate hung just above me, inside of the grief, a little white ghost waiting to burst from her casing.
Chip never called on me. I never got to hear from Uncle Larz or Uncle Greg, or Gran or Granddad, or the child I’d aborted when I was sixteen, the one I’d sometimes called Eloise, though I didn’t know the baby’s sex. Other women didn’t get to hear from their children, some who’d grown to age five or fourteen or thirty. Some husbands didn’t hear from their wives; some men didn’t speak to their brothers. Only once did Chip stop to look at me, glancing nervously up from the third row. He paused for a moment and thought about whether to read me.
Or maybe he never paused at all. Maybe I only wanted to believe that in the same way I wanted to believe that the room we were in was full of the dead, clamoring to be seen and heard as we strained to see and hear. And in the same way I wanted to believe, when Chip told the woman midway back, who’d lost her husband, that he wanted her to start turning the lights off when she slept, that she would and that she would survive in that darkness. We don’t sleep with the lights on because we’re lonely; we do it because we’re afraid.
Did I believe that Chip Coffey was really talking to the dead? I believed it in the same way I believe the crystals in my home protect me, and in the same way that I believe animals understand me. I conjure up myths for myself everyday: my fingertips glisten with power as I walk through the alley from the bar to my car. A black bear strides at my side in the dark; I can feel his moist breath against my wrist. I construct my own identity out of tattoos and fairy tales and most of all out of hope, because without my myths I am nothing. Without my myths I’m a girl in her mid-twenties moving closer to death just like everybody else, and maybe closer to being an unremarkable life lived.
I told myself that Chip didn’t call on me because he could tell I was strong enough to make it without them, those dead people. Or because he knew I talked to them already. In my myths I talk to dead people. Not in the way that Chip claims to—I don’t communicate with them—I just talk and then there’s silence. Sometimes, in the shower for instance, I’ll lower my head and stare at the drain, see the water circling it, suds gathering around the edges. I watch the way the droplets catch the light as they fall, creating this glittering curtain, a kind of magical, elemental one, and it always makes me feel as if something might happen the moment I step through it. It makes me hope that something could happen.
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