Up to this point, your life had been good. Very good in fact. You had a job you enjoyed, a wife, a house, money (not a whole lot but a little on the plus side of enough), you were generally happy and appreciated everything you had. Maybe on occasion, you wanted more but you never wanted for more. There was a nagging suspicion in the back of your mind, that no person’s life should be as good as yours, and eventually, your suspicions came true.
There were these dizzy spells. They weren’t too awful at first, just brief intense spells of dizziness that would come on fast and hard, unasked for and unwanted, but they would go away, dissipate just as fast as they had come. You thought nothing of it, just a fluke, it would go away, and they did, for about a week.
You were driving your wife and two friends home from a fair when one of these dizzy spells hit you, but there was nothing you could do. Your car had a manual transmission, and you were the only person in the car who knew how to drive it, so you kept driving, slowly, cautiously, as though you were drunk and didn’t want to raise suspicion to any outward onlookers. You didn’t want you wife and others in the car to be suspicious either, but they knew, and the next day your wife made you stay home and go see your doctor.
The doctor looked at your eyes and saw them twitch. Something called “Horizontal Nystagmus,” the same thing that the police look for when doing a field sobriety test: “follow my finger without moving your head.”
The doctor says:
“There are crystals in your brain that occasionally get jarred out of place, and in the next few days the crystals will go back to their homes and your dizziness will go away on its own. There is nothing to worry about.”
What a relief.
Of course, it is called a “medical practice,” because it is not perfect. Maybe nine times out of ten the doctor would be right, but you happened to be that tenth patient.
Nothing happened for about a week. Then everything happened at once.
You are at your job. It’s a slow time of year and you are the only one in your sub-department.
The dizziness hits you at 2:30, hard. You figure it will go away in a few minutes just as it has before.
At 3:00 it is still on you, heavily. Not knowing what to do, you get up and pace. This doesn’t work. You lay down on the floor. This doesn’t work either.
For lunch, you had micro-greens, bananas, and brie on white bread with raspberry jam. It had sounded much better then it tasted, and it tasted better going down then it does coming up. You never throw up, that makes it worse. Luckily you are standing right next to your desk-side trash can. You buy a coke from the vending machine thinking it might help. It doesn’t.
You don’t go home right away. You can’t go home. Someone always has to be at the office, and with the other two gone for whatever reason, it is all up to you. So you stay, two hours. It’s like you’re drunk, worst then the worst drunk you have ever felt. Bad because you don’t like the experience of falling down drunk in general, worse because you had not brought this upon yourself through a night of excessive “fun” and you reason that if you had been the cause it wouldn’t be so bad. You would at least have an explanation. This has no explanation.
4:30 comes, quitting time. You drive home. The chance of making it home safely is astronomical. Getting the car through the skinny garage door, without so much as bumping the side mirror, is nothing short of miraculous. But you do.
Running through the mudroom, you throw your stuff on the floor. You run up to your bathroom, and throw up in the toilet, flush, and throw up again. There’s nothing left to throw up but your body still wants to. Your stomach squeezes itself against your wishes to get more out. Nothing comes out but a deep sharp aching pain.
You want your wife, when she gets home, to get you a glass of water so your stomach will have something to throw up, instead of the raw pain. Somehow this seems like a better option.
You send your wife a text:
“Get home now!”
Crawling from the toilet into the bathtub you try to wash yourself off, but the water is cold and you can’t adjust it. You turn it off and shiver.
When she gets home, you tell her to call the ambulance.
She does, she is very upset, she has never seen you like this before.
The ambulance is there within five minutes, and even in your current state you can’t help but admire their speediness. In the time between the call placed and their arrival, your wife got you a pair of mesh shorts to throw on.
The paramedics make you walk down your own stairs, heavily supported. It would have been too difficult for them to bring the gurney up the two half flights of your suburban split-level. Perhaps they could have if absolutely necessary, but they had assessed the situation correctly and you were able to make it down.
You are always hesitant to call 911, questioning whether or not something is a true emergency. You had called them once when you saw a branch smoldering on a live wire, and opened the conversation by saying:
“I don’t know if I’m supposed to call you or not, but…”
Inside the ambulance you are happy when you hear the head medic tell the driver:
“Okay let’s get there quickly.”
At least with that statement, you feel your call and ambulance ride are validated.
When you arrive at the Emergency Room they ask you a number of questions, most of them you won’t remember, but the one that sticks out is something to the effect of:
“What is your religion?”
To which, in a growling voice, in between bouts of dry heaves your answer:
They put you on oxygen, pump in an IV, test your blood oxygen level with a laser meter gently clamped onto your index finger.
Your father shows up, and your mother-in-law, they are both scared, but they do a good job hiding it.
The doctors and nurses ask you a variety of questions:
“Did you bump your head?”
Your answer: “I don’t think so,” is not quite what they hope to hear.
Another asks: “on a scale of one to ten, how much pain are you in?”
This question requires you to stop and think for a moment.
“Five?” you say, though you are not really sure. You are feeling a lot of different things, but pain is not exactly the best way to describe it. You figure most people in the ER will shout out “Eleven!” when asked the same question.
One doctor asks you to give him a rundown of what happened.
You give him the same story that you have told several times already, getting dizzy at work.
Affecting a voice typically used to talk to children when stating a fairly obvious fact of life, the Doctor says:
“You couldn’t have gotten much work done.”
To which you reply, simply:
“It’s a government Job.”
The Doctor laughs. The two, nurses standing behind you adjusting whatever cord or tube you’re plugged into, laugh. Your wife, your mother-in-law and your father laugh. Even you are able to crack a smile.
You’re finally admitted for an overnight stay by a nurse practitioner. You’ve spent most of the evening awake but with your eyes held tightly shut, because that is the only way to make the room stop moving quite as much. Even in this current state, however, you can tell that this nurse practitioner is gay, you see him for a moment through one squinted eye and later on, you and your wife both agree that he is fairly cute. Somehow you feel more comfortable in the care of a gay doctor (or nurse practitioner), though you can’t exactly say why.
Everyone in the hospital is very calm and very pleasant. It takes a certain kind of character to work successfully in that kind of environment, a character you are not. You respect them, and with whatever faculties you have left you to make them aware of just how good of a job they are doing, because, you assume, they do not hear that enough.
In the morning a nurse asks you where you are. Technically you give them the wrong answer, but only because the hospital had changed its name a week before.
Later in the day, you are taken to get an MRI. At this point, you thought you had been through the worst, but that damned machine raises the bar yet again. You had no idea how loud the MRI actually is, random thumps and beepings. You were never very claustrophobic before, but this machine makes you rethink your fears. You were given a ball to squeeze before they slid you inside so you could signal them to pull you out of the machine if you “can’t handle it.” You consider squeezing the ball a few times because of how unbearable it is, but you resist, thinking that it would just mean you would still have to go back in, and you’re diffidently not interested in doing this again.
You make it through the MRI, the technician tells you that a doctor will read it later.
Without anything else to do, you are discharged. You’re still dizzy, that hasn’t changed, but at least you aren’t violently sick, you haven’t thrown up since you were in the ER. You can walk, but very slowly. They bring you to your wife’s car in a wheelchair. You can’t drive, you can barely handle the drive home, and it’s only 5 minutes, without the traffic.
It’s nice at home at first, because you can use your own bathroom, you can take a shower. You finally get to take those mesh shorts off, which, with their myriad tiny holes, have been digging into your skin.
Soon enough you find yourself alone, with nothing to do. Forget reading, playing video games, surfing the internet. You lay in bed all day, wide awake, with a sleeping mask on to keep the room still. Luckily you have about nine substantially sized audiobooks lined up on your iPod to get through, and you start to get through them, though you wish you had picked a slightly less depressing set.
After a few days in bed, you finally get a call from the doctor who read the MRI, but he doesn’t tell you what he has seen, it’s so annoying, it’s annoying and worrisome, hell it’s just plain worrisome, nothing else. He asks you to come to his office. It would be really nice if doctors made house calls in this era, or at least broke bad news over the phone. Its bad news, you know that much. You tell the doctor that you will try to get to his office. At this point that is the best, you can offer, truly.
Your wife takes you to the doctor that read the MRI. Is he a neurosurgeon, a neuroscientist, neurologist? You don’t remember what he calls himself, it’s not important anyway. He sits you down with your wife and tells you that you have a brain tumor. You hear the words “inoperable,” “several years… maybe a decade or two,” but there is a catch. He tells you that basically in a few months you’ll be nothing more than a drooling vegetable. He doesn’t use those specific words, but he might as well.
No matter how he says it, they all mean the same thing. You will lose your mind, the dizziness won’t go away, it can be somewhat manageable for a time (the doctor considers your current state “manageable”), but in the end, you will lose your dignity, then your mind, then after a long long stretch of time, your life.
You have a second option, though not an option that the doctor has given you, not even one that your wife has suggested. Still, deep down, you know it is the option you will inevitably take.
The brain tumor can’t be stopped, and you can’t change the process of losing your faculties, your dignity, your mind, and your life. But what you can do, what you have the option to do, is change the order in which these events occur.
It’s not that you want to die, not really, you enjoy life, aside from the last few days. You don’t really desire to do any sort of harm to yourself in any way. Whatever lies beyond the other side of the veil has never particularly interested you. You don’t believe anything else exists, but admittedly you don’t know for sure. Regardless you do not have any intention of suffering, not if the only end in sight is death. A prolonged grotesque death, that’s not for you.
You tell your wife, about your decision. You allow her some input. Something this important should be shared between you and the closest person in your life. She halfheartedly tries to talk you out of it, not so much because she wants to, but because she feels this is how she is supposed to respond to the situation. In the end, she supports your decision. She will help you to a degree, but not all the way. She will not cannot, be around when it happens. You understand.
How to do it? You do not live in a state where Doctor Assisted Suicide is legal, even if it was you assume that that particular brand of doctor would be difficult to come by, difficult to get a “referral” for from your general practitioner.
Jump? No, too messy for the person who has to clean it up.
Pills? No, high risk of failure.
Toaster? Again too messy.
Car in the Garage? Possibly.
The idea strikes you and strikes you hard.
You tell your wife, she agrees to help you, to get the supplies you need, and take you to the best possible place, but from there she would leave you to your own devices, such as they are at this point. You agree.
You find yourself on top of a hill. Your wife drops you off with a tank of helium, a case of multi-colored balloons, balloon string, and two 50 foot coils of rope. She cry’s, she kisses you one last time. You wipe the tears from her cheek. She says goodbye and drives away.
Alone on the hill, you cut several lengths of rope in various sizes. Using your knot tying skills acquired as a Boy Scout you fashion one length of rope into a somewhat comfortable harness, and at the other end, you tie a complex bowline on a bight. With another length, you tie the harness and bowline assembly to the only tree on the hill. Onto the bowline, you tie another length of rope, and at the end of which you tie a knot that was not taught (and was in fact strictly forbidden) in the scouts.
The hard part: done.
Now comes the tedious part.
One by one you fill up your balloons, tie them shut, tie the ribbons to the balloons and tie the other ends to the bowline. After five balloons go on, the assembly lifts gently in the air. After fifteen it is noticeably tugging against the tree. After twenty you need to take a break.
Your wife made you bring your cell phone and told you to call her if you change your mind. You don’t change your mind, but while you’re sitting under the tree, you take a look at the phone: no calls, no texts, no emails.
You get back to work, blowing up balloons one by one. Finally, you have all the balloons you need. Once you’re in the harness, you cut the rope connecting the assembly to the tree and drift up into the air.
Your wife brought you to the hill in the morning, mid-morning, and it is now late afternoon. While floating in the air you pull out your phone and send one last text to your wife.
The other knot, the one you didn’t learn in Boy Scouts, dangles in front of you. You slip it around your neck and wait like that for a little while longer.
While in the air it seems almost as though time has stopped.
The setting sun is painting the undersides of the clouds in a warm golden orange, the trees below glowing in a multitude of autumn colors. Your balloon bouquet carries you higher and higher into the air. As it starts to go dark, you feel the time is right. All you have to do is lean back and slip out of your harness. You’ll drop a foot or two, and it will all be over. The wind will do the rest, carrying your lifeless body away to points unknown, to bury you in the sky.
– Zach Smith
Zach is a graduate of Chestnut Hill College and has been writing for more than a dozen years, struggling all the while with Dyslexia. His work has previously appeared in: Crack the Spine, the Short Humour Site, The Library of Rejected Beauty, the Corvus Review, Independent Noise, and most importantly the Ginger Collect among others. You can find out more about him on his Blog: theobscuritysymposium.wordpress.com.