It has been quite a while now since I first began dissociating from my work. I have finally succumbed to the universal somnambulism. It’s a well-known fact that we anesthetize the domination of our lives by our jobs with sleep. Not literal sleep, of course. I now fall asleep with the optimistic electronic chirp of the timecard reader like everyone else, even though I work, laugh, and chat throughout my nine-hour day like any other normally functioning human. I remember a time when it was different. I remember when it was worse. Once, I wasn’t permitted the cold solace of sleep. Once, I had a job that forced me to face the specter of mortality in all its grandiose contradictions. Like any one of the paradoxical lines in the poetry of John Donne, my job forced me to remain alert.
I was a hospital phlebotomist at the time. I drew samples from patients in their sardine-can cells and took the blood downstairs to the lab in a soul-deadening daily exchange of elevator ascents and descents. This repetitive aspect should’ve kept me sleeping, since it was the same lullaby that you find evenly distributed in every occupational quarter like powdered pesticide. Only one force was strong enough to counter the anesthesia.
I discovered it one morning at about a quarter to twelve. I was on the cardiac floor. It was just before lunch and I was getting impatient. Not that the hospital food was any good—au contraire, it was damn awful (the chicken-gristle sandwich sans-condiments achieved legendary status). And it wasn’t that I was particularly interested in seeing my coworkers—all the same sleeping faces circulated both the cafeteria and the hospital floors with unsettling regularity. Lunch was, however, the only period in my twelve-hour workday during which I could read. Only one more patient lay between me and my book. Let’s just get it over with I encouraged myself as
I opened the door to a heavily curtained room.
“Hello, I’m from the lab,” I said, with as much zest as the situation could reasonably call for. “Your doctor wants me to draw a blood sample.”
The man on the bed was in his late fifties. Gray, unwashed hair curled above his pale temples. Beads of sweat sparkled under the fluorescent lights across the waxy surface of his forehead. The room simmered in the faintly repulsive redolence of unwashed and unmoved biology, the nauseating sweetness of bodily crevices hoarding soured perspiration.
I noted the smell with passive disinterest. Smell, after extended exposure in a hospital setting, only gives rise to the accompanying biological reactions (retching, nose-pinching, actual vomiting, in rare cases) when it is particularly vile—as in, for instance, the unforgettably infamous case of a certain legless prostitute’s infected colposcopy bag. What was more unusual about this patient was his stillness.
Even though I noticed the man’s stillness, nothing could have prepared me for his coldness.
I was already wearing nitrile gloves. Dealing with patients housing colonies of scabies had already instilled an automatic glove habit at this point. Typically, it’s difficult to get a sense of a patient’s body temperature through the coarse grip texture capping each nitrile fingertip. I glanced at the Post-It sized lab order and said the guy’s name out loud before reaching over to his arm, which was so cold I recoiled in surprise.
For a short moment, I stared at what was, for all intents and purposes, a corpse.
The nurse happened to walk in to change an IV bag. She greeted me with a good-natured smile. I pointed at the man on the bed. “I think your patient is… um… dead.”
That wasn’t the first time I had seen a corpse (although I’m not sure to what extent the man could qualify as a corpse, since he was revived only a few minutes after I pointed out his apparently quiet demise. For hospital employees, death and life are often fuzzy distinctions, blending and crossing opaquely at unexpected points, hinging on the judgment of an impatient physician who can’t stop thinking about their next coffee break). But it was certainly the first time I had personally come across a patient reposing gracefully on the brink of the endless dark. What is it like? I asked myself obsessively over the next few years.
It’s possible to feel two ways at once about something. I hesitate to call this feeling “ambivalence” given the term’s connotation with confusion and uncertainty. It’s possible to feel incontrovertibly two distinct and contradictory ways about a given person, place, or event.
For instance, I am deathly afraid of heights. One year, when I was eleven, my grandparents took me to the Grand Canyon. We drove the whole way in my grandparent’s van, a blue and silver affair with curtains, loaded with Dallas Cowboys curiosities and bumper stickers. I left the vehicle to stand a good distance away from the edge of the sublime and misty void before going weak in the knees. I retreated to the van, fleeing the l’appel du vide in fear of my life.
L’appel du vide is a French phrase for the strange inexplicable attraction that death holds over us. Freud called its more strictly unconscious and biological equivalent the Death Drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Edgar Allen Poe called it the “Imp of the Perverse.” At the yawning maw of the Grand Canyon, I felt a particular affinity with the French phrase, translated to English as “The Call of the Void.”
It is a strange and unexplainable feeling. For the most part, it is distinctly unpleasant. I am afraid of heights, after all, not attracted to them. The sour aspects of the feeling are what is typically associated with vertigo–dizziness, nausea, and the unshakable sense of falling. But there is distinctly a pull, a sense that you are powerless against the depth at your feet, that your frail, biological form is merely a subject to the whims of a cosmos that wouldn’t bother to ask once before swallowing you whole, bones and all, and there’s a vaguely thrilling shimmer on the belly of this beast.
“Code 99” is hospital lingo for a loss of vital signs. First responders in a fairly sizable hospital—which includes phlebotomists, x-ray technicians, respiratory therapists, as well as a team of nurses, doctors etc.–get these ‘codes’ more often than patients would be comfortable knowing.
On TV, we often see doctors and nurses responding to codes. Everyone moves quickly, wearing concerned expressions. On TV, first responders panic. They, by all indications, are personally invested in the success or failure of the appeal they submit to fate. The actors on TV, consequently, are deflated and burdened with a personal sense of responsibility when a patient dies. The doctor looks morosely at the ground. Someone mutters “we lost him,” and the nurses depart in silence.
This is utter bullshit.
In real life, a code is a commonplace affair. More often than not, hospital employees are happy to hear their pagers go off. A code is a break from the routine, a chance to get in on some action. It is a rare moment of awakening in an otherwise sleep-filled day. Nurses laugh casually as they grab one of the dozens of “crash carts” that sit patiently around every corner, stocked to the teeth with life-or-death emergency medications and equipment. Phlebotomist, respiratory therapists, doctors, and x-ray technicians bound happily in the overcrowded room, greeting each other with smiles, jokes, and handshakes as a single nurse looms over the crowd, heaving up and down over the patient with the thrust CPR compressions. Everyone happily falls into their respective duties.
At the center of the tumult is an unquiet calm. Somehow, the eerie stillness is not simple monotony. Monotony is not calm. It is an unnoticed absence, rather, a magician’s sleight-of-hand, wherein the elements that accumulate into what we may call “lived experience” vanish behind a bland curtain of sameness, effacing the parity of days in an act of economy for the benefit of an overburdened memory. If codes were truly monotonous, we wouldn’t remember them.
At the Grand Canyon, at the center of my horror bloomed a similar calm—it was the Call of the Void, the hushed lullaby whispered by all unthinkable expanses. Hearing the calm was much like going into shock—it was like falling backwards into uterine darkness because daylight had become unendurable.
Two weary years after I had tried to awaken the dead man, I walked into another dead man’s hospital room. This man, however, was a boy. He was sixteen and had donated his organs via the Life Gift program to recipients on inordinately long waiting lists. I was drawing his blood every four hours only to ensure that the artificial circulation was keeping his organs “alive” enough for successful harvesting.
The boy had stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Porcelain-colored cloths disguised the cavity representing what had once been the back of his head. Tiny black rivulets shimmered in the corners of his closed eyes and ambled down his angular cheeks. His jaundiced face, tilted up, gazed dumbly slack-jawed at the glaring overhead examination light. The hospital bed, the epicenter of a complex network of tubes, wires and monitors, supported his uplifted, cardinal corpse in such a way as to allow his hands to fall casually palm up and slightly apart from his body in the well-recognized pose of the stigmata.
Condensed, somehow, in the cramped ICU room and emanating from the sepulchral corpse in the hard flood of the light was the silence. It was not a silence of absence, but the obverse—the silence was a womb into which flowed the voiceless murmurs of the dead, the inarticulate spasms accumulated over a thousand codes beckoning to the living who stand tentatively at the mouth of the void.
I was afraid.
It was the first body in two years I had been truly afraid of.
And yet, it called me, the same ethereal calm, the same meditative heart of each coded life, each failing organism. This is the truth, the boy said to me, in spite of his inarticulate biology. This stillness which lies between each heartbeat, he says with his unseeing eyes, blind under the hot glare of the prosthetic spotlight, not hearing the drone of machinery humming insidiously to a lost cause. This is the darkness that abideth in thee. This is the rest that is final.
I glanced at the boy’s mother, sitting quietly in the corner.
This silence between madnesses,
A universe residing in each ignored exhalation.
This seed of silence is growing inside you.
You nurture it with each movement.
It will one day bloom
And smother the sun.
She smiled at me. I slowly nodded in return.
After I left the room I went outside to find a quiet corner behind an old elm and cried. I cried as I have never cried since.
By Justin A. Burnett