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The Blue Steps

            ‘Okay, I guess I’m dead.’  I’d reached that conclusion, upon waking up from the operation, as I didn’t seem to be in the recovery room.  No nurses, no beeping machines, no oxygen cannula attached to my nose, no overhead fluorescence lights.  I appeared to be resting on a cool stone floor in a dimly lit space and not  wearing the cotton gown, with the embarrassing opening in the back, that I was clothed in when they transferred me from the gurney to the operating table.  Instead I found myself dressed in a set of sweats, a light blue hooded top and pants, that felt softer than anything I have ever worn.  There was no pain anywhere and, when I hesitantly lifted the lower front of my shirt, I found no bandages covering an incision that should have been there, right there, where my ruptured appendix was supposed to be located.  I had been really sick and now I was not.


            At first I was pretty confused and, I admit, a little bit scared but then this wave of well-being washed over me.   I found I was more curious than frightened.  ‘Where was I?  Where had I landed?’  There were no walls, no ceiling, just a kind of hazy blue mist that seemed to extend far beyond any horizon.  As I sat up I became aware of a glittering translucent cobalt blue staircase in front of me that appeared to lead upwards and downwards at the same time, very Escherian.  As weird as this seemed it also felt strangely familiar and then I remembered.  Years ago I had a painter friend who showed me his most recent canvas, a painting of a foggy blue landscape with faceless figures standing on a blue staircase.  “It’s called The Blue Steps,” he said, “a place people go after they die.”  Ironically, he himself had perished in a plane crash soon after he had shown me that painting. I must have been really impressed with that artwork for here I was staring at those same blue steps but my painter friend didn’t seem to be around.  I hadn’t expected to die so early in my life, so maybe, if I was patient he would show up and give me some guidance, if this was where his soul had landed.  While I sat there, checking the cerulean blue landscape for other wandering souls, I began remembering my brief explorations into life after death.


            Over the decades I’d given very little thought to the after-life, especially during my early years.  As a young boy I was exposed to several varieties of Christianity.   Since my father changed careers quite often we moved around a lot and so we became ‘Nearests.’ We would attend the nearest church and that helped to introduce me to, among others, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists and Holy Rollers.  What I gleaned, from the experience of visiting those churches and Sunday schools, was that there were two beliefs each of these sects shared: the first was that when you died you went to either to Heaven or Hell and the second was that if you believed in Jesus Christ you would live forever.  Unfortunately, midwestern prejudice did not allow our family to enter a Catholic church or a Jewish temple so I missed out on those rituals and the hearing of the Latin and the Hebrew texts.  It was much later, when I was a young adult and on my own, that I finally ventured into both a Catholic Cathedral and a Jewish Synagogue.  


            In my teen years I began to have  many doubts about organized religion and, at fourteen, I rebelled and walked away from church, any church, never to return.  I replaced Sunday Morning Services with sleeping-in and exchanged Wednesday Evening Bible Classes with movies and pot smoking.  I began to drift away into an Agnostic state of being.


            Later, as a busy adult I didn’t have much time for religious musings and I put thoughts of my mortality entirely on hold.  The French are amused by our determination in the U.S. to evade death by jogging and running, working out, dieting, plastic surgery, etc.  ‘The Americans believe they are going to live forever.’  When you are a young adult, and feeling healthy and alive, it’s true that you believe that you’ll never die.  But then one hits one’s middle years and things began to change as you hear that old grandfather clock of mortality ticking away.


            Unlike the many good Christians who plan on ‘going into the light’, I, a borderline Atheist, was not looking forward to a reunion in heaven with my family.  There were several of them with whom I did not want to spend an eternity; chatty cousin Patty and dismal Uncle Don for example.  I mean, we choose our friends but we have no choice when it comes to relatives.  I know, you don’t have to say it, I’m a curmudgeon.


            As the years flashed by I started to think a little more about what might happen to me after I shook off this mortal coil.  Was there really an old bearded dude, sitting on a golden throne, that nestled in the white clouds above our heads, who was going to decide whether I should be allowed into Heaven?  Would his sidekick, that ancient saint Pete, standing by those gates that are embossed with pearls, find my name in that big book of his?  Or was I to be led away to an express elevator that goes straight down into that smoky volcano called Hell where I’d be roasted on a spit and poked eternally with pitchforks by little red devils?  Try as I might, I couldn’t believe in this cartoonish scenario.  If there really was a God (and I had serious doubts) he had deserted his post a long time ago---'God has left the building.’  All one has to do is look around; shootings, starving children, plagues, wars, cancer, rape, assassinations, rich versus poor, black versus white and on and on.  Who would want to be God and have to deal with this mess called humanity?!


            However, like most human beings, I wanted to find something to believe in so  I began reading up on the various great religions and philosophies.  I’m not an intellectual but I was smart enough to understand some of what I read and to appreciate the wisdom of the various authors.  I liked that the Judaic religion believed that Heaven and Hell were here on earth and not to be found after death.  After what they have had to endure they should know.


            I envied the Mormon man who, upon his death, earned, by living a moral life, his own planet but I wondered what the Mormon woman earned.  And I wasn’t about to give up my coffee.


            That the Quran promises the Muslim male a bevy of lovely Houris waiting for him in Heaven sounds inviting and the Muslim woman gets her quota of Houris as well.  But that’s about all she gets.


            I was pretty much turned off by Catholic purgatory.  The thought of suffering for years in limbo while waiting to enter the Kingdom of Heaven was not a strong selling point.


            Christian Science is another religion that believes that the concept of Heaven and Hell is simply a state of mind and not to be found in an after-life.  But I do believe in vaccinations and antibiotics so I guess I wouldn’t quite fit in.


            I was attracted to Buddhism because of the idea of reincarnation.  To be able to continue growing and learning, one lifetime after another, sounded worthwhile.  However, I’m very bad at meditation.  And I wouldn’t want to come back as a snail.


            But it was the words of one ancient philosopher that eventually helped me the most and, as I sat in front of those blue steps, it came flooding back to me: ‘What you choose to believe, about what may be awaiting you after death, will be that which you will find there.’  Meaning if I believed in angels with harps or beautiful dancing girls or drowning in lava or just a black void that’s what would be there for me.  And so I opted for an open-ended after-life, a place where one could kind of shop around for different experiences.  I didn’t want to be limited to one eternal path.  I’m afraid I bore easily.


            It was while I was trying to determine if I was responsible for the reality I was now in, that I felt a touch on my shoulder.  It was like whisper, a feather of gentle wind and I didn’t jump with fear but slowly turned to see who or what it was.  The hand on my shoulder was attached to the arm of a very tall figure shimmering and vibrating like some aquatic creature, like a giant rainbow trout.  It’s face kept changing, sometimes a visage I thought I recognized; my grandmother, my uncle, my first-grade teacher, my dog Rascal---and then it morphed into Ted, my artist friend.


            “Ted!  You made it,’’ I said, delighted to find him standing there.  But then his face melted into someone I didn’t know, a rather solemn stranger who spoke without opening his mouth.

            “Begin to choose.”

            “I---I’m sorry?”

            “Up or down.  It doesn’t matter,” he said, pointing to the blue steps.  For a moment I  flashed back to my mother reading to me from ‘Alice in Wonderland.’

            “Please---I--I’m---I’m new here.  I---I just arrived and---”

            “Choose.” And, with a bright blue flash of light he, she, it, they, whatever, vanished.


            Up or down?  That seemed to be the decision that was required of me but I stood there in a state of temporary paralysis.  I had been conditioned by society to think of ‘down’ as a negative---a descent into Hades and ‘Up’ as heading Heavenward.  What to do?  If, at that moment, I had had a coin I would have tossed it but, as we all know, you can’t take it with you so I bravely opted for ‘down.’


            The steps had no railing so I had to move slowly while trying to ignore the seemingly bottomless blue pit that surrounded the stairs.  As I descended, the air around me grew lighter and, after what seemed like many hours but was probably just minutes, I began to see a tiny white room far below me.  With each footstep the room grew in size and I could make out small figures that appeared to be sitting in chairs.  Then I saw the battleship-gray floor tiles and a clock on one wall and a television set on another wall and windows and---the waiting room!  It was the hospital waiting room and there was my beloved wife and my son seated side by side.  She was on her cell phone and he was staring up at the TV with a vacant disinterested look.


            One of my fantasies of the after-life was to become a ghost.  To be able to move invisibly among the living and therefor maintain a connection to the earth.  So here I was standing next to my wife and son.  I whispered.

            “Martha, sweetheart, it’s---”

            “Nothing yet.  We’re just waiting for the doctor to come---well, he said it might be awhile.”  She spoke softly into her phone.  I reached to touch her hand but when I felt her fingers they were very cold.  She gave a little shiver and pulled her sweater tighter around her shoulders.  “I’m fine.  Just a little chilly. Jason’s here with me.  I don’t know why they keep the air conditioning on so high---or low---whatever.”

            “I’m right here, sweetheart,” I said, hoping she could hear me.  Nothing.


            Well, I had accomplished the invisibility part and it was very frustrating. It was one thing to be a participant in life and quite another to be just an observer. I wanted to let them know I was right there beside them.  I started to put my arm around Jason’s shoulders when I heard the automatic doors to the operating room hissing open.  The doctor  entered and was walking towards my family.  Shit! I knew what he was about to do.  I knew what he was going to say and I didn’t want Martha and Jason to hear it.  I didn’t want to hear it. But he didn’t even get a chance to open his mouth.  Martha stood up, saw the look on his face and let out a strangled sob.


            I’m ashamed of what I did next but I couldn’t bear to watch what was happening.  I turned and ran.  I leapt up the blue stairs, two steps at a time, trying to block out the cries of grief  that were echoing around me.  Martha had been right when she used to say I always ran away from unpleasant situations.  I was never good at confrontation or at watching people in pain.  As I quickly moved away from the white room, and my suffering family, I realized that being a ghost was not the voyeuristic joy ride I had imagined.  To observe my beloved in such pain and to not be able to comfort her was a nightmare of pure agonizing torture. 


            The higher I rose the darker the space around me grew.  I began to make out stars in the deep blue atmosphere that rippled all around me.  Running out of breath, I finally sat down on the steps and found myself gasping and then weeping from a combination of sadness and awe.  I realized I was mourning the loss of my contact with the living, with my family and friends, while at the same time being overcome with the beauty of this other world.  I hadn’t planned on dying this early in my life but death works according to its own schedule so I needed to get over it.


I don’t know how long I sat on the steps.  Time didn’t seem to work the same way here.  I slowly became aware of these loose crystals sparkling on my lap and scattered all around the steps and realized that they were the tears that I had been shedding as I sat in a pile of self-pity.  When I stood up, they dropped onto the steps with these musical clinks and some of them shattered into diamond-like pieces.   I picked up one of the unbroken ones and held it close to my eyes.  It was a perfectly shaped tear but made of glass.


            If this was my version of heaven than I had to have control over what was happening, right? I was creating what I was seeing.  But a crystal tear wasn’t something that I would have imagined.  What had I imagined?  A place for exploration was what I had wanted , a place in which to try new adventures. But these explorations seemed to unfold on their own.  Maybe I needed to be more open to them  And, as if the universe was eavesdropping, a row of tall turquoise doors appeared in front of me.  There were three of them, each identical to the other, quite ornate with unfamiliar symbols painted in silver on the  panels.  As I had requested I was, once again, given the opportunity of making a choice---which door first?  Earlier it was up or down.  Now it was left, right or center.


            Brainwashed, I saw the left door as liberal, socialistic, communistic---nonsense.  Right was conservative, moral, logical---nonsense.  Center: middle of the road, safe, non-committal---more nonsense.  But it didn’t matter what door I opened.  There was no way to know what was behind any of them.   Each one had a silver doorknob shaped like a crescent moon and, once I quieted myself enough to let myself feel the power emanating from these doorways, the choice was made for me.


            The handle on the left door felt red hot and I reacted instantly by jerking my hand away.  I looked at my palm, expecting to see a red burn, but it was unmarked and cold.  The next doorknob, the center one, was icy and my hand stuck to the handle like a wet mitten to a frozen lamp post.  I had to blow my warm breath on it to free it up.


            By now I was understandably apprehensive about touching the handle on the door to the right.  I felt like Goldilocks and the three bears, ‘this one is too hot, this one is too cold.’  Would this one be ‘just right?’


            It was more than just right.  The moment my fingers wrapped around it’s warm crescent moon a delicious effervescence flooded my body.  It was like my heart was pumping champagne.  I pulled the heavy door open slowly and entered.  As my eyes adjusted to the sapphire blue light that flooded the space I found myself standing in the center of what appeared to be a library.  Surrounding me were tall

towers of shelves that reached up into the darkness above.  They were of such a height that I wondered how one could reach a book that nested up there on the top shelf like a paper pigeon.  In the center of this space was a long black table that appeared to be carved out of Obsidian and it’s shiny surface reflected the image of the lone arm chair that sat at one end.


            Now, I admit I’m a reader, mostly mysteries and biographies, but this was overwhelming.  Here were acres of volumes that lined these long shelves that ran off into the distance until they disappeared.  I felt like I did as a child when I made my first visit to our local library.  All those books---how could a person read all of them?  It would take a million lifetimes.  Well, if this was truly eternity, I now had the time to read each and every book.  But that couldn’t be the reason I was here staring at this intimidating archive.  I hadn’t fantasized spending my after-life buried deep in the pages of a thousand books.  And what exactly was the focus of this compendium of literature?   Fiction?  Non-fiction?  History?  Biographies?  The only way to find out was to open one of the books.


            Every tome was wrapped in a blank dust cover (blue, of course) with no titles.  There was no way to know what the contents where, so, checking one of the lower shelves I started to reach for a small book that looked like an easy choice.  It literally flew off the shelf and into my hands.  Momentarily stunned, I finally opened it expecting to see a title followed by the authors name, but I found only two words---Promises Kept.   This title made it sound like it was a volume of poems by Emily Dickenson.  I turned to the next page only to find it blank, as were all the other pages, until a reached the last faded page.  Scribbled there, in what looked like my own handwriting, was one short sentence:  “I promise to call the plumber.”  I was dumbfounded.  Was this a cosmic joke?  Was this supposed to be a record book that kept a tally of all the promises I made during my lifetime or, more accurately, the record of the one and only promise that I ever kept?   


            But this was ridiculous.  Surely I kept more than one promise in my life.  True, I was always very careful about what I promised, making sure that I could accomplish what I said I would do.  Was it that I had made so few promises?  I found myself getting angry at who or what was in charge of this illusion.  It had to be an illusion, right?  And then I remembered that I was in charge of all this madness.


            I decided then and there to change the direction of this adventure.  I would pick another book and not let it choose me.  ‘Maybe on a higher shelf’ was the thought that came to me and that idea had no longer crossed my mind than I found my body lifting up and heading skyward towards the very top shelf.  One of my fantasizes of the after-life was to be able to fly.  Sometimes, in my earthly dreams, I did rise above the world and it was wonderful.  And now here I was up in the air.

I hovered like a hummingbird and, nervously extending my arm, touched one of the larger books wrapped, like all the others, in an anonymous blue jacket.  It felt light for it’s size and once I had it in hand I attempted to open it.  With a stomach-flipping drop I suddenly started to descend and I had to hold on tightly to the volume for fear of dropping it.  Once on the ground I stumbled over to the chair and clumsily sat down.


            After getting my heartbeat back to a more normal rate I lay the book on the table and prepared to open it.   Since I had determined I was in charge of all that was happening I made sure that this volume would follow my lead and reveal something important---like the secrets of the universe.  Here would be all the answers to the questions I had been living with back in my former life.  What really happened to Amelia Earhart, D.B. Cooper and Jimmy Hoffa?  Did Shakespeare really write all those plays? Did Atlantis really exist?


            I turned to the first page and read the title: The Book of Regrets.   What the hell?!  Hell.  That was it.  I was in hell.  Someone else, probably someone with a red tail and horns, was running the show.  My only hope was that this was a compendium of the regrets of famous persons.  Quotes from celebrities like George Clooney, “I should’ve never played Batman” or Billy Graham, “I should have studied more and preached less.”  But, of course, this was not that book.  What I was looking at was a collection of my regrets, a lot of them, hundreds.


            The first regret, on page one, was written when I was ten years old.  “I wish I hadn’t lied to my mother.” Come on, give me a break!  I don’t even remember what I fibbed about.  This was so absurd.  I leafed through the pages quickly, fully intent on not reading any more regrets.  But I stopped at page twenty-five when this sentence caught my eye.  “Why can’t I stand up to the bullies in school?”  Middle School!  Jesus!  24 pages into this document of shame and I had only just reached the age of 14.  Gimme a break!  There were at least 12 regrets on each page so that totaled about 288 so far.   How many would there be by the time I reached the end of this book?


            “I should have spent more time with my family,” “I wish I’d done more things with my son,” “Why did I paint our bedroom bubble gum pink?” “I could have been a rock star,” “Why didn’t I kiss Jo Anne Paterson back in high school?” Stupid regret after stupid regret.  My favorite was the one I found on the bottom of page 73; “I should never have eaten that fish taco.”



            I stopped reading after that.  Enough, already. Even though there  were no ceilings or walls, in this library from indigo hell, I felt claustrophobic.  No more books, thank you.  I mean, what would be the title of the next unpleasant blue wrapped volume, Physical Defects and Character Flaws?  Get me out of here! I pushed away from the table and made my way to the exit.  For a moment, I feared the door might be locked but it opened easily and I stepped out into the azure mist.


            The other doors stood to my right like two giant Druid priests daring me to come into their realms.  My instinct was to walk away into the swirling fog of blue light but, admit it, if you saw a magical turquoise blue door in front of you, you would want to know what was behind it, right?  Maybe it would lead me back to the arms of my family.  I remembered my hot and cold doorknob  experience but I willed myself to be brave and, very cautiously, I approached the center door and reached for the crescent moon.  Before I could test the temperature of the handle it began to swing open of its own accord.  I stepped back in case the being on the other side of the door was unfriendly but it wasn’t necessary because there was no one there.


            The first thing I noticed was the music.  It sounded like a melody one would hear at a circus or carnival but played on a tinny out-of-tune piano.  With this music came the familiar recorded laughter of the jolly fat lady that you hear playing at every amusement park and travelling sideshow.  I then became aware of the lights, bright colored lights of every hue.  The space was so blindingly lit that I had to squint as I moved through the doorway.  Once inside I stood still and, turning my head slowly, I took in this rainbow-colored environment.  It was like some kind of fun house.  There was a two-story high yellow slide and a spinning platform painted with red, white and blue polka dots and one of those giant rotating barrels that lay on its side.  You had to try to get through it, as it turned, by stumbling toward the open end and you had to accomplish this without falling on your ass.   There was the zig zag walkway that jerked back and forth and was almost impossible to traverse.  At the end of this walkway, lit up with dazzling neon letters, was the entrance to the Tunnel of Terror.  You know, that spooky ride that takes you hurtling through the dark in a little train with all of those scary things jumping out at you.


            Finally, the universe got it right.  This was my idea of heaven.


            After making myself dizzy, by spinning, twisting and shaking my way through this raucous environment,  I left the bright candy colored world of light and entered the dark silent void of the tunnel.  Feeling my way around like a blind person I eventually found one of the carts and eased myself into the front Naugahyde upholstered seat.  As soon as sat down there was a click and a grinding of gears and we were off.


            I felt the cool air rushing by me as the rickety little cart jerked ahead.  It travelled noisily along in the dark and then made a sharp turn to the left.  In front of me I saw, at a short distance, what looked like a waterfall.  As we approached this wall of water I could tell that it was flowing directly onto the tracks.  I guessed that it was an image projected onto some sort of door and, like some of the amusement park rides I had visited in my former life, this door would swing open when my little cart ran into it.


            With a loud bang and a knee bumping jerk we pushed through the hinged panel.  The effect of the projected waterfall was very realistic, so realistic that I imagined that I could feel the water all around me.  However, when I tried to take a breath I found that I somehow was really under water.  I was drowning!  I panicked and began thrashing around until I could feel myself going unconscious.  When I woke up I was sitting safe and dry in my little cart which was still moving along slowly.  To my right was a diorama of a riverbank and lying on the plastic grass was the body of a little boy.  A man was kneeling over him giving him mouth to mouth resuscitation. They were only manakins but it hit me with such a jolt.  That was me!  I was that little boy.


            I was about five and I had been playing near a river.  The edge of the embankment crumbled and I fell in and, as I couldn’t swim, I began to go under the water.  I remember the bubbles swirling around me and then nothing more until I woke up with this stranger, who had obviously been my rescuer, hovering over me.  Because of this near-death experience I developed a lifelong fear of water and never learned to swim.  But why was I being reminded of this now?  Was this one of my entries in the Book of Regrets, not learning to swim?


            My cart began increasing its speed and we rushed forward into the continuing darkness. As we curved left and right I caught sight of flashing red lights quite a ways ahead.  Getting closer, I could see another hinged door extending out over the tracks.  There was a big stop sign painted on the panel which was illuminated by the flashing red lights. Evidently my cart didn’t believe in stop signs or maybe it couldn’t read because there was no reduction in speed and we slammed into the door with a bone jarring crash.


            Once we had pushed through the door and were on the other side everything was different.  I found myself squeezed between four passengers and there were three other riders sharing the seat in front of me.  My little cart had become an automobile---it had morphed into some kind of a sedan.  What was going on?  I took a good look at the driver and then I understood.  Tubby MacRae and his old Lincoln town car, of course, and we were flying along a deserted highway at 100 miles an hour.


            I knew Tubby from kindergarten right up through high school.  He was something else, a true rebel from the start.  I remember him telling me what he was going to do after graduation.  “I’m going to be either a crook or a cop.”  He eventually became the sheriff.


            So now I was back in the car Tubby had inherited from his grandfather and it was late at night, after a school basketball game, and he was showing the seven of us how fast it could go.  I’m fighting the urge to tell him to slow down because I don’t want the guys to think I’m a pussy but I know what’s ahead.  And it happens just like it happened way back then; a deer runs out from the brush and, wham, the car is bouncing off into the trees from the impact with the poor helpless doe.  We land upside down and the rest becomes a hazy blur.  I’m in pain and I close my eyes.


            When I open them I’m alone and back once again in my cart moving past another diorama, this time on my left.  It’s a gruesome scene of a car wreck, blood and bodies everywhere.  Two manakins are standing holding on to each other, Tubby and me.  Five of my high school buddies are lying on the ground critically injured and one, Steven Taylor, is dead.  Five seat belts for eight passengers. Stupid.


            As my cart pulled away from the scene I found I was weeping.  What is going on here?  Is this me experiencing that cliché about how your life passes before your eyes as you die?  I was already dead for heaven’s sake!  For heaven’s sake. That saying took on new meaning.  Why ‘for heaven’s sake’?  Why should I care about heaven?  It seemed perfectly capable of taking care of itself.  I was the one who need some TLC.  I wanted this ride down memory lane to end but my rickety cart just kept rolling along.


            We travelled for quite awhile in total darkness.  I began to wonder if this was it---the void, and that this was where I would spend eternity.  I became very frightened and was about to reach out into the inky blackness, in the hope of grabbing hold of some part of the tunnel structure, when a dim gray light began to

appear in the far distance.  Were we heading for the exit or was this going to be another disturbing diorama?  This thought was interrupted by my noticing the faint smell of smoke.  It was a familiar odor but not a pleasant one.  As we sped along I could feel wisps of what I thought was some sort of fog hitting my face but it soon became more dense and my eyes began to water. The smoke was gray at first but soon came at me in waves of black acrid clouds.  I was choking and coughing and couldn’t breathe and then I felt myself beginning to pass out.


            I was awakened by a flickering red orange light that filtered through my partially closed eyelids.  The cart had stopped in front of another of the dioramas and I recognized the scene immediately.  I was in my early twenties and living in a rented house and one night the blower in the oil furnace somehow caught on fire, something to do with a fan belt.  I never quite understood what happened. I just know there was a lot of black smoke and I couldn’t find my way out.  So here was a recreation of the burning house.  A manakin, representing me, was on the ground, once again, with a fireman giving me oxygen.  He had carried me unconscious out of the smoke and flames to safety.


            I stared at the scene and waited for the cart to continue travelling  down the tracks to who knows where.  However, my little vehicle seemed reluctant to move on and then it hit me.  ‘Its’ waiting for me.’  I was supposed to do something.  Was there a button to press or a lever to pull?  I wanted so desperately to end this horrible ride, this journey from one near-death experience to another that I toyed with the idea of climbing out of my seat and walking to the end of the dark tunnel.  It took several very long minutes before I finally understood.  This trip, I had been experiencing, was all about how lucky I had been to escape death three times.  As soon as my brain processed this fact the cart jerked into action and we sped forward.


            As we trundled ahead to what I hoped was the end of the tunnel I tried to make sense of what had happened and was happening to me.  Was there a puppet master pulling my strings or was it my subconscious expressing itself?  Was there a force here at work that I didn’t understand?  Was I wrong about God?  Did he/she exist?  Nothing in this version of the after-life was as I imagined, well maybe, with the exception of the Blue Steps.  If this was going to continue on the way it had been going I wasn’t sure I wanted to be here in this world of unpleasant surprises.


            The coal black walls of the tunnel began to lighten up to a dove gray as the cart rattled  forward and I saw the exit ahead.  The familiar misty blue glow, as we left the tunnel, was a welcome sight.  I could finally get off this ride from hell.  Hell or Heaven, wherever I was, I wanted to be somewhere else.  I missed my family, I missed being alive.  My family needs me, god damnit!  I should never have died.  It wasn’t my time!  It was a mistake, a celestial error!


            The cart rattled to a stop and I hurriedly got out, not wanting to end up going on another journey through that Tunnel of Terror.  I was angry and scared and ready to head back to the Blue Steps to try and find my way out of this grim version of the after-life.  It was then that I noticed that the third azure door was standing in front of me, blocking my way.  Determined not to enter one more negative space with who knows what nasty surprise inside, I stepped to the left side of the door frame in order to pass around it.  It silently moved left.  Stunned by this maneuver it took me a second or so before I recovered enough to start walking over to the door’s right side.  The door swiftly slid right.  After one more attempt to skirt around this dancing door I accepted the fact that I was being forced to go through this portal.  Obviously, I had no choice.  Remembering my experience with the burning hot doorknob, I pulled the cuff of my sleeve down over my hand and placed my fabric covered palm on the moon shaped handle.  I could feel no heat through the cloth and I realized  that it probably was no longer a threat.


            I swung the door outwards and entered.  It took me a moment to figure out what I was looking at and then I found myself laughing.  I had anticipated something ominous and threatening but what appeared before me was just an extension of the fun house.  It was a Hall of Mirrors with an aisle of framed looking-glass that distorted your image.  In one  I was three feet tall and very fat and then, as I moved to the front of another mirror, I was very tall and very skinny.  The next mirror seemed to remove my head and the one after that gave me elephantine legs.


            I continued down the aisle chuckling at the bizarre images that appeared in each of the many mirrors, and there seemed to be a lot of them.  However, the novelty began to wear rather thin after a while.  I  stood in front of what seemed to be the fiftieth one and saw myself, like I was in all the other mirrors, in my blue sweats but I noticed that there was no distortion. I was simply looking at myself gazing back at me---no giraffe-like neck or hands the size of watermelons---just me.  It was a bit disconcerting and I found myself wishing there was a little distortion.  I was uncomfortable staring at this person.  Who was this guy anyway?  It was like I was looking at a total stranger.


            I moved on to the next mirror only to find the same image, the stranger, following me.  The next---stranger---and the next---stranger.  I finally turned away in the hopes that this creepy feeling of being stalked would dissipate but when I turned back he was still there.  However, after I had moved further down the line, I forced myself to confront this doppelganger and there was a difference.  At first I thought the glass was dirty.  The image was a little hazy and as I progressed along the aisle it got fuzzier.  I eventually stopped walking and took a long hard look at the foggy face that was peering out at me.  Yep, that’s me.  But what was beginning to happen to the rest of my body?  It seemed to be fading.  No, not fading.  It was my clothes that were fading.  In fact they were disappearing.  By the time I reached the next mirror I was standing in my birthday suit, bare naked, nude. It was shocking to suddenly see myself so exposed.  Even though I was alone, with no other entities around to see me in the all-together, I was embarrassed to look at what appeared to be my body so out in the open.  There was my pudgy stomach and love handles and knobby knees and below-average penis.  As I turned the torso in the mirror around, to check out my rear end, I glanced down at my own body.  To my horror I discovered that it wasn’t just my mirror image that was nude.  My blue sweats were gone and I was as naked as my reflected image.


            To stand so exposed, in this Hall of Mirrors, surrounded by hundreds of images of my sad body was the final blow.  The universe had won.  I was literally brought to my knees.  As I knelt on the cold stone floor, sobbing like a lost child, I knew that what my father had said to me so many years ago, when he heard me whining about some silly injustice, was not true.  “You know young man, you’re not the center of the universe!”  But I was the center of the universe because it’s the only place any of us can be.  We can’t be in anyone else’s head and really know what they are thinking or feeling.  So the center of the universe is a very crowded place full of a lot of lonely people.  And here I was.


            I collapsed onto the floor and lay on my back.  Above me, in the deep blue darkness, twinkled millions of tiny dots.  My tear-filled eyes caused them to ripple and swim in swirls and eddies.  I remember thinking that this is what Van Gogh must have seen, which only made me weep even more.  How blind I had been when I was alive.  If I could just start over again.  How I had squandered my time.  So blasé, so self-involved, so non-observant.  We are given this precious thing called life and---


            My miserable ramblings were interrupted when a dark shadow slid over my face.  I wiped my watery eyes in an attempt to make out what it was.  As my vision cleared I recognized the tall iridescent figure of the trout man, he of the changing faces, and I recoiled as he leaned over me.  He brought his rotating visage up very close to my tear-stained face and I’ve never been so frightened in my entire life.  “Choose!”


            All I remember after that was a blinding sky-blue flash and finding myself standing at the blue steps.  The air felt cold as it caressed my exposed flesh and I started to wrap my arms around my chest, in order to warm up, only to discover that I was wearing a hospital gown.  Yes, one of those with the opening down the back.  I stood staring at the stairs, feeling humble and weak and confused.  The man of many faces had boomed into my face that one word: “Choose!”  I looked at the steps going up and then at the ones heading down.  “Choose!”


            After turning in a circle in order to take one more look at this mysterious blue tinted place, this glimpse of what could possibly be a version of heaven or hell, I started down the stairs and that’s the last thing I remember.




Transcript of recorded recovery room conversation on 12/02/20 with patient 2123770

by Helen Westheimer, DSW.      

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