The Day I Died

The sky was cobalt blue, the sun beaming from three-quarters high in the sky. The wind was swiftly coursing through my chubby fingers, the taste of syrupy pancakes lingering on my mouth as my feet fumbled their way to the outdoor pool.

Today was the day I was going to die.

As our family claimed their share of white-banded lounge chairs, my brother Nick and I peered over at the pool, our eyes affixed on the lapping waters. When you're 7 and 5-year old boys at an outdoor pool, you don't care about saving spots. You don't even think about what time you'll stuff down greasy hot dogs and Lays tater chips. You're blinded by visions of wicked delight, of cannonballs and 10,000 water droplets jumping up like fireworks in your wake.

Nick and I charged the shores like pirates plundering an entire village for all its joy. We were two average Minnesota boys, boasting pale chicken legs, plain brown eyes, tiny guts, and stringy bleach-blond hair. My marshmallow cheeks betrayed that I was the younger, Nick's self-conscious eyes betraying him as the elder.

He was first in the water, of course. This was our childhood. I clung to his shade, content to experience the world vicariously through him as he fiddled with it. We were both without our daddy at home, and looking back I can't help but wonder if Nick was just trying to do what a dad should do, you know, open up the world while his boys sit stuck to his shade.

The pool was crowded, naturally, on this cloudless Saturday in early August. But that hardly mattered to us. Like I said, when you're 7 and 5-year old boys on the verge of a day at the pool, you've already drawn the conclusion that there will be much chlorine and rejoicing, and any hint of sobering reality is just a hurdle to be cleared by your stubby thighs.

I plopped under a canopy, water cascading down the yellow mushroom and settling around my belly button. I hadn't sat for thirty seconds when I felt a sting on my shoulder. It was a familiar hand, inviting me to a game of tag. And does darkness ever begin another way, but in the half-conscious acceptance of an invitation?

I lunged out from the canopy, my eyes pelted by chlorine, burning but refusing not to see. My knees churned against the electric blue waters, desperate to make up his five yard head start. They started almost parallel to the ground as I took off from the shore. I was catching up. This was no time to notice that I was also descending.

I couldn't locate him anymore, losing him somewhere between blinks and blurred vision. I kept churning as water surrounded my neck. My toes worked tirelessly until they switched over to praying, wiggling hopelessly for the ground. For the first time, I gasped for air and got a throat full of water.

It is a terrifying and holy thing, how any given moment could mean something galaxies apart from our experience of it. I had no idea what was happening, looking back. But the image of faint yellow rays creeping through the waters as I began dying almost feels too meaningful to even process. The episode still plays every now and again. It runs in a damp, dusty theatre in the very far reaches of my mind, even as I live on. I don't know why I buy tickets to see it so often and at such random, inconvenient times. But multiple times a week, there I am, somehow both experiencing and observing it. My throat demands oxygen, my eyes squint and scream, my hands throw a silent tantrum, my feet float angrily above the floor: and as the film cuts the observer is left with a dim theater and stale popcorn, trying to piece together what it all meant.

On the day I died, there were legs all around me to witness it. Only legs. Although if it's ever crept into the film, it's a creative addition, because I don't remember noticing them real time. I do wonder how my feelings would have turned, though, if I mostly had just noticed the legs. Nowadays, they are all I see. The worst thing about them is not how cruel, but how terribly indifferent they seem to me. Some legs thunder up and down, churning forward. Some are idle, their calves facing me. Some are almost near enough to touch, and others are distant, barely visible in the murky blue. But they are legs, only legs, blurring until nothingness crowded everything.

And did you get what you wanted, writes Raymond Carver, from this life? And all I wanted: to feel myself beloved, for more than legs. I heard once growing up without a dad is like growing up without a dragon: you never know life with one, so you never know what you're missing. I think that must be true, because I don't wake up most days with a sharp pain in the torso where my dad never hugged me. But it must be false, too, because I don't cry out for a dragon when I see an iguana, but I cry out for a dad when I see their legs all around me, not-quite 180 degrees away from me. And among all these legs, among all these fathers feeling their children beloved, among all these Target ads with fathers and kids wrestling in ivory white shirts, ivory white sheets, and ivory white teeth, I still wouldn't know how to feel myself beloved if belovedness smacked me on the nose with its mythical tail.

Clinical death is the twilight zone of life, the place where brain cells and every oxygen-desperate peninsula in the body begin their four-minute countdown to real death. Mom says everybody started screaming and running out of the pool. Only later did she find out it was her son, after joining a crowd gasping and forming around a tiny blue body lifted out from underneath.

I believe in an afterlife, but not because of this twilight zone. I've read all the accounts, the warm light, the friendly presence, the otherworldly beings, and the never-the-same descent back to skin and soil. I've read them, and they make my heart fast with anxiety. I floated in that space between life and death, taken residence in that twilight zone, and I can't remember a single thing.

I do remember being pulled out of the water, though, his thick hands wrapping professionally around my twig arms. The man looks like Mr. Pruitt, a rent-a-cop from high school: big-boned and bald, with about four wrinkles around his urgent brown eyes. The place is otherwise empty, except Nick is surrounded by men dressed with navy blue and fat black belts. And before hoisting me out of the water, he takes two seconds to rest his eyes on mine. The glance is a marriage between heaven and earth, the worry of a 9-to-5 medic mixed with the confidence of an angel.

"You're gonna be all right," he declares, except with such intensity it sounds like he's mostly trying to get himself to believe it. The sun nestles around the sky's rim now, pouring pale light from behind him. As Mom watched paramedics perform CPR on her lifeless blue son, this is what I remember. That's the fully honest, fully contradictory truth.

And the belovedness I wanted out of life arrives as surely as Mr. Pruitt, as I mope about the legs and wait for the heavenly beams. I want the booming voice, the hovering dove, the clouds parting as I come out of the waters. But it's the nervous whisper, the mild assurances I'll be OK and the pregnant glances hidden amid the in-between moments that make up the miracles, nudging me toward a belovedness I never had eyes to see. So the near-dead can keep their visions of the heavenly light, and Target can keep their ivory white ads. But after my expectations have long left, a thousand moments are lodged in the pale gray matter of my everyday life with a precious message. If I listen to them long enough, the moments begin to call me beloved.