I don’t believe in God, but I believe in hell. I’ve been there. It all began with a late-night phone call from my ex-wife, telling me that our eldest son had overdosed on drugs and was near death. She said that a buddy of his had found him and initiated CPR. When the paramedics arrived, they were able to jump-start his heart, but now our boy Paul was in the ICU of the local hospital in a coma, on a respirator, with total organ failure.
I was vacationing in Florida with our other child, Luc, visiting Grandma for spring break. We caught the first plane home to Arizona the following morning. The airline charged me an additional thousand bucks despite the fact that we already had return tickets for later in the week—good capitalists! They sat us in wide, soft, overstuffed leather seats—the only time in my life I ever flew first class. Yeah, we’re all born naked, but we ride to hell in luxury.
My sons were teenagers who had grown distant from one another, so Luc felt obliged to feign indifference about his brother’s travails. While outwardly I attempted to maintain a fatherly air of calm rationality, on the inside my guts were dissolving into relentless, withering pain.
We arrived in the middle of the afternoon. Before leaving the airport, I sat down with Luc and tried to explain to him that Paul had acted cruelly toward him these past few years only because he was jealous and insecure; in fact his brother had never quit loving him. Luc didn’t say a word. As we stood up to go, I advised, “Get ready—it won’t be pretty.”
Paul lay enmeshed in a web of wires and tubes protruding from every bodily opening, piercing his veins, and glued to his head, with the whole tangled mess connected to racks of drip bags and myriad beeping machines. They had him pumped full of liquids due to his organ failure, which bloated him grotesquely, skin taut like a blow-up figure in a Macy’s parade. Instantly, Luc spun toward me and buried his face into my chest, crying, clutching me tightly.
After everyone left, I finally let go and wept a puddle on the floor alongside Paul’s bed. He was a sweet, naïve kid who had made a dumb mistake, swallowing some pills at a party, wanting to get high.
That evening the night nurse disclosed how they could tell by measuring the buildup of certain chemicals in his body that Paul had been clinically dead for between thirty and forty-five minutes before he was found. Now only his heart was working, with the machines doing everything else for him. When pressed for the cold hard truth, the nurse admitted that undoubtedly there was brain damage. Still desperate for hope, I asked her about those incidents in which kids fully recover after being underwater for an hour or more. She told me that that situation was called a “whale dive” and invariably involved hypothermia, but the circumstances didn’t apply in this case. Oh, great . . . I was facing the prospect that my son would either awake as a brain-dead cripple or else remain in a coma, and I would have to pull the plug on the machines and kill him.
At about three o’clock that morning, I was standing at Paul’s bedside holding his hand, staring at him. I had been awake for forty-four hours straight by then, and, although my vision was pretty blurry, I thought I saw Paul’s eyelids open slightly. Leaning closer, I peered into the narrow slits. What a horrible sight—his eyeballs were pure yellow, including the iris. Nevertheless, I felt that he was watching me, so I whispered, “Listen, boy, if you see a white light, run like hell away from it! Come back to this world! You can make it. You gotta fight this thing. You can do it!”
But I had no clue if he was aware of my presence or heard me—maybe eyelids always drifted open like that on a damn dead vegetable corpse. To test it, I said, “Well, alright, most of all you just need some rest, so go ahead and close your eyes and sleep.” He shut his eyes. I about fell over. I told the night nurse what had happened, but she didn’t believe me.
The next day my older brother, Bill, a renowned Christian minister and author, flew into town.* I still remember when he got religion back in high school—the misfit debate-team nerd had found a community to join. Over the subsequent years, his inexorable transition from science-lover to science-denier was fascinating, though heartbreaking, to witness.
Bill wanted to know if he could pray for Paul. Since I was already juggling an overabundance of concerns at that point—police and paperwork, job, home, school, a slew of doctors—I dodged the fight and acquiesced, figuring it couldn’t do any harm. He laid his palm on Paul’s forehead and began to summon divine intervention. I couldn’t bear to watch so I left the room. After finishing the ritual, Bill offered no further assistance and instead immediately withdrew to his hotel.
On his return the following day, my brother did find the time to lecture Luc, a gay sixteen-year-old, on why he should stay celibate for the rest of his life. Bill then recommenced his prayer routine with Paul. Pacing behind his uncle, Luc asked me, “Why is he even here?”
“I don’t know,” I muttered, shaking my head. Bill departed town later that afternoon.
Amazingly, over the ensuing two weeks, Paul was gradually weaned off the machines and made a complete recovery. The notoriously cautious neurologists were forced to use words not typical to their vocabulary: extraordinary, incredible, unbelievable. Soon thereafter the medical bills came flowing in, finally totaling more than $350,000. Luckily, I had excellent health insurance or I would have been financially exterminated.
I imagine my brother believes he delivered us a miracle. Grandma says that in our family, we’re just hard to get rid of. Whatever happened, Paul is the one who did it, that much I know. Somehow he shut down, took a nap, and dozed through death. God is dead, but Paul’s still going.
In the end, life is time. Whether someone is good or bad, weak or strong, famous or anonymous, even in a fateless world we are each ultimately dealt only a limited and ever-diminishing number of heartbeats. This really gets driven home hard while you listen to a monitor slowly count, beep by piercing beep, the tenuous rhythm of your child’s heart through the hollow stillness of the night.
But time is malleable. In hell, the minutes crawl by for hours, while the days pass like seconds. But now, right now, is the moment for us frantic little humans to step outside the whirlwind of daily life, to let days pass like days again before it all just slips away.