Transcript

50:

Shoulda Been Dead
Transcript

Originally aired 01.17.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/50

Prologue.

Girl

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Woman

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Boy

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Girl 2

Public Radio.

Boy 2

Public--

Woman

Radio International.

Boy 2

--Radio International.

Woman

One more time.

Ira Glass

The day Sandra should have been dead started like a normal day. She was cutting school with the girls in her gang.

Sandra

We were standing there, and a group of girls passed us, and they looked at us, and we looked at them. And of course, automatically our mouths flew open without thinking. What are you looking at? Oh, you got something? What do you be about? And started asking them what their affiliation is, and other stuff. And we started talking [BLEEP] to them and other stuff. And they pulled out a gun, and they said OK, you want to talk [BLEEP] now? Let's talk [BLEEP]. And I panicked. I mean, nobody had ever pulled a gun on me. I was like, holy [BLEEP], and I just started kind of running around, and I was like, oh my god, they're going to kill us. They're actually going to kill us. It had finally sunk in that somebody was going to kill us, that that would be it, the end of my life. At like 14, somebody was going to kill me.

And it kind of flashed in my mind that here comes my mother finding me on the street corner with a bullet through my head and blood gushing everywhere, and oh my god. So everybody just kind of spread out, and I ran, and I lost my shoes, and my jacket, my purse. I lost everything. I was just like throwing things off me to make me lighter so I could run faster. And finally I jumped into a dumpster, and I stood there. And I must have stood there a good hour, hour and a half. And I just stood there and prayed and shaked, and tried to not make noise. And I heard them run past me, and run past me, and screaming "bitch" and looking for people. And I was there, and I was praying to God that they didn't open the dumpster and find me, because if they would have, I think I would have been dead.

Ira Glass

In movies and books, when somebody nearly dies it changes them. You know? They mend their ways. They treat people better. But in real life, it can go either way. Sandra waited and finally walked home alone, smelling like garbage, unrepentant.

Sandra

And my mother asked me, where's your shoes and your purse and your jacket and everything? And I told her that these girls were going to beat us up. I lied and I said that they started talking to us. They were gang-bangers. I told her like that, that they were gang-bangers, and they were looking for trouble. Knowing full well--

Ira Glass

Yeah, knowing full well.

Sandra

Knowing full well that I was the one that started it, and that I was gang-banging.

Ira Glass

But even after that you didn't quit the gang.

Sandra

No. Why? A lot of different answers why. We didn't get hurt. We got to go back and tell our story. And none of us said that we hid. You know, none of us said we hid.

Ira Glass

What did you say?

Sandra

We said that we outran them.

Ira Glass

As if that's more heroic.

Sandra

It's better than saying I hid in the garbage can. That's cowardly.

Ira Glass

But outrunning them is still just as fleeing.

Sandra

But they had a gun. It's fleeing, but it's honorable fleeing.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, stories of people who thought they were about to die, and how it affected them or didn't affect them. Act One, the day after Kevin slept on the spot Jesus was crucified. Act Two, the day Lawrence left the AIDS clinic for the big road trip. Act Three, the day Claudia asked her brother some questions. Act Four, the day Cheryl got the news. Act Five, the day Matthew saw Brigid. Stay with us.

Act One. Die In Six Months.

Ira Glass

Act One. So what if you knew? What if you really knew the date and time of your own death? Well, Kevin Kelly spent most of his twenties wandering around Asia. He was a freelance photographer. And he found himself photographing a lot of religious ceremonies. He found himself drawn to religious ceremonies. He was confused about what he believed.

Kevin Kelly

I would get twisted and caught up, and these things were sort of in the background consuming me. Actually I found that I could think about little else for many, many months, that behind all that I was doing there was always this unresolved question of was God real? If he was real, then how could we ignore him? And if we were trying to not ignore him, what do we do? And if he was real, then what about these other things that people said about God?

Ira Glass

But all that changed. When he was 27, he came into Jerusalem. It was the weekend of both Easter and Passover, and the city was flooded with tourists.

Kevin Kelly

So I entered Jerusalem on Easter with the simple expectation that I was going to photograph yet another religious ceremony, another religious festival. And then for various reasons I got locked out of my hostel room. They had a curfew, and I didn't make it back in time. And I was in quite a fix because I was a stranger in this very strange town. When it happened, I didn't have enough money to stay elsewhere, nor did I even have knowledge of where to go.

So I wandered the old town of Jerusalem at night, which had been shuttered up and was like a time machine. It was if I had been transported back into the 15th century, because all the souvenir vendors were gone, and what was left were the labyrinthine paths of cobbled passageways. And I wandered around for a number of hours, and it was getting colder. Eventually I found myself at the one place that was still open, which was some of the churches. And particularly I finally settled into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is called and viewed as the church built over the mound where Jesus Christ was crucified.

And I was getting very tired, and there weren't many people around. And so eventually I laid myself out on about the only flat area that was left, which was this marble slab underneath some pendants that had incense on them. And this was presumably the slab that commemorated the exact position of the crosses. So I slept there. I slept on the crucifixion spot that night because it was the only place. There was no place in the inn.

I slept there until early morning, when the activities started to increase, and people started coming in. And I went out and followed the crowd where it was going when they were going out to the tombs area in Jerusalem. And I went out, and there were some folding chairs set up in front of this tomb area. And as the sun was coming up on that Easter morning, I was staring at empty tombs.

And for a reason that I cannot comprehend, as I sat on that chair contemplating this view of the early sun morning coming into the empty tombs, all that I had been wrestling with for the past many, many years in thinking about religion sort of became resolved in my mind. And at that very moment, I believed that Jesus Christ has indeed risen from those tombs.

In an instant the tension of trying to figure things out was resolved, because now suddenly everything was figured out. It was as if you had been working on a problem for a long time, and suddenly the answer was there, and it was very clear that was the answer. And although there were many things that were still not clear to you, you were very certain that you were on the right path.

Having that realization that I believe that Jesus Christ had actually risen from those tombs did not settle 1,001 other things about what one was supposed to do with that, what I was supposed to do with that. Did that mean I was supposed to be a monk? Did that mean I was supposed to be an evangelist? Did that mean that I had to immediately renounce all that I had and get into sackcloth and ashes and march out into the desert? All of that was left unopened, and that is in fact what occupied my mind as I went back to my hostel to lay down and think about, because I had no clue what it really meant to me ultimately.

And that's what I was pondering when I sort of was laying there napping. And I wouldn't say it's a voice, but there was an idea that came into my mind that just would not go away. And that was that I should live as if I would die in six months, that I should really truly live. And that I could not tell for certain whether I would really die, but that either way I should live as if I was going to die. And so that was the assignment.

I'm a pretty rational person. I'm pretty logical. And after thinking the thought that I should live as if I was going to die in six months, the first thought that comes to my head was, well that's pretty silly. You have no evidence whatsoever. I could live like I'm going to die in six months and not die at all. It would just be kind of an interesting exercise. But at the same time, it was equally probable that I might die in six months. It happened all the time. There was no guarantee that I wouldn't die. And so fairly quickly I decided that I could not settle that issue of whether I would really die or not, or just think that I was going to die in six months. And that in either case, the important thing was to live as if I really believed that I was going to die in six months. Which is what I set out to do.

The next couple days had a kind of joyous experience of saying, OK, what do I do for six months if I have only six months to live? And the answers to that surprised me as much as the assignment. Because after thinking that through and contemplating it, the conclusion that I came to was that what I wanted to do for six months was to go home and be ordinary, to go back to my parents, to help them take out the trash and trim the hedges and move furniture around, and to be with them.

And I was really shocked by that, because I thought that with six months to live I would climb Mount Everest, or I would go scuba diving to the depths of the ocean, or get in a speedboat and see how fast I could go. But instead I wanted to go back home and be with my family for that time.

I, of course, did not tell anybody my crazy idea. This is, in fact, the first time I'm really talking about it publicly, because it was a very scary and sort of alarming idea, and I never told anybody why I was coming home.

I got back to where my parents live in New Jersey, and things were unbelievably ordinary. And yet I found myself relishing the ordinariness and finding it in some ways as exotic as anything that I had traveled to see. And so I was involved in-- I helped around the house. I dug up shrubs. I worked on a deck. I moved furniture, washed dishes, and I was intending to kind of spend my last remaining six months at home getting to know my parents better, and myself hopefully.

But about three months into that, my travel urges I guess got the better of me. And what I was most concerned about is I wanted to see my brothers and sisters. I had four brothers and sisters, and they were scattered all across the country. And so I felt very strongly that I wanted to see them before I died. And I got the idea that the way to see them was to ride my bicycle across the country and visit them on bicycle.

But before I did that, I made up a will to dispose of the little things that I had. And I had some money left over, and one of the things that I did with that money was I went to the bank and got some cashier's checks for like $500 and $1,000. And I mailed the money to various people anonymously as gifts. And I think giving away those thousands of dollars was the first true act of charity I had ever done, because there was absolutely no way for any kind of gratitude or elevated feelings to come back to me, because people had no idea who had sent them that money.

It was really remarkable to see the consequences of getting an anonymous gift like that, because when you get a check for $1,000 in the mail, you immediately become suspicious of all your friends of having given it to you. And so there's this sort of like the suspicion of charity, suspicion of goodness, that starts to infect the people that are around you. And you look at someone, you think, hmm, I wonder if he gave me that $1,000?

I had enough money left over to basically pay for food and whatnot on my bicycle journey across America. And the path that I had to visit all my brothers and sisters was not a direct route of going from San Francisco to New York. I actually had to go up to Idaho and back down to Texas, and then back up through Indiana. So it was a 5,000 mile trip.

The day, which coincidentally was exactly six months from when I had this assignment, was October 31, was Halloween. And so the plan would be that I would ride back home so that I would come back to die on the day after Halloween.

I think there are a lot of people who have trouble staying in the present. There are some people who like to slip into the past as a means to perhaps fantasize or escape, and they find that the past is the place that they retreat to. And I often retreat to the future. I was not a person who planned or had a career staged out, or who had a particular woman he wanted to marry someday, or some vision of a house. The future that I found so hard to give up was a much more insidious type. It was that of-- I like to buy this record because in the future I want to hear the song again and again. Or I will read this book, and there's some cool ideas in it because someday I may write an article about this, and it's kind of good to know that.

There was a sense in which my entire life was shifted to the future, and the thought of sort of doing something now for the enjoyment or the pleasures or the principle of the function of just right now, without any sense at all that it would ever be used again or that it could ever be brought forward, was extremely difficult and disconcerting. And I fought it day by day, and tooth by tooth.

One of the ways I dealt with this was that I was actually able by the last weeks to not think about my life beyond Halloween. There was a way in which I had just-- each time a thought came up about something that was beyond this horizon, I just said, nope, can't think about, it doesn't work. We have to dwell in the present. And at the same time I was doing that-- and I was able to do that-- I also decided that it was entirely unnatural and inhumane way to live, and that having a future is part of what being human is about, and that when you take away the future for humans, you take away a lot of their humanness. And that it's not actually a very good thing to live entirely in the present, that one needs to have a past, and one needs to have a future to be fully human.

Ira Glass

So he bicycled across the country, and as he did he found himself increasingly obsessed with death, with dying. He was making drawings and writing haikus along the way, and as he went across the country, they became more and more dark, more and more preoccupied with death. And as he traveled across the country, the other thing is that he always had to find a place to stay every night. And at first he just tried what he had done in Jerusalem. That is, he would just find a church, and he would camp out on the church lawn. But people got upset at that.

And so what he decided to do instead is that at each town that he would come into, he would find some quiet residential street. And he'd go up to a house, and he'd say hi, this is who I am. I'm bicycling across the country. I've just eaten dinner, he would say so they wouldn't feel obligated to feed him. Can I camp out in back? And invariably they would say yes, and invariably they would also at some point invite him in for coffee.

Kevin Kelly

So I would spend my evenings with entirely ordinary people, and my job at that point was to tell them my story. It was to tell them how great a time I was having, because if I wasn't having a great time they were really disappointed, because I was riding for them. I was vicariously doing what they had always wanted their lives to do, and so the more I enjoyed my time, and the more in the present I was living, the more they enjoyed it, and the more it uplifted them. And so that was basically my job.

It was a journey that began at the tomb of Jesus, and as I set off to my own presumed death, I did indeed think about Jesus Christ. We have the history in the Gospels of Jesus' torment in his soul as he approached what he knew of his anointed time to die. So it was again that very harsh information of knowing when you're going to die. And Jesus' soul was in great turmoil and pain because of knowing that. And I think I did experience some of that, not because I had the same weight. That was just my own life. But Jesus prayed that this burden be lifted, and there were days when I did pray that, that if I didn't have to die, I really would rather not.

By late fall I was pedaling through the Appalachians, and it was getting colder and colder, and my hands were freezing on the bicycles, and there was ice on my tents in the morning when I got up. And as each day went on, I was coming closer and closer to terrain that I was familiar with and that felt like home. And I was riding into New Jersey, and I was elated. I was elated that I had accomplished this long journey, and I was elated that I was home to see my parents.

And I came into their house on Halloween day, and I was so filled with ideas and things and emotions that I didn't really say very much. And again, I couldn't say very much. I think we had a wonderful dinner. They were, of course, glad to see me, because they hadn't seen me in a long time. They knew I was coming back, and we had a wonderful dinner. We had baskets of candy which I gave out to the kids.

And we had a discussion that night which was about nothing in particular. It was not about the future. It was just about I think talking about our family, and my brothers and sisters, and I was telling them all that I had learned about them. And so it was a very together and, again, not a very dramatic evening, but just a pleasant one, the kind of one that you might have a memory about as you were dying. It was not a special evening, but just an ordinary evening.

And I went to bed that night, which was a very difficult thing to do, because I was fully prepared at that point never to wake up again. I had been praying. I had gotten everything arranged. And at that point I'd fully gone through in my own mind, my own soul, all the things that I might have regretted, and I had righted as many of those as I thought I could through letters. And I was prepared as much as anybody could be prepared to die.

So I went to bed while the kids were still ringing the doorbells. And I went to sleep, because I was very tired after that long trip. And I didn't know what was going to happen the next day. I thought that I had done all that I could.

And the next morning I woke up. And the next morning I woke up, and it was if-- the next morning I woke up, and it was if I had my entire life again. The next morning I woke up, and I had my entire life again. I had my future again. There was nothing special about the day. It was another ordinary day. I was reborn into ordinariness, but what more could one ask for?

Ira Glass

Nearly two decades after that happened, Kevin Kelly is now the executive editor of a magazine about the future, Wired magazine.

Coming up, more people who nearly died and what they made of it, in a minute when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers and documentary producers to tackle that theme. Today's program, Should Have Been Dead, stories of people who thought they were going to die and what they learned or did not learn from the experience.

Act Two. Maybe Six Months.

Ira Glass

We're at Act Two of our program, Maybe Six Months. Well, Lawrence Steger is a filmmaker and a performance artist here in Chicago, and I told him about Kevin Kelly's story. And it turned out that, like Kevin Kelly, at the moment that Lawrence thought he'd glimpsed the possible end of his life, Lawrence also set out on a big trip.

Lawrence Steger

Title-- Road. Treatment-- it's shot entirely on video, mostly handheld, shaky, out of focus, bad color, overblown color actually.

Can I get this microphone adjusted a little so I don't have to lean over so much?

Ira Glass

Yeah, sure.

Lawrence Steger

Check, one, two, three.

Synopsis-- the story concerns Luke-- gay, white, Midwestern, late twenties-- follows Luke on the day that he is informed of his HIV-positive status. Luke cops a stance of cold, brittle, not unlike the Harrison Ford narration on Blade Runner, but there's a hint of vulnerability to Luke. Have we got the Harrison Ford or the Rutger Hauer voice?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Lawrence Steger

Great, roll it.

Harrison Ford

Enhance 57 19. Track 45 left.

Lawrence Steger

Great, take it under me. That's great.

Story follows Luke. He's accompanied by his college buddy Bill, and both are packed for a road trip across the country to San Francisco.

Let's just kill the Blade Runner.

Locations-- car interior, gas station exterior, HIV clinic parking lot, HIV clinic interior, highway. The music is Strauss' "Four Last Songs," particularly "Ruhe, meine Seele" sung by Dame Janet Baker.

OK, can you take it under me? Hold.

Follows Luke and his friend Bill to the gas station and to the clinic.

OK, take it out. Take out the Janet Baker.

Bill loads one-hits of pot while driving on the way to the gas station into the clinic.

Can we nix that Strauss music? It's kind of too mournful. There's really no music on the soundtrack. It's stark, crisp, maybe some songs coming from the radio at the clinic's desk. Great. And definitely from the car radio, mixed with surfing on an AM radio. No music.

The drama is constantly being undermined through the cool, collective quality of Luke's demeanor. He seems detached. Quote, "I'm not sure how I feel. I feel a little sad, sort of mad. I guess blank, but I'm OK." End quote.

Luke thinks he's sounding like a short story assignment in a creative writing class, or worse, trapped inside an artsy novel. Luke imagines himself in a television dramatization of himself. Camera pulls back from behind Luke's head, sort of on a mini-crane. Camera floats, hovers over the back of Luke's head. The ceiling of the car must be incredibly high, he thinks to himself.

Bill pulls into the closest parking spot in the clinic, blows out the last of the one-hit, and as he's knocking the brass pipe into the ashtray, turns to Luke with that slightly watery look in his eyes from too much intake. Luke takes it as one of those Care Bear looks that he's experienced before from Bill. There's a moment of anger flashing in Luke when he registers Bill's look. When Bill asks him, "What are you thinking about?" Luke responds, "Who's thinking? Nothing." I hate thinking I'm in a novel, he thinks to himself.

Cut to interior of the clinic, the reception area. Can we change this sound bed here? Great. Take it down just it's a little-- great.

The nurse assigned to Luke's anonymous number is a black drag queen named Stephanie who wears a full nurse's outfit complete with a little paper hat that sits atop of her freshly coiffed hairdo. She's the only one in the clinic who wears a real uniform. Stephanie has the longest fingernails that Luke has ever seen on anyone. Luke thinks briefly about how the fingernails keep on growing even after a person dies, but he pushes that thought away with his fingers to his forehead, wonders why he's thinking about that. It's that novel thing again.

Stephanie, the drag queen nurse, walks Luke back to the small cubicles that the tests are administered in, and then used to relay the results. Luke's narrator imagines how many people have been in these cubicles and what they would look like if they were all piled on top of one another, piles of tested bodies.

Cut to Stephanie closing the hollow core door. It makes that hollow core door sound. Do you have that on a cart? [DOOR CLOSES] Perfect. Maybe a shot from a security camera that shows all of the cubicles in the clinic.

Luke imagines himself in a George Tooker painting that was reproduced in his sixth grade reader. He wonders what his sixth grade teacher would think of Stephanie. He wonders if his sixth grade teacher was ever tested. He imagines her body in the pileup of bodies who have come to the clinic.

Stephanie's been saying something, and Luke has to blink his eyes again to refocus. He explains to Stephanie that he's been expecting this result, that he's experienced a large share of AIDS cared for and likewise buried lots of his friends, but it doesn't seem to come as a surprise. Stephanie says, "You can cry or hold my hand. I just want you to sit for a moment and let it sink in." Luke thinks, whatever.

Cut to Bill in waiting room, flipping through People's "The Year in Pictures." Cut back to close-up of Luke, forehead wrinkled. He thinks his narrator wants him to get out of the cubicle. He waits for Stephanie to finish her spiel, thanks her, and shakes her hand, getting a slight scrape from one of the fingernails. Close-up on Luke's hand, new scratch. The walls seem to pulsate as Luke walks down the hallway to the reception area. He tries to be as blank as possible to Bill.

I'm not sure about this final section. I know that we talked about it ending on the highway with the car being surrounded by bikers on their way to the Sturgis bikers rally, but now I like the idea of it ending on the highway entrance ramp. OK.

Cut to interior of car pulling out of parking lot. Luke keeps looking straight ahead as he murmurs, "I'm positive." Long slow pan from the back of Luke's head to the back of Bill's. There's no reaction in either of their faces, or better, the profiles of their faces. This is the longest shot. They don't look at each other.

Perhaps this scene would be shot in blue screen with the camera in the backseat, and the sky surrounding the two heads of Bill and Luke having that old scratchy 16 millimeter time lapse exposure so the clouds seem to be moving at a rapid pace. Flickers, flips back and forth between real sky and blue screen backdrop. Voice comes up on a car radio, try not to think of the future. Just live in the present moment, something like that. You got that? It comes on to the radio.

Kevin Kelly

I also decided that it was entirely unnatural and inhumane way to live, and that having a future is part of what being human is about. And that when you take away the future for humans, you take away a lot of their humanness. And that it's not actually a very good thing to live entirely in the present, that one needs to have a past.

Lawrence Steger

Luke comments to Bill, "Live entirely in the present, huh?" Bill drives and looks out the corner of his right eye to see what position Luke is holding his head in. Luke looks outside passenger window, and every once in a while turns to glance at Bill. Long pause. There's dead air.

Cut to Luke's point of view. Car is pulling on to entrance ramp of highway. Luke sees hitchhiker with a sign that he scans for any remote meaning to the narrative. Luke sees himself outside of his own story. He can't read the hitchhiker's sign. He knows that he's on a long, silent journey. He leans over to turn off the radio. Cut to black.

Act Three.

Ira Glass

Act Three.

Claudia Perez

This is is a show Claudia Perez is doing on my brother Javier.

Javier

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Claudia Perez

Shut up. No wonder your friends can't listen to this.

Javier

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Claudia Perez

Did you ever have any thoughts like oh, I want to die?

Javier

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Claudia Perez

No, I don't got to-- have you ever imagined your death, like--

Javier

[INAUDIBLE]

Claudia Perez

[INAUDIBLE] In April of 1996, how did your day begin the day that you got shot?

Javier

[BLEEP] [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Ira Glass

That's a recording of Claudia Perez, who's 19 years old, an occasional contributor to this program, interviewing her 21-year-old brother. And her brother had an experience where he and his family thought he might die.

Ira Glass

And Claudia, what is on this tape?

Claudia Perez

He was being a big brat. He's laying down on the bed, and I'm sitting on his wheelchair, and I'm interviewing him. And he keeps trying to grab the microphone from me.

Claudia Perez

Tell me what happened, like what you see, what you thought of that moment when you got shot? What happened?

Javier

What happened? Well, I got a hole in my body, and I was bleeding.

Claudia Perez

That is so stupid. Let go of me.

Ira Glass

So how did you bring him around? What did you do?

Claudia Perez

I had to open up the story. I had to take him back so he could remember.

Ira Glass

Why don't you take us back? What exactly happened to him?

Claudia Perez

Well, it was April 2 or April 6 of '96, and he had come to the house in the morning. And he had bought some gym shoes, and he was showing off, ha ha, look, I got some gym shoes. And you're not supposed to buy gym shoes because that's not fair, because you're not buying stuff for my little brother. And I was like, you're being greedy. Something's going to happen to you for being greedy.

And I remember that I felt weird that day. You know how they say women have this kind of sense? I don't know, but I felt weird.

Javier

So it was quick. It happened quick. Go for the gun quick, and then turn around and take off. But as soon as I turned around, that's when I got shot. Then everything happened so fast. I seen like a white light. Everybody says they seen a light, but it is weird, because you see like a little light. Everything's like in slow motion. I was trying to-- like oh, this is a dream. I'm going to go back to sleep. I'm going to wake up, and then I'm going to be home in bed next to my wife and kids. And this is only a bad dream. I can shake it off.

Claudia Perez

One of his friends, they were going to go party at a bar, and they went towards the back of the gangway. They were over there in the back of the gangway, and--

Ira Glass

The game way is?

Claudia Perez

A house. Of a house.

Ira Glass

OK. Oh, the gangway.

Claudia Perez

Yeah. And they were just all talking there, and the guy stuck out the gun to my brother, and my brother tried to take it from his hand.

Ira Glass

Wait, now this guy came out of where? Was he in a car? Was he walking?

Claudia Perez

No, they were all just over there in the back of the gangway. They were talking, and he tried to rob my brother. And my brother tried to take the gun from him, and the guy did it. While my brother was trying to run, he shot him in the stomach, which hit his spinal cord.

Javier

Like I said, I was thinking. I was thinking that I had to get to the front of the house, because then if I lay here and bleed, I'll probably just bleed to death. I'll just bleed to death. So I figured that I would try to figure out a way to get to the front of the house. So I dragged myself on my arms. I dragged myself, and then some guy was passing by. I told him, "Hey, help me, I got shot." He didn't believe me. A big old commotion started happening. I caught an ambulance. And then all of a sudden, my wife and my kid and my sister just got there. I don't know how they found out I was there.

Claudia Perez

When he was in the ICU unit, he looked real bad. And he was like all bloody, and blood was coming out, whatever. And he's dark-skinned, my brother. And at the ICU he looked pale. He had no color. And my mom was crying, because she's like, "Oh, my son. He's Negrito, like he's dark-skinned. Where's his color at? Where's his color?" And she was crying, "Where's my son's color at?" And begging, "Oh, my son's not dark no more. Got to give him his color back, because we will know that he's healthy with his color back."

Javier

And it was three days, it was three or four days in the ICU. They came and told me that I'm going to be paralyzed.

Claudia Perez

What was your reaction to that? How did it make you feel?

Javier

I don't know. I didn't know how to react to it, because it had never happened to me. I mean, how am I supposed to know my [BLEEP] reaction?

Claudia Perez

He usually talks about it freely, nice. But I guess because it's me he won't talk about it normally, because me and him, we never talk about it. I want him to tell me, because I never asked him that before. And I wanted him to tell me something that I always wanted to know, and I was mad, because he gave me a dumb answer. I thought, then tell me something more--

Ira Glass

Heartfelt.

Claudia Perez

Yeah, and he didn't tell me that. He just made me feel like, oh, my god, you're never going to change, or something.

Claudia Perez

What have you learned from this experience?

Javier

Well, I learned a lot of new words. I don't know. I know a lot of things about spinal cords and stuff I never paid attention to. You know, like stuff like you really never cared about.

Claudia Perez

Do you appreciate life more now?

Javier

It's the same.

Ira Glass

Do you think your brother's changed since the accident?

Claudia Perez

He's changed, yeah. He doesn't drink anymore. He thinks more about the future, like before he would go day by day.

Ira Glass

He doesn't drink at all?

Claudia Perez

Not at all, and you could drink when you're paralyzed. You could. He says he doesn't smoke.

Ira Glass

And why? Why not?

Claudia Perez

He don't want to. He says that he feels stupid. He looks at-- before, he used to go out with his boys and all his friends. He's never seen how stupid they look. And now that he doesn't drink, he sees how stupid they are, and that there's no point to drink and get like that anymore. He says that-- one day he told me that if he ever walked again, he wouldn't take it for granted. He told me that once. He goes, I'll kiss the ground, or something like that. He told me once.

And I was like, whoa, because we never talk like nice to each other. We're always fighting or something about something. And that one day that he told me that, I was like, oh. I felt weird. When he talks nice to me, it feels weird. Like when I was doing the interview, I couldn't look at him, because I was like, oh, you get on my nerves. It's that kind of thing, like we love each other, but we can't stand each other. And when we fight, he still beats me up, even though he's in a wheelchair. He still beats me up. I don't know. It's strange.

Ira Glass

That hasn't changed.

Claudia Perez

People tell me, how can he beat you up still? And I'm like, he does.

Ira Glass

How does he beat you up? Well, answer that. How can he pull that off?

Claudia Perez

I don't know. He does. I don't know. He's just real-- it's weird. It's like I learned after my brother's death experience, almost near, I wrote a poem to him. And I have it at home, but it's like I named it sick brother. And I said-- I don't remember exactly what I said in it, but I was writing letters to him when he was in the ICU unit, because I didn't want to go in there. I didn't want to go in there. And I told him when he was like laying there, and I told him I loved him. And I never told him that, but I had to tell him that. And I was like, man, in case something happens, I want him to know that even though he gets on my nerves, I do love my brother.

Ira Glass

And when you said this to him in the hospital, he was awake, and he could--

Claudia Perez

No, I wrote it to him.

Ira Glass

You wrote it to him, and he saw it and he read it?

Claudia Perez

He read it.

Ira Glass

And did he say anything about it afterwards?

Claudia Perez

No.

Ira Glass

And then when he came out of the hospital, it was just like back to normal?

Claudia Perez

Normal.

Ira Glass

Like it never happened?

Claudia Perez

Yeah, like whatever. One day I told him, "Oh, I love you, brother." "ooh, get away from me." He told me, "Get away from me."

Ira Glass

So even nearly dying hasn't changed anything between the two of you?

Claudia Perez

That is true, very true.

Claudia Perez

Is there any advice you would give to any young people out there who are trying to use their lives the same way you did, and they get up in the next incident like this?

Javier

Just don't be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ira Glass

Claudia Perez is a college freshman at Moraine Valley majoring in fashion design. She also works as a hostess at the Continental House of Pancakes on Chicago's south side.

Act Four. Hope.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Hope. A friend of a friend of mine was misdiagnosed with a disease and nearly died, and it got so bad that in the end she couldn't get out of bed, had said goodbye to everybody she knew, had given away everything, spent all her money. And she said that when the doctor told her you'll live, it was actually harder than when he told her you're going to die. She thought, what now? Well, Cheryl Trykv had a similar experience, and has our next story.

Cheryl Trykv

Dr. Fargate tells me how lucky I am. He says surgery was touch and go, and that for an hour or so there I was this close-- with his fore and middle fingers side by side sticking out from the rest of his fist, he demonstrates the proximity. "You nearly died," he says, smiling, teasing me, "But it looks like you'll live." Oh? Why, that's wonderful. Life, one missed opportunity after the other, was this close.

My roommate in the hospital tells me how lucky I am. She says that when she arrived there was no toilet paper or paper towels in the bathroom. "How am I supposed to wipe myself without no toilet paper?" she asked. Indeed. Great to be alive. Later I request a private room. But her line of thinking gets me asking questions of my own, big questions. The biggest questions come at meal time, such as, what is it?

One evening the nurse comes in with my dinner tray. I situate myself upright in bed so as to feed myself, and lift the cover off the entree. They've served me my own pancreas. What's more is they try to pass it off as Italian beef. I tell the nurse there's been a mistake. I think I may have somebody else's tray. "No," she says, "no mistake."

So many questions. So many, many questions. Oh, the morphine drip provides five or six brilliant answers, but I can't remember them now.

I blather away the hours in a semi-fog of hope that maybe the doctors missed something. Maybe I'm not so lucky after all. Maybe they're wrong about me. Maybe I won't have to return to that world of tending bar, and waiting tables, and customers with their selfish tastes and relentless hungers for penny ante attention. No more train and bus connections.

The flowers and get well cards will keep coming in all day long, the few days I'll have remaining. And friends will flock in from the trees or wherever it is they've been hiding, and tell me over and over again how much they love me. They'll tell me not so much in words but in the way they massage my feet, get me ice cream, and bring me gifts. "Not another book on the mind-body connection. Oh, put it with the stack of others there in the corner. Did you find out if Toshiro had any more of those little bed jackets for me?"

Dr. Fargate comes and goes with his probing brigade. I think the Pakistani has a crush on me. Anyway, he's barely an intern.

Later Dr. Fargate returns alone with something serious to tell me. "We've taken a second look at your biopsy report. I'm afraid we're looking at stage four. It's critical." "Oh, thank God. I thought you were going to talk about my bill." He tells me at this point I should do anything to lift my spirits.

That night there is a champagne party in my room for the entire ward. I let one of the nurses wear my bed cap, the one with mink along the brim. A few of us are busted for smoking in the bathroom. Drunk on Fools Wit long after the others have returned to their rooms, I prank phone call various former employers, leaving messages of hell-born prophecy on their voice mail. I make a list of hardships and collection agencies I will escape if I were to die. How soon is now?

At night I dream I am a beekeeper developing a strain of worker bees that automatically die before their pension fund kicks in. Because the fund only amounts to a thimble full of pollen, the early death is useful. I wake with the image of me standing before a subcommittee selling a special gas made from identical molecular bee genetics that can be sprayed on postal employees. I hold a sign that reads, works until drops dead.

Act Five. On the Edge of the World.

Ira Glass

Act Five, On the Edge of the World.

Matthew Goulish

How do I sustain interest in a world that I'm scheduled not to be a part of very soon?

Ira Glass

Matthew Goulish says that when he had cancer, he found that he couldn't cry. He would hear bad news about people who he knew, fellow patients who he heard had died, and he says that he just didn't feel much. It was as if he had arrived at a state where all the events of the world seemed of equal weight, of equal importance. Well, we thought we would give Matthew the last word in today's program.

Matthew Goulish

In 1994, six years after I had been cured, an acquaintance of mine contracted lymphoma. I wrote her a letter which I never delivered-- until now.

Dear Brigid, as our small party waited for the table, talking among ourselves at the Greek restaurant last night, I noticed you looking at the display of fresh foods-- heaps of hazelnuts, walnuts, leaves of oregano, bottles of oils on the dark wood cutting block. You watched the cook chopping up onions, and I recognized the look on your face. Events had equalized for you. You had been pulled three quarters out of the world, and I wanted to say what's happening to you is not fair. It's not time yet, and statements of that kind.

But when you are leaving the world you understand that it isn't death that is strange and fearsome, but life. How is this struggling life possible? How are these people possible? How am I possible? I am not.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced by Nancy Updike, Alix Spiegel, and myself. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin. Music help from John Connors, Peter Margasak, and Steve Cushing. Thanks to Bridget Murphy.

The first version of this episode of our radio show aired back in 1995. In the years since then, I am sorry to report Lawrence Steger, the writer and performer in Act Two, has died. A very wonderful man.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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PRI, Public Radio International.