One Disappears

By Eric Le Roy

Content 18+

I don’t get out much anymore, which is not the way I’ve lived my life. I’m 74, but that’s nothing; after a lifetime of excess, I’ve been pretty much a workaholic for the past 15 years. I’ve built a business as an ESL tutor, first by pounding the streets in Moscow, now and for the past six years working long days and evenings online with clients everywhere in the world particularly in China.

My wife is Russian; runs all aspects of the home and beyond: paying the bills, making necessary (and pleasurable as she wishes) purchases. She is a master decorator, accomplished self-taught painter, and good enough on the piano to keep me, the dogs, and our cat happily entertained.

Not perfect, but an efficient design of life and division of labor. Both our sexual frolicking and periodic head-butting are behind us. We are happy, and whomever of us survives the longest will look back on it all as being even happier than it can possibly seem now. That’s what loss does to you: it reminds you that you were happy when you didn’t know it.

That happiness nearly ended for both of us between the beginning of August and the first week and a half of September. We both nearly died back-to-back.

About six months ago Liubov suffered an attack of gallstones which had her stretched cadaverously on the sofa until the ambulance came. Her Russian mentality dreading the very idea of doctors and hospitals, I practically had to push her out the door. She was back by evening, fit as fiddle, so it appeared. Over the following months, we kind of forgot about the gallstones.

In the meantime, I had grown bloated and short-winded. The breathing problem started back in Moscow when I used to rush up the escalators (they are often very steep), my back loaded with a rucksack full of books, as part of my fitness regimen. I started to notice that once I had reached the top, I had about a minute where it was hard to breathe.

As this condition got slowly worse, I put it down to COPD. No less than I deserved, I concluded, having been an on-and-off heavy smoker between long spells of total fitness. But then I started to develop a rather amazing – and embarrassing paunch. Increasingly short-winded (carrying bags of groceries up the stairs left me gasping) and bulging like Flatulence Headquarters or maybe an aquarium full of dead catfish, I felt ashamed.

But then a cardiologist friend of mine examined me and said I had ‘heart failure’ (an ominous-sounding verdict if ever I heard one) and that the problem was that my right ventricle had all but packed it in. The blood wouldn’t do its proper postman routine and so a lot of the letters were not getting delivered. Hence the fluid build-up. Edema of calves, ankles, and feet ensued, and what was amazing was that my skin began to stiffen and flake and change color; it was like I was becoming part man and part crocodile. And my ankles started to itch. Unbearably. I would scratch like a motherfucker, even drawing blood, and if not to an angry crimson shade, my skin would alter into a covering of white ash, as if someone’s ‘cremain’s’ had hit a badly aimed blow dryer and landed on me. My feet started to look like miniature sea cows.

Strange to say, none of this really frightened me. Rather, it was somehow just…fascinating…watching myself slowly rot before my very eyes. But there was no pain, never a twinge or pang; otherwise, I’d have run for help a lot sooner. Diuretics were recommended and consumed avidly, the result being jackhammer torrents of piss that seemed to have minds of their own. When it started it wouldn’t stop, like a loquacious tour-guide who won’t shut up. So I would stand there and look on, a mere spectator to a Niagara of urine. With my little red, constantly itching nose, my laundromat stomach and leprosy legs, I was too ashamed of myself even to watch a porn film. I was afraid the ‘actors’ would stop fucking and sucking and laugh at me.

That’s how low my self-esteem was. Yet I kept working, hour after hour, day after day. When I could sit and catch my breath, everything seemed fine. I have no idea what I expected out of all this. I just knew it didn’t hurt and if it didn’t hurt I could keep working. It’s all I was good for.

Through the whole of this, Liuba just soldiered on as usual. Once very thin and sharp-featured to go with her imposing height (not uncommon in Russia), she had gradually become, well, not fat but somewhat massive. Sort of like a boxer who starts out as a lightweight or welterweight and ends up as a cruiser or heavyweight. Like a goldfish who escapes from a fishbowl into a pond and ‘fills out’ accordingly. Liuba’s dimensions apparently had reached those of her mother, whom I never meant. In short, my wife had gone from a lithe raven-headed streak of midnight into a full day at the beach. Still strikingly handsome in clothes, let us say.

I had, for years, been stashing money aside so that when I snuffed it she could still have a good life, which back in Russia during perestroika she never had. Back there she and her daughter ate sugar for breakfast and salt for dinner. Now, along with all the goodies my slightly more than modest income has provided, I wanted to leave her as well off as my step-dad did with my mother. Pretty much a selfish ass all my life, this was the one Good Deed that I was implacably dedicated to. Exactly when I would die remained a mystery I didn’t want to solve, but that was the general plan.

It all changed one morning in early August when, rising at 5.30 as always, I came huffing and puffing into the apartment only to find Liuba emerging from the toilet in extreme discomfort. Then it got worse. And still worse. One ambulance came and went because Liuba refused to go to the hospital. She called the second ambulance herself.

I expected her home later on and went about my business, seeing no reason to ride with her to the hospital where I would just be in the way. Even then, believe it or not, I was not terribly concerned.

It turned out that my wife had severe necrotic pancreatitis with hemorrhaging. In the emergency surgery to save her life (and the odds were not in her favor), they drained no less than two liters of blood from her stomach. We almost lost her.

Now is the time perhaps to discuss some of the medical policies and ‘traditions’ that exist in Bulgaria. Of course, as in Russia and many other European countries (especially in Eastern Europe) we have what are called ‘polyclinics’. As hospitals for the masses, it can be said in their favor that they are free. But so are soup kitchens. The quality of medical assistance varies; there are good if somewhat dated ‘Soviet’-style doctors who, while lacking the compassionate ‘bedside manner’ of connecting with patients as American doctors used to do, a lot of them ‘know their stuff’. Why shouldn’t they? Why should they all be fools? They aren’t. But there are others whose credentials are dubious and who purely and simply don’t really give a fuck if you live or die. Nor do they mind making their attitude completely obvious to you.

Living a long time in Russia, I had long since grown accustomed to the ‘abruptness’ and ‘brusqueness’ (these are nice words for ‘rude’) of the personnel of shops and clinics, buses and kiosks. At first I even thought it was charming in its way because, frankly, I was sick of all the empty “Have a nice day-s” in America and the pseudo politeness of the UK. For a glowering Russian woman of great hulk and heft straight from the peasant farm or collective factory to glare at you while you counted out your kopecks to pay for your spotty apples…. for a spell seemed a welcome antidote to all perfunctory, metronome-like pleasantries of the West.

But after a while it gets old – really old – being treated like your very existence is an inconvenience – if not an insult – to some old communist hag or braindead young yob who can’t be bothered – or never learned – basic civility.

Polyclinics are invariably great monoliths of murky misery, warehouses where dead clocks create time vacuums because nothing ever seems to actually happen. They are always the dreary green-brown-gray hue that reminds you of a tremendous upset stomach in some sick Cyclops. No matter how feeble and crumpled you are, you keep half-expecting a sneering overseer to hand you a mop and tell you to swab the floors or else the leg irons will be clamped on again. There are no waiting rooms, just benches outside the doors to offices inside which the doctors sequester themselves. It really and truly seems that those doors will never open and the supplicants will sit there until the end of time.

But of course they do and, one by one, it all works out. In places such as Bulgaria, this is just how it’s done. You rarely if ever hear a complaint, which is strange because, in the US, people are always pissed off if the artwork or magazines in the waiting lounge aren’t to their liking. Funny how the world functions like that, isn’t it?

But, Praise the Lord (I am pretty much of an atheist but here I don’t know what the fuck else to say), my wife pulled through. Sometimes I think she wishes she hadn’t. She spent a month, a month, flat on her back in a ward (no TV, no food, no toilet paper) staring up at the ceiling. She had more wires and plugs in her than you would see coming out from underneath the cars in a metro station. How she endured it all, I’ll never know. Fortunately, Liuba is very methodical, actually, a bit elephant-like, in thought and deed. Effective ultimately but Never at presto pace.

She once rode a train from Varna to Siberia. Three days of looking out the window, and if you think that crossing Russia’s eleven time zones in a train might constitute a wonderful and enlightening cultural experience, think again. People who have done it say it’s as exciting as sitting in a chair watching your great grandmother age from 85 to 89 without ever moving except to go piss or shit in some of the nastiest toilets the Great Shithouse Maker in the Sky ever dreamed up. That’s Russia by rail the old-fashioned way. And that’s how it was in that room.

But the surgeon was a champion. He saved my wife’s life. And this lets you in on a little secret. In places like Bulgaria where the infrastructure is not always state-of-the-art, people simply have to cut corners. It’s a bit like going to some restaurant where the meat courses are succulent and the vegetables come out of a can. Not like in America where buying a house means investing in the entire neighborhood. In Bulgaria you hope that the essentials are up to par and try to be a good sport if you step in a sinkhole or pile of dogshit on your way to the opera house.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Quirkily, I suppose, my wife and I like to watch films about psychopaths (part of a YouTube menu she came across by accident), usually young nannies who Make a Good First Impression until they start hacking up the family members. Most of this second rate shit is filmed in LA, and the residential houses where the affluent and very unsuspecting families live and start their morning joshing with each other while they polish off their bananas and all-grain cereal are, without fail, half-mansions with kitchens like the dining areas on cruise ships and lawns big enough to host a golf tournament.

You kind of hate them for this because well, it’s just ‘the normal thing’, isn’t it? – the sterile perfection of the American DREAM. And you can’t help wondering what these assholes ever did to deserve such a Fun House since in the films life seems to be one long aerobics class followed by five hours of yoga and brunch at the Beautiful People Cafe. But then the psychopathic nanny restores order. In Bulgaria, it’s not often that there are nannies, hence the body parts stay attached to their rightful owners.

In Bulgarian hospitals there is never any toilet paper. You wonder why. In some parts of the country (and elsewhere) toilet seats have not become popular and you just shit through a hole in the floor. So maybe it’s no wonder that toilet paper is not on the corporation’s Christmas list either. Bring your own ‘napkins’, let the turdy leftovers dry between your cheeks, or mop them out with your arm: those are your choices. Nobody in Bulgaria ever started a revolution because of such inconveniences.

Then there is the food. In Russia, I knew a woman who, during a long stay in a больница (hospital), said that she was served cabbage (sometimes in soup form, sometimes not) twice a day for a month. My wife, once she was allowed to eat solid food, was at one point given a plastic container full of brown noodles that looked like worms out of a stray dog. ‘Intestine Delight’ – I called it. (When later on I was in the cardiac unit at a different hospital, they served the same damned noodles to me. Brown and Cold. Every now and then something edible came along, and there was always brown bread. No butter. But it was something.)

Whether this utterly unappealing and unappetizing situation is due to lack of funds or sheer indifference, I cannot say. A little of both, I suspect. It’s like in Russia where if you are having an abscessed tooth pulled (or ‘deleted’) as they say, you can pay extra for the pain killer. The quality of the anesthesia depends on your outlay. A little bit of money gets you a little bit of anesthesia which makes the pain go away a little bit. The rest is up to you. No Pay, no Gain

Anyway, after a month – and when fears of the need for a second operation had been put to rest, Liuba came home. Skinny, wasted, and wobbly, but home. In the meantime I had been doing everything to keep our home functioning as well as working full time. I thought we were ‘out of the woods.’

But on Thursday morning, about a week after she returned, I accompanied her to the hospital in the early hours to have her stomach dressing changed. (There is still a discharge of fluid). On our way back we stopped (in the taxi) at the ‘dog shop’. I got out of the car and started walking toward the door.

And died. With no warning at all an irresistible Black Curtain swept over me. It covered 90 per cent of me, then vanished, and I was able to sit down and regain my wits. But this was NOT the product of dizziness, light-headedness, or feeling faint; there were no preliminaries, no chance to take a breath, put my head between my legs, or simply try to ‘walk it off’, as in a panic attack. No chance to run for cover or have my ‘seconds’ throw in the towel. This was the supreme black-out, it was the end of life, the end of existence. For in that moment – no mistake about it – I ceased to exist. There was no possible way to resist this force because there was no ‘me’ left to resist it.

I am not making this up. I am not exaggerating. And I certainly did NOT have any sort of affirmative, illuminating ‘out-of-body’ experience. No white lights, no sudden visions of eternity ‘flashing before my eyes’. Even my mind disappeared. I died and I did not exist anymore.

This lasted for.…what? A second? A split second? But its totality, its beyond-all-argument absoluteness, its total instantaneous obliteration of all I was – I will remember it until the next time. And I know perfectly well what it was. I got a reprieve, sure enough. But now I know what it’s like to drop dead in the middle of the street. There is no theory, no language, no metaphor, to describe it. Death.

Death.

Somehow I made it through a long work day, but by Friday morning I knew I couldn’t continue. An ambulance was called and it turned out that my heart was down to 20 beats a minute. Normal is 60-90. My heart was as faint as the smile of an ex-wife if you meet her by chance in a supermarket.

What was called for was a Pacemaker. These gadgets are pretty standard nowadays, and this was going to be my lifesaver. The only problem was that the surgeon had left work for the weekend break (well-deserved) and all I could do was lie there and wait till Monday. No phone, no books, nothing, and a wife still too sick to impose on. It was worse than a weekend in the lock-up of the county jail back in Florida, where I was a Saturday-Sunday guest once upon a time.

Monday would be the surgery. I waited, waited, and then was elated: Monday morning. Pacemaker today, go home tomorrow. But then the brass came in and told me that I didn’t have the right kind of insurance and they needed the money up front before they would do the surgery.

???????

Can’t you just send me a bill??? Nope, not in Bulgaria. OK, let me go to the bank and get the money. Nope, we can’t let you out in case you fall down in the street. Really? Then do the surgery and I’ll give you the money tomorrow. Nope, No Can Do. Bulgarian Law. Well, guys, you should just let me go to the bank, NOPE. Why not? Since you obviously DON’T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT ME. IT’S THE M.O.N.E.Y YOU WANT, RIGHT??

Eventually, poor Liuba, accompanied by a friend who literally held her upright as she crept along, crept her way to the bank and the money was brought to the hospital like a sack of gold from Treasure Island. All right, you Cocksuckers, DO THE SURGERY. OK, but not until tomorrow.

So I had another day staring into space in the cardio unit. Which was all I had to stare into for the following reason:

What made things worse was this INFERNAL way that Bulgarian floor staff (nurses, doctors, etc) simply REFUSE to even look at the patients. They won’t even make eye contact with you. There you are, latched to a cot in the corner of the room, surrounded by others in the same shape as you, and the nursing station with all its screens and other gadgets is in the center of the room. And none of these people – I mean NONE of them – either through deliberate training or sheer brutal insensitivity – will even LOOK at you.

You might think I am exaggerating, but I’m not. You call them, they mostly just wave you away. They might as well give you the finger or pull down their pants and shoot you a moon. They don’t give a fuck. YOU are not a person, you are a medical chart. They see NO CONNECTION between the hearts they are monitoring and the people in whom the hearts are still beating. Or trying to beat.

It was the most infuriating goddamn thing I’ve ever been through, and in typical Le Roy fashion I eventually started making my sentiments very Loud and Clear. I think that some of them despised me for it; a few may have respected my feelings. A couple even became friendly.

The surgeon himself was a great guy and a great doctor. What a weird experience.

It’s just Bulgarian mentality, I was informed.

Everything seems to come down to somebody’s goddamned mentality when even most dogs know to wag their tails if you are friendly to them.

I am home now and feeling great. The problem again is my wife, who must follow a very strict diet and simply won’t eat. After all this, anorexia is the last thing we need. Anyway her sister is coming from Siberia in the wee hours tomorrow, and I am hoping she will make Liuba eat.

So finally, I am left with this: Liubov Le Roy and Eric Le Roy, living normal, regular lives, almost disintegrated back to back. We both shook the Death Merchant’s glacial hand and tasted his musty breath. We are still here, but this sort of thing really shakes you up. I am not going to end this article by talking about how fragile life is and putting out a bunch of life-affirming bullshit.

I have known and understood for a long time that we humans are nothing more animals that live and die along with the rest. We may have bright light bulbs in our heads, but after a while those lights go out along with everything else. We think we are different. We build ‘civilizations’ that can collapse in an instant; we speak of ‘saving the planet’ that we have shat upon like no other living thing EVER, when in fact the planet will save itself long after we are gone.

If my wife and I had died, only our dogs and cat would have really suffered, as the Innocents always do. We would have been forgotten in no longer than it would take to clear out this apartment for the next buyer.

That’s what life is, and I would advise anyone who reads this NEVER to forget it. But my own special caveat, my ‘take away’ from all this, is that I now know what Death is. Maybe not what it might become or evolve into if there are a bunch of angels and devils hanging around some distant exit. But Dylan Thomas wrote, “After the first death, there is no other.” You can interpret that line (“A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire, in London”) in a lot of different ways. But I now know something I didn’t know before. I know what the first death is.

Does it mean that I am now relaxed, all at ease, because what I dreaded all my life does not seem like a secret anymore? No, not at all. I remain as before. I know what’s coming but getting on terms with the end of existence, of not being there – or anywhere – any more – Well … .Hmmm…

Emily Dickenson wrote the following lines:

There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –

Between the light – and me –

And then the Windows failed – and then

I could not see to see –

“I could not see to see.” Yes, something like that. Not the impact of a plane crash; you have had time to think about it on the way down. You understand the intentions of the serial killer when he locks you in the backroom or leads you into the woods. The terminal disease. The Firing Squad. There is still time for a last breath and a quick look at the scenery.

But the death I died was – for an instant, only an instant I say – a nothingness of no metaphor. For a split second I knew, not what it is to die (that’s the soft version) but what it’s like to Not Exist.

My wife now seems to lack the will to live, and I hope she comes out of it. I don’t have that problem. I want to go on and on.

But it’s not going to be that way. Death is not a mean guy. He’s not the zombie in the nightmare. Not the sniper in the bushes nor the assassin in the crowd. He’s not the old school principal with the big paddle-board to plant on your rear end (in my youth) nor is he the bully in the schoolyard ready to beat your ass for candy.

It is what happens when you cease to exist even before the bag of groceries you are carrying has had time to hit the floor. The instantaneous end of all your senses. The moment when there is no nothing in the Nothing.

When you can not See to See.

Finally, you may wonder why I chose to place the photo of a perfectly healthy Victorian child — a smiling little boy no less — as the heading for an essay on such a baleful topic as this.

Take a closer look. The little boy is dead.

In those days, it was something of a fashion among the well-to-do, albeit a macabre one to modern sensibilities, to make such photographs of dead family members. There was a lot of infant mortality back then, and maybe this was a kind of psychological cushion — it’s not for me to say. But even if the early phases of life were survived, other comedians could come along to fuck up the fun. Tuberculosis was a regular house guest and party crasher, to name just one of the lethal interlopers.

What amazes me is how casually the dead sit among the living in those photos, of which there are scores: it’s sometimes hard to tell the animate and the inanimate apart unless you look long and hard at the eyes. Then even when the dead are smiling, the lack of something emerges, something in the strangely glittering expressions. For an instant you can feel the distance. And then it almost seems to jump back into place.

It’s why I have chosen to call this collection of essays Ephemeral Eternity.

In the old days of pantheism and many, many gods, the dead and the living were not strangers to one another. I even imagine them meeting in the street, as in ‘The Day of the Dead’, which they celebrate in Mexico. “Hello Live One”. “Hello Dead One. Let’s have some tequila together, a toast to both of us.”

It’s a beautiful thought apropos of a beautiful arrangement. Anyway, the whole deal is nature’s combination, and so it must be right, yes? (Technology may yet change that.)

But see how the autumn leaves adjoin to summer to make the Great Wheel. So let us rejoice !!

Don’t be deceived. The Mona Lisa and the little boy seem to be watching you. Smiling their strange smiles.

But they aren’t. Whoever they were, they are not there now, and you’ll never find them.

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