Updated: Jul 24, 2021
There are two times I have faced death. I would say three, for I spent a little time in Israel when Hamas shot rockets over the border; but those missiles are so weak, so inaccurate, and so often intercepted that it would be a gross exaggeration to say I faced death then; perhaps if a rocket had dropped within a few feet, then yes—but it never happened. What I took from Israel was the wail from the sirens. The air-raid siren has a lacuna-like quality to it, the whirlpool drains emotion away and leaves you cold—perhaps cold enough to shiver, even in the Mediterranean heat. I would gather up the dogs that belonged to my landlords, lesbians from San Francisco who voted Obama in America and dreamed of Palestinian extermination in Israel, and wait under the strongest concrete beam in the house.
The first near-death experience I encountered was also ambiguous. From an early age, I had an instinct—a voice inside, really—that said one day my appendix would cause me trouble. The basic thought was appendicitis, but it included a general sensation that my appendix would have to be removed. I had a similar intuition, among others, as regards an eccentric soldier I read about in a history book when I was young. This British soldier shed limbs across continental Europe and Asia—survived an air crash, even—and went on to live to an old age, a crusader against the National Socialists and the Communists. This peculiar figure, with his eyepatch and missing arm, fascinated me; but I never told anyone about my interest, least of all my parents. Yet they sent me to the same school as this soldier and for four years I would walk past his portrait every day. It seems to me to have been a premonition. Another time, I visited a holiday cottage and when I arrived I ran my hand over the thatch. In my mind, I saw a great flame wall and the thatch burned away; later, in a photograph album in the cottage, I found pictures of a time the cottage had burned down and was reconstructed. What, if anything, these experiences mean I cannot tell: a quirk in the cosmos, psychic prefiguration, or something entirely different—I have no idea.
In my second year at university, I felt a persistent pain in my abdomen and when the doctors at the casualty unit prodded it they agreed, quite quickly, that my appendix had to come out—and swiftly proceeded to question me as to my drug use, quite convinced that no university student could be drug-free. I awoke from the morphia in considerable elation, the dreams, as described by De Quincey, had been remarkable. I had seen spangled Busby Berkeley dancers can-can on vast illuminated letters that reached to the skies; it was so beautiful I wanted to stay and stay—just like a heroin addict.
There was a surprise: the appendix was not inflamed. For a few months I limped about the house with the stitches in place and then, as with all gradual transitions, one day I started to walk normally and upright again, no longer an atavistic man-ape. It was about eight months later that I received a letter from the hospital to inform me that, in fact, they had discovered a tumour on my appendix—a very indolent tumour, the type that takes thirty years or more to kill, but a tumour nonetheless. The NHS is not a rapid response organisation, but, then again, it was very unlikely to spread; such tumours rarely metastasised—there was no more to say.
Three years passed, I left university and began to work; and I also lost considerable weight—a radical diet, for I often act radically. Yet with the weight loss came a pain on the right side of my body—a pain such that I had never experienced before. It was pain where my liver sat. The liver: the organ of prophesy, the organ of purification, and the organ that was plucked from Prometheus. Eventually, the sensation intensified to a persistent citric burn, as if an organ had swollen from within my body and wanted to force its way through my ribs. This time there was a long wait for admission to the ward. I sat in a chair, caught between the pain and the desire to sleep, deep into the early morning hours. I awoke on a general ward, across the way from a genuine slatternly prole who screamed: “I want a white doctor! I want a fuckin’ white doctor!” I ruefully observed to myself that she would be very lucky to have such a doctor here, for we were in Britain’s second city; and we were in a section where perhaps 85% of the population were Asian. “If you want to be treated you better be quiet, love,” I said to myself under my breath, perhaps experiencing the slight ideological frisson of someone who semi-accepts what we are told is good for us, our beautiful multicultural society.
It was the hospital where my grandfather died: a concrete block that stretched for miles, nestled within grey and decayed houses. Outside empty crisp packets turned in the breeze. A scant newly-planted tree bent in the wind. Inside, the ceilings were oppressively low and the floors coloured to match the vomit which splattered on them. The curtains were the only vivid colour, a bright blue. It was a bad place to die.
It took perhaps three days for the doctors to reach a conclusion. The young Sikh doctor sat on the end of my bed and said that, in their judgement, from my liver function tests—quite anomalous—and my substantial and rapid weight loss the tumour from my appendix had indeed, as happens in statistically rare cases with tumours of this type, metastasised to my liver—if such a tumour spread, it usually appeared in the liver next.
“Now it is treatable,” he said. Yet I knew already, having researched the tumour at the time it was first found, that if it metastasised then there was no cure—it was merely a matter of how long it would take to kill me. This is why doctors are very careful to say treatable, I mean if somebody sticks a knife through your heart it is treatable—perhaps you can buy them a few minutes with correctly applied pressure, but it is not curable. In fact, the same doctor had already stood outside with my family and frankly said I would live two years at maximum, and this is why you should never trust a doctor. Naturally, as with all terminal cases, nobody actually said this to me; it was the usual terminal conspiracy of silence. “Do you know what we know that you know—you have inferred this from the fact it is treatable, yes?”
Later, as I did my time on the ward, I listened to the doctors hang back with another patient’s wife. I listened to them tell her about the extent to which her husband’s guts had been chewed through by cancer, the limited treatment modalities—the imminent terminal pathway; and then, since he was behind a curtain on the other side of my bed, I heard them deliver the cheerful news that they had treatment plan X or Y to consider; and everybody nodded along and it was all to be taken as jolly uplifting.
“Oh the liver grows back! They can cut it out again and again,” said an old housemate from my student days, a cheerful Ghanaian biology student named after Augustus Caesar—African elite, you see. As Prometheus knew when that old bird ravaged his liver day after day, the liver grows back—prophetic organ, Promethean organ; it comes back again and again. It is strange that the ancients knew that; they knew from mythological times that the liver grows back, and so the Promethean myth. I suppose surgery was pretty sophisticated in those days; they could see much, much that we have forgotten—livers do not grow back altogether, not in modernity.
So out I went, discharged home to wait for the referral to the cancer ward. There was no particular flash, no sudden elation at the world’s beauty—for me that all came later. There was a general numbness; the world felt very close, the borders were very clear now. There was much to read online, various treatments and hopefully hopeless treatment plans—nothing too crazy; not crystals, not yet. And yet, strange to report, the printed sheet from my CAT scan—the scan that the kind little Filipino nurse wheeled me down to—told the bold story: No Anomalies Detected (NAD). Nada. Nothing. A clean liver, so far as this wavelength was concerned.
It took three or four months for the NHS to take action; days passed, no referral came. I read a then-recent book about death by some liberal intellectual entitled Nothing to be Frightened Of. I was frightened; the intellectual did not convince, not at all. I remembered, vaguely, always being horrified at the way Jack Kerouac died; he choked to death on his own blood, vomited up due to alcohol-induced liver failure. This scene always lingers with me; back then, it was incidental—an intimation of what might come, something to be half played with and half pushed away. Now, in a less materialist mode, I sense other possibilities; the unknown possibilities alluded to in this story’s first paragraphs.
I rehearsed my final moments; and yet…something was not quite right, because deep down I knew that the situation was not as it appeared to be. After two months had passed a second scan was arranged. Silence. Then, sure enough, after four months a letter arrived from my GP that announced that, in fact, they had changed their minds—as doctors do from time to time—and, as it happened, I was not terminally ill. I just had a benign liver condition that sometimes produces anomalous results on tests for liver function; very occasionally this condition causes pain, and this had happened to me. So…no anomalies detected. Carry on. The NHS, as you can see, is not exactly a rapid reaction organisation, but, on the other hand, at least the surgeons had not experimentally removed a few liver slices to nibble with a Chianti—nor had they pumped me with chemotherapy chemicals or sautéed me with radiation. Bureaucratic inertia has some advantages.
Of course, this diagnosis was also bullshit. I finally worked out what had happened myself; my doctor had ignored or I had not said firmly enough that I had been on a diet. The sudden weight loss—put very unscientifically—put pressure on my liver and caused the pain, it was as if I had been cast into the Alaskan wilderness, no more or less. The stresses are simple enough to look up for yourself; the fats break down, the liver groans—there are biochemical reactions. Today, I would not settle for this treatment, but I was in my early twenties then and still malleable. Today, I really would say: “Give it to me straight, doc.” A corny line, but the line exists because doctors refuse to give it to you straight; and they will make your family complicit in their lies as well. Doctors are evasive and dishonest bastards; ultimately, nobody looks after your health except you—and certainly not the state, certainly not the NHS. The British will tell you they love the NHS in company, but then—being weasel humans—will turn to each other when the time is quiet and boast sotto voce that their next appointment is private.
For centuries, doctors were regarded as quacks; and this opinion was formed on the basis of solid evidence—mostly they had no idea what they were doing and killed more than they saved. The medical profession has only raised its esteem since penicillin was discovered and then mass produced in the 1940s; and penicillin’s discovery was an accident, a fluke—without that fluke people would not think nearly so much of doctors today. Before penicillin, it was common enough to have a silly accident—drop a hammer on your toe, perhaps—and then die of blood poisoning a week later. Tant pis. After penicillin, it seemed that doctors could suddenly “do” something for everything, and often with results that felt like legitimate magic. Similarly, medicine has had a boost from improvements in public sanitation, mainly down to engineers, and the discovery—fiercely resisted by the medical profession, so much so they threw the man who made it into an asylum—that washing your hands prevents doctors from polishing off their own patients. Indeed, doctors still struggle to wash their hands today, the dirty bastards.
This might lay it on a bit thick, but medicine has almost become a substitute religion. The writer-doctor Céline saw patients deep into his disgraceful retirement. “Mainly old women,” he reported. “They come to show me their tits. They like the younger doctor to have a look, then they go away happy. There’s nothing wrong, but it makes the old bitches happy.” I have paraphrased, but the gist is correct; and there are plenty of women—men, too—who get their tits out in order to find some relief from anxiety, or to look for reassurance thanks to the doctor—thanks to the medical priest. No wonder this profession is high on its own supply; they have a certain wit, of course; I once discovered a growth on my penis and had to have it examined. The doctor looked at my organ and flatly stated: “It’s nothing.” They say I am quite benign, and in so many ways—and that is medically certified.
Deep down, I knew it was not death. It was a simulation, a dummy run for what was to come. Yet even a simulation has certain lessons; the unease, the lies—“Oh, we didn’t want to hurt you!” Hurt me, please hurt me—give me truth, not forced jollity. Perhaps if I had the truth sooner, the real truth—there was nothing wrong—could have been uncovered all the better. The doctor is a good liar, and that is bad for his patients; but everyone else will lock into the lie as well. They fear death, you see; and fair enough. “What do you say?” “Let’s not make an issue of it.” I say: to hell with all that; just say what you think and feel. Apparently, when faced with death the human urge is to increase the lies; it should matter less, but death was the secret they concealed all along—so to keep it hushed up becomes even more vital. “I just don’t know what to say.” They do not know what to say because they have spent their whole lives enmeshed in lies—especially the doctors; so just consider the implications for medical science, such as that is. When death arrives they look for more lies, although there is always redemption in a shattered illusion.
The initial swerve was not too severe; at first, the girl, who reacted to my tantrum at our misinterpreted directions with a wobble at the wheel, was in control. The problem is that when you decide to drive at sixty-five and then wobble the wheel—just to break up the argument’s flow and give your boyfriend a little scare—there are certain, I suppose, feedbacks in operation; and so what started as a gentle wobble became a steady oscillation as the estate car began to traverse the two darkened lanes on the dual carriageway. People always say that time slows down in a car crash. This was not my experience; everything happened at normal speed, so far as my brain was concerned. The oscillations became so severe that that the car fishtailed to the left and received a definite dull bang to the rear; it screeched from left to right and, as it did so, the force from the impact threw my head, despite my seatbelt, against the upper left side of the cabin; a quick, definite impact.
We sat directly across the slow lane and blocked it entirely; the headlights, somewhat lopsidedly bled to yellow after the impact, shone on the grass verge. Around me every window had cracked, as thin ice on a frozen pond cracks to the touch. I turned to open the door. The handle was limp. I pulled it and nothing happened. In the distance, by far the most unpleasant moment this, I could see other cars on the approach. I could see them, but they could not see us; they did not expect to see a car straddled across the carriageway; unless they were alert in reaction—not certain at 00:30—they would smash into the car, into my side. “Out! Out!” I was over the backseat to the rear passenger door, the steel had completely caved in so that it occupied half the seat; and this was fortunate, for the window had exploded too, so I climbed through it and landed on the broken glass outside.
As I exited the window, I saw my girlfriend behind; she had been fine from the first moments; and I called to her to get out right away; but, of course, the silly girl was more interested in her iPhone—and this was how I knew she was fine from the first. She had gone to scrabble for it; people who are injured do not scrabble for their smartphones. Despite the oncoming traffic, despite my shouts, the silly girl wanted her silly phone—she wanted it more than she wanted to live. I believe that is what is called a revealed preference; and in the months that followed it would be revealed that she had preferences for other men than me—perhaps why she wanted to keep her phone so secret. So, apart from pulling her out by force I had no option but to jump out the window. I was not going to die for her iPhone. Finally, she retrieved the phone and I helped her out the window.
We stood on the verge and watched the cars, on what was a quiet road, dart to the right to avoid the sudden block in the road. Perhaps there was a triangle in the back, a warning triangle—it was her parent’s car, so I did not know. Besides, I was reluctant to venture to the boot as the cars pummelled on. As each arrived within twenty feet of the car, I waited for the one driver without quick enough reflexes who would carry on straight through—and so add, perhaps, death or injury to what was our mutual irresponsibility. We stood in the cold and held each other, and just like in the movies and cheap novels and all the rest said “I love you, I love you, I love you” over and over again—there is surely no time to be more in love than when one of you has tried to kill the other.
We came out without a single scratch, not one—though I had, I must admit, a bruise on my head from the impact; and I slept lightly that night, for I imagined, perhaps, a haemorrhage; a nice irony, to survive the crash without a scratch but to die in your sleep—such things have happened before. My brain replayed the accident over and over again for my mind that night. I suppose it did so to teach me: absolutely, on no account, do this again; if you do this again, it could be fatal—never take any of the steps that led to this again. It was close, very close: I suppose the distance between my door and the door that received the full impact from the concrete spar at the roadside was slightly over a foot, maybe less. I remembered how deeply the steel had intruded on the rear passenger seat. It would have intruded into my flesh; death, quite likely—death or paralysis, my spine moved on the horizontal from an impact at sixty-five. I doubt there would be much left; and yet here I was without a scratch, and ready to cover for the silly girl—not that anyone really believed the cover story, on the subject of lies again; always the veil is drawn, always by unstated mutual agreement.
So I came out without a scratch again; saved for some purpose—or just lucky, just cause and effect all plotted out in an invisible and indifferent chain too complex to describe. And I was very relieved, so much so I could almost feel the weight rise off my body, that nobody else was injured—to injure or kill someone else for a lovers’ tiff would be a heavy burden to carry. So we stepped out and on, though I was yet to draw the lesson from her phone—to understand that she really loved the phone, and, closer to the heart, the messages on the phone. But I am too soft or too foolish and so I let the relationship limp on, despite the fact she almost killed me, until it all reached its inevitable and grotesque conclusion.
Today, people talk about trauma a great deal. Death tickled me with his brush, so am I traumatised? Perhaps I should consider my mental health, sue someone, or write tweets worded in such a way that I will receive strokes from anons on Twitter—the stroke that never satisfies, for it is bought with a lie; only the sure punch to the stomach, the truth, delivers satisfaction. As to these incidents I feel not a moment’s pain or regret or debilitation. After the car crash, I felt so alive: life had been shot through every vein. Life said: you must live, now look at everything—look how vivid it all is. Look for threats, too—anticipate the next concrete beam. Trauma is real, the psychic equivalent to a piece of metal that works under the skin after an accident and, lost to surgery, irritates the patient for years. The memory turns in the mind and the patient feels that it is still there; perhaps they are still there—back there at the event. Yet this term ”trauma” has also been exaggerated, it is a chance for every narcissist and attention-seeker to play the victim—to demand the stroke that never satisfies.
So, no. I do not feel the slightest trauma from my encounters with death. I even look back on these fondly. I can recall all the details without the slightest pain or flinch. Perhaps I am a fool; perhaps I should sue people left and right, perhaps I should take to my bed and claim to be dealing with my “issues”. “He’s had a tough time, poor love. Better leave him alone.” Yet no, there is no Stoic determination: I am simply not bothered in the slightest. I have no flashbacks; after that initial review of the car crash it never troubled me again. I do not need to drink or take drugs on the pretext that I, ah-ha, self-medicate—another weasel term—to deal with the trauma. I do not hate or disdain the doctors who misdiagnosed me: I feel entirely neutral to them, poor bastards.
I must admit that there was one trauma time, in the pub, after three pints, when I read a biography that related the life of William S. Burroughs. Now Burroughs lived a dissolute life and, despite his homosexuality, had a son; and this son was a junky, as was his father—yet he was also an alcoholic. He drank his liver to a blackened husk; and, a modern Prometheus, was granted a new liver by one of the first transplants; but he drank on anyway, and died in a ditch—killed by unprocessed blood, just like Kerouac. I read this scene and remembered and my face flushed. I stood up to go out for air and then felt immense peace; when I opened my eyes I was surrounded by a semi-circle, all the people at the bar looked down at me. “Oh, he’s waking up. Shall we cancel the ambulance?” All was well; and yet that very night my grandmother had a fall, a fall that eventually killed her—a premonition, for I have never fainted before. Time moves in strange waves.
But I only ever felt real sustained pain—experienced flashbacks—after that relationship terminated; it seems that to lose a lover can be worse than to face death, even when you faced death at their hands. So I say that trauma is almost all an act—an act for attention, perhaps incentivised by the media and legal claims industry—and a pretty miserable act as well. It is very unwholesome to pretend to be sick when you are well. No, there is no trauma in death and illness; probably there is only rest—yet there is trauma in what we do not talk about and what is meant to be frivolous, in betrayal. “But really, haven’t you moved on?”