Well it’s been over two hours since I died and I’m already bored. At least I think it’s been over two hours, it’s hard to tell.
My day started the same way it always does: wake up, contemplate going to the gym, run through several excuses not to go, and finally decided to go later, maybe after work. Slide out of bed, avoid looking at myself in the mirror, take care of business if you know what I mean? And I think you do. Pour myself a cup of coffee with one hand while checking twitter with the other, share a morning acknowledgment grunt with my teenage daughter while she peals an orange, wake up my son, who at the age of 10 is already running through the same morning ritual that I do minus the gym and the twitter - yes I let my 10 year old drink coffee, don’t judge me! After all the morning grooming, packing, plucking, and acknowledgment grunts are done, it’s off to work.
And that’s when it happened. That’s when I died.
It happened very fast and with just the slightest pinprick of pain in the chest. One minute I’m driving down the same road I drive every morning, looking at the same billboards and muttering the same criticisms: “Who would choose a hospital based on a stupid billboard?” and “Why do all real-estate agents feel the need to put their picture on everything?” Once again passing that new park and thinking how I should take my kids there this weekend, a thought I’ve had for the past 5 weeks. I had just bent over to grab a mint from the center console to combat my coffee breath and WHAM! A flash of light, a brief tickle in the back of my throat, and then…
Nothing… endless, seamless, vast and empty nothingness. Not at all what I expected, not at all what I had been told by all those movies, books, Lifetime Original TV dramas, and not at all what Miss Haddie, my third grade Sunday School teacher, had taught. According to her there was supposed to be a tunnel and light, warmth and a big gate with trumpets. But here, in this place or lack of place, there is just never-ending vistas of nothing.
Well not “nothing”, there is this…thing.
Sitting in the middle of this wide expanse of nothing that can only be described as ‘something’. It’s like a plant, not a particularly good-looking or healthy plant, but in the middle of this empty someplace it stands out in stark contrast and I can’t tell if it’s the surroundings that make it look less than impressive, or if in fact the contrast makes it look better than it probably is. For example, if it were surrounded instead by other plants it might look even worse, if that’s possible. Sorry I’m rambling, but this being dead thing is a new experience for me and apparently there’s not much to do here except look at this plant and think out loud.
More time passes - no trumpets, no gates, just me and the plant, and the sea of nothing/something. At one point, I bent down to take a closer look at this thing planted, or a more accurate description would be: stuck here in the middle of neverwhere. My knees both pop when I do and it gives me that same nauseous sense that my body is slowly wearing out like an over-played record.
“Remember records?” I say to the plant, lowering myself down to sit cross-legged next to it. The plant doesn’t say anything, probably because it’s a plant or because it doesn’t remember what records are and is just trying to be polite. Instead, it just drops a leaf and continues to look misplaced and unhealthy. Between my popping knees and the plant dropping it’s leaves, I smile, thinking how fitting it is that in death I’m still suffering from the ever-moving momentum of age and that my only companion in the afterlife is going to be an average houseplant with the same affliction.
We continue our one-sided conversation for what seems like days, me laying on my back staring up into the emptiness, the plant just…well, keeps doing what plants do, unmoved by the complete lack of a breeze. Every now and then out of the corner of my eye, I think I see some type of movement, some indication that it’s responding to my endless thoughts on politics, pop culture, and religion. I even try discussing horticulture, but it must have sensed my complete lack of knowledge on the subject and simply remains passive and plant-like.
I start to feel guilty that I have nothing to offer my new companion. I honestly couldn’t tell you how long we’ve been together now, but I feel this deep commitment to this little guy, like some real (after) life version of Charlie Brown and that Christmas tree of his, you know that twig-like thing that just needed a “little love”.
My inability to care for this sickly dull green plant is seriously starting to wear on my nerves, I get to my feet and begin screaming into the void, nothing profound mind you, I wish that I could say that my verbal tirade was somehow noteworthy, but it isn’t - helplessness can do that to you - no, I simply rail against God, the Universe, and everything. And when I run out of words I take off my shoes and throw them as hard as I can into the nothingness. It’s funny how being dead can make you lose all sense of decorum and make you act like a five year old throwing a temper-tantrum. I sit back down hard, crying and laughing at the pure ridiculousness of my actions. I’m actually ashamed and embarrassed to look at the plant, can a plant judge? Normally I would say no, but in this case, with it just being the two of us I’m unsure.
“I’m sorry” I say, still not able to make eye contact with the plant, which I guess would be hard to do anyway, even if I could bring myself to look at it.
“You know, it’s funny…” I continue still not looking at him, God, did I just call this plant a ‘him’?
“…This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end (or begin, I guess). I had all these big dreams when I was young, I was going to change the world, you know?”
Maybe it’s the new found courage I feel in bearing my soul, or simply the pain in my back from sitting, but I roll over onto my stomach and prop myself up on my elbows and stare face to face…or leaf, or whatever with Mr. Houseplant. Great, now I’ve given him a surname!
“Anyway… when I was a kid, I was surrounded by people who told me I was smart and funny and that I had the capacity to do whatever I put my mind too. And for a while I did, sure life wasn’t perfect - my dad died when I was 12, but I got through it with the help of some people who shared love and strength with me without ever asking for anything in return. High school was a major pain in the ass, but for the most part things came pretty easy for me. I had great friends, a decent home life, I went to college, met a wonderful girl who was smarter and funnier then me and we settled down, bought a house in the suburbs and had two amazing kids.”
My voice cracks, and my eyes sting.
“I don’t know what happened, at some point I made a few bad financial decisions, a couple leaps of faith that didn’t quit pan out, and the next thing I know, we’re struggling to pay the bills, my wife and I don’t laugh as much as we used to, and parenting has become a list of chores. All the joy, all the adventure just stopped. I’m dull, soul-sick, and completely un-extraordinary…
…I’ve become as empty as this place.”
And with those words hanging in the vast ether it hits me.
The symbolism of it all becomes as clear as a Las Vegas Marque on a dry desert night. I jump to my feet, ignore the popping in my knees and the ache in my lower back. I start running, making tight circles around what was once a simple out-of-place plant but has now become the talisman of self-actualization. I’m dancing around like a fool, laughing like a mad man and screaming into the empty expanse.
I fill the space with the sound of my voice and it’s easier than you might think because this emptiness, this nothingness, is mine to fill: it’s me. This place is not empty at all, it’s simply unoccupied, except of course for this struggling little plant, this last remnant of who I once was, who I could still be. Because the great thing about a plant rooted in a never-ending expanse is that there is no limit as to how much it can grow.
How much I can grow.
I fall on my back next to the plant, arms and legs stretched out like a kid about to make snow angels, with my right hand I gently pinch one of the leaves, feeling its smooth waxy texture, it’s feels much healthier then it looks sturdy, almost, and very, very alive. I close my tear-filled eyes and whisper:
“You’re welcome” comes a voice from what seems like a mile away.
My eyes snap open and I sit straight up wiping away the tears.
“What the…!?” is all I can manage to get out, my eyes adjust slowly to the light, a blurred image slowly comes into focus. My wife standing next to me, wearing her old worn out pink bathrobe and holding a cup of coffee in her hand.
She speaks again and I’m able to process about half of what she says:
“I thought if I brought you your coffee this morning you might be more motivated to get up and actually use that gym membership we keep paying for each month.”
She puts the cup on the nightstand and starts to walk away, grabbing onto the bedpost as she turns and smiles.
“You must have had one crazy dream last night - you were giggling, kicking, mumbling and at one point it sounded like you were crying…are you alright?”
“Not yet” I say truthfully, and reach for the coffee cup. No need to explain just yet what I really mean by that.
On my way out the door I kiss my daughter on the forehead and steal her orange, pour a small amount of coffee into my son's Star Wars mug and grab my gym bag. I decided that after work I’m going to stop at the florist and pick up some flowers for my wife and a small houseplant to fill some space.
I might even give him a name.
Erik Ewing is the Program Director for The Authenticity Project; you can contact Erik at TheAuthenticityProject@gmail.com.