by Leland Cheuk
I died Sunday, for sixty seconds, at precisely 4:44 p.m. Novel and beer in tow, I strolled over to my armchair and tottered. Nausea somehow morphed into this buttery light that bled over the edges of my vision. There were my parents. There was my childhood, my friends, and my lovers, all these thoughts tinged with forgiveness (though there was nothing to forgive). And then I was down, and then I was up, wheezing, gasping for air.
My memories of how I’d gotten to where I was (floor, apartment, city) were slow to return, as if I’d been concussed. I’d been gone for a long time—years—only to be reborn. Picking up my spilled beer and splayed-open book, I checked the time: 4:45 p.m.
“I actually died,” I told my oncologist the next day.
She prescribed a full day’s worth of scans. CT, PET, MRI, tests without acronyms. Nothing new was wrong with me. While the EKG tech gelled up electrode patches and applied them one by one to my bared chest with the feathery touch of a Jenga player, the wall clock’s minute hand shifted to forty-four after and I flatlined, spasming up a minute later, choking on the dense waft of the tech’s shea butter-scented hair product as she hovered over me, debating whether to administer CPR or fire up the defibrillator.
So-called experts had never seen anything like it. The cardiologist, who himself was centrally obese and labored audibly to breathe, said it “must be” a new type of arrhythmia even though I’d passed all the heart stress tests. The oncologist fondled her silver bracelet as she shrugged and said, “I’m deferring to the heart guy.” They recommended I wear an event monitor and hire a daytime caretaker. “Event monitor”! What a phrase! I couldn’t afford one. I was officially in remission, so I had to return to work. The company’s healthcare coverage was the only reason I wasn’t impoverished already. The doctors reluctantly cleared me.
Death was perfectly manageable. I was a marketing director at a credit card company, so at work, I blocked off my daily schedule between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. and jury-rigged my own event monitor: an alarm on my phone that gave me a two-minute death warning. Every day at 4:30 p.m, I’d go to the bathroom, sit in a stall, lean back, and try to get comfortable. Pants down (so no one would think I was just shirking work), I’d wait to die. Weekends at home, I’d sit in my armchair and make sure I wasn’t eating or drinking anything that might cause a mess, then I’d face the window, stare up at the sky, and safely pass away. At night, after rising from the dead, I’d pop half an Ambien to fall back asleep quicker.
I’d never felt like I was owed an average lifespan. I’d never had any huge goals. I wasn’t disappointed about the many things I hadn’t experienced. I’d loved and lost. I’d traveled. I’d met people I treasured and hated. We’re all just animals, imminent dirt. That we can experience love and heartbreak and hate is an existential bonus.
When I saw the yellowing light again and felt myself sinking, I tried to hold the memories of loved ones appearing in my dying flashes so I could recall them when I was reborn. First, it was my immediate family, but as the months went by, there were others:
Ed, my college roommate and childhood best friend. He lived out west and was a veep at a toy company. We only spoke to each other every year or two now. Kristen, my best friend when I studied abroad in Madrid. I’d been madly in love with her, an impossible love. She now had three kids in a small town in R—. Jennifer, a peer with whom I’d worked at a startup for five years. She was a Republican and I, a Democrat. We sat across from each other in an open floor plan and would spar about politics. I found myself thinking about her more often than I liked to admit. She lived in S— now.
I wished I were closer to them. I was alive but not the same type of alive I was when healthy. When you become seriously ill, you never rejoin the ranks of people who take health for granted. You feel one hundred percent but you know you can feel perfectly fine and have tumors eating you alive. A life-threatening illness forces both a constant awareness of mortality and estrangement of mind from body.
I wrote to the people I saw before my “death minutes.” I told them they’d made an indelible mark on me, as if I were previously a blank canvas.
“The thing I like about you, Ed, is that you were always so loyal to me,” I emailed. “I’ll forever remember what you said about me at your wedding. That you wanted to be like me. Articulate, creative, funny. I’ve never felt like I had any of those attributes.”
“Hang in there, bud,” he replied. “I know this cancer thing’s thrown you for a loop. You’re not losing hope, are you?”
To Kristen: “I loved that you hated everything. Just like me! You were so cool, so skeptical, so cynical about life. When you’re nineteen, all you have to be is cool. God, how I’d wished you had feelings for me. After a while, it fucking hurt to be so close to you and know you didn’t feel the same way I felt about you.”
“I did have feelings for you,” she replied. “Maybe not those feelings. But you were the only reason I didn’t go out of my mind with loneliness while we were abroad. I just didn’t express my feelings well back then. We were all so preoccupied with being cool.”
When I told Jennifer how much I still thought about her, ten years after we’d worked together, she refused to take the emotional bait. She didn’t write about what she’d been doing for the past decade. She only said she’d visit soon so we could “hang out.”
But she started writing me every couple of weeks with funny stories about her current boss at the bank where she worked.
I’d write back and joke about the many different ways I played the cancer card in the office. I frequently took Fridays off, pretending I had doctor’s appointments. I’d call in sick complaining of ridiculous ailments, blaming my weakened immune system—the more absurd and obscure the illness the better (UTI, hemorrhoids, shingles, hard-to-pronounce diarrheal diseases). If I sensed that some higher-up doubted my proposals, I’d cite that compared to beating cancer, any of our top initiatives were easy, and they’d be reassured by my intestinal fortitude and suddenly believe in my ability to make my proposals reality. I told Jennifer that business would take me through S—, even though that was untrue. Would she like to meet up? Yes, she would.
My oncologist informed me that after conferring with several doctors, she thought my “death minutes” could be fixed by implanting a simple pacemaker.
“What does the heart guy think?” I asked.
Her gaze dropped. “He passed away last week.”
I blurted a wow. As a seriously ill patient, you assume your doctors are masters of their own health and somehow impervious to mortality.
“What if I don’t want to do it?” I asked.
“You’re risking death daily.”
But I wasn’t ready to stop dying.
“You’re young,” she said. “You should lead a normal life.”
A normal life meant you let things pass you by. You lost touch with people. You allowed the routine to distance you from your loved ones. You forgot the feeling of genuine connection.
The oncologist’s lips parted, her breath held—for an instant, she looked dead. “I suppose we can try beta blockers or something,” she muttered. “Let me check with the heart people.”
I rented a car and drove five hours to S— because when I flew now, I almost always got sick. When I got to the hotel, my phone battery was dead and I discovered that I’d left the charger at home. Jennifer had agreed to meet for a late lunch and was already on the way from the suburbs. The surly concierge requisitioned my phone and agreed to charge it in the back. (Later, I’d find a fee of $14.99 for “Electrical Services” on my bill.)
I’d have to wrap up my reunion with Jennifer before 4:44 p.m.
We met in the hotel lobby. A decade ago, she’d worn knee-high boots and expensive blouses, and designer sunglasses, even in winter. Now she wore Birkenstocks, khakis, and a white, long-sleeved wicking shirt. Still, I could see the twenty-three-year-old I’d known.
“You look terrific,” she said, inspecting me up and down.
“Cancer works wonders!” I’d lost fifteen pounds in the past year.
“I…didn’t know what to expect.”
“You expected worse.”
“Am I terrible for thinking that?”
“Of course not,” I said. “You’re healthy.”
We went to a brunch place a short walk from the hotel. Jennifer was an animal lover. She owned a dog and a cat. She volunteered and helped raise money for animal shelters. She enjoyed her job managing technology projects at a large bank. She had a gaze that could stare even death into the ground.
And she’d been partnered with a woman for eight years.
“What about you?” she asked.
“I was with someone before the diagnosis,” I said. “Together four years. I was going to propose, but then she was offered a job in Hong Kong. I wasn’t going to go there and do nothing. So she left.”
“Do you regret it?”
“Now? No,” I said. There we were, sitting across from each other again, this time in a restaurant instead of an office. Why was I playing games, trying to woo her with my death-sparked soulfulness?
“Hong Kong would’ve been amazing,” Jennifer said. “I’d have figured out the work thing later.”
“Had it happened after the cancer,” I lied, “I’d have gone with her.” I’d recently written Mika, my ex, opining that our split was for the best because we didn’t truly love each other.
Jennifer smiled with furrowed brows. “Are you sure?”
“No,” I admitted.
“You seem like a stay-in-one-place type of guy,” she said. “You’ve never left the City. You watch the river go around you. I can’t. I get restless. I’m, like, two different people. There’s the dutiful bank employee who loves animals and the adventurer who moved to the City at nineteen with nothing but twenty dollars.”
“So, like, the Democrat and Republican in yourself.”
Jennifer laughed. “Which is which?”
“The lesser of two evils!”
Jennifer laughed, which made me laugh, which made her laugh.
Later, walking with Jennifer through the cypress groves of S—, I learned there was nothing she wouldn’t try. Ribbon dancing. Sky diving. Trapeze. The old me would’ve been intimidated by someone so up for everything, but the post-death me was emboldened. I was now like Jennifer—restless and in search of adventure too! Maybe she’d be up for cheating on her long-time partner! With a man, no less!
Storm clouds gathering, we passed the gates of the town’s famous cemetery, which looked alive, ironically, the wind its breath, the trees stretching and bending, like giants doing calisthenics. The headstones looked like a child trying to wriggle out of a sweater. I realized I had lost track of time; my death was likely imminent.
“I should go,” I blurted, interrupting Jennifer’s story about a recent trip to Bhutan.
“Is everything okay?”
“I have a work call.”
“On a Saturday?”
“Yeah, my boss is a dick,” I said, spinning around. “How do I get back to the hotel?”
Jennifer gave directions I was too agitated to absorb. I saw the yellow light. She smelled of pine needles. She said my name. I said hers. I considered asking if I could kiss her. If not in the moments before death, then when?
I thought I could see her thinking: The next time I hear about him, it’s going to be because he’s dead. She hugged me so tightly that I squeezed harder to match her force. We seemed to embrace for a long time. I worried I’d die at any moment in her arms. But then Jennifer let go. And I had done nothing. I was indeed the stay-in-one-place, watch-the-river-go-around-me guy.
“I’m glad you got back in touch,” she said, professionally, as if to erase what had just happened. “Keep me updated on your health.”
I said goodbye and bolted. Rounding the nearest corner, I died.
When I came to, my cheek was on the sidewalk, badly abraded. I tongued a salty gap in my gums. I’d lost a bicuspid. I staggered back to the hotel, spitting blood along the way. The doorman eyed me suspiciously and didn’t offer any help. The concierge returned my phone (only half-charged though I’d been gone for hours). I went to my room, cleaned myself up, checked out, bought a car charger, and drove back to the City.
Soon after I returned, I began to die for two minutes twice a day. A few weeks later, three minutes. My oncologist warned that, according to “the brain lady,” after six minutes of heart stoppage, the brain begins to die. And yet, when my deaths surpassed six minutes, I continued to rise undamaged. That’s when the doctors requested my consent to be studied. I refused, having had my fill of hospital time.
Now, after about a year, I die for a full hour daily. One down, twenty-three to go! I did make one concession to my oncologist and agreed to wear a CPAP mask during my times of death to ensure some oxygen flow to the brain, and at work, where I had blinds put up over my office window, I frequently extol to my colleagues the many virtues of afternoon meditation. I block off more and more time, telling anyone who will listen that our lives are borrowed on credit, the interest rates are variable, and we’re all headed for zero balance.
Mika returns from Hong Kong tonight to celebrate my birthday. We’ve been corresponding daily for the past year. She’d recently said recovery had changed me, that I’d been given a new life. Not new life but death, I hadn’t said.
Leland Cheuk is the author of three books of fiction, including the novels The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong and most recently, No Good Very Bad Asian, forthcoming from C&R Press in October 2019. His work has appeared in Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, among others. He has been awarded fellowships at The MacDowell Colony, Hawthornden Castle, Djerassi, and elsewhere. He runs the indie press 7.13 Books and lives in Brooklyn.
Image credit: Karen Rile