Deadish: What General Anesthesia Taught Me About Death
Anesthesia, or a temporary state of "nothingness," may be our closest experience of death without dying, and a reminder of the fragility of our lives.
BOGOTÁ — Many years ago, nearly 40 actually, I translated a short story by Italo Calvino, titled Learning to be Dead. Its main character, Mr. Palomar, "decides from now on to behave as if he were dead, to see how the world fares without him." He soon realizes it makes no difference: "With or without him, everything carries on as it did before."
This may seem sad or banal, but is in fact a great relief. All problems, for example, are "the problems of others, and their business," and the deceased feels no moral obligation to intervene in anything. Being dead, they have a right to be silent and do nothing. The rest of you can carry on killing each other for politics, as you please. I'm dead, thank you.
Until a few years ago, to determine whether a person was still alive, physicians observed the body, looking for a sign of breathing and checking for a heartbeat. Today, to encourage organ transplants, a person is pronounced dead with the cessation of a certain type of brain activity. So you may be declared alive without a heartbeat or respiration — or dead while still breathing and with a beating heart.
To be dead for a few hours is a strange experience.
Three weeks ago, fully intending to continue being alive, but also with the aim of learning to be dead, I underwent surgery wherein my heart was still, and my lungs were collapsed and airless for several hours. My artificially refrigerated body had the temperature of cold cuts. Some form of brain activity might have been noted in that time though clearly, not of the kind that produces conscience, thought and memory. What I take from that experience, in retrospect, is a feeling of absolute void, without the slightest perception of passing time, of joy, sadness, pleasure or pain.
To be dead for a few hours, without breathing or a beating heart or conscience or memory, is a strange experience (an empty one that is not registered and thus, barely an experience), only made possible by science and technology. This was the most serious, direct learning experience of what death is, as far as I know. It is nothing, total nothing — not even indifference. Just nothing.
During my brief death, I know others continued to live and die. They ate, laughed, cried, argued about politics and religion, worked themselves up over the existence of a soul, sang under the rain, and suffered for lack of money or a pain in their left elbow.
Before sinking into my death experience, I wrote the last chapter of a short novel I have yet to finish, but for which I wanted the ending completed. Its main character is a good priest who stops living while undergoing an open heart surgery. In the story, he does not experience his death, which is simply what his living friends feel when he dies.
When you learn to be dead, you forget how to be alive.
When I came back to life after a few hours, my anesthesiologist friend Juan asked me something, though I have no recollection: "How are you?", to which I reportedly replied: "Alive". Shortly before, the surgeon Camilo had asked me how I felt and my reply, from what he tells me, was the same. Alive.
I think that after learning to be dead, my biggest lesson in coming back to life is about the fragility of the membrane and the tenuous line and thin air that separate life from death.
This has heightened a recurring concern of mine every night at bedtime, "should I awake tomorrow and know that I live," as the poet Jorge Gaitán Durán wrote. I think I can say today that as I feel and think, eat, cry and laugh and write this, that I must be alive. Still, at times, I'm not so sure. When you learn to be dead, you forget how to be alive. Or rather, you learn to live like the poet who wrote, "I have another day; I had time/In my mouth, like wine."