Originally published on Medium:
I wonder what he imagines in the darkness, if he even imagines anything at all. His brain doesn’t work like yours or mine; and through everything I’ve never once considered it to be a colorful place. What a cruel joke it would be for a brain, stunted at each mental and biological response we take for granted, to dream in color. Every minute they’re pumping him with one thousandth of a gram of the stuff that killed Michael Jackson — a sedative so powerful that its nickname is “milk of amnesia.” Still, because his body is regulated by a broken computer, one of his eyes lays slightly and silently open, and I’m terrified that he’s just as confused by the tubes and wires, needles and stickers, matted hair and damp skin as I am. Suspended in a place that neither of us understand, staring at each other across an uncrossable void. His life has become a chorus of involuntary reflexes, and now a machine is breathing for him, too.
In earlier days, when things seemed less dire, his ability to communicate was unpredictable. As speaking became less frequent and less reliable, we learned to hang on every microgesture; a minuscule nod, an imperceptible wince, the thin line between laughter and weeping. All of these things, as small as they were, often felt like a soundless scream shouted from the craggy foothold of a crumbling rock — a mountain, surrounded by nothingness, eroding into a shard. “Here I am. I am still here. Hineni.” His nurses talk him through their process, and I talk to him as well. None of us get any response, and I sit here bereft from the disappearance of the microgestures, unsure if they’ve just become frozen or if they too have turned to dust.
First-World, modern medicine is a miracle. Each sensor and monitor has a purpose and a backup — solutions on top of solutions — an opus of screens and noises and readouts that provide data but very little information. The magicians who wield this power are also great, though their cruelest slight-of-hand is how deftly they can deliver updates or guidance without much warmth; treating and protecting humanity with the compassion of a textbook. His nurse presses a button on a panel at the foot of his bed and activates a vibration feature meant to break up the mucus, which is currently drowning his malfunctioning lungs. The bed plays music as well, though that program is also malfunctioning at the moment. “It’s the Cadillac of beds,” she tells me. “He’s always been more of an economy car kind of guy,” I reply.