“She felt bathed in an abiding peace, one that her soul welcomed and her mind struggled to comprehend.” A contemplative short story where a second shot at life serves as a reminder of the joy life has to offer.”
by: Deborah Prum
The last thing that Marylyn saw before her body hit the sun-baked asphalt was three black turkey vultures circling overhead in the cerulean sky. She hadn’t expected to die that afternoon.
Moments prior, as she trudged home after another monotonous day at work, she’d been thinking about the evening that lay ahead. She planned to watch the 6 o’clock news while eating a dinner of organic brown rice and chicken tenders purchased from Trader Joe’s. Then she’d make a cup of Good Earth tea and read a few pages of the latest National Geographic Magazine before sliding comfortably into bed at five minutes to nine. She used to have to let the cat in at night and then go to bed soon after, but Mika had died the year before. She was wondering if the gray tabby was in cat heaven when she looked up and saw the turkey vultures.
A second later, Marilyn felt a jolt of chest pain, followed by a sensation that she later described to her doctor as “all gray” and “melting into the pavement.”
Next, Marilyn eerily sensed her being hovering just above her own body, crumpled along the roadside. She had fallen in an unattractive way. Rump up, legs akimbo. She wished she’d taken that Step Class at the gym. It would have been nice to have had a firmer behind she remembered thinking.
Marilyn also hoped that a kind neighbor would find her and not a reporter with a camera. She didn’t want her backside to grace the front page of the local newspaper. At thirty eighty, Mailyn had always lived in fear of dying a ridiculous death. She worked for the government, tracking national morbidity and mortality. At monthly staff meetings, she’d provide anecdotal data to her colleagues, whose job it was to spot trends. She’d read her reports in a straightforward manner, but before she knew it, the room would erupt in laughter. The analysts would find humor in the most awful events: a prisoner struck by lightning while sitting on a toilet, a factory worker drowning in a barrel of pickles, a secretary getting her neck crushed in elevator doors during a power outage. Their reactions mystified her.
Images of these accidental deaths kept Marilyn up at night. And, as she lay awake, wrestling with sleep, she’d recall a study claiming that insomniacs died at a younger age than those who were blessed with a good night’s rest.
All those worries were for naught seeing as she appeared to be dead. She saw with horror that the turkey vultures were circling lower in the sky. Were those birds prescient? Had they been following her, just waiting for her to tumble? Years ago, Marilyn had read that those ugly profiteers of nature recognized when a creature had died because they could sense a decrease of oxygen in the blood.
In life, Marilyn’s head had been stuffed with disturbing facts, which she tended to blurt out when she felt anxious at social events. People hated to sit next to her. Out of the blue, she’d look at a bookcase and start talking about how in the previous week a toddler had pulled a three-shelf unit onto his head, crushing him. Resuscitation had proven ineffective. Or, she’d mention that a teen walking through a friend’s kitchen collapsed and died because the friend’s mother was a vegetarian and was making chickpea soup. The teen happened to be highly allergic to chickpea fumes. Marilyn viewed the world as being filled with landmines.
All this is to say that people tended to avoid Marilyn, which confused her. Didn’t they want to be safe? She thought. Didn’t they want to know how to survive?
As she hovered above her body Marilyn wondered if anyone would be at her funeral. Would she be there? Yes, her deceased body would be present, but would her spirit be floating above observing the event? If nobody came, she wouldn’t want to see that. Too painful. If people attended but didn’t seem to be all that overwrought, that also would hurt, if hurt were something to be felt in the afterlife.
It would be nice if at least one person at her funeral were devastated by grief. She had difficulty thinking of anyone who would even come close to being devastated by her passing. Her mother and father gone. She had no siblings and no other family to speak of. A few coworkers she considered friends, mostly introverted number-crunchers. Her neighbors? Maybe they’d be at the funeral.
She pictured her next-door neighbor, Najib, a cartographer who worked for the national parks. A few times in the past year, he’d lean over the fence that divided their backyards and ask, “Marilyn, anytime you want to go out for ice cream, just let me know.” Marilyn would smile but say nothing. She needed to avoid ice cream because of her lactose intolerance. If he had asked her to go out for coffee and doughnuts, she would have said yes in a heartbeat, but he never did. Maybe she should have mentioned doughnuts to Najib. Why didn’t she? She just plain hadn’t thought of it.
Marilyn hadn’t ever dated except for one awful evening with a skinny guy from Accounting who talked non-stop about his previous girlfriend. While they sat a small table at a dingy restaurant, the man kept touching her hand to emphasize any point he was attempting to make. Marilyn found this disgusting. Who would want to touch another person’s germy hands before eating? Tears welled up in his eyes while he spoke. Marilyn couldn’t decipher if he was angry or sad. A sad face and an angry face looked about the same to her, which often got her into trouble. At the end of the evening, he stuck her with the bill. The accountant never asked her out again and in fact, hardly ever acknowledged her presence at work.
Marilyn looked down at her body. The birds seemed to be swooping even closer. Wait. Was that a car coming down the road?
Suddenly, Marilyn felt embraced by a shimmering yellow glow. A feeling of calmness and peace washed over her “body,” causing a break with the distinct and depressing weight of being herself.
“Can you hear me? Can you tell me your name?” Marilyn heard shouting from a great distance. “Do you know where you are?”
Marilyn tried to open her eyes. Was that a woman in green scrubs? she thought. The white glare of a fluorescent light assaulted her. Marilyn snapped her eyes shut. She tried to form words. None came.
“Tell me your name.” a voice spoke.
Name? Jumbled thoughts filled Marilyn’s mind: Vultures flying overhead. The sun. Good Earth tea. Hot asphalt.
“Okay, your name is Marilyn. How about the day? What day is it?”
Slowly, Marilyn remembered the jolt of pain. She tried to sit up to no avail. Her chest felt as if a horse had kicked it. Wires and tubes penetrated her body all over. Tying to speak again, Marilyn whispered, “Tuesday.”
“What’s that honey?” the women in green scrubs asked.
Marilyn said, “Tuesday.” Clearer this time.
“That’s right. Good for you.” the women leaned in, “You are at Mercy General. You were out on the road, walking, and you had a heart attack. Do you understand?”
Marilyn shook her head no. She did not understand the woman’s words. They seemed meant for someone else. She didn’t smoke, was still young, and in decent health.
“Two teenage lifeguards found you on their way to Washington Park. They brought you back to life with CPR and called an ambulance.” The women smiled. “You are a lucky woman.”
Marilyn did not feel lucky.
After she came to, the world looked and felt different to Marilyn. On her first trip to the grocery store after her hospital stay, she bought a mango. All her life, she’d seen mangoes on the produceshelf, but had never tasted one. At home, she peeled the fruit then shaved off little pieces. The flavor surprised her, all at once sweet and tangy. She spooned out a few dollops of yogurt and added to it a few mango bits and a handful of cashew nuts. She brought the bowl to her back porch where she settled into a rocking chair. As she ate slowly, she watched a bird build a nest in the hemlock behind her house. She breathed deeply, taking in both fragrance of honeysuckle and the smell of wood smoke from a Najib’s grill nearby.
Marilyn did not go back to work. She could not imagine facing morbidity and mortality data every day. Without having any idea what she would do next, she quit her job.
A month after her hospitalization, Marilyn waited in her cardiologist’s office. His appointments always ran behind. He was already forty-three minutes and thirty-five seconds late today. She sat with her back on a maroon leather chair so slippery she had to hold onto the side arms to avoid sliding onto the beige rug. To pass the time, she picked up a glossy tourist magazine with gorgeous, full-color photos, but lacking content. Normally, content-free magazines annoyed Marilyn, but that day, she relaxed into the beautiful shots of gazebos, blue-green mountains, and honeybees hovering above brilliantly-colored blossoms. As she paged through the issue, she landed on an article about a new sky diving enterprise located in a town near the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A month after her hospitalization, Marilyn waited in her cardiologist, Dr. Bausch’s office. Who examined her and reviewed her test results, he said, “For a woman who’s just had a major heart attack, you’re looking pretty good.”
“Pretty good? How good is that?” she asked. Marilyn wanted numbers from the man, predictive statistics.
The doctor took off his glasses and absent-mindedly stared into space. Marilyn didn’t like the pause. He seemed to be choosing his words too carefully.
“Well, Marilyn, you had a ninety percent blockage in one artery and seventy-five percent in another artery. You are now the proud recipient of two stents. Your heart doesn’t have to work as hard as it did.”
That didn’t sound as comforting as Marilyn hoped. “So, I don’t need to worry about having another heart attack?”
Dr. Bausch slid his glasses back on. He tapped his pen against her chart and before he could start another stalling activity, Marilyn leaned forward and said passionately, “Just tell me, for god’s sake!”
“Your heart sustained a fair amount of muscle damage. The stents will relieve symptoms — pain and chest heaviness — but they won’t necessarily prevent another heart attack.”
Marilyn slumped into her chair.
“Marilyn. I’ve observed you these past weeks. I’m confident you’re going to be diligent about self-care; you’re going to eat well and exercise.”
Marilyn felt tears spill down her cheeks.
Dr. Bausch leaned forward and touched her arm. “Regardless, the answer to your question is that you don’t need to worry. Worrying won’t help.” He paused then said, “You’re going to do your best. I’m going to do my best. You could live a very long time.”
Two weeks later, the navy-blue jumpsuit she was wearing felt big on Marilyn. She had trouble negotiating the stairs up onto the small plane. Luc, her sky-diving instructor, climbed right behind her. As she stumbled up the third step, he cupped her elbow, steadying her. On a bench inside the cabin, three men sat, laughing and talking about the Red Sox over the loud whir of the plane engine. They would each dive solo, followed by Luc and Marilyn in tandem.
In the hangar, two hours before, during a surprisingly brief training session, Luc had gone over every aspect of the skydive, the order of events, hand signals he would use, and the way she should position herself during each phase of the dive. Marilyn found Luc’s Swiss-German accent mesmerizing. He exuded confidence and warmth. A compact, muscular man, he had been skydiving for twenty years in the Alps. He planned to stay in the United States for only a year or so to help launch the Virginia company her currently worked for. On the ground, when handing Marilyn her altimeter, he said, “We will ascend to fourteen thousand feet in the airplane. Miles above terra firma. Thrilling, yes?”
As Marilyn settled on the hard bench next to the three loud men, she didn’t feel thrilled. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her dry mouth. Her saliva tasted metallic. Her forehead and jaw ached. Cold sweat collected on the palms of her hands and her stomach churned. Her two legs felt leaden, somehow rooted to the floor of the plane.
Luc whisper-shouted into her ear, “Deep slow breaths, Marilyn,” pronouncing her name ‘Mare — ee — leen.’
No matter how hard Marilyn tried to control it, her breathing remained short and shallow. More alarming, though, was how hard and fast her heart galloped in her chest. She had lied on the waiver. “Please list all health problems” the form had said. She checked off “none.” in cursive. Normally, she would never consider lying. Facts are facts, after all. However, she decided the reason the company asked the question was because they didn’t want to get sued. She’d felt a twinge of guilt. However, another set of facts emerged and took precedence. She thought, I have no husband, no parents, no siblings. If anything goes awry, no one will be suing the company.
Luc tugged on her sleeve then pointed out of the small window. “How high do you think we are?”
Marilyn craned her neck and peered down to see an asphalt ribbon of road with ant-sized cars moving slowly across it. “Twelve thousand?”
“Ha! Only five.” He smiled and pointed up. “We are ascending into the heavens!”
Later, after some signal that Marilyn missed, the three men stood in unison and lined up by the door, each adjusting his harness. Another instructor opened the door. One by one, the men seemed to be sucked soundlessly out of the plane.
Luc gestured for Marilyn to stand. She shook her head no, but he guided her to her feet. She stood in front of him as he fastened the tandem harness, joining the two of them as one, his arms and legs behind her shoulders and back. Before she knew it, Luc had pushed the two of them out of the plane.
Free fall. Cold air. The roar of the plane fading into the loud whoosh of the wind. The feeling of that brisk wind pressing against her face. Marilyn experienced these all simultaneously.
Luc’s arms and legs cradled her. Marilyn imagined it might have it been what it felt like to spoon in bed with your partner on a lazy Sunday morning.
Arms and legs akimbo, facing earth from fourteen thousand feet, they fell at one hundred-and-twenty miles per hour.
Marilyn didn’t experience a dropping sensation. Instead, she felt as if she were blissfully floating. And as she floated, she seemed to shed her fears and worries about her health, death, finances, and all manner of regrets. She felt bathed in an abiding peace that her soul welcomed and her mind struggled to comprehend.
She looked down to see her world, filled with a shifting mosaic of color and shapes. The sixty seconds of free fall felt like a delicious eternity. All at once, Marilyn experienced the world as much bigger and more beautiful than she’d ever imagined but also much more intimate and comforting than she’d ever felt.
Luc touched her shoulder then made a hand sign. Mariilyn checked her altimeter: six thousand feet. Time to open the parachute. As she’d been instructed, she placed her hands below her shoulders then gripped her harness. As the parachute deployed, she felt a forceful tug upward and a slight pain in her hips.
After that they floated, leisurely, luxuriously soaking in time and space. As they drifted downward, the brilliant mosaic of shapes and colors rearranged themselves into specific mountains, roads, trees and buildings. Marilyn felt both deeply calm and thrilled. The quote she’d read on the skydiving brochure came to mind, “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
Luc tapped her right shoulder then made the sign for landing. Marilyn tucked her knees above her hips. They hit the grass with a bump and a roll. Marilyn shook free of her harness and stepped out onto a new earth.
Deborah Prum’s short stories have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Virginia Quarterly Review, Streetlight Magazine, Sweetbay Review, Literary Leo, and Virginia Writers Centennial Anthology. Her short story, “Our Lady of Perpetual Mold” appeared in Across the Margin and was listed on Across the Margin’s Best Fiction of 2015 list. Her essays routinely appear in newspapers and are aired on NPR-member stations.