They say that you can’t step in the same river twice.
But I would give anything just to swim back up the river and go back to the world that was thirty minutes ago.
Last night, I exultantly fell asleep into a world full of infinite dreams, in which our impending, biggest ever tour for which I’d yearned for the past fifteen years had already become reality. In forty-eight hours, the proudest announcement of our career would break the news and we would become the most famous band in the country. We’d go from four nameless twenty-somethings who’d practiced with the cheapest of equipment in the messy, dusty basement of this house, to household names.
But before the sun rose, one of us would become a household name only a little too soon.
I could already see myself standing proudly on the stage at the head of the venue of our triumphant hometown headlining show. A crowd beyond the reach of counting was packed in like a rabid political rally, single-mindedly gathered from around the motherland for our cause. They did not know what we were about to play, but they were such devoted fans they would undoubtedly know by heart whatever it is we did play. We cared very little that every album of ours was stored somewhere in the darkest corners of their homes, compared with how every note of ours was etched upon the deepest contours of their hearts. Every time we tuned our instruments, even gave the smallest hint as to what song would open the set as we tested the amplifiers and gear, the patriotic might of their cheers and whistles always drowned out the speakers.
I casually introduced ourselves to a crowd to whom we needed no introduction. “Hello, everyone! Welcome back! We’re so happy to be back out on tour again.” I gesticulated towards the primly dressed young man behind the pristine Korg keyboard like I was unveiling a prize behind a curtain. “When we first started playing all those years ago, we were young and we looked like this…”
Then I turned my body with a slightly wry stance towards the slightly portly man with a mostly shaved head and a mustache that dwarfed the neck of his well-worn six-string Ibanez guitar. “…and now all these years later, we’re all grown up, and we look like this!” Before the movement was even complete, the audience tittered with the sympathetic groan that might follow a silly pun, obviously in on the joke such that by now, he’d grown to take it in stride and grinned sheepishly in faux embarrassment.
Well, I suppose I’m not going to use that joke again.
We mentally rehearsed the very first song, “Lost.” How we were such unconfident, indecisive boys in men’s bodies back then when we started making music, each album a gradual discovery of self that became meta in real life as it encapsulated our entire journey toward underground success now threatening to break into the mainstream at the release of our latest album. Those four lost boys, were now on the edge of being found. We drew a collective breath to strike the first note and welcome them aboard onto the boat that begun this voyage through our storied career and the scattered journeys of their lives down endless rivers into the great unknown adventures ahead.
Then a piercing yell suddenly escaped my lips without my knowledge or consent.
Inside my head, I shrugged it off as merely a blip, a rare moment of uncontrolled excitement at the euphoria of standing on the very stages at which we once spent many years’ worth of childhood allowance. But soon, two sets of clammy fingers rudely shook against my shoulders even as my three brothers in arms stood serenely still.
I realized all at once that I was no longer standing proudly on the stage, perched atop the summit of my life in a triumphant gaze down at the world below who gathered to listen reverently at the mountain’s base.
I was buried in my stony white bedsheets. The first hit of our drummer’s cymbal was actually the sound of a deafening crash still echoing from the doorway. My still-groggy eyes snapped out of the dream to see the door had not just swung inwards into the bedroom, but crashed into the gray wall and left a crack behind. Then the rest of my body was stirred awake by a frantic shove from the floor beside.
I turned to the right and snapped to attention, thinking it was a burglar here to rob us of all of our gear and kill our dreams.
It was worse.
I unwillingly stared for a moment-long eternity, locked into the deathly pale gaze of my best friend’s wife.
The yell had been her voice, not mine.
Chapter 1: Where The River Flows
I’ll never be able to forget the contorted facial expression on my partner’s wife’s face. The death stare that adorned it was frightening enough to scare me out of my deepest sleep all by itself. My body wrenched at the sight and fell cleanly out of bed to the floor with a thud. I screamed at the oncoming pain, almost enough to drown out the excruciating screams coming from her inmost heart:
“Why? Why him?!”
I had no words to comfort her.
The sun had not yet risen in the bedroom. I searched in vain for a glimpse of sun to cast some light upon the oncoming darkness. And I waited as the most torturously slow hours ticked by. Eventually, I realized it was just never coming out.
They told me it had happened overnight, quicker than falling asleep. His inner light that had never wavered once in forty years suddenly flickered unawares. Once shining like the brightest of stars, yet not exploding in a spectacular flourish like a supernova, but burning out as mundanely as flipping a power switch. But it was no mundane occurrence that his spirit had lit up the sky in my world for fifteen years, and then so suddenly disappeared into the eternal void to leave me mired in a seemingly eternal darkness.
I wondered if he even knew what had happened to him. And if he did, what he was feeling now. Was he sadder at being ripped away from doing what he loved, or watching a part of our hearts be ripped out, never being able to know he didn’t mean to leave so soon?
The melancholy chill of winter rain hung like a velvet blue pall over the mourning skies. Each droplet that knocked on the windows came delivering the news of his departure. Drops became rivers, and rivers became floods that washed away all my dreams into the ground below. As the raindrops melted into a puddle of mist, everything ahead of me was now an endless fog of gloom and despair. And yet as the droplets clattered in perfect rhythm, they began to quietly sound a beat that trickled like a beacon of water rippling through the vast sea.
I remembered the dancing electronic beat from our newest project as it played ever so faintly in my head, that we had not quite finished. We were about to wrap up the recording yesterday, and then he got an impromptu invitation to see a concert that night. (I’m perfectly content to forget the name of the band – for the sake of still enjoying their music.) It wasn’t as if the excited smile on his face and the brief moment of awkwardness that crossed it afterwards like an unexpected commotion interrupting the orator at an illustrious keynote, were warnings that he wouldn’t be coming back tomorrow to finish the final touches.
“You sure picked the worst day in the world to let your hair down a little and procrastinate for once!” The room shrunk away in fear of my acerbic honesty, yet the image of his face in my head remained unfazed.
Oh, yeah. That’s right. Because he’s dead.
“Well, you don’t HAVE hair, but you get the point.”
Sarcasm was always his specialty. But he still didn’t laugh. Because he’s dead.
“Now what do I do?”
He never had to think whenever he gave me advice. But no answer came. Because he’s DEAD!
The black desk buckled under the frustration of knowing the quest was futile but refusing to give up kicking the ox-goads. “That’s the only time you’ve not had an answer for me. But it’s when I need it most.”
Life had other plans than the ones we’d best laid. There was never a plan for what to do if someone died. Even as we grew older, that reality was just inconceivable. “Together forever, wherever we go,” we once chanted with four hands crossed in an X, north-west-east-south, in the airport on the way to playing abroad for the first time.
I guess I had no choice but to make a plan. Better late than never. Was that really true? Did whatever it was that had the power to spirit him away from this world, have a reason for it? If so, how could I possibly change its mind? Or was it all a perchance circumstance, and it had been granted to me the power to bring him back to me for only a moment, to make purpose and significance out of something seemingly meaningless?
I worked feverishly on the song for so long I cannot remember how long, or recall when I even started. Everything was such a haze of black that the only way I could tell time was when my body was courted by the cold embrace of sleep. But why would I want to go back to sleep when the last time I did, I awoke to a world without him? Why would I want to dream when I had forgotten what a dream without him in it looked like? Or, should I face him in my dreams, how could I tell him I had failed him?
Half of me stared at the guitar, wanting it to be not only the last time I saw a guitar, but the last sight I ever saw. The other half reached out to the neck of the guitar, grasping it with hushed reverence, like the lifeless body of a gallant soldier. He had such a gift for music that he would never have wanted any guitar to never make music. With every note on every guitar played, everyone around the world would soon be paying a fond tribute to his life. But it all started with me, here and now – whatever “now” was.
As my nervous fingers struck the strings, they reverberated with a frigid hollowness that frightened me at first. How could I ever have hoped to stand in the shoes of someone who made the guitar sing with such vibrant life? Shame made a motion to sweep the instrument off the stand to fall into pieces on the cold and drab wooden floor. Until the electronic beat quickened gradually. Its frequency slowed my hand to a stop. It instinctively felt wrong to just let it hang out in space, like a sentence cut off by indecision before its end, never to amount to anything. It was all his idea, so what greater affront to his legacy could I make than to let it follow him to the grave?
Impelled by the accumulation of its energy, my strokes of the guitar grew faster, more fluid, and closer and closer to the way I had always envisioned them to be. The minutes blurred by, one into the next, like gears whirring in frantic clockwork, until my fingers grew numb and were unable to play anymore. The only instrument I had left to use was a voice struck silent by a day-long scream.
Even so many hours later, words to express my grief and anguish simply refused to come. But even though words have been said so many times before, my grief and anguish are uniquely my own, never said before, and never to be said again the same way. I let them fill me and consume me, reducing my voice to a wordless trembling sob, as I captured this performance for my first ever audience of none.
No cheers. No smiles. No applause. Nobody.
The idea that he was somewhere out there still listening seemed pretty far-fetched and fanciful. If there’s anything that would make me believe in another lifetime, it would be the desire for him to still be with me. But I forced myself to not be too worried about that question in the moment when I was just trying to survive in this idyllic garden rendered fallow by the bite of death. I would escape the foxhole first and then concern myself with what the chaplain had to say.
As the last note echoed from my lips into the blackened silence, I felt sleep overtake me at last in the inexorable shadowy embrace of its open arms. But this time, as it was the night before but, in a way, more so, I knew I would never be alone there. And that when I did awaken, I had created at least one thing that would be remembered along with him. That if it could be written into words, would adorn his tombstone.
Creativity’s brief surge within me, hungry as a primal instinct, gave me a tiny glimpse of hope even as it faded away with my eyesight. I didn’t yet believe it in my heart when it said that the river must not stop flowing here. That my tears must flow into it and guide it forward. That I must re-fill the empty hole swallowing my spirit with something new. And in some fanciful world of happily-ever-after, one day it would guide not just my spirit, but his, toward peace wherever it was now, knowing his work on earth would continue.
But in my head, I was beginning to see that it’s right. You can’t step in the same river twice. But you can carve the path where the river flows. And by so doing, although you will never change the past, you will change how the past changes your present and your future.
Chapter 2: Shine
My eyes were not yet ready to wake up. Yet they unconsciously fluttered open. My eyelids saw before my brain even knew why. The irresistible enticement of the first glimpse of the sunlight. And suddenly, everything felt normal for the time being.
Yellowed pages atop the bookcase, lying lackadaisically open to the atmosphere, bleached themselves with white at the delicately swift caress of the sunray. My heartbeat had been permanently paused, not dead but lying in stasis ever since. Now I could feel it pounding fervently inside my chest, drowning out the tumult of the past twenty-four hours.
Though I was not a drummer, I still always had to play with a rhythm in mind. Even a blank sonic space, devoid of any percussion, still required me to know the rhythm and meter to play the music correctly. The first time I ever wrote a solo piece on my instrument was an unusually brave step for me. I had to trust myself above following the lead of anyone else. And very few jump at the opportunity to be the first person in a room to talk, to speak out, to offer a novel idea, to go against the grain. Stricken by nerves, I asked the drummer, “just play the hi-hat in rhythm so I can follow along.” He nodded curtly, making me think he would go along with it. And when I struck the strings, I heard nothing at all but my signature deep, reverberating tone. Before his mischievous grin reached my face whereupon I would stop and hurl a half-jesting fist at him, my hands completed the motion to play the main riff. Spot-on perfect. I couldn’t just let it hang there. I had to keep playing. And I didn’t miss a note after that. My nerves collapsed catatonic in the chair afterwards, sure. But I did it. And so I resolved to do it again now, too. No amount of dissonance and chaos battering my ears from the world outside could shake my trust in my heart and disturb how gracefully its beat constantly kept time like a metronome. The one thing in my world that would remain the same.
I got myself ready for the day like any other day. Wash, brush teeth, dress, stretch, grab breakfast. The routine was so familiar to me by now that I saw nothing particularly special about it, except how I enjoyed it even at its most humdrum. The everyday and routine was an escape yesterday, a pathway further inside away from the chaos rapping not so gently at my bedroom door. Today it was an adventure. A transformation of the profane into something more elevated. A gratitude because of life for its own sake rather than because of anything specific that happened.
I strolled downstairs and opened the front door wide, to see the sun cast a ray of hope down a face scarred by canyons carved by a river of tears. It was so early in the morning that I would not have seen the way down the sidewalk from my doorstep if today had been any other day. But walking down to the mailbox sitting under the watch of the firmly rooted oak tree that had offered me strength as long as I’d been alive, felt as easy as standing in place.
I automatically opened the mailbox to find nothing inside, and chuckled dimly to myself. Carefreeness has an alternately blissful and frustrating way of making you forget what you always considered common sense. I’d forgotten that it was earlier than it seemed, thus the mail had not arrived yet, and so there were not yet any letters from my friends expressing their deepest sorrow. But if I had seen any, they would not have weighed on my mind today. The cool, gentle wind kept me at peace as I surveyed the winter landscape. Though it was not even March yet, I felt the joyous breath drawn in unison by all the earth as the hungry frost that had laid claim to the land yesterday began to melt away. Every day, it quickened faster as every living thing anticipated the final victory of spring.
I stared around in a blissful stupor, inebriated with gratitude to the point where I forgot why I had even gone outside in the first place. I had never appreciated the latent beauty of the world in plain sight around me so much before. But after having tasted grief and despair, even sights pounded into mundanity by their constant presence since my childhood were little victories that shone brightly in defiance against the darkness. Each second I survived to carry on was its own miracle.
Two of the greatest lessons in my schooling were an intro to philosophy course I’d only recently taken just for fun, and a treatise on the poetry of Robert Browning from primary school. Browning was at least half right. I wasn’t sure about the God in heaven part, but it did seem like everything was right with the world right now. Philosophy is a science of questions, so picking out one question seems like picking a favorite flower out of an acre-size field. But at the very beginning of class, my philosophy professor rephrased Browning so simply but so powerfully in a way that I could at long last grasp its essence: “What’s not wrong with your life?” In and out of the writing booth, but particularly within, I’ve always been a melancholy soul – always focused on what I wished life could be, rather than what it is. As the years went by and life got darker and more complicated, I had learned to write more positively. Writing about the things that were not wrong felt only marginally more difficult than the things that were wrong – and certainly much easier than the things that were right. It became a coping mechanism as much as a thematic device leading towards a perhaps clichéd happy ending. The fairytale had not yet faced a reality check and undergone its biggest test. But now it was. And it was triumphing.
Soon, the little victories grew so numerous that they all blended together and I forgot them all individually, and neglected the passage of time. I wished this miracle could have lasted forever. For even while I traveled through my innermost darkness, for a moment, I had found my way back to light.
Chapter 3: Rapid Eye Movement
Just like the previous night, I had no way of telling time until I felt pulled into the dreamworld. Last night, the sun would never come out, but this time, the sun would never go down.
Coming so rudely to an awareness of mortality had its bright side, that I knew even the days of winter were numbered. But still, the icy wind faintly echoed through the sleeping streets of the city, keeping the inhabitants imprisoned inside closed doors even as a preview of spring permeated what lay beyond their confines. As much as my heart wanted to savor the rejuvenating sunlight, the chill of the late hours eventually convinced my body, against all evidence on the outside, that it was time to sleep. My frame grew still as the oak tree’s roots outside, steadfast against the adrenaline that signaled that something was so very wrong (as if waking up to my best friend being DEAD wasn’t enough of a clue). My eyes grounded themselves upon a dot on the wall as the black surrounding them gradually carried me forward to the vanishing point. And so, I fell out of reality into a dream.
Although my eyes were shut, it felt like I could still see ahead, even clearer than when I was awake. Shapes of every size and color floated in a weightless vacuum before where my eyes would have been, passing by without rhyme or reason. For hours, I was so mesmerized by the collage of shapes that I may as well not have been asleep; my eyes would not have fluttered just the same.
Until that one moment when they did.
A current of shapes lurched suddenly upwards – if one could call it up. I had followed every contour of their paths ever since I had fallen asleep and not once had I seen this happen. Was it a random anomaly, a blip on a malfunctioning screen, or could it happen again?
As if answering my question, my body fell back into deep sleep as quickly as it had come out of it. I would have to wait for an amount of time that seemed so short, but would have felt like an eternity if I had been fully awake. Fortunately, I was not in the least concerned with time in this place that seemed suspended between reality and dream. Otherwise I might have drawn such bated breath that I would pass out. For if I dreamed of him coming back to me, could it then actually happen in reality?
Finally, as I drifted into and then out of sleep and the next opportunity came by, I creaked my eyelids upwards in that seemingly vain thought, that wish too good to be true. A set of triangles obeyed my command for an ever so infinitesimal moment, drifting through the boundless aether like puffs of white smoke through equally white clouds. They pulled me back under the dreamy sea to dive after them like precious pearls on the ocean floor. Echoes flew back with the tiniest of whispers, so insubstantial as to be imperceptible to the eye. Except to me. For I knew what to look for.
The sound of a guitar, played by the only one who could make a guitar sound like that.
I was so familiar with that sound that it spoke to me louder than anything else in the world. I forced my eyelids into an upward creak, desperate to catch the trail before it disappeared completely even beyond my heightened senses. Every time I came within milliseconds of failing. Until one time, the sound seemed to grow in strength of its own volition, like its source was steadily approaching me from far away.
As it passed by them, the panoply of shapes began to twist and morph like a rainbow being sucked towards a black hole in slow motion. The sound commanded them with such authority that I could only sit back and watch in awe at the ease with which it ushered them into curves, rows and columns all at once. I realized that this dream had transcended all known dimensions. That things could happen here that could never happen in the known world.
There was a strange rhythm and flow to the waveforms surrounding me. If I had seen this in the known world, I would not have recognized it. But here, they collected together into patterns that looked suspiciously like the cadence of drums, bass, and guitars. And yet they rippled with immeasurably more depth and color than I had ever been aware of before. Perhaps I knew it was there, but could never put my finger on it. But in this higher dimension, I could. And once more, I had tapped into that something intangible that I had been chasing for my whole career. The walls of this studio showed erosion from screams of frustration from fruitlessly trying to tap into it, until the walls of realization (thankfully only figuratively) caved in the long-neglected words of my first music teacher:
“You don’t try to get inspired. It just happens, and your job as a writer is not to search for it, but to respond to it. Any more than you don’t seek out struggle, pain, and sorrow, nor deny their existence, but you learn to embrace and transform them when they do come calling. Not as enemies to be feared, but friends to be welcomed.”
He’d been gone for a few years now. And I’m sure he would have wanted me to remember this above any musical lesson he gave me. For he knew to not just teach me the how, but give me a “why” in my life as a musician. Nietzsche’s intangible “why” fueled me as I mentally willed myself, as best I knew how without it in front of me and with only the slightest of awareness of the real world remaining, to pluck the strings of my instrument. After several attempts sputtered into silence, finally a cavernous note resonated through this weightless space, slowly grounding it in a facsimile of gravity. Even as a disembodied synthesizer floated into nowhere, the steady drum beat kept its pulse on the ground, firmly rooting me into this world of pure imagination. These disjointed sketches of spontaneous musical ideas were quickly meshing together into a full-fledged song playing inside my dream. It was like we were together again, jamming out a song out of pure improvisation. Words never occurred to us because we never needed any words to say to each other.
But as the song reached its climax, I knew that, like all my other ones, it would eventually have to end. While my eyes remained half-closed, I knew I was falling out of the dreamworld for good when a sentence stirred me awake. It bid me release it from my larynx lest I choke on it, growing impatient to be heard with the ears like a burning coal searing my spirit until it couldn’t be held any longer.
“Have I been here before?”
I awakened suddenly in slow enough motion to witness the rainbow of colors around me compress and distort beyond recognition, as if being squashed into a tunnel a millimeter wide. I clutched tightly onto the memory of the song like a mother grasping the hand of her child sinking into a squally sea. For without all the happy memories of a life and a catalog of music that we shared together, I would be the one pulled overboard to drown.
My eyes finally jolted totally awake to be greeted by the gray morning clouds. Not quite white, not quite black. As doubtful about themselves as I was about everything that had happened for however many hours I had been asleep. It all felt as vividly real as everything I saw with my own two eyes at this very moment. Yet his presence now felt like a specter of itself when he was alive.
Was it all just a dream, something I created with my seemingly limitless mental powers because I could not accept he was gone, or did I really feel him there?
My life felt like an endless tunnel down which this doubt had cast a pall of impenetrable darkness. Yet even though I cannot see the light anymore, I hang on to faith that it lies somewhere up ahead in the distance, and I shall willingly embrace the next oncoming night, if it means that on the other side I will find the truth.
Chapter 4: Night Session, Part 1
This cycle continued for one day after the next afterwards. The real world grew darker and murkier, and yet each time I visited this dreamworld, its picture grew clearer. With every day that passed, I looked forward to less and less much else but the day the picture would be complete. When some manner of sense would come into a gradually more senseless life. I perceived that my brain was growing in capacity, expanding against the very boundaries of this dreamscape. I didn’t want to get up last night because I could feel the edges of the room beginning to refract. I was almost there. Just like he was almost there only some days ago. And getting less and less almost there as time dragged me kicking and screaming onwards into the endless river.
I almost couldn’t fall asleep tonight from being so hyperaroused with anticipation of what I’d find when my eyes closed. I tried everything I could to make myself doze off, getting gradually more resigned as one method after another failed. Then, I took a deep breath into my abdomen as painfully slowly as I possibly could muster, and just stopped trying. And then it happened.
I felt the back of my neck tingling with warmth. And then realized it wasn’t the electric blanket on the pillow behind me. It was me inside the room, watching its edges breaking open and lighting up with a burnished yellow. The whole symphony of colors and sounds had all come together at once into one giant canvas, bigger than even my enhanced imagination could process. I couldn’t hear myself breathe, if I even was within this dream state. But I probably would have fainted knowing how fast I was panting with adrenaline. The sight alone left me trembling at the herculean task of translating this all into the language of our mundane world. Just when I thought my brain would shut down from sensory overload, my eyelids pried themselves wide open. And they sucked out all the color in the room.
The sun had gone out for the night, leaving me deserted in an expanse of gray, lonely shadows with ghostly silhouettes only ever so faintly visible in the furthest corners of the room. I could hardly see my hand in front of my face, so thick was the blanket of darkness that draped the frosty air. But I still knew where I was from the silhouettes alone.
I ate, slept, basically lived inside the studio now. Whenever I wasn’t being visited by my friends paying their deepest respects and offering their condolences – or I just couldn’t bear to see another of their faces. The sound-proof walls had become my fortress against the pain and sorrow that relentlessly besieged me every hour I remained awake. The redemptive bliss of sublimation was short-lived, and all that endured in its wake was pain bereft of inspiration and a thousand ways to medicate it. Here, I could create my own world where the only sounds I heard were those that he made, as if he was still inside there with me.
Hormones swirled within me as furiously as the snows of winter still coming and going. They didn’t need to clarify any further that I’d not be getting back to sleep that night. The Frost assured me that some things needed to be said and miles needed to be gone before I would have a chance. Heartache, as existential as it was aggrieved, attracted pen to paper, finger to knob, and eyelid to eyebrow inside the studio. This apectic dream sequence was filled with irresistible creative static electricity that it impelled me to discharge. Scattered fragments of ideas from many years of blood, sweat and tears shed together flashed through my mind like strobe lights painting a Jackson Pollock. I could not even begin to fathom putting them all together on my own. Because I never had to.
Here had been the place where we worked out all of our music together, one idea excited by the other to trigger a fusion reaction whose potential was without limit. But now I have to get used to composing alone. He always elevated all of my greatest ideas even further, and turned even my worst ideas into works of genius. Now, every note I write without him feels like a mistake. How will I ever know if I am anything apart from him?
I touched a single lit match to the very last wick in the house, watching its embers flare up into a lonely bulwark against the enveloping embrace of resignation that had already engulfed the rooms around me, lying in wait outside the door for me to surrender. It kept alive the memory of the hope for myself that I discovered inside these walls some evenings ago. I never gazed once down at any of the instruments I was playing, for I knew if I did, I would lose sight of the light of the candle, and with it, all of my hope.
I remembered a passage from one of our favorite songs. We called that part “Irretrievably Lost Imagination.” It stoked a fire of imagination within me, my fingers eager to add the experience of another thousand days of life into the passage. But, as I soon sensed, I could no longer play without subconsciously adding the experience of one day whose meaning seemed to overshadow all the others. Literally, in a sense, as it felt like everything I had imagined those thousand days had, in an instant, been irretrievably lost.
I kept composing without knowing why I was still even trying. What little I could see from the light of the candle was blurring. At first I thought it was the smoke, until I realized that as my focus continued to wane, each note grew more distorted until the sound coagulated into a haze so thick that my senses were beginning to erode away. For the first time, I contemplated whether I was still sane – or whether this was the dream, and whenever I closed my eyes was when I lived in reality.
The clock somewhere on the wall ticked away with a cold solemnity like the tolling church bell on the morning of a hanging. Was this all about to end? Was I awake or dreaming? If I was dreaming, would I wake up, or if I was awake, would I go to sleep – and if I went to sleep, would I ever wake up again?
I felt the mysterious ticking noise grow weaker, and wondered if it was really coming to an end, or if it was just my senses failing completely. I still couldn’t tell as my head slowly inched downwards like a dying tree branch in the desert heat.
For one brief elongated second, I heard absolutely nothing at all. Threadbare cognitions began formulating an idea of what it meant. Then stopped. And everything went black.
Chapter 5: Night Session, Part 2
I didn’t awaken by choice. Only because I was tired of being asleep. It could have been days. Yet I had no way of knowing. I’d lost any semblance of ability to tell time anymore. My eyes opened like an alarm had gone off inside me. Yet my mind was too fatigued for my awakening to be anything more than the sluggishness of a late sleeper on a Sunday morning.
As the flame lit up my eyes, I saw only the most momentary glimpse, as quick as it might have taken for it to travel a mere four meters. Then it vanished from the corner of the room in one puff, like a spirit traveling at the speed of light away from earth and towards wherever. The last wisps of smoke slithered tantalizingly towards me, then dissipated into the vacant air before I could reach out to grasp them. How I wished I could have come after him when he last walked out that door. If not to tell him something that might have kept him from dying, then at least to extend my arms out for one seemingly-gratuitous final hug. And so, my arms reached out into that guttingly empty space only a few hours too late. Not in brotherly love, but in rage-filled regret.
Everything inside me died all over again with the memory as it left the room. And this time, for a moment, it felt like for real. But then I heard a sigh exhale from my weary lungs. I knew I must be alive still, if only because I was still drawing breath. Because there was nothing else.
I could no longer hear the clock. Perhaps its batteries had burnt out. Or maybe it had finished counting down to whatever, or whosever, final hour it was keeping vigil over.
I cared not enough to get up and check.
I felt as good as paralyzed sitting there in darkness that was so dark that all words to describe it would be redundant. My spirit floated in the void. Stranded in outer space. No one or no thing pushing or pulling it anywhere. Bereft of any anchor from which to propel itself. Terminal inertia.
There was no sound but the microphones. I’d forgotten they were even still there. Now, instead of music, they were recording the soundtrack of my fraying mental faculties. I found the sound of decay healing in a way. It submerged me in such a dreamlike trance that I could forget about what monsters lay lurking ravenously in the real world. A pain that was constant, ever-present, was one that I would eventually cease to notice was present at all. At which point I would finally feel free.
But then there would be no more music to make. And at that point, I might be alive, but I would have nothing to live for.
Then I heard the hypnotic beat from the dreamworld, seducing me like a Siren song while I was cast adrift without a paddle. I had no power to resist. Nor, under its soporific charm, would I have wanted to. If I could have recorded the way that song sounded to my ears, I would have exceeded all my prior masterpieces, even the one I was trying to complete now. And the fact that I could seemingly never achieve that perfection would have torn me apart at the core, if I had not already gone numb. Even if I learned from whoever it was that made that music, I would need basically supernatural ability to convey it in our human language.
All my toil had bled me out so completely that I had nothing left to give. Yet perhaps I could find something to receive.
It was about as faint a chance as if his body were to sit up, dig itself out of its coffin, and walk around again.
But it was my only chance.
Chapter 6: Sleepwalkers
The moment I crossed back over felt just like any other. I suppose I was so deeply submerged in the dreamworld within the physical plane, that to me, there was no longer any difference. I saw no hope ahead of me if that was the case. But I still gave it a chance. Perhaps the next thing I’d find in the dreamworld would stoke the smoldering ashes of my will to carry on. For it was only through visiting there that I had found the only thing that felt like worth striving for anymore.
I arrived at my destination. And almost instantly regretted I’d come.
Not that the alternative would be any better, right?
Wherever I was, the shapes and colors had disappeared from it. A once-dazzling vault of buried treasure that sustained my life had been rudely plundered. All that was left was an incessant clamor of flashing black and white lights that, to my knowledge, made absolutely no sense. I concluded that I had gone out of my mind completely – or my mind had gone out of me. That there was nothing left here for me in this world. No sense in life anymore. Perhaps it was the final step that made inevitable my ascension to another dimension beyond the mortal, like a crew of astronauts abandoning the savaged garden of a dying planet on their way to something unknown beyond the skies.
I searched constantly for a pattern, but found no rhyme or reason in the randomness. No beautiful melody. No concordant rhythm. The room was an irrational number defying categorization or explanation. It was what I would have seen on the sheet music if all my compositions had been thrown haphazardly into a blender and pulverized into a billion fragments. I would be dead before I even sorted out the pieces, much less begin piecing any of this disorder back together.
Every single note I had written since then now felt like just one of those tiny fragments.
In an instant, I had been stripped of not only everything I was working towards, but everything I had worked for ever since. Why did I create so much, only to lose it in vain pursuit of perfection? Now my worst enemy, insecurity, was following me into the dreamworld like a masked stalker malevolently tracing my every move and preparing to leap out and strike. And I had nowhere left to hide. Desperately, I darted around the discordant room with what probably would have been clenched fists. I wanted to destroy anything and everything I could get my hands on as if ending it now would make me feel better. Not that I knew what this room would look like destroyed – it sure looked like it already. But nothing happened. The hungry flames of existential angst began to consume me, until my fragile mental state could no longer endure such torture. And so, it gravitated to the only other place it could go.
The real world.
I dreaded opening my eyes even more than I might have weeks ago, if I had known what I would wake up to. But I could not control my eyelids. They painfully creaked open of their own volition like a rusted jack-in-the-box wound up for days. Then burst open like a long-simmering volcano ready to erupt.
Try as I might to avoid it, the bitter apple had been eaten. My eyes fell open for good. And I knew that my self-imposed shell was stripped naked before the elements. Nothing remained to stop my heart from feeling the full weight of the grief that had been slowly eroding at my soul ever since waking up into a nightmare. It all collapsed onto me at once from infinite corners of the room. I throbbed in agony like perhaps a conjoined twin might be stricken with if it woke up in the middle of separation surgery. Everything around me went blurry and all my senses were numbing past the point of functioning. Repressed words of bittersweet wisdom desperately trying to survive surfaced from within my capsizing soul:
“Grief is worse the second time around. The first time, it shuts you down so you don’t feel it all at once. But the days are numbered until something unwillingly breaks open what was fearfully sealed shut. Then all you can do is hold on. There’s no “turn around.” There’s only “don’t drown.”“
And then the unbearable pressure squashed them, sweeping me into the abyss of which they foretold.
Not a single thing around me even registered inside my brain anymore, except the one passing thought that survived, clamoring above the excruciating din of emptiness. Was I about to finally find escape from the darkness that was consuming my existence on this side of the veil, by passing through the veil just like him? Perhaps all along, that had been the Siren song that drew me into this studio away from home, for what I daresay might be the last time. And if I’d known a moment ago that this was what was going to happen, I’d still have chosen it all over again.
As it had been during my night sessions in the studio, unconsciousness was my solace, where pain was but a memory inside a waking dream. So even as I slipped under its tranquilizing spell, I no longer felt dead inside. My body slumped without a bang or whimper to the floor, almost instantly falling still as the ground received it with a cold embrace. All the warmth left in it slowly rose upwards towards the sky. While I can no longer walk on my own two feet, I find as I fall into the endless sleep, I can walk more freely than ever.
Perhaps I will finally walk out of this never-ending maze of despair into a place full of light.
Chapter 7: Rainbow Trip
The cold floor upon which my body had fallen, fell away from me in turn as I ascended upwards to parts unknown. I am lifted up onto a wave of colors like a hospital stretcher. Red invites me forward to take the first step of faith onto the staircase. Then I say yes to orange. To yellow. To green. The staircase of affirmations lifts higher and faster, climbing to unknown heights without effort or breath. Vertigo leaves me quicker than it can come, the space below filled with a beautiful cacophony of rainbows. The colors around me begin accelerating until they bleed together indiscriminately, like a warehouse full of paint washed away by a flood. Then I am struck with awe as a million rainbows flash before my eyes in less than a second. Everything seems to move at the speed of light, the rush of information occupying so much headspace that I can never spare a thought for what lay behind. It fills me with such exhilaration as to surpass all the years of performing on stage put together.
Eventually, I begin to slow down gradually to a comfortable coast, like a cruise ship passing by an island paradise. Only here, the mural of colors is far more vivid and vibrant. Rather than flash by in succession, they are completely blended together until they all exist at once and yet shine individually. I can admire in one surface, all of red, blue, green, yellow, orange, and ultraviolet, and beyond. Even the colorful collage of shapes from the dreamworld is drab and lifeless by comparison. I must now have transcended all known dimensions of the physical world. I thirst for adventure into this wondrous realm, where the storms that never ceased to rain on me have given way to a rainbow.
But slowly, the motley of endless colors begins to show gray hair, and deep within my senses register a constant throbbing. In the real world, it might have been my head throbbing from a concussion. I dismiss the thought as meaningless in this place. Until into the back of my consciousness seeps a siren. I still wondered if I imagined it. Until I took one last glimpse back at the world I knew while the colors still granted me sight.
I am moving so fast that time begins to dilate, even as the picture before me remained still. Seconds became minutes, giving me the time in which I see, poking through beyond the graying colored static, the dim white figures of men. Dashing onto the screen in front of me. Circling around the center. Staying put. Until the picture in the center grew clear. It’s my limp body, found by a troupe of paramedics. They knelt over its unmoving vigil with bowed heads and clasped hands, praying against all hope that, even with their tremendous fortune at happening upon me, that they aren’t too late.
But I hope that they are.
The formation of that wish was another rocket engine firing, jolting my velocity into incomprehensible realms of magnitude. The severe dilation yanked at me with the power of immense G-force. Ground the picture to a complete halt. Stretched the siren in the air like a piece of taffy being pulled thinner than paper. Then it disappeared into a wisp of sound so insubstantial that it was imperceptible. The embrace of gray draped itself around the place where the sound vanished into nothingness. along with it, extinguishing the last light.
The roar of multicolored engines was replaced by the dead-silent dullness of what felt just like the blackness of space. I hadn’t felt myself stopping. I’d just lost my sense of going anywhere. The only sense I had left came rushing at me with understanding from the sound of silence.
This place was eerie. Barren. Empty. Cold. Eerily familiar. So similar to the reality I had eagerly left behind. And so ominously conjuring the thought that I might not have really escaped it at all. Or even left the frying pan for the fire. Though a cloak of white light shone far in the distance, it had become a faint gray when filtered through the vast black shroud of darkness that enwraps me in its unyielding tendrils. Its promise of a better world on the other side seemed to be drifting away like a fairytale castle in…the only air that could really be called air at all.
One other time when I was in the hospital, I’d been given medication that made me feel detached from any reality known to man. Under its narcotic spell, I had experienced the exhilaration, but never the marvelous sense of freedom that I had experienced in the rainbow gateway that had led here. But now it has all been swept away from me like sandcastles crushed by a bursting dam. Now is no rainbow trip; it is real life.
Or is it real? Or is it life? Or maybe neither?
I lie suspended in a vacuum between one world and the next. Even though I have no sense of time, somehow I still feel an impatient yearning to be freed from being perpetually stuck here.
The gray disperses into hungry masses of white and black that swirl around me like vultures, each waiting to claim me as their own. If I could have screamed at the mass of white to forever enfold me in its soothing caress, I would have. And yet my voice had left me, and I was left choking on a silent prayer I still didn’t know if I wanted to pray, not knowing if any ears would be there to listen.
I know the darkness knows my worst fears. It knows that I have yearned for release along my entire journey, and it promises to give it to me, by submerging me in the tides of oblivion. It whispers into my heart to convince me it has been telling the truth all along. But the tiniest spark of hope emanates from the last corner of my shipwrecked soul and casts a beacon of light out to pierce the veil of darkness.
All I can do is form the words in my mind and pray that somehow, the source of the light finally fading out of my reach cares enough about one solitary lost soul to hear my call first.
Then, in one fateful instant, I see white and black both rushing towards me at once.
Chapter 8: Heavenland
The expanse of black approaches my eyes, ready to suck the light out like a leech draining me of blood – and then is suddenly washed away by an endless wave of pure white.
Everything comes to a complete stop for a permanent instant.
It endures while it ends.
I wait forever for something to change.
And it doesn’t. Until I flail my arms in front of my face.
Nothing happens. I see nothing. No arms. No face either. No matter how hard I push, I move nowhere.
And so I think, “so am I even here?”
I suppose I can “put Descartes before the horse” in saying that at the very least, I am.
Next question: “Am I alive or dead?”
I would not know what it is like to be dead. I have never died, after all. Yet if death was anything, was it not more like when I was jolted from my sleep by the news that killed me?
I’d stopped looking for myself. But in the months of minutes that had passed by, I’d realized that my presence was here. Tangibly. It leads me to conclude that this is not oblivion. That I still exist. I am alive. “In what form, though?”
The sea of white that seems to engulf everything, now becomes perceptible within me. It fills me. Regenerates me. Enlightens me. Loves me. And I feel more alive than I ever have before.
I notice no trace of worry and anguish at the evident fact that I am completely lost in a realm separated from anything I have ever seen. Instead, I am encased in boundless peace and security. I would have no way of knowing if even the equivalent of one foot in front of me, there lay something dark and evil, ready to pounce upon me to put an unceremonious end to whatever existence I was in now. But not only do I know it is not there, I know that in this plane of existence, such a thing simply does not exist. Indeed, the concept of anything imperfect never registers with me.
I do not know how I can know what imperfection is when everything feels perfect. I just know in a way I cannot explain I can.
Arriving into this place is like being born all over again. The naïve innocence of childhood feels like old age by comparison. But though I am innocent, I am no longer naïve. I feel ageless, wise beyond measure. My weak and fallen humanity is perfected, to an extent I could never have dared to even aspire to while I was on earth.
Was this a perfect place? If so, surely it must have the one person I miss the most in it?
Though my limbs fail me, my thought carries me wherever I want to go. Soon I discover that I am approaching a lake. It is not blue like I am accustomed to, but the same brilliant shade of white that everything else was. I wonder if it had just been frozen over, until I see the snow-white horizon. Yet I am apparently now able to perceive shapes and forms that existed within what would appear to regular eyes as a monochromatic infinity. I can discern the contours of even a pure white horizon.
I realize this place looked just like the hometown we grew up in. Only one thing had actually changed here, but it was such a dramatic transformation that it was like I was in a different universe. The unapproachable light that once separated light from darkness had extinguished all the darkness that ever was. It had granted me sight through its own eyes, to see the resplendent glory that left signs of its existence throughout the universe, but that I once could only dimly see through a glass darkly. Even the most radiant of colors was just a feeble shadow of the eternal source from whence it came.
I am so entranced by this epiphany that I lose track of where I am going, until I curiously peek ahead of me. I look incredulously at what would have been my foot, that is standing on the surface of the chalk-white lake just like it was the ground. Encouraged by this discovery, I cross the lake as casually as taking a breath. On the other side lay a beach so well-trodden that the billions of feet that had walked it had smoothed it back out again.
Except for one set of footprints in the sand.
A lonely call flutters from my lips on the wings of a dancing butterfly into the vast expanse of white, vanishing so slowly that it seems to echo forever into its furthest reaches beyond my range of vision.
“Where have you gone?”
The blanket of white ripples like a howling wind, as if the color itself is making the sound. It resonated back the awareness that I am in a place that not only has even more dimensions than all the worlds that came before on my journey, but where all dimensions and all senses, all things exist as one, all at once. The howl of the wind is simultaneously the soothing ripple of the water. It gives me strength to move mountains and yet it calms me like the river flowing into the sea. Its unadulterated presence permeates every atom of matter in this place.
And it echoes a whisper back across the snow-white hills far in the distance to the perch of colorless grains of sand upon which I stand.
I move slower than I had before, following the lead of this mysterious presence. Along the way, I hear a symphony of faint voices of people I recognized on earth whispering to me. People I never realized loved me this much. And now I can perceive how I am loved fully in this place, in a way that’s impossible to explain. It overwhelms me as much as it fills me. A bliss more than anyone can bear, yet I can’t ever conceive I, or anyone, even in a moment of insanity, could not want this. Some part of me wanted to stay and listen to their serenade forever, to let the gift of singing that I gave to others on earth be given back to me. But there was something further down the marble-white path lit by luminous white, that made even this infinitude of joy feel ephemeral.
Being a musician made me a more curious type of skeptic about matters beyond the naked eye of science. I knew there was more than physical matter, for my livelihood depended on the conjuration of some intangible spiritual high. But outside the bounds of such a well-charted universal experience, I was adrift on seas unknown, happily embracing the mysteries of existence. While I could be convinced, I had never thought I would actually come to know what I would find when I died, or dared to believe anything beyond death existed. But I can no longer disbelieve when I know it for a fact. And so I can have more than just faith that, at the end, would be the person for whom I would travel here a thousand times.
I stop involuntarily near a crystalline whitewater brook trickling through a lush garden. It’s the place where we first meet. So many years ago feels like today. The dreams that we realize since the beginning of the millennium first take root and grow into such uncommonly majestic foliage. Am I stopping here only because I hope he’s here? Or is it nothing more than one of countless memories of a time gone by, and I’m merely a traveler revisiting a museum full of them like a decaying photo album?
Then the wisp of sound resounds far louder than before, washing over me like the eyewall of a hurricane. It arrives even before it suddenly stops moving. Everything became alive still. Is that a new word? I can’t think of another description. The ethereal sound eliminates anything else from my field of vision as it begins forming itself into a shape before me. I do not recognize the shape by sight. And yet it makes the sweetest sound I will ever hear again in my life.
Because I know that sound is him.
If I had a heartbeat, it would be permanently stopped. Yet I never have any need for it here.
If I could cry, I would be drowning in it. Yet there are no longer such things as tears.
His recognizable frame seemingly draws itself slowly in midair, carving into eternity by an ageless light so blinding that my eyes eventually must turn away. I know on earth I would have instantly vaporized at its briefest touch, and yet here I can just barely bear its presence. As the light permeates my awareness so fully that there is nowhere left for my eyes to hide, they instinctively close. Yet inside my head his image is forever engraved as a scar worn with pride. In this place, he had become the very manifestation of what he was meant for on earth. A serenade to be sung by every generation to come after him, more beautiful than anything he had ever yet even begun to envision. I cannot conceive of any more fitting of a repayment for the life he had lived.
A prayer of thanks ripples out from my heart of hearts and kisses the infinite circle of white light whose benevolence had blessed me with his existence. His entire legacy is all now encapsulated within a moment of infinity, where everything that had ever happened can happen again. That moment when we first met exists once more, and will exist forever.
For though I cannot gaze upon his face, I know he is there. And though I do not hear his words, I hear within me an echo so faint it must not be heard with the ear, but only felt deep within the most hallowed recesses of my soul.
Chapter 9: Return
I lay entranced for forever and a day as it slips by in an hour and a minute and a second. An infinity passes by in the unconscious upward nod of a head. It is mine and his until an endless moment when I feel something in this place shift, and I instantly forget that it had ever not shifted. And so, I know the head that moves is always mine.
I do not know why I nudge my head upward. I do not know how I know what upward is. But an otherwise welcome flash of blue is instead a permanent stain in the pure white sky.
My entire sense of security began to crumble like autumn leaves shredded by a violent gale. Could it be that this was all just another wishful dream, my mind’s equal and opposite reaction to counteract the devastation wrought upon it by the advent of such sudden trauma? Or was this all really happening, in which case I was still leaving this place so beautiful that once before I saw it, I could only imagine – and leaving him once again? Could he ever forgive me for being the one to leave this time?
My soul bled with the sky as blue seeped out from solid white. I always thought a blue sky was the happiest sight in the world, but now it seemed so empty. Every blue sky I would ever see again would remind me of this brief glimpse of the next world. But also that I was once there, and now am not. Never fully alive for as long as I inhabit the dim shadow of life that is earthly existence.
A razor-sharp ray of black aether sliced through the last cloud left in the sky, and all the light around it seems magnetically attracted by it. For no one could look at the canvas of white without seeing the ray of black and focusing on nothing else. And yet, it was the black that was nothingness. I am encouraged when the light around it remains unaffected, until I comprehended that if the blackness could not outshine the unapproachable light, then surely the light was letting me go on purpose. It knew I was content and safe here, yet for some mysterious reason, even far beyond the comprehension of my enhanced cognition, it was letting the dark come back to claim me like it almost did in the instant before I came here.
I approached the ray unwillingly, a guillotine waiting to snuff out my briefly eternal existence in this realm and thrust me back into reality deaf, dumb, and blind. As the ray sucked me in past its event horizon, the idyllic world around me distorted and fragmented like a mirror being slowly crushed by a bulldozer. Yet every splintered shard of white feels that much more important to me to cling to, even if it should cut me with the excruciating pain of holding on to something ending. I witness time tick forwards instead of standing still. Every temporal moment is reflected by an inevitable and irreversible change in the landscape. Each one feels more elongated, unrepeatable, and precious. Instead of an indiscernible blur of endless and permanent snow, time becomes a flurry of snowflakes, each of which will never be seen the same way again before it melts into the river that forms the past upon which we float. And so, I begin to grasp the purpose of my journey here.
Even though I’d learned about gratefulness many years before, it’s as impossible to be perfectly grateful as to be perfect. And while I seized fast to the things I cared about, seizing the day had not been something I had kept in mind enough while I was on earth. The present unearths all the moments of the past that I didn’t live to the absolute fullest, like the regrets of a dying man. For the dying man who thinks he’s lived a good life doesn’t have to think about his regrets until they sit in judgment as a jury of his years. My visit here makes me treasure its every moment, knowing that it’s near its end. It cannot make me step back into the same river twice and treasure every moment that I had spent with him, for I cannot turn back time and relive them the way I wished I had. But it can make me change the path where the river flows, to treasure the meaning and inspiration I drew from having known him.
It felt like reliving his death all over again as his presence began to flicker like a fizzling radio on a downed fighter plane. The timeless note that indwells him distorted into a dissonant echo of its former self. Even more tragically, his face now becomes visible as the dazzling light ebbs away from it. His dead still eyes stare at me wordlessly, as if to say, “I wish you could stay.” I cling to the fragmenting shards like a drowning man in the sea, no matter whether they cut and pierced me. I hold aloft the last vestiges of light shining against the oncoming darkness, vowing to remain here even if I have to keep constant vigil over this spot forever to hinder its influx.
But as tightly as I grasp, it felt like trying to hold the wind. A wind that rapidly accelerated towards the force of a tornado, until I could no longer contend with it and was swept away into the void. I take one last gaze back towards the blue horizon as his form disappeared across it. I want to rip my eyes out here just so that they could always be staring at his face.
But before I could, his eyes were ripped from my sight. And it felt like I’d gone blind anyway.
Chapter 10: Aether
The final gasp of the last ray of white is cut short. Its desperate scream for mercy silenced by the falling blade of blackness as it shrinks into the world falling beyond my grasp. I am now suspended in a blackened void, far removed from the celestial ocean of white from which I came. None of the exhilaration of my trip over the rainbow, and none of the silhouette of white that offered the faintest hope after the rainbow had faded into gray.
The black is as engulfing as a terrifying leviathan, yet I miraculously remain preserved within the belly of the whale. As hungry as a vicious lion left to starve until it could eat its own kind, yet I miraculously remain unscathed within the lion’s den. I carry within me the precious memory of the world illuminated in white, a tattoo etched permanently onto my soul. This divine gift from beyond keeps me alive where anyone else would be crushed or torn to pieces in an instant, whichever came first.
With nothing around me able to penetrate the darkness to enlighten me with information from any source outside its totalitarian surveillance, it must be the first unconscious realization of something that was always true when it randomly occurs to me that I am not breathing. And then comes the second one, when I fail to even remember the last time I did breathe. Since I am not dead, I must simply no longer need to breathe in this place. But even if I am not dead, am I really alive?
I hear the beginnings of a sound constantly throb inside my head. The punishing gravity of this place is a prism that refracts it into a sound so warped and distorted that it could easily have been the hungry thrum of Poe’s pendulum. Every so often, it slices through the suffocating silence. Though it cannot physically harm me, I feel its impact in a shivering tingle from head to toe, that would have sent my body into irreversible shock – except that it cannot move.
When everything was white, I couldn’t see distance. When everything was black, somehow I suddenly could. The sheer astronomical size of this vacuum unfolds above, below, in front of, behind, and within me. Until then, I never knew how many different shapes and sizes nothingness could take.
And then nothing became something.
But it wasn’t a sudden “let there be light.”
It was a mechanical thudding sound echoing ominously in the distance.
I wasn’t sure how far away it actually was. I just knew it was gradually becoming no mere echo.
My unyielding body recoiled paradoxically, shivering to the core in terror and yet also stilling itself into a peculiar calm. Tendrils of my memory poked through the numbness to ask questions whose answers dare not be uttered here.
Sound could not travel in a vacuum, could it?
Pain and fear could not be felt in it, could they?
But was being insulated from pain what I really wanted, or was it a way of surviving?
Even as the thudding grew closer to me, the immense weight of eternal black suddenly began to abate ever so slightly. I felt a vague peacefulness calling me forward towards something ahead. Was I going home? I felt a vague emptiness as well, that seemed to ask me the question to which I already feared I knew the answer: “To which home?”
The endless black was diluted with a smidgen of gray. At last. Hope.
The thudding resounded through the emptiness. It began to stir itself up into a ritualistic dance of birth and rebirth. I was swept along by its rhythm, periodically blinded by its increasingly cacophonous sound. It was bringing me back from another world towards the steadily dawning bittersweetness of a reality that now seemed merely a dream.
Some hope. I was about to breathe again, yet in the shadow of a better world that he had left behind for what lay beyond the blue horizon.
Even as my limbs struggled to move without success, I could perceive the resistance gradually weakening. Yet my awakening to reality also rendered me vulnerable again to the travails of reality. Still without my consent, I steadily drifted towards a cacophony of mechanical noise. I still could not determine where I was going to land, but although I was relieved it was not where I had just been, it was equally distant from where I wanted to be.
The thudding was growing closer to me, but I no longer feared it. It was getting quieter with its approach by this time, like a magician exposed as a fraud and losing its power to enthrall. Then it passed through me like the briefest of chilly winter winds, and went silent. I felt no more movement. Just the same stillness as before I entered this place, but imbued with a paradoxical calm instead of eerie chaos.
By now, I had to have arrived at my destination – if one could call it that, for I had already passed through and left my destination. Had I just taken a wrong turn, or did I do something wrong? Either way, I had sent myself back here again. Or if I hadn’t, why would I have been brought there and sent back? Was I really worthy of having been there, or had I been tested and ultimately rejected?
Would I wake up where I was left lying helpless? Had they forgotten me?
Or would I wake up physically unharmed, but emotionally entombed within a labyrinthine prison worthy of Daedalus?
I twitched nervously and found I could move, that the enormous force that had rooted me inexorably to the spot had completely vanished. But I was too nervous to open my eyes.
Until I heard the siren again, forcefully jolting my body awake.
Chapter 11: Machines
The backs of my darkened eyelids are flooded with – black. Again. I think for a dreadful moment that I have arrived in another echelon of the void, forever to fall deeper until I can never climb my way out. My body grinds to a halt in midair as quickly as it is jerked awake and lies still. A soothing voice reacts like this supernatural occurrence is merely ordinary. “Hello?”
A female voice.
Wait. Where am I?
I turn my head in as much confusion looking for it, as in sudden hope that I am returned to where I wanted to be. The shroud of oppressive blackness begins to peel away from my eyelids to reveal a welcoming committee above me.
“Doctor, he’s conscious.”
Then my ears and eyes drag my heart down with them. For below me, my legs were lying unceremoniously on an unkempt hospital bed.
The perception of a hundred billion sensations rushed at me, a silent and instantaneous big bang that awakened me back into the astronomical yet empty vastness of this universe. Bedsheets that were equally comfortingly white and hollowedly sterile. Pink-white floors and dimly gray walls that had been scrubbed, polished, and sanitized ceaselessly, their sparkling sheen barely disguising the amount of death, disease, and suffering that they had seen in however long this building had been here. People living mortal lives of walking angels. The last person one would ever want to go see because their faces were omens of one of the only sure things in life. And the last person one might ever see, mercifully holding a hand trembling with terror or anticipation in preparation to give away that hand to someone who would escort them into the next great adventure.
“You’re alive?!” The hospital staff responded with a strange happiness that I’d finally regained consciousness. Their tedious and obsessive checks and re-checks of my vital signs betrayed a sense of their disbelief, uncomfortably reminding me that I was back in time. I was no longer going numb from grief and could touch and feel again. Yet instead, I was grieving from feeling whenever I reached out to touch anything, for it radiated an artificial coldness that couldn’t have been more alien to me. It was like I had come from another planet, a transient just passing through on a temporary journey.
And in a way, I had.
Even though I had only spent a brief time in the most perfect place conceivable to an imperfect human imagination, it had become my home. Now the constant whir of machines seemed so hollow. So unnecessary. Mere shells of human existence. That needing them to survive was a sign that part of us has already died.
My heartbeat thumped inside my chest, an unmistakable reminder of my own survival. Its tone was annoyingly joyful, and I wished for a while that it would stop. But it was futile to try. And trying just made it beat faster. I was going to just keep resisting it until it counted down to its last beat. And yet it wouldn’t give out, no matter how fast I sprinted. Finally, the rat race became pointless. The harder I ran forward towards myself, the further away I was when I got there. And in between gasps for air, I let out a resigned sigh…and just let my heartbeat be.
I noticed a renewed sense of empathy towards all living things flowing from my soul. A greater capacity to love, knowing where they came from was the same place as him and me. It brought me towards the even braver act of being able to show empathy to my own heart. To share in its joy even though I didn’t understand it. To gradually warm myself back to the miracle of existence. A machine could replicate the steady rhythm of my heart, but never the smooth melody. It could force my heart to keep beating, but not give it a reason to want to. It could keep me existing, but never bestow the ambiguously exhilarating feeling of being. That I was meant to be here, wherever I was. That I belonged to something much bigger than a machine-like existence. Fueled by food, water, and media. Garbage in, garbage out.
I belonged to a place where none of these mattered. But for now, I had to learn to live with them all over again.
Behind the black curtains surrounding my bed, I heard the commotion of doctors rushing from place to place. Every so often, I caught a glance of another bed just like mine being wheeled frantically into some corner of the building beyond the reach of any human perception. Were they coming, or were they going? About to enter the waiting room, or leaving it? And were they leaving just to return to their temporary home, no more than a hundred kilometers away, until eventually they returned here again anyway? Or were they returning to their real home in a dimension far beyond?
My decision had been made – for me. I envied those who had left the waiting room for the last time, for I had left and yet had been sent back in, and knew what lay waiting for them. Yet I also felt a certain mysterious closure in staying here for the time being. For I would have far more of the only thing I could take with me to take with me. Far more chances to share my wisdom with those still waiting along with me.
How long might I have to wait? I had no idea. So I had to pretend I would be called back in any moment, and live the most wonderful life I could. To transcend the machine I now inhabited and arise into the glorious fullness of my human potential, making each step I took into a strive towards what I knew lay awaiting with open arms on the other side.
Chapter 12: Promise
It’s been a journey of paradoxes ever since.
I had been sent home from the hospital, because no one could find anything physically wrong.
Yet mentally, I was beset by (pardon the pun) grave cognitive dissonance.
I knew there was something not sitting right inside of me.
Yet nobody else, not even those who were closest to me, could understand it.
I was comforted that perhaps I had been meant to survive.
Yet I was also tortured by the idea that I shouldn’t be here.
The M.D. discharged me this morning. With an equally paradoxical straight face endowed with an incredulous expression, she said nothing more than, “you shouldn’t have survived that.” I asked, “in what sense of the word?” Does “shouldn’t” mean it was not possible that I’m back to walking around on earth, or just not right?
The grief and sorrow that were my life before visiting the other side seem to have evolved into something far different and more complicated. Everyone will experience grief and sorrow. So they listen well when I express those feelings. Yet nobody I know has went through this.
I turned my friends away from the studio again tonight. They were used to comforting me about his death. And I felt safe with them, and them with me. Now it feels like regressing to cry in front of them and yet tell them, “I need some space.” They know enough about grief to know that even if I could talk about it before, maybe I can’t now. So I can at least avoid giving a reason. Because I can’t explain to them what happened yet. I just want to go back to experiencing grief that people ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND!
My anger softly slammed the door from a distance as they filed out one by one. Yet the last person to leave, didn’t even fully shut it. “As clumsy as ever. You had to make this difficult, didn’t you?” I dimly shouted after him. But one minute passed. Then two. Then five. And still, nothing happened. Nobody was coming back to give me what I wanted.
So even if I wanted to actually slam the door and hole myself in this castle in the air, I’d still have to make the brave step of getting up from the comforting refuge of the bed.
And I moved towards it, one tiny step at a time.
Yet the door creaked open another notch.
The world around me was so dead still that it became clear, as quickly as my mind would accept it, that there was a connection explainable in no other way.
The closer I got to it, the further it opened.
And the closer I got to what I meant to do, the easier it got to see the truth – that I should perhaps not do it.
And so, I kept walking.
Down the staircase, falling into a world in which I didn’t belong.
Out the front door, walking into a world that now feels like only a dream, but was as close to reality as exists within the dream.
Down the deserted street to a house that I didn’t particularly wish to revisit.
My feet convinced me quite rapidly that it was too cold still for crickets. And my eyes reassured me that nothing was keeping vigil over the night but the shadows of the past, haunting me at every step. To many, they were more dangerous than any shadowy attacker that could have been lurking behind the trees. To me, I knew the reaper was nothing to fear. And I wanted the world to know that, to leave behind as much hope as I could for everyone to come walking this path.
So many chances to reminisce had been lost during the three weeks I spent in the coma. Time was running short. His wife sold the house only a few days ago. His death shook her to the foundations of herself, unable to cope with the memories that haunted every corridor so much that she could no longer turn a corner without staring his ghost in the face. In just a few short hours, everything inside would be cleared out, some of it taken with her, some donated to charity in his honor, and some remaining with me. Under the cover of dark, I could bid my last goodbyes to this house – and to him.
Inside the attic, I discovered a collection of dusty black-and-white photographs. I erected them on top of the ancient bedpiece that had been passed down through his family for many generations, and made a makeshift studio inside his bedroom. I had never been inside here since he vacated it for the last time. I had been terrified of breathing the same oxygen that he drew his last breath from. But now, as much as I trembled with fear of rekindling those last painful memories, I willed my fingers to move.
In my hands, I cradled his very own acoustic guitar, that he must have only played a few weeks ago. It was only fitting that making this song was the last thing that happened in this house. That it now sung a song of eternal gratitude back to the one who gave it its voice, a purpose for existing.
The acoustic guitar is a paradox to me: soft as a downy pillow, beautiful as a maiden’s smile, and yet with a delicate strength of intense emotion no other instrument can quite approximate. Every time I played even one note with it, it brought me back to my childhood, an innocent time before I knew what grief was. I always believed there was not a sound that the instrument could make that wasn’t beautiful. And even today, after the shattering of my naïve illusion that the skies would always be blue, it made all the more beautiful music. Not just in spite of it all, but because of it.
I stared transfixed by him smiling as he held his wife’s arm at their wedding. Just below them were scrawled their vows, intertwined inseparably in red and blue ink. How they were completed much too soon.
I felt one of the strings nearly crack, as if it was crying of its own volition. Many times I’d known instruments to falter, and every time I discarded their accidental output as ugly blotches on a spotless masterpiece. But I had never captured a more beautiful sound on record like this before.
Without thinking, I let the sound guide me to transpose the piece into a different melody, each chord struck with the fracturing string resonating with the precious hollowness of something that should be there, yet wasn’t. I felt my heart break with the string whose sound cried out from the empty, hollow heart of the guitar. Without someone to play it, it had become just a piece of wood with six strings, like an orator with its throat cut. Though its voice had been restored temporarily, its tones still trembled with all of the pain seeping through that open wound. And yet, though singing caused it so much pain, it bled the wounds out until they could begin to heal.
And I found that the more I played it, the more I began to approach a closure of my own. Like, by easing some of the pain his absence left somewhere in the world, I could begin to restore normalcy to it.
Striking the final note was not as ceremonious as I expected it would be. Something still felt incomplete, a certain je ne sais quoi missing from the context and not possessed by any note known in music. I burned through all my known mental resources, an actor forgetting his line and trying to figure out what to say next. Then my eyes unconsciously drifted, almost like a magnet was attracting them, to an empty space below the words etched into the picture frame. No one ever thought it would matter. But the empty space hung in the air like the pregnant pause after asking a question that has no answer.
And it was then, in that moment, that I discovered my purpose. I had been sent back across the river with the knowledge to answer the unanswerable question. Without knowing how I remembered it, I reached into my pocket and conjured a white ballpoint pen with blue ink, haphazardly stowed there many weeks ago. No one ever gave a passing thought to how important it was going to be. But now I cradled in between my callused fingers the power to, as it were, rewrite his history. To punctuate his life with not a full stop, but an ellipsis.
The words came unconsciously, like my soul was dictating them into my body. I knew not what I was writing until I had finished engraving the ink underneath the picture frame. But when I stared at the completed work, I realized that these were the words which I had sought for so long. The words of this song that I could not find the words for. And the words that healed the wounds of his absence.
Chapter 13: Eye of the Soundscape
After I disassembled the recording studio, I remained hidden inside the attic while the movers came to clear out the house. The clatter and chatter trickled faintly through the knotted woodwork, attracting my curious ear to this episode of grave mundanity.
Even if I’d been able to watch whatever micro-expressions or body language might have broken through the tedium of this menial task, it would still be an inscrutable puzzle what they were thinking right now. Even workers with very limited experience under their belts would have quite likely moved a dead person’s possessions out of a house before. But never had the person meant anything to them. They could not know the meaning of what they were doing, unless they had known him. To them, this was just their day job. But to me, it was the final step in realizing once and for all, that he was gone.
The only window in the attic caught my eye occasionally, a secret annex which I would peek out of whenever I thought nobody would be watching. The morning dew was only now evaporating in the cloudy sky to lift the veil of obscurity cloaking the writing. Soon I was able to make out the words hastily drawn in permanent marker with a trembling hand onto the cardboard sign mounted on the lawn – “For Sale by Owner.” Possessions and property were fickle things, contrivances of this material existence that were no longer necessary or even meaningful at all to him. Everything that bore his name was being packed into boxes and bags, as if he was preparing to stuff it all on a plane and depart somewhere far away, never to come back. Somewhere along that journey to a foreign land was a checkpoint, at which anything he had owned in this world would not pass with him across the veil. Yet the noble works that bore his name, that were the sum of his life on earth, would be returned to his maker – never to be destroyed by moth and rust, but to live on forever.
With each time the door shut, the house felt emptier, as the last physical remembrances of him were vanishing like dust into the wind. Eventually, I heard the door slam with a chilling thud. It had always opened up again before, but as the minutes drew on, I never heard it again. The silence permeated the still, barren house and penetrated into a memory I’d consciously repressed for weeks, the only one of which I was still stubbornly not letting go.
Even after he had said a silent goodbye, I convinced myself I would be saying hello again every time I opened the door to our studio. “He’s just running late,” I choked through tears and clenched teeth. But one corner after another stayed just as bereft of any trace of him every time I checked. I tore furiously towards the foyer and slammed the door in despair, seething to destroy it just for failing to reveal him. The sound of the slamming door was at once past and present, running on infinite repeat in my memory as it brought everything rushing back at once. It shook my fragile matter like an earthquake rattling a rickety building. It rocked me down to the deepest foundations. It forcibly shook away every last façade of my denial, to expose the naked truth.
He was gone.
I let the flood drown me for untold minutes, trying to cry just loud enough to let it out but not too loud as to be heard. And then I couldn’t hold up the levee anymore. And I didn’t care.
A river fell from beneath my reddened eyelids and out onto the attic floor below. As my eyelids cleared, I saw it begin to trickle on forward. And then they finally ran dry. I trembled out a very long breath. Then another. Feeling each one of them rub my heart raw again, but also caress it lovingly, telling it even at risk of platitude, that everything would be okay. My eyes were not empty of pain, but yet full of comfort and resolve.
It was over.
I still stood steadfast. Battered by the quake and yet not destroyed. Swept away by the flood and yet still breathing.
The time for grief never completely ends. But the river must flow on. And the time for acceptance is just beginning.
The river flowed on down towards the gate to the attic, pointing me forwards and ushering me out of my comfortable cocoon. I gingerly pried it open, making as little noise as I could, to view what remained of his bedroom. It was stripped bare, as if no trace of him was left behind. It felt hollow and incomplete. Even emptier than if there had been no one there in the first place. Until I ventured a brave peek around the shelter of wood and saw that the walls were now the purest white.
My fingers were the first to react as they curled away from the gate I was letting down slowly like it was a sizzling hot stove. The ladder tumbled out of my grip and plummeted down towards the floor. My entire body paralyzed by shock and awe more so than even the combination of the booming crash as it collided with the floor, the forthcoming surprise that the impact left not a scratch behind, or the anxiety that someone was still around to evict me from the house like a homeless squatter.
I waited dumbfounded for what could have been an hour, in which time I both came to an assurance that nobody would be coming back to investigate the noise, and my mind began to formulate the capacity to even ask the question, “How could that have happened?” In all the times I had set foot in this house, one with which I was almost as well acquainted as my own by now, I had never seen a white wall. And now the room was bathed in the white glow. It seemed a complete impossibility.
And perhaps it was. But so many impossible things had happened to me over the last few weeks that I could no longer just blindly have faith that life was unfolding miracles before me. I had acclimated to the impossible being possible. Yet, this was so much more impossible that I had no rational choice but to believe this was all real.
As I climbed down the ladder, I invited the white glow to engulf my awareness until I could visualize myself in that world blanketed in white once again. He had passed through the veil, crossed the river, from this very place, and left the door slightly creaked open for anyone who would knock. Through the tiny slit shone a minute glimpse of that blinding white light that emanated its everlasting call to me. It had cast a beacon out into the raging storm of my grief and doubt that had nearly drowned me. It gave me the inspiration to continue to create in the midst of the storm, knowing everything I created was pulling me closer to it. To refuse to consign my life to the silence, but to emerge from it with the sound of a new song.
My life is the greatest composition I will ever write. The river surges around me and the storm has not yet passed, but even as I approach the darkness fraught with wind and storm, I shall remain unwavering in my focus on the light ahead and never cease to make music, until the day I pass through the wall of the storm into the eye of the soundscape.
I spent some quantity of time there in the last place he’d ever been asleep, so mesmerized by the alluring splendor of white reflecting back at me not my face, but my heart’s desire, that I didn’t sleep for a second, nor did my body miss it whatsoever. The nighttime watch descending upon the house seemed to just brighten by contrast the sway the white walls had over me. I was wide awake to the greater reality, where once I was drifting through life half asleep in a dream, and yet I still remained suspended halfway in between reality and dream. I still wanted to take a step beyond, yet the warmth never called me forward. Even as I thought I’d grown accustomed to living back in this world, I still was grieving for the temporary loss of that beacon of light and struggling to accept that it wasn’t my time. The light lived within me now, guiding me towards its home even as it sustained my temporal existence, and I was myself a beacon reflecting its glory. I could no longer hide such a light under a basket, but was called to let it shine for the world to see. And shining that light into the darkness that still cast shadows into this existence would be as close to being back there as I could for now.
It took the unexpectedly early arrival of a surveyor to shake me out of this stupor. At his unheralded approach, the sound of footsteps drowned out by the silence of everything but the wall, my body suddenly fell asleep like a narcoleptic or someone playing dead in a haphazard charade of having had been there all along. It slumped onto the empty floor so instantaneously that I don’t remember anything else. I just remember waking back up.
I found myself once again in the bed within my home studio. Its sheets were still comfortingly white yet not sterile like the hospital, some of the spectral hollowness of a world incomplete illuminated and given form by the faint yellow glow emanating from the dusty blinded window beside me. It looked shockingly like the much cleaner and whiter window in a place that by now was being re-commissioned, achingly fading out of my reach for the present. I didn’t know how many days I’d been asleep for, until I arose expectantly from the bed and processed up to the window where a calendar lay open to the month of March. The open spaces were days of the month that had never been filled in during my absence, except for this past Friday and Saturday that must have been marked through in pencil by whoever had brought me back to sleep. Because I recognized the style of the blue-inked pen that had not just crossed out the first few days of the month, but blotted them out in an increasingly forceful and complete fashion.
I pieced together that I’d been out this last time since Friday, and therefore, today was March 27 – Easter Sunday. The yellow light outside knocked on the window to the home studio that had once been a garden of delights, then became a tomb of broken and sorrowful memories and nearly of myself as well, bidding me to roll away the stone and finally welcome the sun inside.
I was so enraptured by what I saw that I almost fell through the window in an effort to dive and reach it. The rejuvenating scent of morning dew greeted the most beautiful sunrise since the day the sun never went down. Spring had come abnormally late to this part of the country, the first time in over four decades that it hadn’t been celebrated at the traditional time. But now nature was finally awakening from its mournful slumber to celebrate the flowering of life anew, and it called forth my voice to join in with the dawn chorus in jubilation. I had so little worth singing about for so long that I let out weeks of silence all morning with reckless abandon.
I may have lost my voice. But if I had not been lost, I could not have been found again.
And I would have nothing to show for it, for none of the music I had made along the way would exist.
Everything that had happened over the last few weeks had left me an empty shell, and yet only then once my cup was emptied of all my broken illusions, could it runneth over with newfound joy and purpose. A part of me had died with him and I would never be who I once was again. And yet there was a part of me that had lain dormant until then, that was now awakened by the light that shone inside me, nevermore to slumber.
I could now sense a warm presence within my heart, wordlessly urging me to compile everything that had happened into a musical diary of my journey. To pay tribute to his short life in this dimension of existence, while also celebrating his passage into the realms beyond. All the water of the river whose source had abruptly run dry had flowed into me, and I could never step foot in it again. Yet I could begin anew from here and carve a new path in the landscape ahead, sailing on with high hopes down the endless river flowing into the eye of the soundscape.
My heart skipped a beat as my top-shelf Apple 5K iMac desktop flickered to life. Maybe from excitement or from remembering its origin. It was a special gift in celebration of our latest album release. Taped onto its black case was a handwritten note, “Thanks for fourteen years of playing music together!” Soon I would get to add below it, “You’re welcome.”
I played back the tape in preparation to transfer what I could onto the hard drive, and to sketch out a plan to write and record the rest. An auditory portrait of my life flashed before my eyes. I immersed myself in the gentle flow of the river, basked in the comforting sunshine, and then relived my dreams, from the silence of my angst to the solace in our music.
But the sound never stopped when I expected it to. I was briefly shocked as I felt the sting of grief again, and was briefly beset by fear as it rendered me numb on my sleepwalk into the in-between. But now that I knew what lay on the other side, fear was merely a phantom illusion. The amazement of my rainbow trip would not diminish even as I passed into the great divide in between heaven and land. I treasured every moment I spent bathed in the endless white. Its sustenance kept hope alive even as I returned through the aether into the cold, mechanical world of the hospital. I felt his promise alive within me, in unison with every beat of my heart and breath of my lungs. The blood that would always keep my heart pumping. The air that would always keep my lungs breathing. The indispensable fuel that both reminded me every day that I was alive and counted down the days to be maximized in quality, not quantity, of my journey to the eye of the soundscape. Somehow, all along, this studio had been recording the sounds of everything. The album had been completely recorded all on its own. This so defied my already radically broadened expectations of what was possible that I was thankful I couldn’t upend the recording stand out of sheer astonishment. Even as I let myself play devil’s advocate and scoured the entire studio with the stubbornly skeptical eyes of a detective for physical signs of someone’s presence, I found no other explanation.
Then my eyes caught a glance of the picture I had guarded like my own child. In one moment, I understood everything with perfectly vivid clarity. And my soul became alive still. I knew not how it was able to contain such enormous emotion, as the river flooded over me with such engulfing fullness that it would have overcome my towering grief as easily as a flimsy wicket house.
Though I felt like I could cry a river, my eyes once blind could still clearly see as they remained transfixed by the peculiar way his face captured my gaze.
Was I imagining it, or did I really see his right eyelid narrowing inwards to wink at me?
I believe I did.