Friday, April 17, 2015

Twenty Easter Sundays

Twenty years ago on Easter weekend, I joined my best friends for our usual revelry... a few days spent at my childhood pal Ron Kimbell's uncle's land out in Groesbeck, Texas. It was very isolated, through a nondescript gate down a long dirt road down a long one-lane road out of Waco. I probably have been there a hundred times over the years and yet I'd be hard pressed to try and find it today.

We began the weekend as we usually did: a few beers and plenty of guitar playing around a roaring campfire. This evening seemed, however, to have a much more serious overtone. For months now, I knew that something was just not right inside. I had been to visit my doctor several times in the past few years, as they watched my liver enzyme levels climb higher and higher with no real explanation. In actuality, what was happening was that my portal veins became highly pressurized, causing a massive amount of blood to backflow into my liver, resulting in varicose veins in my stomach and esophagus that would rupture later that evening. By all accounts, this could have been caused by the removal of my spleen when I was merely six years old... it's quite possible that the re-routed blood flow of a missing internal organ caused the traffic jam as my body developed into adulthood.

Starting in the fall of 1994, I walked around in a haze, not knowing what was wrong with me or what to do about it. I was extremely depressed. I could tell my body was falling apart. I managed to break my wrist after a very excited friend tackled me at a bachelor party one weekend. A few weeks later, I somehow managed to injure my heel badly after jumping from a set of bleachers. To call me a gimp during this period would not have been a stretch... I looked quite a sight with my full forearm cast and limp. My doctors put me on antidepressants, which only seemed to have a psychoactive effect on me. During the final months leading up to my Easter weekend bleed, I was hearing voices and seeing horrific, violent images in my mind. I could barely make it to my college classes, much less focus on studying. One week before Easter, in my frustration, I punched a wall and shattered much of my right hand, which has still not been set to this day.

To say the least, I knew I was dying. I had a very acute sense that something foreign had invaded my body, that I had been possessed by something that was completely alien and very malevolent.

As the campfire died down that Good Friday in Grosebeck, I asked my friends if we should say a prayer together. The sense that something very heavy hung over us was palpable, and I thought that this one simple gesture on this holy eve would somehow help. We solemnly gathered hands and said our peace. I was no longer a religious person, but having been raised Roman Catholic, I still clung to all the feelings of guilt and doubt that came along with Catholicism. That spring semester, I was enrolled in an Eastern Religion survey course at Baylor University, and I was beginning to see my spiritually in a whole new way after many discussions with Prof. Brackenridge, an active Baptist who was able to put into context for me the place all world religions had within his personal paradigm, and why Christianity still works best for him. His reasoning was that throughout history, certain prophets, or avatars, were able to rise above the mundane world, access God, and give something important back to humanity. To him, Jesus was the most powerful of these figures because of the simplicity of his message: Love. Although present in most other world religions, the overruling concept of compassion was at the forefront of Christian faith, and that's why it worked so well for Brackenridge. One lunch meeting in the Student Union building was to forever change the course of my religious outlook. It was also the last time I would speak to Prof. Brackenridge, as I was soon to be hospitalized for the rest of the school year.

We doused the fire and snuggled into our sleeping bags for the evening. At some point during the night, I got up to water the blackberry bushes and stepped right onto a mound of fire ants. They quickly consumed my leg, covering me in almost a hundred or so painful stings. The shock was unbearable and yet I managed to slip back into my warm bag as the poison coursed through my veins and set my internal system on fire. I slipped into a sleepless trance.

As I awoke, I surveyed the early morning sky. To the east, a dark, black cloud seemed to be coming straight towards me, looming ominously over the horizon as a harbinger of doom. Just looking into the vast, darkening abyss seemed to trigger a feeling of panic within me. I rose from my bag, walked a few steps, and collapsed onto the ground as a sharp, stabbing, burning pain grew in my stomach. Violently, I vomited up a viscous red substance onto the ground. I sat down, feeling somewhat lighter. I surveyed the mass before me. Was this merely leftover from the Big Red and Taco Bell I had consumed the evening before? Surely that had to be it. I sat and looked at my friends, still snug and unaware, nestled in their sleeping bags around the embers of the fire. Then another wave struck me. I began to sweat profusely. Blood poured out of my mouth in a steady stream. In addition, I could feel myself losing control of my bowels to a burning sensation that enveloped my lower intestine. It felt like I was literally melting from the inside out.

When I called out to my pals, I was shocked at the fear in my own voice. I managed to rouse them and tell them what was happening. We all surveyed the bloody mass on the ground to try and figure out what indeed it was. Before long, however, it happened again. This time, I lost my vision and blacked out for a few seconds. With this episode, the initial shock passed and we all knew that something was very wrong. In the days before cell phones, all we could think to do was go seek help. My friends Ron and Jake quickly drove away to a nearby farm to find a phone they could use while my pal Jon stayed behind with me. I was extremely weak and barely conscious. Within minutes, however, the vomiting overtook me again. I was losing blood, and fast. I could see the panic in Jon's eyes as he asked what he could do to help. I simply requested that he hold onto me. I could feel myself slipping away, and I felt that contact with a human anchor was my only chance. He grabbed me from behind round the waist as I vomited blood again and laid down to die.

Soon, Ron and Jake returned. No luck. No farmers awake or answering doors yet this morning, oddly enough. Or perhaps the sight of two young, wiry, hungover males loudly banging on one's door at six in the morning was a bit alarming for most. Only one thing to do... they loaded me into Jake's truck and he and i sped off down the dirt road, making our way back to Waco. I remember dear Jake tried to crack a joke to make me feel less scared. Any sound at this point felt like daggers into my brain, and I let him know so, so he soon was quiet. Passing through the tiny town of Mart, Tx, I knew I would not make it any further. I asked Jake to pull over. On the side of the street, in front of a church, I lay down on the sidewalk and began vomiting much more blood... a seemingly endless amount this time. Jake ran away at top speed to go find help. I curled up into a ball and stared up at the cross looming high above me. I drifted in and out of consciousness and lost all sense of time. I became aware of presence above me and looked up. An elderly man with cane, white beard, glasses, and a Navy veteran's ballcap was out undoubtedly for his morning walk, when he came upon something quite unexpected. He asked me in a kind tone, "What's wrong, son?" I couldn't muster the strength to answer. The man knelt down and placed a hand upon my shoulder for what seemed like an eternity. The next thing I remember was the blaring sound of an EMS siren. Jake had somehow located the only ambulance within the entire county and brought them to me. I was loaded in and introduced to the kindly retired couple who owned and operated the vehicle. The man drove like a bat out of hell straight toward Waco while the woman urged me to lay down and try to be still. I vomited blood once more and laid down, drifting away into a semi-conscious slumber.

The next thing I remember, I was atop a table in a very bright operating room at Hillcrest Hospital in Waco. I was freezing cold, having lost so much blood at this point. A nurse asked me what was going on. I could barely form the words to tell her. She seemed less concerned than I was, which eased my mind a little. I remember telling her that whatever was wrong needed to be fixed quickly so that I could make an afternoon fishing date with my dad. I rarely spent time with him these days, too caught up in my own young man's world to slow down. And yet I knew today's fishing trip would be special. It would be just he and I, a very rare occurance indeed, and one I knew I needed with all that was going on my my life. Obviously I was in shock, and could not see the severity of my situation. But I had stopped vomiting and figured that I was getting better. Heck, maybe that stuff wasn't even blood. Just an adverse reaction to whatever shitty food I had eaten the night before. I lay alone in the room, waiting for a doctor to show up. I became very aware of the fact that I needed to go to the bathroom. I asked the attending nurse if this would be possible. She directed me down the hall to the patient bathroom, ushered me in, and closed the door. The moment I sat down, a searing hot rush of fluid shot out of my nether region. I looked down... it was pure red. I began to lose consciousness and fell off of the toilet onto the floor. What seemed like a flood of blood began forcefully shooting out of my mouth in a steady stream. I managed to crawl across the tile floor and reached up to crack the door open. I no longer had the strength to call out for help, so I just laid in the expanding sea of my own blood, surveying the pattern of red now painted across the walls. I began vomiting again with no control over my reflexes. Blood poured out of both ends. The gutteral sound of my convulsions mixed with gasps for air should have been enough to wake the dead. A nurse walked by, and without looking in, exclaimed, "SHUT THE DOOR!" My response came out of nowhere: "LADY I AM FUCKING DYING IN HERE! GO GET SOMEONE NOW!" She turned, did a double-take, her eyes big as saucers, and ran. Within moments an entire team was at the door, loading me onto a stretcher and into an even brighter white room. Somewhere along the way I must have given someone my parent's contact info, because the next thing I knew a very panicked-looking Mom and Dad were hovering over me.

A doctor came into the room and explained that they needed to get a scope into me to see what was happening. Two large tubes were inserted into my nose and forced down my throat. The choking sensation was unbearable. I began to vomit again, literally painting a spray pattern of red all across the walls of the room and the uniforms of the doctors and nurses. So much blood. I struggled to removed the tubes while two orderlies worked to hold my arms down. My mom was crying. The blood kept coming and coming. Fade out.

I'm not sure about all the details of what happened next. I'm not sure how long I was gone. From the information I've gathered over the years, it sounds like I died for approximately two to three minutes before doctors were able to revive me. I didn't see a white light or my Grandfather at the end of it. I didn't see anything. It was simply blackness. I had lost almost two thirds of my blood. Somehow, a very skilled doctor was able to go in, find the sources of the bleed, cauterize them, and pump enough blood back into me to get me going once again.

A hazy grey-bright image began to form. In the doorway of a small hospital room, I began to make out the image of my dear old friend Sam Osborne standing in the doorway, smiling. Soon other visitors began to show up... my older brother, my girlfriend, and, of course, Ron, Jake, and Jon. It was early evening on Easter Sunday.

(The photo above was taken during the afternoon on that fateful Good Friday by my friend Amber Brien.)

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