I lost someone this week, which floored me a bit, even though I was expecting it. Just when I thought I’d gathered myself, I was hit by a rather dizzying wave of memories of my own experience with death.
I used to love swimming and my parents had taken me to this delightful christian camp called “Capenwray Hall” which had a lovely pool. On a return trip, I went on a spree of distance swimming certificates. The instructor suggested I try diving exercises instead. The pool had been empty during my lessons, with a couple of kids I knew turning up as I finished. One was a friend, really a brother of a friend, but I thought of him as a friend.
They asked me to show them what these lessons were, so I demonstrated one, picking a rubber brick off the side and dropping it into the deep end, diving to recover it and surfacing. As I got near the surface, the two kids jumped in on me, completely winding me. And, for laughs, one of them decided to sit on my shoulders to see how long I could hold my breath. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any breath to hold.
My last thought was one of those all-in-one impulse thoughts: along the lines of I can’t let this guy reproduce. And, apparently, crushing his testicles was sufficient to get me to the surface, but a little bit late for me.
Fortunately, the lifeguard was able to resuscitate me before they could call an ambulance.
I tried swimming again at a local pool a few months later, and I conquered the kiddy pool. I went back and swam breadths. I decided to finish with a quick dive in the diving section, dropped my tags, picked them up, and surfaced. So exhilarated I tossed my goggles up in the air … and missed the catch. So I dove back down again and, since I was leaving, swam along the bottom to the ladder. A foot from the surface, some idiot decided the ladder was a good place for a cannonball. Right onto the top of my head, knocking me out.
Somehow I made it to the surface with air in my lungs, and came around a few moments later (for shame, I got the only female lifeguard on duty and she was hot).
And the last time I was in a pool, wasn’t much fun either. Water apparently brings the chimpanzee out in people.
Some people gain or lose faith when they have a near death experience because of what they do or don’t encounter. But if there is an afterlife, you’re not going to experience it until you actually, finally, absolutely die. If your heart stops for 30 seconds, does God run adverts for paradise?
I’ve never told anyone what I experienced, and I’m not about to. It took me around 10 years to realize that I wasn’t still lying on the edge of that pool experiencing some kind of flash forward. I wrote a dumbass letter to Richard Bartle, about the MUD language I was writing to learn C on the Atari ST (the one I had to write my own operating system for), and received an invite to meet him at Essex University. I wrote letters to NASA and got back mountains of literature, pictures, books, etc – and not the standard stuff, I know because other kids were blown away by the stuff I got, inspiring them to write and receive only standard packs in return. I sent in a dumbass scribbling for an idea for a docking system, and got the “this is not in a useful format but its an interesting idea” response – again I know for similar reasons :) Not dissimilar to that they tried in the late 90s and on the ISS. I stumbled into a part in a 12-piece band that toured nationally, for exactly as long as I ever wanted to experience being what Doc calls a muso. The day my college lecturer challenged me to get a job if you’re so good I did exactly that, and when I got bored of that and thought “if we’re going to have online games, we need something better than bulletin boards” I discovered the Internet and walked into a job making the country’s (England’s) first home-dialup ISP happen.
Gaming companies laughed at me when I pitched online games, even just 2 player options, with comments like “beam into our offices and we’ll talk about it”.
It all had a dream-like quality. Life seemed to just happen. I don’t have a degree. Nobody would be teaching what I wanted to learn for a good 10+ years and who wants to dream 3 years of learning CompSci just to dream about having a piece of paper in interviews. Besides, I’ve only had 5 (or is it 6?) interviews, 2 of which were for practice, 2 were formalities, and 1 was just the chance to see inside a TV studio (I got the job tho). My two real interviews (SAIC/InterNic and Yahoo) were challenging (I flew from Holland to Virginia for the InterNIC interview and they made me take the drug test twice because it was completely clean; I flunked the Yahoo one, forgetting everything I knew about programming).
So, last night, sitting in my chair, contemplating a friend passed on, I was suddenly back in that pool. Frustration that someone was about to accidentally snuff me out and my life’s end would be an “oops”; anger at all the time I’d spent learning for later life instead of going out and playing; unfairness that two of them had so effectively cut out all of my options – I couldn’t pull them under to break them off, I couldn’t yell my lungs were empty, which also mean’t I couldn’t push upwards.
Air was just inches from my head, and water was about to kill me and thousands of voices were yelling orders and instructions for ways to get out, none of which helped or worked.
Drowning is unpleasant. I don’t know if its different with unchlorinated water, but you really don’t want that in your lungs. I really didn’t want to die either, my brain least of all. So everything slowed down and I got to really savor the experience. I would have thought it had taken a couple of minutes rather than a split second.
I find it hard to watch Bowman shutting down Hal because … I could feel that too, my brain going off line. Parts of myself popping out of existence, in a painful way. Like a city being bombed out of existence by B17s. Maybe that’s why drownees convulse, if it isn’t the sheer fucking agony of having your lungs fill with water, it feels like your brain is shorting out.
For me it felt like parts of my brain being zapped with electrodes or something. Sometimes, at night, I wake up feeling like I’ve just taken a zap in the brain, like something in my head exploded or fried, but they’re mild in comparison to the sensastion I felt dozens of as I drowned.
It was so unpleasant that for a while I convinced myself it had gone differently that I’d climbed out of the pool and lain on the side for a while catching my breath, but I got in touch with the lifeguard and he acknowledged he’d had to start me breathing again.
I wish it was amongst the things I only remember dimly, or by trying hard to recall. I wish it wasn’t something I dreamed in delicious full sight, sound and smell, in slower motion than it happened, that it wasn’t the one dream I can’t wake from.
Most of all, I wish I believed there was something afterwards. If that’s what death is like, it’s a cruel and unusual torture to be the finale.