I’ve seen death, in many forms and shapes.
Some deaths are peaceful. The old man or woman climbs to bed, falls asleep, and never wakes up. Old age. Or the very young child turns over in his or her sleep, presses the nose against the mattress, and suffocates to death. Cot death. Or some house help, left alone in the home, lights up a jiko, then takes it back to the house, and forgets to leave at least one window open. She sits by the jiko and, lulled by the warmth, falls asleep. She never wakes up. Carbon monoxide poisoning.
But then again, I’ve seen some other kinds of deaths that have been truly horrifying. Vicious cuts and bruises by lovers. Victims of car accidents. And high speed motorcycle crashes, where every bone in the body is broken in several places. I’ve seen people rushed to the hospital, crying out in what must be white-hot pain, their guts spilling out of their wide-open bellies. And as soon as they reach the doors of the emergency room, their body finally gives up, and they fall into the eternal sleep, their faces still twisted in unspeakable pain.
All these, I’ve seen in the past. Some are heart-wrenching. Others are horrifying.
But rarely, if ever, had I ever been terrified by death.
That is, until I saw death itself animate an expired body.
Several years ago, as part of my background research for one of my novels, I trained, and qualified, for a short stint as an assistant in the High Dependency Unit of a certain hospital. The training itself wasn’t particularly intensive, since all I needed was to get a hands on experience of the medical world. So I learnt a few basic medical terms, how to keep myself always protected within the HDU units – from any possible infections – and generally how to stay out of the way of the really harried doctors and nurses.
After the training, I then stayed within that HDU department for the next three months. There was a lot to absorb. And I came to see the stark nature of humanity, when an individual faces imminent death. Some people face death with peace and joy. They summon their loved ones, and bade them goodbye. Others face death with mortal fear, and they go into the eternal night screaming and kicking. They wail about all that they’ve left unfinished. And when death comes, it finally silences them.
Walter Ritho was different, though. He not only went into the eternal night with the brightest smile ever, but he also broke the death barrier, and came back.
Age: 57 years. Male.
Condition: Brain tumor.
Those were the main details provided in the card that hung by the foot side of this patient’s bed. Walter had been with the hospital for about three weeks now. He had undergone three major operations to try and extricate the aggressively growing tumor in his brain.
But unfortunately, the tumor was far much integrated with the rest of his brain, and in some areas, removing it would have meant turning Walter into an instant vegetable. So the doctors had conferred with him about the situation (he was still lucid, surprisingly), and he had decided to simply wait for the end. The doctors gave him a further two weeks to live. He died after one week.
As it so happened, I was one of the “assistants” still doing the rounds in the HDU when Walter died. He was hooked up to various machines towards the end: EKGs, respirators, and some other sensors taped to his right temple. The scars for the previous operations were on the left side of his head.
As I walked down the brightly-lit corridor of the HDU, I suddenly heard the unmistakable beep of Walter’s heart monitor. He was clearly coding. So I rushed into the room, to find him arched on the bed, in what must have been extreme pain from a cardiopulmonary arrest. I was about to rush out and call any nearby doctor or nurse, when the heart monitor stopped making that warning sound, and instead went back to the familiar beep, beep of a normal heart.
Walter collapsed back to the bed, with sweat appearing on his brow. After breathing heavily for a while, he called me over with a weak gesture. He gestured that I lean closer to him. And when I did, he whispered to me:
“My time is up here, sonny. But I’ll come back and wish you goodbye.”
With a sigh, Walter settled deeper into the pillow, closed his eyes, and didn’t move again. On his face, was the biggest smile I had ever seen on anyone.
I didn’t have to touch him to know that he was dead.
The long, incessant sound of the heart monitor must have summoned the medical staff, for soon the room was swamped with doctors and nurses. I stepped away from the body, but stayed within watching distance. The doctors did the perfunctory checks for pulse, before switching off the various monitors attached to the body. No one tried to resuscitate the body. No defibrillation. I understood. Walter wouldn’t have wished to be resuscitated. Not with the grim alien growing in his brain.
“Time of death: 1025 PM.”
That announcement was made by one of the doctors. A nearby nurse took hold of the card clipped to the foot of the bed, and noted something there. The various doctors then exited the room, and two male nurses were left to prepare the body for the morgue. I decided to stay behind and watch.
That decision turned out to be a very poor one, soon afterwards.
For as soon as one of the nurses touched Walter’s bed, intending to pull the covers off his body, Walter’s body started to move on its own.
Firstly, a sort of low moan escaped Walter’s mouth. I was startled at this, and my eyes widened a bit. I also took a small step backwards. The two nurses didn’t seem perturbed though. They went on with the folding of the covers beside the bed. I found this distinctly odd. But I kept my eyes on the body.
Suddenly, goose bumps appeared all over the exposed arms and the forehead of the body. As clear as daylight, I could see the previously smooth skin get rough as numerous goose bumps developed all over. This was starting to get really freaky. The smile on Walter’s body was still there, though it seemed to have faded somewhat, as the muscles around the mouth gradually relaxed. Still, I had a very strong urge to simply turn around, and walk out the door. Yet, the nurses either didn’t notice the goose bumps, or they were ignoring them completely.
I was beginning to settle down into this new state of affairs, when things got even more insane.
Walter’s arms started to twitch. Slightly at first, but more vividly soon afterwards.
A small shout escaped my mouth at this. The nurses stopped what they were doing, and turned and looked at me. And I pointed to the body, and said, in a trembling voice:
“That man has just moved his arms. He’s not dead.”
And immediately I said this, Walter produced another low, long-drawn out moan, and then his arms flexed, and he lifted them up into the air, from the elbows. Then they hung suspended in the air for a while.
I banged the back of my head against the wall on my back, as I quickly walked backwards. There was no hiding it. I was utterly terrified. And the next words by the nurse made my terror complete:
“Oh, he is dead alright. This movement is normal for some people, when they die.”
I froze, staring at the two nurses. They still seemed quite comfortable with everything that was happening. Were they insane, I wondered.
“Whaaaat?”, I managed to ask.
And just then, the two suspended forearms fell back towards his chest, crossing each other at the wrists. The final position was like that of Egyptian mummies. I felt like I was losing my mind.
“How is that normal?” I screeched.
And the other nurse, who hadn’t spoken so far, responded this time:
“That’s the Lazarus Sign”
“What in God’s name is the Lazarus Sign?” I shouted. My voice was shrill with real terror. My feet couldn’t move. If they had been capable of movement, I probably would have been miles away from the hospital by then.
“It happens to some people in whom the brain has been the first to die, or where there is a disconnect somewhere in the brain stem”, the nurse replied. “It’s actually the results of some reflex loop occurring after death. As you are probably aware, most reflexes in humans don’t reach they brain. The triggering stimuli hits the brain stem and a response is immediately sent back to a set of muscles, which then finish the loop by moving the body.”
I stared at the nurse. A part of me was trying to analyze what he was saying. Another part was really wishing that I was a thousand miles from there. The analyzing part won.
“So wait. You’ve seen this… this before?” I asked.
“Several times, yes. It’s a rare occurrence, but it happens. Even the goose bumps you saw. All part of that particular reflex. The Lazarus Sign is actually a very dependable way of knowing that the person is completely brain dead. A normal brain suppresses that particular reflex. The low moan you heard was unrelated, though. There must have been some air still left in his lungs, and they produced the sounds when his chest cavity decompressed.”
Despite myself, the nurse’s reassuring words were beginning to calm me down. A part of me could see the sense in what he was saying. I apparently had been worried for no good reason. Still, I wished someone had warned me, during the training course, about such weird events.
It was then that a very frightened yell came to us, from the HDU room next to the one we were in.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. And nearly soiled my pants. My nerves were clearly still very frayed, and that yell cut right through the very thin veneer of courage I had started to build up.
The nurses sprang into action, and walked out the door, towards the sound of the scream. They left me alone in the room with the body of Walter. I pondered for only half a second, before following the nurses out of the room too. I didn’t want to chance witnessing a reflex loop that might make him stand up and dance. Or something else equally unacceptable, for a dead body.
Once outside the corridor, I walked in the direction opposite where the nurses had gone. But I walked in that way for only a few steps, before sheer, morbid interest, and probable insanity, turned me around, and I found myself walking back to the room where the nurses had gone. At the door, I looked inside, and saw a frail looking woman, probably in her seventies, looking towards me, at the door.
She looked completely terrified. But I noticed something else too.
She wasn’t really looking directly at me. Rather, her eyes seemed focused on something next to me, at the doorway. Something that would have been slightly behind and to the side of one of the nurses standing there. And her words sent some shivers down my spine:
“Can’t you all see him? He is standing right there, looking at me. But there’s a weird halo all around him.”
“Ma’am, there are three of us standing here. Which of us are you referring to?” One of the nurses asked.
And the old woman replied:
“No no no. There are four of you standing there. And the forth one looks strange. And he is still staring at me. I don’t want him in this room.”
Looking at the woman, I could see that she really was terrified. Whatever she thought she was seeing, or was actually seeing, was completely frightening the wits out of her.
I found my voice and, trying to raise it a bit, asked the woman:
“Describe the fourth man, ma’am”
She described him:
“He is tall. Maybe six feet. Very pale skin, like a half cast. And his head is balding. Sunken cheeks. Very lean body. And why is he wearing the hospital gown?”
By the time she was finishing this description, I could feel my inside melt. And looking at the two nurses besides me, I saw a similar reaction of fright build up in their faces.
For the old woman had just described Walter Ritho – the old man who had just died in the next room.
I didn’t wait to hear anything else. Sometimes, when dread builds up in the body, it turns into a sort of nausea, that comes and goes in waves. That’s how I was feeling at that moment. I quickly walked out of the room, planning to beat it out of that hospital, out of that general locality, and to never come back. Ever.
Instead, I found my curiosity overpowering every single thread of sense I had in my body. And I walked straight into the room that had Walter Ritho’s body.
The body was still there. Still in the same, unsettling mummy posture. Hands crossing each other over the chest.
It might have been my imagination, but that big, enigmatic smile on his face seemed to have returned. A face that was supposed to be completely dead. I shook my head a bit to clear it, and blinked several times. And the smile seemed to fade away, once again.
This time, terror won over. I whipped around, jumped into the corridor, and walked as fast as I could, straight into the parking lot. I only started breathing normally when I got into my car. I quickly reversed the car, got out of parking, and drove out the hospital’s compound.
And at the back of my mind, a certain conviction was forming: I’d never visit that hospital again.