Jackson Black - October 24, 2023
Artwork by - Bree Garver
I dreamt that I had died, but a nightmare it was not. Nor an omen, nor a sign, nor a message from some higher power commanding me to savor every precious bit of life. No, this dream was remarkably ordinary.
It was 11:52 AM on a Sunday, and I was in my new bed in the living room, and the windows were open so the blue sky could usher in winds to cool my naked head. Behind the bed were Mom and Dad, rubbing my shoulders. To the left of the bed was Ian Riddle. At the foot of the bed was Juniper Miles and Gavin Kincheloe and Luca Barbosa. Atop my chest, my purring Osmund, with his slow blinks and paws outstretched to my sagging nose.
Aimlessly wandering around the room in a sort of spectral way were Leo and Ans Spijkermans, Charles Black, and Arthur Wright. Leo Spijkermans was my grandfather who passed away quite some time ago, and whose shoes I quickly began to fill. Ans Spijkermans was his wife, my grandmother whom I never met. They gleefully surveyed the house like an art gallery hand in hand, muttering words to each other in Dutch, for neither of them had yet come to America and perfected their English. No older than twenty years old, were they. It seemed to be the same for Charles Black, my grandfather who died in 1977, who sat in the linen chair to my right reading a newspaper. A head full of hair, a face tight as a drum, and an intimidating stature, he was a bit on the heavy side, but that would change, as he decided to visit before he would acquire a hole in his heart several decades later, shed seventy pounds, and die.
Arthur Wright was my grandmother’s grandfather born in 1887. He was the only one I did not know the true face of. She had told me stories of his kindness and generosity, how he would pick her up on his shoulders and carry her around the state fair, buying her candies and tickets to the merry-go-rounds. She did say he was quite promiscuous, though, and had a habit of wrecking homes. So I gave him shy hazel eyes and rosy hair, but the jawline of a movie star. He mostly lingered around the kitchen door, drinking a cup of coffee that Mom had made that morning.
Dad wiped his forearm across his eyes, leaving it utterly wet. It seems he felt the despair and uneasiness of the room, with a dying man as its centerpiece, as well did I. So he strolled around from the head of the bed to the right, to get closer to me and speak to me, since he assumed my hearing had already gone. He joked with me to distract himself, and lightly tapped my arm since he couldn’t playfully bump it anymore without shattering my feeble bones. He asked me if I wanted to hear him play my accordion.
My accordion that I bought with the two-thousand-something dollars I had sitting in my bank account, which my parents begged to let them get for me. They begged to get me a lot of things, near the end, sometimes with tears in their eyes, but I wouldn’t have any of it. At the start it was instruments, collectibles, tickets to Europe; and at the end it was food and water. I either didn’t want, or couldn’t buy myself, most of those things, especially an appetite. But the Hohner accordion I simply could not resist. I fiddled with it for a long while, fell in love with its sound and feel, until my fingers were too thin, too loose, too frail to love it how I wanted to. So I put it in my closet and decided it to be my last new hobby. But no, I did not want to hear my dad try to play it, in all his good-naturedness. So I smiled (to hopefully give him a smile too) and pointed to the plastic milk carton of vinyls I had sitting by the bedside.
Propped up on the nightstand was a suitcase record player I had bought before I became sick, all fancy-like, with a massive phony brass horn to give it the appearance of one of those old-fashioned gramophones. Mom glanced at the case of vinyls, then at the record player, and closely bent her ear towards my mouth to hear me tell her which song I wanted to listen to while I left. I had no interest in talking; I was very, very tired. Lungs indescribably fatigued, as if full of a slowly thickening tar, so I kept relentlessly pointing at the carton. After a few awkward seconds, she got the message, and muttered a quick “Oh!” that cut through the phlegm and tears coating her throat.
She lifted the carton and rested it on the edge of the bed. My little gray digits got to work, searching thoroughly, deciding which ear worm would be the last to burrow. “The Last Waltz Theme” by The Band. Subtle, I thought. I doubt anyone here has heard it all the way through, especially Arthur. Maybe this is their sign to really explore the discography. This song especially highlights the compositional genius of Robbie Robertson.
So, so many thoughts, none of which had much significance, but their aloofness certainly did not match the caricature of a sick man, sticking his dry tongue out in focus, using every morsel of strength to pull a six ounce vinyl record out of a box. I wanted to turn on my side and set it in the player, but my body was in unanimous agreement that such a thing would not be happening, so Mom and Dad took it from my hands to place it. Kindly, though, Mom picked up the record player and set it next to me on the bed, with its black wheel spinning, and her shivering hand took mine to lightly close my fingers around the cue lever. She helped guide it to the rim of the record, and loosened her grip to let me drop the needle. With a faint, pleasant crackle, I heard the rumbling A Major fade in for the last time.
Yes, at this point I knew I likely wouldn’t make it very far, probably not even past the two minute mark. I was very quickly turning a lovely blue-purple, and I couldn’t decide if I was hot or cold. It seemed everyone in the room knew it was really happening. Mom rubbed Jersy’s back with one hand and clasped her own distressed face with the other. Dad’s tears rushed out a bit quicker. They saw each part of me leave with every breath, and Leo and Ans and Charles and Arthur had walked out the door without a goodbye.
Fear, and the grim, and every nasty feeling fell in the form of water droplets onto the beacon of calm within me, sizzling on its embers, to be casted away, unwelcome alongside my departure. In some form or pattern, I thought of those words, because I truly felt calm. Had I been able to man a pen and paper, or string together more than two thoughts at once, I could have been a poet halfway dead.
Some senses collapsed and some heightened. Big blots of fuzzy ink occluded much of my vision, but I saw Juni and Luca and Gavin in my right eye, huddled together, rubbing my leg. But in the absence of sight, I heard so much. I swear, I could even hear the wind whistle through the spaces between my toes.
And I heard the petulant mandolin, and the thick twang of the bass, and the strings and the slide and the cunning guitar. And I heard the sum of their parts swell in such a way that would have made me want to fall ill, immobile, and infirm one thousand times over, just so I could hear it again. And I heard the sniffles of many, and quiet bids to God, and I did not want to hear those things while I went. And I heard but disliked the sounds of Juni and Luca and Gavin and Ian crying because I seldom heard them cry much, and to hear them now would be too much for me, and so I importuned the tar in my throat to shuffle to the left or right a bit to let a few last words come out. It reluctantly did, and I let them ooze out a monotonous whisper while the song approached the halfway mark; “Quiet now; this is the good part.”
Needless to say, nobody was going to ignore a simple dying wish, and so they hushed and I heard one last magnificent burst of melody, and then I died at 11:59 AM, just short of noon, on a very ordinary Sunday without many complaints.
It was to my shock that when I awoke, I was still alive in the world. I woke up to fingers that were not sickly and pale. I did not wake up in a hospital bed. I did not find an accordion in my closet, which was the most jarring reminder of them all, that blood still coursed and air still flowed inside of me.
But, I cannot be convinced that when expiration draws nearer, alike or not to that beautiful dream, that it will not be the second time I have died. Perhaps not the third, nor the fourth, all in nightly lives fallen through the cracks of memory. On failed hobbles away from some eerie monster, or a disaster, or an arrow through the neck in some fantastic battle. And each time I abruptly awoke, it was with dripping sweat and thumping heart.
Only gentle tears came, adorning a pleased smile, when I seamlessly passed from death to the world again after that dream. No stirrings. No flux.
There was never any reason to be afraid.