Fifty Seconds Til 104: A Report
“The person retains the illusion of having a body, but that perception is no longer derived from the senses. The perceived world may resemble the world he or she generally inhabits while awake, but this perception does not come from the senses either.” ……
On the occasion of her 104th birthday, Mrs. Louisa Zig broke a record. She made the Guinness Book by being the oldest-ever certified skydiver. People who live in the purple zones of longevity, naturally aged, would have greater sense than to try such a stunt. Or to aspire to such a record. Or ever think about skydiving. Those people are happy to stay home in the bosom of family and eat locally grown beans and locally sourced honey and to ride their donkeys to their daily, muscle-wrenching hoeing of the fields. They do not skydive.
Mrs. Zig, however, had been a bit of a daredevil throughout her life. Born in 1919, she had been the first in her Ohio small-town block to see The Thief of Bagdad. She used her allowance to buy lipstick at Woolworths and applied it while hiding under a bush after leaving her house. Her auntie was a suffragette and she joined her in meetings when she could sneak away from the critical eyes of her mother and father.
1919. That was the year Queen Marie of Romania, bought a new, sexy gown, and seduced Woodrow Wilson into cutting a good deal for her country. A war the child, Mrs. Zig, knew nothing about had ended. A good year to start a life.
When she was 10, in 1929, she was aware there were problems. She looked forward to the Sunday funny papers and Popeye. Her father lost his job. The family moved to her grandparents farm and grew vegetables and raised chickens. She liked that. She packed her lipstick and hid it in her tiny room in the farmhouse.
When she was 20 in 1939. She was old enough and smart enough to take note of the world. But her personal life was more important. She moved from the farm to the city and took a job. She lived in a hotel for single career women. She took some flying lessons when she could afford them. She developed a desire to parachute. Someday, she thought, someday.
So her skydive was something she had put off but long thought about. 104. Not a bad life. Pretty long life. 104 is a kind of good number. A woman died at 104 just the other day, she had read. She’d been called “young lady” by patronizing store clerks for the past 30 years. Reason enough to let it all go. Things had been a string of boring repetitions for 40 years or so: Thanksgivings, Christmases, birthdays, the changing of the seasons. She’d seen it all. Wars. Please, can I just go now?
At the end of the “day of,” images of her wind-flattened face and swept-back, thin grey hair popped up all around the internet. Bored consumers of electronic media made a flicker of a note, looked at her for a nanosecond, then moved on. She was acclaimed in newspapers and by her family, members of which she had not told about this feat in advance. It was typical of her to play her cards close to the vest.
Mrs. Zig landed, no broken bones, and seemed as healthy as she had been before her jump.
Four days later she died in her sleep.
It was not from indigestion. It was not from heart failure. It was from something she had seen while falling.
Something caused her death….or made her eager to “pass over” or made that seem a very attractive option. Something took her will to live between its massive jaws and then spit her, violently, down to earth into an opening in a grove of Ash trees.
“An out-of-body experience (OBE or sometimes OOBE) is a phenomenon in which a person perceives the world from a location outside their physical body. An OBE is a form of autoscopy(literally “seeing self”), although this term is more commonly used to refer to the pathological condition of seeing a second self, or doppelgänger.”…..
She died before she could finish her manuscript, “A perfect guide to my second after life,” she had titled it. Like the jump itself, the family did not know about this work. It was found under a wedding band quilt, on her bed, next to her lifeless body, and beside her small, weeping dog. The dog had been there all through the night and was aware of her passing but didn’t quite know how to tell anyone. And though she had to urinate, she held it so as to continue to guard her mistress’s body.
The manuscript, more than 200 lined pages, was already book-length and had been written with a thick old-fashioned school child’s pencil in all caps and replete with misspellings. Mrs. Zig had made a few drawings in the margins of the pages. Some could be recognized as attempts at cows or some sort of bovines, flowers, and menacing devil-like creatures.
The last few pages, written in the few days left of her life after the free fall, was instructive. Thus, this report.
She had been instructed. She had been strapped into her chute. She had boarded the aircraft. All of her own free will. The aircraft zipped down the runway and its wheels left the ground without incident. Mrs. Zig spoke her good luck prayer aloud. “Holy Mary, Mother of God…” She wasn’t Catholic, but that was the only prayer she knew by rote. As she and the airplane rose to about 15,000 feet. She remembered the woman she had been seated next to once when her commercial flight captain decided to circle Mt. Rainier… just for the fun of it. It was a wonderfully clear day. The pilot showed the passengers the crevasses and glaciers from a close distance. It was a thrilling sight. But the woman next to Mrs. Zig pulled her headscarf over her eyes, raised her legs and feet up under herself on the seat, and began to finger her beads and weep. She did not see beauty, only death. There was no comforting her.
Mrs. Zig let go of that thought and was aided to reach the open door of the craft and she prepared to jump. And jump she did.
CUE IN: 50 seconds of John Cage’s 4’ 33”
Her first thought: this must be what crowd surfing feels like. She’d heard her great great-great-grandchildren talk about it. One simply throws oneself from a stage into a roaring, slightly drunken, pack of audience members and trusts that the frenzied crowd members will catch you. Unless they don’t.
She was caught. She was just there, suspended maybe…maybe tonically immobile. She didn’t know. Her body was irrelevant. She was pure mind, sort of like how her time in a deprivation tank had felt.
Her life began to unravel before her mind’s eye.
In the first 2 seconds:
Everything she had believed had been in error. Everyone she had believed IN had been an illusion. As her hair flew back, and she realized she was alone in the sky, albeit with an incredible view of fields and forests below, her eyes opened in a way they never had and she was shaken.
This was the life she had had:
Lies and Frauds
Lack of love
The lack of ambition
The everyday boredom of it and them all.
I have, she wrote later, outlived my naturally ordained demise and have, unfortunately, lived long enough to see through my misconceptions and delusions. “I don’t like what I have seen,” she noted in her manuscript.
She remembered and wrote a nearly second-by-second account of her free fall. Like a modern-day Nostredamus, she inscribed, in her childish hand, a scathing report of what was revealed to her as she fluttered downward. And she would not, she knew, even as she wrote, be around to explain herself. Or to elaborate. Or to justify.
How many of “my” memories are not my own? She wondered. How many friends were not at all who they said they were? Had she claimed a heritage and displayed a self that was complete fiction. Why? Was her remembered past also fiction? Probably. But if so, it was a fiction she had fully embraced. She couldn’t say for certain who she was, but only hang on to bits and pieces that seemed to be part of her. Part of her flesh, part of the nails she grew and the hair that she curled and fluffed every morning.
The cigarette butts lay lifeless on the grate inside the hooded fire pit. They made a small jumble in a heap over the dead ashes of the last fire lit there. No warmth remained so the fire had long burned itself out. She could count the number of cigarettes smoked before the final decision to step up on a chair under a looped rope and then kick the chair away. The scene was all too clear.
And the body of the little girl on the shore of Lake Erie, Michigan side. A whole family gathered in a circle around that small, firm, barefooted thing that lay unmoving and barefooted on a colorful striped beach towel. A muscular, tanned male lifeguard was doing his darndest to breathe life back into her lungs. He’d spotted her, swam out to save her, and he just couldn’t let go now.
And, another day, the oh-so-white body, light blue veins showing through marbled fat, ….dead in the water how long? Long enough submerged that the gases had built up and the fleshy thing floated to the surface. Creatures had feasted on it. Things crawled around on it. She walked on. Nothing to do. The emergency people had been called but this person, this thing, once a person, was long gone and unrecognizable. There was no emergency, just a finality that could now be announced and published and talked about for days. Foolish death. He had jumped, he and his friend. A bet. A dare. Both dead. She walked on and had a crab sandwich. What had that crab eaten?
There was her old friend Madge. It was a burglary. Someone broke into her home while she was away for a night or two, a rare and foolhardy use of her small savings, but well-earned and needed. She opened the door of her little bungalow, tucked in between much larger and grander homes. It had been a hard-earned home, a refuge from a world she feared. She was welcomed by a broken hall table and raspberry-colored stains here and there on the carpet. Soda from her refrigerator. Her body raced through now unfamiliar territory as she moved further into the house. Furniture overturned, plates from an old sideboard smashed on the hardwood floor by the dining table, sofa fabric ripped, empty beer cans, crushed, scattered through the living room. She vomited,
387. Her patient number. She saw it in neon tubing, 5 feet high. Remember it, they had said. You’ll need it. For what she had wondered. It began to flash red. How am I to respond, she wondered.
A message. She saw the cheery greeting card, adorned on its cover with a pastel drawing of a Cocker Spaniel puppy wearing a red bow at its neck. Inside was a short message: “Sorry to hear you tangled with the flu. Hope you got well fast. We miss you. Alice and Cindy.” It took weeks of her time to track down Alice and Cindy. She didn’t know them. They didn’t know her. But here it was, a blessing (she hoped) from the universe. Other messages arrived. Often handwritten in envelopes that disclosed nothing of the sender. People who wrote to say they were thinking of her and that quoted passages from the Bible. Who were they?
In the next few seconds, she remembered a found journal. Someone had been traveling abroad and had lost her small, leather-bound journal. Mrs. Zig tried to find an address, a name, or anything that would allow her to return the journal. This had been an important trip, she gathered. But though she scanned it on occasion, year after year, she never found even a clue…a date of flight or name of an airline, the name of a friend, a telephone number or even a mention of a town or state. What was written in the journal were many adjectives arranged into paragraphs. Was it a code? She tried making words of the first letters of the adjectives. She tried reversing the order. Nothing. Another instance of a message from somewhere..goading her. Or goating her.
Several seconds on, she saw a series of men from her younger life. She was not interested. And she chose not to marry out of “convenience”..the convenience of a conventional life in which one could fit into the expectations of others in her life. She did, after about age 60, call herself Mrs. It was just easier. She wore an elaborate diamond ring on the correct finger. She attended tea parties and a couple of grief groups. She was an imposter and it suited her.
But to marry a man? Most she knew were reprehensible, hairy, selfish, and messy. No, life with such a person would not be much better than life with a billy goat. Imagine the smell, the grunts, the hair drifting over the furniture, the occasional need to rut. No.
Still, she had some through the years and found herself regularly making excuses for them, found valid reasons for their indifference to her. She tried to, at least, love them as one would love a pet. But as she fell, in a second or two, she saw clearly that they were simply awful people and she could have saved her emotions for actual pets.
The next second.
One in 30,000 in the United States live to be 105. She would not be a member of that cohort. She knew that clearly in the sixth second of her free fall.
“A U.S. Air Force Captain, “jumped out of his open gondola, and began falling. By 90,000 feet, he had reached about 1,149 km/hr – faster than the speed of sound. He fell in free fall for about four-and-a-half minutes. His speed gradually reduced to around 200 km/hr as he dropped though the increasingly-thicker air. His parachute opened around 14,000 feet. There was a sudden jerk as his speed suddenly dropped to around 21 kph. He landed about 12 minutes later, with no permanent injuries. He still holds two records – the only person to break the sound barrier without being in a craft, and the highest parachute jump.”…..
Free falling does not kill you. It may scare you to death, but it doesn’t kill you.
Twenty seconds may have elapsed by this time.
A step-uncle required that his first wife sit on a street corner and sell apples. Year round. The old folks said she died because of it. He worked her to death, like an old mule. Mrs. Zig realized in that second that she had always wondered if this story were true.
A man walked the streets of her little town, the same streets, same route, for many years. He wore the yellow outfit of a firefighter yet he did not fight fires. He carried a lunch box. He walked and walked.
A man walked the streets of her little town wrapped in aluminum foil and hung about with parts of old kitchen appliances and battery-operated strings of Christmas lights. Then he wasn’t there any longer.
A woman walked the streets of her little town talking and laughing to herself. What did she hear? She wore very short skirts and tall leather boots and had very messy hair. Then one day, she wasn’t there. She was never seen again.
A man she knew had a stroke that rendered him unable to speak. He carried a pocketful of small red ceramic hearts. When he walked about, he gave a heart to each person he met.
She wondered why she had never taken the time to thank these people for how much they haad contributed to her imagination.
During the next second or two
She was hungry. Just for an instant. She wished she had eaten lots more in the days when she could really eat. When her stomach and guts were working properly and she had good teeth. She thought about New York pizza and T-bone steak and Wuhan noodles. She would eat a creamsicle right now if she had one. She would never have another one. Nor another frozen custard. Nor another foot-long hot dog. She regretted her self-denial and self-imposed deprivation for the sake of longevity. She thought about the time she wanted to form an anti-deprivation league and how she thought the name would offend.
Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. Who were they and why are they jumping up and down in my brain?
“If you stop suddenly from 200 km/hr over a distance of a few centimetres, everything in your body effectively weighs 7,500 times more than normal. Your 1.5 kg brain briefly weighs 10 tonnes. In that brief instant, cells are burst open and blood vessels are torn asunder. The aorta (the huge main artery coming out of the heart) will usually rip loose from the heart. For a few beats, your heart continues to pump blood into the space around the heart and lungs, while no blood goes to your brain. But most of the blood vessels in your brain have also instantaneously torn loose. After that brief instant, your “weight” returns to normal – but blood is now eating its way through your irreparably damaged brain. This is what medical people mean to when they refer to “massive internal bleeding”.
Of course. The Brood, a “horror” film, imagines a woman with external organs outside her body, including her uterus, packed full with a completely formed child. Imagine that heart and all those blood vessels flying around inside the body like the tentacles of an infuriated octopus. blood everywhere. Spatter patterns not found in any forensic textbook. What would the police make of this? “Blood is eating its way through your irreparably damaged brain.” To think of blood eating, one has to imagine corpuscles equipped with teeth. And that each has a voracious will and appetite.
The next few seconds :
Mrs. Zig remained fully alert to the messages from her ancient mind. There were certain doors that had been closed to her, she mused. I could never have been a Rockette, she thought. I am much too short. Shorter now than when I was young. But always short. And short legs. How different life would have been with long legs. Or dark eyes. Or straight hair.
Could she have sung Panis Angelicus? She read that a 96 year old verismo soprano had.
The bread of angels. She could scatter that now, like mana. She had not thought to bring bread on her trip back to her earth. Too late now. “The living bread from heaven.” Better to be remembered by that…be thought of as a miracle maker..than to be remembered as the oldest jumper. “Oh wondrous gift indeed!” This would remain a major regret of her life, one that she had four days during which the think about and to feel remorse. Imagine! She could have easily brought a box of breadcrumbs with her. Or salad cubes. Or a box of turkey stuffing. Yes, better cubes. Less likely to just fall away and disappear in the prevailing winds. End up on a beach as sand. No, cubes would be good. The “poor and lowly” would be able to find cubes and put them in a stew or a salad or just eat them as is. They are often seasoned.
No, she would not have a career as a verismo soprano. That was never in the cards. Sometimes you just have to face your limitations. She didn’t have the equipment to be a verismo soprano…..just as she didn’t have what it took to become a Rockette. Her legs were short, she thought again. She stood about as high as three ceramic gallon plant pots. Her neck was not swan-like…more Corgi-like. Her arms did not flutter like a butterfly; they flapped like elephant ears.
But such restricting features did not discourage. She could, still, be a verismo writer or speaker. Even after death, she would declaim, pronounce, and sermonize in her manuscript if not with her singing voice.
In the air. Continuing the momentum of the free fall,
this dawned on her. Pay attention, she told herself.
In the next several moments, she had a good look around. She couldn’t move any part of her body, could not swivel her head about, but the view was, nevertheless, panoramic. The earth below was composed of solid patches of color, predominantly green. Some areas of what she supposed were forests looked like clumps of broccoli. Others were deep brown and still others bright yellow. She thought she could make a quilt of this design…with these colors. It would be beautiful. No one of her friends or family would appreciate it, but she would enjoy it as a “lieu de memoire,” as the French historian calls such objects and constructions. It would be a physical manifestation, a memorial, that would contain all that, for her, was worth remembering.
But, no, there would not be time for that. She would make sketches, and perhaps apply a little color to them with her box of pencils. These are the sketches that became marginalia in her manuscript.
In the next seconds, she realized that there would never be peace in her time. Long-simmering hates and greed for land and other resources had recently blossomed into wretched, deadly confrontations that were incredibly medieval in tactics and consequences. These full-out wars were not confined to one geographical area, but were raging here and there around the globe. They had become more extreme as land thirsted for rain, cities flooded, fires destroyed huge patches of forests, and animals, confused and terrified, were dying or refusing to reproduce. No, she would never see peace. This was a disappointment.
She had a sudden craving for Bailey’s Irish Cream. This was no surprise.
Would this never stop, this parade of thoughts? She wondered. Then a clear image of a lemon meringue pie appeared. It was her first successful meringue and she was still a kid. The family often called for these to be produced. Those and custard pies. She was the pie queen in the family. (Marilyn Monroe, she remembered, began her career as an artichoke queen.)
But bread, the family seldom requested. Her first loaf failed to rise. It was a flat slab of undercooked dough. It looked very much like an adobe brick from an ancient pueblo. Same color and shape. Perhaps the same texture. She fed it to the little boy she was babysitting. He had gas for days. No one, save her, knew why.
The Yule log. Another success. Every Christmas eve she produced one, ablaze with candles and solidly happy in a bed of holly and blue spruce branches.
Her father was sent out in the snow one year to search for cardamom and saffron, her baking essentials that year.
Images and memories were coming faster now.
She reflected upon her strange thoughts….the trivia that marched ceaselessly through her mind appalled her. Is this what people talk about when they talk about having your life pass before you at death? She had thought she might see high points or special events and important people.
She was getting pie and saffron. And cozy rabbit triplets.
In the end, she thought, it is all trivia. Here I am free falling above the earth and will be remembered as an old jumper, not to be confused with a raggedy sweater. I will not be remembered for my lemon meringue pie or my good housekeeping.
At life’s end, she thought, there is no applause or “well done.” No report card. No grading on a scale of 1-10. No A for achievement, C for conduct, B for decision making. Maybe an A for attendance, just showing up.
No blue ribbons. Texture: fine.
Excellent fluff. Fully baked.
A boring exit with no curtain calls and no bouquets.
She wouldn’t be doing this show again, thank you.
The parachute opened with a suddenness that tingled her spine and caused her to be suddenly and fully present to her situation.
Fade out John Cage 4’33”
She must be at about 5000 feet above the earth she reckoned, from what she had been told in training.
All downhill from now on. She began to sing to herself:
“Isn’t it a lovely ride?
Sliding down, gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It’s just a lovely ride
Now the thing about time is that time isn’t really real
It’s just your point of view
How does it feel for you?
Einstein said he could never understand it all
Planets spinning through space
The smile upon your face “…..
James Taylor. She remembered his name. She remembered the lyrics. Claim a small victory.