Near-Death Experience

by Dallas Woodburn

What happened was, William had a stroke. A mild one, the doctor said. But he was out for a few minutes. I found him in the living room, collapsed beside my bag of knitting, his cheek against the carpet, the television blaring Larry King. The window was open; from outside came the rumbling of a truck, the laughter of the children next door playing in their front yard. It had been a midsummer day breathless with heat, and the stifling heaviness lingered into the evening air.

Of course I was scared when I saw William like that. Of course my heart started beating fast and I ran over to my husband and stroked his face and tried to wake him. Of course I called 9-1-1 and cried into the phone for an ambulance.

Later, when I sat beside William's hospital bed and he reached over and squeezed my hand and smiled, I felt relief like none I'd ever felt before. That I wasn't alone in this world. That he hadn't left me yet.

But then he came home from the hospital, and he started going on and on about God and Jesus and being “saved” and “seeing the light.” At first I thought it was just a phase, just something he had to get out of his system. But it's been four months now, and if anything he's just getting more belligerent about it. He wants me to go to church with him. He wants the two of us to get baptized together. He keeps a Bible on the nightstand and reads passages out loud before bed, like a preacher in a movie. I always roll over and pretend to be asleep. Any response from me would just encourage him, make him dig in his heels even more. William is stubborn as the waves crashing onto the beach, breaking rocks down into sand.

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“Did you pray for me?” William asks.

We're sitting at the breakfast table, sunlight peeping in through the thin yellow curtains. It's the first week of October. Overnight, it seems, the summer warmth has been wiped from the air. I'm taking a gardening class at the community college—Eat Your Own Home-Grown Vegetables This Winter! the course listing promised, which made me think of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books my mother read to me as a girl—and when I signed up for the course it was my mother I thought of. She's been dead for years, yet still I find myself ranking my actions on her scale of approval or disapproval.

Today, a Saturday, I will plant my vegetables. I'm drinking ginger tea and eating warm toast with jam and thinking about my new trowel and sunhat and the feel of moist soil between my fingers. And then William has to ruin the moment with his talking.

“When I was in the ambulance?” he persists. “Did you pray for me?”

I sip my tea and stare at the curtains, trying to glimpse images in the folds of the cloth and the patterns of light shining through. There's a maple tree right outside the kitchen window, in the side yard, and its branches cast shadows onto the sunlit yellow. William planted that tree shortly after we moved into this house, more than twenty years ago. We were newlyweds then. We put a lot of effort into sprucing up this place—painting things, planting things, buying things. Trying to make this house ours. Trying to turn it into a home. 

I remember how strong William seemed to me then. He is not a tall man, but he has broad shoulders and back then he stood very straight, his chin lifted up a little when he talked, which made him seem taller than he was. Sometimes, when he hugged me close, he gripped me so tight it hurt. To be honest, I liked the helplessness he brought out in me. It was what drew me to him from the beginning. It was what made me marry him. The belief he would take care of me, yes. That he would provide a good life for me and for our future children. But more than a promise of security, I think I was attracted to a recklessness I sensed in William, a hint of danger in his strength—the knowledge that, if he wanted to, he could pick me up and carry me off somewhere, anywhere he pleased, and there was nothing I could do about it.

After he planted that maple tree outside our kitchen window, William was jubilant. It was just a sapling, with small leaves poking out tentatively from thin branches, but William was taken with the idea of it. “This will grow into the tallest tree on the block,” he said, kissing me, his hands leaving smudges of dirt on my face. “Just wait and see. Someday our kids will climb this tree. I'll build a tree house for them to play in. How's that sound?”

“Wonderful,” I said, pressing my cheek against his, kissing his neck. Back then, I wanted a houseful of children. I thought children were like geese and we would have a gaggle of them.

“Sarah?” William says, bringing me back to the present. He places his hand on the table, beside my cup. He could reach over, just so, and graze my wrist with his index finger. If he wanted to. But he hasn't touched me since his stroke.

“Did you pray for me?” he asks, a new urgency in his voice.

I could get up and walk out of the room. Walk right past him into the living room, upstairs to the bedroom, and close the door. I could walk around the kitchen table and out the sliding glass door and into the garden, pulling my housecoat around my waist against the dewy morning chill. I could stay right where I am and reach for the newspaper, unfold it slowly, study the smudgy print, and act like I don't hear him. Ignore him and ignore him and ignore him no matter how many times he asks.

But I don't do any of these things. I tilt my face up to meet William's grey-green eyes, filled with a new earnestness. I ask, “What do you mean by pray?”

When William was taken away in the ambulance, of course I thought, Please let him be okay. Words ran through my brain like charms. Oh Dear God Oh Dear God. Words crammed my brain, the same words over and over, squeezing out all other thought until I was left silently chanting: Please please please please please. Sitting alone in the corner of a hospital waiting room, fingers rubbing back and forth over the rubbery waxen leaf of a fake plant on the magazine table, waiting for the doctor to come back and tell me something. Pleasep Leasepl Easeple Aseplease. I want to ask William, Did you know that when you say a word too many times, its edges begin to bleed together until it loses all meaning?

 Is that what praying is?

“Did you ask God to save me?” William asks, scooting his chair closer to mine. “When I was taken away in the ambulance, did you ask Him to grant me more time here on Earth with you?”

The absurdity of hearing this type of language come out of William's mouth causes my body to tighten, as if shielding itself from impending hurt. My hands clench around my mug of tea. I can hear it in William's voice—he's not saying him, he's saying Him. Upper case. Did you ask Him to save me? I want to say, “Okay, you can stop the act. You got me good. But that's enough, all right? Enough now.”

Instead, I laugh. I can't help it.

William frowns at me, then pushes his chair back and leaves the room.

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I started taking classes at the community college after I learned I could not have children. To ease the gnawing emptiness of my womb, I took up pottery, basket-weaving, knitting, quilting. I stuffed myself with facts about World War II, the French Revolution, Imperialist Japan; I studied French for two semesters, imagining a trip to Paris with William, walking arm-in-arm along the boulevards and sampling wine in the sidewalk cafes. But then William lost his job for drinking too much at the office holiday party and kissing the boss's wife. I was not there. The dental office where I worked had its own holiday party that night, and I was hanging up garlands of fake pine when I got the phone call from William asking if I could come pick him up. In the weeks following—the marriage counseling, the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the tears and accusations, the night I threw a wine glass and cut William's forehead so deep he needed stitches—I stopped going to French class and threw away the Paris brochures I'd bought. The make-up sex made me feel like I was hurtling towards life and death in one simultaneous dizzying blur.

The only person I told about William's indiscretion was Marlene, a fellow Midwest transplant who I met Photography 101; we've taken a class together every semester since. She did not mince words. “Sarah, listen to me,” she said. “He's never gonna change.”

But William needed me. He told me nearly every day and it was exhilarating to hear, like the catch I heard in his breath when I climbed on top of him and held his wrists against the bed, knowing in that moment I was the only one who could give him what he wanted. He was trying to sober up—very hard, he was trying—but he would never be able to do it without me there. He said this and I knew I could not leave him.  

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When I get home from work, William's sitting on the couch—sitting very close on the couch—beside Alice Townsend from two doors down. They seem deep in conversation, but both look up when they see me come in.

“Sarah!” William says, as if I've been gone three weeks.

“Hi, Sarah,” Alice says, scooting ever-so-slightly away from William. “I just stopped by to see how you two are getting along.” She's a russet-haired young mother of twin boys. Her legs are longer than a flamingo's and she's wearing shorts. She's the only mother I know who can get away with wearing shorts. “I'm so glad this guy is doing okay.” She pats William's knee, once.

There was a time that coming home to a scene like this would have made me intensely jealous. Worries about William leaving me would flit around my mind constantly, keeping me awake at night, making me jittery and forgetful during the day so I'd get people's appointments mixed up and double-booked. Eventually I would collapse into tears, and William would get frustrated and tired of “talking in circles about the same damn thing.” He'd storm out and come home drunk and I'd wake up to his large hands on my thighs, his lips kissing my neck, his breath warm and insistent with apology. Afterwards, I'd nestle into him and we'd both sleep like the babies we'd never have. In the morning, my worries would start up again.

But that was years ago. Now, he's telling Alice Townsend about the instant before his stroke, when—“for no reason I can explain,” he says, “it wasn't a commercial or anything”—he glanced away from Larry King on the TV and felt his eyes drawn towards my bag of knitting on the floor beside his favorite armchair. A royal blue ball of yarn was poised at the top of the bag, for a sweater I'm knitting for Marlene, whose favorite color is blue and whose birthday is next month. In the weave and fray of the ball of yarn, in the shadows playing across its surface from the glowing side table lamp, in that instant before his stroke William swears he saw the face of Jesus. 

“And I thought, Jesus, you are my savior and I love you,” William says, taking Alice's hands in his own and gazing her full in the face. “And I felt this warmth through my entire body.” He pauses for even more dramatic effect. “And I knew, right then, that everything was going to be all right.” 

He lets out a big breath of air, and so does Alice, and I watch them smiling at each other. Alice wipes away a tear from the corner of her eye. Ever since William came home from the hospital, when I've witnessed moments like this between my husband and someone else, I want to be different. I want to be someone like Alice. Someone who can share that with William—a feeling of awe, giddiness, triumph at his salvation. But I don't believe that Jesus really appeared before my husband in a ball of yarn in my knitting bag. I've pretended a lot of things the past twenty-three years, but I can't pretend to feel that.

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Last summer, before William's stroke, Marlene and I signed up for a poetry course and read Yeats' poem “Leda and the Swan.” It made me think of William. Her thighs caressed/By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill/He holds her helpless breast upon his breast. Our teacher spoke about the classical myth the poem was based upon, where the Greek god Zeus takes the form of a swan and seduces Leda.

“This isn't seduction,” Marlene said, holding up her photocopied handout of the poem. “This is rape. The swan is raping Leda.”

To my surprise, the teacher agreed. The entire class agreed. I nodded along, because I didn't know what else to do. I wasn't about to raise my hand and ask, Am I the only one who thinks this is a sexy poem? That maybe the swan loves Leda, loves her so much he can't stand to be without her?

 On my first date with William, he ordered beer after beer all through dinner—he must have downed five brimming pint glasses by the time we were finished with our meal. I don't remember what I ordered or what we talked about. Mostly I remember the dark brown walls, the glass-topped tables, the way the pint glasses left rings of moisture, a mosaic of wet smeary circles. I remember the way William grinned at me, winking as he said to the waitress, “Yeah, I suppose I'll have one more.” And the waitress would come back with another foamy glass, not batting an eye, calmly refilling my iced tea as she set the beer down in front of William.

The thing about William was, he did not seem inebriated. He did not slur his words or speak too loudly or tell off-color jokes. He was charming and fun and he looked me as if he had been waiting his entire life to bask in the glory of my presence. He said I looked beautiful. I was wearing a red dress with a sweetheart neckline and a wide purple belt I'd found at a thrift store. I thought William was unspeakably handsome. I thought it was sophisticated and manly, the way he was able to hold down all that liquor without seeming drunk. I was twenty-two years old, new in town, infatuated with the beach and the sunshine and the freedom of living halfway across the country from everything I'd grown up knowing. I had a part-time job as a secretary at a small dental office. Nights and weekends, I painted cartoonish landscapes of cornfields and farmhouses in fluorescent colors. I gathered sand from the beach and mixed it into my paint for texture; I decorated my bedroom with seashells and driftwood. I saw myself as a daring artist living the grand boheme life.

But I was lonely. My only friends were Suzette, the 52-year-old dental hygenist who worked afternoons at the office, and a girl named Jo-Ann who had been sorority sisters with my high school friend Charlene's cousin, and who I occasionally met for coffee before work even though we didn't have much to say to each other than analyzing what had happened on Dynasty that week. My typical Friday evenings, before William leaned in through the glass partition separating me from the dental office waiting room and asked if I was free for dinner sometime, usually consisted of peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, halfhearted pencil sketches in my notebook, and falling asleep to Johnny Carson. After three weeks of dinners and drinks, when I finally caved in and slept with William for the first time—on a blanket in the sand dunes at midnight, ocean waves murmuring on the edges of my consciousness—I was sure I would never see him again.

But William surprised me. He kept calling and coming around, and within a year he asked me to marry him. At our wedding reception, he was a little over the edge of tipsy into drunk. No one else seemed to mind, or perhaps they didn't notice. Even sober, William was one of those loud, flamboyant guys who liked to be the center of attention. His flushed cheeks and crazed dance moves could very well have been the uncorked energy of a happy groom about to embark on his honeymoon. But I knew William, and I could tell he was drunk. When we slow-danced together, he pinched my bottom and kissed my ear wetly, sloppily. His breath smelled of bourbon. “I love you,” he said, and it made my heart sink because I loved him, too, and deep down I knew in a vague, bleary way that perhaps William needing to binge on alcohol meant that something in his life was missing. That something between us was missing. But these thoughts happened in a place of my brain that was easy to push away and ignore. And so I did. For years and years, I did.

How can those terrified vague fingers push/The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?/And how can body, laid in that white rush/But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?            

That day last summer, I arrived home from poetry class, opened the front door and called a hello to William. There was no answer. I found him unconscious in the living room, the television blaring Larry King, the laughter of Alice Townsend's children floating in through the open window.

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Ever since his stroke, William has not touched a drop of liquor. He has not sipped a single beer. He hasn't even thrown them out—the cans remain in our fridge, couched between the jar of mayonnaise and pudding cups and carton of milk. The whiskey and gin and rum bottles glisten in the cabinet beside the stove. It is as if William relishes the temptation—the knowledge that he is living purely in a house full of sin. Or perhaps he is so confident in this new salvation he has found, this new self he is trying on, that he does not even feel tempted.

Since I will not go to church with him, William invites some of his church friends over for dinner. He asks me to make spaghetti. “Your famous spaghetti,” he says. “Everyone loves your famous spaghetti.”

According to William, my mother made the best spaghetti sauce he ever tasted. The secret, she said, was using "a pinch of sugar, just a pinch" to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. Still, according to William, my spaghetti came in second—“a distant second,” he once said, after a few glasses of wine. He must have seen the hurt on my face, because he immediately tried to take it back. “I'm kidding!” he shouted, grabbing my arm as I turned away from the table and tried to stand up. He pulled me down into his lap. “I'm only kidding,” he said again, taking a sloppy bite of spaghetti off his fork, sauce flecking his face with red. He wiped his cheek against mine, and his whiskers grated like sandpaper. “You take everything too seriously,” he said.

“Sorry,” I said. Somehow I was always the one apologizing. If you had asked me, I wouldn't have been able to articulate what I was apologizing for. 

I agree to make spaghetti for William's new friends. As I dump the box of brittle noodles into the boiling water, I think of my mother in her hot kitchen in the summertime, rolling out thin strands of pasta dough on the cool marble slab she kept beside the sink. She spent hours in that kitchen. She said she enjoyed cooking for her family. Mostly, though, I think she was cooking for my father, trying to impress him, or at least please him. My father, with his thick gray mustache and unsmiling eyes, never said one nice thing about my mother's cooking. Or, if he did, I never heard it. After she died, he threw away all her cooking supplies, married a blonde twice-divorced D-cup named Linda, and moved to Florida like a tired cliché. 

Tonight, I've no need for a pinch of sugar. I don't have the energy. And I don't care what these church people think of my cooking. I take another pot down from its hook above the stove, pop open a jar of Prego, and pour.

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They arrive bearing sparkling cider and wide smiles: Rick and Suzanne, Jim and Peggy. Before his stroke, William was never much of a hugger, but now I watch him hug each person before ushering them inside. His new friends. His people.

I place the cider on the table, along with a bottle of white wine. Jim and Peggy exchange a look.

Suzanne leans close, her hand on my arm. “You must be so proud of Liam,” she says.

Liam? William's grandfather was Irish, but he's never wanted to go by anything but William. He doesn't even like me to call him Will.

“How long has it been now?” Jim asks.

“Almost six months,” William says, beaming. “And you know what? I don't even miss it.”

“That's wonderful, honey.” I try to make my smile natural. “You know I'm proud of you.” And I am. How long have I wished and wished for William to drink less? How many nights have I worried about him driving home? Still, I can't help but feel insulted. Cast aside. I've spent every year of our marriage trying everything I can think of to help him sober up, and nothing has ever worked for long. Now all of a sudden he's “found the light” and he's quit cold turkey, just like that?

Rick and Suzanne, Jim and Peggy—how are these people enough for him when I have never been enough?

Without looking at William, I pick up the bottle of wine. It feels damp under my fingers, moisture beading in the warmth of the room. The bottle is full, heavy. A weapon. I tilt the lip against my glass and pour.

“Cheers!” I toast the room. “You don't mind, do you, William?”

“Of course not,” he says. I search for tension in his eyes, his smile, the set of his jaw, but he looks relaxed, happy. Peaceful.

Over dinner, Jim tells a story about when he and Peggy went to Israel and Peggy took a trip to Bethlehem by herself. “I was in meetings all day,” Jim says. I seem to have missed what his meetings were about, but he's ploughing on, talking about how dangerous Bethlehem is these days, especially for Americans and women. I pour myself another glass of wine. Jim smiles at Peggy like she is a puppy that stole a sock from the dryer. “I knew my girl would be all right,” he says. “I knew it was something she had to do.”

Peggy nods. “It's the Holy City,” she says. “I had to go there. I had to.”

“You know, I wasn't even worried,” Jim says. “Because I knew someone up there was looking after her and He wouldn't let any harm come to my girl.”

Everyone around the table is smiling, but I feel anger rising within me, a warm steady burning. I take another sip of wine. See, this is what I don't like about you people, I want to say. You're so sure God is looking after you—that you can do reckless, senseless things and still be safe from harm.

I take another sip of wine. A big sip, more like a gulp.

Everyone who dies—it's like you're saying that God wasn't watching over them, that he doesn't care about them. Don't you see how damn self-righteous you're being?

“Sarah, please!” William says, his face pained. Everyone is looking at me with round surprised eyes and I realize with a sharp ache that I've said this last part out loud.

It's all William's fault. These are not my people. This house does not feel like mine with them here. This can't be the same dining room William and I painted all those years ago, newlyweds with a big can of barn-red paint, carefully maneuvering our brushes along the baseboards and crown molding in the corners.

How did I get here? How did we get here?

“I'm—excuse me for a minute,” I say, stumbling out of my chair, standing up and pushing it back into place. “I'll just be upstairs. William, there's cobbler on the counter and ice cream in the fridge for dessert. I mean the freezer—there's ice cream in the freezer.” And I flee.

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 There's something I've never told anyone, not even William. When I gave birth to Hannah, I died. I left my body and felt myself hovering over everything. I looked down at the small bright room, at my own body in the hospital bed, at the ring of doctors and nurses surrounding me with their charts and instruments, at William, pacing along the back wall, alarm evident on his face—and, despite all the signs to the contrary, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. I knew, with more conviction than I've had about anything before or since, that everything would be all right. Hannah would be okay. I would be okay. He, up there, was watching over us.

 The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a different hospital room. William was sitting on a chair beside my bed, looking out the window. I said his name and he turned to me, and I saw it right there on his face. 

In that moment, I stopped believing in God.

What I want to tell William—what I want to tell everyone downstairs, throat-clearing their way through peach cobbler and coffee—is what I know to be true. Salvation is smoke and mirrors, a comforter we wrap around ourselves and hug close to keep from going crazy. Because if there was a God, he would not have let it happen the way it did. Not only losing Hannah, but not being able to have any children, ever? Nothing to hang on to, nothing to hope for, nothing to even begin to fill the emptiness? I couldn't paint anymore. Anytime I tried, I would end up staring at the blank canvas for hours. I burned the last painting I had been working on—a calm, moonlit ocean for Hannah's baby room—and threw the rest of my paints and supplies away.

“The world is a cruel place,” I say softly. And then, because it feels good, I say it again louder, almost shouting. For a few moments I wait for the rhythm of William's footsteps on the stairs, coming to soothe or reprimand, but the low murmur of voices from downstairs is uninterrupted.

Head pounding, I lie down on top of the bed William and I share, on top of the quilt I sewed in that maw of grief that was my life after losing Hannah. The quilt is made out of scraps from my maternity shirts and William's blue jeans. I sewed the entire thing by hand because I couldn't bear the noise of the sewing machine.

Lying on top of the covers makes me feel raw and exposed. Even in the summertime, I lie underneath a sheet. In the early years of our marriage, William and I would sleep naked, curled against each other, skin warming bare skin. Now, I unhook my bra and turn on my side. A bobby pin digs into my scalp but I don't have the energy to remove it.

Later tonight, William will wave goodbye to our guests from the front porch. He will rinse the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. He will spoon the leftover pasta into a plastic container, and the sauce into its own separate container, and when I open the fridge in the morning to get milk for my coffee the two containers will be there, stacked neatly on top of one another. He will step gently, quietly, upstairs and look in on me, sleeping. My mouth will most likely be open, snoring drool onto the pillowcase. William will unfold a blanket and drape it over me. I will not wake up. I am a heavy sleeper, especially with the wine. He will sleep on the couch downstairs, waking up early because tomorrow is Sunday, and he goes to the 8 a.m. sermon and then out to breakfast with his church friends. 

I want to open my eyes in the middle of the night and feel his body curled around mine. He once held me for three days, rocking back and forth in this great big bed as I cried and stared emptily at the walls.

On our first date, William drove me home. Looking back, I am sure he was too drunk to drive, but that night I wasn't worried. He opened the car door for me and I climbed inside without a second thought. I was twenty-two years old, wearing a red dress with a sweetheart neckline, on my first date with a man who looked into my eyes as if he was searching for salvation and I was the only one in the world who could give it to him. He drove with the windows down and radio turned low. Everywhere was the sound of the ocean. If his car veered to one side of the road and then the other, I didn't notice. He may have driven too fast, but I didn't care. The air against my face was cool and smelled of salt. I closed my eyes and thought, Thank you. I was willing to go wherever he would take me. I was sure we would make it there safe, together. I was sure it would be somewhere nice.