Everything changes at once (nothing ever changes)
3,250 meters above the sea and 1,000 meters above the clouds, in a wooden cabin that fits 250 people into bunks like sardines…
I sit on the floor eating bread and canned fish and drinking a beer. A woman arrives, panting, speaking a language I only sometimes understand, but never when people speak hurriedly. She’s too out of breath.
Then she walks out. She’s leaning out over the cliff, pointing down at the winding trail below. Inside the stream of words one pops out, ‘Ochimashita?‘
I brace myself, walk out to the cliff and look down. It’s mainly black, a pilgrimage of headlamps, winds back and forth up the mountain below, but then stops. Their the beams of light converge onto a shirtless form, lying against rock, a man. Around him in a ring a crowd looks down at him. Hands press on his chest, pounding down rhythmically. Slightly further away, a second ring of people look up, someone yells.
The college freshman I met earlier, a slender and serious boy, is outside now. He rushes in to get his headlamp, boots, and then goes to descend. I get out my phone and google ‘first aid heart attack’, the first two links conflict about whether or not to give him aspirin.
Already on my phone, my fingers open Instagram. I look around to see if anyone can see my phone.
I put away my phone and walk back inside the cabin. I ask if they have aspirin, ibuprofen. A doctor is on the way they say.
Inside, under wooden beams and warm lights, people laugh and carry on. I go back to my beer and scan around the room.
Then, the magnetic pull tragedy has on curiosity, draws me back out to the edge of the cliff. Their breathing into his mouth now, but then they stop. The sounds of the crowd go still. My heart sinks. But then his head moves to the side. He moved. They ask him a question, straighten his neck. It looks like he will live. Deciding to end on a good note, I walk back inside.
I again see the college freshman.
I look at him, but say nothing, walk past him, back to the cliff where I looked down before, but this time I spit out a mouthful of toothpaste.
When I turn back around he is gone.
I can’t sleep.
I try but then give up.
Some would say that man had died and come back to life because his heart stopped, but they’re using an out-dated definition of death. But the heart isn’t something mystical, it’s no-longer even essential. The pulseless walk amongst us, thanks to ventricular assist devices. Did you realize, Dick Cheney literally only has half of a heart? Where the rest of us tick and beat, his chest emits a mechanical whir.
Someone would say that man had died and come back to life because his heart stopped, but death happens in the brain. Brain cells are essential, irreplaceable, and can only survive for a few minutes without oxygen. The heart and lungs serve the whole body, but without oxygen the brain goes first.
We need to keep breathing to oxygenate the hemoglobin in our red blood cells.
We need to keep our blood flowing so the those biconcave disks can travel up into the vessels in our brain, where oxygen diffuses out and bounces around until it stumble’s into a mitochondria.
Their it is converted to water, all part of the convoluted process of aerobic respiration we need generate energy efficiently enough to maintain our metabolisms–and despite only weighing 3 pounds, the brain consumes about 20% of our energy at rest.
The brain is irreplaceable for two reasons. First, because with two minor exceptions it cannot regenerate neurons. So once they’re gone they’re gone, and all that takes is some trauma or a few minutes without oxygen. Second, because they are specifically and intricately connected with each other in a pattern that some, like Sebastian Seung, said defines you as a person. Even if those cells could regenerate, they would not know how to reconnect–that information only lies in the physical connections between the cells themselves, there is no duplicate.
Although we have redissolved from a throng, back into individual humans and small groups, I feel connected to the people around me. (Why is it you say hi to people when you pass them in the woods, wave to other people on boats, but wouldn’t give them a second thought when you pass them on a city street?)
At first I think she’s putting on a show–to beg for a spot in the packed cabin.
Fallen? Someone has fallen? My brain imagines a child with a broken leg, the smell of pavement and the iron taste of blood.
I try to remember what I learned three years ago in med school. I would go as well, but I don’t have a headlamp, and there’s already a crowd surrounds the man. I would only get in the way. Is that why I don’t go?
I feel sick, but a part of me does want to record a video of this moment. From this distance the people are all blurs. (And is writing this any better?)
I try to guess who knows what is going on 50 meters away, outside. It’s impossible to tell. The cabin workers definitely know, and they resume their work. Everything continues. Why shouldn’t it. Is it that different than passing a car accident on the way to work, hearing the sirens drawing nearer, and knowing that everything is already in motion, you’re not needed hear to help. But we rubberneck–accidents are crucial, literally life-or-death moments–something tells us, wait, watch, you might learn something that could save your life. The same pull of violence, horror movies, though usually we prefer illusions to the real thing.
I wonder if the college freshman is there at his side.
I want to ask him whether the man is okay, what he saw how he feels, is this his closest brush with death, but my mouth is full of tooth paste.
I can’t sleep, but not from thoughts of mortality, but because I often struggle with sleep. But maybe I struggle with sleep because of existentialist apathy? Maybe I am cursed from having internalized Asimov’s “The Last Question.” Maybe I just listened to The Vandals “Flowers are Pretty” one too many times when I was fourteen. These existentialist thoughts don’t strike me into a panic, but linger dampening feelings of joy and failure, happiness and jealousy.
Half the time, I think life is a game for the deluded and I just play along out of a feeling of obligation to my duped friends and family. But, when the plane strikes turbulence, I want to live. At my deepest core I am deluded as well.
I wouldn’t think this way if I had the choice. And it’s not that I think like this because I’m depressed, though when I was in the past that certainly didn’t help. I just really don’t think you can choose a philosophy, any more than you can choose religion. You can’t choose to believe, you either do or you don’t. Of course the inputs we’ve received over a lifespan somehow influence this belief, but it is not a choice, and definitely not a rational one.
I don’t know if I sleep, but I lay in the bunk, then get back up at 2 am to finish the ascent. The goal is to get to the top of Fuji before the sunrise at 4:45. It’s 20 degrees colder now than when we started, and still sore from the day before it’s a struggle. Packs of people merge into walls, the traffic jams. I rely on their headlamps to light the path around me, and scramble up rocks, hoping no one plants their trekking pole into my hand. In the transcendental hypnosis of repetitive movement, and the somewhat euphoric fog of sleeplessness, I forget all about the shirtless man.
An hour before the sun breaks, it’s light is visible, an orange horizontal blur above the navy below. Beneath it the lights of a nearby city form trapezoidal grids, and above–despite being half way around the world from where I grew up–are the familiar northern hemisphere constellations. Though, with the uneven terrain, and dizziness from the altitude, I can only look at them when the crowd pauses.
Finally, I reach the top. There are temples and buildings and people milling about, cooking breakfast in portable pots. I worried it would be too crowded, but there is plenty of room to get a direct view of the brightening skyline.
Here, 3,776 meters above the sea, 1,500 meters above the clouds, I sit on the mountain eating bread and canned fish.
The sun rises slowly, a sliver becomes a perfect circle more red than I have ever seen it.
But the beauty is as fleeting as the brush with death. We queue up to climb back down this enormous anthill. We keep our heads down, focusing on our own feet, so exhausted and afraid of slipping that we hardly see the breathtaking views all around. We have to return to reality.
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