|Posted by Jessica Ingold on April 20, 2017 at 5:15 PM|
All things considered, my death was pretty boring.
Let me ask you something: when do people start thinking they’re going to live a long life? For me, it was around age ten. I wanted to be an oncologist. To this day I will never know what sort of divine influence planted that idea in my mind. All I know is that having cancer and treating cancer are as different as night and day.
I was nineteen when the first symptoms appeared. They started out small, as most things usually do: a bruise here, a nosebleed there. The fatigue was constant and immutable, mirroring my every move like a shadow until it became the darkness that swallowed me whole. Vial by vial my own compromised blood wrote the final chapter of my life, turning the page on everything I thought I’d have time to do. This is cancer: the thread that unravels the rug, interrupting the patterns of our lives and the tapestry of our expectations.
My attitude toward death had always been astoundingly cavalier. I never denied this possibility, even in the early days of my diagnosis when my body still responded to chemotherapy. I thought about death often and casually: between naps, during dinner, in the privacy of my bedroom on the rare occasion that I was home. Even then, I wanted to get it over with. I thought maybe it would be like hitting a reset button, and I’d wake up the next day feeling rejuvenated. But death doesn’t work like that. Maybe if it did, we could finally break the stigma of being breakable.
My prognosis had been predictably bleak. I was told I had six months to live, but could buy myself two or three more if I consented to undergoing experimental treatment. I refused, saying there was no point in delaying the inevitable—not even if it meant that someone, somewhere, might benefit from my extended suffering.
I didn’t get six months. Instead, I got four months, three weeks, five days, two hours, and seventeen minutes. My family didn’t think this was enough time to say goodbye. I, on the other hand, thought it was too much.
A few days before my death, a woman named Joy appeared at my bedside. Joy had sat in the corner of my hospital room, next to my mother, who’d been dozing on a cot and woefully oblivious to the lean but impeccably dressed woman who’d come to claim my soul. I thought I was dreaming, but in actuality, I was just dying.
On the first day, Joy didn’t speak. Instead, she studied me in the way one might study a Picasso or a Rembrandt, with care and polite curiosity. Having Joy around made me feel safe, and it wasn’t long before I began to welcome the sight of her blue dress in a world worn grey with despair. Joy was what most people would call a guardian angel, but there are no angels at The Establishment. It was one of the many myths I had to unlearn prior to making my transition. Collecting souls is both an art and a science, and requires far more than wings to achieve.
Enter the Spirit Catchers, a diverse cohort of supernatural entities tasked with escorting human souls to the hereafter. Truthfully, the title is a misnomer: most spirits go willingly, so catching is seldom required. Being terminally ill had all but left me helpless, so when the time came for me to vacate the cancer-ridden shell of my once youthful body, I had no choice but to do whatever was asked of me. This was good news for Joy, but not for my family, who did everything they could to keep the hope—and me—alive.
On the second day, I asked Joy to tell me more about The Establishment: if it had towering iron gates and lush, manicured lawns, or ostentatious wooden doors with heavy brass knockers, or marble staircases that vanished innocently into the clouds. Joy said there was none of that. I was disappointed, but far from surprised, especially given the utilitarian nature of The Establishment’s name.
On the third day, I was calling out to her in agony. Joy had materialized in her usual spot in the corner of the room the moment her name sprang from my lips. I begged to die. I pleaded with her until my whole body tingled with exhaustion. I cried until I couldn’t breathe, until I was woozy from a lack of oxygen and the lasting effects of whatever painkillers I’d been given to ease my misery. I wanted out. When Joy didn’t take me, it felt like betrayal. But as I now know, she was only following protocol. If I’d been a little stronger, perhaps I’d have asked about this, too.
Joy didn’t take me that day. She said I wasn’t ready yet. I begged anyway. In the midst of my protest, she’d approached my bed and laid a hand on my chest. Light emanated from her fingertips as she illuminated me, erasing the layers that stood between my spirit and the world I no longer belonged to: first the itchy cream sheets, then the dull blue gown, and finally my translucent skin. By this point my body was producing bruises like a garden produced flowers and it was becoming harder to ignore the presence of ribs or the absence of fat that normally concealed them.
Joy bent her bright red lips close to my ear. She was cold and smelled like the inside of my grandmother’s armoire, and it sent shivers of familiarity all the way down my aching spine.
“Ansel says not yet,” she whispered, chilling me to the core. “Soon.”
By the fourth day, I was ready to die. My life was over, and like discovering the blank page at the end of a book I’d stared into the overhead lights and wondered who was responsible for ending my story here. I expected Joy to tell me more about this being named Ansel, but she never did.
My family came to say goodbye at 10:23AM on September 4th, 2005. It was a long goodbye. My parents cried. My brother, who never cried, sobbed until he hyperventilated. And I just lay there, waiting for Joy, who was waiting for Ansel to give her the go-ahead to collect my soul. No one noticed the fair-skinned woman knitting placidly in the corner, because I was the only one who could see her.
When it was finally time to make the transition, Joy returned her knitting needles to her bag, smoothed the wrinkles out of her dress, and walked the short distance over to my bed. I didn’t look at her. I was too busy watching my family, who’d formed a prayer circle at the foot of my bed and were muttering tearful invocations under their breath.
“An odd habit, prayer is,” Joy had remarked, folding her arms. “But I suppose it’s par for the course: after all, this is your deathbed.”
“Maybe they’re hoping Ansel will change his mind.”
“Ansel doesn’t change his mind on much of anything. Can you imagine how complicated life would be if death was always second-guessing himself?” Joy then turned to me and smiled. “Ready?”
I nodded, the machine flatlined, and then everything I ever knew suddenly disappeared.
My name is Sarah Nicole Galloway, and my job is to help people die.