The White Light

The call came late on a Saturday night in March.

“Ray’s been in an accident. It’s serious,” said his brother. “They don’t know if he’s going to make it so you might want to come to the hospital right now.”

I’d had a few drinks and let the panic inside get the better of me. But, in times like these you have no sense for the irony of driving through stop signs and pink traffic lights to reach a friend who has been in a car accident, you only think of trying to delay all that’s derailed and outsped the usual train of events.

I met the brother and parents outside the double doors of the emergency room intake. Not even they were allowed inside yet. Hours passed under yellow fluorescent lighting and there was little any of us could think of saying to break through the smothering silence, until finally we received word that, while Ray would likely never walk again, it looked like he was going to survive.

“What hasn’t already died of my body will now begin dying,” Ray told me in his room at the rehabilitation hospital for spinal cord injuries just after they transferred him out of intensive care. “But at least it doesn’t smell like it yet.”

“Good,” I said, “that would be too much to bear. For me, I mean.”

“Yeah. Wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

In a flash, Ray’s body had transformed from that of a 6’3″, 225-pound avid outdoorsman, writer/adventurer, former gold and silver miner, and all-purpose raconteur into a form completely immobilized by the fracture of a C-5 veterbra. His weakness and the steel brace around his neck made the words tumble from him like the candies of a Pez dispenser. Walking one day, a quadriplegic the next. Sitting in his room amid a garden of giant-vased flowers, I wondered how long it would take before his sense of humor left also.

“One of the out-patients here who’s had this kind of injury for a while told me people turn very bitter or unrealistically optimistic. I told him I’d always been bitter but was excited about the chance to become unrealistically bitter. I could break new ground for my people.”

“You could gripe about how paralysis prevents you from both space travel and masturbation.”

He lifted both of his arms up for a moment and they fell back on the bed. He could not press down with any strength to move himself up on the bed because he no longer had the use of his tricep muscles.

“Move the pillow further down.”

I tried adjusting the pillow around his neck gradually, fearfully.

“Just move it!”

“All right, all right.”

We both glanced toward the glaring white light in the window, full of a spring midday sun. The window was on the far side of the room above the empty bed of his roommate Matt. The pull curtain usually extended for privacy was drawn back. Matt had been here a month and recently transitioned to a wheelchair.

“I don’t know what to do. I can’t live like this.”

“You don’t have to figure it out right now,” I said, but had no idea whether he had to figure it out now or not.

“I asked R. J. yesterday, ‘If I’m still like this in a year, would you do me a huge and just kill me?’ ”

R.J. was another friend whom we had both known for over a decade. He spent a good deal of his waking life drinking in the city’s dive bars.

“‘Yeah. I’ll smother you with a pillow,’ Ray said he’d told him without a beat. “He’d already worked out how he would do it. You kind of hope for a little more deliberation from someone with that kind of question.”

This was the first time I’d heard Ray laugh since everything happened, though I didn’t hear him so much as see him laugh. He didn’t have the diaphragm strength to produce more than a wheezing sound, which eventually lapsed into another depressing silence. Nothing that wasn’t imbued with dead humor felt worth uttering. Even on bright days like this, the room cast a grayish blue tint over everything, a kind of sterilized hospital hue.

“Where’s Matt?”


“Does that make you feel a little bit shiftless, your roommate out hustling the pavement for a job?”

“I’m hoping to become a ward of the state. No, it’s just the same asshole doctor that tried interviewing me when I was still in I.C.U. He’s doing a study of near-death experiences. He wants to use age- and sex-matched controls, so, we’re perfect candidates, I guess.”

“He tried to interview you right after came to?”

“I guess I was more fresh. It’s just this need to know, right. Get all the info we can right now so we know what comes next.”

“Did you tell him to leave?”

“I told him no but he was persistent. And I guess I needed to be distracted. I still couldn’t believe any of it was real, that I was alive and that I was paralyzed.”

He stopped to gather his breath.

“So, I started telling him about how I felt like I was riding along this noodle, sailing along this long noodle over waves. But, there was a light at the end of the noodle, so it must have been a tunnel, not a noodle. Anyway, when I got to the end of it everything opened up peripherally and I was bathing in this white light, literally floating in it, as if it were some endless cream of celery soup. I don’t know why, but I looked behind me and saw this hand extended down to me. It looked like a woman’s hand. I followed up the arm. The woman was wearing a loose-fitting white dress. Her hair was huge, like a big helmet. And then I realized. It was Phyllis Diller— the zany 196os comedienne. She began cackling in that loud laugh of hers. That’s the last thing I remember before coming to after surgery.”

“You actually told him that?”

“Yeah. And if Matt remembers correctly, he’s telling him the same story right now in his interview.”

As if on cue, Matt rolled his electric wheelchair back into the room wearing a smirk and followed closely by the doctor. The doctor walked up to Ray’s bed and leaned in to him.

“You might think this is all a joke, but I’ve seen people like you before,” he said, “and you’re likely going to die alone.”

“Actually,” Ray said, “I’ve already got that worked out with a friend.”