In a small-town suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, on a hot and sweaty day in July of 2006, I suffered a severe electrical shock. It was the kind that froze me in place, mid-action, my eyes staring down at the tangle of brightly lit holiday lights clutched in my hands.
My left hand feeling extremely heavy was the first sign that something was wrong. I couldn’t move it. Nor could I move my head, or my other arm, or at all. Muscles all over my body had a familiar buzzing feeling; like stimulation pads the chiropractor put on my back, only more intense but strangely less painful. I knew instantly what was happening.
In my methodical nature I set about to do anything I could to move. Never mind that I knew why you don’t touch a shock-frozen person, it didn’t occur to me that, in being that person, I wasn’t going to be able to wrench myself free. The active part of my mind was intent upon raising and spreading my arms. The passive part was assessing the situation, cheering me on, and taking note of every detail in a moment seemingly immeasurable by seconds or even fractions thereof.
At some point my eyes either stopped registering images or I no longer needed to care about what I was seeing. I felt like I’d fallen inside of myself through some kind of membrane of consciousness; all the while hanging on like an expert bull rider to the only intent that mattered, that of letting go of the wires. That my torso was tight seemed comforting, as if I were being swaddled.
Then came a hard tapping against the inside of my rib cage that revved up to a fast and firm rattle, shattering my intent, and I said to myself, with actual words I heard in my mind, ‘this isn’t good.’
With those three words a resignation and kind of release occurred somewhere, I feel like, in my soul. My mind didn’t think the word ‘die’ but I knew that I was leaving; that I had done the last of anything I was ever going to do alive.
I then felt bathed in a nonspecific, all encompassing grief-ish-regret, yet ‘all encompassing’ isn’t quite right. It was almost as if I became that regret. It’s hard to put into words but that’s the best I can do.
Then the faulty, ground-fault, circuit interrupt finally popped and, just like that, the chest thumping stopped and I was gasping for air. I could see again. My skin felt hot and my muscles cold. Without pause, I yanked the cord from the outlet, twisted the bundle of lights into a ball, and threw them into the box. I wobbled to the the wooden stair tread and sat down, staring at the floor. After a few moments I was sobbing uncontrollably into my hands.
Something happened by the time I was done crying; the depth of my experience shallowed to feeling more like a stupid household accident like, say, bumping my head on an open cupboard door. The next morning my right heel was deep red and felt like it had been hit with a sledge hammer. The day after, my left arm, chest, and right leg were painfully stiff and sore. For all that, I wondered, where were my super powers?
At the end of the week the incident had become nothing really worth mentioning to anyone. In fact, I’d kind of forgotten all about it until a couple weeks later when my heart started racing again for no reason. My chest tight and ears ringing, I drove to the emergency room and was admonished by the admitting nurse for having done it myself.
I got checked out, got a small sheaf of papers telling me what kind of physical symptoms I should expect to experience over the next few months or years, and still didn’t really think that much about it.
When I did get around to telling the story to friends, a few here and there, I never recounted the part about the resignation, release, or regret. I had pretty much buried that part all together. The story thread always jumped from ‘this isn’t good’ to wondering, with a comedic sense of entitlement, where my super powers were. Which, in a way, is a far more entertaining ending for the story.
Of course, this story doesn’t end there. I didn’t reckon that there would be any emotional consequences to feeling that close to my own death. The absolute acceptance, and resulting grief, of leaving a life not yet lived enough, lingered as a kind of misty dissatisfaction that would soon coalesce into something more solid.