By Chef Tiyafwons
Several years ago, I was in a brutal car accident. I was parked in front of a train track, waiting for the train to pass by. I was the last person not to make it across the tracks. For visualization, there was a solid stream of cars on either side. If I had tried to sneak across, I would have rear-ended the person in front of me before successfully clearing them.
I could hear the train approaching, and the black-and-yellow bars lowered in front of me. I am fascinated by trains, so I was delighted to be so close, finally getting a front row seat. The train was about a quarter mile from the crossing when the driver behind me accelerated and nudged me forward a few feet. The bars bent and eventually snapped, and I was knocked joltingly onto the tracks. I panicked and threw the car into reverse, trying to back out. The other car apparently had more horsepower, however, and to my horror my car door aligned perfectly with the cattle guard on the front of the train.
I scrambled to get out of the car, but forgot about my seatbelt. I nearly strangled myself trying to get free. By the time I unlatched it, it was too late. One fraction of a second of the loudest sound I had ever heard, and then blackness and silence. I was certain that I had died. I didn’t feel any pain, and certainly if I had survived I’d be in agony. I tried to open my eyes, but nothing would happen. I tried to make a sound, to wiggle my fingers, or do anything, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t that I was paralyzed; it was more like I didn’t have a body to manipulate. I was just a mind submerged in a pool of nothing. The only sentiment I felt was that I had returned to that state after being gone for a long time; like forgetting how your parents’ house smells until you visit home for the holidays.
Gradually, I started to have feelings of sensation. Passing waves of warmth and wetness finally allowed me to determine where the edges of my body were. Almost as soon as I became aware of my physical self, it began to ache. I felt as if every inch of me had been pummeled with a baseball bat–the heavy wooden kind. Even opening my eyes was a spectacular ordeal.
I was in a hospital. So I had survived after all. People moved to surround me. Faces that never fully came into focus hovered above my own, and sounds that vaguely resembled speech seemed to reach me through water. It wasn’t long before I felt weak again and my eyes closed.
This fading in and out of consciousness lasted for what felt like a very long time, maybe months, though the doctors told me it was only a matter of days. After that, I worked on speaking and swallowing food, which seems silly, but it was actually a challenge at the time. Finally, as more and more casts were removed, I was allowed to sit up and turn my head, for which I was incredibly grateful.
According to my family and my then-girlfriend Sarah, all of whom were overjoyed at being able to speak with me, I was asleep for several days on end after the crash. I remember Sarah specifically saying she had missed being able to “stare at those beautiful eyes.”
Time passed at an excruciatingly slow pace until physical therapy finally escalated to the point where I could be pushed around in a wheelchair. The doctors were surprisingly hopeful that I’d be able to walk again, but it was what they called “cautious optimism.” Nobody wanted to tell me I could be independent again and then have to admit they were wrong later. Obviously I was very hopeful myself, though even transferring from chair to bed was a painful challenge. It was around this time that I noticed I never dreamed anymore. When I slept, I only felt the same nothingness that I felt immediately after the crash.
All the days blended together for a while after that. The next memory I can actually separate from the rest is the first time I tried walking on my own. There were staff members holding on to my arms and waist, just in case I fell, and with their help, I made it all the way across the room on my first try. The doctors said they had never seen such a rapid recovery. I was giddy.
Obviously I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but soon I was allowed to live at home again with frequent PT sessions, and some weeks after that, I returned to work. Life was almost normal for a while. Except for a very slight limp in my left leg, the side that the train hit me on, I was feeling pretty normal. It was only after about a month of living in my own house that weird things started to happen.
The first thing I noticed was that I felt an occasional stinging on my right forearm, like a thin needle was puncturing my skin. It was a tiny prick, maybe twice a day at most. I figured it was just nerve trauma or something and blocked it from my mind. Feigning ignorance was harder to do when I started hearing things, though. While I was reading in bed one night, I thought I heard Sarah crying. I strained my ears to make sure, and I definitely heard her sobs, but very distantly, like I was submerged in a pool.
I made my way downstairs quickly, concerned that she had hurt herself or something, but she was just washing dishes in the kitchen. “Are you okay?” I asked cautiously.
“Yeah, why?” She asked nonchalantly.
I dismissed these oddities as best I could. After all, how could anyone expect to recover from being hit by a goddamn train without some lingering effects? Every so often, mostly when I was trying to fall asleep or sitting in a silent room, I would hear occasional sounds that I couldn’t connect at first. Gradually, I determined that they were hospital sounds–stretchers being rolled across tiled floors, beeping from machines, rapid chatter between nurses and doctors.
Although I figured anyone who had suffered as much trauma as I had would experience some degree of whatever I was experiencing, I decided to bring it up with my doctor. He told me it was perfectly normal for someone in my circumstances, and he could prescribe me a sleep aid if I felt it was necessary. I told him it wasn’t a big deal; I was just satisfied that a doctor could explain my symptoms.
The odd glimpses of what seemed to be my past only increased in frequency. When I slept, I finally dreamed again, but it was always the same thing. If I saw anything at all, it was a hospital room. Sometimes there were other people in the room, and sometimes I was alone with the machines.
There was one night in particular in which the dream was more vivid and gripping than usual. My eyes opened wearily to see Sarah asleep on the chair beside my hospital bed. “Sarah?” I croaked. She jerked awake.
“Henry!” She scrambled to my side, clutching my hand. At this point, it occurred to me that I was dreaming. I stared right into Sarah’s eyes.
“I’m asleep right now.”
She seemed concerned. “No, Henry. You’re finally awake. I’m right here. It’s been so long.”
“Of course you would say that. You’re a part of my dream.” I smiled, amused. “I’ll probably wake up any second.” But as I spoke the familiar soreness caught up to me all at once. It practically knocked the wind from my lungs.
“Henry, no.” Her distress was now evident. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Stay with me, Henry. Stay awake. Look at me.” I shook my head defiantly and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I was back in my own bed. It was about 3:00 in the morning. I sat awake, pondering what I had just seen. I thought I heard Sarah crying again, even though I could see her sleeping beside me.
When Sarah finally woke up, she rolled over and laid an arm across my chest. “Good morning, big guy.” She smiled groggily.
“If I was asleep right now, would you tell me?” I asked.
“What?” She chuckled. “That’s kinda heavy stuff to drop on a sleepy person.”
“Just bear with me. If I was asleep right now–dreaming, you know–would you tell me?”
“Well, I feel pretty real,” she noted, patting different parts of her body. “Do you think I’m not real?”
“Of course not,” I said. We got ready for our day. I couldn’t stop thinking about my dream, though. I noticed that when I tried really hard to space out at work, and listened closely enough, I could hear the hospital sounds more clearly. I was naturally concerned about this.
That night, I went to bed early, and just as I thought, I was transported immediately to the hospital bed. I felt the thin sheets beneath my fingers. I opened my eyes, and Sarah was reading a book in the same chair as before. I just looked at her for a long time, trying to discern if she was real. She certainly seemed real enough. She turned pages with the same flourish that she always had, and chewed on one of the temples of her reading glasses.
Eventually, she looked up and met my eyes. “You’re awake again!” She gasped. “Victoria! Paul! He’s awake!” My parents entered the room moments later, looking excited.
I talked with them all for a long time. Of course, my parents, too, denied the fact that I was asleep, but that topic passed quickly. Instead, we discussed my condition. I had been in a coma for almost three months with little response. They had been slowly losing hope for my recovery until my brain showed signs of activity. Since that time, they had been visiting me frequently, hoping that I would wake up. It seemed a pretty convincing story.
After many hours of talking, I had to stop; I was legitimately sleepy. Of course, they all understood and I fell back asleep. Only this time, I didn’t wake up in my own bed. I woke up in the same hospital bed a few hours later. I had to think about it for a very long time, but eventually concluded that I must have imagined my miraculous recovery, and had been in a coma the whole time after all. As you can imagine, it was hard to accept at first.
Since then, I have been making a second recovery, which has been slower and less successful than the first. That’s why, for a long time, I was mostly convinced that I’m really awake this time. Nobody walks after getting blindsided by a train, at least not without lots of hard work. I’ve still only left my wheelchair on crutches, and it’s been six years.
It probably sounds like a bittersweet ending, and at one point I agreed. I was prepared to live happily-ever-after in my wheelchair, and maybe even graduate to crutches someday, except for one thing. When I’m getting ready for bed, after I turn off my lamp and my head hits the pillow, I can still hear them; the faint sounds of a busy hospital.
I know that many of you will say “But I’m real. This is real life. Of course you’re awake.” But that’s what you’re supposed to say. Nobody’s going to tell me “I’m fake. You’re dreaming, wake up.” I’m still asleep, and I’ve learned to deal with it. I know that nobody I meet during the day is real, but I’m tired, so I just pretend, and that will have to do.