“If you see me coming better step aside. A lot of men didn’t, a lot of men died. One fist of iron; the other of steel, if the left one don’t getcha, then the right one will” – Sixteen Tons – Tennessee Ernie Ford

Hippocrates first described it in 460 BC when they called it “the old man’s friend”; since death was often quick and painless when there were many slower more painful ways to die. Before the advent of antibiotic therapy and vaccines in the 20th century, if you were prostrate on a gurney and the man in the white coat told you you had it, that was your ass; similar to hearing the words “terminal cancer” today; only terminal cancer usually gives you eighteen months; with pneumonia your lucky if you have a couple of days.

I have an ongoing dance with the devil like the running practical jokes Brad Pitt and George Clooney play on each other; only ours are a little more dangerous. When I least expected it; when I was at the top of my game and feeling bulletproof and indestructible, Mephistopheles summoned one of her alien minions and ordered it to crawl way down in me on the sly and wrap its sharpened claws around my innards and start feeding on me.

I thought I had the flu so I fought the demon for two weeks before I realized the gravity of the situation was such that without an antidote I wouldn’t be able to vanquish the monster; so I hit the dialer at 2 am and served a summons on 911. The ambulance arrived on the scene with its red lights flashing in the crisp, cold Wisconsin night.

The female EMT was about the size of the Pillsbury Dough Boy and twice as awkward. She was accompanied by a circus freak huge 6 foot 8 inch 400 pound Lil Abner; both eliciting anything but confidence. But things being what they were I was a captive audience. So, with our State Trooper escort they strapped me in to the steel cage and we bounced all the way to the emergency room. It was not a pleasant experience.

I was meteor heavy, in my body; like a lead block; pain shot through me from toenails to hair follicles; I felt like one large wound. When the doors swung open it was a scene out of E.T. with a cadre of highly skilled professionals hopping around me like it was a playground and hoping, it seemed, for something unique to sink their knowledge into; a respite from the humdrum normalcy of everyday ailments they droned through nightly; they wanted something unique; a special case to break up the boredom and keep up moral.

When the morphine hit my IV I lifted off the slab and into nirvana; heavy no more I floated on celestial clouds with angels. Man, if this is death; give me all you got. I was fading in and out; here for a moment and then suddenly on the other side; a Walt Disney Fantasia with pink dancing elephants and talking Magpies. Now with needles in my arms and a wire up the kazoo; did I just hear some one say Code Blue? I always wondered why something so ominous should be named something so beautiful. Why not name it something stark and impregnable to suit the condition like black or red? The ocean is blue and so is the sky; blue is the color in my lover’s eye.

I hovered above the bed free of gravity and came around in flash backs, broken segments, pieces disjointed, broken further by the sound of a voice just above me. “Hemingway” I thought I heard him say.  “Yes, I said, that’s me; Hemmingway”. I heard him chuckle and then the transmission more clearly appeared in visual bold letters escaping his mouth that hung in the perfectly clean air like a cartoon.

He was the perfect reincarnation of Robin Williams’ Patch Adams; festooned with red clown nose and replete in white surgical scrubs. He wasn’t saying Hemingway. He was saying “Pneumonia, You have pneumonia”. “Swell”, I said, imagining myself smiling in post orgasmic joy from the fuzzy compassion of the morphine.

Then, with a curl at the corner of his mouth and a shine to his teeth and a glint in his eye, he leaned in and said in a whisper as if he had just found gold, “real nasty infection too”. Words now echoed in the clean room chamber and lilted over the beep, beep, beeping of the life support monitor; someone said; “blood pressure 68 over 48, pulse 60. Am I mistaken or is that the metabolism of an African Sloth?

The room spun as pristine white female figures fluttered about on gossamer wings attending to my every need. The words no longer came through but in silence it was clear from the relish I’d seen in Patch Adams gaze and the charge of his gladiators that they fully intended to kill the beast before it killed me and they were having the time of their lives; lives spent preparing for this very moment when all their powers were fingertip readied to deliver the silver bullet. Having lived for those moments myself I knew just how they felt.

This is where it would all pay off; the years of gym rat obsession, nightly REM sleep rest, wholesome food, the rejection of emotional stress and the occasional touch of a woman’s loving hand. I was no longer in charge but my brain, conditioned since sliding out of the womb for survival at all costs, had taken over, instructing my robust body to hunker down and fight. My entire being was razor-sharp, Seal Team Six ready and on automatic pilot. I could almost hear me say to me; not to worry Nick; rest up; we got this.

Life is short. The time we get is luck. Most days the privileged live in a beautiful and radiant world filled with so much beauty every where we turn that, unmodulated, the music and magic surrounding us would cause the heart to weep continuously. The cherry on top of this heaven on earth is the love of at least one being; a heavenly angel, sent right to and just for; us. Grading on a curve, if you’re reading this; your cup runneth over.

As with every other thing, there is a yin to that yang; a flip side to that coin premised on the fact that stars can not shine without darkness. In the same way that without wrong in the world we would not have an appreciation for right; each of us must deal from time to time with unwarranted suffering, a thing Martin Luther King called redemptive.

In the same way that beauty and meaning manifest themselves to us seemingly undeserved; so do their evil counterparts; suffering and mortality. If deserve has nothing to do with this phenomenon, than perhaps there is an invisible collective karmic ledger in the sky; a tally that must even out at the end; a giant calculation providing for as much misery in the world, and in each life, as joy. It’s a stretch to conjure such a model yet its existence would explain children with cancer and idiot sons and widows inheriting vast wealth; neither deserving either.

It’s just a theory I’ve become fond of, that giant see-saw which demands every thing that goes awry balances out somewhere else producing good on the other side of our collective ledger. Somebody gets wasted by a stray bullet in collateral damage; causing another to win the lottery.

They say your best friend is the first one to show up at the hospital when you’re so dispatched; or the first to call or the first to write. Messages began to arrive from the places I’d been; from the tribe I’d acquired. Medical advice from the alternative health care devotees suggesting pills and potions and teas to sooth and calm and counter act the effects of both the illness and the cure; the little blue pill that even now was coursing through my blood stream to find and end that evil Grim Reaper trying to suck the life from my soul.

My Muse sent healing words and loving vibrations from the Coast that rescued me in places the medicine would never reach; words I could feel and knew were heart-felt; telling me I was surrounded by positive, loving energy. My Pals did much the same. Sometimes that’s all you need. My family also dove in unselfishly and I felt the love. Things were said and done by those close to me and me to them; they are things that will never be forgotten.

There were also some who should have made contact that remained absent. Now I don’t want to cast aspersions and I’d make excuses for them and pretend that they hadn’t heard; but how many ways can you polish up a turd. So, to them I offer the sentiments Shakespeare gave to Exeter; spoken upon delivering the message to the Dauphin that his King was about to sack France on the eve of the battle of Agincourt on Saint Crispin’s Day in his mighty Play Henry V. “Scorn and defiance; slight regard, contempt, and any thing that may not misbecome the mighty sender”.

If there’s a silver lining to being mostly dead it’s losing seventeen pounds and tipping the scales at my freshman high-school wresting weight (154#). That aside, it’s the knowledge that I was at the same time tougher than I thought I was and not as tough as I thought I was. Like most things it’s not black, not white; but grey; not much of a gift considering the other side of the ledger but I’ll take what I can get.

And so it goes.#deathscare