by Jennifer Santos Madriaga
I remained lucid through the delirium dream
as I was baptized in the saline waters of
Zosyn and Vancomycin, my biome of
living self and infection obliterating in layers
with each hourly infusion.
Whoever said death came easier
than one thought was right.
The space of being alive is so small and also
so infinite and then all at once not there–
awareness that came with each breath,
a white blood count of 20,000,
a resting heart rate at 153,
and a fever hovering around 103 F.
I marveled how numbers could define
near mortality so accurately.
Even though I felt no pain,
I felt contraction like a slug in salt.
I felt the body become primordial soup.
I saw how it was only fluid and carbon and salts
paired with a soul peering at what would happen next.
The body was a memory, but I could view
the last time it made love one early morning,
when it swam in the waters off Waikiki, when it rode
through a frozen countryside from Vienna,
when it birthed my son, bloodied and lacerated.
I saw I was not the body.
I felt love and loss and suffering and grief
and loneliness and belonging
and my universe so large it defied
any crying out, any helplessness
at seeing how it was too large to comprehend.
In the dark space between consciousness
and the inviting doorway to elsewhere,
I saw the dead, loving and aware,
and I knew who they were, despite
the years making their flesh charcoal
and their atoms swirling in places unknown.
For all I knew, I was breathing them in,
molecule by molecule–oxygen, nitrogen, vapor.
I knew the dead by their utmost tenderness
and lack of judgment, and by the way
things had fallen away from them so
that they were unencumbered by
obligations and resentments, naked
in intention, holding out support
as parts of me died and became re-born.
I marveled at the purity of their presence.
I was dying but not yet dead.
The body had betrayed me but could
still forgive and heal itself.
It’s true that your life flashes in review.
But it was not just my life that flashed
before me, but the lives of others, including
those I had only grazed for moments, such as
in elevators and sidewalks and waiting rooms.
I saw that I knew them all and their walking wounds,
concealed scars and broken hearts,
their momentary joys, and more scarcely, contentment.
I knew them as well as I knew myself,
which also meant not at all.
And I loved them beyond belief even
if no word of greeting was ever uttered
between us. I saw the tether that held us
all together, threaded like notes in
melody, sometimes minor key.
My grandparents were there by my shoulders.
I felt the cool mud of where we sprang from,
derived from volcanic ash and fallen grasses.
They said I was made of fire, and yes, I was burning,
but I should not fear it. I would rise again
on the third day and that is when the fever broke.
Jennifer Santos Madriaga resides in Durham, North Carolina and is a native of Honolulu, Hawai`i. Her fiction and poetry have appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as North American Review, Bamboo Ridge, Hawai`i Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, Crab Creek Review and others. She has completed several residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, including the international location at the Moulin á Nef studios in Auvillar, France. She is a recipient of the Durham Arts Council/NC Arts Council Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artists Grant in Literature.