Conversations with Death

A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.

Robert Frost

Boueng Kak Slums, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 2011

“I know you’re here, watching me. I’m not getting up.”

That’s okay. I think you’ve been waiting for Me, so I thought I’d show up and sit with you a while. Are you sure you don’t want to get up?

“What’s it look like?”

It looks like you’ve been in bed for eight days without eating. Is this how badly you’ve wanted Me to visit?

“I don’t want anything. I want it all to disappear. You seem to be the only answer anymore.”

Well let’s talk then. What do you want Me to say? That things are good with Me? That there’s an Answer?

“Tinaz told me about You with the wheel. Were You there then? Are You always here, listening and watching?”

What do you think?

“I think You’re not going to tell me either way.”

Tell me about the wheel.

“A wagon wheel. A round open center with spokes that branch out to the round outside. Life is the outside circle, round and round, hitting bumps and smooth patches of road along the way, sometimes off the road completely and in the jungle. Once in awhile, something pierces one of the spokes, something that cuts deeper than the surface and reveals things unknown underneath. Sometimes a spoke gets cut clear through, and it has to be repaired before the wagon can go on, but once it’s fixed, it’s stronger, better, more supportive than before. Other times the spokes are weakened to a small degree, worn down slowly over time and eventually, it shatters. Again, once fixed, is usually stronger than ever, but that slow wear-down and the big breaks, they leave scars worn for life.

“Every so often, something gets down to the very center circle, that big gaping hole that is surprisingly the foundation of the whole fucking wheel. Without it, there’s no balance; if it was filled in, the wagon wouldn’t roll as well. And when something gets to that center circle, I’m made aware of its nothingness, its empty core. This, staring me in the face, having been there the whole time without much attention paid to it, is You. You center all lives; what is Life without the contrast? Life is here, breathing, a beating heart with muscles and ligaments and skin and teeth, let alone consciousness and feelings and needs and fears and guilt. With You, life isn’t. It is not, it is naught. Is there life after You? Heaven or hell? I used to care about these questions. I don’t anymore. So now, tell me, what the fuck are You doing here?”

You’re dying, Miss. Why else would I be here?

“So let’s just end it then, fuck.”

I’m not sure it’s time. I thought we’d look at a couple spokes in the wheel first. Let Me show you, then we can talk more about what it is you want here, now. I’d ask if you’re ready, but you’re not going anywhere are you. Where do you want first, the past or the future?

“Doesn’t matter.”

I thought you might say that. Let’s go forward. Let’s look at the next time you’ll see Me, if you don’t come with Me now.

“Or You could fuck right off.”

July 21st, 2013 – Ryan Dale Losser: born October 8th, 1968, dies at age 44.

It’s a Saturday night on Bui Vien, the Backpacker District of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The street, as usual, is hustle-bustle with locals and tourists, trying to make and lose money. You’ll be hungover from the night before, but a girlfriend of yours needs to have a boy-talk. She will have just met a Westerner of some kind, and she won’t want to screw it up, so she’ll call you for advice. You’ll join her at your go-to bar on the street, owned by a British guy you’ll become mates with. It will be busier than usual at his tiny bar: about eight or ten Western guys with a few Western girls and a load of Vietnamese girls. The conversation with your friend will be fun: she’s going to ask you about sexual etiquette with Western guys, what they expect and what they like.

After an hour of this, a couple older-looking Western guys will come in to play darts with their Vietnamese girlfriends. One of them is massive: 6’4” and barrel-chested, probably 250 or 300 pounds. He’s bulky and has a solid beer gut. He will be obviously drunk and he’ll waver, looking like he could fall over at any minute. Your friend and bar owner Matt will be understaffed and a bit stressed out, so when you see the large wavering man, you’ll volunteer yourself to handle it. You always think you can handle things, don’t you?

As the man wobbles near plate-glass doors, you will walk over to him and ask him to sit down. You’ll try to guide him to a chair. He will have none of this; he won’t even register you’re there. You will look up at his face, and his eyes will roll back into his head, exposing the whites of his eyeballs, and he’ll fall like a sack of bricks. You’ll move so that he doesn’t fall right on top of you. It will look like he’s passing out, but I am there, ready, waiting. You’ll know Me when his face starts turning blue.

You’ll attempt CPR after the Western guys run over to help you lower the man down. The man that will have come in with the dead man will tell you he was a Navy SEAL, and you’ll feel relief wash over you thinking I’m not around as the SEAL begins CPR. No one will move; it will be silent enough that you’ll hear your heart beating in your ears. You will turn to one of the staff members and tell her to call an ambulance. He will be revived a few times, rolling over to try to spit out whatever is blocking his airway, but it will be too late. I will have already taken him.

You’ll talk to the girl who came in with the dead man. She’ll tell you she was his girlfriend of a few weeks, his name was Ryan; she won’t really know anything else. You won’t be able to leave because you will not fathom leaving without knowing this man is okay. The ambulance people will try a defibrillator several times, and after a few minutes, pronounce him dead. By the time they wheel him out in a body-bag, everyone will be gone. You and Matt will sit and cry a while, have a couple shots of whiskey to calm your nerves. He’ll close his bar for a few nights, but this will not be his first interaction with Me, and he will get over it faster than you will.

You won’t throw up on July 21st, 2013, as you are used to doing in situations where you sense I am near. You’ll get in a cab and go home, and you’ll call Erik. He’ll know what you won’t: that you will be having your first panic attack. You’ll get ahold of your father in Cambodia, who will confirm this, then you’ll get on with your sister. She knows Me better than you do; she always has. She’ll give you coping mechanisms, but it won’t matter. You’ll be staring Me in the face for the first time, and I don’t let go easily.

You won’t eat and you won’t sleep. You’ll look at children bicycling down the street and get flashes in your head of their mangled bodies hit by cars. You’ll think of every single way I could take you sitting in your room, including a light bulb exploding and piercing your brain through your eye. These thoughts will come unbidden at random times with no identifiable trigger. You’ll call all your students and tell them you’re sick. You’ll have panic attacks almost every hour for the first few days and finally, on the third day, you’ll go crazy with Me. You won’t be able to talk to Me then like you are now, but knowing I’m there surrounding you 24/7 will drive you off the edge. You’ll want to claw your eyes out. The fight or flight instinct will kick in and you’ll go home to Otres Beach in Cambodia.

You’ll have panic attacks every day for thirty-eight days. You’ll have panic attacks after that, but not daily, and not as intensely. I could tell you about Scotty, the Australian man you’ll meet that will help you back to Life, but that’s not My story to tell. I will stay with you at Otres Beach for about five weeks off and on, hovering, waiting for you to look at Me directly, until I realize you aren’t ready to talk yet. I will yearn to talk with you, to explain Myself to you, but you won’t see Me; you will refuse. You’ll go back to your life in Vietnam, but I’ll have ended things for you there, and you’ll know you have to leave. You’ll have to stop wallowing in Me; you’ll have to start Living for the first time. I have that effect on People.

A man you will have never met will have a heart attack and die on the floor in front of you, and for the first time in your life, I will be your sun, moon, and stars. I will encompass you and say, Hi Missy. It’s time you started looking at Me. I’ve been here your whole life, and you’ve ignored Me. It’s time to pay attention.

Boueng Kak Slums, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 2011

Come on back now. Do you want Me to continue?

“I’d say there’s no way You could know all this, but who the hell am I talking to, right? What else would You continue with?”

I thought I’d ask you to read me the story you wrote about your mom and Jimmy.

“I saw You then, didn’t I?”

Yes, I was there. You didn’t see Me though, you just learned I was Real. You weren’t ready. You won’t be when Ryan Losser dies either. You’ll see.

“How do you know I wrote down the Jimmy thing?”

Let’s call it a side effect of omniscience. Read it to me please, I don’t get to hear enough stories from the Human perspective.

December 1995 – Karron Hannen, April 14th, 1954 – present.

“Do you need a minute alone?” Without waiting for a reply, the fireman sits next to the girl, whose only response is to continue to dangle her feet lazily in the pool. Being a trained EMT and fireman for nearly sixteen years, he recognizes shock when he sees it. Though there’s something peculiar about this girl that doesn’t quite fit. She reminds me of Benji, he thinks. As he ponders that, he sits next to her and begins the laborious task of becoming barefoot. Once his toes are free from their fireproof confines, he too dips them in the pool.

“My dog drowned in this pool,” she says, as if to no one. “He fell in and I was sleeping on the couch. My sister was busy in her room and my dad was working, as usual. My mom was probably out scoring.” He nods his head as if he understands. In reality, he’s a bit confused. It’s not a dog that lies on the garage floor now.

“We even found scratch marks on the side of the pool there,” she points, “but he was gone before we got to him. I was just on the couch. Sleeping. Dreaming.”

“That wasn’t your fault y’know. Neither was what happened tonight.”

Near the front of the house sirens start turning off. That means an end has come to the drama in the garage, one way or another.

“We had just come back from a long walk in the hills, that’s why I was so tired. He was tired, which was why we brought him home. Fat dogs are tired too much. I won’t have a fat one again.”

“How old are you?”

“How old are you,” she zings, finally addressing him for the first time. Startled by the calm on her face, he takes a moment. “I’m forty-two.”

“I’m ten. Jimmy was one.”


“The dead damned dog. Pay attention.” That gets a smile out of both of them. She looks nervous. Finally, he thinks. And now there’s his captain, appearing from the kitchen, looking urgent and beckoning him. He shoos his captain away with the hand signal for ‘give me a minute.’ Instead, she turns to the captain and says, “is she dead or what?”

The captain hesitates, then seeing his lieutenant nod, says, “no. We pumped her stomach and she’ll be okay, but she needs to go to the hospital. Your father’d like you to come, but he said it’s up to you.”

“Tell him I’ll come when she’s dead,” she says turning back to the pool. “And tell her next time to grind up the pills first if she’s serious. Half-assed suicide is still half-assed.”

The captain immediately grumbles, “now kid wait a minute, that’s your mother you’re talking about…” But he stops when he sees Lieutenant Daniels shaking his head and mouth something. The captain leaves without another word.

“What’d you say to get him to leave,” she asks after a time. He replies, “Benji.”

“Who’s Benji?”

“My dead son. He killed himself the way your mom tried to tonight, though he had the forethought to not do it in front of us. Your mom’s weird that way. Or just needing attention maybe,” he challenges her.

“No, that’s my sister. My mom does want to die; I say we let her.”

“Funny, that’s what I kept telling my wife after Benji died.”

“Did she leave you?”

No longer impressed by the strange intimacy of the conversation, a slow “yes” rolls out.

She muses on this, he can almost see her chewing on it, digesting it.

“Guess that makes us the strong ones then, doesn’t it.”

He nods, and they stare into the night, feet making swirls in the pool where Jimmy died.

Boueng Kak Slums, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 2011

“So why are you here now? Now that we’ve gone over these lovely events.”

Are you always this sardonic?

“Do You not see the irony of You saying that?”

I have My moments. I’m here to show you the options. I’m here because you’re so close to Me now, in this moment. If you don’t eat tomorrow, I’ll take you. I don’t want to.

“So what, show me a few breaks in the wheel, listen to me blather on, what’s the damn point? Why rub it in?”

Because I don’t think you’re ready. I want you to have more time. This is our first conversation, but it won’t be our last. And if it ends here, now, I won’t get to talk with you again. And I so look forward to our conversations. So get up Missy, get up and go downstairs to meet Life. There’s someone waiting for you, someone I just talked to, someone who needs Life as much as you do. Then when Ryan dies, we’ll meet again. I’ll kick you while you’re down, and you’ll hate Me for it, but I’ll introduce you to God. We’re friends, y’know.

“Fuck You, and fuck God. Fuck all good You two get up to anyway, what’s the damn point?”

If I tell you now, you won’t believe Me. I want you to grow through your fear of Me, and of God, and then, and only then, can we have the conversation I want.

“And which conversation is that?”

The conversation where you’ll tell Me about the spokes. I am the center, this is true, but it’s all I know. Only rarely does someone like you come along, pay attention, and eventually, get over Me. Only then can you tell Me about Life as you know it to be. So what do you think, do you want to get up now?


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