My Hypothetical Coma (or, Dreams Before Dying)

Been thinking a lot lately about that weird twilight place people go when they are neither fully alive nor dead, neither conscious and functioning nor brain dead. Some people say they see a bright light encompassing a soft and soothing voice. Some claim to see family members who have passed, waiting to lead them on to the other side (which I firmly believe happens when we’re dying). Some people claim they float above themselves and up, up, out of the room, out of the building, right off the planet, while some describe a long tunnel with a pinpoint of brightness at the end. People speak of train stations and waiting rooms and airport gates. Some don’t remember anything at all.

I don’t know if near-death experiences are just the dreams of the unconscious. I mean, I do believe that when we’re dying, our brains could possibly run through thoughts, dreams and memories until they are spent and ready to shut down. However, that being said, I don’t think that necessarily excludes the idea of a valid glimpse of an afterlife, an unexplainable experience where our souls do straddle the boundary between this dimension and another. Thoughts and memories may have organic origins — even dreams may — but that doesn’t necessarily negate the fact that as spirit forms, we could tap into a spiritual place, if the very core of us is somehow even marginally disconnected from the physicality that normally tethers us to a very physical world.

I wonder if the place you go is shaped by the mind or suggestive of things your mind can, on some level, grasp and interpret so you’re not scared of the experience. After all, I think most cases of near-death experiences and “coma dreams” are reportedly pleasant, comforting, and soothing. Whether they set off a trigger in our brains to except possibly inevitable death as a biological function of completing the circle of life, or if on some spiritual level, Proprietors of realms beyond our normal consciousness find it beneficial to handle our souls with a certain kid-glove approach. I wonder if, when we’re in that twilight place, we are given a chance to resolve our lives, and if enough is there, we move on. If not, we’re sent back.

If I were in a coma from a car crash, let’s say (because let’s face it: anyone who knows me would wager that my driving is the most likely to put me in a situation where I am fighting for my life), I suspect it would be something like this. I think anyone who knows me well will be able to understand the little details. Those who don’t may get them anyway, and discover something about yours truly.

I am in these beautiful dense woods in mid-autumn, thick with maples, oaks, and evergreens. Feathery ferns grow along the thin dirt paths between the trees. The air is cool and smells of dead leaves and pine sap. Through the tops of the high trees I can see that it’s almost dusk. Occasional leaves fall from low branches. I can hear the low grumble-rush of a river in the distance, although I can’t tell what direction it is in, exactly, nor which way is upstream and which is downstream. I can also hear voices shouting. I think they are shouting for me, calling to me. They sound familiar but I can’t pinpoint any individual voice as someone specific, and they are far away; they bounce and echo between the trees. Above my head a very bright search light sweeps in a flash across the sky then back, then winks out. In its fading wake, I can just make out a full moon through the gnarled finger-branches of one of the trees.

I am lost in the woods.

I have a small backpack. In it, I have pictures of Sprout, Brian, my family and friends in a little plastic foldout like you’d find in a wallet. I have no ID — no license or credit cards or bank cards or anything like that. I have a deck of Lovecraft tarot cards and a deck of Silent Hill monster cards, and a tiny silver cross. I have a small notepad of paper and a pencil, and tucked inside is a folded piece of computer paper with all my book covers printed on it. I have a lilac-scented candle and a book of matches with a name printed on the front: Zarepath and Ephrata. I have a key, but it is not my house key or my car key. I have a soft purple blanket. I have a small glass jar full of rose petals. I have my cell phone but some of the apps seem to be missing; I have no internet access, and when I try to call any of the numbers, I get the voice mail and the interference and static are so bad that I can only catch scraps of the recorded voices’ words. I have no flashlight, and no food or water. The lack of these things don’t seem to bother me at present. I don’t particularly feel like I need them. I have a strong feeling that I won’t be in the woods long enough to miss those things.

I remember that I have been told two things about getting lost in the woods: 1) if people are looking for you, stay in one place so they can find you, and 2) if they aren’t, then find the river and follow it to the end. If you can’t follow sounds of traffic to an outskirt of the woods, you can be reasonably sure that following a river will lead you eventually to its source or its mouth. When I look up, I see the sky getting darker, and I shiver. It is not really cold, but the thought of being lost alone in the dark in the woods for an indefinite period of time makes me feel vulnerable and helpless. I feel like I am somehow exposed to a thousand strange things watching and waiting in the underbrush, from the cover of the trees. From the shouts, I know people are looking for me, but I can’t stand being swallowed by the darkness without trying to do something for my own sake, to bring myself out of the woods. I listen carefully to the sounds around me, and head toward the low, rushing sound of the river.

I do not, I guess I should note, head toward the shouts. Some of them sound so far away. Some sound so deeply entrenched in the thick dark of the deep woods. In either case, it strikes me on an instinctual level that I will only get more confused and lost if I try to follow the direction of moving voices right now.

I consider leaving something from the backpack at intervals along the way, something to give the searchers an idea, if they cross my old paths, of the direction I’m heading. However, I can’t seem to bear leaving anything from the backpack behind. I need those things; I can’t let them go.

There is a distinct lack of sounds like birds or bugs or bats. I hear branches cracking once in a while and the heartbeat thuds of things moving through the dark around me, but I see no animals. There are no tracks in the dirt on any part of the path before or behind me. There are no trampled-down valleys of vegetation indicating deer trails or bear trails. Whatever is moving around in the woods around me moves without disturbing anything, without leaving evidence of its presence. I am not exactly afraid of whatever it is. I know it is powerful and alien but I also feel it thinks the same of me, lost in this place, both of us moving through the night, guided by instinct, moving toward…something.

I reach the river, but as I stand on the bank, I can’t decide of I should go upstream or downstream. It seems, just then, like a very important choice to make, one I can’t go back on and retrace if I choose wrong. The voices sound closer now — not the ones that sounded far away, but the ones that sounded like they were coming from deep in the woods. Above, the search light sweeps across the sky.

As I’m standing, indecisive, on the bank, I hear the crashing of footsteps through the woods and these figures emerge, preceded by swaths of flashlight. They’re wearing yellow jumpsuits and miners’ hats with lights affixed to them. I find that I recognize some of them. My grandfather is there. He’s walking without cane and he calls me “little Mary” in Italian and nods a hello. My Uncle Louie is there, too, as is my grandmother and a number of aunts and uncles.

“It’s time to go,” my grandfather says.

“We’ll show you the way out of the woods,” Uncle Louie tells me.

“Leave the bag,” My Aunt Laura tells me. She pronounces the word like ‘bay-ug.’

I look down at the backpack then back up at them. “I…I don’t want to. I need this stuff in here. To survive.”

“You don’t need it no more,” my grandmother tells me, and my other grandmother nods and adds, “We’re leaving this place. You won’t need those things.”

Somewhere far away, I hear other voices calling my name. They sound like they’re coming from behind the stars, from somewhere in the sky. I look up and see that the moon and stars are growing brighter.

“Come on,” my grandfather says. “We ain’t makin’ no money here.” He reaches out his hand.

The voices in the sky call to me again.

I pick a direction.

I’m curious to see what you folks think yours will be like. Let me know.”


About Mary SanGiovanni

Author of the Hollower trilogy, Thrall, Chaos, For Emmy, Possessing Amy, The Fading Place, and more.
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6 Responses to My Hypothetical Coma (or, Dreams Before Dying)

  1. I am in the study hall at Mary Washinton College, seated at the table near the window that rattles in the winter wind, letting in thin tendrils of cold air. The glass is ancient, as it had been when I was young and idealistic and an undergrad, but the darkness outside is more complete than I remember: no streetlights, no headlights. The clock above the door counts the passage of time with audible echoes, and beyond the closed doors to the study room, I can sense the openness of the rotunda. I know this place better than any I have ever known. I am glad to be here, with the old lamps giving off dim light and the bookshelves filled with my stuff, and the door to the left leading to the room where I struggled through all four levels of calculus. There’s a desk in there, an old wooden one with a drawer at the center; I graffitied my name inside it with pink chalk. This is my place, and I love it, even though I know it no longer exists. In my coma dreams, I know I will be there, and in a way, I already am.

    Thanks for the invitation to dream, Mary.



  2. I primarily wish to say that what you wrote was beautiful and has gotten me thinking because, even though I am a horror writer and you would think I would have pondered this before, in actuality I have not. Even though my work is usually of the psychological kind, and I suppose my story “Crimson Rain” could be applied to the idea of visions before death, but I have personally never thought of it for myself. Anyway, here goes:

    The streets were empty. Nighttime – a ghastly time to be walking back up to college alone. There were no cars, no sounds, no light anywhere except from the moon, which shone brightly in the clear, yet starless sky. With that as my guide, although it existed as a mere pinprick, I carried my heavy bag on my shoulder and restlessly made my way uphill. Eyes wide, lips dry in the cold, heartless autumn, I struggled to remember my name. However, somehow I knew I wouldn’t need it anymore. The necessity null, I attempted instead to recall where I was going and found I had lost track of that as well. Somehow, my anxieties lessened into less than a lump in my throat. For a moment, I halted. There were no buildings anymore – no houses, no streets, only the full moon shining above me. Harsh pounding in my head began, just as the rain did. I shuffled through my purse to find my iPhone, which was at ten percent battery power. With the convenient flashlight application it had, I blocked out the moon and realized that the rain was crimson. The sky was crying bloody tears, but wondering why wasn’t my concern. My concern had turned into the fact that the moon was now gone and my phone was now dead. I was in utter darkness. My world had faded to black.


  3. I like the idea in all three of our cases that we lose hold of fear, or at least anxiety over what our minds secretly know is the end of familiar things. I should hope that death is really like that.


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