Out of Body

Marin Heinritz


When you go back to the hospital fifteen years later, your heart is in your throat. The only wing that remains the same is your wing: Six East. The sick babies wearing floppy hats that can’t possibly hide their hairless heads, jaundiced skin or the dark circles beneath their eyes will still be there. Not the same ones. The ones who haunt you died long ago from leukemia. This is a new generation of dying children.

You go back to try to reclaim something you’ll never understand. The babies died. You didn’t.

You once told a priest that you’re living on borrowed time. He corrected you. “It’s not borrowed time,” he said. “It’s a grace.”

You may never reconcile it. No number of degrees earned, countries visited, classes taught, pieces written, men loved, miles run, martinis drunk, money given will make it right in your heart.

But you go back to remember. It’s the least you can do. And Children’s Hospital of Dallas was kind enough to leave your wing as it was. Every other part of the massive institution looks and smells shiny and new: bright, clean colors; winding passages, elevators and escalators peer through transparent windows and walls. It’s modern, a twenty-first century amusement park, a European airport without the armed guards. A Starbucks on every corner. But surgery and radiology are well hidden. The nuclear scanning machines and bloody syringes hide behind automatic doors.

Six East is retro. Hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. The windowless L-shaped hallway with grey and pastel tiles boxes in the waiting and consultation rooms. It’s a clinic day, so people are buzzing about: interns in white coats collide with nurses wearing cartoon-patterned scrubs while doe-eyed young parents try to keep their children occupied with coloring books and plastic blocks at two-foot tall tables.

You peek into a small room. It’s the room in which you received your first chemo drip. You remember. All the other patients got chemo in the treatment room, a kind of hospital great room alive with children, some bouncing off the walls, some screaming and crying, others quietly playing video games, occupying the wall of sea-green recliners while hooked up to their very own plastic bags full of poison hanging from a metal rack on wheels. The oldest kid in there was 11. You were 17 and not at all convinced that you belonged here. You knew for damn sure you’d rather have been almost anywhere else on earth, and you seriously considered walking out.

Sensing this, and desperate for modern medicine to begin eradicating the rapidly multiplying cancer cells in her only child’s lymph nodes, your mother negotiated for you the private room.

It’s in this room that something very strange happened. Stranger than getting poked with a hollow needle through which your blood could flow out and Adriomyacin, the drug that would cause you heart valve damage, could slowly drip in. Stranger than lying for hours in dark silence so your body could absorb the liter of saline solution and not become debilitated by dehydration. Strange enough that while you believed it happened, you didn’t tell anyone about it for years.

You lay there with the needle in your arm and your very own plastic bag of poison hanging from a metal rack on wheels and you thought about praying. But you didn’t really know how to pray. The things you’d heard your grandmother say by heart in Mass made you feel like an outsider in a cult, so you never learned them. You remembered the Buddhist chant your mother’s friend Tom taught you, Nam myo ho renge kyo, but when you asked Tom to translate it, he chastised you for having no faith. So you didn’t want to pray that way, either.

As you pondered the merits of being faithless, the poison trickled through your veins. You felt a rush of cold, and all of a sudden you were no longer lying on the table. You were looking at your body on the table. That 17-year-old body with the needle in its arm spread out on a piece of crinkly white paper. You saw yourself from the ceiling yet you didn’t feel yourself floating. Your eyes were shut, your chest rose and fell and you could see it all but you felt nothing. There was no white light, no voice of God, no future or past. You knew that in that moment you were separate from your body.

Eight or ten years later you told this story for the first time to a friend who believed deeply in the occult and she asked, “At what point in time did you re-enter your body?” and you didn’t know how to answer her. You wondered if you ever did fully re-enter your body.

But this is impossible to explain, to anyone who believes your tough exterior is real or knows you to be clear-sighted and flat-footed with answers in tow. Most of all, it’s impossible to explain to yourself.

As you revisit this place, you wonder if there’s still a piece of you in that room. Spirit or body or false innocence?

You reach for your left clavicle with your right middle finger, a habitual reflex to hide the biopsy scar now practically erased by time, and with the palm of your hand you feel your heart beating.