Feet in Smoke
Here's an essay that John wrote in 1999 for the Oxford American. It was collected in 2002 for the Best of the Oxford American anthology.
On the morning of April 21, 1995, my elder brother, Worth (short for Elsworth), put his mouth to a microphone in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky, and was—in the strict sense of having been “shocked to death”—electrocuted. He and his band, the Moviegoers, had stopped for a day to rehearse on their way from Chicago to a concert in Tennessee, where I was in school at the time. Just a couple of days earlier, he had called to ask if there were any songs I wanted to hear at the show. I requested something new, a song that he’d written and played for me the last time I’d seen him, on Christmas Day. Our holidays always end the same way, with my brother and me up late, drinking, trying out our new “tunes” on each other. There is something almost biologically satisfying about harmonizing with a sibling. We’ve gotten to where we communicate through music, using guitars the way fathers and sons use baseball: as a kind of emotional code. Worth is seven years older than I am, an age difference that can make brothers strangers, and I’m fairly sure the first time he ever felt we had anything to talk about was the day he caught me in his basement bedroom at our old house in Indiana, trying to teach myself how to play “Radio Free Europe” on a black Telecaster he’d forbidden me to touch.
The song I had asked for, “Is It All Over,” was not a typical Moviegoers song. It was a bit simpler and more earnest than the infectious geek-pop they made their specialty. The changes were still unfamiliar to the rest of the band, and Worth had been about to lead them through the first verse, had just leaned forward to sing the opening lines—“Is it all over, I’m scanning the paper/for someone to replace her”—when a surge of electricity arced through his body, magnetizing the mic to his chest like a weak but obstinate missile, searing the first string and fret into his palm, and stopping his heart. He fell backward and crashed, already dying.
Forgive me if you know most of this already. I got a lot of my details from a common source, an episode of Rescue 911 (the show hosted by William Shatner) that aired about six months after the accident. My brother played himself in the dramatization, which was amusing for him, since he has no memory whatsoever of the real event. For the rest of us, his family and friends, the segment is hard to watch. It took me three years to be able to do it. In fact, it was only as a kind of research for this essay that I finally played the tape, but now I’m glad that I did. The story Shatner tells, which ends at the moment we learned that my brother would live, is different than the story I know to tell. But the show offers a valuable reminder of the danger, where medical emergencies are involved, of talking too much about “miracles.” I’m not down on the word—the staff at Humana Hospital in Lexington called my brother’s case “miraculous,” and they’ve seen any number of horrifying accidents and inexplicable recoveries—but it tends to obscure all the human skill and coolheadedness that go into saving somebody’s life. I think of Liam, my brother’s best friend and bandmate, who refused to freak out while he cradled Worth in his arms until help arrived, and who had warned Worth when the band first started practicing to put on his Chuck Taylors, the rubber soles of which were the only thing that kept him from being zapped into a more permanent fate than the one he did endure. I think of Captain Clarence Jones, the fireman and paramedic who brought Worth back to life, ironically with two hundred joules of pure electric shock (and who later responded to my grandmother’s effusive thanks by giving all the credit to “the Lord”). Without people like these, and doubtless others whom I never met and Shatner forgot to mention, there would have been no miracle. My brother would have met his end in a scene that played like cutting-room footage from Spinal Tap.
The first word I had of the accident came from my father, who called me that afternoon and told me flatly that my brother had been hurt. I can still hear the nauseating pause before his “I don’t know” when I asked him if Worth were going to live. I got in the car and drove from Tennessee to Lexington, making the five-hour trip in about three-and-a-half hours. I was met in the hospital parking lot by two of my uncles on my mother’s side, fraternal twins, both of them Lexington businessmen. They escorted me up to the ICU and, in the elevator, filled me in on Worth’s condition, very calmly explaining that he’d flatlined five times in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, his heart locked in something that Captain Jones, in his interview for Rescue 911, called “asystole,” which Jones described as “just another death-producing rhythm.” A I understood him to mean, my brother’s pulse had been almost one continuous beat, like a drumroll, but feeble, not actually sending the blood anywhere. By the time I showed up, Worth’s heart was at least beating on its own power, but a machine was doing all his breathing for him. The worst news had to do with his brain, which we were told displayed 1% activity—vegetable status.
In the waiting room, a heavyset nurse came up to me and—in the sweet, thick accent you hear in the little Eastern Kentucky towns that exist in a cluster around Lexington—introduced herself as Nancy. She took me by the hand and led me through two silent, automatic glass doors into Intensive Care. My brother was a nightmare of tubes and wires, dark machines silently measuring every internal event, a pump filling and emptying his useless lungs. The stench of dried spit was everywhere in the room. His eyes were closed, his every muscle slack. It seemed that only the machines were alive, possessed of some perverse and secret will that wouldn’t let them give up on this particular dead man.
I stood frozen, staring at him. Suddenly the nurse spoke to me from the corner of the room in an unexpected tone of admonishment, which angered me at the time and which, even in retrospect, seems hard to account for. “It ain’t like big brother’s gonna wake up tomorrow and be all better,” she said. I looked at her stupidly. Did she think the situation didn’t look quite grim enough?
“I realize that,” I said, and asked her to leave the room. When I heard the door close behind me, I went up to the side of the bed. Worth and I have different fathers, making us half-brothers, technically, though he was already living with my dad when I was born, which means that I’ve never known life without him. Still, we look nothing alike. He has thick dark hair and olive skin and was probably the only member of our family in the hospital that night with green, not blue eyes. I leaned over into his face. The normal flush of his cheeks had gone white, and his lips were parted to admit the breathing tube. There was no sign of anything, of life or struggle or crisis, only the gruesomely robotic sounds of the oxygen machine pumping air into his chest and drawing it out again. In my mind I heard my uncles, their voices composed with strain, telling me about the “1 percent brain activity.” I leaned closer, putting my mouth next to my brother’s right ear. “Worth,” I said, “it’s me. It’s John.”
Without warning, all six feet and four inches of his body came to life, writhing against the restraints and what looked like a thousand invasions of his orifices and skin. Then his head reared back, and his eyes swung open on me. The pupils were almost nonexistent, the irises seagreen with flecks of black. His eyes stayed open only for the briefest instant, focusing loosely on mine before falling shut. But God, what an instant. When I was a volunteer fireman in college, I helped one time to pull a dead guy out of an overturned truck, and I remember the look of his open eyes as I handed him to the next person in line—I’d been expecting pathos, some shadow of whatever had been the last thought to cross his mind, but his eyes were just marbles, mere things. The eyes into which I’d just glimpsed had been nothing like that. If anything, they were the eyes of a madman.
It occurred to me then that a condition parallel to the asystole, which had seized Worth’s heart and nearly killed him, must have effectively taken over his mind. What the machines were reading as vegetable activity was really chaos, the fury of an electrified brain fighting to reassemble itself. I had sensed all that, unmistakably, and it had been like looking down on a man trying to climb his way out of a mossy well: the second he moves, he slips back to the bottom. Worth’s head fell back on the pillow, motionless, his body exhausted from that brief effort at reentering a world his mind couldn’t fathom. I put down his hand, which I had taken without knowing it, and ran back into the hallway. I remember wanting badly to tell my family what I thought I knew but deciding against it, trusting my instinct but doubting my ability to convince them. The doctors, at that point, were still in telling us not to hope.
Worth spent that night, and the second day and night, in a coma. There were no outward signs of change, but the machines began to pick up indications of increased brain function. The neurosurgeon, an Irishman, explained to us (in what must have been, for him, child’s language) that the brain is itself an electrical machine, and that the volts that had flowed from my brother’s vintage Gibson amplifier and traumatized his body were in some sense still racing around in his skull. There was a decent chance, the doctor said, that he would emerge from the coma, but no one could say what would be left; no one could say who would emerge. That day of waiting comes back to me as a collage of awful food, nurses’ cautious encouragement, and the disquieting presence of my brother supine in his bed, an oracle who could answer all our questions but refused to speak. We rotated in and out of his room like tourists circulating through a museum.
“On the third day” (I would never have said it myself, but Shatner does it for me on the show), Worth woke up. The nurses led us into his room, their faces almost proud, and we found him sitting up—gingerly resting on his elbows, with heavy-lidded eyes, as if at any moment he might decide he liked the coma better and slip back into it. His face lit up like a simpleton’s whenever one of us entered the room, and he greeted each of us by our names in a barely audible rasp. He seemed to know us, but he hadn’t the slightest idea what we were all doing there, or where “there” might be—though he came up with several theories on that last point during the next two weeks, chief among them a wedding reception, a high-school poker game, and at one point some kind of holding cell.
I’ve tried so many times over the years to describe for people the person who woke up from that electrified death, the one who remained with us for about a month before he went back to being the Worth we’d known and know now. It would save me a lot of trouble to be able to say “it was like he was on acid,” but that wouldn’t be quite true. Instead, he seemed to be living one of those imaginary acid trips we used to pretend to be on in junior high—you know, “Hey, man, your nose is like a star or something, man.” He had gone there. It was an über-acid trip, only better, and scarier, and altogether more profound. My father and I kept notes, neither of us aware that the other was doing it, trying to get down all of Worth’s little disclosures before they faded beyond recapture, or became indistinct against the backdrop of their own abundance. As I write this, I have my own list in front of me. There’s no best place to begin, so I’ll just transcribe a few things:
Squeezed my hand late on the night of the 23d. Whispered, “That’s the human experience.”
While eating lunch on the 24th, suddenly became convinced that I was impersonating his brother. Demanded to see my ID. Asked me, “Why would you want to impersonate John?” When I protested, “But, Worth, don’t I look like John?”replied, “You look exactly like him. No wonder you can get away with it.”
On the day of the 25th, stood up from his lunch, despite my attempts to restrain him, spilling the contents of his tray everywhere. Glanced at my hands, tight around his shoulders, and said, “I am not . . . repulsed . . . by man-to-man love. But I’m not into it.”
Evening of the 25th. Gazing at own toes at end of bed, remarked, “That’d make a nice picture: Feet in Smoke.”
Day of the 26th. Referred to heart monitor as “a solid, congealed bag of nutrients.”
Night of the 26th. Tried to punch me with all his strength while I worked with Dad and Uncle John to restrain him in his bed, swinging and missing me by less than an inch. The IV tubes were tearing loose from his arms. His eyes were terrified, helpless. I think he took us for fascist goons.
Evening of the 27th. Unexpectedly jumped up from his chair, a perplexed expression on his face, and ran to the wall. Rubbed palms along a small area of the wall, like a blind man. Turned. Asked, “Where’s the piñata?” Shuffled into hallway. Noticed a large nurse walking away from us down the hall. Muttered, “If she’s got our piñata, I’m gonna be pissed.”
The whole experience went from tragedy to tragicomedy to outright farce on a sliding continuum, so it’s hard to pinpoint just when one let onto another. He was the most delightful drunk you’d ever met—I had to follow him around the hospital like a sidekick to make sure he didn’t fall, because he couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t concentrate on anything for longer than a second. He was a holy fool. He looked down into his palm, where the fret and sixth string had burned a deep red cross into his skin, and said, “Hey, it’d be a stigma if there weren’t all those ants crawling in it.” He introduced my mother and father to each other as if they’d never met, saying, “Mom, meet Dad; Dad, meet Dixie Jean.” Asked by the neurosurgeon if he knew how to spell his own name, he said, “Well, doctor, if you were Spenser, you might spell it w-o-r-t-h-E.” For him, everything was one giant, melting metaphor in which the tenor and vehicle had become equally real. He looked at a wall socket and said, “Wow, the Axis armies fighting the Allies!” Rubbing the material of his hospital gown between his fingers, he wanted to know if he’d be “allowed to keep the cool jumpsuit.”
Another of the nurses, when I asked her if he’d ever be normal again, said, “Maybe, but wouldn’t it be wonderful just to have him like this?” And she was right; she humbled me. I cannot imagine anything more hopeful or hilarious than having a seat at the spectacle of my brother’s brain while it reconstructed reality. Like a lot of people, I had always assumed, in a sort of cut-rate Hobbesian way, that the center of the brain, if you could ever find it, would inevitably be a pretty dark place, that whatever was good or beautiful about being human had to be a result of our struggles against everything innate, against physical nature. Worth changed my mind about all that. Here was a consciousness reduced to its matter, to a ball of crackling synpases—words that he knew how to use but couldn’t connect to the right things; strange new objects for which he had to invent names; unfamiliar people who approached and receded like energy fields—and it was a fine place to be, you might even say a poetic place. He had touched death, or death had touched him, but he seemed to find life no less interesting for having done so.
Death—right. There is one little remark I’ve yet to mention.
Late afternoon of April 25th. The window slats casting bars of shadow all over his room in the ICU. I had asked my mother and father if they’d mind giving me a moment alone with him, since I still wasn’t sure he knew quite who I was. I did know that he was not aware of being inside a hospital; I think his most recent theory was that we were all back at my grandparents’ house having a party, and at one point he slipped loose and went to the nurses’ station to find out whether his tux was ready. So we were sitting there in his room. Neither of us was speaking. He was jabbing a fork into his Jell-O, and I was just watching, waiting to see what would come out. Earlier that morning, he’d been scared by the presence of so many “strangers,” and I didn’t want to upset him any more. We went on like this for about five minutes.
Suddenly, very quietly, he started to weep, his shoulders heaving with the force of whatever emotion had brought on the tears. I didn’t touch him; I just let him cry. A minute went by, and I asked him, “Worth, why are you crying?”
“I was thinking of the vision I had when I knew I was dead.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right, so I asked him again. He repeated it in the same flat tone:
“I was thinking of the vision I had when I knew I was dead.”
But how could he have known where he’d been, when he didn’t know where he was? How could he have known that he’d been dead, when he didn’t even know we were in a hospital, that anything unusual had happened to him?
I swallowed. “What was it? What was your vision?”
He looked up. The tears were gone. He looked calm and serious. “I was on the banks of the River Styx. The boat came to row me across, but . . . instead of Charon, it was Huck and Jim. Only, when Huck pulled back his hood, he was an old man . . . like, ninety years old or something.”
He put his face in his hands and cried a little more. Then he seemed to forget all about it. Acccording to my notes, the next words out of his mouth were, “Check this out! I’ve got the Andrews Sisters in my milkshake.”
But there it was. He’d said it. We’ve almost never spoken of it since. It’s hard to talk to my brother about anything related to his accident. He has a month-long lacuna in his memory that starts the second he put his lips to that microphone. He doesn’t remember the accident, the ambulance, having died, having come back to life. Even when it came time for him to leave the hospital, he had managed only to piece together that he was late for a concert somewhere, and my last memory of him from that period is his leisurely wave when I told him I had to go back to school. “See you at the show,” he called across the parking lot. When our family gets together now, the subject of his accident naturally comes up, but he just looks at us with a kind of disbelief. It’s a story about someone else, a story he thinks we might be fudging just a bit.
What he can’t remember, I can’t forget. I’ve spent nights trying to puzzle out that vision. The closest I’ve been able to come is a sort of quasi-Jungian reduction, based on the fact that my brother was never much of a churchgoer (he proclaimed himself a deist at age fifteen) but had been an excellent student of Latin. His high school Latin teacher, a sweet and brilliant old white-haired woman with the undeserved name of Rank, had drilled her classes in classical mythology. So maybe when it came time for my brother to have his near-death experience, to reach down into his psyche and pull up whatever set of myths would help him to make sense of the fear, he reached for the ones he’d found most compelling as a young man. For most people, that involves the whole tunnel-of-light business; for my brother, the underworld.
The question of where he got Huck and Jim defeats my best theories. My father came the closest: it was he who realized that the accident had occurred on the eighty-fifth anniversary of Mark Twain’s death, in 1910.
I’m glad they decided to leave my brother on this side of the river.