What It’s Like Watching Someone Die

By Erica Karnes

I’ve been asked several times now what it’s like to watch someone die.

How it feels to stretch out and pull yourself into some kind of role as the ultimate escort. What goes through one’s mind while you walk, step-by-step, breath by labored breath, to the edge.

People pose these inquiries from a place of soft-spoken curiosity. Or coolly, from some half-masked brink of fear. There’s usually quite a bit of buildup; we slide about on an ever-so-casual, conversational tarmac, however sloppily. There’s a careful, intentional warming, somehow necessary before we skid to a halt, their arms frozen in an off-the-cuff shrug, eyebrows cocked at the inevitable probe — “So . . . what’s that like anyway?”

We approach — we crash, into the unanswerable. We free fall into the abyss.

Regardless of the context — of who or how or why it’s asked — I lose words. I lose breath. I lose any ability to hold the question itself. It’s too heavy, too insurmountable, too overwhelming and immense. It spills over the sides of us. It washes down the street, the present moment too weak to contain it.

***

Once, as a child, I awoke in the middle of the night screaming. Bolted upright from the cozy enclave of my bottom bunk and released a series of shrill, desperate yelps before the blank stares of my surrounding stuffed animals. Something had gone terribly wrong, yet while treading that slippery middle ground between dreams and waking life, I couldn’t place it. What I knew, though, was that someone or something was in our house. My house. I had heard it in the kitchen downstairs. Slow, patient steps around our kitchen table. It stepped over panels of especially creaky wood flooring; it knew exactly what it was doing. It drummed its fingernails on the railing, from the bottom of the stairs. It waited. Stared directly into my room. So I screamed and screamed.

My father, asleep across the hallway, launched out of bed, bellowing in sheer panic. I remember him rushing into my room, a frantic uproar of a man, unsure whether he should comfort his child or take the baseball bat, secured tightly between his fists, to some stealthy intruder. I sobbed that there was someone downstairs, coming for me. That it was already too late. That there was nothing anyone could do. And once Dad lit up our entire homestead and carefully stalked his grounds, clutching the bat and clad in nothing but his underwear, he returned to my bedside with a quiet, stoic confidence. There was no one there, he whispered while he parted mats of sweaty hair from my forehead. It was safe. I was safe.

Eventually, I calmed down. But after he tucked in my stuffed animals, flipped off my nightstand lamp, and lumbered his way back to bed, I knew he was wrong.

Watching a loved one die is maybe like that.

Or like years later, when my siblings and I, thrilled at our no-holds-barred prospects of the day, giddily scampered away from our parents — mid-hike — who were lagging on the trail. I forget if it started as a game. Some adorably immature attempt at “Hide and Seek,” the adults didn’t even know they were playing. Being the eldest of the bunch, I egged my brother and sister to join me, convinced it would be our finest joke yet.

But then we lost the trail. One too many right turns left turns right turns. A series of kiddie giggles and cartwheels. We tumbled face-first into one of those all-too-common pockets of space wherein, for a split, cherished millisecond, we forgot that we weren’t invincible.

Collectively, we came down from the rush of our prank. Looked about us to the realization that we were alone. In a forest. I craned my tiny neck upwards, noting clouds rolling in against the sun.

Maybe watching someone die is a little like that too.

The thrill and the dread. The delight and dismay. The forever-firing synapses that swing from hope to despair, hope to despair. An itching sadness that ebbs and flows while you cradle a crying sibling in each arm, under a makeshift rain shelter of thick brambles and thorns.

The waiting for help. The plotting. The bargaining.

If Mom and Dad find us before it gets dark, then I won’t eat peanut butter from the jar with my hands ever again. If I can just get my brother to stop crying, then I will be the best sister in the world to him until the end of time.

We sat in the dirt for hours. I led my sniffling siblings through every prayer I’d retained from Sunday school, before our parents, suffocating under their own mounting anxiety, stumbled into the clearing. They fell to their knees before our fort. Gathered us into their laps, cry-laughing and kissing our cold faces.

***

Watching a loved one die is a little like that time a crew of somebodies and I found ourselves camping off a remote island, on a remote side of the world. The way we refused to pay for a site and sped our packed-to-the-brim rental car for the highest viewpoint possible and pitched our tents illegally against a crumbling cliffside. It’s like the way we all shyly smiled when a spontaneous, barefooted dance party broke out against a spectacular sunset. It’s the tense silence that followed, upon our communal realization that cops were approaching, that the jig was up. It’s the hilarity and relief we all shared when the police surveyed our scene, slipped off their own shoes, and joined the dancing.

Witnessing a death is like stealing away in the middle of the night and breaking into a complete stranger’s private beachside bay. The high from hopping that fence. The inherent risk of getting caught. The suppressed “fight or flight” as you shimmy down to the water’s edge. Watching someone die is like stripping off your clothes, swimming in saltwater the temperature of blood, and whispering to yourself in giddy disbelief when the sea sparks up with phosphorus plankton.

To watch a slow, painful death, is like floating on your back through a lukewarm, inky abyss, under the silver-white light of a waxing moon. It’s treading liquid glitter between your fingers in a frame-frozen solitude, noting the iridescent similarities between the sea and the stars. It’s watching glimmering saltwater pool into, and drain from that unnamable space between your breasts, to the rise-and-fall pace of your own lax breath.

Or no. It’s sitting down for lunch with a friend, after a particularly uncomfortable breakup the night before. It’s trying to collect your thoughts to articulate the past week’s stressors, while scanning a plastic menu riddled with typos. It’s like settling on some generic noodle bowl, feeling your phone buzz, and opening a text image of your ex slitting his wrists.

Maybe watching someone you love decay and dissolve, break down and break away, is a little bit like that. It’s screaming that stops a corner café full of strangers. It’s standing in some back alley, on the phone with an expert equipped for emergencies to hurry please hurry up he’s probably home are you there yet, hurry. Or maybe it’s more like driving to your ex’s house. Ringing the doorbell, waiting for the authorities. Trembling on the front porch of someone you thought you knew, slamming your open palms against a door no one’s answering.

It’s running around the corner because you’re too scared to watch the EMTs lead your still-breathing former partner to their ambulance. It’s trying to roll a cigarette from the front seat of your friend’s Beemer but shaking so hard from the shock of it all that you know you’ll never get there. It’s the subsequent long drive, wherein you play and replay every minuscule detail leading up to every razor slash through every fiber of fragile tissue. The blame and the regret and the disgust and the rage. The sorrow and the sadness. The inability to be anything other than too little, too late. It’s probably a bit like that too.

It’s holding a secret. It’s an inside joke with the universe that you know will never be funny.

Or wait. It’s curling up against a large stone after hours trekking through alpine forests alone, and masturbating as a lazy, lowering sun paints the entire hillside gold.

Trying to follow someone where you’re not yet allowed to go is the warmth radiating from the rock and the silent breeze forever rustling the life that’s all around you. It’s closing your eyes and leaning into every electric, self-inflicted sensation of your body. It’s particles and friction. Raw energy, brutal and explosive. It’s blissfully slipping into your own time-space continuum, then breaking open, trembling and sweaty, to find yourself surrounded by a herd of 40 inquisitive deer.

Witnessing a loved one die is a little like meeting the steadfast expressions of the all-knowing and antlered. You stare at each other, unmoving. Some unspoken offering is exchanged. They graze on, your head heavy against the stone.

***

There was a summer, not that long ago, where my daily commute to work involved an hours-long bike ride. I’d rise before the sun every morning, slip into layers of spandex, slam some kind of protein smoothie, and hit the road. The route wove congested paved streets into gravel paths, traced abandoned parking lots and heavily wooded trails. The perfect halfway mark between Points A and B was a long, floating bridge, flanked by freeways and frigid, grey-blue water. It stretched on and on and took several minutes of hard, heavy pedaling to surge across. To compensate for the harsh land-to-sea-level incline, it seemingly sagged in the middle — an upside-down bow whose belly rested upon choppy water.

While usually I’d have the entire path to myself, one morning I reached the bridge’s edge immediately behind another being. I never caught his face. His hunched-over shape was merely a headphones-sporting silhouette as we raced into the rising sun. Part irritated at his presence, part relieved at the possibility of my own personal slipstream, I fell into form behind his rear wheel, converting his hard-earned manpower into free momentum forward.

Then, the unexpected and the spectacular. As a thin crust of reddish light cracked over the horizon ahead, he began to sit up in his seat. Uncurled his hands from the handlebars. Tilted his head back and slowly raised his arms above his head. Suddenly, he began to dance. Flapping his arms awkwardly, he punched the sky. Rolled his shoulders in time to the beat of his own private tunes. Carved delicate shapes with his fingers, from our misty morning ether. Sketched and jabbed invisible figures into the low-hanging clouds that hovered among us.

He swayed and convulsed across the entire bridge that morning. Refused to be grounded or contained. And as the sky lightened and traffic lessened and time slowed, I rode his tailwind. Unable to look away, unwilling to slow or stop or shift or lose whatever it was that was unfolding.

And when we breached the other side, as quickly as it has started, it was over. He returned to his aerodynamic, forward-leaning form, firmly gripped his bars, and sped off without me. I trailed up the hill behind him, breathless and laughing through my tears. Watched him disappear forever, our destination city now looming before us.

Maybe losing someone you love is a bit like that.

Yeah. Maybe it’s more like that.

***

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