This story is by Christine Whitelaw and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Next Step of the Journey.
“So,” our teacher asked, “Is there a fate worse than death? Any ideas?”
Suggestions came thick and fast.
“Being trapped inside your own body unable to do anything.”
“Being a slave and having no choice in your life at all.”
“Looking after someone you love who is badly brain-damaged.”
Then she lobbed the curveball at us. “How exactly do we know that death is a bad thing?”
Jen and I looked at each other. Wasn’t death the one thing everyone tries to avoid as much as possible? How could death be a good thing, unless it stopped the worse fate?
“We’re back on Friday. Go into your usual groups and come back with some answers.
So Jen, Mark, Thom, Lisa, Mags and, me (Ben) headed out. We had been friends for years, Jen, Thom, and I had grown up together and the other three we met at High School. “I’ll go online and see what the usual definitions of death are.” Jen declared. “Mark and I will look at the religious aspects,” I volunteered. Mark’s family is Catholic and I’m Jewish which gave us another angle. Neither of us believed much in God, but we followed our parent’s beliefs.
The only close relative I had lost was my grandpa a couple of years ago. Spending the seven days of Shiva at home, I remember the Rabbi explaining grandpa would be living again with God in the fullness of time. (Whatever that meant). Mark’s experiences were similar, Catholics believe when the body dies the soul goes to Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell depending on the life you lived.
Meeting at school the next day Jen presented the medical definitions of death; cardiopulmonary or brain death. Historically when your heart stopped, breathing ceased, ergo you died. Now machines keep you breathing until they see if your brain has stopped working. As a physics student (and a bloody good one) she came up with a question.
“So, our bodies move, that’s kinetic energy, we have potential energy via chemical reactions and electrical impulses. That’s a lot of energy. The First Law of Thermodynamics states energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted. So what happens to all the energy in our bodies when we die?”
“Could that be your soul?” Thom proposed. “and what about ghosts and things, what are they? If they’re not some sort of energy could they exist?” That seemed logical. Batting ideas back and forth we reckoned if there was some sort of existence after your body dies, then maybe it’s not such a scary prospect. Our ideas were changing.
Mags (our historian) had also been doing research. “Traditionally it was normal for folk to die at home surrounded by family. I believe Ben, that in Judaism they still prefer people not to die alone.”
I shrugged, being much younger I hadn’t paid attention to Grandpa’s illness. He died in hospital but I thought mum and her brothers were there at the end. Mags continued “Nowadays, dying in your own home is not such a common thing. Maybe because families are more dispersed but old folks go into homes. Not many families have different generations living together anymore.”
“So,” said Lisa “If you could continue being, what would you do, would you have a choice?”
“Visit the Eagle Nebula.” Jen said immediately. “can you imagine being in the birthplace of stars?” She was Star Trek, Wars, and Gate mad. Stars in her eyes Jen I called her.
“Just think,” Thom said “if you were murdered, you could come back and haunt the guy and drive him insane. That would be a fate worse than death eh?” Laughing we agreed, you could get all sorts of revenge on all sorts of people.
“Well if we agree by the laws of science or religion, there is something after death, should we be scared of it?” I ventured.
“I read reports from people who had died on the operating table, they said they hovered above themselves and watched as the doctors tried to revive them. Others said they had felt a pull or saw a light and felt they were being drawn towards it.” Jen said. “To be honest, I’m not sure there is a ‘Fate worse than death’. I think it would be worse to be kept alive artificially. Why would you want to be kept here when you could be exploring out there?” She waved her hand up to the sky.
How could we know?
Separating after school, I walked home slowly thinking about our discussions. At fifteen, death seems a long way away. Grandpa had been eighty-two when he died and I didn’t know anyone young who had died. The family had a good talk over dinner on the subject. Our overwhelming fear was being kept alive by machines. “When it’s your time, it’s your time,” Dad said.
Friday came and we got back to class. I had missed Jen today, wondering where she was I looked around. The teacher was sombre and looking close to tears. We looked at each other in confusion, what was wrong?
“There’s bad news.” She faltered. “Jennifer Baird is in hospital, on life support in intensive care. A speeding car hit her on a pedestrian crossing and didn’t stop.”
There were gasps and some of the girls started to cry. Mags, Lisa, Thom, Mark, and I were stunned. Our last conversation with Jen still fresh in our minds. My stomach twisted and my throat dried up. Jen was my best friend, we discussed everything. Suddenly I faced the possibility of losing her. Raising a hand, I asked if anyone was allowed to visit?
“Not now, I know you six were pretty close, but I think the best thing just now is to give the family a couple of days and then get in touch. They will know by then how things will go. Ok, let’s do some personal reading. I don’t think anyone is in the mood for anything else.”
A week later Mags and I visited Jen. It was awful. She was in a private room hooked up to all sorts of machines and a huge bandage swathed her head. Her eyes were closed and her hair peeked out under the bandage. The soft beep beep of machines the only sound. Mags held her hand and spoke softly telling her our news. I looked at the chart at the bottom of the bed. It said catastrophic brain injuries.
A nurse came in, made some notes, and left. Following her, I asked. “Will Jen be ok?” The nurse shook her head sadly and went into another room. Looking at Jen’s still form I still couldn’t believe I could lose my best friend. “Please God, let her be ok.”
Sombrely we told the others. “All we can do is wait and hope,” said Thom. Well, we waited for weeks with no change, Jen lay there, eyes closed, machines beeping quietly around her. We visited and told her the news. Our last conversation haunted us as hope died. Anger grew inside me as I kept hearing.
“Why would you want to be kept here when you could be out there?”
Thom and I visited one day when Jen’s mum was still there. We offered to leave and come back later. Stroking Jen’s hand absently she said “Hi Ben, hi Thom, it’s nice to have the company and hear how you are all doing.” We asked how things were going.
“No change, there may never be.” Tears streamed down her face. “The last thing she said was “See you after the library, I’ve some stuff to look up”
Thom looked thoughtfully at Mrs Baird, “We were working on a project. A fate worse than death, but our teacher thought we should understand death first. Jen got all the scientific stuff and Ben and I got stuff from our churches. We pretty much agreed that there must be something after death. Jen had read statements from revived patients describing their experiences. The last thing she said was ‘why be kept here when you could be out there exploring?’ She wanted to see the Eagle Nebula and watch stars form. She thought if we were right, death wasn’t so bad, just another step on the journey.”
Mrs Baird nodded watching Jen and we left soon after. My growing anger exploded “Why did you tell her mum all that?” I demanded in the hallway.
“You heard Jen, that in there, is not what she wanted. I thought her mum should know.” What could I say? He was right. My thoughts darkened further, that damned driver.
A week later they switched off Jen’s life support. She slipped away almost immediately surrounded by family.
“I hope they opened the window,” I muttered looking up at the sky. “Fly high and see the stars being born my Jen,” Tears welling up we all hugged tightly.
“Amen,” said Mags, Thom, Lisa, and Mark.