PJ (Paul Johnston) in Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, New York, 1978. Photo: Mary Clark
Excerpt from Chapter 4
(After PJ’s operation in mid-life, in which he experienced the sensation of dying, and coming back.)
PJ described the hours and days that followed. “There was a terrible clacking noise beating on his eardrums. Loud. Sharp. Penetrating, like metal against metal, woke him. When it moved away it came back again, stronger, louder, more tortuous than before. How could he bear it? He cried out, ‘What is that noise? I can’t stand it. Can’t someone stop it?’”
A nurse answered, “It’s only a power mower. Someone outside is mowing the lawn.”
“Make them stop it,” he pleaded. “I can’t take it.” But already he could begin to take it. After all, it was only a power mower, a man mowing the grass. The sound became normal.
“Where am I? What am I doing here? Who are you?”
With her calm and matter-of-fact voice, the nurse answered, “You were out yesterday for a long time, out cold. Now you’ve had three blood transfusions and you are alive again. Take it easy. Don’t worry, just rest.”
He thought, “How awful. Yesterday I was dead. My God, what a silly sentimental speech I made.” When he woke up and saw that he was alive, it repulsed him. “Why couldn’t they have left him alone? Why couldn’t they have let him remain dead?”
There was really no place in the world for him now. He was not a newborn baby. He had a man’s body, a man’s consciousness, a man’s load of experience, memory. How could he accept life?
He had died and those damned doctors were probably patting themselves on the back, bragging about how they had saved him.
Damn them. Why didn’t they let him die?
He hated with all his strength the life he would now have to begin to live. He turned his face to the wall. He was horribly shattered that he had to live again. His family could have taken more easily the consequences of his death. Now, he, himself, would have to live with them, while they lived with a man who was no longer a husband and a father, but a specter returned to harass them. He buried his face in the pillow. He did not weep, or mourn for himself, dead or alive.
“The Father and Husband died on the operating table forty years ago. I could not continue my former life, could not be the man I was before my death.”
“You said you’d lived past your destiny.”
“Yes. But I had to accept that I could not regain my death any more than deny myself alive.” He was a skeleton, but he was alive. “I had to learn to live again, and find new reasons to live.”
In the piece he wrote, called “Tender Branch,” he quoted the Book of Job:
“For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down,
that it will sprout again,
and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.”
“So when I physically died on the operating table, I was reborn, innocent as a newborn baby, but with the memory of a grown man. But death had taken away all my guilt and replaced it with innocence.”
Over the years, he had created new identities, new reasons to live. He recorded all his “deaths and renascences.” Some identities were sequential and others simultaneous. Several of these identities were female. The most constant, perhaps continually renewed, were The Writer, The Artist, and the Professor of Love.
“You can die of an overload of guilt and hostility,” he summarized. “I died of an overload of guilt many times and was reborn with the innocence of a baby.”
“Didn’t N.O. Brown say something like that? About a new man, reborn into a second innocence?”
Yes, he nodded. “As one identity succumbs, a new one has to be created.”
He sought his motivations and evaluated the use of his time and the consequences of his behavior. “And in those early years I lived my life intuitively,” he said, “although I did not know it then, making choices which were completely unconscious, but which all together moved my life in a certain direction. We may not know it, but we make decisions based on what is valuable to us, and these small unconscious decisions cause us to go in one direction or another.”