By Nikolas Reda-Castelao
Allegedly, scientists have concluded that the brain remains active, and that a person is conscious for up to seven seconds following a well-done beheading. This is before the concession that DMT floods the brain’s chemistry once the organ fails. So, therein is presented a question, which is that, before the reckless naivity of a being too perfectly broken to feel mortal passes with the shooting stars above it, what is it thinking? It is unlikely that a proper interview has ever been conducted with a beheaded mind, fully aware that it has only seven seconds to speak its peace. What would that reporter even ask? Perhaps there is a series of experiments somewhere secret, of scientists and journalists, as see no one is as adept at asking silly questions as journalists, and they are beheading the terminally ill or some folk who are ok signing the paperwork for this. And they are working through the questions from “Are you aware that you are dying,” to “Do you regret anything,” and of course there’d be the wise-ass who’d remark, “Yeah! I left the stove on!” and everyone would laugh except the person who spent his last seven seconds making that joke. The scientists would laugh, but realize that such a wise-ass did absolutely nothing to contribute to science.
Wouldn’t a grand question be, though, “How long is this taking for you?”
But, really, ask that to any dying person.
Just, as a hypothetical, ask that to your grandfather, who is pressed by the pressure of the world onto what is little more than a cot. He shares a room with two other people, one who spends most of his day vomiting and shitting himself. All the while his wife of seventy years spends another eternity by his side, tending to the gushing of his soul. The other moves so little that perhaps she is already dead. The urine-drenched and molding skin smell certainly suggests so. You don’t pay heed to it. You are pressed back by the force of gravitas, unable to comprehend how much time for you has passed in every moment of this man. He gurgles to talk to you. It is such a wretched sound, because it is a chemical reaction trying to pretend it is a language. You are watching his brain break down and melt into saliva dribbling out of his mouth for the entire day and whenever you wipe it from his face you can hear it crying his memories at you, but you cannot build a citadel of these memory drenched tissues around his body. They go in the trash. He gurgles and gurgles at you; he is no longer a human but a chimera that resembles something once a human. His soul is still there. His soul is still so human that he clutches his arms around you whenever you tell him you have to go you can swear, from the one side of his face that wasn’t destroyed by the Chernobyl stroke, he is crying.
Ask yourself why he is crying. Forget why you are crying for just a moment and do not assume your sadness is his. You have watched him, for minutes wearing the mask of hours, struggle to speak even with his eyes, let alone the shattered larynx eroding in his throat. The nurses creep into the room and push you out as they pull the curtain around his bed. He is being changed and discharged. You wonder when was the last time he could shit by himself. Even worms can shit by themselves and here he is, unable to do so. He will soon become shit for the worms, and he cannot even bring himself to say “I will shit by my own damn self.” He might gurgle it, but that is not a human language.
There is, suddenly, an inexplicably violent and rancid smell. The old man just threw up on himself. The room smells like this now. Can your grandfather still smell, you wonder. Is this something he is spared or is it another agony burning his brain?
You spend minutes posing as days caught in his arms as you try to say goodbye and you try your hardest to cry, nearly as hard as he, but there’s something so dehumanizing about here that you cannot reach your soul. It will be four months after the funeral when you are holding the box with his ashes close to your chest that your monsoon pain will flood the world. You will hold that box as hard as he held you at his death and at your birth, promising with the rustle of his skin and muscle that he would always be there, but now you have to spend forever with that looping seven second paroxysm of being reminded he is gone.
Ask him, though, like the person who has just lost their head, how long it’s all taking them to die. Force yourself away from the Kelvin zero emotion you are frozen in and think on this person, soul and memories bleeding from them, and really try to grapple with not how long it will take their body to decompose, but how much time is passing for them. How many days does the sanitized burn of rancid guts linger in his mind? How much longer will that elderly man watch his loving hearth that keeps him an inch away from a much anticipated death? How long has that molding skin brain a bed over have to listen to her monitor screech “You’re still here! You’re still here!” in each of its beeps? How long does your grandfather hear his gurgle be misinterpreted as “keep hope” and watch blinding white robes flash back and forth with the cycle of his eternal breaths and instantaneous liquid eating?
Biologically, his body and brain took 7 months to finally fail after his stroke. But he must have been dying for years in that time. He must have spent his entire life dying on that bed. Or it could have just been seven seconds. He tried to tell you, but it took too long.