I was a snow bird. Or at least that’s what I told myself and anyone who asked when they inquired about where I lived. I have never been a fan of the snow, but I do love the cold, so I “flew” to the desert one winter and decided to stay.
I love the cold, dry air that whips across the mottled taupe landscape of Joshua Tree in winter. There is a strange beauty in the way the air becomes the sharpest blade, slicing through the morning stillness in a frigid rush. It’s almost like the wind was the sole force behind the stark grace of the California high desert, rather than just its geographical location. It’s as if the wind was a conscious being, carving crevasses and canyons, hills and plateaus for its own pleasure. Like an artist with his paint brush, the desert wind created this refined yet rugged paradise simply because it could.
I sat outside on my covered patio, bundled up against the early morning chill in my favorite wool blanket. The indigo strands were fraying at the ends from my chronic twisting and pulling. I watched the steam rise from my mug of coffee, a tiny spiraling oasis of moisture in an otherwise bone-dry morning. I could feel the skin on my cheeks and nose begin to chap in the parched air.
This was my favorite time of day, early morning. Even when I lived in the city, I’ve always loved the morning. My morning ritual is the closest I’ve ever come to meditating. I loved the quiet, the calm, the general stillness in the air. I’ve always been an early riser, so in the city I would sit out on the balcony of my apartment and listen as the neighborhood around me gradually woke up. Trash trucks would hum down the street and windows would crank open as families began to start their day. I’d always loved the distant clinking sound of knives and forks scraping against plates as children wolfed down their breakfast before school.
This melody of the morning was far different in the desert, but I valued it all the same. If I woke up early enough, I’d hear rabbits and ground squirrels scurrying back into their burrows and Pinyon Jays fluttering their wings as they returned home to their perches on the towering Yucca trees. Occasionally little quails would scurry past my fire pit, startled by the sound of me opening my sliding glass door. My home was a fair distance from the road, but sound travels boundlessly across the desert floor so I could hear the gentle rush of my neighbors’ car zooming across the desert sand as they headed into town.
It was in these moments that my mind was mercifully quiet. These brief moments of enjoying my coffee and listening to the world waking up around me were when I felt most like myself. Like I had finally dug deep enough through the quicksand of my psyche and found myself where I was kept buried away. I could find myself long enough to reconnect with who I actually was, without the crutch of the three types of psychoactive medications I chugged down every morning with my last swig of coffee. It was an honest moment of purity that provided me with enough of a grounding force to go about my day without completely losing my mind. All I had to do was remind myself that I was still in there, somewhere deep down and buried, but I was still in there. It gave me the strength to continue about my day.
I awoke from my reverie, startled by the sound of a car horn blaring in the distance. I noticed my neighbors beat-up Suzuki SUV down the road, honking at a stray cat in its path to scare them out of the way. I snickered and shifted my blanket further up around my shoulders. My coffee was starting to cool down so I took two deep gulps, letting the heat and aroma overwhelm my senses.
I checked my phone – no new messages. I sighed and rolled my head around, stretching my tense shoulder muscles. I had another hour and a half before I had to be into work. Today was prep day.
After I soaked in a hot bath, tamed my frizzy, dark curls into a somewhat sleek bob, and changed into my trusty jeans, t-shirt and Chuck Taylors’, I headed out the door. I whistled for my pup, Flower and giggled as the Shepherd-mix bounded around the corner of the house, all pointed ears and gangly legs, and hopped into the back seat of my Jeep.
“Good morning baby, did you sleep good?” I cooed to her as I scratched behind her ears.
She licked my cheek in greeting, her puppy breath hot on my face.
“Awwww thank you for the kissy, stinky!” I laughed as I wiped her slobber off my face.
She settled down in the back seat and I started the drive into town, still finding a thrill in the rough ride over the desert dunes. It reminded me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. I hadn’t been there in nearly a decade, but I still vividly remember my mom sitting next to me on the ride, screaming her head off while I whooped and hollered through all the twists and drop-turns having the time of my life.
As I turned on to the main highway into town, I turned on my stereo and let Stevie Knicks serenade me the rest of the drive to work. It was a Monday in November, so the bulk of the tourist crowd was gone for the week. The mountain climbers, desert enthusiasts and hippie-artisan-wanna-be’s would be back the following weekend en-masse for the long Veteran’s Day weekend. I didn’t hate the tourists, they supported our local economy and filled the seats in my restaurant, but it was always nice to just commune with the locals – and find a decent parking space…
“Sophia! Ms. Tierney! Can you hear me? Open your eyes, Sophia!”
The panicked voices pierced through my eardrums like crashing ocean waves. Why did they sound so far away? My mind wandered through what felt like a heavy fog, searching for the worried speakers so that I could calm them. Why couldn’t I see anything? Why was everything dark?
“Ms. Tierney, you need to open your eyes. Can you do that for me, honey?” A warmer voice spoke now, calmer than the rest. My eyelids fluttered, the brief openings allowing a searing yellow-white light to flood my senses. If I was asleep before, I was awake now. My pupils adjusted to the light and my eyes opened fully. I took in the scene above me as if I was watching a film projected on a distant wall. The worried faces of what seemed like half a dozen people, all clothed in surgical garb, stared down at me.
“Her eyes are open, stop the drip!” someone shouted. My heart rate decreased immediately and I blinked. What the hell was going on?
“Ms. Tierney, can you understand me?” The nearest masked face stared down at me with worry in their green eyes.
“If you can’t speak, can you blink once to let me know you can hear me?” The green eyes repeated, with worry creeping back into their voice.
“Dr. Blount, she can hear you. Ms. Tierney is most likely very disoriented right now. She was in too deep. Let me take it from here.” The warm voice from before was back. The calm in their tone made me feel slightly less confused, as if I knew this person would have the answers to all my questions.
Another masked face appeared above me but this time it had kind brown eyes that reminded me of molten chocolate. A hand came up and pulled down their mask, revealing the smiling face of Dr. Sarah de la Mota. I knew her. She was my doctor. I understand now.
All at once my memories came flooding back to me. I knew where I was and what had happened. I went in too deep yet again. Dr. Sarah grabbed the remote control on my hospital bed and raised the head so that I could sit up. She sat on the edge of the mattress and took my hand in hers, the comforting smile still on her face as my head ascended to her level.
“Hi, honey. How ya doin’?” Dr. Sarah asked as she absentmindedly rubbed my hand between hers. She knew I couldn’t feel it, but the gesture was still appreciated. Even if I couldn’t feel anything from the collar bone down, physical touch was still very comforting.
I yawned widely, blinking the sedative-induced sleep from my eyes as I gradually became more oriented to my surroundings. “I’m okay, Dr. Sarah. I went in too deep again, didn’t I?” I replied, reluctance and regret clear in my voice despite my best efforts to conceal how I really felt.
“Yeah, sweetheart, you did. Your heart stopped. They were worried we wouldn’t be able to bring you back.” Dr. Sarah released my hand and began absentmindedly adjusting the bedsheets around me. We’d had this conversation before. Three times, in fact.
The accident had robbed me of the ability to move anything below my neck, and for four years I’d wasted away in a hospital bed. I still had my mind and the muscles in my face still worked so I was able to communicate, but I’d been trapped inside my own body for so long that I had started to forget what life was like beyond the four walls of my hospice bedroom. The same accident that destroyed my body also destroyed my family. I was the only one that survived the crash and there was a part of me that wished I had perished in the flames with them.
But life goes on, and the machines that keep my brain alive still whir and whistle away while the rest of my body slowly atrophies. A solitary existence alone in a hospital bed is not a life worth living.
But then I met Dr. Sarah de la Mota. She was brought on to my clinical care team about a year ago and we became fast friends. She was kind to me and treated me like a human being rather than the bag of bones attached to a brain that I had come to consider myself. She was blunt yet soft-spoken and had become my greatest advocate.
She was also the creator of the most controversial psychotherapeutic drug in medical history and I was her prime test subject.
Dr. Sarah had created DreamSleep, an intravenous serum, to help her own mother in the final years of her life after a Dementia diagnosis had robbed her of any sort of dignity and independence. When injected into the patient, DreamSleep allows the user to experience a curated and predetermined dream world in which all the physical and mental ailments that plague them in reality no longer exist. In a nutshell, DreamSleep creates an artificial reality within the patient’s subconscious that can only be experienced when in a coma-like state.
After what seemed like eons, Dr. Sarah had finally gotten approval to use her creation in a clinical setting and I was her first patient. I had to volunteer due to the risks, but at this point in my life, I felt that I had nothing left to lose. Dr. Sarah and I worked together tirelessly to create my ultimate dream world. She taught me all the “rules” of DreamSleep, which meant the serum couldn’t be programmed to make me fly through an intergalactic space war, for example, but I could live different versions of my happiest memories all over again. The key to a successful run with DreamSleep was keeping your artificial reality anchored in the truth of your past.
That’s why I chose my time in Joshua Tree. The small desert town just east of Los Angeles was where I had spent some of my happiest moments with my family. I had fallen in love with the stark landscape during family vacations and had hoped to create a life for myself out there one day, but now, a DreamSleep life was my only option.
DreamSleep was a double edged sword, however. The serum had not been perfected yet, hence my volunteering for the program. The risk of entering a DreamSleep-induced mini-coma was obvious – there’s a strong possibility you might never wake up. The brain would continue to function, but the ability to return to the real world would be lost and the patient would spend their days in a false reality until they died of organ failure. The only way to end the dream cycle was to remove the patient from life-support. That was what happened to Dr. Sarah’s mother. After one-too-many trips into DreamSleep, her ailing mother could not be revived, so the proverbial plug was pulled. Dr. Sarah and I had spoken about it at length. Dr. Sarah didn’t hold herself responsible for her mother’s death. Instead, she felt that she gave her mother a way to die as herself, pre-dementia diagnosis, and that brought her peace. And that was what I wanted, too.
I didn’t want my time here on Earth to be spent as a veritable vegetable. Sure, my mind was there and I could communicate, but I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t take an evening stroll with my family along the shore. I couldn’t feed myself, bathe myself…I couldn’t exist independently anymore. But most of all, my family was gone. I had no one left on this side of heaven and that hurt me more than any paralysis could. At 26 years old, my time was done and I was at peace with that. But modern medicine pushes doctors to keep people alive, even when life isn’t worth living. I understand the purpose but I don’t think it’s fair. People have a right to die just as much as we have a right to live.
The sheets rustled in the bed, startling me from my reverie. Dr. Sarah still sat perched at the foot of the mattress, her hands resting in her lap as she appraised me from head to toe. I knew what she was thinking, because it was the same thing I was thinking, too.
“We need to talk about the next time, Sophia,” Dr. Sarah stated quietly.
“I know. I’ve thought about it. It’s time.”
If my matter-of-factness took her by surprise, she didn’t show it. I wasn’t trying to be cavalier about my death, but I did want to be clear – the next time I went into DreamSleep, the next time I went to Joshua Tree, would be my last. I was ready. I no longer felt as if the decaying sack of blood and bones I called a body was my own. My mind was beginning its ascension to some higher plane of existence and I could feel that my heart was ready to flutter away into oblivion along with it.
“You’ll need to give verbal consent, first. Preferably on video,” Dr. Sarah said simply, as she got up from my bed and crossed to one of the various machines keeping me alive. She looked at it pensively, rocking back on her right leg and bringing her hand to her lower lip as she scanned my vital signs.
“I know,” I repeated. We’d had the emotional come-to-Jesus talk well before I began doing DreamSleep treatments regularly. The time for tears had come and gone.
“It’ll have to be scheduled…do you want to know when?” She asked tentatively as she turned to look me in the eye.
“Alright, sweetie. I’ll make all the arrangements. You can just relax now.” Dr. Sarah began to walk out of the room, but stopped when she heard my half-hearted chuckle.
“I can relax now? That’s all I’m capable of doing!” I hoped my attempt at a joke would make her laugh. She didn’t laugh, but she did smile quickly before breezing out of my room.
Once she was gone there was nothing else to do with my time. I’d stared out the window of my hospice room for so long at this point I could tell you which cars in the parking lot below belonged to which doctor. I knew the routes that the cleaning crews would take as they ferried clean linens from the hospital laundromat to the main building, and I could tell what meals were being served in the hospital cafeteria by the trucks that would drop off fresh produce in the wee hours of the morning. I knew all the hospital codes that were shouted over the intercom and I knew which nurses had crushes on which doctors because I had memorized their rotational schedules and would listen to their conversations whenever they left the door to my room ajar. My mind was exhausted from trying to come up with ways to bide my time while my body wasted away before my eyes. I honestly couldn’t even tell you what I looked like anymore because I refused to see myself in a mirror. The body in the bed wasn’t my own anymore. It belonged to science. It belonged to the needles and tubes and monitors and patches that continuously monitored my muscles for signs of life. I had done my time as a (willing) lab rat. I was ready to move on.
So, with all of my mind games exhausted, all the levels completed, the last respite I had was sleep. Even without the DreamSleep injection, sleeping was still my favorite “activity”. I had practiced as much as I could to will my brain back into some semblance of the reality created by the dream serum, so my true, natural dreams functioned as a spin-off from my DreamSleep life. So, I closed my eyes, measured my breaths, and waited for sleep to claim me….
“Aha!” I cried joyfully, as I swooped into the last remaining parking spot in the tiny, crowded lot. I turned off the car and threw my keys in my purse, whistling for Flower to jump out and join me before I locked the car. She leapt to the ground in one swift motion and we set off down the sidewalk towards my little cafe. As we entered, the chimes on the door jingled and signaled our arrival to Rusty, my sous chef, who was already back in the kitchen preparing a list of all the items we needed to purchase at the local market.
“Morning Rusty!” I called to him as I walked in, dropping my purse in my utility closet-slash-office. “Flowergirl!” Rusty exclaimed, as Flower bounded over to him and hopped up with both her paws reaching his shoulders. I chuckled, “I guess I should be offended that you’re more excited to see my dog than me, but I completely get it.” He grinned, wiping his face clean of Flower’s slobber, “good morning, Soph.”
I tossed him one of our branded, insulated jackets that we wore when going into the walk-in freezers at the meat markets. Today we would need them, as the chilly November air wasn’t expected to go above 50 degrees.
“Where’s Liz?” I inquired. Liz was in charge of kitchen inventory and I needed to go over a few things with her prior to placing our weekly order.
“Uh, she should be in the walk-in. I just saw her walk out there,” Rusty called from over his shoulder, already busying himself with empty egg crates. I walked through the kitchen and out the back door of the restaurant to cross the small lot that separated our building from where our walk-in freezer was. The door was closed but unlatched, so someone was definitely in there. I grabbed the latch and threw open the door, bracing myself for the inevitable blast of frozen air. When the frost settled and my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I peered into the depths of the walk-in and saw a figure standing under the lone light bulb.
“You’re not Liz,” I said, confusion apparent in my voice.
“No, I’m not Liz,” the woman in the walk-in said, her voice comforting and somehow familiar. She stepped closer to me, the sunlight illuminating her face more fully.
“Oh,” I said simply. I let go of the latch on the door and felt the soft thud as it closed against my back. The woman smiled at me, compassion and understanding evident in her eyes. I felt like crying, but I wasn’t sure if it was from sadness or joy. My eyes locked with hers and I somehow understood.
“It’s time?” I asked. She smiled again and reached for my hand, holding it tenderly between her own.
Written by Kate Weaver. All content owned by Kate Weaver. 2021.