By Steve Watkins
“In bereavement, we come to appreciate at the deepest, most felt level exactly what it means to die while we are still alive. The Tibetan term bardo, or ‘intermediate state,’ is not just a reference to the afterlife. It also refers more generally to these moments when gaps appear, interrupting the continuity that we otherwise project onto our lives…. But to be precise, bardo refers to that state in which we have lost our old reality and it is no longer available to us. Anyone who has experienced this kind of loss knows what it means to be disrupted, to be entombed between death and rebirth. We often label that a state of shock. In those moments, we lose our grip on the old reality and yet have no sense what a new one might be like. There is no ground, no certainty, and no reference point—there is, in a sense, no rest. This has always been the entry point in our lives for religion, because in that radical state of unreality we need profound reasoning—not just logic, but something beyond logic, something that speaks to us in a timeless, non-conceptual way. Milarepa referred to this disruption as a great marvel, singing from his cave, ‘The precious pot containing my riches becomes my teacher in the very moment it breaks.’”
Pema Khandro Rinpoche, “The Four Points of Letting Go in the Bardo,” The Lion’s Roar, 29 November 2022.
I lay on the side of the Sariska road continuing to fade in and out of consciousness. Dave had to ride several rough, winding miles to the trunk road where he hoped to flag down someone, anyone, with a vehicle. But the odds weren’t good. There weren’t many private cars in rural Rajasthan, not much traffic of any kind in either direction south of Alwar, not much chance that a truck or a bus would leave its route to help, should one even come along. David might have to travel further, maybe even the full sixty kilometers to Alwar. I didn’t know any of this at the time, just that he was gone for hours. Midday sun burned my eyelids, making it impossible to open them without turning my head, but I didn’t want to turn my head, to move at all, out of fear that even the slightest movement would trigger a return of the lacerating pain in my abdomen. The longer David was gone, the more I despaired.
The accident played itself over and over in my mind–the surge of terror when I hit the rock and my front wheel jerked sideways, losing my grip, flying over the handlebars, forever falling. Dave was always saying “Up jumps the Devil”–when things seemed to be going smoothly, so smoothly you made the mistake of taking them for granted, and maybe you didn’t pay enough attention, or maybe you did pay attention but it didn’t matter, because you couldn’t control everything anyway, and so something happened because something always happens.
The line repeated itself in my head like a mantra. I tried to focus on my breath, to breathe deeply, to distract myself from the black void at the edge of my consciousness, but it hurt too much, whatever was broken inside stabbing like shards of glass into my diaphragm.
I kept seeing things that weren’t there. Hearing things. Threatening sounds. More animal noises. A wheezing engine. The crunch of gravel. An ancient bus straining up the hill and past me, inches from my sleeping bag. How strange. A bus, here. And how strange for them to see me, a firangi, taking a nap on the side of the road.
David finally returned with a young Indian on a motorized scooter. “You’ll have to sit behind him,” he said. “He can take you to Alwar, to the hospital. But you’ll have to hold on yourself. Can you do that? I’ll follow on the bike and meet you there. He knows where to go.”
“Sure,” I responded. I wanted to be helpful. I didn’t want to be a bother. But when Dave pulled me up to a seated position, I was immediately slammed by a wave a vertigo. Everything went black again. He tried a second time, and a third, and a fourth, but the vertigo crashed over me even harder and I blacked out each time. The scooter-wallah looked on helplessly.
Dave grew desperate. “You have to try, Steve. We have to get you out of here. We have to get help.”
But I couldn’t. What little strength I had I’d used up shitting and fumbling in the grass for Robin’s ring. Mostly, though, there was too much internal blood loss, though we couldn’t know it at the time. Maybe Dave suspected. He finally gave up. Sat down beside me and held my hand.
“This isn’t going to work,” he said, more to himself than to me. “But I don’t know what else to do. There was nobody else on the trunk road that would stop.”
I’d never heard him like this. America Dave, as kind as he was, and with so many friends, as warm and generous, as fun to team up with on the basketball court, always seemed a little lost, lonely at times, even when others were around, even with me. It would be years before I understood how depression worked, and how hard Dave had had to battle all his life to ward it off, or to survive at its worst when it threatened to overwhelm him. As a boy, he had been thrust into the roll of caretaker for his mom, who insisted he call her Pauline, and who drank to mask her own depression. He remembered her as kind and loving and smart and funny—and as slurring her words when he brought friends over and embarrassing him, as falling down and him finding her passed out and helping her into bed before his father came home. It was important that they pretend everything was okay. Dave found where she hid her bottles of liquor and emptied them down the drain. She cursed at him and bought and hid more. His brother stayed away at friends’ houses, at his girlfriend’s. His father worked late at the high school, or buried himself in his second job, building and repairing watches and clocks. Dave looked after Pauline.
India Dave was different. A pilgrim, searching, just as he’d always been back in the States, but more self-assured here, at home in the wider world. I’d grown used to him knowing what to do, where to go, how to get there, what to say and how to say it.
I wanted to reassure him, but I was having trouble finding the words. I tried to tell him that I’d be all right here. I tried to thank him for going for help. I tried to tell him I was sorry for this mess we were in. I couldn’t be sure what I actually said. I might have been crying, but I was too dehydrated. Dave lifted my head, urged me to drink water, but most of it dribbled out. I had difficulty swallowing because I was so parched. He persisted. The scooter-wallah spoke to David in Hindi. Dave gave him some rupees and he left. Dave laid me carefully back down.
I remembered the bus. The hallucination of a bus. But it hadn’t stopped. Why wouldn’t it stop? Couldn’t they see I needed help? I said these things to David, and must have made enough sense that he understood.
“Are you sure?” Dave asked, with something like hope in his voice. “A bus? Going up to the temple maybe? To Pandupol?”
“No,” I said. “Not sure. Maybe not. But I thought so.” I had no idea whether it was real or something I imagined. I was confused about everything. I just wanted to close my eyes. I was too tired, too off, to be sure of anything.
Dave hiked back up to Pandupol, a mile deeper into the Aravalli Hills, where we’d spent the night, where we’d left just that morning, though it felt like days ago when we were there. He was gone for a long time, or no time at all. I kept losing consciousness. He returned. He told me that yes, there was a bus. An ancient bus, just as I described it. Filled with Hindu pilgrims, there to visit the Hanuman temple to pray and leave garlands of flowers and offerings of food and alms for the sadhus. They’d taken a different entrance into Sariska from the trunk road. That’s why David missed them when he went looking for help. They would stop on their way back and carry us to Alwar.
It was another hour, two hours, ten minutes, I had no idea how long before they returned. I thought it was night. Everything was in shadows. Everything was so dark. But David says it was only mid afternoon. They threw my broken bicycle on top of the bus. David must have gone back to the trunk road at some point to retrieve his, and it was thrown up there, too. He got another man to help him carry me onto the bus, convinced the driver to let us sit near the front, though one of the pilgrims refused to move and stayed wedged into the seat next to us. David propped me up, held onto me the entire trip from Sariska to Alwar, even for another hour-long stop at another shrine on the way, though Dave begged the driver to skip it, told him I might be dying.
The man who refused to move his seat kept nodding off and slumping against me, his head dropping onto my shoulder. I tried to push him away. Dave tried to get him to sit up. Nothing worked. We steeled ourselves for the bumpy ride.
Every pothole we hit made me groan in pain. I so desperately wanted to sleep, but my mind was spinning, careening from random thought to random thought, utterly disconnected, except for a continuing sense of foreboding. Something awful was going to happen to us. I tried to tell Dave, but I was still not making enough sense for the words to get through. I didn’t know where we were. There were lights, like a city, finally. We were in Alwar. The driver stopped at the bus station to let us off. Dave bribed him to take us to the hospital. Everybody got off. Someone carried me from the bus. They laid me on a stretcher in the middle of a dusty street.
I asked Dave what time it was. He said it was still late afternoon, but I didn’t believe him. Everything was so dark. They brought me inside.
There were doctors and lights, but no diagnostic tools. They gave me morphine and a blood transfusion. David might have donated his blood. I can’t be sure. He might have told me this. I was too far gone into shock to know anything, though once the morphine kicked in, once the new blood coursed through my veins, replacing what I’d lost to internal bleeding, my mind began racing. We were in a hospital. But why were there palm trees, and why was the floor made of sand? People were speaking Hindi all around me, though I couldn’t see them. But I understood what they were saying. They were whispering. Conspiring. They were going to kill us. They were discussing their plans. They were going to use machetes. There were lights strung up in the palm trees. I couldn’t see who was whispering, who was conspiring. I tried to tell Dave. I wasn’t sure if the words came out right. He was with me, holding me, saying reassuring things, but he had to be hearing it, too.
“They’re going to kill us,” I managed to say. “I can hear them. Can’t you hear what they’re saying?”
Dave said he could and he couldn’t. He said it was all going to be okay. He said I should close my eyes and try to rest, that he’d stay with me. He would take care of things. He would be there when I woke up.
But I never slept. I don’t remember sleeping. I remember an endless night of paranoid hallucinations, an overwhelming sense of dread, a dim awareness that my life had spun out of what little control I might have ever convinced myself I had.
My paranoid hallucinations at the hospital in Alwar gradually lessened during that first long night, like a receding tide, leaving me still awake, still unable to sleep, but spent, empty, hollow. Wide-eyed but unseeing. When David spoke to tell me what was happening–the doctors had no way to find out what damage I might have done inside; we would have to wait and see if I healed on my own–I just nodded. I didn’t speak for the first few days. Not much, anyway.
There were no palm trees, no string of lights, no sand, no conspirators, no machetes. Just a large, open ward with dozens of beds, all of them full, most with families camped out on the concrete floor next to them. There were unemptied bedpans, flies coming in through open windows, occasionally rats scampering across the room. Some doctors and nurses came and went. Only once in a while did they stop to check on me with their limited English and my nonexistent Hindi.
Nicholson Baker’s 1988 novel The Mezzanine takes place during the course of a man’s trip up an escalator in an office building. He’s on his way back to work at lunch after venturing out to buy shoelaces. Time slows to an excruciating pace for him that’s filled with random thoughts and associations, the sort of stuff that runs through anyone’s mind in any few given moments. In the protagonist’s stream of consciousness, it’s how cardboard milk cartons came to replace glass milk bottles, why plastic straws float, how vending machines work, the secret to paper towel dispensers, lists of things, computations, digressions, digressions from the digressions, on and on and on, with footnotes that run sometimes for pages. And at the end, a long footnote about footnotes.
Those first days for me in the Alwar hospital were something like that, only not as literary. Not literary at all. I was barely sleeping, day or night. Trying to will my body to heal itself, though I still had no idea what was wrong with me. I kept slapping myself—figuratively, anyway. Chastising myself for my lack of discipline. Why wasn’t I using my time productively, practicing meditation, deep breathing, instead of spinning off into memories of old TV shows, banal conversations, people I’d barely known in the first place and would never see again. The number of places I’d lived in my life. The number of schools I’d attended. The number of girls I’d been with. How Pa on The Waltons wouldn’t go to church with the family. The night Robin and I caught a peeping tom spying on us in her trailer and I ran outside to chase him. An afternoon when I was a kid getting a coke from a soda machine at a gas station and without thinking about it spat into a soapy bucket of water. The attendant, who’d been washing a car, yelled at me and told me to never show my face around there again. The disproportionate shame and embarrassment of that stuck with me for years, long past any reasonable statute of limitations for such a minor transgression.
The hours crept by. Torturous. Only so much slower that even writing it suggests.
After two days, and an occasional injection of morphine and a second blood transfusion, when I could finally stand and take more than a few steps without thinking I was going to pass out, I made my slow way the length of the ward to the washroom. The floor in the stalls was smeared with feces, stained with urine, vomit, diarrhea. I filled a metal cup with water and splashed one as clean as I could get it, then squatted over the hole, clinging to the wall so I wouldn’t lose my balance on the footholds. Nothing happened. My abdomen was distended, though I hadn’t eaten anything since Sariska. I made my way back to my bed, past the kind, staring faces of the families and fellow patients, who had likely never seen a firangi there. I tried not to stare in turn at the terrible burns and missing limbs and swollen faces and feverish children.
David came and went while I rested and slept and tried and failed to shit. Dave had met a Sikh woman at Shankar’s wedding a week before the accident, a sardarni, Shirim, the younger sister of a friend in Alwar. Now back in the city, they met in secret for walks, to talk, nothing more than that, but still something that wasn’t done without permission from the family, and without chaperones, and without the promise of marriage.
Shankar visited me, filling in for Dave during those seemingly endless days as I alternated between fitful sleep and a kind of stupor where I could acknowledge visitors, even speak to them until I grew too tired, but wished they would leave as soon as they got there. Shankar, who spoke fluid English, was thoughtful, and kind, and he meant well. He was melancholy about his new role and responsibilities as a husband, and serenaded me with Leonard Cohen songs he had memorized when he’d gone off to college in New Delhi before returning to Alwar. “Suzanne.” “Sisters of Mercy.” “So Long, Marianne.” He had his brother, a cook at a curry stand near the hospital, bring me chai and hard-boiled eggs, which I did my best to eat, though I had no appetite, and could barely hold anything down.
The wedding had been in Ramgarh, Shankar’s ancestral village an hour away. David and I were there as “Foreign guests of honor,” which was embarrassing since we hadn’t brought extravagant gifts, which were expected, or any gifts at all, and we were dressed like scruffy hippies while everyone else was decked out in their best suits and saris. We tried to make up for it by giving more rupees than we could afford on the money tree, and by joining in the groom’s party procession that night, the baraat, with movie-star-handsome Shankar in a dark three-piece suit and gold crown riding a white horse garlanded with an explosion of flowers and garishly sequined harness and saddle. Shankar’s friends, many of them stumbling drunk, kept stopping the procession to dance to a couple of caterwauling bagpipes and sticks and rattles and the incessant beat of double-headed drums called dhoi as we made our slow way through the village.
Shankar’s friends gave us safas and garlands, dragged us out into the middle of the dirt street to dance with them while Shankar sat frozen on his horse. There didn’t appear to be any electricity in the village, so everyone in the baraat carried torches, adding an element of danger. But somehow, two hours late, we finally arrived at a small, rented hotel, which might have been the only one in Ramgarh, where a very loud generator fired up an impressive string of lights in the courtyard, and where we met Shankar’s bride and her family. Shankar had never seen her, though he did know her name–Pushpa–but that was about all.
The ceremony went on for hours. Speeches and songs, ceremonial dancing, the money tree, presentation of the veiled Pushpa, a table laden with Indian desserts as excessively sweet as always. I could barely force myself to nibble the edges. Everybody was friendly and gracious and wanted to talk, though few spoke any English, so I was clueless as usual about what they’re saying. I did my best to shower them with compliments about the ceremony, the food, the decorations, their hospitality. There was a lot of smiling and nodding on both sides, followed by polite withdrawal. David, meanwhile, talked to Shirim, who reminded him that they’d met before, in Alwar, where her family lived and where she attended technical college. She told Dave she had long wanted to speak with him, but had been too shy.
I didn’t have a watch, but it must have been three in the morning by the time we climbed back on the wedding bus for the return trip from Ramgarh to Alwar with what seemed to be twice the number of riders crammed into the seats and aisle as had been with us on the way there. I ended up standing the whole time, with nothing to hang onto, thrown against others, and others thrown against me, bruised every time we took a curve on those pitch black rural roads. For most of the way to the city, under cover of darkness, Dave surreptitiously held hands with Shirim.
I was happy for David, at least–as I lay in the hospital, and the interminable days somehow passed, and I knew I wasn’t getting any better. I felt guilty enough that I’d fucked up what was left of our trip. We were supposed to fly back to the States in another week. Why shouldn’t Dave get to enjoy himself in the time we still had? I convinced myself, or tried to, that I would be all right, that whatever was wrong inside me would fix itself, and we’d make our way back to New Delhi, and make our flight back to America in time for Christmas. The battery dies on your car, sometimes all you need to do is clean off the terminals and get a jump start.
But that magical thinking didn’t last. I couldn’t hold onto any thought for very long as I mostly stayed in that version of sleep that never feels like sleep. A half-consciousness. A gray half-existence. My body wasn’t healing itself. It was shutting down. My mind seemed to be shutting down, too. I tried to go to the pain, the way David had said, tried to find the exact place where the pain had been, as if that could repair whatever was broken inside. All I found was a continuing sense of dread I couldn’t shake for what was happening to me, and for what was still to come.
I didn’t have the energy to read, or write in my journal. None of the Vonnegut or Tom Robbins or Michener or Frank Herbert I’d been reading seemed relevant anyway. Even my fantasies about being with Robin again came to seem forced, and needy, and pathetic, and pointless. I had nothing to offer her anyway. Not really. And I had nothing to say to anyone here. I felt as though I was sinking deeper and deeper into the thin mattress pressed into the rope bed.
A week passed. I woke sometimes to find Dave looking at me, deep lines of worry etched into his face. Other times I saw him across the ward in huddled conversation with doctors, nurses, the crowd of curious bystanders who materialized whenever something, anything, was happening. Still other times I’d wake to find myself utterly alone. Every night at the Alwar hospital was a dark night of the soul. I was frightened and lonely, desperate for whatever faint hope I’d feel with the first light of morning.
Finally, on a gray afternoon, Dave came back from his last walk with Shirim and said it was time to go. “We have to get you to New Delhi,” he said. “We can take the train tonight. The doctors keep saying how concerned they are, but they can’t do anything more to help. They think you’re stable enough to travel, but shouldn’t wait any longer.”
I nodded, wondering if there was more he wasn’t telling me. But no matter. If we got to New Delhi, we could still make our flight back to the States. I could be home in a week, and Mom and Dad would be waiting, and they’d take care of me, just like they’d always taken care of everyone else when I was growing up—friends and cousins from broken homes, abused children we hardly knew who had nowhere else to go, my uncle and his family when their overloaded car skidded off the side of a mountain road and they lost everything they owned. Maybe now it was my turn.