|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Summer 2004|
Albert Hoffman, a chiropractor, has been a valued member of New Orleans fandom for decades. This is his first contribution to Challenger.
the night I saw Death
In 1981 - 1983, I worked as a Nurse Tech at a well known local hospital, here in New Orleans. The hospital I worked at covers a city block of the Garden District in uptown New Orleans (e.g. up-river from the Vieux Carre or French Quarter). New Orleans has been here for over 285 years, and this hospital celebrates the 158th anniversary of its founding this year, and is famous as the site of the St. James Infirmary of the legendary Jazz song. The complex of buildings is, itself, now almost 100 years old.
As I was the only male Nurse Tech on duty from 11 pm to 7 am, I was given a beeper, and expected to "float" to those units where I was needed, or to which I was called. Also, I filled in overnight as the Diener (or morgue attendant), and was responsible for preparing and transporting deceased patients to the morgue, and securing their remains in the morgue cooler.
As there was an excellent medical staff library on the 10th floor of the hospital, I would spend whatever down time I had there catching on on my journal reading , or sometimes just catch 40 winks in the marvelously comfortable Scandinavian bentwood easy chairs. The library had been decorated by the staff physician's wives, and they had excellent taste. The medical staff library has floor to ceiling, 12 foot high, glass windows that look North towards Lake Pontchartrain, out over up-town New Orleans. During the day, these windows offer a magnificent view of an incredibly green city, with numerous large oaks and other trees crowded between the houses, and lining the boulevards as far as the eye can see! At night, the exterior darkness and the interior lights of the library create a "mirror" effect, and these floor to ceiling windows clearly reflect, in great detail, the interior of the room; as you will see, this fact is very germane to my story.
It was the middle of the night, and sometime around my lunch break, I had just settled down into one of the easy chairs in the medical staff library to try and catch a short nap, with my beeper, as was usual, clipped to my left smock collar under my ear; this to wake me if I was paged. I had dimmed the room lights to a comfortable level, but there was still plenty of light to see by, though it was a kind of golden candle-light glow, and the entire room was reflected quite clearly in the floor to ceiling glass that made up one entire wall of the room. I was sitting facing these windows, and I could clearly see the wall behind me, which was covered, floor to 3/4 up the wall, with current magazine and medical journal shelves. I had been sitting quietly for awhile, with my eyes closed, trying to fall asleep, with no luck, when I opened my eyes and, in the reflection of the floor to ceiling windows in front of me, I noticed a stirring in the darkness above myself and the periodical shelves behind me.
As I sat there very quietly, not moving a muscle, the stirring in the darkness over my head began to grow larger, spreading, and then it (kinda) unfolded/unrolled, revealing the classic black robed, no face visible, hood wearing, "The Seventh Seal" chess playing Grim Reaper, completely filling the space behind me from floor to ceiling, the lower part of the reaper disappearing into a light dark mist across the floor, again all of this clearly visible in the reflection seen in the floor to ceiling windows across the room from me.
I want to say that, at this point, I was most definitely NOT asleep! Yes, I had been trying to fall asleep, but I was in full control of my faculties, and was wide-awake (Oh boy! Was I now wide awake!); this was, most definitely not a hypnagogic/ hypnopompic dream or hallucination!
The Reaper I saw (and it definitely was death come a calling) had no face, all I could see was a bit of a diffuse red glow coming from within the depths of the hood, where the face should have been. His robe was black, an intensely dark, light absorbing black. Also, I saw no hands, only gently churning mist, where his billowing sleeves, hanging at this sides, ended.
Brother, if you think I was sitting quietly before, I was now petrified. Though, for some reason, I was not afraid, but I was still not about to move a single muscle! I sat there very quietly, watching through slitted eyes, waiting to see what would happen next; but, strangely, as I said, I felt no fear. Instead, I felt that this was not of concern to me. It was at this point that things really began to get interesting.
At the feet of the towering black robed Reaper, a much smaller figure began to take shape in the dark mist that covered the floor behind me. It was clearly a man, in his mid-30's, standing with his back to me, a bit less than half the height of the Grim Reaper. His hair was a sandy blond, and he was wearing blue and white vertically striped pyjamas. While his back was to me, as he was facing the Reaper, I could make out his features as he moved and gesticulated, while he spoke with the Reaper. While I could hear no words, in the silence of the medical staff library, I could sense the gist of their exchange, as I could literally feel their emotions. The man was pleading with Death, not out of fear but, rather, that it wasn't his time yet, and that this was not fair, in that he had much left to do. While I could put words to the emotion of the man's pleas, there are almost no words to convey the depth and breath of emotion emoted by Death in that tableau. The Angel of Death was projecting the most overwhelming sense of empathy, compassion, love and understanding that I have ever felt, before or since; there was also great sorrow on the part of the Reaper, as Death understood and empathized completely with the man's plight, yet there was nothing he could do to change the circumstance, as he was "only" an escort, a guide if you will, to assist the man on his way, but that he, they, needed to go.
With that emotion, the Angel of Death, and indeed this was an angel, swept his great billowing sleeves forward and down, crossing them between myself and the man. As the Reaper crossed his arms behind the pleading (but not struggling) man, he drew the man forward towards his bosom. With that, the tableau behind me, and the image of the Angel of Death and the man he was hugging to his chest became transparent and somewhat wispy, and then the entire tableau rolled up like a billowing cloud, through the ceiling, to disappear, leaving nothing in its wake!
I sat there very quietly, still not daring to move, thinking to myself: "Man, there is some really weird stuff that goes on in this place!" I decided the best thing to do was to just close my eyes and get some sleep.
About 15 minutes later, my beeper sounded off. I had not fallen asleep, but had just sat there with my eyes closed, resting. I then got up, and checked the area behind my chair, of course finding nothing! I walked over to the phone, called the paging operator, and when she answered I immediately asked "Where's the body?" She responded with " What makes you think that I'm calling you to pick-up a body?" To which I answered: "Why else would you be calling me at 3:15 in the morning?", and she did answer that with "I don't know how you knew, but there is a body, it's on the 5th floor diabetic teaching unit, and they would like you to come as soon as possible" I told her that I would, of course, be there ASAP, and hung up.
Do I really need to tell you the rest of this story? I went and retrieved the morgue cart, and went to the In-patient Diabetic Teaching unit, where I found that the deceased was not a diabetic patient, but had been placed there because of the high hospital census, and shortage of beds elsewhere in the hospital. He had just been admitted that afternoon by his primary care physician (PCP), for fairly routine cardiac testing because of some suspicions that his PCP had about the patient's cardiac status. It turned out that the PCP was right, as the patient had a cardiac event while on the diabetic teaching unit, and that while the staff did call a code, it was to no avail, and the patient passed quickly and unexpectedly, about the same time I saw death at work in the medical staff library. When I went to prepare the body, I really was not that surprised to see that he was a man in his mid-30's, about 5'8" with sandy blond hair, who was wearing blue and white vertically striped pyjamas. He was, of course, the same man I had seen pleading with the Angel of Death, half an hour before, in the medical staff library. I had not been on the Diabetic Teaching Unit that night, nor had I ever seen that sandy haired man before that night.
I have no explanation of what I saw that night, other than the obvious, that this was indeed Death at work, guiding a passing soul to the other side. As I said above, this is a true story that I have related here, without embellishment, exactly as I saw it occur.