by Kent Ballard

I read an article a couple of days ago about a study done on NDEs, near-death experiences. You know the stories some people have said. Looking down on their own body, being yanked through a tunnel towards a brilliant light, seeing dead loved ones, a flash review of their life, and all that stuff. This has been reported by agnostics, atheists, and devout people of all religions.

What the study concluded was there were too many people who came back when resuscitated, telling precise accounts of what went on around them after they died, where people had stood, what they said, what they did, the kinds of noises that medical machines make, to completely ignore. Science doesn’t know how they do this, but it’s now apparently irrefutable some small percentage do. I have a reason to give such articles a moment of attention.

I died in January, 1973. No this isn’t a Halloween story. It’s true.

With the typical perversity of the way things go in my world, I went in for a simple surgery to remove a cyst. I’d had one removed a few years earlier. That time the doc said a couple of shots of Novocaine would handle the pain and I would be conscious for a simple out-patient surgery. Once he started cutting, it turned out the “surface” cyst had wickedly grown much deeper into my body than he realized. Soon things started to hurt. Then hurt badly. More shots followed. Eventually the doc looked into my eyes and said I had to make a choice. I was bleeding out the Novocaine faster than he could shoot it into me. They could either slap a temporary patch on me and finish up the next day in surgery with me unconscious, or—if I could just hold out about ten more minutes—he’d be finished. It was my call.

I was fifteen and there were two cute young nurses assisting him. Naturally I had to be a hero in front of them. It would not be the last time attractive women led me to disaster. When he finished twelve minutes later (yes, I timed the bastard) I hadn’t made so much as a peep, not a whimper, but I was laying in a pool of my own blood and tears.

It gave me a much greater respect for survivors of Civil War surgery.

Nothing like that would or could happen today, but this was over forty years ago in a small one-hospital rural county. I’d had the same doctor all my life. He was our family doctor and knew us all. Medicine had its rough edges then, but there was also an intimacy that medical practice will never have again.

Four years later, another cyst developed and I had the same doc. Neither of us wanted to risk that awful experience again, so he scheduled me as a regular surgery patient with 20th Century advances like real anesthetics and not having to feel that scalpel cut through my living flesh. Cool, I thought. This will be a considerable improvement over the last time. Better living through chemistry.

I was cheerful and joking with all the staff in the O.R. when the anesthesiologist came up and asked, “Ready to take a nap?” He held a syringe in one hand and the tube already in my arm in the other.

Sure. Let ‘er rip. I was looking forward to that warm feeling everyone told me I’d have as the anesthetic coursed up my arm. As he slowly injected me, I thought something was wrong. Everyone said it would be warm, that it would feel good. I felt as if my vein was turning to ice. It hurt. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I could actually feel the pain spreading up my arm and into my shoulder and he’d already told me as soon as it got to my heart that within two or three beats I’d be out. “Excuse me, guys, but I think something is wro…”


We never would have found the truth about what happened had it not been for a woman my mother barely knew at church. She was a registered O.R. nurse and that day just happened to be assigned to help in my operating room. It was two weeks before she called Mom, and even then pleaded with my mother never to tell anyone where she got this information. She could lose her job, but she thought our family should know the truth. The doctors had killed her teenage son.

One minute for them, all was a normal minor surgery on a healthy young man in the prime of his life. The next was pandemonium. The EKG alarm shrilly gave off that long unending beep. My blood pressure dropped to zero. Another alarm went off indicating I had stopped breathing altogether. The surgeon had not yet picked up a scalpel. They first poked a few buttons on the machinery, wondering why they all malfunctioned at once. Then someone said, “Jesus, he just had a heart attack!” The surgeon started pressing my chest, almost lifting himself off the floor. Small town hospitals in ’73 had no defibrillators unless they thought they might be needed. They were the size of refrigerators and horrifically expensive. The anesthesiologist had a tank of oxygen, but not intended for me. He rolled it to my table, then found a hose and connected one end to the tank, the other to some kind of pipe he found laying around, and jammed the pipe down my throat trying to force raw oxygen into my lungs. Someone, the nurse said, pulled open my eyelid and shined a light. “No dilation!” One nurse was told to hold that pipe down my throat while the anesthesiologist went around the other side of the operating table, taking his forearm and leaning forcefully into my belly, causing me to exhale. When he let up the air pressure from the tank partially refilled my lungs. Someone took over for the surgeon and began hammering on my chest for all they were worth. He gasped, “No history of cardiac problems. He’s nineteen years old. Great condition. We’re losing him.” The surgeon and anesthesiologist looked at each other as if for ideas. The man leaned heavily into my abdomen again. A pause. Then again. My mother’s friend could not say how long this went on. She said it was too long and she could feel the others giving up hope. Someone shut off the alarms that were driving them all nuts.

The anesthesiologist yelled at my mother’s friend to take his place shoving in on my belly. When she stepped forward she looked at whatever monitors they had me hooked to. Still no heartbeat, and my body temperature was dropping. The anesthesiologist ran to a cabinet and began filling a syringe with something. Manual respiration, even with pure oxygen, was not working. Chest compressions were not working. She said my fingers and nails were a dead gray-blue and my and face was turning dark as she watched. She remembered me going to church with Mom a couple of times and felt so terribly sorry for her…

My mother later told me she was sitting at my bedside in the hospital the next day. She said I raised up, looked at her and winked, then my head fell back into the pillow. I don’t remember that. When I eventually came around again, my girlfriend was there. She said something and I tried to reply. Good lord! What was wrong with my throat? It felt as if I’d gargled a chain saw. The more conscious I became, the more I hurt everywhere. What was this? Why did I feel as if I’d been in a train wreck? I pulled the sheet down and my chest was one large bruise. More were on my abdomen. None were near the cyst, which apparently had not been touched. It was a little like waking up in a hospital at the beginning of a zombie film, confusing to say the least.

When the surgeon showed up, somewhat sheepishly, he explained the anesthetic given me was sodium pentothal, commonly used in those days. No one (including me) had any prior knowledge that I was among the roughly one in fifteen hundred people who were deathly allergic to that drug. I might experience some “discomfort” from the breathing “device” they used on me. Any danger? No, no, of course not. But they did want to wait a couple of days before knocking me out again, this time with something a bit different. And then he was out the door.

They might as have well have pumped me full of Mop-N-Glow. Boom. Gone. Wink of an eye.

The anesthesiologist knew he could do no harm at that point, so he played on a hunch. He shot me directly with an antidote to sodium pentothal, refilled the same syringe, and gave me a gorilla’s worth of adrenaline. The surgeon was still pounding on me. Several people had been by then. CPR is damned exhausting when you do it correctly.

Beep. A heartbeat.

Everyone looked at each other. Presently, beep. Another one.

A few more seconds and I coughed, choking on that damned pipe they’d jammed and scraped down my throat. Beep…beep…nothing. C’mon, kid. Come on back. Beep…beep…beep-beep-beep.My mother’s friend said she literally watched me come back to life. My color began to change. Blood pressure started to rise. Body temp was still alarmingly low, but they saw it gain a couple of tenths. I don’t know where I’d been but I wound up back where I’d started, and with the same nasty problem too.

When I found all this out I thought of myself as lucky. Looking back, I think I was cheated. I mean, if you’ve gone to all the trouble of dying and scaring the hell out of everyone, shouldn’t you be allowed to float around watching them pound on your dead body for a while? Is an audience with the Creator too much to ask at a time like that? I don’t recall the tunnel ride, but I paid for the ticket. I didn’t even get booted back into my body by an angel. Never saw any dead relatives, no brilliant white light called me, didn’t hear so much as a note on a harp. Bummer. Your average run of the mill death.

The next time I die, I’ll ask for the “A” ticket. Dead relatives, beautiful lights, the whole nine yards. Next time, I want the whole grand tour. Next time I’ll probably stay and not come back. But with my deranged luck I won’t make any bets. The next time I might wind up waking with a sore butt. Who knows what medical wonders they’ll come up with tomorrow?

Me, I don’t care to find out. If I have to pay for the ride, I want to take it. I intend to go careening through space and time and slam sideways into eternity, dust myself off, and have a look around. It sounds like a dandy place. I’ll probably see you there eventually. Look me up and we’ll go have a cold drink. Living through this life was problematic enough. Eternity will take some planning.

Death of a Cold Warrior


               Kent Ballard                

 For years, Stewart Alsop wrote the full back-page socio-political column for Newsweek magazine. In those days there wasn’t a bulier pulpit to be had. I started reading him while still a teenager and got hooked for some unknown reason. He was a great writer, one of the very first guys I ever saw who could shoot thunder and lightning from a page. He didn’t do it every week but he did it when he wanted to. Sometimes you would come to the end of his column and simply sit and stare at the page because you did not know what to think. I thought he was a Commie one week and a Nazi the next, but most of that might have been the mirror he held up to America in the last years of the 1960’s and the first few years of the 1970’s.

The guy had everything going for him. Vast audience, great writing, dinners with the President, luncheon meetings with Congressional leaders. Smart politicians courted him and smarter ones never crossed him. He was often a guest on Sunday afternoon TV political talk shows. He wasn’t handsome, kind of a plain-looking man. He knew this. He was bald and was the first one to point it out on panel shows and then laugh about it. No one laughed until he laughed. Then everyone laughed at once and stopped at once and watching their actions gave you the understanding this was a powerful man.

By then I had the habit–like many others–of reading Newsweek backwards. You opened the back cover of the magazine first to see what Alsop had to say about the previous week’s glory/horror/tragedy/amazement/bewilderment. Imagine a guy like that coming to his full power in the 1960’s. There were endless new things a columnist could write about but one week he wrote of surgeons and doctors and bad luck and closed his column by telling his readers that he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and was given six months to live. He said he would stay at his typewriter as long as he possibly could.

And then the world gathered around to watch him die in inches, a little each week.

Sometimes he’d fool them. He’d go for three or four weeks, hammering and railing about this or that and we all wondered if he had forgotten he was supposed to be a dying man. Then he would write a column that haunted your soul and told you precisely what it felt like to be in his shoes and it was not a pleasant feeling. If memory serves, he said one surprising thing that bothered him were ticking clocks. He could wrap himself in his work and usually stay busy enough to distract himself. But…ticking clocks. They were another thing that came out of nowhere to trouble him. He wrote about how silly that was. He joked that he’d watched Alfred Hitchcock too often and followed that with what Hitchcock said to him just the other day about the matter. And why he suddenly felt sorry for Hitchcock. And then how everything hit him at once like a locomotive. He’d made a sad and terrible mistake. Hitchcock was not dying. He was. He said moments like that we becoming more frequent and harder to shake.

We all stepped inside his hospital room. He said he’d made his peace with God and was as prepared as he could make himself. But now the cancer had advanced to the point he had to schedule his writing around medication times. And he described how badly it hurt and we all felt the pain in his words as if we were there.

And that’s when he wrote the column, one of his last, that said something unexpected from an old Cold Warrior.

He was dying in a time of ignorance, he said. Only morphine–or better yet–heroin could ease this level of pain. No amount of synthetic painkillers could touch it. He’d already had the conversations with his doctor and attending pharmacologist. He knew this time would come. But knowing that and bracing himself against it had done no good. He had hoped and prayed they were wrong, like all terminal patients do, but they were not.

President Nixon had been wrong too, Alsop wrote. He’d been wrong on one count with his new declaration of war on drugs. The new-found DEA had been set loose with the wrong sense of direction. They should have been tasked to beat away the terrible man-made street drugs, to wipe America clean from them indeed. But not opiates. Not heroin. You could almost hear the man struggling to breathe at this point.

No, he said, not them. They should be reclassified. They should never have been classed with other street drugs that were dangerous and highly addictive because they were more than that. They held the final glimmer of peace in this world for the dying, the freedom from pain. They alone were all that man had at the very end. Alsop said Nixon had done well when he rightfully championed billions of dollars into research and challenged America to find the illusive cure for his other highly publicized war, the one on cancer. But it would never come in time for Alsop or millions of other Americans every year and it has not arrived yet. Alsop pretty much called Nixon and Congress out of the saloon for one last showdown to rectify their mistake, but he would not live to reach for his pistol. I think this was his next-to-last or third from last column. They said he was lucid to the end but in unimaginable agony.

There remains to this day a controversy whether Alsop was provided heroin at the final stage of his life. Even under a doctor’s care that would have been illegal, both then and now. But he seemed to rally at the end, writing with his same power and grace. We may never know and, in my book, it’s best not to question such things. What is left for us all to question is how we will exit this world, and if the federal government will hound us to our very graves claiming that it is correct.

Today many doctors refuse to prescribe pain killers powerful enough to be worthy of the name. Others will not prescribe any. The curse of addiction and all its attendant evils needs to be fought, no question of it. It’s easy for an innocent person to become addicted to painkillers and narcotics prescribed for a variety of reasons. It would be easy for you, too, unless you are a superior life form which will never break a bone or succumb to a painful illness. But you might take a few moments to ponder, as Stewart Alsop did when faced with his eventual death, the risks and benefits of powerful drugs for those who will not live long enough to become a problem to society yet have nowhere else to turn.

A Tough Write: Conclusion

My dad had a superficial gruffness that helped create the impression he was a man’s man. Ironically, it took much of my life to learn that, despite the enormous amount of time my father spent with men running his father’s card games, the war, tending bar, and working as a government accountant, it was much easier for him to talk to women. Learned that through his and Sue’s relationship. Throughout the years their friendship tightened much more rapidly than his and mine, and it was through their connection that he and I gingerly approached each other.

But despite the circling, I finally began to see how tolerant a person he actually was. He never batted an eye when we told him Sue was pregnant with Jake. He knew we weren’t married, but didn’t even ask if we were going to. He just rolled with it. Much the same way he’d rolled with my wedding, for which I never gave him much credit. And much the same way he rolled with my less-than-ambitious earning power—something that was important to him, but that he never laid on me other than an occasional tease.

I also learned it was impossible for him to live alone.

As much as both Sue and I have come to believe that Lenore was his true love, it wasn’t long after her death before he became involved with another woman from New Jersey and they eventually moved fulltime to Florida.

At this stage of our lives (I was about 40, him about 70), both of us were reluctant to jeopardize the delicate link we had made. And Sue made certain we not only maintained but fostered it. She would announce that it was time to go to Florida. She was the one who came up with the idea of making a license plate that read Sammy K., echoing a band leader he liked. She was the person I could watch tease my dad and make him laugh. She brought out and introduced me to aspects of his personality that made visiting more than a chore or duty.

In fact, it was Sue who, once he mentioned an interest in computers, suggested I take him shopping for one, set it up, and teach him how to use it. The first two were an easy do. The third, well, that turned out to be a blessing and a personal trip to hell.

He enjoyed the machine that let him follow his stocks, but never really got the hang of operator error. He was ham-fisted and impatient; if something didn’t happen instantaneously he’d keep banging the keys—lots of them. Not a useful way to work a computer, and out of character since he was usually pretty damn methodical.

Of course his computer ‘tech’ was me, which meant call after call with complaints about the machine while I tried to visualize what was going on and give him suggestions. Every time we visited I spent a day untangling the mess he’d made. But it was also a bridge. We were finally
talking on a regular basis.

Our visits and the computer crap slowly healed the old hurts we had inflicted upon each other. It wasn’t that they disappeared, more that new space opened between us. Space where something

other than the past, the conflicts, or the pain resided.

I was writing at the beginning of those years and, though he used to complain that my main character was too unkempt and drugged for big sales or a potential tv series (he was probably right), my father now knew me well enough to understand I was gonna write what I wanted to write. Years later, after Sue transformed a magazine writing career into writing books for kids, he kept asking why she didn’t just write “another Harry Potter.” I honestly believe he thought if a person could write, they could write anything. WRONG! This crack and his chuckle went on for years until Sue couldn’t take it anymore. She stopped it cold, when she countered with her own question: “Tell me Sam, how come you don’t stop buying those loser stocks and just get
good ones?”

But he was also quietly proud of our work. Kept our books in the living room where anyone who came into the condo would see them, including us.

Even more space opened between us. Hell, when Matthew was in college, he and a coed group of friends crashed at his place. The old man really enjoyed the visit. He never stopped telling the story of a mass of sleeping bodies on the floor and how Josh (Matt’s best man at his upcoming wedding) would wake up early and cook breakfast for everyone. My father still liked action and throughout his 70s traveled to Las Vegas (I met him there once), and to Atlantic City (met him there too), and went on cruises—as long as there were ‘comps’ and crap tables, his favorite gambling game. He’d started playing dice on the streets when he was a kid and the bug never left.

By the time he was 75, we were pretty comfortable with each other. To celebrate that birthday the whole family went on a short cruise where he and Matt hung in the ship’s casino, Sue and I chilled, and Jake fell in love (for the trip) with a girl he met at the karaoke bar.

Essentially, what had been at best an arms-length relationship had morphed into a strangely familial one. Strange because neither of us were yet willing to talk about the past, which hung on like a background shadow.

Those discussions began when he was about 85. He had slowed down considerably. I no longer had to have Sue at my side when I visited. And when he needed a hip replacement, I basically moved down there for a month or two, though Sue was also there a great deal of the time.

That’s when some real talk began to occur. He and I used to stay up after everyone was asleep, tv on in the background (tv background seems to be a necessity for men talk. Lets you move your eyes around when things get tough), and slowly, over time, our conversations became more
personal. He talked about his troubles with my mother and sister, and his pain about Lenore’s deterioration and death.

My end of the conversation included talking about the impossibility of living with my mother and sister, that night at the bar with the rebbetzin, his long, long absences. And, finally my embarrassment and dismay at how I treated him when Lenore was sick.

His hip mended. Even though he used a walker, he went back to his shopping, cooking, cleaning, and poker playing. But my visits, with and without Sue, became more frequent. As did her visits without me.

When I was there, those late night conversations continued. I learned more about the decisions he had made and why he had made them. He learned more about my life, my work, my anger towards him, the pleasure of our reconciliation. Sometimes the talks were easy, sometimes damn difficult. But they created a bond that remained for the rest of his life. A bond that will be with me the rest of mine.

This isn’t to say that all the conversations and my many years in therapy erased what had come before. Deep inside me there’s still part of that kid who sat at the bar. Things didn’t just vanish; nothing ever does. I’m still a product of my childhood, however altered.

But it’s almost funny. For so much of my life I never would have imagined that when my dad died, I would lose a friend.

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?