Another flight, another hotel room, another lecture, another round of applause, another blank check. These are the routines of my life in my 30s. A constant flow of events most would consider highpoints, I rode this wave for nearly ten years. Ten full years of travel, of research, of discovery, and towards the end, a bank account swelling so rapidly that I needed an army of lawyers and accountants just to count it.
During that time, I began writing a memoir for the first time. I've used pieces of it to inform and frame my current endeavor, but much of it reeks of optimism and confidence. I believe many of the passages might sketch me too harshly, as if I were nothing but a despicable character.
"It has occurred to me that I am, in fact, not playing god. Although the media loves to toss around such clichés, if I were simply playing god, I would be but an actor, faking it. What I've done is god's work. There is no playing about it. I've taken the tools from god's factory floor and wielded them as he might have, were he both real and actively creating. In this light, I'm a skilled laborer in an abandoned shop, making me a very real and active god."
Many people will still take from this statement a message I did not intend. However, since my discoveries have shaken and destroyed the very foundations of religion, today's outrage will likely not match what would have manifested had I finished and published that memoir 30 years ago. Back then, even in our secular society, god enjoyed a prominence not unlike a dead parent—someone who lived a bitter, alcoholic life, dispensing anger and depression on his children, but once deceased, is spoken of with only admiration and respect.
If you read the passage as I do, in a literal sense, it is a passable bit of metaphor. But I've lived through enough to realize that such a request must be framed before entertained. Hopefully, I've built a reasonable context for you in the first part of this book.
In my late 20s, I made my first major discovery. Along with a team of researchers, I was able to synthesize a protein that produces fetal behavior in adult stem cells, allowing for rapid redevelopment of tissue and organs. Such self-cloning was conceivable at the time, but research in the field was not yet offering the revolution that modern medicine had been searching for. Once we coupled my discovery with Dr. Parson's advancements in microsurgery, we had a new way to handle the body. No longer did we have to work with a failing organ, or hope for an acceptable donor. No longer was a malformed limb, a blinded eye, a removed lung the life or death tragedy as before.
I won't go into minute details about the process involved in creating this protein, or exactly what happens when it is introduced to the host's cells. There are thousands of articles in hundreds of journals, both technical and of the lay variety. If you wanted to know, you already would. Moreover, I've simply forgotten much of it, and I cannot conjure the visions of old. If asked to re-create the process now, I would likely struggle and fail. For this, I am thankful. My mind could have easily retained my technical memory instead of the personal one. What a disappointing finale life would have if this were true! And what a cumbersome memoir this would be!
What I can now contribute is context and perspective. The process has a process, after all, and my gift of vision was far too inexplicable to mention in interviews, or even my first memoir. When asked esoteric questions about the creative process, or the origins of my ideas, I always leaned on heuristics, cited the work of my predecessors and generally evaded the more technical assessments.
Most are willing to surrender to the magic of science, and not press further. Rarely will anyone say, "yes, but aside from that, how, exactly did you decide to use this particular combination of amino acids, and how did you know that it could be both an enzyme and contribute to cell adhesion?" Certainly, I had my share of point-blank questions from colleagues, but I could usually smile, shrug my shoulders and be considered aloof, something not uncommon in researchers. As long as I could show them how to do it, they would slap my shoulders appreciatively and allow me the space I needed.
How could I tell them that I did not know where my ideas came from? How could I say, "I have these visions. They tell me what to do." I would have been laughed out of every lab in the world. Even now, I recognize that many critics of this book will consider this admission the delusions of a failed man in search of death.
I never failed in my research, but I am in search of death. This sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? I don't have to die, nor is death something that is hiding from me, yet I search it out like another problem I've solved in my life. Death is the one shadowy place that my visions cannot illuminate. They only tell me to orient myself towards it, and release.
In Jeff's final days, I believe he, too, had such a vision.
The night that Beth absconded from my car, fleeing my awkward silence during our first kiss, I rushed to Jeff's house and snuck in through the back door.
The darkness inside the house was flashed by the blue strobe of a television in the living room. Where bloated Todd once couched himself, Tina now lay, passed out, a nearly empty bottle of vodka on the coffee table. As Jeff's illness moved in, the renters moved out. Cancer, although not contagious, is too easily seen, too easily understood, as it tears through the body—the remaining days and years candy to its sweet tooth.
I slipped Tina's shoes off and pulled a blanket over her. Her once perfectly blond hair lay in a tangle of brown, gray and yellow. Her lips, once bright pink on her pale skin, like fresh sake, were chapped and gray. I admit I was fascinated by her deterioration, as I could relate to it. One doesn't need social cues and intuition to observe and analyse physical ruin. She squinted open her eyes a bit and smiled.
"Oh." Her smile faded away just as did her waking hope that her own son were comforting her. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, Tina. I'm okay. I just came to see Jeff. I need to tell him something."
"I'll wait. Go back to sleep. I promise I'll wait."
"Okay." She allowed her eyes to shut. I clicked the remote to the television, turning it off.
"Leave it on."
"Sorry," I said, turning it back on.
I left her and made my way up the stairs to Jeff's room. As I ascended the staircase, I thought about all of the times I approached his room with a sense of wonder and hopefulness, as if an answer would be waiting for me when I arrived. If that answer was a hefty marijuana high and several rounds of video game golf on his Sega, or a sudden, punishing assessment of my own dubious ideas, then I received it, welcomed it.
As I made my way up now, I understood that our purposes had shifted. No longer did I come to receive; now I came to give, to donate my time and attention. Jeff's capability to dispense advice had not eroded; rather, it had evolved into simple statements about life, less cloaked in sarcasm, and more infused with his own bitterness.
When I'd mentioned Beth's attentions, he had remarked, "If I had two good lungs, I'd date her for you."
"I'm sure you would. And I'm sure you'd make her a mixed tape, fuck her and forget her."
"Maybe when you're dying, you'll finally make a move."
I smiled at this sentiment, but he didn't. It wasn't meant as a joke. As he would say, he was "dying serious," a sarcastic mutation of "dead serious."
Years later, I understood that Jeff's last bit of advice to me was the simple repetition of one statement: quit fucking around. The night of the kiss, my vision had also indicated this sentiment to me.
His door was open; it was always open now. He had no reason to close it, no need to hide his pot-smoking or sexual behavior from his mother. Now, he was more concerned with being heard when he called from his room.
I could hear his breathing, labored now by an infection in his remaining lung. He sounded like a car muffler with some carbon banging around inside.
I entered the darkened room and fumbled my way into the armchair that had been installed next to his bed. I slipped off my shoes, eased back into the overstuffed cushions and listened to him breathe. Unless you've been in this position, it may be difficult to understand, but the most comfortable place to be when you're loved-one is dying is in the chair next to them. It's the only place you feel in control, the only place where anything seems good or beautiful. Quite a paradox, wouldn't you say?
As I relaxed into the deep cushions of the chair, I considered what I might say to him when he awoke.
I would tell him what I'd seen, no doubt, and what I knew I had to do.
He would listen.
He had to.
Jeff understood that he was the only person I trusted with my visions, and that I would never reject them. Before the accident, he had begun listening to the descriptions of my ideas as if they were bits of gossip, devouring them with greedy delight, adding bits of color where I had not, and admonishing me when they struck out to far from what he deemed ‘reasonably fucked.' I hadn't shared a vision with him in months, the last being my feeling that he was dead.
As I listened to him sleep, I was able to imagine myself telling him about my reawakening. This ability to create a vision within vision was part of my discovery during the kiss with Beth. A new era began at that moment: the visions elected to finally make me part of the creation, to allow me some measure of control. I would still be ‘taken' at various points in my life, but rather than sit back as if I were watching a movie, I would be in the moment, participating, just as when you finally realize that you are in a dream and decide to change the rules.
In our imagined conversation, I would tell Jeff that I had a vision of the future, and that I would be able to save him.
He would say, "bullshit," but his face would betray his dismissal. Hope would replace indifference and he would ultimately say, "tell me."
"There's a pig, in my vision. It walked past me in a field of dead grass. Everywhere it walked, the grass grew in its wake. Flowers sprung from its hoof prints. The pig is the answer, and it will save you. It will save everyone from everything. If I follow the pig, it will show me what I can use, and this, this thing it shows me will allow you to grow a new lung, one that doesn't have cancer."
"Are you going to kill a pig, now? Moving on from cats?"
"No, or… Maybe. But, it doesn't matter because it will save you!"
"How do you think you will do this at the shop? Do they have lab equipment next to the toolboxes?"
"I will study biology, chemistry, anatomy, and I will join a research team, and I will find or build the equipment to do it. I've seen it all; I just need to get started."
I would not be able to contain my ebullience, and Jeff would see that I was "dying serious." He would know that what I said was true: he would be saved!
"I know this sounds crazy, but I've seen it all, Jeff! I was kissing Beth when I had the vision, and it was bigger than any vision I've ever had! It was like…"
"Wait. You kissed Beth? Now I know you're lying."
I would smile at his jab, and he would smile back.
"Yeah, I kissed her, but the vision screwed it up. She got freaked out by my sudden absence and ditched me."
"Okay, that sounds right; except I'm still not sure you kissed her."
We would laugh about this, but he would hold out his hand for me to take, and I would take it, and I would say, "Listen and trust in me. I'm going to tell the newspaper reporters that I want to save people like you, and thousands of sad, rich people will send me money, and a university will accept my application because of my test scores and a recommendation from a benefactor, and I will do well. I will do better than anyone else because I already know all of the answers. My vision has opened itself up to me, allowing me to know the responses before the questions are even asked. All I have to do is learn the names of things, and believe what I know to be true. More success will bring more attention and more money. I will move you to San Francisco, and I will visit you regularly. And you will have the best doctors giving you the best treatments, as I work towards developing your cure, everyone's cure. And then, once I've done it, you will be my first patient, and you will be well again."
In this vision of a vision, I suddenly saw Jeff in his bed, crying, his eyes black with clotting blood, his mouth a dark red wreck. His hand was melting into my own, a ring of bubbling gore tracing the merging point. I tried to pull my arm away and could not.
"What the fuck?!"
I snapped out of my vision and heard Jeff's labored breathing again. He was still asleep. I shivered, for this was the first time my vision had exposed me to a darker possibility, one that was not literal in any sense. These shadows would become a common component to my visions, as if the sudden gain of control came at a cost. For the first time, I questioned who gave me my gift, and for what purpose it was granted.
When I began questioning my purpose, I had no idea I would never stop.
I think I'll call this part Tunnel Vision. What my vision has granted me is like an interwoven tangle of events, a web of actions, and as I wander into it, the tunnel darkens with experience and understanding. I find it funny that knowledge and education are sold to the population as a means to a basic understanding of the world and, ultimately, a greater appreciation of it. It is quite obvious that the opposite is true. In your purest state of ignorance, the world is open, clear, tethered only to basic instincts for survival. There are no questions, no intentions, no gods. As we learn, the world becomes increasingly small, with our knowledge revealing only additional questions, until we are clawing ourselves through an ever-tightening tunnel. The only reward found at the end of this journey is the quiet, soft glow of dimmed parlor lights reflecting off of the creamy satin found inside of an open coffin.