Posted in family

Near-Death Experience 👩‍⚕️ Part II

Today I’m sharing an excerpt from my M.F.A. thesis, a 60K-word lyrical autobiographical fiction called Why We Fall in Love. I submitted this manuscript to a few contests, then I tucked it away on my hard drive for the last two years.

(I’m considering releasing it through Kindle Unlimited—because I’d love for people to read more than just a scene, and I’m an Amazon Unlimited user myself—but I’m still working on the courage to go full-blown indie. 🤗)

For now, I’m only letting a page of it out of the vault… Because I promised to share more of the hospital story on my last post, and hey—I’ve got the perfect autobiographical fiction excerpt to do just that. 😉

My father can’t breathe anymore. Since he smokes a pack of generic brands every day, while working fifty- to sixty-hour weeks in a heavily refrigerated yogurt plant—a big, silver building in a warehouse district, with a matte gray security gate—it’s bad news when he catches the flu.

The cold virus spreads through him, quiet and steady, realizing it has a fifty-year-old, crooked-tooth, hard worker with a beer belly—realizing my father has an aversion towards vegetables, tarred lungs—then the virus hospitalizes him.

But that doesn’t happen immediately. For a couple months, while the flu is still morphing into pneumonia, my father continues to drive to his night shift in the freezing storage rooms, where the forklift drivers work with rows of palettes of tiny cups of yogurt. He won’t listen to me, or my grandmother, or his boss or probably even God when we ask him to see a doctor for his wheezing.

By the time my father is admitted to the emergency room, he is less than twenty-four hours from suffocation.

When I think about taking in air, I always imagine the oxygen bars at Las Vegas, and the cobalt sky, and that cliché white dandelion in television commercials—the whirring dandelion, in the hand of a whirling child—but the way my father’s nurse explains it, all the carbon dioxide his body’s producing is turning into black gunk, trapped in his diaphragm, dark and colorless, old and heavy—air wrought down with his age; and this undandelesque tar is preventing him from releasing the carbon dioxide that he’s designed to exhale, the nourishment for trees, the carbon dioxide that could kill him.

My Brain is Like the San Andreas Fault

After I was tested for a rare strain of tuberculosis found in sheep in New Zealand—that’s how long it took, how chaotic it felt, before Kaiser Permanente confirmed my dad had life-threatening pneumonia—I went through a series of existential crises that ended with special interests in artificial superintelligences, virtual realities, and Big Bounces.

I feel like I’m wrestling with another internal shift, but this time, I intend to snapshot it better—thus, my burgeoning blogosphere—and hopefully, when I reach the other side of all this reading and writing, I’ll have shed my negative thinking patterns.

I’ll probably retain the twisted sense of humor, though.

Understanding Death

I imagine the acceptance of death is a universal experience for most people, yet I think it’s important to write about it from the autistic perspective, because autistic people don’t express emotions the same way as neurotypicals; and sometimes, this leads to family and friends misinterpreting their autistic loved one as unfeeling.

Manoh(wo)man, we are anything but unfeeling.

I’ve been called uncaring by family before, when my heart was hemorrhaging emotions, but my amygdala was getting in the way. Later I’d cry alone, under a blanket, in the dark, where the only stimulus I had to deal with?—those hard feelings—and of course, the accusations of coldness only increased the toll I needed to pay.

So here we go.

Encounters with Death, 0-7 Years Old

  • Holy 🤬 my first pet died.
  • Aww 😭 this happens to everyone? 

Well, almost everyone:

Encounters with Death, 8-15 Years Old

Then we break down the “me” that separates us from the “we,” by watching death pull its mantle over humans:

  • My extended family member died. 😰
  • This friend or neighbor just died, too. 😥

By this point, I was entering upper grade elementary school. I thought I’d prepared for death rather well. But when your parent is about to die, this insane-in-the-membrane happens…

Encounters with Death, 16-32 Years Old

  • Wait. I know they’re human. But they die, too!? 🤯
  • So then… they only make it out of this through my DNA? 😶
  • NO DON’T YOU DARE LEAVE ME HERE THAT’S NOT COOL DAD.

I can’t imagine how awful it must be to suddenly jaunt over any of these steps. Thank goodness my father pulled through his pneumonia, so I could enjoy more time with him; his story continues , and this makes me happy, even though I’m keenly aware there will be a last page. I wish I could stay near my mother, knowing she has a last page, too.


Then there’s the death of heroes, like Stephen Hawking. That’s a different mourning, a societal one. Of course, we don’t participate in all the societal mournings; but some of them ring deeply with us. Stephen Hawking wasn’t just a hero for my special interests, but living proof that differability thinking overpowers disability thinking, that positivism is a better path than negativity.

And he lived so much longer than anyone with ALS normally lives; his story was epitome of the heroic journey. He’ll inspire me long after his death.

How I Process Big Feelings

Again, I don’t think autistic people experience these delicate stages of understanding death very differently from neurotypicals; although, we may come up with alternate methods for processing the more difficult emotions.

When my dad was in the hospital, I drove out to a temple in the middle of nowhere to meditate; practiced yoga daily, although I’d already been doing that before; and I read a lot. Like, a lot. Books helped me spend hours with him in the hospital, and spending hours with him in the hospital helped me not lose my shit.

When Stephen Hawking passed away, I wrote about it; and in my community college classroom, I shared a video about his contributions to technology during our technology unit; I even watched I-don’t-even-know-how-many YouTube videos of his discoveries, talk-show humor, and unsolved theories, so I could incorporate his ingenuity and brilliance into my science fiction novellas.

So autistic people suffer, worry, and expand the existential parts of our brains like anyone else; but externally, it may appear like an alien experience as we self-sooth, explore, think. That should be expected, though. Part of truly accepting neurodiversity is accepting alternate methods for processing emotions.

Speaking of alien experiences:


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Author:

Kourtnie McKenzie holds an MFA (Fiction) from Fresno State and a BA in English (Literature Studies) from Cal State Fullerton. When she isn't writing novellas, she's moonlighting as a professor at Fresno City College and College of the Sequoias. To read more of her writing, visit Kourtnie.net.

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