By Jo Carson
THE RUN TO THE RIVER STYX
The River Styx in mythology is the river that runs between this world and the next. You cross the River Styx when you die. Used to be that a family would put a coin in the mouth of the recently deceased “to pay the ferryman” to take that soul across the River. I did not cross The River Styx or this would be a story about dying and I’d be the least likely person in this world to be telling it. Instead, it is a story about almost dying. It is a story about coming to the edge of the River Styx and looking into it and what I saw there.
But it takes some telling to get to the river.
June of 2009, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. The diagnosis wasn’t a big surprise. I hadn’t felt good for a very long time and I’d gone deaf (a separate story) which made life even harder. I was told that I would need radiation and chemotherapy, surgery, and more chemotherapy. And then I was sent home.
And for about two weeks, I kept close counsel with the old Grim Reaper, became well acquainted with his chilly company. My grandparents Carson both died of intestinal cancers, both their deaths were slow and painful. I don’t want to do slow and painful so I considered my other options. What can I do—when the time comes that hope is abandoned and before I become too much of a burden on friends and family—how do I know when that is, and how do I get out of this life? Fierce, hard questions. So I made some decisions.
I shook hands with the Grim Reaper, made choices, cut a deal… Like the Grim Reaper actually honors such deals, but you make them anyway, you have to, you are human with an investment in this life. The only way around such deal making is to die by surprise, and I’m not so sure you get out of it even then. You just do it a whole lot faster.
Then, the voice of my Grandmother Catron spoke to me. She died more than twenty years ago and I’m truly deaf, but the first time this happened, I looked around half expecting to see her. The voice was that specific and that clear. “That’s sorry actin’, Josephine, just sorry actin’. “ I came to understand that Grandmother felt I was being cowardly by acquiescing—she was probably right—and that I still had work to do.
My negotiations with the Grim Reaper may yet prove useful, and it is shaman’s teaching that your own death is the best of all possible advisors, and it is true that I began to understand what is really important to me in that time of the negotiations with the Grim Reaper. But I now felt an obligation to fight the cancer. And given that it was stage three and rather large for a colon cancer (about the size of a fifty-cent piece), and—according to one of my docs—probably about ten years old, my best choices seemed to be the medical boys’ protocols, radiation, chemo, surgery and more chemo.
So I started the first six weeks of radiation and chemo. I got sick fast. Al essentially moved in for those hours when no one else was here—nights. “You are not going to live through this unless you have some help.” He saved my life at least twice. After about three weeks on the protocol, I made my first trip to the hospital via the emergency room. I was wretched sick and getting me to the hospital was Al’s doing. My lower bowels had ceased to function and I was vomiting like I was trying to get rid of my insides, not just their contents, and I couldn’t stop. I was in the hospital six days. After long enough with no radiation or chemo, my bowels started functioning again, the vomiting stopped, and I could go home. And I picked up the medical protocol again when I got some strength back. Another two weeks and I was back in the hospital. Same story except Al and I saw this one coming and he got me to the hospital before we had to call EMS. This time was worse. Eight days. When I got out and felt strong enough, I finished the six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy combined. We knew the chemo wasn’t helping me feel any better, but we somehow figured it was the radiation making me so sick. I’m not sure why we thought that except radiation makes people sick. The docs didn’t say, one way or the other.
The protocol shrunk the cancer, as it is supposed to. Surgery was successful. I lost ten inches of colon. I no longer have a colon; I have a semicolon. No further cancer was found in the remaining colon, the surrounding organs or the lymph nodes. Then, a couple of months to recover from surgery, and I’m back on the last part of the prescription: more chemo. 16 doses , once a week, sixteen weeks. All those little sips of poison. Except, of course, it is not sips, it is great gulps and it goes in through a port that is installed in your body and it runs first through a vein in your heart.
I did four doses, and I felt like I might be getting into the same trouble again. I said so on a Tuesday morning. I was at the cancer castle for another of the weekly doses of chemo. The doc who heard me say it saw me at my request. But she had not seen me before, had not read my records, and the most impressive thing about her was her war paint. She did a fine job on her make-up. She told me my blood work was fine, my gut was making noises like it was supposed to, and we needed to get along with the protocol.
I was still trying to be a compliant patient. I did that dose, the fifth, of chemotherapy.
I remember the next day, Wednesday. I was sick. I do not remember anything of this world again until the next Wednesday. I am told that by Sunday afternoon, I had gotten rather violent, verbally abusive, and I was simply not making sense with those things I did say. Al called a friend for help. I had very little by way of vital signs, and a high fever. The decision was made to get me to the hospital. I fought that. They carried me to the car, got me into the back seat where I passed out, and by the time we got to the ER, I was “non-responsive.”
My body went to the hospital, I went somewhere else. I told them I didn’t want to go there.
Let me back up here with two quick, relevant stories.
I’d been out of my body once before. I was a child, nine or so, with a case of pneumonia and I coughed myself out of my body. I remember being in the upper corner of the room where my body was laying on the sofa. At first, I was surprised and amused. It was cool. Except I noticed my mother’s fear and that didn’t feel good. I remember being in the backseat of Aunt Sally’s car with my mother in the front seat and my body in her lap. I remember going into the emergency room, me behind my mother who was still carrying my body. In the emergency room, I remember seeing that my mother was weeping, and I understood that if I got back in my body, she could stop. I did and she did.
So when I found myself out of my body again, I wasn’t scared. Surprised, yes, but I had an old memory and I knew what had happened.
Second story: I was thirty something and I had spent the day with friends on Watauga Lake. It was almost evening and we wanted to get the boat back on the trailer in daylight. We were parked at the boat ramp that is out Siam Road. The boat was loaded, my friends drove away. I got in my own car and started home. The road runs by Wilbur Lake. There was, at one time, a functioning dam, Wilbur Dam, but the lake silted up behind it and while the dam no longer produces electricity, it is still there. TVA built a second much larger dam, Watauga, a couple of miles back up the river. So Wilbur is a man-made lake between two dams, and it is shallow because of all the silt. But it is compelling, there are cliffs on the far side, the river still in it moves slowly, but perceptibly at that time of day. It looks very, very deep. I was caught by it. I walked down to the shore and stood there as the sun went down. It was beautiful, the last light on the cliffs, the slow moving water. No one else was there that evening. I don’t know how long I was there, maybe an hour, probably less… and I thought then, lightly, well, this is a vision of The River Styx…
When I went out of my body a second time, I went to Wilbur Lake. It was night, or like night. I was laying on the same shore where I stood thirty some years before. I was alone. I could see the cliffs across the water, so I knew where I was. I laid with my face turned towards the water. I had no sense of my body or what was happening with it, not even any real sense even of being without it. It just felt good to be there, it felt very good. I could hear, in the near distance, the occasional honking of wild geese.
Now, I am a storyteller, Mama Spider’s apprentice. I am the variety of apprentice that writes things. It has been my work for a lot of years. The job of the storyteller is to find meaning, to use events and language and metaphor to craft meaning so that our lives aren’t just random and chaotic, so we can know and feel some coherence. I’ve understood that for a long time. I even wrote a book about it.
So if I’m going to have a vision, the thought that it might be related to my work is not surprising. Or, that I might take some drug induced hallucination and try to make some sense of it is not surprising either. Also in my job description…. So you can have your choice about what happened, but know this as you make that choice: I, who am now deaf when I am in my body, could hear the honking of geese when I was out of it. And Wilbur Lake is now a wildlife refuge, there are wild geese there now, and there were no geese that I saw or heard that evening thirty years ago.
I lay with my face towards the water. I have no idea how long but I was comfortable and I hadn’t been comfortable in a long time. It was a great pleasure. I was happy.
I finally began to notice things floating on the water, and once I noticed them, the things themselves got much clearer and brighter. They had light, like phosphorescence, and they looked like they might be made of bones, except not put together in the way bones are. Some of these things were fanciful, astonishing constructions, some rather stunningly beautiful. Others looked like they were put together with a T-square and a plumb line, sturdy and well made. Some were bigger than others. Some spun very gently in the water. They all moved with the slow current of the river, floating, like a parade, but quiet like the tall ships passing at a distance. I laid there on the shore and watched, amazed.
And then I noticed some weren’t floating like others were, they were partly in the water like a boat in need of bailing out. There were more of these than I first realized.
I watched for a long time, no two were the same, and I came to understand that I had come to the River Styx, or my River Styx, and what I was seeing were lives in passage, what people had made of the time they were embodied on this earth, and that I was seeing the bones of the stories of those lives, and some lives were more coherent than others. Some floated on the River Styx better than others, some were brighter than others.
Some people understood their lives and their stories better than others did.
And then I looked deep into the water, and moving along the bottom, rolling, tumbling with the current, were more of those bones, but they were not connected to one another. There were a lot of them. The bottom of the River Styx was covered with these things, and there were lives there, too, pieces of them. They, too, were moving, though not as fast or easy as those who floated, the trip along the bottom was much harder. They had no coherence.
I lay for another long time looking deep into the water. And I came to understand that if I went into the water then, and that was an option, going in had been an option from the moment I got there, if I went I would be one of those that traveled on the bottom, I would be broken. I would be broken because I did not yet understand how I had come to agree to that long slow dance with the Grim Reaper and the cancer I had evidently abided for maybe as long as nine and a half years.
And when I made the decision not to go into the water, I felt Al’s hand.
Al spent close to three days, the time I was non-responsive, with his hand on my body in the hospital. His touch was the way back. And I came back.
And woke up in the hospital the sickest I’ve ever been, poisoned by the cure, with no memory of getting there. My eyes didn’t focus, my brain didn’t function very well at all, I couldn’t walk by myself, my hands were like talons, I weighed about 90 pounds, and I was violently ill with infections that had developed in my non-functioning gut.
I was angry and profane beyond anything I’ve ever been. One of my finer lessons from the Grim Reaper came very shortly after I woke up: don’t try to coldcock a nurse when you’ve just come back from the River Styx. You are not strong enough to do it.
I came home to Al and my old dog after another week and a day in the hospital. My bowels were functioning again. I couldn’t even get to the bathroom by myself. I hired help so Al could be, at least a little, about his own business; if nothing else, he could catch up on sleep.
And I quit the medical protocol. No more poison. The docs agreed that going on with the protocol probably wasn’t a good idea. My body doesn’t respond well to chemotherapy. I felt that was something of an understatement.
I do wonder what percentage of cancer patients die of the cure, die with the disease but not of the disease. It is a statistic that is not easy to find.
The climb back to functioning minimally over the next months proved to be hard. But I had a great deal to think about and try to make sense of, and a job beyond simply recovering my body. What I had seen felt like it might be important and my storyteller job is always, always to write stuff down. I am writing; this story of the out-of body experience is one of a new series.
The news since, thanks to a recent CT scan, is of the good and bad variety. The good news is that my lower body is cancer free. The bad news is that there is another incidence of cancer in my left lung. The docs say it is probably not a metastasis which is supposed to be of the good news variety. It is small and treatable, but it has to be done. I’ve already had Grim Reaper 101; didn’t want 201, but I don’t have much choice if I want to live. Even being deaf now—which is monumentally hard, don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise—I think I love my life more for almost having lost it. I’m not afraid of the other option, I’m just far more aware now of how valuable and joyous this embodied state can be. Funny how that works.