In college, I was a member of my school’s theater group. Membership required an audition, and once in, you were committed to assisting in various capacities (acting, set design, lights, costumes, ticket sales, etc.) with the many theater productions held throughout your tenure. Without question, it was one of the experiences that most shaped my college years, an experience of such magnitude that decades later, I still count it as one of the great and wholly undeserved blessings of my life.
During one winter season, I was cast as Billie, the older sister of an autistic poet, in a production of Katherine Snodgrass’s one-act play Haiku. A larger production was using the main theater for their practices, so we held ours in a room located just off a set of stairs that led to the lobby for the main theater.
One night during rehearsal, when the Haiku cast took a break, I headed for the restroom located in the lobby. At this point, the other production was now in the middle of a dress rehearsal. Unfortunately, when I closed the door to our practice room behind me, I cut off my only light source, so I felt my way forward and guesstimated where the stairs started.
Except, I guessed and estimated incorrectly.
My foot hit air, and in keeping with the laws of gravity, my downward plunge began.
In that moment, I learned why filmmakers sometimes show intense sequences in slow motion: slowing the speed of a scene often tells a truer story than telling it in real time. In my case, the next few seconds felt longer than any I’ve ever know; despite the seemingly logical confines of time, I gained more life experience with each airborne nanosecond than some perhaps do in a year’s worth of living. I fell through the blackness, somehow pitching sideways in the process and landed with no small force on my left side.
Here’s a good example of understatement: This hurt.
I couldn’t see a thing, so I had no idea which step I was on. In my slow-motion mind, there was this pregnant, half-second of pause.
And then I bounced.
I flew upward (it felt) into all that blackness again, suspended midair momentarily, and then Bam! I had a full-body self-smackdown at the next step, where I paused, and then bounced again. And again.
And again, horizontal all the while, landing each time (it felt) on the same side of my head, on the same arm, the same ribs, the same leg, all of it the same, all of it like a flash fiction version of Groundhog’s Day.
And so it went for the duration of the flight.
But here was the thing: I needed and wanted to scream, the type of screaming that would make the screamer’s mother wonder how she could have birthed such a creature. But I didn’t, because there was a dress rehearsal going on in the next room and I was determined not to interrupt it.
I bit my tongue the whole way down, thus saving the cast from hearing words that would not have been a credit to my people (another understatement). Finally, I hit the bottom and lay on the lobby floor, unable to move. In this case, I was fine with immobility; I had no desire to do anything or go anywhere. So I just stayed there, a woman stunned.
Then I started thinking, “I’ve heard stories of people who have cracked their necks falling down flights of stairs.” I tried to move and couldn’t. “Maybe I cracked my neck,” I thought. I pondered this a moment and then thought, “Or, maybe I’m dead. Maybe this is how it feels to be dead.”
I thought about that. It’s an interesting turn of events, when you’re nineteen and you think you may have inadvertently stumbled into the Great Hereafter on your way to pee.
Then, while I contemplated my possible passing, I noticed a soft light coming from the distance above my head. My first thought, honestly, when I saw the light, was, “Seriously?” It felt so cliché. “So those near-death stories are right? There’s an actual light?”
The old adage to “stay away from the light” ran through my mind, and oddly enough, I remember weighing the possible wisdom or stupidity of this. I made a weak attempt at trying to move again, but I found I still wasn’t going anywhere. The light also seemed to hold steady, so it appeared I had myself a situation.
After a time, I began to notice something new: pain, and lots of it. Given my concerns, this seemed rather positive, really. My whole body began to throb, and the pain continued to intensify.
Eventually, I realized I could shift my weight a bit. I tried sliding my legs and arms an around a little. I found I could, but the pain this caused required more tongue-biting. I tilted my head upward and stared in the direction of the light. It was dim, unwavering, and very, very thin.
Finally, it dawned on me. The light I saw was coming from underneath the bathroom door, cast by the bathroom’s safety lighting that remained on when the regular lights were turned off. I was, in fact, still here on earth, lying on the lobby floor outside the women’s bathroom, having landed, it turns out, incredibly close (but alas, no cigars) to my intended destination.
It turns out I wasn’t dead yet.
I don’t know how long I stayed on the floor before I was able to get up and return to practice. I do know, based on the looks I got, I must have been a sight when I walked back through the door. My cast members later told me they had been wondering why I was taking so long and had thought about sending someone to look for me.
Against expectation, all my bones and internal organs remained intact. It was over a month before I could lie on my left side, or cross my legs while sitting, or even put on clothes comfortably. My whole body, and particularly my left side, remained shades of black, blue, green, and purple for weeks, looking like I’d rolled myself in theater makeup for a bit part as victim #2 in a crime thriller. But considering I had spent several minutes thinking I had perhaps unwittingly given up the ghost, I guess all’s well that ends well.