I want to know what it is to be alive.
After this, perhaps I shall know.
Charles Merritt remembers the building precisely — it seems to spiral up into an unseen place in the smog above. He wonders each time he enters, how it felt to lay each brick. Did any of the workers cut their hands? What pain was poured out so this structure could know life? Was there blood? Was there death? To build something so remarkable, what anguish was mixed into the bones?
He is trekking to an office on the twelfth floor, high enough that the world below appears small, but low enough movements down on the street retain their observable essence. The air is raw with an iciness, and his taxi was kind enough to commit a turning violation, to park him outside the spinning, front doors. Each person who enters is a bit different, but all hurriedly spinning to the same place, an abrupt emptying into the grand atrium lobby. The walls are dark marble, encrusted by gold outlining — most likely a brass, overlaid with a golden glazed substitute.
On the wall directly inside the doors, is a placard listing each occupant of the building offices. The psychiatrist Charles has been medically-ordered to see, Dr. Sheffenfield is situated in suite 1200B, the second corridor on the twelfth floor. He has been seeing her for more than a year now and feels progress is exponentially slow. The troubles he comes with weekly, always seem to multiply by the time he leaves. Mr. Merritt is afflicted, plagued by a consuming fear, one he has great trouble in lessening. Charles is afraid of that which all will eventually pass through, the tunnel of death. He is not afraid of the grand afterness he believes death to be, but rather the actual experience of dying. He fears it will be painful, or that he will not be in command of the choice. His quality of living is burdened by the shadow that all things will end, even life.
On this day, Charles walks into the belly of the building and sulks to the stairwell on the right side of the room. He prefers stairs, they keep his energy moving and there is a calmness to the act of ascension. The stairwell is clearly not frequently used, as there is a flickering light between the ninth and tenth-floor doors. Charles mumbles to himself while he mounts the final steps of his journey and opens the door to the twelfth floor.
Dr. Sheffenfield’s office has an iridescently illuminated waiting room, with uncomfortable wooden chairs meticulously spaced in two lines against either wall. The lights are harsh, and make it difficult to see the glass receptionist window at the center of the far wall. A young man, sitting with a slouched posture, chews gum aggressively while scrolling through his cellphone feed. Charles approaches the window, and knocks gently, to which the receptionist rolls back one window.
“Charles Merritt is here to see Dr. Sheffenfield.” He says with quiet seriousness.
“I will let her know you are here if you would have a seat right there and wait just a moment.” The young man responds, pointing to an unappealing chair.
“Yes, I will wait.” Mr. Merritt says.
After a handful of minutes, Dr. Sheffenfield appears at the door and calls for Charles to join her. Dr. Sheffenfield is a respectable, short woman in roughly her fiftieth decade of life. She has silver curly hair, with strips of black that tone her mane. Her nails are painted a deep maroon and shaped like perfect almonds. She smiles, but it never feels quite genuine. Today, she is wearing a long pale poncho and tight crimson leggings which accent her nails. She takes Charles to her office, and motions for him to sit down on either the couch or plush chair she has ready for her clients.
“How are you feeling today?” She asks as she does at the beginning of every session.
“I am well,” Charles responds.
“How are you coping with the diagnosis?” Dr. Sheffenfield inquires with a dryness, her thick glasses perched on her nose like an open brown book.
“Doctor, it has been a year, and I am still not coping well. They said I only had a few months, and it’s been almost fourteen. I detest this purgatory. Having heightened awareness of our mortality is such a difficult experience. It is as though a shuttle is coming, but I am terrified I will miss it. Life is such a grand thing, I would hate to miss the end of it.”
“So you are still afraid of death.” The doctor retorts with a slightly warmer dryness.
“No. Like I have said before, I am not afraid of death, I am afraid of dying. Every moment is a death, a slipping of the sand. Every thought you have is half-dead as you think it. And if you speak the thought, it is being resurrected from the graveyard of your mind. That is what brains are, cemeteries of thoughts waiting to be resurrected.” Charles says while moving his hands from his lap to point to his temples.
“That is quite the image, thought-provoking even.” Dr. Sheffenfield looks down to her paper pad and goes silent while writing notes. Charles purses his lips and recognizes his thoughtful depth goes unappreciated. On the wall behind the doctor, a collection of diplomas hang, all from elite universities. The doctor either comes from privilege or sought it out persistently, Charles reminds himself.
“So, how are you coping with the diagnosis?” The doctor asks again with inflection.
“I am really not, to be frank. I am just waiting, not so much as coping.” Charles shrugs.
The room goes silent, until Dr. Sheffenfield puts down her pen, leans back in her chair, and indicates she is about to draw a conclusion.
“Here is what I see.” She says, pausing to peer at Charles directly, before continuing. “What you are afraid of is the loss of power. But that power was always an illusion. No one knows when they will die, nor how. My job is for you to learn to accept this reality.”
“I have accepted it, I am just afraid of it.”
“Then you have not accepted it.”
“I presume not by your standards.” Charles takes a breath and rubs his chin while looking back at the wall of diplomas. “No, I have not.”
“Okay, we can leave this discussion there for the moment. Tell me about what daily life is like for you at this point in treatment.”
“I have been thinking about doors a great deal lately.”
“Doors? Tell me more about that.”
“Yes, doors. They follow me everywhere. I see them at the bottom of heights, and next to objects, usually of the sharp variety. I understand death to be one, a door. Something right there, right beyond the tips of my fingers.”
“So we are back to death.”
“Well, I am dying. I have been medically ordered by my physician to see you as part of my treatment. You are supposed to make this transition more tolerable.”
“Alright, well, are these doors threatening? Do they scare you?”
“There have been times that they do when they flash suddenly into view. They are at times quite terrifying, and other times they are warm and inviting. It really depends on how I am feeling at the moment.”
“What do you think the doors are? Hallucinations?”
“More like spirits surrounding me. Like the veil has been splintered.”
“I see.” Dr. Sheffenfield says. “I can prescribe something for these doors you see.”
“How are you physically feeling? Is the treatment helping to mitigate the pain?”
“I suffer, but I feel content. I think there is a profundity to suffering, a kind of sight.”
“What kind of sight?”
“Maybe not a sight, but more of a sense. A sense of contemplation and acceptance of blindness to the total truth of it all. I wish I could embrace the moment of death like I have learned to embrace suffering.”
“You are making progress, give yourself some grace.” She says, with almost a hint of nurturance as she glides her pen across a piece of paper. “Take this prescription to your pharmacy and get some rest. I am prescribing lots of rest for you before we speak again next week. You need it. I suspect the doors will disappear with these medications and rest.”
Charles takes the paper, extends a comment of his gratitude, and retrieves his belongings from their place on the corner coat hanger. His coat is a long, worn charcoal tweed and the cap is fraying sun-faded mahogany. While the ensemble does not match perfectly, they had become companions to one another throughout Mr. Merrit’s life due to a desire for consistency. Charles nods to Dr. Sheffenfield, acknowledges their meeting time next week, and leaves the office.
Descending the stairs, Charles is emptied into the lobby where he finds a wastebasket and slowly crumples the prescription in his palm, before releasing it into the container. He is not of the belief that he is smarter than Dr. Sheffenfield, he merely knows the truth behind the doors. They are not something to ignore, yet they, at times, trouble him. He would rather be troubled than medicated he decides.
In a compulsion to never be late, Charles takes a taxi to his appointments but chooses the method of the subway to return home. Pulling his coat collar close, Charles prepares to enter the cold world beyond the building doors, and steps into the loud environment outside. Traffic is heightened this time of day, and a crash has happened nearby — producing a symphony of honking — which Charles always finds distressing. He hurries to the subway stairwell and descends into the bowels of the city.
The subway is almost silent, compared to the events above. The schedule display announces that his train is almost arriving, so he finds himself a space on the platform. Next to him is an old woman in a large coat, a purple knitted cap, and torn gloves cradling a brown paper bag. She nods to Charles, showing a row of mismatched teeth, one of which is missing, and turns her attention to the sound of rattling tracks. The train is arriving.
Charles looks out into the tunnel, to see a bright light approaching. The whistle blows, and a voice from a loudspeaker instructs everyone to stand behind the yellow stripe on the edge of the platform. He gazes down to his shoes, making sure he is following directions, and when his sight returns to the train he is washed by a resounding fear.
In front of the train is a horrifying mirage. A door with thick smoke and a wounded howling emanating from within, flashes before Charles. He panics and runs from the platform, startling the woman next to him, who drops her grocery bag. A head of lettuce tumbles alongside Charles as he flees up the stairs, leaving the woman’s shouts of frustration to echo from below.
Charles’ running eventually turns back into a steady pace, as he finds a building corner to lean on for a moment. He locates the street number of where he is and recognizes that he is only twelve blocks from home. It is cold, but perhaps he could use the time to calm himself.
The following week, Charles again calls a cab outside his apartment. He sits contently in the backseat, as he watches the city pass before him. When the car arrives at his destination, he thanks the driver, and hands her all the cash he is carrying. She is clearly bewildered, but grateful.
The lobby is quiet today, there are fewer people moving about than usual. It is peaceful. Charles enters the stairwell and begins his ascent to Dr. Sheffenfield’s office. Someone has fixed the flickering light between floors nine and ten, which causes Charles to smile. When he surmounts the stairs to the twelfth floor, he pauses. After a moment, he enters her office and alerts the receptionist to his arrival. The young man tells him to sit for a moment and wait, she will be out shortly.
Charles Merritt goes to sit, but something stirs in him today. There is no more waiting, no more need to wait. Quietly, Charles stands and leaves the waiting room, back into the stairwell. From behind him, he hears Dr. Sheffenfield call out to him. He does not respond but instead continues up the stairs. As he nears the roof entrance, floor twenty-four, he senses footsteps down a few flights coming toward him. He opens the rooftop door and steps out into the sun.
Charles spends a moment standing in the sunlight. He outstretches his arms and welcomes the overwhelming warmth to spread through his entire body. His praying is interrupted, as Dr. Sheffenfield swings open the door.
“Charles, what is going on? Are you okay? I called out to you and you just ignored me!” She says with obvious frustration.
Charles ignores her again and turns his eyes to the building ledge. A door, subtle but magnificent, glows out over the edge of the building. Charles slowly walks toward the framed gateway to an unknown beyond. He faces Dr. Sheffenfield and confesses, “I want to know what it is to be alive.”
Dr. Sheffenfield, confused, attempts to coax Charles down from the dangerous height, but he does not listen. Instead, he speaks again.
“After this, perhaps I shall know.” He turns back to the looming door, reaches out to the knob, turns it with intention, and takes a deep inhale. He steps through.