My name is Sarah, and this is the story of how I died.
It is the tale of a sixty-five year old grandmother, a former beauty queen, who made a radical decision to transform herself without considering any of the consequences.
Please don’t judge me.
My story begins the first Tuesday of October, at approximately 6 A.M., when I was jolted awake by a searing pain in my back along with lightning bolts shooting up and down my legs. After my car accident six years earlier, eight of the discs in my spine had collapsed and the pain was agonizing. Moaning softly, I wondered how my day would go; would I need my cane, my crutches or would the pain be so severe I needed my wheelchair?
The first thing I did after waking up was thump Charlie on the back and beg him to stop snoring. I loved that man with all my heart, but his nightly noises could be mistaken for a jackhammer. Next, I grabbed onto the bar extending from my headboard and slowly pulled myself into a sitting position. After that, I reached for my giant pill box and began taking my morning medications: two for pain, one for inflammation, one for spasms, one for the constipation caused by the pain meds, and one each for anxiety and depression. I often felt like I was at the end of my worn and tattered rope wondering how much longer I could hang on.
After swallowing my pills, I lowered myself down and waited for the pain relievers to take effect, closing my eyes and and re-visiting one of my favorite memories; the day I was a finalist in the Miss New Jersey competition. The day I danced and spun on a glittery stage until the whole audience burst into applause. I will always cherish that electrifying day and how it felt to be young and beautiful and able to turn men’s heads.
As hard as I tried to continue thinking of pleasant memories, I couldn’t stop my thoughts from drifting to all that I had lost. I missed teaching classes in the dance studio. Cooking dinner for my family. Helping out at the homeless shelter. I missed dancing, driving, I missed my independence. Now I had to depend on my family to help me with everything. What I missed most though, was having the strength to hold my precious grandchildren. I was grief stricken knowing all their memories of me would be as an invalid. I didn’t want to cry but the tears came pouring out.
As the pain relievers started to work, a wonderful smell began wafting into the bedroom. Charlie had gotten up and made a pot of coffee and the aroma of the delicious brew was galvanizing me into action. I cautiously swung my legs over the side of my bed and determined it would be a crutches day. Slowly I put on my underwear, some black leggings and an oversized blue sweater. I used to love wearing stylish clothing, but now I could no longer hook a bra, so my new style was big and bulky.
After breakfast, Charlie helped me put on my shoes and finish getting ready to see my pain specialist, Dr. Stein. My husband Charlie took early retirement in order to drive me to all my doctor appointments and thinking about his sacrifice always made me sad. He used to love being a history professor.
After arriving at the doctors office, Charlie and I sat in the waiting room scrolling through recent photos, and laughing at pictures of our hilarious grandkids. I put my head on Charlie’s shoulder and he squeezed my hand, knowing how much I had been looking forward to the relief the steroid injection would bring. We began talking about Dr. Stein. How he was the kind of doctor that always took the time to listen to his patients, unlike some of my doctors who treated me like a useless old woman. Of course, the thing that mattered most to Charlie and I was that Dr. Stein was knowledgeable about all the latest techniques in pain management. He offered exciting experimental treatments and kept me hopeful.
When I hobbled into the examining room I was surprised to see a second doctor there as well. Dr. Stein introduced me to his colleague Dr. Frank, a neurosurgeon, and said they had an exciting surprise for me. After helping me up on the examining table Dr. Frank explained that he and Dr. Stein had discovered an experimental treatment which would alleviate my pain entirely. I barked out, “Ha,” and told the doctors they were crazy, but they asked me to please keep an open mind. Then an odd thing happened. The doctors presented me with a document to sign. I’ve signed tons of papers in doctor’s offices but this one was different; I had to vow I would never repeat what they were about to say. As I began to sign my heart began to race, I was equal parts nervous, and excited. What an intrigue.
The doctors then approached me, lowered their voices and told me there was a thirty-year old in a nearby hospital that recently suffered brain damage after a prolonged seizure. The injury was so severe the victim was about to be declared legally dead, though the body was in excellent condition. Dr. Frank disclosed that had recently perfected brain transplant surgery. He could put my brain inside the thirty-year old’s head and make me young, beautiful and healthy again. As I began screaming with excitement, Dr. Stein clamped his hand over my mouth. I felt like I was in a dream. I bellowed, “How could you conceal this remarkable discovery from the world. Why would you do that?” Well I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear the surgery had not yet been approved by the FDA. Both Drs. Frank and Stein could lose their license if this discovery were revealed. Here’s the thing, Dr. Stein knew me well. He saw how much I had been suffering. He was aware of my depression and anxiety and how desperate I had become. He recognized I would be the ideal candidate for this surgery. I would never report them. And I never will.
With my heart began pounding like a jackhammer I asked, “What happens to me, to my body?” Already knowing I would have to die. The doctors told me that if I said yes, the plan would be to tell my family that Dr. Frank had pioneered a new pain relieving surgery. That he would implant an electric stimulator in my brain which would block pain signals. After the surgery my family would be told that I had a stroke and died. Meanwhile, the brain-dead thirty-year old would be in the same operating room. The family would be told that Dr. Frank, as a last resort, would implant a brain stimulator to try and restore function. They would live and I would die. I would wake up as a healthy thirty-year old with nothing more than a headache. I would be reborn.
I shivered as my thoughts immediately turned to my family. I asked the doctors if I would ever be able to see them again. They barked out a vehement, “No!” The success of this project was incumbent upon it remaining a secret. Even the family of the injured person would never know the truth.
Dr. Stein recommended that If I said yes, I should arrange to say good-bye to my family that night, because the next day I would be dead. At that point, every cell in my brain was racing at the speed of light, and I began hatching a plan of my own. It was brilliant. My younger daughter Jessie was thirty, the same age that I would soon be. I would join the yoga studio where she worked and become her friend, I already knew everything about her. She would eventually invite me to her home where I could meet Charlie, and make him fall in love with me again. For all the sacrifices Charlie made for me, he deserved to have a beautiful, healthy wife. It was the perfect plan.
Dr. Frank tapped me on the shoulder and shook me out of my fantasy. It was time for a decision. The accident victim’s body was deteriorating rapidly and the surgery would need to be done the next morning. I could barely breathe I wanted this so badly, but how could I do this to my family? I felt an overwhelming sadness for my children, but then I told myself that I was a burden to them. That I had been for years. That they would be better off with out me. I took a deep breath and blurted out, “Yes.” The doctors smiled and said, “Wonderful. We’ll make all the arrangements.”
That evening, my daughters and grandchildren came over for dinner and as I looked into their beautiful faces, it broke my heart to know that they would soon be mourning their mother. Afterwards, I lay awake in bed for hours, unmedicated, savoring my pain, convincing myself that the decision was justifiable. Just before midnight, in a panic, I called my daughter Jessie. I told her that if anything happens to me during surgery, I would find a way to send her a message. I said, “If a woman calls you on the phone and says Fandango, that’s me. Remember that word. Fandango.”
Jessie chuckled, “Okay, Mom,” and we both said good-night.
I woke up the next morning crying and Charlie cuddled with me in bed until it was time to get ready. I wrestled with my decision the whole drive to the hospital, going over it again and again. When we arrived, I was put in a private room and two nurses came in to prep me for the procedure. Charlie held my hand on the gurney as I was wheeled into surgery and I had my last kiss ever as Sarah. Drs. Frank and Stein were already in the operating room when I got there and I called them over and made them promise that I would wake up.
The last thing I remember as Sarah was being told to count down from ten. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a hospital room with a massive headache. My first thought was I am still me. Slowly I opened my eyes, and began to grin. I no longer had cataracts and my back wasn’t hurting. With my new crisp and clear vision, I saw Dr. Frank walking over from across the room. He bent down and whispered that the surgery had gone well. He said that my new family had been told that I had amnesia, so I wouldn’t remember who they were or much else about my life. That I would have to relearn almost everything. Meanwhile, events had transpired so quickly, I hadn’t even given a thought to my new family. Apparently, I had a mom and a dad and a family that loved me. But now my thoughts were swirling again. I would have to figure out a way to dump this new family and get back together with Charlie, but that plan was for another day.
I then realized I didn’t even know my new name. I asked Dr. Frank who I was, and jumped a foot in the air when I heard my new voice. I quickly raised my arms and saw two thick, masculine hands with a wedding ring on the fourth finger. I began hyperventilating, whimpering, “What did I do, what did I do?” Dr. Frank gently said, “Everything will be okay. From this moment on, you are Joseph Aaron Lawrence. “ I started groaning and sobbing. I didn’t know how to be a man, and I didn’t want to be a man. This ruined all my plans.
I looked up at Dr. Frank and sniveled, “Are there any other shocking surprises?” He smiled and said, “I have wonderful news. Your wife is six months pregnant. You are about to become a daddy.” I snatched Dr. Frank’s phone out of his shirt pocket and began dialing my daughter Jessie’ s number screaming “Fandango, Fandango.” Dr. Frank grabbed the phone out of my hands and said, “Let your family mourn. You have a new daughter to think about.”
I put my manly hands over my heavily bandaged head and noticed a young woman with a big belly peering in through the door. Dr. Frank beckoned to her and she came running over and sat on my bed. She wiped the tears off my face and wrapped her arms around me crying, “Oh Joey, I thought I lost you.”
I didn’t know who this woman was. She was not my family. All I wanted was Charlie.
My name is Joseph, and this is the story of how I was born.