• Drew Clayborn

The Beauty of Life and Death

What exactly IS death? Is it the absence of life or a continuation on to something else? In light of it being Spinal Cord Injury Awareness month I want to talk about life and death because its a very large reality that every person with a SCI has to deal with every day. Continuing living life knowing death can be right around the corner. I don’t know the answer to these questions. All I know is that I’m here.

About two months ago I had a pretty close call. I was sitting at my desk working on my computer when my chair unknowingly turned on. I leaned my head back on my headrest and the chair started driving forward. My first thought always if I hear my chair initiate is to quickly move out of the way of my joystick so it doesn’t poke me in the eye or worse go down my throat. Unfortunately this means that I’m still pushing my head against my headrest which is what controls the chair. My next thought is, well luckily my nurse is standing right here. Surely she’ll think to do something to stop the chair or worse case push the desk out the way so I can turn the chair off. Instead she decided to scream my name repeatedly, stare at me like a deer at headlights, and stammer utterances realizing my chair had pinned my throat against the desk so I can’t tell her what to do. All I hear are my wheels skidding against the floor as the chair continues to try to drive forward. I’m trying to lip to her “turn the chair off!” Luckily my dad is home. She screams for him, and as soon as she does I immediately put all my focus on my neck and throat, tightening every muscle I can to try to protect from as much damage as I can. Not realizing I was starting to pass out. I blacked out. Woke up across the room with my dad holding a crushed set of tubes up to my trach to try and get some air in me. He’s also yelling to her to go grab some replacement pieces in the bathroom. She can’t find them so he goes and grabs them. Comes back, fixes the tubing, I’m breathing, catastrophe over, right?

This was all the damage that had occurred to my throat

After something like that happens how do you just continue on with your day? He’s gotta go out to work with a smile? I’m supposed to get back on my computer and finish my work? I ended up going outside and sitting in the sun for a couple hours. Trying not to think about what happened. About how if my dad hadn’t been there I most likely would have died. How I don’t feel safe with this nurse here. Then the question that I always propose to myself arises. If I knew I was going to die today, how would I feel?

Before I answer that I want to tell you another story. Back in April I was extremely stressed, overwhelmed, scared, nervous, and worried for many different reasons. Then I got sick for a week; and while I was sick I saw these two things scrolling through Facebook. I want to tell you about them because they allowed me to take a step back, reevaluate things, and give myself a break.

The first thing I saw was a post from a photographer who had the opportunity to capture a natural home birth from start to finish. It was a series of over 150 pictures capturing every step of the process; from contractions and counter pressure, the screams of labor, all the hands of support being placed on her, to then the relief and joy that rushed over her knowing what was about to come, tears of joy when she met her daughter for the first time as she latched on, birthing the placenta, the husbands involvement and complete admiration towards his wife and daughter, and the existence of life flowing through this child.

Seeing this viscerally play out, filled me with so many emotions. Watching the experience of how all of us came into the world. Extreme pain, agony, and discomfort immediately followed by happiness, relief, joy, and excitement. These are just the least graphic images by the way. If you want to see all the gruesome details check out Vanessa Mendez Photography

Right after that I read an article, breaking down the commemoration that was held by Northern Michigan University for Carlo Estupigan who I went to middle and high school with.

In January, Carlo passed away after going out to Yellow Dog River and being exposed during a really bad snow storm. Carlo loved photography, fishing, and being outdoors. I’m not gonna say we were close but I have many vivid memories of Carlo. I was more of a fan than a friend. Being a socially awkward kid I was ultra observant of others and I extremely admired Carlo. Even at a young age while everyone is trying so hard to be included and fit in, myself included, here was this guy that was always so genuine to him. Never said what he didn’t feel, wasn’t afraid to go against the norm, while also being so inviting to others, and because of it was extremely infectious and gravitational for so many people. I can remember a time when I would always sit with him at lunch, hang with him in the hallway if he was sitting against the lockers, trying to be his friend but we didn’t really connect like that. Did I mention I was socially awkward?

So much of reading this story of the commemoration touched me. Even rereading it to write this has tears rolling down my face. The Biology department opened up the Zoological museum and another lab that he worked at. His family, friends, and everyone that heard his story were all able to walk through his daily life. People came up and spoke saying beautiful things about him. His dad told the story of the first time Carlo visited that river, and how he text him a picture of it and said, I found my new home you would love it. His aunt who had inspired him to do photography spoke saying,

‘‘Every sunset, mountain, and bird I see is for Carlo now.’’

His mom recited a poem that read,

So when you walk the wood where once we walked together

and scan in vain the dappled bank beside you for my shadow

or pause where we always did upon the hill to gaze across the land,

and spotting something, reach by habit for my hand,

Be still.

Close your eyes.


Listen for my footfall in your heart,

I am not gone but merely walk within you.

These stories had such a profound affect on me. To see so much beauty and love that came from some of the most difficult, painful, gruesome challenges that you can be faced with; both child birth and losing a loved one. Thinking about how in some shape or form this is how all of us came into this world, and one way or another this is how we will all leave. Whatever happens in between these two events in our lives is nothing compared to the sonic boom we created, and will one day create again. The effect that you feel from the unavoidable heartwarming feeling from seeing life come in to a babies eyes is no different than feeling the effect that Carlo’s death had, not just on you but so many others. I would argue his effect is even greater based on the number of people still feeling it 9 months later. Part of the celebration was for student photographers to tag their photos on Instagram with #captureforcarlo and the best photos won awards. I follow the tag on instagram, and I can tell you that damn near every day I still see new photos taken with Carlo in mind.

So what is death? I believe it is a continuation of what we see every day. No matter where we as mankind have looked to understand our environment, whether it’s looking out as large as the stars and the universe or as small as atoms and within ourselves, we are always met with the same phenomena. Something so unimaginable, something so profound, so unexplainable, so unexpectedly beautiful and complex, something that puts you in awe and at a loss of words. Death, I believe, will be no different. It’s not something we need to look to understand, or be afraid of, or try to avoid, because we’ll be met with the same phenomena by whatever we encounter.

At the same time, if I knew I was dying today, I’d be filled with a wide variety of emotions. Excited to see what’s to come. Sad thinking about all the amazing things in this world that I’ve yet to see or try. Hopeful that ghosts are real so I can see my family grow and have fun without me. Mad that I wasn’t able to accomplish my ultimate goal of getting out of this chair. Glad and relieved that I’ve gone before my family so that they, and I, can move forward from this catastrophe. At peace.

For now, all I know is that I’m here and will continue to push through anything I’m faced with so that one day maybe I can have as much of an impact as Carlo.

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