“Purgatory,” by Michael O’Rourke

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Nonfiction by Michael O’Rourke excerpted from our Spring 2017 issue.


I’d never felt it before, I haven’t felt it since, and I only felt it briefly: I was okay with dying. Not “I want to,” not indifference, and certainly not, “I’m ready now, God”—just okay with it. A day or two later (or was it that same pre-dawn morning, covered in my own blood?) I recalled part of the ending of a William Carlos Williams poem whose title was long lost to me…

An old woman near death is being transported by ambulance to a hospital. She looks out the window, sees some “fuzzy-looking things,” asks what they are, and when told they are trees, replies, “Well, I’m tired of them.”

That pre-dawn morning I understood what she was feeling.


I get up to pee and immediately fall to the floor. Try to stand, can’t. Then I notice, in the dim glow of the nightlight, that the bed is covered in blood, as (noticing next) am I.

My wife rouses, sees.

“I’m calling an ambulance.”

“No, no, I’m all right.”

When they arrive I’ve crawled my way to the bathroom, peeled off my underwear, and, with the strength of a 155-pound Hercules who by now has lost half the blood in his body, heaved myself into the bathtub in an attempt to clean up.

They grab me by the legs and under the arms.

“I think I passed out.”

“You did.”

They haul me naked and soaking wet out of the tub, through the house, out the door (freezing January air), and into the back of the waiting ambulance.

A brightly lit chamber.

This is pretty interesting, I’m thinking, as he slips an IV into the crook of my right arm.

“Number six?”

“Number six.”

(“Why do they always use a number six?” a nurse later complains.)

All this glittery medical paraphernalia lining the inside.

The muffled siren starts. The softly jostling ride.

“Are you warm now?”

He’s stuffed a towel against my ass and covered me with blankets.

“Yes. Thank you. I’m sorry about this.”

“Your wife is following in the car.”

“Thank you.”

To continue reading “Purgatory,” purchase MQR 56:2 for $7, or consider a one-year subscription for $25.

Image: Casabere, James. “Hospital.” 1997. Silver dye bleach print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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