• June 16, 2024

The Winters of My Discontent “Write about a character emerging from hibernation, whether literally or metaphorically”

I didn’t wake up on November 29th, 2023. The day prior I remember vividly. I drove two hours into western Minnesota to replace some fuses in a pad-mount transformer. Easy job when you bring the right fuses. I wasn’t prepared to stand outside in the freezing cold all day waiting for them. Waiting is the coldest thing you can do. I had checked the weather that morning, but I refused to acknowledge that it was long john season already. “Can’t stand this cold, huh?” the guy said when he showed up with the fuses and found me shivering. “Does a bear shit in the woods?” I replied through chattering teeth. When I got back to my trailer late that night I wanted to sleep forever.

 

They told me Deb found me. She owned the ten space RV park in Bruce, South Dakota (population: 211) that was closing for winter the next day. I was off that day, so I’d have plenty of time to unhook, winterize, hitch up and pull my trailer into storage, then go move in with Mom in Sioux Falls for the rest of winter. I never thought to lock my door in Bruce anyway, but I’m glad I didn’t so Deb could walk right in when I hadn’t left her lot on December 1st. She relishes every opportunity to tell the story. How relieved she was not to smell a dead body. How she stood over me like she had her own sons when they slept well past a reasonable hour and implored me to get up. How her and her husband threw the kitchen sink at me before they called an ambulance: shakes, kicks, pots and pans, cold water, a couple slaps to the face.

 

Mom’s version starts at the hospital. She rushed the doctor. “Is my son alive?”

 

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Irving,” he said, crushing Mom, “but at this point we’re not quite sure.”

 

She reanimated. “’Not quite sure’? You can’t tell if someone’s alive or dead? What kind of fucking doc-” she looked around the corridor and shouted, “Can I get a real doctor over here?”

 

“Mrs. Irving, your son’s body temperature and heart rate are extremely low, and he’s not responding to our efforts to raise them, but he hasn’t quite flatlined yet. I’ve never seen a person hang on in this state as long as he has. We’re doing everything we can, but I can say with certainty that if he doesn’t start responding to treatment right away, he won’t be with us much longer, and if he does recover, he’s likely to have severe brain damage.”

 

***

I woke up to the sun shining through the slits in the aluminum blinds of my hospital room. I tried to get up but I felt like my body was buried in sand. When the nurse walked in she was so used to me being practically dead that she didn’t notice my eyes were open. As she reached next to the bed for the feeding tube I turned my head toward her and whimpered and she nearly jumped out of her skin. Mom was better prepared when she showed up later in her work uniform. The hugs hurt.

 

It was April 3rd, the next year. They said it was a medical miracle that I recovered at all, let alone fully. She never told me, but I found out from one of the nurses that Mom actually had them pull the plug on me at some point, only it didn’t take, so they plugged me back in. I didn’t hold it against her. The doctor was convinced that I had been in a normal coma the whole time, with a normal heart rate and body temperature, but that the hospital’s equipment was malfunctioning, so he sent it all in for recalibration. “That’s the only plausible explanation,” he kept saying, although not very contentedly.

 

Work was kind enough to put me on short-term disability which meant I got 60% of my pay and stayed on my insurance. A lot of good that did. Turns out that while I was mindlessly clicking through Open Enrollment I neglected to pay for the “Critical Illness” coverage that wouldn’t have prevented me from going completely broke but would have meant I didn’t owe the rest of my life in medical debt. Me, the guy who could have gone to a four-year college but lived with mom and worked and got his Associate’s at a community college instead, who lived in a travel trailer and saved every dollar possible to buy his first house someday in cash, no mortgage, who didn’t drink much or have any expensive hobbies. That guy, me, was now drowning in debt.

 

It turns out the debt-anxiety relationship is not linear. There is a point where your debt is so laughably large that you don’t really care anymore, about anything. Money means nothing to you. It’s never yours. You have no incentive to earn, nothing to save for, nothing to look forward to, no way out. My trailer was now my forever home. Single life was just life. I used to like work; now I only wanted to sleep. Sleep was free. All I did that spring, summer, and fall was sleep and work, until the cold day in mid-November when I didn’t wake up again.

 

This time work dropped me. Since I had no income, Mom had to pay my COBRA premiums. That’s the real kicker of the US healthcare system: it doesn’t just bankrupt you, it bankrupts anyone who loves you enough to keep you alive. Otherwise, same story as last time, with the same stumped doctor and his faulty equipment theory that was proven wrong over and over again. A COVID resurgence kept him and the medical community occupied that winter, so I was an afterthought. I even scared the same nurse the same way when I woke up four months later. “Fool me twice, shame on me!” she told the whole hospital. My medical debt was now a small country’s GDP. I still hadn’t paid for Critical Illness coverage because who goes into a coma twice? Work ended up hiring me back, though. Apparently they didn’t have much luck replacing me.

 

They fired me all over again when it happened the third straight winter. Now there was a pattern. It always started on the unofficial first day of winter, the one that we all know but hits different in every region. I’m talking about the first day you feel winter. The first day you dread going outside. The first day that bundling up seems like an unbearable chore. That unofficial, roving solstice was the day I went down each of the past three years. And that winter, Mom, the doctors, the nurses, and everyone else that knew me figured I’d wake up again on its opposite, the unofficial first day of spring, but before they could be proven right, things got a little crazy.

 

It started with the local media, and within 24 hours I went viral. Then the national media picked it up to make sure anyone living under a rock saw the images of me unconscious and barely alive in my hospital bed. Now Mom had to walk through a gauntlet of cameras and microphones in the hospital parking lot to get to and from her car. The takes didn’t amuse her, but I got a kick out of them later. Of course, there were plenty of accusations that I was faking, and with them all sorts of ideas of how to prove it: hold a lighter to my foot, smother me with a pillow, hold my eyes open A Clockwork Orange-style and then hire a stripper and wait for me to pitch a tent. The word “parasite” got thrown around more than any other. I was taking up valuable hospital resources, some said. Of course, those saying that were not healthcare administrators. Then the “no one wants to work anymore” crowd started to use me as their pariah.

 

The attention had a positive side, though. As it goes here in America, if you’re lucky enough to have a viral affliction (not to be confused with an actual virus) you can crowdsource your medical bills. It actually did make a dent. I guess every “parasite” is someone’s working class hero. A new trend developed in my name: hibernating. The Internet started using the word even though the doctors and scientists refused to. There were scores of human hibernation tutorials online that advised on the best jobs to quit every winter, and how to save up and store food so you could do nothing but sleep and game for months on end. The Wall Street Journal and the like lambasted hibernation as the next great Gen Z crisis.

 

I wasn’t sure what to do that third spring after I woke up and took it all in. Was I a celebrity now? There was no way I’d get my old job back. I actually had to watch some of those tutorials to figure out what to do. I couldn’t get a full-time job, so no health insurance through work. And even though it’s illegal now to refuse coverage to someone with a pre-existing condition, no insurer is required to cover four-month hospital stays at a reasonable price. Things were looking pretty grim. Then the grown-up tech bro douche bag billionaire found me.

 

I thought he’d come to assassinate me on behalf of capital. He looked at me with a weird intensity, like straight up Gollum vibes, with eyes that seemed older than the rest of his body. He looked unreal, like someone typed “50-year-old white man that looks 35” into an AI image generator. He said his name was Mychal.

 

“Yeah, your ‘people’ already introduced you to me. Look, I didn’t start the hibernation thing on purpose.”

 

He laughed without breaking eye contact. “I think you’re extraordinary,” he told me. “You hold the key.”

 

Apparently, human hibernation is kind of essential to space travel, as there’s no point in going anywhere if you won’t outlive the journey, and this creep thinks he’ll be the first to do it, with my help. In return for erasing my massive debt, I became Mychal’s personal test subject. He put me up in his place in Jackson Hole (there had to be winter, that was confirmed by experiment), and his private doctors studied me year-round. I didn’t have to work. Being scanned and poked and prodded was my job. And I got the best care money could buy. No more crappy hospital bed. I was floating in some sort of gel in some sort of pod all winter. They found out that the IV fluids and feeding tube that the hospital was giving me were unnecessary. I was just pissing and shitting it all out. There was no keeping me alive, I had that under control.

 

My second year in Jackson Hole my hibernation didn’t start on time. Who wouldn’t want to see the first snow fall on the Tetons? Plus, I had nothing to do, so nothing to force me out into the cold. Winter is glorious when you’re viewing it through the window of a perfectly climate-controlled luxury condo, bare feet on heated floors. I figured it out before the doctors and came up with a plan.

 

“I’m leaving.”

 

“But you can’t. We have so much work left to do,” Mychal begged.

 

“And what’s going to happen to me when you guys find the special sauce, huh? You’re just going to throw me back into the cold with nothing to my name. I should be out earning while I’m able.”

 

“You’ll he a hero! You’ll be a legend.”

 

“I’ll be broke.”

 

I negotiated for a trust fund and got one.

 

My third year in Jackson Hole killed it. I stayed awake long enough to enjoy the beginning of ski season and took to it pretty quickly. From then on, I looked forward to winter. That and I had no need to work, no anxiety, no debt. I was fat and happy, and meanwhile, Mychal and his scientists were befuddled. They hadn’t figured out how to induce my hibernation or end it on command, and they couldn’t explain why I’d suddenly stopped. Now it seemed that their time had run out. I laughed behind their backs. No skin off my teeth. You see, despite all their genius, tech bro and his scientists missed the obvious: bears in zoos don’t hibernate.

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