Death Benefits – Read the Small Print

Of the side effects listed on the sheet accompanying all prescriptions, one of the scariest is the admission that our pills could cause death. This is considered a bad thing. But, maybe we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

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Death Benefits

by D.C. Lozar

The certificate I handed to my doctor said I was dead.

What’s more, it recommended (in no uncertain terms) that he approve an immediate autopsy, as my demise was suspicious in light of my young age, lack of family history, and excellent health. Indeed, Dr. Finn commented last year that if I took care of myself, I could expect to live another eighty years. I shook my head as he squinted at the document. This was why we still had human doctors – apparently, medical scanners made mistakes.

“It says here that you’re dead.” Dr. Finn had been old when I was a child. Not that he looked it. He had a trim build, fair complexion, and only a touch of gray along his temples: Such were the benefits of modern medicine, of pills, to be precise. His ocean-blue eyes filled with concern as he looked up at me. “How do you feel?”

“Fine.” I did feel well. For the last two weeks, a sense of quiet calm, a resting balance of my mood and body, had washed over me so that I was never hungry, tired, or irritable. I flew through my work projects, completed routine home chores happily, and found I had a reserve of energy and time left over to spend with my wife. We spoke more than we had in years, went on dates, and took up hiking. “Never better.”

“How’s your appetite?”

“I’m not hungry.” Curiously, I hadn’t eaten anything for several weeks.

Dr. Finn listened to my heart and lungs, checked my pupils, and felt for a pulse. His hand trembled as he did the exam, and I remembered one of his pills gave him the shakes. Taking my middle finger, he pinched it hard between two of his own. “Does that hurt?”

“No.” It didn’t – not even a little.

Frustrated, his voice hinting at his growing apprehension, he ground his knuckle into my sternum so hard I felt he might break a the bone. “Painful?”

“No.” Alarms went off in my head. Until today, nothing I’d ever presented with had rattled Dr. Finn’s professionalism. “What’s wrong?”

“How have you been sleeping?”

“I haven’t needed to.” Not sleeping, I’d finished next year’s taxes, read three books, and written some op-ed columns. In fact, I was starting to think that whole thing about needing eight hours a night was a complete scam.

“Okay…You need to be completely honest with me, James.” Dr. Finn slumped back in his rolling exam chair and folded his hands on his lap. His expression was pained but forgiving – he wanted me to know he wouldn’t judge me. “Are you doing anything differently? Have you traveled out of the country? Has anything strange or unusual happened to you recently, anything at all? This is important.”

Perplexed, I shook my head.

He leaned forward. “Are you taking drugs?”

“Not drugs.” I hesitated, wondering if I should mention it, unsure if there were any connection. “Just some herbs I found on the Internet.”

“What kind?”

“They’re all natural, completely legal.” They were. I hadn’t even needed to pay customs to ship them from Costa Rica.

“What’s in them?” The corners of Dr. Finn’s eyes crinkled, a sure sign he was on the trail of a diagnosis.

“I don’t know. They’re supposed to make you happy.” I was defensive and worried that we might be getting off track. The website said the herbs were of an ancient and rare variety, blended using a secret family recipe, and only available for a short time. They guaranteed users one hundred percent satisfaction, or they would refund our money. Indeed, the reviews were all five stars and overflowing with glowing testimonials. In retrospect, I will admit, I neglected to check if the customers were verified purchasers but, at the time, their endorsements convinced me to give the stuff a try. “Besides, I ran out two weeks ago.”

“How long did you take them for?”

“I don’t know, about a month.”

“Why didn’t you order more?”

It was a valid question. I had tried, but the website, an amateurish endeavor with a hand-drawn smiling skull as a logo (an element I initially took to be a creative, albeit ironic, marketing tool) said supplies had run low. Potential patrons were advised to check back regularly for updates. Additionally, individuals, like myself, who had finished their course of supplements, would not need to reorder as they had taken enough to guarantee eternal happiness. So, I answered truthfully. “They ran out.”

Dr. Finn adjusted his wire-rim glasses and harrumphed. The disregard he entertained for alternative medicine was well known to both his staff and patients. Here now, was proof. I could practically hear the gears locking into place as he prepared his monolog about the dangers of self-medication. Rather than listening to the rant, I decided to mollify him before he started. “I should have asked you.”

“Well, yes,” he admitted nonplus.

We waited another moment for his prepared speech to re-arrange itself into something that might be a better fit for my particular circumstances. “Be that as it may, the real problem is simply that you have no heartbeat, respirations, or vitals. Your body temperature is that of room air; you feel no pain, and, by your own admission, you are not sleeping or eating, and these hard facts leave me with no alternative but to conclude that you are, as much as it pains me to say it, clinically dead.”

“That sucks.” It wasn’t the most profound thing to say, but I challenge anyone, given the same circumstances, to come up with something better.

“Of course, there will be no fee for today’s visit.” Dr. Finn walked me to the door and shook my hand. “I don’t have a license to treat the dead.”

“What next?”

“I’ll say you died due to natural causes – in particular, an overdose of imported herbs – and sign the death certificate this afternoon. The medical examiner is a friend of mine, so I think I can get him to sidestep the autopsy.” There were soft tears in Dr. Finn’s eyes. He wiped them away with a trembling finger. “I’ll miss you, James. You were one of my favorite patients.”

“Goodbye.” I felt awkward. It was like he was waiting for me to hug him or pat him on the back. Maybe he was looking for forgiveness for having let me die, for failing me, or maybe it was hard for someone who spent their career preventing death to see it smile back at them. I gave him a fist-bump. “I feel okay.”

“I’m glad,” he sniffed. “I’ll call your wife and let her know the bad news.”

I thought about how that might go. “You don’t need to, Doc. I’ll tell her myself. First thing. I think she’ll take it better coming from me.”

He cocked his head to one side, unsure but relieved. “You were very young. Your death will come as a shock. Tell her to call if she needs any pills to help with the grief.”

I moved toward the exit. “I’ll let her know. Thanks.”

Dr. Finn gave me an apologetic nod, and I left.

Now, here’s where it gets weird.

Being dead in the modern hi-tech world does not “suck.”

Au contraire (I’m learning French), it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

I can break any law I want, and no one can arrest me. I fly for free, watch movies without a ticket, and never worry about dying in a car accident or natural catastrophe. My debt is annulled, and my wife cashed in my life insurance policy for an exorbitant sum – owing to my prior statistically low probability of death. Needless to say, whatever preliminary qualms she held about the diagnosis (we considered getting a second opinion but then thought better of it) have since evaporated.

When we married, we vowed to stay together “until death did us part,” but neither of us feels like we need to take this literally. We’ve always felt a deeper than mortal connection, and now, with no financial concerns, we’ve been able to quit our jobs, travel, learn new languages, and enjoy our lives together with a freedom that would never have been possible if I were alive.

So, when the smiling-skull website procured a new but limited supply of herbs and offered them to the public, I wrote a glowing testimonial, taking care to document that I was a verified and exceptionally happy customer.

I did leave out the part about dying.

They’ll find out soon enough. Besides, it’s like what Dr. Finn explained when I asked him why he still took his pills when they gave him the shakes. “Everything has side effects, James. You just have to learn how to live with them.”

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