Stormy Weather, painting in acrylic by Marilyn Papayanis

Twenty-one Seconds

On my seventy-third birthday, my heart stopped for three minutes and twenty-one seconds. This is the one thing everyone agrees on, because my pacemaker registered the incident accurately while not stopping the attack. Up to three minutes without oxygen is likely to cause no future harm to the brain, but what about those twenty-one seconds?


I read the dry information presented on the Internet with deep interest. Somewhere in these words is the answer to my question:

six seconds to loss of consciousness;

localized brain damage can occur after two minutes without oxygen;

after four minutes, brain cells start to die.

I spent twenty-one seconds in the danger zone, only thirty-nine seconds away from the permanent loss of brain cells. I think of how I was never the one to live dangerously. Wild rides at amusement parks were never on my to-do list. I never attempted to parachute from a flying plane or bungee off a bridge over a roaring waterfall. I’d rather experience climbing steep hills to see the vista, or skiing down a snowy slope, by watching a documentary.

Loss of brain cells: I wonder about this. Am I a changed person now? A person who was tossed into oblivion and came back to tell about it?

I am forced to admit that I have no recollection of any great revelations from my brief death. I’m not one of those people who come back from the dead and describe the other world to those who stayed behind. I didn’t see any mysterious lights or review the vast spectrum of my life. I didn’t experience any new understanding of my world. Nothingness engulfed me, then let me go, choking and gulping for air. I was shaken to the core, but that was it.

Where was my soul as I traveled to the land of the dead?


It was the afternoon of my birthday. My husband and I spent an enjoyable morning with our two granddaughters. We had lunch, gifts were given, blessings were exchanged. My husband took the dog for a walk after the grandchildren left. I sat in my rocking chair and turned on the TV.

At that moment, I stopped breathing.

I’ve  tried many times to reconstruct those few seconds.

I asked my husband, but of course he wasn’t there when it happened.

All attempts to reconstruct what happened were to no avail. Mine was a near-death event without any witnesses. No drama, no sirens, no paramedics, no flickering lights. It was just a quiet, almost unnoticed slip. This is very disturbing and calming at the same time.

According to my physicians, it takes only a few seconds to lose consciousness, and I recall a few seconds of labored breathing. When I came back, my husband and the dog were standing in front of me.

My husband reconstructed the few crucial moments after he walked into the house. It was the dog, he said, who stuck his wet nose into my slumped body and shook it back into the land of the living. He feels guilty for not being there when it happened and for thinking I was just asleep when he returned. But the dog knew.

I wonder what might have happened if he’d come back just a few minutes later.

Some days, I think that might be a good way to go. Quietly, no drama, no witnesses.

I shared that thought with my cardiologist, who responded with the slightest of nods. He also inserted a new pacemaker to replace the one that had fouled.

I now imagine the body-soul connection as a delicate yet tight thread of quivering light through which messages and sensory transmissions travel—humming back and forth, like the whispering phone lines we tried to listen to as children, hoping to catch a secret conversation.  When my heart abruptly stopped, I wonder what message was transmitted through this covert line.

Twenty-one by twenty-one, the circumferences
 of my new world. I pace it several times a day
 (like prisoners do in their cells). From the door
 to the windows on the back wall, I count twenty-one steps.
I walk along that wall touching the window sills
20 steps plus one. By each window I stop to look outside;
the view never changes. I retreat to the door.
Twenty-one, always twenty-one, like some secret magic.

Later, lying rigidly on my back on a table in the center of a sterile room, I feel uncomfortable, so I try to make myself smaller, unnoticed. I hold my hands tight to my side and make only the smallest movements.

My view is limited, but I can sense several people in the room. They pass through my field of vision as if taking part in a complicated dance. Their breath is warm against my skin when they hover over me. Sometimes their hands brush against my skin. Everyone seems task- driven. They exchange information and instructions in loud voices and laugh at jokes I do not understand. The metal table under me feels smooth and cold. A flat pillow is tucked under my back. Even though I don’t feel seen, I know I am the centerpiece of this party. I wonder if this is how it feels to be a piece of dead meat when the butcher raises his knife, and a wave of cold panic washes over me.

To fight the dread, to prove I still control my body. I flex my legs, count my fingers. One by one, I press them into the soft skin of my palm. I will my eyes to look at the ceiling, breathe slowly, in and out…in and out. An enormous machine hangs over my chest, chrome and plastic with two big glass eyes. Beyond the machine, the ceiling is a white oasis of quiet with small symmetrical dots running across it. I recall my husband’s stories about his days in school. When he got bored, he counted the dots on the acoustic ceiling. I know that he is waiting outside, and I smile. He might be counting the dots where he’s sitting right now.

I feel a warm touch on my left arm and a smiling face appears. “Remember me?” she asks. “I was here the other day when we did the cardiac catheterization. I will look after you. It’s a promise.” She gives my hand a gentle squeeze. I inhale deeply. Finally, a familiar face. I have a guardian angel by my side. I am not alone.

The anesthesiologist’s disembodied grin surfaces above my head like the Cheshire cat’s smile in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The invisible man behind the grin says something soothing and puts a mask over my face. I’ve been here before; I am familiar with the fraction of a second before the world disappears. I don’t try to resist. It is time to let go.

There is nothing for some incalculable time.

My six senses… awareness of one’s body in space—proprioception: do I still own them while I am dormant?

I surface through a long tunnel; the light is dim and slightly reddish. Without warning, all my senses are attacked at once: strong neon lights shine into my eyes; the surface under me still feels cold; voices circle around me; there is a slight metallic smell I cannot place and then remember—blood. I close my eyes to block the noise and frantic activity.

“Welcome back!” a voice booms into my right ear.

Slow and sluggish, I am too tired to smile.

I look at the clock hanging on the wall across from me. Four hours have passed. I am sleepy but present.

Consumed by deep sadness, I am crying when they roll me out.

My husband says it was long but went well.

I am still crying.

Now I walk the corridor. I pass by doors
leading to other patients’ rooms, and
try not to give way to my curiosity and peep in.
I stop by the big screen hanging on the wall,
where the patients’ EKG waves rise and fall
mysterious as departure and arrival boards in the airport.
Different colored lines dance on the screen.
Then I notice a flat line among them. Is it me?
 I rest my hand on my heart to check if it is still beating.
I pass quickly by the nurses’ station, smiling faintly
 at no one in particular. Perhaps I can pass the unseen border
 that marks the ‘OK to walk’  zone without being noticed. Then
the world will re-open and I will be unconfined.
My heart accelerates. I quicken my gait. It doesn’t work.
Defeated, I turn and walk back to my room.

Hospitalized for eight days, I watch the attending physicians, stethoscopes draped around their necks. I scan their faces as they listen to my defective heart, searching for signs of trouble.  Faces of strangers, so close I can feel their breath and see all their facial imperfections. But I cannot hear what they hear: the secret language of this vital organ; its pounding, thumping, periodic accelerations, and interruptions; the language of the chambers and arteries that move blood from one section to another.

I toss from side to side in the uncomfortable bed, playing with the controls to change the  incline. I am convinced this is a torture device made to keep patients in check. Bored and restless, I spend hours trying to amuse myself.  I consider different ways of looking at the world that I left for a brief time and to which I then returned. It is a system of interacting parts. My body is a small part, yet one that, itself, comprises complex and interconnected systems and subsystems—none of which can operate without my heart, the essential machine that fouled.

There is a saying that every chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In my body’s chain, the left ventricle of my heart is the weakest link. It pumps oxygen-rich blood through the aortic valve into the aorta, which then carries the blood to the rest of the body. So many things can go wrong in this journey. Each part depends on the one that precedes it and supports the ones that rely on it.

Perhaps the same is true on a much larger scale. As a society, are we only as strong as those who sit on the margins, unable to compete or participate—the poor, the homeless, the sick, and the elderly? Does it mean that while we look upon these people as weak and easily manipulated, somehow they hold the keys to the wholesomeness and existence of our humane society?


My electro-cardiologist connects a big black box to my heart, then plays with the knobs to achieve a perfect performance (while I pray quietly that he will not make a mistake and shut down my heart). I am thankful, of course. Only at times I wish that one of these people would look straight at me and affirm that I am no longer confined to the marginal position into which I was plunged by those twenty-one seconds: a weak link, perhaps, but still an essential component in the chain.

Author's Comment

Two years have passed since the cardiac arrest incident that sent me to the hospital. My old pacemaker was replaced with a better model that had a defibrillator, which my doctor claimed would shock my heart with electricity if it decided to stop again. The device’s batteries work, and the monitor by my bed transmits the required data to an anonymous technician. Everything is going OK so far.


by Julie Lemberger, edited by Elizabeth Zimmer

Women, the largest and yet most unrecognized population of the dance arts community, are spotlighted in renowned dance photographer Julie Lemberger’s Modern Women: 21st Century Dance, a coloring book, edited by Elizabeth Zimmer. Lemberger, who has been photographing dance for almost two decades, transformed her photographs into illustrations almost ready to color and then added psychedelic, floral and abstract backgrounds for the figures “to dance in.” The 92 page volume features today’s leading dance innovators and interpreters, and celebrates their diverse genres and perspectives. Modern Women: 21st Century Dance is a perfect gift for children-of-all-ages including grandparents and grandchildren, especially those who love women, dance and art. Two options available: Coloring book for $20 Shipping & handling is $5 each for U.S. addresses. Please contact for International shipping costs.


Born in Israel, Ariela Zucker moved to the U.S. on September 10, 2001. For the past sixteen years, she and her husband lived in Ellsworth, Maine, in the motel they owned and operated. Currently retired, Ariela writes mainly poetry and nonfiction and offers online classes on using photography to enhance writing.

After a lengthy detour through law and a career teaching literature, Marilyn Papayanis found her artistic voice through an exploration and celebration of all things female: the form, the psyche as visually represented, the transformation and reimagining of idealized images from glossy fashion magazines. Her work aims to be bold and often disruptive, always attuned to gender.

One Comment

  1. What a pleasant surprise to see an article here by Ariela Zucker. I took a workshop from her and found her to be authentic, creative, and fun to learn from. From reading this, I now know she is also resilient and inspiring. Nice article!

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