The Big Sleep

April 30, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


Last winter, a policemen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, awoke after having been in a state of sleep for seven years and began to speak. His family, his friends, and most of the country were properly shocked and delighted. Officer Dockery’s family and friends, of course, had an obvious reason to celebrate.

But why was this story such big and happy news for the rest of us? Seven years in a hospital in a sleep-like state after having been shot when responding to a 911 emergency call. Seven years removed from the world and yet within it. The doctors were careful to explain that Dockery had not been in a true coma so as not to give false hope to others, and Dockery, himself, may never recover. He fell into a silence after an operation and has spoken only sporadically since.

But that first rush of joy everyone felt when he awoke and talked again at last, where did that come from? The sleep-like state in life has always enthralled writers and audiences. There is something of both life and death in sleep and something of sleep in death. Hamlet soliloquized about that sleep of death, suggesting that the two were akin, that one might even dream in death, or that life, itself, were a dream in which we sleep-walk. Rip Van Winkle slept through history, not unlike a lot of people. Sleeping Beauty was a fable of what? A beautiful girl put to death but not quite put to death. The thriller movie “Coma” depended on our fascination with the not quite dead, that cool scene of bodies hung from a ceiling by wires in what was literally suspended animation.

In a sad and private realm, away from fiction, lies Sonny Von Bulow, still with the world and not. This condition of fathomless, incapable of being awakened sleep, has grasped people’s imaginations precisely because it is death without death. So close are these states that Raymond Chandler could call his novel The Big Sleep and everyone would understand what he meant. One stares at patients lying in this condition and wonders where they are. We stare at people in comas and stare and stare again. Sorrow intermingles with the tantalizing suspicion that they hear, feel, think.

If these sleep-like states simulate death, are the people living among the dead as we watch them? Are they as good as dead and merely await the final shutting down of all the circuits? But what if they occupied two worlds at once and there is a chance in the balance that they return to life? Ponder the imponderable. Should it happen that the sleepers away as Dockery awakened, not only would there be joy in welcoming them back because they are who they are, husband, father, friend, but because of the possibility that they crossed the river and returned, what reports do they bring?

None, never, no matter. There is still that deep long journey they have undertaken. Has it been a wild adventure, or has it been as serene as it appeared? Sleep is sleep, after all. It is not death. Death is the end of sleep, and anything short of death breeds hope. We watch our fellow creatures in their mysterious, unreachable states, and we want them back with us. Good night is never as sweet as good morning, which is why we cheered for Dockery, who disappeared into a dream we wonder at and seek and do not seek.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.