The Mouth of the Machine

There’s a feeling of foreboding, a quiet fear, a helplessness that comes with being asked to lie down on a small metal plank with one’s feet dangling off the end.

The technician attached a few adhesive markers on my wrists and side and instructed me to put my arms over my head — adding to my sense of defenselessness. She said I should just listen to the prompts as I went into the mouth of the machine. “Only chin deep,” she said.

When the technician stepped out of the room, the big imaging components (magnets? lasers? insecurity?) started moving, humming, clicking. My metal plank started sliding into the empty space, and then the machine really started whirring.

“Hold your breath,” said the machine.

My body was pulled forward and backward, and then the machine said, “Breathe.” The process repeated a second time, and then my body was pulled back out into the open air.

A different technician, or maybe the radiologist, appeared. He was an older guy, with a salt-and-pepper beard and glasses like me. He told me I could put my arms down and helped to remove the markers. There was more of a sense of kindness to this person: a few smiles, an apology for the pulling of some arm hair, taking some extra effort to show me the way out. I stopped in the lobby just long enough to put on my coat and hat, and then I was back out in the daylight, going about the rest of my day.

I’ve seen it in film and on television many times, but I never fully understood that the big black hole of an MRI or CT scan is a metaphor for death, or human mortality, or something along those lines — until I went in for a routine cardiac calcium screening last week. Even though I knew that the process was prompted by nothing more than my age, and my doctor had told me it was a low likelihood that they’d find anything, it was fascinating to observe my subconscious reaction to it all. My cardiac calcium screening brought my mortality to the fore more than I expected. And not just the scanning machinery itself (though it is a particularly apt metaphor).

In fact, if anything, the emotional tension was the greatest in the last 48 hours leading up to the scan. I felt phantom pains in my gut. My intestines seemed to liquify everything that passed through them. I had persistent headaches. Yet right after my cardiac calcium screening, all of my mysterious symptoms disappeared almost immediately. To the point that it seems more than mere coincidence.

I’m anxious about my mortality, more than I would like to admit. I’m able to intellectually acknowledge that “we’re all going to die,” and “it’ll be cancer, or pneumonia, or a car crash, or whatever” — but it’s still scary to get past the intellectual acknowledgement, into the actual experience of death-adjacent activities.

I believe that it’s still healthy, even when it’s uncomfortable, to be reminded of one’s mortality. And it does draw me into closer intimacy with God, knowing that my fate rests with Him and in Him. Still, it’s unsettling when the mouth of that great machine opens wide, to the point where I can feel its breath on my neck.

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