After Life

After Life

“Now I don’t mean to worry you/ But have you had to tell your parents where to bury you?/ I’m not the first to go through it, but not many do/ Who could feel this kind of pain? … Very few/"

I wrote these lyrics two days before the day I was expected to die. I could barely move my fingers but managed to type this into my phone.

In 2018, I was living my best life as an actor and a rapper. After years of self-releasing music, I had a meeting with the head of A&R, at Universal Music Group (UMG). She welcomed me to her office, listened to my songs, and said, “Your songs are very visual, Karan. I can see the things you’re rapping about.” She compared me to artists that I had looked up to and invited me to collaborate with a few songwriters at Universal.

Not long after, I was called into my first studio session at the UMG headquarters, in Santa Monica. Up until this moment, I had mostly recorded in cramped home studios, surrounded by denim and cotton, within walk-in closets or cobweb-infested basements.

When I arrived to the session, my heart was beating out of my chest. The session producer asked if I had any lyrics prepared to record; I did. As I walked towards the recording booth, I asked, “Hey man, is there enough room in there to take my water bottle with me?” The studio erupted in laughter, but it wasn’t malicious. The producer kindly nodded.

As I entered the recording booth, I realized it was larger than most apartments I had lived in; plenty of room for my 16 oz water bottle. We recorded for hours—I got back home around 6 a.m. It was an amazing night.

Later that morning, my phone rang. It was the casting director at Team Coco. “Hey Karan, we have a sketch that we’d like you to be a part of. Think you could be here within two hours?”

I cleared my throat, to disguise my sleep-ridden state, “Yeah, absolutely. I can be there in an hour!”

I made a quick stop at Coffee Commissary in Burbank and pulled into Warner Bros. Studios, in Burbank. I played a “Slumdog Billionaire” in a sketch opposite Conan O’Brien and Deon Cole that day. I was on cloud nine.

The next morning I woke up feeling dehydrated and fatigued. I can’t be this tired from working back to back, can I? I mean, successful actors like The Rock sleep four hours a night. If they can work like that, so can I! I forced myself to get up. I made my way to the bathroom. My eyes looked yellow … or was it the lighting—

My phone rang, it was my agent—“You never confirmed for your commercial audition, Karan. Are you going to make it?”

“Of course I am. My confirmation email must not’ve sent.”

I hadn’t confirmed. Truth is, I had missed it.

I got dressed and headed out. I was about halfway to my audition in West Hollywood when I realized how fatigued I really was. I turned up the music in my car and opened the windows … It was enough to get me there.

After the audition, I sat in my car. I knew something was wrong. I had never felt this tired in my entire life. I took a deep breath and thought, “It’s only a 20-minute drive. You just gotta get home.”

This next part is a little hard to talk about …

I had labs drawn, my entire liver panel was elevated. I was told to go to the hospital. One problem: in the time my lab results came back, I had lost all of my strength. I had a tough time standing, let alone walking.

My elderly parents wheel-chaired me into the hospital. A part of me felt embarrassed. I’m young, I workout six days a week, eat clean, and I’m having my parents push me around? Logically, it made perfect sense, I was sick and lucky that they were there for me. But maybe it was the combination of denial, shock, and pride that resulted in the shame I felt.

After multiple CT scans, ultrasounds, MRIs and numerous hospital stays … they diagnosed me with an ultra-rare autoimmune disorder that had completely destroyed my liver.

[Side Note: The irony was not lost on me. I had been sober my entire life. Yup, never been drunk, never tasted a beer, or scotch, or even that peppermint Schnapps Tupac was always rapping about. None of that. But here I was …]

I never even had any symptoms—how could this happen?

Then, a very sweet and sympathetic surgeon walked in. “Karan, I’ve looked at everything numerous times and tried to find an alternative but I can’t. You’re going to need a full liver transplant.”

My ears literally started ringing. It was like in the movies where everything goes quiet except for this high-pitched sound. I could see my mom crying uncontrollably, I tried to calm her. The surgeon was still talking, and I kept a calm face, but I couldn’t hear a single word he said.

After taking a few deep breaths, I asked him, what if I chose not to have a transplant? Is there a chance my body could heal itself, and how much time would I have if it didn’t?

He took a beat, and gently shook his head—no. Then said, “In your current condition, I would say you have two to four weeks, max, to live.”

I felt like I was in The Twilight Zone, drowning in my own thoughts. I was just recording songs at Universal Music Group and acting on the Warner Bros lot in Burbank with Conan O’Brien … and now I have two to four weeks to live?

This doesn’t make any sense.

Wait a minute … I was supposed to take care of my parents as they got older, what will their life be like without me? How will they cope with this magnitude of grief? What about my sister? All of a sudden, she’s going to become an only child?

And what about all my dreams? The years I spent writing and recording songs in those cramped home studios—was it all for nothing? What about all the acting lessons, and the scenes I’d write for me and my friends so we could have decent acting reels? That won’t amount to anything?

I was fortunate enough to receive the gift of life from an organ donor on the very last day that I was expected to live. Literally, if it was a couple of hours later … you wouldn’t be reading this article.

After my transplant, I was grateful but felt defeated, betrayed by life, and just sad. I started seeing my acting friends on TV, the musicians I collaborated with were charting hits; and rightfully so—they were all very talented. But time was passing me by, it had been nearly a year since I got sick … and would take at least another year or more for me to recover.

I was stuck in bed and going insane. And then it hit me. What if I use this downtime to work on my writing? “I got it. I’m going to start writing one short a week.”

When I began to write, hours would pass by in a flash. I felt alive again. I would forget that I was stuck in bed with 60 staples and hundreds of stitches in my chest. I felt like I was back in control.

After about two months, I wanted to move on to bigger things. I outlined multiple feature films and comedy pilots. But I lacked the confidence to take on these bigger projects. So, I gave my good friend, Lauren Mungo, a call.

Lauren is one of the few people who I had shared my diagnosis with. She’s also a very talented actress and writer herself. She also happened to be battling cancer at the time I was recovering.

“Hey Lauren, I was thinking about breaking down some of the best scripts in Hollywood. I want to break down the major beats in every act and come up with multiple loglines for each script. If I do this every week, I think it could help me become a better writer. Is this something you’d want to do, too? Maybe we could do this together?"

"I’d love that!” Lauren replied.

Together, Lauren and I would pick out a script, read it during the week, and hop on a call to exchange notes. We did this every Wednesday for months. Sometimes I’d even reach out to the screenwriters of my favorite scripts and ask them about their writing process—to my surprise, they responded.

Even though I had never written a feature film, breaking down and dissecting scripts every week with Lauren gave me the confidence I needed to begin working on bigger projects.

I started writing my first feature film and multiple comedy pilots. I was so engaged in writing that an entire year flew by. I was healing physically and mentally.

I felt like myself again.

Writing gave me something to look forward to at a time when I had zero control over what was happening in my life. I could control everything on the page. When I was physically stuck in bed for months, it helped me stay mentally productive.

I am now at one hundred percent. Beyond acting and rapping, I am proud to be a screenwriter. One of the scripts I wrote during recovery made it to the semifinals of the Script Pipeline TV Writing Contest. Two films I wrote, produced, and starred in have been selected for multiple film festivals this year.

I’ve learned I’m not alone, and so many people have been through similar experiences. I’m grateful for my mom, dad, and sister, for my friends, for my organ donor, and for the amazing medical care I was so lucky to receive.

I know life isn’t promised to anyone, but I hope to live a long and healthy one. And with all the new time I’ve been given—I hope to fill my life with new songs, great acting gigs, and lots and lots of wonderful scripts.

This is my heaven.

*Feature image by Sunisakanphian (Adobe)

Karan Batta is an Indian-American actor, rapper, and screenwriter. He has garnered attention for his work from Conan, MTV, Rolling Stone Magazine and numerous film festivals.
More posts by Karan Batta.
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