Wayward Son, Chapter 11
For the Romans, death required crossing the River Styx. It is as good a metaphor as any. I can say that dying isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It is just one more river to cross. I had worried for the entire year I was in Vietnam about dying. Then I went and did it on a barren Kansas road. The physical stuff is easy enough to describe. I hit the pavement head first, left temporal lobe absorbing the initial blow. Then my right shoulder hit the pavement, dislocating it. My right boot got hung up in the jeep as it rolled two and a half times. As a result, my leg shattered at the boot top, driving my lower tibia through my calf, creating a four inch gash. Momentum carried me face down across the road and into the ditch. Every part of my front except my left arm had gravel and rocks embedded in the skin. But I felt no pain. I was dead.
Obviously, I didn’t stay deceased. Like a member of the polar bear club who jumps into freezing water only to quickly withdraw and grab a blanket, I dove into the infinite and decided not to stay. I returned to my broken body. I had a doctor once argue that I couldn’t possibly have survived being thrown out of a jeep head first at 45 mph. What can I say? The facts are what they are. Three months after the accident, I met the officer who had been in charge of the accident response team. He couldn’t believe I was alive either. He said they didn’t even bother to treat me at the scene because they were sure I had snuffed it. He saw them load my covered body into the ambulance.
Other than dying, I don’t remember much. I saw the bright lights of the emergency room shining relentlessly in my face. And I know I screamed and cursed because of the unbelievable searing pain as they cut my boots and pants off. A medic who was on duty later told me he heard language he had never heard before. Finally, an intravenous cocktail of morphine, valium, and Phenobarbital forced me into a hazy corner of my mind that made the pain distant enough to bear. I have an extremely low tolerance for pain and a very high one for pain killers. A bad combination for someone in my condition. For two days, I floated in a Twilight Zone of disconnection. By Sunday afternoon, I regained enough awareness to know something had happened. At first I was totally confused, like a brand new baby blinking in the unexpected light. It was the beginning of a long journey. Crossing the river is usually a one way trip. The ferryman doesn’t like hitchhikers on the return ride.
It took eighteen months for me to recover physically. Mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, it took much longer. In some ways, I’m still not there. Those who hear the story of how I got the huge scar on my leg are never interested in how I learned to walk again. They don’t want to know about my physical therapist, Captain Greathouse, who saved me from being permanently crippled. They don’t want to know about all of the psychologists who helped me work through my TBI and substance abuse issues so I could be a decent husband and father who didn’t fly into unexpected rages, deep depressions, or artificially induced oblivion.
What everyone wants to know is,”What was it like to die?”
Good question. It is a small club, people who have had near death experiences (NDEs). Most of us stay very quiet. Some, like me, understand the impossibility of answering the question truthfully. Others stay quiet because they are overwhelmed. The ones who do talk are forced by the limitations of human language to lie or somehow misrepresent the experience. The infinite knows no boundaries of space and time.
“What does rattlesnake taste like?”
“It tastes like chicken.”
No it doesn’t. Snake tastes like snake. If you’ve never had snake, the chicken metaphor can prepare you partially for its flavor, but there is an experiential gap. And the experiential gap between life and death is so much greater. Paul of Tarsus never described his NDE. But the changes it wrought in him became the basis of Christianity. Every religion describes death and the afterlife because that’s the burning question on everyone’s mind. But it is always in terms of common human experience. Which religion best describes the afterlife? None of them . . . all of them. Confusing, I know, but I cannot lie about something so important. I owe it to all of my comrades who did die. It is better that my attempt to describe death be nonsensical and confusing than a lie.
Most who do talk about their NDEs use metaphors of lights, hallways, and floating to describe their experiences. Rainbow colored horses, or anything that is common to human life, is off the mark when describing the afterlife. That’s why it’s called the afterlife. I’ve been asked, ”Will I see my loved ones who died?” for example. Everybody wants to know about death. Yes, you will see them. . . . No, you won’t see them. So what did I experience? Ok. Here is a picture of the afterlife as I understand it:
G e c
Don’t like the picture? Of course not. It is meaningless random symbols and empty space. Or is it? On paper, there are drops of ink that have been sprayed onto it. The paper itself is filled with bumps, craters, and pieces of cellulose. On an electronic screen, there are photons flowing at tremendous speeds toward the eye. It’s not really empty. It’s just that the patterns aren’t recognizable because we lack experience with them. The afterlife is just that. After life. My existence before life and my existence after life are related. The sights, sounds, and experiences of this world simply can’t be used to describe the other. What were you like before you were born?
The closest I have come to finding a metaphor that describes death is staring at an old fashioned television that is not tuned to a broadcast station. What people used to refer to as “snow” is actually cosmic radiation being translated by the electron gun into “static.” Each burst of light on the screen started as a particle or wave inside of a distant star. It is star talk. Only we don’t speak the language, so it is meaningless to us. Yes, I saw my loved ones. No, I didn’t see my loved ones. Light is a particle. Light is a wave. The universe doesn’t care if you understand these facts or not.
Here’s what I learned about dying: There are worse things in life.