When I was 9 I had an NDE or Near Death Experience. Even today I can re-live every second of it in my mind.
One of the most interesting qualities of the memory is that specific elements of it come into sharp focus for me periodically. It’s almost like as I remember it from time to time, I had just fast forwarded through some critical thing when I had recalled it before, and suddenly now I had noticed something new, paused and hit rewind and replay. It’s always something tiny. But every time it happens it illuminates something for me.
Here’s an example… I recently remembered the moment I couldn’t hold my breath anymore and I breathed in the salt water. I recalled it intensely, the cold, salty, burning sharp shortness of it. It only lasted an instant and then I was out of my body. But I re-lived giving up and breathing it in, the water flowing past my lips…my intense terror and then… the sudden lack of it.
It was the momentary discomfort of that moment that I had forgotten. Remembering has had the effect of reminding me of the costs and sacrifices of bliss or union with the holy. While they seemed overwhelming and painful for an instant, they were actually brief and needed in order to transition.
For years I just remembered not needing to breathe anymore, fast forwarding right through the breathing in the water part.
So here’s the whole story. In 1979, we went to the beach at Gulf Shores, AL as we did on many weekend days during the summer. On that particular day it was me, my sister Dawn, her friend Jane, my brother Jaison and my mother. We had stopped on the way to the beach at a gas station and I had begged for a blow up Mickey Mouse swim ring.
I was in the shallows with it around my waist. This was highly unusual for me. My brother and I were great swimmers. We were “Dolphins” at the Y. I liked to spend hours riding the waves and diving under them with Dawn and Jaison in the deep trough of water between the shore and the sandbar that paralleled it. This trip my mother had given in to my whining at the usual pit stop for gas and snacks for the first time and let me get this silly toy, so I attempted to play with it in the foam, kick paddling and trying to ride it in little shallow waves all by myself. As the water was sucked out below me, I glanced over my shoulder just in time to see a huge wave for an instant before it was over my head.
At first I was just annoyed and attempted to right myself so I could stand up in the shallow water, but I quickly became frightened when I realized I was caught in a powerful current and could not stand up. Which way was down? Which way was up? I had not yet seen any of the very helpful training videos that are now produced about following bubbles. As a matter of fact, people didn’t even have VCR’s yet.
I was rapidly being pulled out to the deeper water, and all of a sudden all I could think of was that I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe before then opening my mouth helplessly to breathe in the water. Suddenly, I didn’t need to breathe anymore. I remember getting caught on that thought and about that time I realized I wasn’t in my body because I could see my body rolling head over heels under the water right by me. I rose up out of the water and turned toward the beach where I could see my mother reading her book on her tummy and sunbathing. She hadn’t realized that I was missing yet.
I remember thinking dispassionately that she was going to be very upset that I was dead. I mulled over the idea that I was dead and I examined it for a second but didn’t FEEL anything. How strange, you just don’t fully realize how much of our feelings are just those: feelings…specifically attached to our bodies and physical processes. I understood right then that I was not my body. I was 9, I don’t think I had ever given it much thought before.
I looked at my Mom again. I knew I loved my mother, I just wasn’t feeling it in the way I was accustomed to. Not in the welling of emotion I was used to. Instead I saw my mother as Shirley, who had loved me and had made choice after choice for my well being, often at her own expense. I could even see some of her choices in a weird kind of third person way I didn’t quite understand. I did not feel sad. I had a sensation of immense gratitude that she was my mother and of love for her.
I then felt pulled to my left, away from the beach and up toward something that felt like the sun. Not because it was yellow or located where the sun would be. It was brightness, warmth and a feeling that I can best describe as the sensation you get when you are struck by something of extraordinary beauty. When you see a spectacular vista or hear a piece of music so beautiful it makes your chest ache and brings tears to your eyes in a kind of joy that is so immense it overflows you. I heard a kind of music…and saw it, and tasted it… there’s really no experience like it in our reality limited by sensory physical inputs.
I began to be suffused, to become that sensation and it was intensified and multiplied and at the same time distilled so that it was more intense. I became hyper-aware of the world and my place in it. It seemed to me that this feeling was an awareness that I felt as God, was all around me, was reaching for me as energy but with a clear identity as a being, God the Creator of All. This being was so immense and beautiful there are no human words to describe it or even a way to explain the nature of such a being and how loved we are. The reality I was in was realer than anything here. I felt incredibly humble and small because this indescribably beautiful presence loved me so much. I really understood the whole “fall on your knees” concept later when I heard that song. Of course you would fall on your knees, you couldn’t help yourself but be devoted to everything you’ve ever wanted, loved, dreamed of in your wildest imaginings of perfection reaching out to you in love. Worship is exactly what you feel…
I was aware of a kind of transparency to everything. I looked again at the beach, at my family and what I saw was that the bodies we lived in weren’t us. That we weren’t really separate from the light that was emanating from God, which I could now see was inside, suffusing each of them, that we weren’t separated from each other. I could see how He (It again our words and concepts aren’t really able to capture it) connected all of us together. It was very clear and instantly understandable to my 9 year old self.
That meant that we weren’t really going to be apart. I was euphoric and happy and delighted to be seeing these things and to be going home. Because I also instantly understood that I was about to really go home, my real home and be safe, loved and get to rest, for lack of a better word. It was like something had been missing my whole life and I hadn’t known it until I was free of my body and like a magnet I was being drawn back to where I belonged.
It was about this time that the worst thing imaginable happened. A sensation like being sucked backwards through a giant vacuum cleaner grabbed hold of me and suddenly I was back in my body, hacking and gagging and coughing out gouts of salty water through a frayed throat and nose. Back in my body, which suddenly felt like an ill fitting pair of jeans. Somehow too small and too big in all the wrong places, vaguely cheap and certainly not built to last. I burst into tears and began to struggle with the person who held me, my sister’s best friend, Jane, who’d spotted Mickey Mouse’s head crossing the sandbar on its way out to sea from a distance while she walked the sandbar looking for sand dollars and gone after it out of curiosity, only to find me attached and not breathing. Her lifeguard training kicked in and after bending my small form over her knee in the shallow water on the sandbar she got the water pumped out my lungs and got me breathing.
This is what the sandbar looked like there:
When I got to the shore I blubbered to my mother and tried incoherently to explain what happened to me, but she just shushed me and patted my back and told me I was fine. For a while, days, weeks, I tried to get her to understand but I could tell it frightened her so I stopped.
I never told anyone else about it for a long, long time. Not until after I saw a special on TV right after the Challenger disaster. I was watching a Discovery type channel a lot back then because it was brand new. I had dreams of being an astronaut, before I found out my height would disqualify me. I’ll never forget walking into the room just as a special on undertows and riptides was airing. There on screen was an animated figure rolling “head over heels”. Apparently this happens when you get caught in one. I remember feeling lightheaded and like the world stopped for a second and the entire experience flooded back into my mind. To me, as I had grown older and reflected upon it, that memory of my body rolling by “head over heels” was the most unbelievable part. At nine years old I hadn’t know this about the undertow. There was no Internet back then and it simply hadn’t occurred to me to check something like that. After that I started to look for other people and stories of people who might have shared a similar experience. I found many.
- Is Heaven Real? A Neurosurgeon’s Near-Death Experience (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)