When I was in my twenties, I knew a man who died. He had gone in for cardiac bypass surgery, and when the wound became infected, had to go back again so doctors could drain and clean the wound, and, I guess, figure out what the hell was going on in there that could be causing the septicemia. His wife told me later that as the medical team was moving him back to his room after surgery, he suddenly flat-lined. The usual controlled chaos ensued, during which time someone discovered that his ventilator tube had gotten wedged under his body, cutting off his oxygen. This was remedied, a heartbeat reestablished, and he went on to make a full recovery.

He told us later that during those minutes of cardiac death, he’d had an out-of-body experience. He said he’d hovered over the bed in a fury, thinking, Some damned fool has cut off my air. He could see the crimped tube and knew exactly what had happened, and could repeat word-for-word what the medical staff had said and done while the machine went beeeeeeeeeep.

It was exactly like him to be dead and pissed off about it. The guy was as no-nonsense a cowboy as ever has lived. Soft-spoken, undramatic, with more common sense than anyone I’ve ever met. He was also an atheist, as I was at the time, who made no attempt to interpret his experience or wonder however it could be true. He simply repeated what had happened, and we shook our heads over it and moved on.

But I still think about it sometimes. I don’t believe in an interactive god or a bureaucratic heaven in which certain earthly acts must be performed as an entrance requirement; I’ve never found a religion that could stand up to my curiosity or even truly tempt me to join in. I simply have never seen the point. This man I knew was a kindred spirit. He was not bullshitting me. He had seen his own death reluctantly, was dragged out of his body and unceremoniously plunked back in just as he was starting to look around. When I asked him whether he was afraid by what he’d seen, he seemed surprised, as if fear of death had never occurred to him. No, he said, I was pissed. Goddamn doctors. . .

What stories have you heard from beyond the veil? Have any of them challenged your beliefs?

Photo by Joyce Tenneson

Photo by Joyce Tenneson

P.S. I will be taking a break from the blog for a week or two while my family is in town. Happy days!

32 responses

  1. I don’t know what happens after we die and I tend to dismiss accounts of near-death experiences because near isn’t near enough to be true.

    All I know is, I don’t want this consciousness to end and I don’t want to believe that we do. It seems like such a terrible waste to give us all this life and experience for only a moment.

    Reincarnation is probably my best bet.

    • Near-death isn’t near enough to convince me of an afterlife, either, but I can’t quite dismiss the accounts. I’m more interested in the out-of-body experience as a physical curiosity. There’s enough anecdotal evidence (especially from young children without, presumably, an agenda) for me to believe such things do happen. And if they do, what exactly is going on? How does consciousness separate from the body that way? How can a man see with his eyes closed and his heart stopped?

        • Gimme a minute, I just got home.

          >deep breath, assumes the wise waffling position<

          Because there are more things in heaven and earth, Averil, than are dreamt of in our mutual philosophies.


  2. My father, who is presently alive and reasonably well, though he is 84 and every year is more difficult, died at the VA Hospital in Albuquerque in 96 or 97. He was having some procedure done, I no longer recall what, and he flatlined. He said that while he was dying, he saw himself as though from the ceiling, looking down on himself and the medicos trying to bring him back (one of whom was an ER nurse I knew). Then he was back, and has been back ever since.

    I had a generally similar out-of-body experience in August of 1979. As far as I know, I wasn’t dying. I had cooked an entire ounce of marijuana in a small pan of brownies (Betty Crocker mix, probably) and had eaten I don’t know how many of them. For a few moments during some span of time after eating the laced brownies, my eyes and mind were up at the ceiling, looking down on me and my cats in a kitchen that very much needed cleaning (I was such a pot-head in those days, and pot-heads don’t clean).

    I believe that when we die, the structure of interactions that presents to the world as our selves fades away in a manner akin to a puddle of water evaporating. I also believe that the universe is more complex than we can comprehend and that we exist dimensionally extended in a way that could be viewed as a thin slice of a vast realm. Think of the world we sense and experience as a slice taken from that part of the iceberg that floats above the surface of the ocean, and that could give you a picture of what I see in my mind’s eye when I contemplate the universe. I don’t see Heaven and I don’t see Hell and I don’t see Purgatory or angels or devils or a terribly lonely and psychopathic god or the battered and forgiving son of the terribly lonely and psychopathic god or his virgin mother or all my dead loved ones or any such stuff.

    • Your iceberg theory interests me. I do think humans tend to be very earth-bound in our thinking; most religions seem to me to be small and inadequate to the tasks at hand. I think they can bring a welcome sense of peace and connectedness to a community (obviously they are as likely to destroy the community as save it), but to me they seem more social than spiritual. Which is fine but limited.

      I have always felt that since energy never dies, our living energy—the energy of consciousness—must logically go somewhere. I think it transforms. It doesn’t end because it can’t. It’s energy.

      This is interesting, and as near to encapsulating my belief system as I’ve ever been able to find:

  3. I could tell you a story, but it’d have to be in person. It might not mean anything to you or anyone else because it was mine to learn from. I do believe in God. Not a mean one though. I don’t particularly believe in religion because humans are too imperfect to intrepret these things without stamping their own agenda on the matter.

    Enjoy your family time!

  4. I’ve heard experiences similar to the one you told here, but on TV, not personally. I agree with the spirit of Tetman’s iceberg theory and with what you said about our living energy transforming. This subject interests me a lot. I have a story about it that should probably be a movie or a play instead of a book — either way, it’s another thing I should be writing.

    I’ll think of you enjoying your week off, and I’ll try to tend my to poetry instead of heading here first to contemplate your words (or envy them). I’m feeling another new one coming on. It’s been a couple weeks since I posted that last one, so I’ll get out the poetry file right now …

    • I didn’t realize you were posting again, Ré. I’ll be looking forward to more of your poetry when I get back from frolicking with my kiddos.

  5. From Wikipedia entry on the pineal gland.
    Dr. Rick Strassman, who conducted research on the psychedelic dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in the 1990s at the University of New Mexico, has speculated that the pineal gland plays a role in the production of DMT in the human brain. Strassman has also advanced the controversial hypothesis that a massive release of DMT from the pineal gland prior to death, or near death, can result in a near death experience (NDE). Strassman has suggested that the pineal gland is responsible for DMT production because enzymatic material needed to produce DMT is found there (see evidence in mammals) in substantially greater concentrations than in any other part of the body.

    • Yes, I think it’s pretty widely accepted in the medical community that the near-death experience is due to a release of a specific enzyme, which makes perfect sense to me. After all, every experience we have can be traced to some sort of brain activity; sentience lives there, and spirituality, and love. Our experiences all have some sort of physical framework, everything’s mechanical in some way—still, there’s more to consciousness than synapses, I think.

      (I sound like I’ve been hitting the hash-pipe. Oof.)

  6. There was some surgeon in the Boston area last year who died on the operating table and came back, and was so convinced he’d seen heaven and an angel that he wrote a book about it. I heard him interviewed on the radio and was sure he was shoveling manure, so I went home and wrote a piece of fiction about a brain surgeon who dies and gets a glimpse of hell, which of course totally screws him up. I’m just starting to send it out.

  7. Yeah, I don’t buy the whole “death” experience in this cases. The credulous are so eager to accept one bit of science (say, that a flat line means absolute, all out, unequivocal DEATH) since it suits their purpose but are just as willing to dismiss other evidence or explanation that offers a reasonable answer to what had happened. I’d say your cowboy friend was not actually dead but that one common indicator of life was temporarily switched off. Plus, the uniformity of these supposed near-death experiences suggests to me that the narrative for them was suggested to the “experiencer.” They already had a script.

    • I agree, near-death is not death, nor is it necessary for someone to be flat-lined when they have an out-of-body experience (as in Tetman’s case). But people, sometimes very young children, see the damnedest things when their brains are deprived of oxygen, and whatever the physiological cause, the release of enzymes or whatever, some of the details they come back with are pretty startling.

      I don’t believe or disbelieve anything in this except that my friend did have the experience he reported. He didn’t deliberately misrepresent the scenario. Beyond that I couldn’t speculate. Shit like this fascinates me, what can I say?

  8. Ghosts, which I don’t see (this is probably good) but I don’t exactly not believe in either, complicate my worldview. My friend said that she saw a woman looking out the window of my house, wondered if it was my mother, was it? I would like it to be so.

    • I adore ghost stories. I used to have this enormous book about ghosts and other paranormal critters, and thought it was a great read, particularly because it was written in such an earnest tone. Pass the marshmallows and a long green stick.

  9. “—the energy of consciousness—must logically go somewhere. I think it transforms. It doesn’t end because it can’t. It’s energy.”

    Yes, yes and yes to this Averil.

    I am made up of Tet’s melted iceberg and the electrically charged dust motes which impregnated the DNA of the impregnated ancestors of my ancestors. I do believe in a supreme something simply because I am at a loss to explain the unexplainable in my life. I like to think I have lived before and I will live again.

    My mother was a lapsed Catholic girl who believed that once you were dead you were dead, no heaven, no hell, no nothing. She died on Easter Sunday. Don’t tell me God doesn’t say gotcha.

    • I’m not sure I believe in the big guy, but that’s not to say I don’t appreciate a bit of existential irony. My dad and now my husband believe in the nothingness—they’re a lapsed Baptist and Mormon respectively, both of whom went hightailing it from the church during their teen years. I was impressed that they held out so long.

  10. I tend to attribute these stories to either (a) the brain being deprived of oxygen, and/or (b) your mind stops fighting and you dream. The imagination kicks in and you see what you want to see, kind of like using your imagination. In the days before my mother died, she talked constantly of “seeing” her dead brother and uncle and mother, etc… and I believe that’s who she wanted to see on her “other side.” Were they really there? No idea. But I’m so not a believer in the white light.

    I do, however, believe in people’s auras or spirits or ghosts, whatever you want to call them. I often feel the presence of my mother, grandmother, etc…

    A friend of mine was paralyzed in a car accident when he was 13. He clearly remembers lying on the table, yet floating above himself, looking down on the doctors working on him. He was not dying, but he was in incredible pain and he believed this to be a human mechanism we have to separate ourselves from things we can’t handle or are not ready for — like pain, like death.

  11. I’m not sure what to believe. First of all – and let me throw out a disclaimer that I’ll probably got to hell if there is a hell – is the fact that I love Ancient Aliens. (you know, that show on the History Channel?) So, I only bring that up b/c as weird as it sounds, sometimes I think our ancestors really could have been seeing beings from other planets b/c there’s so much weird crap on earth to look at and speculate about, that I simply watch the show fascinated – and find myself on the fence about it all. Maybe I won’t go to hell, maybe I’ll just be left on the fence.

    Anyway, when it comes to NDE, it is mind boggling how some people report the exact words, movements, etc when they have flatlined. Doesn’t the brain keep working for a few minutes after something like that – so maybe they are still hearing, and that explains that part? What doesn’t make sense – how in the hell can they report what they saw going on around them. Enzyme reaction or not – their eyes were closed, so that’s a bit puzzling.

    I’ve always kind of leaned towards being in different realms – or dimensions. Or reincarnation. There’s a book I’ve always wanted to read about children who can recall their past lives in great detail. It’s on GoodReads:

    I love this sort of stuff too.

    • Most of the people I know are agnostic these days, to one degree or another. It’s so hard to be certain of anything, and we’ve been trained not to give much weight to anecdotal evidence (thank goodness), so I think the hardcore believers are dying out. It seems like we’re all going through a process of elimination; it’s more about deciding what we don’t believe than falling hard into one true faith.

      • My problem is I’m too analytical for my own good – about EVERYTHING. One movie that scared the shit out of me was “THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE,” based on the true events of a girl who believed she was possessed. (drs say she was epileptic) According to records, the lawyer was agnostic, and after this case, gave up her practice, and eventually donated her notes from the case so the movie could be made. if any film could scare me into a church, it would be that one.

  12. I’ve just read the most brilliant story by James Salter called ‘Twenty Minutes’ about a woman who is thrown and crushed by her horse. Has anyone read this? Am I the last one to the party? It was just staggering. She is on the way to dying, and she knows. And he handles it so beautifully. Just staggering.

    I agree with Tetman, we are so simple. My kids and I talk about aliens and galaxies all the time in the car. We are just babes with our civilisations and hi-tech.

    I believe there are higher softer zones up there, good places.

    Enjoy your break honey Xcat

  13. What a great story! Perhaps we’re not so tightly knit into these physical bodies as we think we are, but I’m pretty sure one of these days science will have a fabulous explanation for this stuff… Closest I’ve come to anything paranormal was being involved (with my family) in a car accident that had apparently been predicted by a demon possessed woman just hours before. That’s always tickled my imagination…