Listen to what “everyday people” say about The Afterlife. (First, of course, that there is one.) You can easily absorb a range of these short direct accounts of people’s Near-Death Experiences at YouTube, and via web-pages devoted to studying NDEs. For me, the most credible individuals are the least self-conscious, the people focused on trying to share their observations in plain speech, the non-evangelicals, and those with no book, lectures or counseling for sale.
I see four points on which 99% of them agree. A) Your normal consciousness just keeps going when you die. B) You first encounter a completely dark “void,” a place where you feel not alone and, yet, very safe. C) “A light” appears, whose description is wholly benign for all these witnesses. And, D) We begin to communicate and/or “merge” with a being and/or beings who do not judge, but absolutely accept and welcome us, to a place that almost everyone calls “home.”
For contrast and perspective, here up-front is my own bottom line of direct observation—and it’s a blank. My closest NDE was a scuba-diving accident. I “drowned” so fast underwater that I simply blacked out, until I found people reviving me face-up on the beach. The last thing I saw was the sea-bottom’s grainy sand up against my mask, and one instant later (with absolute nothing in-between), someone was ripping the hairs out of my chest as they unzipped the wet-suit. According to a man there who previously had seen people drown, the colors I turned before reviving were those of someone definitely dead. To me that interval was utterly unconscious, a blank of nonexistence.
Yet, that is not quite the bottom line. For in my experiences near death—namely, helping and holding the hands of my elders as they passed through the gates of this life, and in losses of family and friends—I have had profoundly empowering experiences beyond the normal. Moments of liberating learning that I’ll take to my grave and that correlate with independent others.
If you want to cleanse your eyes or even your soul of the things in this life that are really of no account, embrace your life’s share of these experiences with everything you have. May this offering say why.
Here are two conceptions of “this life and beyond” that have kept on resonating for me through years of study. In their lights—given that we of The West have such an amazingly positive non-Biblical heritage—I think it’s pathetic that we still only really bond around the needless tragedies of war and natural catastrophe. Maybe someday we’ll wonder why our barriers come down only when violence and terror smash through them. We’ll ask what has been blinding us to the fact that we need each other. Someday our terminal boredom with fearing and celebrating death will give way to celebrations of life—and we’ll find ourselves back in the arms of our most honorable ancestors.
Speaking first as a scholar of Minoan (Bronze Age) Crete, the clues suggest to me that they conceived of a gateway or door between this life in nature and whatever lies beyond it. Their “horns of consecration” marked threshold-places between the mundane and the sacred. The horned mountain was the house of their ancestors, and its horns marked the horizons of the mysteries that flank this life: where we come from and where we go. In-between, their experience of life was cyclical—a “dynamic steady state” rooted in the harmony of past and present being.
The Minoans’ door to The Beyond was simultaneously in that mountain, and at the almost-unmoving center of their night sky (the Pole Stars). They inscribed it at the central point of their wheeled crosses and spirals—the latter a path of concentric circles that, like a door, functions in two directions. The dead pass in and the being-born pass out.
If I have earned any learning as an historian of Native New England civilizations, I’ve seen a central similar thing in the way Native American traditions describe life as circles within circles. Human being happens within the cycles going on all around it. Say and pretend what we will about life’s linear goals, our life is written in overlapping cycles of interdependent forms.
We are born from our ancestors as they were born in turn, utterly helpless. Each generation matures because their elders’ lives, at peak-strength, have what it takes to help us. Then, as we rise into our places, they decline—becoming helpless again. When that circle closes, our own turns come at the front of the line. We for a time inscribe the spiral-path that circles out from and back toward the door. Behind us rise the young, both displacing us and (we hope) our own best help in what is coming in our turn. Their times too will come to engender and to fade.
I’ve come to consider those paradigms more credible than others because of their naturalistic terms. So along such lines I try to learn from a journey with my father—when I was determined to hold his hand all the way through the last turns of the circles of his life, as he headed through the door.
Jack was roaring healthy when he died—a fit, robust and sparky Irishman two days short of his 70th birthday (January 23, 1922-1992). What got him was a gradual form of myeloma or bone marrow cancer. The doctors had promised my father maybe three years and, with plenty of transfusions and suffering too, he fought it for nine. He and we enjoyed the hell out of this life together before the end. It’s only true that the shadow bearing down on Jack was already lighting up the way we lived, as soon as it appeared.
A slowly-progressing terminal illness divests a person day by day of their independence. Each of Jack’s hard-forced surrenders of his were the workaday ways of circling and spiraling in toward the gate and door, the horizon of this life. In Jack’s case, that turned out to be the local hospital where I had been born to him and my mother (1955).
What he wanted most was to pass away at home, in the home he had built and cared for every day of his family life. But the best choice at that time was that he let the hospital manage his last days of searing pain. So I watched Jack walk knowingly out the door of his home for the last time, still quite lucid then with his usual grave and merry Irish mix, and not one curse or tear. And then I was setting up a cot beside his bed in his hospital room, with no idea or care about how long I was going to live there. It turned out to be three days. He died on my birthday, and the day on which we waked him (in his golf-clothes and shoes) was his own.
Thanks to the hospital, that first night we wheeled in a TV with a VCR and spent two hours watching the very first print of Thomas Morton—my first documentary-film just completed at that time, and dedicated to him at the end of the long credits. My insecure and impecunious life as a writer, it’s true, had been a great worry and mystery to my father. But that film, for all its flaws, showed him that at least I had wasted my life on real substance. Jack said he was glad to think that a story of a good guy wronged was going to get told—and he smiled when he heard that I had plans for the stories of more guys a lot like that.
In the middle of the second night, Jack awoke not in any kind of distress, but suddenly very lucid and animated, eager to wake me beside him and to talk. Whatever my sleep-deprived watchman’s state, I sat up the more as I listened.
It has to be said that morphine was part of this mixture—the wonder-drug for pain, which over time brings on delusions and psychosis. You also have to know that this was a man born of hard knocks in The Great Depression, schooled in World War II, trained and employed all his life to install New England Telephones, and without either college or one evangelical bone in his body. Jack was a “worrier” because from supporting his family at 12 years old to making sure that he and his crewmates came back from every combat-mission, he had built his good world out of taking complete responsibility for it.
Popular culture Jack enjoyed, but he certainly put no time into existential exotica, let alone NDEs. I knew my father for 37 years (my lucky number, by the way) and never before had he spoken along lines of any resemblance to the following.
Jack said he had no idea where all this came from. He’d just simply “found himself” in a place or space that he could only describe as a kind of dark void, a completely featureless nowhere, if there could be one. Then, seemingly above him, a light appeared. It seemed high and far away, but it grew brighter, and then as far as Jack could tell, it was descending, slowly, gently down toward him. In the next moment, he was being spoken to by “people” or beings whose arrival and presences he never explained or visually described.
“We are going to take care of you,” they said to him. “You do not need to worry about any little thing in the whole world.” Those were the two sentences Jack remembered, and then he struggled—but there in his bed, he made me understand him. Everything about that place and what was said to him convinced my father, like nothing else in his life, that there was not one single thing to worry in the universe.
“And you, by the way—You got a lot of balls,” he smiled. And this with half a wry look, as if admitting he might have missed something.
“What?” I said, amid amazement.
“You know. Doing the things you do,” my father answered. “They said so.”
They? We laughed and laughed.
Early in the dark of the third morning, Jack awoke thrashing in his bed. It was a real morphine panic, a dread of falling or sinking, of letting go. All at once he wanted and could not bear to lie down, to sit up, to stand, or anything else. For every bit of his nurses’ dedication, all they might be able to do was strap him down. Instead I held my father tight in my arms, telling him who I was, just talking and helping him to breathe until he grew calm again.
By then all Jack wanted to know was that he was safe and with somebody who loved him. When he felt and knew that for sure, he wanted to lie back down in the bed.
His head was so heavy, so weary, on my shoulder. Just before we opened our embrace, he pressed a kiss into my neck below my ear, and whispered the last thing he said.
“God bless you Jack.”
At that moment, and every time I’ve remembered it since, what cracked my spirit open like a seed was the presence of a circle. Because I’d been blessed already, all my life, with him as my father.
That same day’s afternoon, I was sitting up next to his bed where he slept with my hand holding his. Skilled, scarred, patient, weathered, beaten-up, infinitely gentle, his hand was cool and growing mottled, his breathing slow and shallow.
The telephone on the night-table rang. It startled Jack’s eyes wide-open, and he looked into mine. Then he laid back, and the light left his eyes.
You can let go of a hand. But hold one in closely helping somebody along those circles toward the door, and through it, and you never lose what begins to pour through you in the process. For that I have only the clumsiest of gropings toward words.
Rocket-fuel. The full-fire plasma of Life. The geometrically-bursting dynamo of evolutionary ecstasy in every cell inside and all around me. The balls to settle for nobody’s measures but my own.
Let me try for the terms of a benign journeyman. Just don’t get in my fuckin’ way with your life-killing projects for money and “progress” and your infantile prayers for redeemers and armageddons. My holy inherited soul will walk up your face and, down your back, leave a spiral-trail carved in natural facts.
For The Garden, you see, is remembering we are in it. Free, unafraid and for living, I’m home, and on my way. I sit down at my desk and go flying, bodily, through the universe. You know what I’m saying? Kiss my entire ass, although friendship and kindness are good options too. I got this tender ferocity for nothing from my ancestors, so surely I owe someone ahead at least the same.
Stand yourself in the doorway and see what happens to the obstacles around your life-craving soul. We don’t conquer death. We learn how to laugh in its face before death laughs in ours.
People are dangerous (free) when they know they cannot lose. Feeling this, honey-child, means that we’ve already won.