To Briefly Realize My Own Mortality
Will they know where the bank books are? The beach towels? How will they get by without me?
If I remember correctly, according to Raymond Moody's book “Life After Life” – I read it so long ago it feels like another lifetime itself – many people who have near-death experiences report experiencing the same series of special sensations.
First, there’s a floating feeling. This is especially true in cases of drowning. This “oceanic feeling” occurs when the victim of an automobile accident, for example, finds herself disembodied, hovering weightlessly above the wreckage, looking down placidly at the scene of carnage as if a mere spectator. In the moments after my own mother died, I remember watching my brother glance upwards. Apparently, he had also read Moody’s bestseller (although he reported having seen neither my mother nor anybody else levitating above us, by the way.)
Then there’s the feeling of being enveloped in a warm, glowing light. Some have reported that, while immersed in this gentle light, they could hear it speak words of comfort and assurance.
Finally, there’s an uncanny experience of reviewing in rapid succession images of the highlights of one’s life. I guess this is where the expression “my life passed before my eyes” comes from. Woody Allen once quipped that he was about to die and the wrong life flashed before his eyes.
The first two sensations, it has been argued, are clinically consistent with what might happen as oxygen levels rapidly deplete. But a montage of one’s life? This one doesn’t make much sense to me.
In fact, when I had my own near-death experience – of sorts – I had an altogether different response. Perhaps this was due to the fact that I was completely unharmed physically and it was my emotions/psyche that were a mess. But let me tell you about it.
To begin with, there was a large, green car flying way too fast down Lexington Street, where I happened to have stepped off the curb. The car grazed my body and knocked me to the ground; I had missed a direct hit by just a foot or so. (And no, the driver did not stop to see if I was OK, but the driver behind him did.) But it’s not the incident itself, harrowing as it was, that is uncanny, but more its aftermath.
For a week or so following my brush with that car, I walked around the house in a zombie-like daze. I distinctly remember opening the linen closet and standing there surveying its contents. I began to make certain assessments: the towels were in reasonable order, as were the face cloths. Having just been to BJ’s, I had an excellent stockpile of soap, shampoo, conditioners, razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste and lotions. An entire plastic bin held our family medications, band-aids and lip balms.
As I touched each item, I wondered: Would my husband, Kevin, know to look here for the thermometer? For the cough drops? How would he encounter this closet in my absence? Would it be helpful to him, now that I’m gone? Will he appreciate how well it is organized?
Yes, it’s true, even in the grips of post traumatic stress disorder, I craved acknowledgement.
Then I surveyed the kids’ closets, repeatedly, helplessly. Again, I would stand before a closet and wonder about its contents and its organization.
Would Kevin know where I’ve stored the winter jackets, boots, snow pants, mittens? (The attic.) Would he know that the beach towels are up in the attic too? And the ice skates. Would he know that the sun block and bug spray were in the hall closet on the first floor? That the Belmont pool bag is there as well?
This kind of bizarre behavior went on for days. I’d tiptoe around, peeking into drawers and under beds. Room by room and season by season, these thoughts permeated my mind.
Would Kevin know where to look for the kids’ bank books, birth certificates, baby photos? Would he know that I have a birthday party bin stashed in the dining room? How would he tell the kids I had died? How will he learn to do everything I do while still doing everything he presently does?
Finally, I would become aware of all that I’d left undone: Christina’s scrapbook was incomplete, the memory book of my mother’s life was in a shambles, I’d never written that novel. My mind would be buzzing, tears streaming down my face, my stomach in a knot. I had no way of stopping the macabre thoughts that persistently invaded my consciousness.
Instead of reviewing the highlights of my life, my mind seemed hell-bent in having me viscerally experience what life would be like with me not in it.
To calm down, I’d breathe slowly and remind myself that I hadn’t actually died that cold morning the previous December. I was, in fact, very much alive, still tending the children and still overseeing the boring but vital details of our lives.
This was some time ago; it is now itself a memory and not a pattern of my waking life. I almost never creep around the house like a ghost anymore. But while the closet is now just a closet and the scrapbooks remain unfinished, a faint whisper of mortality still hovers like a ghost over my unfinished life.