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February 12, 2011

I have a friend who was in a terrible accident years ago.

I didn’t find out about it until recently when we got back in touch after 17 years of not being in touch (thanks facebook!). We all got together for dinner recently — thank goodness he got along with my husband — and in the course of the conversation, I heard about the crash.

Me: “You broke your back? In THREE places? AND you had a shunt in your brain to relieve swelling AND you broke half your ribs and your leg in three places?”

Friend: “It was a bad crash.”

Me: “Yeah, I bet it was one of those cases where the ambulance guys were like ‘ZOMGWTFBBQ he’s alive!!!'”

Friend: “Tactful. And yeah, they were, but I don’t remember that part. I heard about it later.”

Later on we went for a stroll down around the swanky shops near the restaurant we went to, and I chatted with my friend while Chris chatted with my friend’s beautiful wife.

Instead of talking about my friend’s near-death car accident, we chatted about my near-death cancer. It was much the same, except that my friend already knew about my cancer and his mom died of breast cancer, so he knew the drill.

Friend: “I bet you have some serious insight into the big issues of life.”

Me: “Yeah, but no one gets it and it’s not something I talk about a lot. I mean, you have to be pretty much dead to understand what I went through.”

Friend: “Um, yeah.”

Me: “Oh, OH! You were! What happened. Did you see the light and everything when you were lying there by the side of the road next to your smashed convertible?”

Friend: “It wasn’t by the side of the road. It was the day after, when I woke up in the trauma unit of the hospital. The nurses kept trying to give me morphine but I wouldn’t let them.”

Me: “With the light and everything?”

Friend: “With the light and everything. I was on the threshold, talking to Jesus, telling him I had to go back, for my kids and for my wife, that they needed me, and He kept showing me all the ways they would be okay without me, and then I said, ‘okay, Jesus, I get it, they don’t need me, they need You, and I’m just along for the ride.’ Then the nurses gave me a shot of morphine and knocked me out and I woke back up in the hospital room.”

It was a good conversation, but it was one of those conversations where I did all the asking and all the listening, and none of the talking. I heard about my friend’s near-death experience, but I did not share my own with him.

I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words at the time, probably, maybe, but if I had put it into words, it would be these words.

I never took the walk down the tunnel into the light, or if I did, it was gradual, because my descent into death wasn’t brought on by a sudden event. I was dying, and I knew it, but it was a gradual knowledge, and not the less horrible for the slowness with which the realization dawned on  me. I was months if not weeks from death when they started chemotherapy: there was a metastatic lymph node wrapped around my coronary artery.

Taxol stopped my disease in its tracks. I could feel it. It was like an itch being scratched: no longer was I dying, but neither am I precisely living. I stopped just short, with one foot over the threshold.

It is like the scene from The Matrix when Trinity stops time, or escapes it. I don’t know whether I’ve slowed down, or the world has slowed down, but either way, my sense of time is all messed up. It speeds up and slows down like a kid playing with a wind-up phonograph. A good friend, who also happens to have cancer, and AIDS, described it like being in the middle a car crash, were everything slows to a snail’s pace and the smallest things zoom into sharp focus, only I feel as though the car suddenly stopped, mid-air, and I unbuckled, opened the door, dropped out of the car, and walked away. My entire life flashed before my eyes, and then stayed.

It’s still there.

It’s awfully strange.

I feel exactly like I did as a toddler, as a teenager, as a college student, as a mother of elementary-age children, and exactly as I will as an old woman, cranky at the younger generation for leaving her behind, and yet I’ve forgotten whole swaths of things I know I ought to remember, but I don’t know what they are.  Weeks and years go by for me and I don’t feel the passage of time, but the events of yesterday feel like a lifetime ago.

I fake it.

People who have had near-death experiences often speak of their loved ones greeting them, welcoming them. Mine did — my grandparents, their parents, people I have never known, but who know me, and here is what they say: “Wait.” “Not yet.” “Bide a wee.”

Bide a wee?

I didn’t see the light they describe, except that it lurks right outside of my peripheral vision, and sometimes, when I am very tired, or very sad, it blurs over and I can’t see anything except a brightness that overwhelms me, and there is a roaring in my ears, and I have to go throw up, and again, I hear it. “Wait.”

I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and so I continue with the quotidian minutae of my life because that is what is important: keeping my family fed, clean, loved. I’d also like to get a job again, at some point, or else this writer thing might work out for me, but I continually underestimate the effort it takes me just to function, or pretend to.

It’s an experience I’ve spoken about with a few of my friends. I’m lucky to have friends with whom I can talk about such things.

One friend, my Zen friend, says it sounds as though I have reached Nirvana.

Another friend, the incest survivor, never says much, but always manages, in her silence, to say exactly the right thing.

My friend who is the survivor of the after-school-special-esque case of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of a parent tells  me to focus on other people, to leave the past in the past, and to focus on the future.

My friend who left an abusive marriage tells me over and over that I am brave, and that she is proud of me, and I appreciate it every time she says it.

I did have one friend, someone I though I could confide in, who found it too much to handle, and who ended our friendship. I wish I had the courage to say what I should have said, and that is “fuck you,” but I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, because it wouldn’t have done any good and besides, the signs were there all along that she was really just a Stepford Wife hanging out with me to try and become something more than she was: shallow.

In defense of my former friend, it does sound crazy. There are certainly some psychiatric terms to describe how I’ve handled my experience.
Depersonalization disorder springs to the forefront, but when I have discussed my feelings with my therapist, she has said that my sensations are normal, and surprisingly common among people who have had experiences similar to mine, and that as long as it continues to improve and does not interfere with my ability to function on a day-to-day basis, I’m fine.

And I am fine. I just have issues.

That’s what I say whenever it’s clear that I have somehow failed to measure up to the minimum standards of my peer group: “I have issues.”

“We all have issues,” said one of my friends, someone whom I later found out lost her mother to alcoholism when she was in high school. “I have so many, I have a closet full. I call them my ‘shoes.”

It’s an old gospel song: “You got shoes, I got shoes, all God’s children got shoes, my Lord. When we get to heaven, we’re gonna put on our shoes and walk all over God’s heaven.”

When I do get to heaven, I think I’ll be able to leave my ‘shoes behind me on the threshold.

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  1. Joy permalink

    I have been reading your blog, sweetie, and it’s so intense and well written and just fabulous. This is an exquisite post – for it’s honesty, intensity and depth and just so much more. I admire your courage, honesty, bravery and ability to “keep on keeping on.” I wish I could better express myself but I’ll fall back on the “I’m an engineer” excuse. Just know that you are LOVED and NEEDED and so, so important. Thank you for all your writing and being you! HUGS and much love, Joy (from Ransom who prays she isn’t thought of as the “shallow” friend…)

    • Joy, you are most definitely NOT my shallow ex-best-friend. In fact, I was sooooo tempted to link to her bio (it’s online) but I managed to restrain myself. No, no, no, no no, it was someone who ended our friendship with a sweet little bless-your-heart note telling me my “issues” were too much for her. Not you, dear one. I only haven’t seen you in too long because I am a shitty friend. And because it seems like a week to me since we had lunch last.

      And anyway, all my friends are engineers.

  2. Mary Knapp permalink

    Your threshold image is vivid and for me was very real.

    When David was in ICU dying (and you know a child is dying when they put him in a private room, all the Drs gather around, and run a credit card up and down the sole of his foot) I felt that I was at the threshold of a terrifying door, looking through at unspeakable pain. By God’s mercy I didn’t have to step through it that time, but I experienced the terror of looking through. Maybe that particular terror is reserved for mothers, because I didn’t experience it when my parents died.

    It’s comforting to know that the person dying experiences a threshold of a different kind, one of welcome, and love, joy and hope.

    Thank you for writing so courageously. I love you.

  3. Anne Slater permalink

    My heart is swelling with a inarticulate combination of awe, respect, deep sadness for the pain and hurt you have endured, joy that you are here, now, for Chris and Georgia and Graham, and the rest of the people in your world.

    You are teaching us how to live.

    Blessings on you, ER.
    A. ’64

  4. Aunt Lee permalink

    Mayo Clinic: Disassociative Amnesia: Memory loss that’s more extensive than normal forgetfulness and can’t be explained by a physical or neurological condition is the main symptom of this condition.

    I realize that this is a different step on the disassociative spectrum from the one you are going through, but note that psychiatry is still capable of saying that a psychiatric condition can’t be explained by a neurological condition. Had they said that it can’t YET be explained, I wouldn’t fault them, but how can the field flatly discount illness in the nervous system as the basis of psychiatric disorders? What do they think causes psychiatric disorders? Bad thoughts? That’s confusing symptom with cause. Imps? Black bile? Of course, these disorders are the effect of illness in the nervous system. But we’ve only started to study the nervous system in depth now that we have the machinery (e.g., MRIs) to investigate it in living people. Our knowledge is rudimentary, but it will grow.

    Time perception, circadian rhythms, observation of self, distance, etc. – all we can really do now is to let the body heal its nerves as best it can, while we experiment with symptom relief. I think the problems you are encountering are the result of two things: shock, which seems to leave nerves vulnerable to illness, and some aspect or aspects of the treatment you received for cancer. I trust that your nerves will recover.

    In the meantime, you have a privileged vantage point from which you can, while it lasts, observe how much what we think is true with a capital T is actually an artifact of our herd/troop (social) imperatives. Your friend who revealed how caught she is in those imperatives suffers an exaggerated fear of separation. We all fear, to a lesser degree than she, getting picked off if we get too far away from the herd. I feel a certain compassion for her, but probably only because I’m nowhere near her. (And I would argue that men as well as women suffer from the Steppford syndrome.)

    Respect what you are learning through dissociation. Enjoy it. Time and the caring of those who love you will shepherd you back, but until then, learn everything you can.

    And whenever you are able to find words and the energy to tell us what you are learning, please keep writing.

  5. justareader permalink

    My father nearly died when I was 12. He had a near death experience that he spoke of rarely, but he did make sure all of his kids knew the story. His description of the overwhelming love and joy he felt “there” gave him a faith and calm that had a real effect on all of us. The story gave us great comfort when he finally did make the journey for real and thankfully, he waited until I was an adult to go. I pray that your children too are well into adulthood before you make the final journey.

    Thank you for posting this. I believe it will help people.

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