Grateful Life, Joyous Passage

Grateful Life, Joyous Passage

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories of Faith

Grateful Life, Joyous Passage

Thirty-five years go, during a Michigan winter, I shot two rabbits in the woods near my home. When I made the incision to skin the second animal, the room filled with a putrid smell—I literally jumped back from the animal. In the process, I nicked myself with my hunting knife. The small cut on my hand infected me with what the doctors diagnosed as tularemia. Within days, my “cold symptoms” turned into a 105-degree fever. I was rushed to the hospital and zipped inside a plastic body bag filled with ice.

I went into a coma just the same. At that point, the strangest thing happened: I had a clear sense of leaving my body. I observed my physical suffering with divine detachment, taking none of it seriously. I was able to move about freely, but part of me felt attached to my body as though by an invisible thread. I found myself staring into a startlingly bright tunnel of light—the same tunnel described by many in the years since then.

With a sense of quiet exhilaration, I approached the tunnel and saw it opened into endless space. Then I stopped and turned around to see my body, packed in ice. I noticed my father sitting in a chair near the bed, crying. I had never seen my father cry, and it disturbed me. I remember trying to communicate with him, to comfort him. I couldn’t figure out at first why he was upset; then I realized my body was dying, my soul withdrawing. From my vantage point, sorrow made no sense. It all seemed entirely natural, simple and ordinary.

The gaunt-looking body in the bed took shallow breaths, and I was able to identify it as my body. I understood that I had a decision to make—to live or to die. It seemed arbitrary at that moment. I felt attracted to the brilliant light, but was drawn back, in part, by sympathy for my father. So, being sixteen at the time, I decided to stick around and find out what life was all about.

Having made the decision to stay, I began a journey I might not have chosen had I known what I was getting into. Upon returning to my body, I found I had to work harder than I’d ever worked before. The body was badly damaged by the disease: My hair had fallen out; I looked like a skeleton; I was blind; and my senses were mixed up. Sounds sometimes manifested as images in my brain; light might translate into physical sensations.

The physical world at that time made only minimal sense.

As months passed, my sight returned and my senses straightened themselves out. But thanks to the “rabbits’ revenge,” as I now call it, I never again saw life with the same eyes.

My near-death experience was repeated twelve years later after a motorcycle accident. It wasn’t until ten years after that scary incident that I seriously asked myself why such experiences were given to me. I was working for a publisher at the time who asked if I’d be interested in editing a manuscript. It turned out to be a book on death and dying, and it was the catalyst for examining my own experiences with death.

Over time, I began talking with what I took to be an imaginary character in my psyche, who introduced himself to me as “Alex.” I was an author now (The Well Body Book with Mike Samuels), and had earned my Ph.D. By all accounts I was a rational human being, so I treated Alex as my muse, or a foil with whom I could converse and ruminate. Then Alex started making suggestions, such as “Stop here and visit Ann. She’s having a difficult time.”

Amused by this oddity, I did stop by. Ann opened the door almost immediately and stared at me in disbelief: “I’ve just been thinking about you,” she said. “I was about to call you.” Ann told me a mutual friend of ours had died a few days before in a violent accident. “Since he died,” Ann said, “it’s like he’s always here, nagging at me. I don’t know what to do.”

Alex gave me detailed directions: “The next time her dead friend nags her, Ann should go to a quiet place, sit down and just be with him—talk with him as if he were physically present. Give him permission to leave this life. Ask him if there is any unfinished business he needs her to finish for him.”

A week later Ann called to tell me it had worked. Whether my (Alex’s) advice was my own subconscious wisdom that helped put her mind to rest, or whether our friend’s soul was able to finally let go and leave, I cannot know for certain. But after some of my experiences, it seemed as credible an explanation as any.

Many adventures with the living and dying followed. I will share a special one with you. The evening my mother died, I was holding her hand. My mother’s eyes dropped shut, and I decided to close mine as well. As I did so, a tremendous feeling of peace spread over me. Speaking only in my mind, I said, I think it’s time for you to go. I opened my eyes. My mother was looking right past me, her eyes alert and happy.

“All right,” she said, answering what I had only said in my mind. A coincidence?

“Go toward the light,” I said.

She turned her head slightly up, to the right. Her face lit up. I had the clear impression she was greeting someone she was pleased to see. In a soft, calm voice, I repeated these words, “Go lightly, lightly, lightly.”

I felt her hand in mine, but she was slipping away, like an airplane fading away, growing smaller, becoming a dot, a blur. Then she was gone. Her soul had left her body—of that I had no doubt. Yet she looked radiant.

I said a little prayer, though I don’t recall the words.

My mother’s gravestone bears the following epitaph: “A grateful life, a joyous passage.” It tells the story well.

And so, I end, as all stories end, with a farewell and a reminder: “Go towards the light. Go lightly, lightly, lightly.”

~Hal Zina Bennett, Ph.D.

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