From the movie of my own life!
May 15, 5 am. I come out of sleep, feeling as if I have eaten something that my body needs to get rid of now, by any means possible. I get to the bathroom where I am wracked by a paroxysm of dry heaves, accompanied by drenching sweat and trembling weakness. I sink to the floor, clutching the toilet, but nothing comes up. Finally the fit passes. I want to shower—my nightshirt is soaking—but I’m exhausted and fall back into the bed and sleep.
Three hours later I get up. I am feeling fine. I go into the kitchen, take my thyroid pill, and feed the cat. I feel vaguely like I need to poop, so I go into the bathroom where I have an episode of diarrhea. I assume this is my body ridding itself of whatever-it-was that caused my earlier nausea. But when I stand up to flush, I see that the bowl is full of dark blood.
“That’s not right,” I say out loud. I think, “I need to call someone to come take me to the hospital.” I start to walk back into the kitchen where I left my phone, but as I reach the entrance hall of my apartment, I realize that I am going to pass out. I manage to get myself down before I fall down (later I will discover a painful bump on my forehead, so I must have hit the wall going down). Lying flat I feel my consciousness receding. “Is this how my life ends?” I think. And, “this is easy.”
All goes black.
But the faint lasts only a few seconds. I come to. There’s a question in my mind: do I let go, do I take this easy death? I know that if I do nothing, I will die. I’m not in the least afraid. I am completely calm. But then I think about my cat and how long it might be before someone finds him—and my body. At least a day, when the friends I am scheduled to walk with become worried. I can’t stand up, can’t get to my phone, but I find the strength to reach up and open my apartment door. I lie with one arm out the door and call for help.
A neighbor hears me and comes to help. Shortly the hall is full of emergency responders. My helpful neighbor finds me some pants, shoes, my phone and purse. I am bundled onto a sort of chair, down the stairs, and into an ambulance. For the next several days I will not move under my own power, but will be lifted and carried everywhere.
On the way I call the friends who would have come looking for me. One meets me at the emergency room. I call my brother and leave texts for others. The ER doc determines that yes, I have had a major bleed somewhere in the gastrointestinal tract. A CT scan reveals nothing wrong. This small rural hospital doesn’t have the resources to deal with my problem. They give me fluids and call around to find a hospital and a doctor who can. Late in the afternoon, I am loaded into another ambulance and transported an hour south to a bigger hospital. My friends promise to care for my cat.
At the new hospital I am placed in the “intensive monitoring” ward – one step down from the ICU – and given the first of many transfusions. Over the next three days I will receive 12 units total, 3 liters of blood. The average human has 5 liters of blood in their body, which means I lost 60 percent of my blood. But from where? Another CT scan is performed, with contrast, but it doesn’t identify the source of the bleed. Usually these scans only catch an active bleed, and it seems mine is intermittent. An endoscopy is performed, looking down into my stomach through a tube passed down the esophagus, but all is clear. I take some comfort from knowing that whatever else is going on, my abdominal organs seem to be just fine.
I have to drink half a gallon of a vile substance called Go-Litely to clear out my system so a colonoscopy can be done, looking up from the rectum. It tastes vaguely citric but after one liter it nauseates me, and I can’t finish all of it. I pay for this. The GI doctor finds out I didn’t drink it all and insists that I must repeat the bowel cleanout the next day. I am so tired and frustrated I weep and plead with him not to make me do it, but he is adamant. I hate this doctor at this moment.
Then my nurse, Frank, comes in. He sees me crying, kneels down next to the bed, and holds my hands. “I’ll be here with you,” he promises. “It will be okay. It will be fucked, but it will be okay.” I laugh through my tears. And I manage to choke down another batch, all of it this time.
But late that afternoon, I crash. My hematocrit—a measure of how much red blood I have—dips to 19 percent. Normal for a woman my age is 35 to 40. My blood pressure slips to 54 over 36, dangerously low. Suddenly my room is full of people doing things. I am transfused again, in a big hurry; the nurses talk over me about how fast they can get the blood in and they are giving it to me through two IVs at once.
As this is going on I feel myself detaching. I no longer care. Once again, I feel how easy it would be to slip away. I’m not afraid. There’s a part of me that thinks I should leave loving messages for my dearests, but it is too exhausting to touch my own emotions. I understand now why those whose deathbeds I’ve sat by became so remote in the last hours, or why they died when people were out of the room. It’s too much work to keep up the emotional connection to others when you are leaving.
A hand shakes my arm. My nurse, Anna, leans into my face. “Jody! Open your eyes! Do you hear me? Open your eyes!” She has seen me slipping away, and she’s not going to allow it. I don’t want to, but I open my eyes. Anna is so beautiful. Her concern shines out of her. This stranger cares deeply for me, as do all the other people working so hard right now to keep me on the planet.
They succeed. I come back.
The hateful doctor makes me drink more Go-Litely the next morning, but this time Mona, another nurse, adds Crystal Lite to the mix and it’s actually . . . I won’t say palatable, but I can get it down. Mona and I agree that the torturers at Guantanamo Bay don’t need to waterboard anyone, they just have to force prisoners to drink several liters of Go-Litely and they will sing like canaries. I am also given Valium, ostensibly because it helps with nausea, but it also makes me calmer about the situation.
All the blood and other fluids I’ve been given have plumped me up – I am 15 pounds heavier despite not eating for days, and my entire body feels swollen. I can hardly open my eyes, and my hands and forearms are so puffy that the phlebotomists struggle to find a vein for the every-4-hours blood draws. I am a mass of bruises. When a new IV line is required over the two already put in, they bring in an ultrasound machine to find a vein.
Finally the colonoscopy can be done. I have high hopes that the doctor will find and fix the source of the bleeding. Mona assures me that however I might feel about this doctor, “he’s the one you want. He’ll find it.”
But he doesn’t. The colonoscopy is clear. I don’t even have diverticulosis, little pouches in the colon wall that can break and bleed, one theory for what has been causing all this. He tells me this as I am coming out of anesthesia and then walks away. I start sobbing, and sob all the way back to my room and after I am lifted back into bed. It seems to me that my life is now going to consist of lying here, bleeding and being transfused, with no answer, no solution. I am in despair.
Anna is there again, holding my hand, assuring me that an answer will be found. They know I am not bleeding from the lower GI tract, they know it’s not from the stomach, which means it is in the small bowel. And there are other ways to find the source, and things will be done, and I will be okay.
And then I hear a voice in my mind say “It is going to be all right.”
From then on, I improve. There is another time when my hematocrit dips to 19, but my blood pressure stays up and I stay alert. Two more units of blood bring me up to an acceptable 26.
The next day my hematocrit is 27. I have no more bleeding. I can get up and walk to the toilet with someone staying close to make sure I don’t faint. I don’t faint. I don’t feel light-headed at all. I have to get up again and again, because I’ve started peeing out all that fluid – a pint an hour!
The following day, my hematocrit is still 27. When the nurse tells me this I burst into tears of relief and we high-five each other. The nightmare is over. I am going to live. My body has been given the time and resources to heal on its own. I am finally permitted “full liquids” – not just clear liquids. My nurse Dawn asks me if I want pudding. I say yes. She asks what flavor? I say, “all the flavors.” She shows up later with several different little cups of pudding. We both giggle. I open the vanilla one and take tiny spoonfuls, savoring it. Nothing has ever tasted so good.
My hands are no longer so puffy. The phlebotomists can find veins! I am allowed to be independent—to walk around my room without first calling an attendant. I manage to walk all around the unit (with attendant). All the staff are happy.
They are not just happy because they’ve succeeded in their care of me. They are happy for me. It seems they find me delightful, interesting, even attractive—not just an overweight old lady. One doctor informs me that “I went home last night and woke my husband up at 2 am to tell him ‘I met the most amazing woman today!” They ask me all about my books and promise to buy them. They are fascinated by my work.
I know that I am a nice patient (certainly compared to the woman next door whom I hear screaming at the nurse “No! No! I won’t!” over being asked to use a bedpan). But it’s not just that. With almost all of them, their concern for me evokes an equal concern in me for them, and I ask them questions too. I want to know them. I want to connect.
And we do. One day Anna opens up about how hard her job is, because she does care so much. “And then I go off shift, and I come back the next day or the day after, and they are gone, and I don’t know what happened to them. And I have to stuff all that and concentrate on the next person.” She tears up. I tear up. We hold hands and I tell her how wonderful I think she is. At another time, Frank talks to me about his girlfriend. She wants him to learn how to dance; he’s reluctant; he doesn’t think he can. I tell him to take a salsa dance class with her, it will be fun. He agrees to try.
I have many similar interactions, because now I am looking to make them happen. I look into the eyes of each person caring for me and really see them. I listen to them. I think about Indra’s Net, the Buddhist concept of “interbeing.” We are all interconnected in being, like a net of jewels. Each jewel is perfect and shining in itself, but also reflects all the other jewels. It is the connection that brings out the real beauty, like dewdrops on a spider’s web.
I’ve had moments of being able to see the beauty of others before. But this time, I see my own beauty too. I too am a perfect shining jewel equal to all the other perfect shining jewels. In this moment I feel any self-esteem issues I may still have at this age, after years of therapy, dissolve entirely. I know my own worth. I see myself as Anna saw me in the moment when she called me back to life.
The last morning, a housekeeper I’ve not seen before comes to clean up. I say hello and point out what a beautiful morning it is. She looks out the window and agrees. Then she looks at me and says “You have a beautiful smile. You have a . . . a beautiful aura.”
I bet I do. Some kind of spiritual Go-Litely has been applied. I have been cleaned out of some shit, all right. I’m not the same person. But who am I now?
Three weeks later:
“That must have been so scary,” people say to me about my two near-misses with death this last month. “You must have been terrified.”
No, I wasn’t. Each time I came near to checking out, I was completely calm and detached. Part of my mind was aware, but it was as if I was observing from a distance.
I wasn’t raised in any religion, but I’m fascinated by religion and have studied all the major ones and many of the lesser-known ones. I’ve also read books on near-death experiences as well as past-life and between-life regression stories. I have had an “enlightenment” experience that was incredibly powerful, and I have been visited several times, unmistakably, by the souls of loved ones that have moved on. Here’s what I’ve come to believe out of my own experiences and what I’ve read:
- We are eternal souls.
- Our souls are not tied to our bodies; we merely inhabit them during incarnations as we would a set of clothes. (And yes, we come back again.)
- Our souls have personalities that persist. I’ve always been a scholarly type, interested in understanding. Probably I’ve also been a bit pedantic in most of my lives. 🙂
- However, our egos are tied to our bodies, not our personalities. The ego is born with the body; the job of the ego is self-preservation, that is, preservation of the body. Its job is to keep us alive. That’s why egos can be so defensive and difficult. The ego is constantly on the lookout for threats to well-being. It doesn’t differentiate between a threat to the body and a threat to the personality. It considers a verbal jab as dangerous as a physical one. This defensiveness can interfere with our ability to connect with each other.
- Our negative emotions are tied to physical existence. Love transcends physical existence, as do the feelings that are part of our soul-personalities (what Jung would call the Self with a capital S), so curiosity and the drive to understand are big parts of my Self. For a warrior-type, the urges to promote justice and protect the vulnerable probably persist in each incarnation. But most negative emotions, like fear and anger, jealousy and envy, belong to the ego/body.
My near-death experience confirmed all these beliefs. When I was skating on the edge, I felt no fear, no anger. I did feel some concern for my loved ones, a sense that I should try to leave a message, let them know I died thinking of my love for them. But at the same time it all seemed like too much work. I was in such a calm space, and hooking into emotions – even positive ones – took me out of that space.
It reminded me of how all the people whose deathbeds I’ve sat by chose to leave when everyone was out of the room. It’s too hard to go when surrounded by grief, even when surrounded by love (and indeed, I believe that I was called back by Anna’s loving energy when I nearly died the second time). When someone is truly on the way out, our love and grief can hold them here against their will.
I’m saying this for those who carry regret over not being there when a loved one died. Maybe it happened too fast, or maybe it was unexpected, or maybe you just left the room for a moment and they went. I understand the desire to be with a dying person: we think it will comfort them to think they are not alone. But what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not a comfort.
When my dad knew he was dying, he spent two days expressing gratitude. And then he lay down and stopped talking. He went inward, away from us. I was reminded of a phrase I’d once read: “He took to his bed, turned his face to the wall, and died.” Dad turned away from us. He grumbled when we tried to get his attention, even when we tried to care for him. He was busy dying, and we were interrupting him. He needed all his attention for the journey. He surfaced once to say to me, “I don’t understand why it’s taking so long.” He was ready to go.
My mom was a difficult and thorny person. When she died, we stayed with her for two days round-the-clock. But I sensed we were just holding her here, and finally I shooed everyone off to at least rest a little. I went and lay down and dozed. And then my mom was in my mind, with her sisters, and I knew a moment of absolute peace unlike any peace I’d ever felt before; truly “the peace that passeth all understanding.” I got up and went to check, and sure enough, Mom was gone. She’d waited for us to leave her alone, but she stopped by on the way out to gift me with the knowledge that she was safe and at peace.
No one wants to suffer, of course; the ego and body don’t like suffering. But suffering is part of physical life. Our souls learn from it. When we go through the gate of death, suffering is left behind. I think that’s why people report a sense of calm as one nears the gate, no matter how hard the road to it may have been. As we leave the body, the ego loses its grip, painful emotions subside, and we enter into calm readiness. There is nothing to fear.
NOTE: for those interested in some of the ideas I express, I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh’s Interbeing and the books by between-life regressionist Michael Newton, Journey of Souls and Destiny of Souls.