Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Zombies from the Zombie's Point of View

I may be one of a relatively few people in North America who has never seen a complete zombie movie (although I did watch most of Shaun of the Dead), but I think I get the general idea. In the standard zombie movie, humans die in a plague only to be reanimated into unthinking, unfeeling, brain-eating creatures who reproduce themselves by biting people or sustain themselves on brain matter, wreaking havoc on the innocent wherever they go.

There is a certain logic to the plot of zombie movies. If there were zombies on the prowl in my neighborhood, I'd get busy barring the doors and boarding up the windows, too. But what one never sees in the movies or reads in the movie reviews is being a zombie from the zombie's point of view.

Why is it that a “spirit” might come back from the dead with a message of encouragement but a zombie would come back from the dead lumbering with jerk-like movements and constantly intoning “Brain. Eat braaaaaaain”? I don't think it's because zombies don't have brains.

Zombie brains must share many characteristics with human brains. After all, they still have the ability to recognize, kill, and eat humans. They must possess at least some of the human senses. They must be in touch with the real world.

What zombies evidently don't have the ability to do is to see beyond the physical world. They have the ability to see an innocent child, chase it, and eat it, but they don't have the ability to see an innocent child and recognize the quality of innocence, to see a potentially tasty creature that they must nonetheless must not eat and even must nurture and protect.

A zombie does not have the inner experience of the outer world. A zombie, if there really are zombies, might have the sensory abilities (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) to do an inventory of the physical world, but the sensory data in the zombie's brain, we humans tend to believe, don't have the qualities of the physical world.

But why all this speculation about a fictional being? There aren't any zombies, are there? Really?

It's a lot easier to speculate about zombie brains than it is to speculate about human brains.

A friend I respect reports and encounter with a belligerent member of the undead. No one believed my friend until the undead person also attacked someone else. I take my friend's accounts seriously and literally, in terms of the experience of the attack. There are at least several possible explanations.

1. My friend imagined an attack an undead person and an unrelated person later imagined the same undead attacker.
2. My friend made up the story about being attacked by an undead person and a second individual made up a very similar story.
3. My friend was attacked by an undead person and a second individual made up the story about being attacked by the same zombie. Then there's my favorite,
4. My friend made up the story about being attacked by a zombie but then the zombie materialized into the real world and attacked someone else. Or,
5. My friend and the other individual were both attacked by a “real world” individual on whom they projected the qualities of a zombie, or they were both attacked by a “real world” individual who was a zombie.

Zombies are a lot easier to understand. They just want to eat your brains. But people who observe zombies have to (1) see a human form, (2) recognized it as undead, (3) recognize it as a threat, and (4) run for their lives to safety. If anything goes wrong with any of the four phases of zombie recognition, there isn't a zombie experience. You have to be pretty darned smart to know you're being attacked by a zombie.

It may be that we humans are hard wired to see zombies all the time, and it's only when our brains are so tired that they don't filter out the zombie images that we do. Or it may be that our ability to project an image of what we expect to see (as I discussed in an earlier post) is energized by something physical, physiological, or electrical going on in our brains. That is, we might see real people but see them as zombies. Or it may be that “zombie” is the brain's shorthand for a dangerous person to be fled right now. Or there might be real zombies. It almost doesn't make any difference whether zombies can be precisely defined in the real world or not or whether they exist in the real world or not. Sometimes you just need to bar the doors and board up the windows. (Just don't tell your stories too indiscriminately if you happen to have encounters with the undead.)

Whether or not you possess edible brains is the only thing that is important if the zombie sees you. Whether or not you have bars for your door and boards for your windows are the only things that are important if you see a zombie. And if you want to be a helper to the helpless and to assist your zombie-viewing friends with what you believe to be their hallucinations and delusions, only try to do so in a zombie-proof space. It just might be you who suffers the error in perception, and the zombie might eat you first.

Seeing the Spiritual World in the Physical World

There is more than a little evidence that we human beings have an innate ability to sense the physical world with more than our physical senses. Oddly enough, as many of you know, some of the best accumulated public evidence for this comes from the US Military.

I've personally seen former "psychic spy" Paul Smith almost flawlessly duplicate an image of the clear-floor observation deck at the Grand Canyon from a photograph an acquaintance of mine stuffed in an envelope. I've also seen him demonstrate his powers to "see" objects thousands of miles away in real time, and I honed some of my own skills along these lines in his class.

Paul Smith could detect Soviet missile sites. There aren't any more Soviets, nominally, at any rate, and the US Army disavows the use of psychic spies to see them nowadays. Far more interesting to most of us are the now-declassified accounts of the US Army's remote viewers contacts with alien races on other planets, who were rather annoyed at the voyeurism. I'll address those another time.

Personally, my forte is remote viewing objects with repeating geometric patterns and finding the real-time inconsistency. I'm pretty good at drawing real-world waterfalls I've never seen in real time if they run over layers of sedimentary rock. I'm not half bad at locating loose rivets on geodesic domes in Antarctica (where I've never traveled).

I learned a long time ago, however, that if you can locate a dead body, it had better be somewhere you could not possibly have been and you can prove you weren't at the time the person expired. I also learned that families can turn their anger at the outrage of their loved one's death on the person whose "psychic powers" succeeded in location.

But the thing to know about the ability to "see" the unseeable is that it isn't the same as the ability to "see" the unseen. Simply being able to locate objects that objectively exist in the physical world without using eyes or ears or TV or Internet isn't a weird spiritual power. It seems to be just a physical ability that physics can't yet explain. The students of Ingo Swann uniformly describe the process in terms of "signal lines" and receivers in the brain, but nobody has figured out just what those signal lines are. (Hint: I don't think they are "lines.")

What has been worked out is a logical framework for Paul Smith, more recently Dr. Paul Smith, having received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin after writing his dissertation on how it's logical (sorry, Paul, I'm not doing your dissertation justice, I did take time to read it and I did discuss it with, of all people, a Methodist district superintendent who won't be named here) that human beings can do remote viewing, happens to be a devout Mormon who adheres to his church's very explicit teachings about not attempting viewings of the spirit world.

And no remote viewer I've ever met admits to seeing dead people. They would probably tell you (I haven't really discussed this with any of the psychic spy type remote viewers) that they just don't "go there." Privately (and I'm not referring to anything Paul Smith has ever said to me) they might tell you that people who see dead people, or people who see the spiritual world in the physical world, are simply hallucinating.

Oddly enough, remote viewing and hallucination seem to have a lot in common.

Remote viewers learn how to rid themselves of their preconceptions about their "targets." They turn off their self-talk. People who have hallucinations have temporary declines in the number of active neurons in their brains. They have various events going on in their brains that keep their mental editors from removing the images that don't match up with the physical world.

Remote viewers use their minds (they by and large don't refer to the mind and the brain as the same thing) to obtain objectively verifiable information about the shared physical world. People who are hallucinating might just hallucinate something that exists in the physical world. But people who see the spiritual world don't have a way of verifying what they see is real.

That doesn't mean that what people who see angels and demons and monsters and dead people and auras and future events are wrong and it certainly doesn't mean that they are crazy. That just means the rest of us sure as heck have a hard time verifying what's going on with you.

So what's the difference between a psychic and a psycho? The answer is simple. Insight. I'd argue that if a gift of seeing the spiritual world gets you burned at the stake, it's a bad thing even if you're right about what you see. On the other hand, if a gift of seeing the spiritual world offers peace and enables the "seer" or others to move on positively with their lives, it's probably a good thing and we should understand it even if you are "wrong" (and who really knows?) about what you see.

But there is a lot more to be said on this, as you all know. I'll be highlighting some insights from Dr. Smith's dissertation in my next post.

Can Two People Share the Same Near-Death Experience

Can two people share the same near death experience? What about three? My father and I did, or at least we both thought we did at the time. This is the story of a remarkable gift my mother gave us in her dying hours.

In my last post I recounted my own near-death experiences, and I probably left the impression that they seemed to be a product of my own brain. (I don't believe the mind is limited to the brain, but that's another topic.) Without going back to wherever it was I visited while my heart was stopped and my brain was dying in my hospital room, and in the gurney in the hallway as it was being pushed to the heart catheterization lab, and on the catheterization table, I probably couldn't find anyone with whom to compare notes. But I did once.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 1984. Even before she was diagnosed, she also knew that she had the disease that would eventually take her life. Her choice was to make the most of her life before she was confined by her disease.

My mom finished a summer graduate course in chemistry (she was a science teacher) under a professor she liked. She and my father took a vacation to all her favorite spots in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Appalachians. She visited her siblings.

Then my mother came home and faced the music. She had widely disseminated breast cancers, hundreds of them, and tumors in her bones throughout her body. And she had absolutely no intention of leaving life one minute early.

For the next eleven years my mother took every cancer treatment known to medicine at the time, all of them incredibly toxic. She was hospitalized over and over and over again, and sustained by the expectation that either my brother or me would get around to providing her with grandchildren. My brother did, and she was determined to get to know them.

Mom went into remission and back into active disease three times. The fourth time, in 1995, Mom became interested in “herbal” medicine. This was also the year I started working on a project for the American Botanical Council. My mother was convinced that a yew-tree derivative called Taxol would save her, even though at the time every dose required cutting down a literal forest of yew trees and cost over $100,000 each.

In August of 1995, Mom finally got her Taxol treatment. By this time she had tumors in her lungs and liver and kidneys for several months, and was burdened by ascites, that all-over swelling that can't be drained away. For about a day, however, she felt much better. She asked her doctor for another.

The oncologist “went on vacation” and told her she needed to take a vacation from chemotherapy, too. She didn't waste a moment contacting the doctor a few weeks later to get another treatment. Reluctantly (the cost of the treatment being absorbed by his HMO), he agreed.

This treatment didn't seem to have any effect, but my mother was convinced that Taxol would be her wonder drug. Actually, the clinical trials had only found that it added three or four months of life for some stage IV cancer patients, but three or four months with her grandchildren seemed worth a fantastic price. She got her third treatment.

When my mother asked for a fourth treatment, however, the oncologist angrily informed her she “wasn't worth it.” She came home bawling. She had not cried for herself, as far as I know, a single time in the eleven years of her struggle. I should have said, yes, mom, you are worth it, and I'm going to go right up there to the hospital and give your oncologist a punch in the nose, or maybe not, but I was in shock myself. I simply had not ever seen her this way.

For the next six days, we could see her life ebbing away before our very eyes. Hospice showed up after three days, gave us some advice we weren't going to have any time to use, and left us alone to take care of her as she was dying on Thanksgiving Eve.

My mother could no longer speak but her mind was keen. Whether the visit had been pre-arranged or not, I don't really know, but about 15 minutes before my brother and sister-in-law and the kids were to pull up, my mother made it very clear with hand signals we were to put her in a chair and make her presentable for her last visit with her grandchildren.

They came and left, and then my mother made it very clear that my father and I were not to leave her side. Except for a few moments, we didn't. She refused pain medication. She refused oxygen. She did take a little water. My father knew to reach for the moistening swab before she gestured for it. But the end was near.

Mama turned to me and gain me the most loving look. She was relaying a message without words. Then she turned to my father and seemed to gaze into his eyes. That's when the strangeness happened.

Over the two previous years, my mother had lost two of her closest friends, a neighbor named Minta Morrow, and my aunt, Inez. Both my father and I heard them greeting her. We felt joy. We saw the most beautiful light. We heard ethereal music. We knew she had entered a wonderful place.

I turned to Dad and said, “Did you see that?” He gave me a very matter of fact look and said, “Yes, son.” I continued, “I mean, Mrs. Morrow and Aunt Inez and the light and the singing?” My father looked at me with a tinge of irritation in his face, “Yes, son.” The he muttered something on the lines of “I raised you to have more faith” but we had other matters to which to attend. My mother seemed to leave when that happened, although her body continued breathing for another two hours.

There had been some extraordinary phenomena leading to the event. In my family, the departed members come to visit, or, more often, to make peace with, the living members just before death. My mother had visited with her, well, challenging mother a few weeks before all of this happened. When that happened, my mother knew it was time to make her final calls and letters (this was an age in which people actually wrote letters) to her siblings.

And as I was coming back from escorting mom's body to the hearse, several long hours after she died, about 4 in the morning, I looked up and saw two huge shooting stars flaming out at the same time. I always took that as a sign but I've always been too close to the event to interpret it.

The rest, as they say, is history.

If the afterlife is a hallucination, can two people experience it at the same time? Or is there something about heaven that enters our shared realities? I think the answer is the latter, but I also think I'm not the authority for anyone more than myself. In my next post, I'll explain why we have so much trouble agreeing on whether that shared reality is, and what it is. But I won't get too far ahead of logic, or at least I'll admit when I am.

Three Things I Think I Know About Life, Death, and the Afterlife

In my last post I recounted my experiences leading up to sudden death--three times--and resuscitation. I experienced comfort and guidance in the form of a series of encounters with my dead father, mother, and finally a crowded room of friendly spirits leading to and during my cardiac arrest. What I haven't revealed until now is where I think I went while my heart was not beating and my brain was dead. And to be honest with you, I am not totally sure I know how much I remember and how much my brain filled in the gaps after the fact--but maybe that isn't really the question.

Just eight days ago my heart stopped three times. The first time I was in my hospital room, recovering from a heart catheterization, the third of five in just a month, to place a new stent. I sensed a room full of departed loved ones telling me that the event they had been warning me about for five days was about to take place, that it was entirely unexpected (and medically, it was), and I'd be OK. I felt my heart slowing down and stopping, and then I seemed to float to the top of the room.

My father had been the one speaking in the earlier encounters, but my mother spoke to me during my first cardiac arrest. Actually, "spoke" is not the right word. The communication didn't require language and was instantaneous. She made it clear that this was not the end. Sure enough, just before my arrest a nurse educator had come into my room, and since I was on a heart monitor with telemetry to a monitoring station, my day nurse was already racing down the hall.

I'm not entirely sure it was my nurse who gave me atropine and epinephrine, but it was only a minute, or possibly less, before the drugs restarted my heart. I recall the feeling of being drawn back into my body as I took my first breath, very much on a bed being rushed down the hall, and very much struggling to breathe again.

Another happy coincidence, if all of this was just coincidence, was the fact that an interventional cardiologist (heart surgeon, for those of you more familiar with the sawbones era of cardiology), happened to making rounds in my ward.

He was walking with my gurney trying to get me to stay awake. He asked me my name, where I was, the date, to count to five---and I guess I got bored with that last question because after answering him in bad Italian (the doctor was born and trained in Italy), I started to drift back to sleep. I remember the door to the cath lab being forced open as my heart stopped again.

The next thing I saw was the blackest black imaginable. It wasn't just that I couldn't see or hear or feel anything. It was somehow as if nothing existed. There was no past, no future, no present, no memories, no people, no feeling--but somehow I continued to be. There was no God, no St. Peter, no Jesus, no loving family, no unloving family, no friends, no enemies, no pearly gates, no streets paved with gold, no 72 virgins (and, keeping in mind another reading of the verse, no 72 raisins), no devil, no hellfire, and no brimstone. There was simply nothing at all. This was so striking it was the only thing I remembered for a while. But out of the darkness I heard the word "360," and I was being prepared for another round of emergency resuscitation.

When shooting your heart with adrenaline hasn't saved you, and shocking you to the max hasn't saved you, the next thing the doctor does is to open your femoral artery to introduce a wire to carry a balloon directly into your heart. They don't stop to give you anesthetic. I felt the incision. It hurt but I wanted to live and I knew that feeling pain was a good sign. Nonetheless I quickly went out again.

Then I went, well, elsewhere. I was on a ridge on a tropical island that looked a lot like the southwestern shores of Maui. It was fantastically beautiful, but the beauty was not, as some other near-death experiencers have told it, automatic. For the landscape, I thought about what I wanted to see and then I saw it. A fantastic tropical bird, a flowering tree, a vista of an infinite sea each appeared when I thought to look in a different direction. Throngs of loved ones were there, too, but not everyone. People I knew to be dead were there, and people I knew to be alive were there as well.

What I couldn't create on command was people I wanted to see. It seemed that they more or less had to be there, or not. All of the spirits of the departed who had been with me in my room before my first arrest were there. There were some people with whom I had had a "developmental relationship" in life were there, but there were people I knew who were not in my afterlife. Or heaven. Or dream. Or whatever it was.

There was also the Presence of someone I can best describe as wisdom personified. There was nothing scary about this Presence, it was inviting and friendly and non-judgmental, but there was nothing familiar about the presence, either. I asked if there were boats to other islands where the other people in my life resided.

I was told, "No, silly," and given a vision of how it works. The sea rolled back and fish flopped back into the safety of its waters. The waters carried starfish and shellfish and seaweeds into the vastness of the nurturing sea. There was rocky dry ground leading to the other islands, but some coil-like objects that resembled eels lurking between the rocks, creating a narrow path.

I didn't know what the coils were, but I knew they were painful, deadly, disabling, and, in the parlance of my youth, sinful. I was raised to think of sin as an inability to reach a goal, falling short of the mark, rather than an act that wiped out brownie points on God's scorecard. The rocks were broad enough, however, that one could rise above the "sins" and that one could crawl back onto the path if one stumbled.

The Presence told me that the narrow and dangerous path across the rocks was physical life, and physical life allowed us to reach other islands in the infinite sea. About that time I woke up and I was on the way to the intensive care unit. I didn't die again that day and I haven't died again since.

I'll have a lot more to say about what I think happened to me and what I think might happen to someone else, what might happen to someone else on this side of life and death, at least. But for right now I'll leave you with ten things I think I know about life, death, and the afterlife.

1. The sicker we are, the closer we are to our heavens.

Neurologists explain near-death experiences, psychic phenomena, and hallucinations and delusions, too, in terms of the brain's unique feedforward system. Probably you're aware of the concept of feedback. A regulator gets information on whether a process is on course or whether a machine is operating within pre-defined parameters or whether a plan is on its way to achieving its goals.

Feedforward is different. The brain feeds forward, changing what it sees to conform to what it expects. Only when there is a vast difference between what our senses tell us and what our brains expect does the brain edit the image to conform to shared reality.

But what does that have to do with being sick? It turns out that the fewer functioning neurons we have the more our brains are able to ignore reality and create the reality we expect. When we're very sick, we tend to get "delirious," but the experience is very real to us, just not to a bystander. When we're near death, our brains go to "heaven."

2. Making ourselves sick or trying to commit suicide won't get us into our heavens.

The feedforward principle also explains why suicides who are brought back to life usually report a horrific experience. Their brains have to employ a lot of neurons to kill themselves. As the brain eventually fades, it's so busy with suicide, waiting for death, anticipating death, relishing death, that it doesn't create a heaven before the blackness sets in for good. There's an absolute limit of two minutes before the brain can be brought back (before the stored energy in brain cells is completely used up), but in those two minutes there can be a horrific experience of utter abandonment. Or if the person committing suicide is expecting to be sent to hell, the brain may use its dying energy to create it.

3. Understanding how our brains work can enable us to help make the last moments of our lives and the last  moments of our loved ones' lives enormously more comfortable. But just because scientists have a sophisticated understanding of what goes on in our brains we don't have to abandon our faith about what happens to our minds, our spirits, and our souls.

The scientific explanation of how our brains create our near death experiences doesn't preclude the existence of heaven, hell, judgment, and the afterlife, or prove it, either. The mere fact that I have to imagine the afterlife doesn't mean I didn't imagine it correctly. It just means that a great deal of humility is in order.

Maybe I went to Heaven, and Heaven happens to be in Maui. Maybe my brain created a pleasant place for me to be when it was too sick to be bothered with what was happening in the cath lab as the doctor and nurses were saving my life. But as important as the brain is to human life, what happens between our ears is an unimaginably small part of what happens in the rest of time and space throughout the universe or universes. Maybe that old time religion was more right than most scientists think.

My mother could really get into old time religion and she certainly thought so. I'll share what she told me of her experience in my next post.

I See Dead People

Dad had died six years earlier. I heard him say at the side of my hospital bed, "I am going to help you through this, son."

Without thinking I replied, "Thank you, Dad--are you real?" And with a tone of slight indignation my father replied, "I certainly think so!"

It was the evening of the fifth day of my eighth hospitalization in six months for what seemed to be an interminable illness. I was wallowing in a sense of impending doom when suddenly at my bedside my father appeared.

But before I tell you more, it's time for me to come out of the closet. I've almost always been able to see dead people. It's not something I set out to do.

My paternal grandmother died four years before I was born, but somehow I always felt I knew her. Maybe it was because I had a devoted aunt who intentionally took her place in my brother's and my life. Maybe my late grandmother really did visit me whenever I had a sense of her happy presence as I played in the flowers and herbs she had planted on the site where my parents built our house.

My invisible playmate, I learned later, turned out to look exactly like a neighbor's child who had passed away. An especially mean substitute teacher seemed to be followed around by exceptionally disgruntled children who had died when she was a child, in the 1890's.

As I got older, more and more invisible people came round. I would know friends and relatives had passed before we got the call. They would tell me. In my mid-twenties, I would get messages from my dead uncle Bob, who was a believer in the spirit world and self-styled "Jewish" mystic.

A few years later, I would hear from my late great-aunt Emma, who was convinced that my grandmother continued to play the piano after she had passed. I would hear from my cousin Ruby the Theosophist, whom I had never met, and from my Rister relatives who had perished in the Holocaust, an Orthodox Jewish branch of my mostly Christian family whose living members I only met in the physical world in 2010.

I spent several long working vacations in Vienna. I could see the events of the Nazi period replayed in the streets. I asked a friend of mine there, the leader of a religious community, if I could be going nuts. He said, "No. Everybody sees them except psychiatrists. We just don't tell the psychiatrists."

It wasn't just in Austria and Germany that I saw dozens, even hundreds, of spirits at the same time. I developed an aversion to cemeteries because I would be bombarded with messages. In my hometown's cemetery I would hear "spirits" speaking in English and Spanish and German and Czech, the languages that were used there for the better part of a century. A voice in English would ask me to tell a shopkeeper he was sorry he had stolen a ham, a little late, since he had stolen the ham in 1894. I suggested maybe he could deliver the message himself. A voice in Czech would ask me "Tell my daughter," whom I knew through purely conventional means to be dying of cancer at that very moment, "that when I called her my little fat girl I meant it as a term of endearment." I didn't know a less than incredibly awkward way to deliver that message, so it went undelivered.

A voice in Spanish asked me to ask a family to bring more favorite cookies on the Day of the Dead. I would have shared that with my friend, but he died before the next Día de los Muertos. And a voice in German said, "Zo, you are preoccupied with this nonsense. What would your father think?"

Between Father and Son Actually,

I had a pretty good idea what my father would think. The phenomenon accelerated when my father died. I visited my father just a few hours before he passed. He was in a good mood. He was coherent and rational and in good humor. He asked me if he had been a good daddy, and I told him he had been a great daddy. Wisely, he did not offer me any blessing that would offend my brother.

When Dad died that evening I knew that he had passed on before my brother and sister-in-law came over to tell me. And that's where it got more than a little weird. I lived in rural Texas on a single-lane road seven miles from the nearest town.

After my brother and his wife had left, about two in the morning, I felt a need to get some company. I decided to drive into the nearest town that had an all-night convenience store and at least buy a Coke. I walk out to my truck, and out of nowhere a bobcat appears. Bobcats aren't unknown where I lived, but they aren't common, either. It shadowed me to the truck and it shadowed my truck as I drove down the road, keeping pace with me.

The next day the word was getting around town that Dad had died. One of Dad's oldest friends, with whom he had had a falling out, said that at 3 that morning a man who looked just like Dad did when he was 18 knocked on his door, told him everything was alright, and vanished.

A girlfriend--it was a bit surprising, then again not, to hear from a woman who identified herself as my father's girlfriend--said my pop had been by to break up with her but there was something kind of off about it. An elderly neighbor asked me in matter of fact tones, "Your father showed up as a bobcat last night. Is he alright?"

A Gift that Families Share

Dad kept showing up every few months for several years. If I hadn't seen dead people for many years, I might have thought I created him because I missed him, but Dad had seen dead people, too.

One day I came into Dad's kitchen to find him playing invisible pinochle with his three invisible brothers. My attitude was that if he didn't use anything other than invisible money to settle up at the end of the game, it was OK with me.

I became a little more concerned when my late mother, Dad said, instructed him to change out the bathroom fixtures. My attitude was that if my mother materialized and wanted to take a bath, fine, but non-corporeal beings don't need new bathroom fixtures. I chose not to intervene.

Later Dad was diagnosed with dementia, eventually with Lewy body dementia and, after a fall, multiple infarct dementia. I never thought he was entirely crazy, however.

Dad was not my only visitation. My mother, as I will recount in another post, had appeared to both my father and to me at the same time in the same form with the same message more than once.

Mom had a habit of leaving a prediction about the weather, for instance, telling me in March of 2004 that in May of 2004 we would have 11.4" of rain in a single shower, which we did, just to give me some indication she was real. But in the summer of 2012 the visitations suddenly stopped.

Are Dead People Just a Hallucination?

By the summer of 2012 I had been seriously ill for quite some time. I had been hospitalized or admitted to the ER nearly 20 times for blood clots in the arteries serving my colon three years earlier.

In 2012 I had had not just one but two "widowmaker" heart attacks in two weeks, after having been told "your arteries are clean as a whistle." I had been put on an anticoagulant to prevent a third heart attack, but I was in the hospital again with a bleed in the brain.

I'd always experienced dead people as appearing to my right. When a blood vessel ruptured on the right side of my brainstem, the visitations I had been experiencing almost daily abruptly stopped. And I was very relieved. I knew this meant I could dare to talk about the phenomenon without being labeled as schizophrenic.

A hemorrhagic stroke would not have been enough to cure schizophrenia. Hallucinosis is a different thing, allowing insight to occur.

Sure, my brain was generating images of people who couldn't possibly be there who just happened to tell me things I couldn't possibly know, some of them offering me just the right guidance at just the right time, but now I knew I wasn't crazy. Maybe at least I had achieved insight.

For several months, until my father's reappearance at my bedside, talking with the departed had disappeared from my life. I felt a sense of privacy and sanity I had not felt for the last 40 years of my adult life. I felt free. But when Dad came back I actually was glad to see him, even though there was a rational explanation.

A Rational Explanation Unravels

By the time of Dad's renewed visitations I had had not just the brain bleed but a couple of strokes. I had an aneurysm in my brain. I had had three surgical procedures on my heart in three weeks.

To help me deal with angina, my doctor gave me a medication for my heart. It's not supposed to have an effect on the brain, but it's possible that it also helps injured brain tissue operate at lower oxygen levels. The thing is, that isn't in the literature. My neurologist and I could formulate a physiological explanation, but the best we could come up with was, oh, well, obviously, the drugs did it. Or did they?

A Different Kind of Visitation

 A couple of times in my early adulthood my late, great-aunt Emma had appeared as a kind of guardian angel. There was a blind turn at a T-intersection near a a place called Hollywood near my parents' house in the country. One Sunday afternoon I was about to reach the curve at the exact moment some local kids were drag racing down the other road. I heard my aunt scream "Stop!" and hit the brakes, avoiding the teens by about 5 feet. They never saw me.

Another time I was stuck beneath a fallen mattress. I couldn't get it off me, and started just to rest a moment. I heard my aunt's voice tell me that I didn't keep trying I'd die, and "it's way too early for you." I then gave the mattress a hard kick and got loose.

This time was different, though. On earlier occasions I didn't know I was in mortal danger. This time I knew I was.

On earlier occasions, seeing dead people was, oddly enough, an life-affirming experience. This time it did not seem to be.

I was in the hospital for vascular spasms in my brain after my surgeon had operated on my heart twice in two days. He had been cautious and did not want to try to repair a fourth area of damage in the delicate tip of my left anterior descending artery. I had partially lost my sight during the second surgery, and my brain was working overtime to sort things out.

My prognosis was good. My inner compass, however, wasn't pointing toward health. I had a feeling of doom.

I just knew that if I left the hospital too soon I was going to die, and I was going to have to leave the hospital the next day. That's when my Dad appeared and told me he would help. Dad's visitation at my hospital bedside was just for a moment. It turned out that I stayed in the hospital an extra day after I had a seizure.

Both my late father and my late mother appeared at my bedside at the same time the next night. "Something totally unexpected is going to happen. We'll help you through it." I was released from the hospital Saturday afternoon and readmitted to the hospital Sunday afternoon when I was struck with chest pain. It was probably nothing, the admitting doctor said, but I needed to stay at least overnight.

I wasn't having yet another heart attack, at the time, but to be on the safe side my cardiologist scheduled me for surgery to repair the "irreparable" lesion. The operating room was backed up with other emergencies, so I wasn't in the surgery for two days. Each night I got the same message, and each time more and more spirits appeared in the room along with my mom and dad.

The day of my operation came and the procedure was uneventful. "I must have been imagining it all," I thought. But when I got back to my room for recovery I heard my mother say, "This is the time, but it will all work out in a way nobody expects. Just relax. We're here for you."

The room seemed to be filled with every friend and relative I had ever known who had already passed back into spirit, in an expanding circle from right to left--rather like my experience of cortical blindness (the blindness caused by inflammation in the brain that can come and go), by the way.

From Seeing Dead to Being Dead

I'm not sure how much time transpired in my hospital room after my procedure, but I started feeling very, very sick. A diabetes educator--this hospital's staff are so confident in their surgical technique that they will schedule the hour you are getting back from surgery to give you a lesson in diabetes management--happened to walk in the door about the same moment I felt my life fading away. She stepped out to get my nurse, who was already racing down the hall after the nurses monitoring my EKG (this was a hospital with an EKG telemetry system) told her my pulse was falling rapidly.

Shortly after I uttered what might not have been the best chosen last words, "I'm not feeling too good," my heart stopped. I had no sensation at all from my body, but I can remember looking down on the events disinterestedly and my mother saying, "Hi, son. You're not going to stay here long," referring to the place where she and I were, but not suggesting anything was wrong.

My nurse and her student gave me epinephrine and atropine (or at least I think they were the ones who gave me the injections). Another heart surgeon happened to be a few steps away on rounds. I felt myself return to my body on my bed being rushed down the hallway. The nurse was giving me CPR as I took my first breath. The CPR was painless, but the breath was intensely painful, much as I imagine the first breaths after birth must be.

My cardiologist, who is from Italy, asked me questions to keep me awake. I don't speak Italian, other than a little Italian I learned in voice lessons, but I answered him in Italian despite the fact he spoke to me in English. (I remember that I didn't answer in very good Italian.) I remember being wheeled into the cardiac catheterization lab.

Then I experienced an incredibly black universe. It was the blackest of blacks, unimaginably vacant. I woke to my cardiologist saying "360," although I had felt nothing. He then apologized, "This will hurt," as he knicked my femoral artery to insert a balloon into my heart.

And it did hurt. But the combination of procedures brought me back from death. I know I was awake during the procedure--I decline sedation so I can stay awake when I'm getting my heart fixed--but it took a few days for the memories to make sense.

Just Enough Presence

After a few hours, I was sent to ICU with a drip line into my femoral artery pouring anticoagulants into my heart and defibrillator patches still on my chest. I had experienced a cardiac catastrophe unrelated to the successful delicate surgery my left anterior descending aorta earlier in the day.

Blood clots had formed on either side of the stent in my right coronary artery. The pressure on one side of the stent had blown out an aneurysm. I wasn't out of the woods yet. I needed another stent to bridge the damage left by the aneurysm, a stent my surgeon had to pass through the first stent (again, I think) and then settle in relatively undamaged tissue.

My guy's pretty good. I made it through my third procedure in three days on the second day after the catastrophe. A day after the procedure I was in a room. The next day I was taking myself to the bathroom and sitting up to eat, and five days later I am out of the hospital. This morning I walked a mile and a half (2200 m) to get breakfast and another mile (1600 m) to vote. And I'm sorting out what I remember about that wonderful place I visited while my brain could only see black.

I haven't had any more visitations from departed loved ones since I had my fifth and most recent surgery. It's almost as if they respect a spiritual "Do Not Disturb" sign as I recover. But the more I recover, the more I remember. My brain seems to be working just fine, so why doesn't it create some more dead people for me to see? And could my brain have created heaven (about which I've revealed very little here but about which I have a great deal more to say) I'll share my ideas about what happens in my next post.