Tuesday, December 11, 2012

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.

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