Tuesday, December 11, 2012

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.


  1. Fascinating Robert. Cannot wait to hear your experiences with "heaven".

  2. Fascinating story Robert! I can't wait to read about your experiences of heaven.