Friday, August 29, 2008

What Dreams May Come Must Give Us Pause

"Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,
and as he comes, so he departs."
–Ecclesiastes 5:15

Coming into the world "buck-ass naked", we leave it the same way. As far as worldly possessions are concerned, "We’re sorry, you can’t bring them with you."

Could there be something we do take with us– a recollection of our human experience, perhaps?
A cosmic karmic scorecard, or a shade embodying our emotional energy? Dare we risk the scorn of the empiricists to say it–a soul?

Relying only on physical senses and logical reasoning, we face a dilemma. We can’t know the truth about the "afterlife," until we’re dead, and we have no incontrovertible proof of anyone communicating to us from "the other side." The possibility of continued existence in the hereafter remains today a matter of scholarly dispute for some and personal faith for others, rather than an indisputable fact of human existence.

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." --Corinthians 13:12

Of what relevance to today’s intellectual can any of this possibly be? Possibly none. What’s the point of endlessly contemplating infinity where there is much to be done in the here and now?

So I commended enjoyment, because there is nothing better for man under the sun except to eat, drink, and enjoy himself. –Ecclesiastes 8:15

Yet if we can aid in someone’s transition, it’s only right that we should do so. An older friend of mine, whose wife died a couple of years ago, told me he was greatly comforted by Don Piper’s book 90 Minutes in Heaven. Herewith my own contribution:

It started as a pleasant enough outing in fall of 1994. A bunch of friends made arrangements to watch the annual offshore powerboat races from a sailboat in Key West harbor.

It was a chance to go sailing again, something I loved, combined with something in which I had little real interest, seeing powerboat racing as a marine version of NASCAR. But still the same, it was an outing. We’d been working hard, and deserved some recreation.

I had a few misgivings when I saw the boat up close. Some of the lines were a little frayed, and the bottom hadn’t been cleaned recently. You can’t have sailing craft with a fouled bottom and expect it to perform decently. But it was a Wharram catamaran, something in which I had an interest, since two friends had built them. They are simple, a little heavy, but appeared to me to be functional and well designed.

The weather was good, but a little gusty. We’d had Hurricane Gordon come through a couple of weeks before. It was an unusual storm, in that it tracked all over the place. What had happened was that Gordon, or the remnants of it’s low pressure system, had worked its way north, then collided with a cold front, and elements of it actually came all the way back to Florida.
We were approaching the harbor. Things went ok. I was looking astern, admiring the way the cat cut through the water, fouled bottom or not. Then the lights went out.

An odd, violent gust of wind caused the mainsail to jibe, swinging it around from port to starboard, catching me on the side of the head with a force like a hard-swung baseball bat. It knocked me headfirst down a companionway. I landed face down in a cardboard box of soda cans.

The first thing I remember was one of the guys on board getting me upright. I spit out a lot of blood. Fortunately someone had a cell phone (they were a lot larger and bulkier back then) and the Coast Guard came, strapped me to a board, and took me to the hospital.

They stitched up a couple of gashes on my face, and checked for neurological damage. They told me that I had multiple skull fractures. Some cerebrospinal fluid had leaked out. A couple of teeth were broken, sinuses filled with blood, both eardrums bleeding, one eye-socket fractured. They hooked me up to an EKG machine, and took me to a side room to wait for a CAT scan. Semi-delirious, I kept saying I wanted to go home.
During this time I heard a lot of shouting in the emergency room. There was the noise of helicopters outside. It sounded like there was a thunderstorm, and the lights flickered and dimmed. Then all hell broke loose.

Tom Gentry, a wealthy real estate developer whose fascination with powerboat racing brought him several world records, was racing in Key West that day. The same freak storm that caused us to jibe earlier had flipped Gentry's 40-foot Skater Catamaran, Team Gentry, over, trapping him and his throttle man underwater.

They had been pulled out, but the rescue operation had taken several minutes. Gentry and the throttle man had just arrived at the emergency room. (The doctors were unable to save the throttle man. Tom Gentry never recovered from the crash that day, and died at his home in Hawaii a few years later.) Click here for Tom Gentry's obit in the New York Times.

In the meantime, I was still alone in the side room.

The next thing I remember is being able to be outside my body and being able to fly around the room. I remember being delighted with the ability to propel myself around. I went up to the ceiling, and looked at the light fixtures close up, noting the detail of them and how they were made. Then I looked down and saw my body still lying there, but there was a man that looked like a doctor leaning over it. I "flew" down for a closer look.

He was dressed in what seemed like a hospital robe, but it was yellow, as if it had gold in it. And he wore a "pillbox" type hat, which looked a little like the kind of cap a doctor wears in surgery, except this was more like a hat, and it had writing on it in an alphabet I did not recognize. It might have been Hebrew, or something related to it. He held objects that looked like crochet hooks, and they were also gold or bronze in color, and was using them to do something to the side of my head where I had been hit. Then he told me (something like), "Well, you won't get too many chances to recover from something like this again. You must be much more careful in the future, or you won't be able to do what you have to do, and that won't be good." It was as if he didn't say it in so many words, but I understood it as complete sentences.

Then he said, "Now stop fooling around by flying around like that, and get back into your body, and ask someone for water and a blanket." I did what he said, and in an instant he disappeared, as if vanishing into another dimension, and I could feel myself zipping back into my body. Soon a nurse walked by, and I asked her for water and a blanket. She brought the blanket (which felt really good) and let me wet my mouth with a little water. Then I went to sleep. Later they took me upstairs. Because of the confusion, I spent about nine hours in the emergency room.

They kept me there for a couple of days, plying me with antibiotics to ward off any chance of meningitis. I wanted to go home as soon as possible, because like a fool I was without insurance at the time. Yes, I am a lot more careful about physical risks these day.

A few months later my dentist asked me, "Who pulled your cheekbone back out for you? They did a nice job." I told him that the later X-rays showed "fracture, but no displacement," and that there hadn't been any orthopedic surgery. He just looked at me in a confused way, and wouldn't talk about it afterward.

Upshot: "A blow to the head can cause remarkable hallucinations" or "the universe is a lot more complicated than any of us can possibly imagine." I personally opt for the latter explanation, no doubt about it.


Alan Sullivan said...

I'll go with "hallucinations," but it's a great story.

Your photos are so familiar from the time I spent at the Galleon.

I hope you are somewhere safer than a catamaran on this stormy night.

Concerned Neighbor said...

Although the events before and after it have faded in memory, the "core experience" still gives me considerable pause, along with an abiding sense of wonder. Glad you liked the read and pics.

We are safely perched in North Carolina for a while, but the long arm of Fay reached here last night and treated us to a flooded living room. May those to the south fare better this week!

Concerned Neighbor said...

Follow up: And there is certainly nothing wrong with that most worthy of objectives, "eating, drinking, and being merry"!