The first time I died, I was 17 years old. That was 18 months ago, but it feels like yesterday. I died in gym class, not typically my favorite activity in high school, and on that particular day, we were engaged in a game every gym teacher uses to fulfill their innermost masochistic tendency…Dodgeball. My strategy was to hide behind the bigger kids in class until a weaker thrower from the other team had the ball, and then I would jump out and get myself hit so I could retire to the bleachers and watch the other idiots try to win the game. One of the football players had the ball, Ron O’Brien, his red hair already thinning at the age of seventeen and someone who spent most of his day busting everyone’s chops and mocking the rest of us mercilessly. I watched as he reared back and fired the red rubber ball at Kenny Denga, another football player, who was standing right in front of me. Denga, a large offensive lineman, was crouching down, ready to catch the missile-like ball sailing toward him. My recollection is that it all seemed to be unfolding in slow motion. At the last moment, in a move not seen since “The Matrix” movies, Kenny turned his massive frame sideways, and the red missile streaked right past him and hit me square in the chest. Upon impact, I was driven into the gym wall behind me.
My next memory was that of looking up into an incredibly bright white light. I recall thinking that the gymnasium lights had never seemed that bright before. Frantic voices somewhere behind me caused me to turn away from staring into the light. I was startled to be looking at myself lying on the gym floor. There were two paramedics around me, one performing CPR while the other was opening up a small electronic device with two paddles attached to it. The CPR paramedic stopped pressing on my chest, put two fingers on my neck, and shook his head.
“No heartbeat,” I heard him say. “Let’s give him a jolt.”
From my vantage point, above the scene unfolding below, I remember looking around the gymnasium at the pale, frightened faces of my classmates. Ron and Kenny stood at the other end of the gym with the other football players in our class. With arms folded and heads bowed, they were desperately trying to hold onto an air of toughness, but I could see they were clearly shaken. Above me, the white light began to tug at me. Slowly, I turned back around and began to climb a flight of stairs into a faint white mist. As I climbed higher, a sense of calmness overtook the confusion that I felt while watching the paramedics work on my lifeless body on the floor. Briefly looking back, I saw the paramedic place the paddles on my chest and heard him yell, “Clear!”
Instantly, I felt fire in my chest, and strong, invisible hands drag me down several stairs. I was scared and unsure of what I was supposed to do, so I turned and began to scramble up the stairs on all fours. Up ahead, I could hear soft music playing and began to feel a soothing warmth course through me. Once more glancing back, I saw them preparing my body for another jolt of electricity. I reached the top of the stairs and poked my head through a thick cloud of the white mist. It felt so inviting. In the distance, I could see my grandfather walking toward me in slow motion, waving me back with his hands. I couldn’t hear him speak, but I saw his lips moving as if to say, “No Tommy, no.”
Another jolt, flamed through my chest, followed by the iron grip around my ankles dragging me back down. Farther and farther away from the light, I was pulled by the unseen hands. I felt so conflicted, so confused; I longed to return up into the mist. Then with a ripping sound, like a needle carelessly being lifted from an old record, I was back in my body. I opened my eyes and could see the pale glow of the real gymnasium lights. The paramedic with the paddles smiled and said, “He’s back!” A chorus of cheers rang out from my classmates. Yes, I was back, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be away from that feeling of beauty and calm that I had experienced as I crawled up those stairs into the mist.
I ended up in the hospital and aside from the nasty, reddish-burn marks on my chest from the defibrillator; I didn’t feel any worse for wear. Mom never left my room the entire time I was in the hospital undergoing tests. Ever since Dad left when I was nine, it had just been the two of us. Most boys my age would pretend they were too cool to be close to their Mom. Not me, I loved her, and I remember as I lay in that sterile bed, in that sterile room, that I was more afraid for her than myself.
Days after the dodgeball incident, an abrupt, salt-and-pepper haired doctor blew into my room as if on a mission. I had never seen him before, and as Mom jumped to her feet, he briefly stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Dr. Aubergine. Then he looked down at me and said, “Son, you have a condition called, Danon Disease. It is a rare, genetic heart disorder, a type of cardiomyopathy, which leads to significant deterioration of your heart muscles. It is incurable, and you will die… I’m sorry; there really is no easy way to deliver that news, so I prefer to rip off the Band-Aid, so to speak.”
I remember how Mom slowly sank back into the chair next to my bed as tears flowed down her pale cheeks. I asked the doctor if being hit by the ball triggered it. He responded with more than a hint of condescension, “No son, I said it was genetic. Actually, if you hadn’t been hit, we may not have discovered it at all. While little is still known about the condition, there are some therapies that might allow us to prolong your life.”
To that, Mom weakly replied, “H-how long?”
While responding, he couldn’t meet my mother’s eyes, “Ma’am, the muscles in your son’s heart are in a constant state of atrophy. Typically, by the time it is diagnosed the end comes very quickly, within weeks or months, but I have read about patients who have held on for up to two years.”
The second time I died was just two weeks ago. Mom and I were sitting in our small family room; I sipped hot chocolate as she sat with her legs tucked beneath her, a glass of wine in her hand. Outside, a cold winter wind rattled the window behind the Christmas tree we had just finished decorating. She was telling me stories about better days, how I would be so excited in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Since the diagnosis, we spent many nights just like this. Talking, just being together, and making every day count. Sometimes Mom would cry and start apologizing for not being stronger.
That particular night, as Mom quietly began to cry, I stared off into the Christmas lights and let my mind drift back to last spring. I graduated from high school without further incident and aside from being occasionally tired; you wouldn’t have known that I was sick. At graduation, I remembered how so many of my classmates treated me as if I would break, and my teachers hugged me so deeply and said goodbye with such finality. Never having mentioned the incident since it happened; on graduation day I shook hands with Ron O’Brien and thanked him for giving the doctors a reason to poke around. Half expecting a wisecrack, he looked at me with a sincerity that caught me off guard and said, “I wish things could work out different bro’. You’re a lot tougher than I will ever be.”
Then, the white light and that gentle tug in my mind to start climbing abruptly interrupted my reverie. Like before, I found myself outside of my body that lay on the floor beneath Christmas tree, a pool of hot chocolate spreading out on the rug beside me. Mom was crying hysterically and shouting our address into her cell phone. The pull of the white light above me caused me to turn away as I began sprinting up the stairs. As I climbed higher, the mist grew thicker, enveloping me like a warm blanket. I felt like I needed to get into the light before the iron hands could pull me back down. I thought that I shouldn’t bother delaying the inevitable, and if heaven was beyond the white light, then it was where I wanted to be.
I reached the top of the stairs, broke through the mist, and took a few steps in the direction of the light before I suddenly turned around. I realized that I hadn’t said goodbye to my mother and knew how devastated she would be. I stepped back toward the stairs, hoping for a final glimpse of my Mom, but the mist had thickened, and I could no longer see anything below. Feeling disoriented, I looked around noticing the soft music that filled the air, coming from the direction of the light like a giant speaker. Although the light was far away, I still saw people walking toward it. Young and old, most walked alone, but I could see couples hand in hand, silently shuffling toward the light. The sheer vastness of the area was initially alarming. But, as I stood there in the enveloping warmth, I soon felt oddly comforted and was compelled to move toward the light. Inside my head, a voice was urging me on…much like a carnival barker. The man’s voice was smooth as honey and extolled the virtues of existence on the other side. Eternal freedom, happiness, beauty, and love, it was all waiting beyond the light.
As I started forward, I instantly felt myself being pulled along as if I was on a moving walkway at the airport. Looking over to my left, I saw Grandpa again. He was closer to me than the last time I had died, but still a distance away. He looked so sad, and he was waving his hands again. His lips moved, but I still couldn’t hear him above the golden voice in my head urging me on. Once again, Grandpa seemed to be mouthing the words, “No Tommy, no.”
I tried to ask him why, but I don’t think that my lips even moved. Clearly, he was trying to reach me, but was struggling, as if against an invisible tide. Suddenly, a sharp, familiar jolt pulled me back several feet. Grandpa had finally broken free and was running now, frantically waving me back.
“But, I don’t want to go back,” I tried to say. “I want the light; I want to see heaven.”
Another jolt engulfed my chest, this time much sharper. The iron grip around my ankles was stronger, pulling me back away from the light. Grandpa had stopped and was watching me with a look of satisfaction on his face. As he stood there with his hands on his hips, I could see him mouth the words, “Go back Tommy, go back, and see heaven.”
The familiar sound of a needle scratching across an album was what I remembered next. I was in the back of an ambulance, strapped to a stretcher as a blond woman knelt over me with two paddles. She turned to my mother, who was sobbing in the front corner of the ambulance and said, “He’s back!” Then a young black man leaned over me and grabbed my leg, “Welcome back, young man. You gave us all quite a scare.” I remember trying to smile, but I didn’t feel any joy.
I craned my neck to look at my mother and told her, “Mom, I saw Grandpa by the white light, I think he was trying to tell me that it wasn’t my time yet. Heaven must be beyond that white light…It was all so beautiful.”
The doctors told us that the damage to my heart was significant. A few days later, Dr. Aubergine was in the room talking to Mom while they thought I was asleep. I heard him tell her that I probably only had a matter of days left. He apologized for saying it so bluntly. I opened my eyes just enough to see that he was holding her as she cried on his shoulder. Apparently, he had a heart, after all. With mascara tears pouring down her face, she asked if she could bring me home for Christmas. With noticeable resignation, he told her, “We can’t do anything for him here, so you may as well take him home and enjoy your last Christmas together.”
The days that followed seemed to be an endless parade of friend and family visits. I didn’t have much energy, but I was awake most of the time and quickly grew tired of the dark cloud of depression that had descended over the holidays. I went out of my way to tell everyone about what I had seen in the light. I felt like I had become the carnival barker myself, talking about the beauty and comfort of what lies beyond. When Pastor Reynolds came to visit on Christmas Eve, I told him about the white light. His eyes glazed over with a faraway look as he began to cry.
“Heaven is a real and beautiful place,” he said. “While one so young should have more time to enjoy the beauty of God’s earth, you are blessed and will soon find peace in the presence of God.”
“I know, Father,” I replied. “I am ready.”
I died for the last time on Christmas Day. Upon waking that Christmas morning, I called my mother into my bedroom. Somehow, I knew that it was time, and I wanted to say goodbye before it was too late. We held each other so tight and cried freely. I told her not to worry about me and that I would be there to welcome her when the time came. I said she shouldn’t rush it, and that she needed to find a good man for herself. I’ll never forget the sound of her laughter breaking through our tears.
The light was pulsating, like a heartbeat, and seemed even brighter this time. It felt so good to be moving toward it. As I looked around, I couldn’t understand why there were people who stood with their back to it. Seemingly afraid to pass through, they couldn’t possibly know what they were missing. As I got closer, I remember throwing my head back and letting the warmth wash over me. It felt amazing, like when the sun finally broke through on the first warm day of spring. In my head, the Barker with the golden voice kept talking about the beauty on the other side, imploring me to continue through the light.
Then, as I was just about to reach the edge of the light, a sharp tug on my arm stopped my progress. I opened my eyes and saw that Grandpa had a hold of me. He looked terrified, frantically mouthing the words, “No, No, No.”
“Gramps don’t be afraid,” I remember mouthing back to him, confused as to why we couldn’t speak to each other. “Follow me into the light, it’s beautiful.”
“No Tommy, no,” he said. “Stay here with me.”
“I’m sorry Grandpa, but I’m ready for this. I’m ready to be with God on the other side.”
And then, with a sharp look that I didn’t intend, I mouthed, “Now either come with me or let me go!”
For the briefest moment, all of the joy and happiness I felt emanating from the light disappeared. Now, with my back to the light, I could see others standing off to the sides; they were staring at us. Those who glided toward the light were oblivious, their faces held a look of rapture. I shook my head and tried to pull my arm away from Grandpa. His look of sadness and resignation was crushing. Lowering his eyes, he let go of my arm and once again, I began moving toward the light. I looked back at him one final time. He was standing to the side; his shoulders slumped forward, and he appeared to be crying. As our eyes met for the last time, I implored him, “What are you so afraid of? Just come with me Gramps, it will be amazing…”
With a great sucking sound filling my ears, I was pulled through the portal. Inside, the music had stopped, the Barker was silent, and I found myself barely able to see. The area inside was awash in a dark, purplish light, and I felt panic and confusion. I turned around and tried to run back through the portal, but I hit a wall. It was covered with a slimy, foul-smelling substance. I put my hands up to the wall, trying to find an opening. My hands sunk into the goop up to my wrists, as the slime began running down my arms. I began to feel nauseous.
Behind me, I could hear laughter rising up above the screaming voices that had replaced the soothing music. It was laughter, but not filled with any joy, just sadistic triumph.
“Welcome young man,” the voice said, chilling my core in spite of the oppressive heat. “Welcome through the Gates of Hell. You made a wise choice.”
“B-but what happened to Heaven,” I said. “It was all supposed to be beautiful.”
Something, for there is no other way to describe it, stepped forward in the darkness. Standing before me, was a being whose laughter filled the cavernous area. A buzzing filled my ears, like a thousand bees, threatening to burst them. It stood above me, at least ten-feet tall, with an acrid smell that burned my nostrils. In the odd, purple light, I couldn’t make out his features, but I had a good idea of who or what it was. His reply to my query dripped with sarcasm and hate.
“Heaven is on earth, you miscreant,” he said with a gravel-thickened voice.
Throwing his head back, the cavern once again filled with the horrific peal of his laughter. As the cackle subsided, he leaned down, the foulest breath imaginable burning my eyes,
“Our deal is that God has the time you spend on earth while I have the ever after.” Then, as he began laughing once more, “I think I got the better end of the deal, don’t you?”
So now, here I sit for the rest of eternity. My ankles chained to a wall, in a cavern awash with foul smells and the sound of evil laughter. Yes, I have eternity to wish that I had heeded my Grandfather’s warning. I only hope that he somehow convinces my Mother, when her time finally comes, to not come looking for me.