When my brother Rick was in Vietnam, a grenade went off nearby. It knocked him out. There was shrapnel in his skull.
He could see himself floating above his body. He saw loved ones around him and felt a profound sense of peace. It was, he said, the most wonderful thing he’d ever felt. (This was the mid-1960s, before reports of near-death experiences were publicized in books and the media.) It was, Rick said, the last thing he expected to happen.
And then he was awake. A paramedic had saved his life.
“Why did you do that?” my brother asked, after which he slugged the medic as hard as he could.
* * *
Rick died Friday of the stroke that felled him two months before. He was not a religious man, but the near death experience stayed with him and made him unafraid of death. Years later, after a motorcycle accident, he had the same experience, saw the same things, until he was snapped back to life.
Being unafraid of death does not always make it easy to say goodbye, of course. Fortunately, there was enough time after the stroke for the process to work its way through, and for moments to be shared. Heavy, meaningful things were said, but mostly it was just the joy of companionship. We looked at old photos and talked about old times, which became more difficult as he lost his ability to speak clearly. And he wanted to know what Marilyn and I were up to, no matter how unimportant our activities seemed to us.
We were not present for the final days of his decline. His wife, Mary, said he had begun to see his twin. Rick's twin brother was stillborn and now, somehow, Rick saw him there in the living room. What he looked like, what he communicated to Rick, I do not know. How much of the transition to death is illusion, how much is reality, I also do not know, except to say that it is a mystery that befuddles the living.
* * *
Rick confided in his wife the most, of course. At one point he told her that he had wanted to be there for me when I died, and he was sorry that, instead, I had to be there for him.
I came to realize that, somewhere in the back of my mind, having CLL had created the expectation that I would die before everyone else in my family. Not just before those who are younger, which would be expected anyway, but also before Rick, who was 11 years my senior, and even before my father and stepmother, who are now in their 70s.
Not only was this my expectation; it was obviously Rick’s as well, and perhaps is shared by other people I am close to. It’s not something they talk about, just something they assume.
This assumption conflicts with another expectation that I have, which is that I will manage to muddle through thanks to new drugs like Revlimid, and perhaps have a reasonably normal lifespan after all.
Time, which I am aware is ever-short, even for the healthy, will tell.
And if Rick’s near death experiences are right, he’ll be there for me when I die, after all -- just not on this side of the curtain.
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