July 1, 2011. Me, pre-op: Hey, Mary, why don’t you make some plans for when I’m home by the Fourth.
Sometime later. Me, post-Op: Did you make any plans for the Fourth?
Mary: The Fourth of what?
Me: July. Isn’t tomorrow the Fourth of July?
Mary: No, Tom, it’s August 21.
I entered John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek, Calif, on the morning of July 1, 2011. I needed surgery on my spine because signals from brain to limbs and back were not getting through and I was falling over a lot. Nevertheless, I had every expectation of successful surgery and being home in time to celebrate the 4th of July with my wife.
Instead, there were complications following my surgery, and I remained in the hospital for 70 days: 30 days intubated and in a medically induced coma, followed by 20 days kept unconscious and with no memory of that time, and that followed by another 20 days in rehabilitation learning to walk and talk again before I was discharged.
From what my family told me later, it seemed that every day the doctors would call my wife, Mary, to say another organ was shutting down: liver, kidneys, spleen. Finally they called to tell her I had at best a 50:50 chance of surviving. At that point, Mary suffered a mini stroke herself and had to be hospitalized for several days, two floors below me, thought I was unconscious and unaware at the time.
At one point later, she took a brief video of me on her cellphone while I was ‘out’: unconscious, drained of color on white sheets, in a white gown, but reaching out in very slow motion for something just outside my grasp. When I saw that video months later, I was stunned. That was the same gesture my mother and my brother each had in the days before they died, although many years apart.
What did you see there my blue-eyed son?
In my time-out-of-time, I saw a series of scenes or visions or perfectly scripted one-act playlets, although whether they came and went in one day or over the fifty days, I don’t know. I do know they are more vivid in my mind even now than any dream I had just last night.
After fifty days, I eventually awoke and during months of conscious recovery following that, as I reflected on the visions I remembered, I recalled a PBS documentary I’d seen years before about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Some images from that long-ago show seemed parallel to some images I remembered of my own trip.
So I secured a copy of the book, a translation by the foremost English-speaking scholar in the field, Robert Thurman. (www.amazon.com/Tibetan-Book-Dead-Liberation-Understanding/dp/0553370901)
I was surprised to see such a strong similarity between the scenes I remembered upon awakening, and the visions described in that book of what one will encounter going through The Bardo, the transition state at the end of this life before being reincarnated into one’s next life, according to Buddhist teaching.
During the time I was out, I sensed I was wandering in the land of shades and gloom, but without a Virgil to guide me. I have only a very few recollections of the visions I saw while I was out, but several remain very vivid.
The scenes start out almost humorously, as an early one where I became conscious in my hospital bed only to find I had been handcuffed to the bed rails. Suddenly, an old acquaintance from years before showed up in the room in a black suit, white shirt and black tie.
He showed me he had the keys to the cuffs. I asked him to release me so I could sneak out of the hospital to get a real breakfast at a cafe down the street and skip the post-op pablum.
He said he could do that but, being an arch-conservative Catholic, he said the tradeoff would be for me to do public relations for the rest of my life for Opus Dei, a very conservative Catholic men’s group. I said, “Release me, and we can discuss that later.”
Then the vision ended.
Over time, the scenes get more serious. In another one, I came to the entrance to a Great Hall that held the world’s entire human population, from all of history, laughing, dancing and singing together.
Two large megalithic stones abutting each other blocked my entrance, but though in the tiny gap between them I could see what appeared to be the cast party of the world. Everyone who ever lived had removed their makeup and masks and costumes and scripted parts and were relaxing and interacting as equals. All the roles and the robes were at last put away.
But I was not allowed to enter until I had passed Judgement. The two pillars keeping me out were two sins of my own making. And The Judge who might let me in was not God or Jesus or St Peter. It was me.
I was the one seated behind the bench of Judgement, as well as the defendant before him/me. Judge Tom told Defendant Tom there were two things Tom had to fix in his life if he ever hoped to enter the Great Hall. The Judge was very explicit and yelled at me, “Thomas, you are an alcoholic! Fix it!”
The other sin is still covered by the seal of the Confessional, of which no more need be said here.
And the vision ended.
In the final dreamscape, I wandered into a small town whose empty shops and main street occupied the eastern shore of a small pond, maybe a half a kilometer in diameter. The town was on the floor of the universe. And all the dust and debris generated throughout the universe every day fell here and coated the town with coal dust. Even the lake had a spongy black surface. The sky above and beyond was slate grey.
After I’d walked across the spongy pond, to the south shore, I was confronted by the figure of a man, all in black. There was no detail to the figure, just blackness in the shape of a man.
The visage embodied all that is horrifying. I recognized it immediately as the devil, death, despair, depression, damnation; every fear and anxiety in my life become incarnate.
Normally, I would run like hell from such a vision, but instead of backing away I approached the ominous form, slowly but fearlessly. The presence said nothing to me, but as we stood almost nose to nose, he looked down at my feet and began to kick some of the coal dust onto my brand new, black, patent leather Salvatore Ferragamo loafers. It was the same gesture some baseball managers use to show disagreement with an umpire’s call.
I looked back up into the empty darkness of his face. “That’s it?! That’s your best shot? All my life I’ve been terrified of you, whether you appeared in the form of Satan, God Almighty, abusive parish priest, humiliating gym coach, parents and teachers demanding me to be more normal….
“You are the hound of hell, that has been before me and after me and above me and behind me and… and…and chased me every day of my life. And all you can do is scuff my shoes!”
Is that it? The worst that our worst fears and anxieties can do to us? Scuff our shoes? Is that why the primal advice is not run, or flee, or fight, or faint, but rather is peace, shalom, salaam, namaste, No worries, No sweat? Stand and fight by not fighting.
Then he spun me around until I was facing another similar creature behind me. And that one took out a pair of scissors, and cut my new, very expensive silk tie.
And the vision ended.
Coaltown is still very vivid for me even now, but it came back forcefully at a gut level as I read Thurman’s account of the final encounter in The Book of the Dead that one will have with “The Mild Deity Reality Between” at the end The Bardo. It was Coaltown revisited.
Having already seen several visions, mild and serious, the person transiting through the Bardo is advised / warned that this last one is the most terrifying of all visions, the “demon fierce and mild.”
It is to prepare the person for this encounter that the book was written 600 years ago, to let the reader know in advance what s/he will confront in the transition before s/he dies to be reborn into their next life. Be prepared so you are not terrified when the ultimate encounter comes.
From the text: “Hey, noble child! Whatever terrifying visions of the reality between [this life and the next] may dawn upon you, you should not forget the following words. You must proceed remembering in your mind the meaning of these words. Therein lies the key to recognition:
“Hey! Now when the ‘reality between’ [the Bardo] dawns upon me, I will let go of the hallucinations of instinctive terror. Enter the recognition of all objects as my mind’s own visions [inventions] And understand this as the pattern of perception in the between state.
“Come to this moment, arrived at this most critical cessation, I will not fear my own visions of deities mild and fierce!
“You should proceed clearly saying this verse aloud and remembering its meaning. Do not forget this, as it is the key to recognizing whatever terrifying visions dawn. They are your own perception.”
Whatever monsters approach and terrify us in this life, remember this if we hope to save our mind and soul. The demons aren’t ‘out there.’ They exist only in our mind. And we can let ourselves be terrified by them and turn into pillars of salt or dismiss them so we no longer see as if through a glass darkly, but at last clearly, face to face.
My next memory was coming to back to this shared dream state we all call reality at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, August 20, 2011.
I knew I was back, because in The Bardo I seemed to free float. Solid walls became scrims that flew away. I hovered over a membrane one atom thick and watched ions go back and forth knowing that if they arranged in a certain pattern, I would see my own heart stop.
But now, after seven weeks bedridden and immobile, my body had atrophied. I was paralyzed from the neck down.
I did a body scan in the Intensive Care Unit of John Muir Hospital on Ygnacio Valley Road in Walnut Creek CA, and I could not move my limbs, sit up, or even lift my head from the pillow.
It didn’t panic me, though, and I just accepted it as another facet of the strangest summer of my life.
I could turn my head from side to side, and so I flopped my noggin to my right to see a row of eight broken bodies; people scraped off freeways and airlifted to this regional trauma center over the past several days.
Everyone was wired up to a wall of machines behind the beds, keeping them alive. I think I was the only conscious one in the ward that morning.
My first thought was to pity them. Dear God, have mercy on these suffering ones.
Then I suddenly realized it was not them, but us. For the first time in my life, I was not above the pitiable ones, casting a benevolent gaze down on them, and maybe dropping a coin in the collection box.
I was one of them now, one with them now. Like Fr Damien, the Belgian priest who went to treat the lepers on Molokai before contracting the disease himself, it was no longer, “You lepers,” but “We lepers.”
And suddenly, and surprisingly, I felt my chest crack open and a tsunami of white light poured out, bathing all of us in its healing power.
And then we were no longer in the ICU.
We were all lying together in the warm surf of an ocean of light, like a halo or an aura from horizon to horizon, binding all of us broken ones, each gaining strength from the others, as wavelets washed over us bringing health and washing agony and anguish away.
It was truly a “holy communion,” such as I had never imagined. An overwhelming sense of serenity becalmed me for the first time in my life, even with the knowledge that I may be a paralytic from now own.
So this is com-passion (“to suffer with”), at the most raw and visceral level.
The serene elation lasted for maybe a half hour, long enough not only to experience it, but to study the experience as it was happening, like an impartial observer.
This was no flash of inspiration, or momentary out-of-body experience, or near-death experience. This was a lived, conscious experience. And a mantra played over and over in my mind: It’s okay. It always was and always will be. It all fits. It’s all okay.
And I noticed for the first time since early childhood, that I was seeing the world fresh, unfiltered by anxiety or complacency. And then the thought of a hot breakfast coming soon, popped into my head. Pancakes with syrup, maybe. The first hot meal in nearly two months. And coffee.
Like many, I lived every day with the cataracts of concern, the haze of anxiety, constantly before me, dimming my view. For that brief time in the ICU, I sensed the world as a newborn again, experiencing color, light and sound directly and intensely, unclouded by past regrets or future concerns. Everything was there at once, but it wasn’t a cacophony. It was a symphony of the senses, all firing together.
I’d returned from nearly two months in the realm of gloom and shadows, and incredibly I wasn’t anxious about whether I could ever work again, or walk again, or pay the hospital bill which would come to $1.5 million.
For that moment, I did not see Dante’s Beatific Vision directly, but I… we…. bathed in its light. I was in the holy of holies, the sacred space where there is no anxiety, no depression, no despair. No sweat.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I’d awakened to find that I was still alive. And that was wonder enough. The existence of existence is inexpressibly awe-filled. How existence came to be is the province of science; why it came to be is a question for philosophers and theologians. But that there is such a thing as existence is a joy, a mystery, a puzzle, and a triumph to anyone who bothers to reflect on it.
My ecstasy was seeing familiar things as if for the first time on the ward, but also knowing there will be time in the days to come to see and study and savor them again.
But how to keep the eyes and ears clean and clear and virginal, and still learn from experiences and build on them? How do we process experience but keep our innocence?
Thinking about that would have to come later. Experiencing it now was all I could handle.
And for the next week or ten days after coming too, I was a bodhisattva, a little Buddha, although I required a Physical Therapist with a web belt tightly around my waist to allow me to walk again without falling. To a security camera, I walked with an unsteady walk, but was making progress. To my inner eye, I walked with the bearable lightness of being, silently but unobtrusively blessing all I encountered: patients, staff, janitors, laundry workers… As I had in the ICU just before.
In the days after coming to, discovered I’d been very close to facing my own final judgment (back at the Great Hall), I realized how severely I have judged others in my life. I realized that if I applied my strict judgments to myself, I would not fare too well. So I determined to cut some slack to others.
I could tell I was a different person from the one I had been. During those first days of recovery, I was watching TV one evening and former US Vice President Dick Cheney appeared to promote a new book of his. I did not have the muscular coordination to use the remote, so I was forced to watch and, to my surprise, my brain didn’t explode as it would have two months before, listening to Cheney justify the horrible, unnecessary war in Iraq.
His own unhappiness and brokenness are evident in his perpetual scowl. And the fact that he’s had six or eight cardiac events show that even his own body is rebelling against him. I felt profound sympathy for him: concern, empathy, even kindness.
And so once again my chest cracked open and the white light of healing went toward the television set, wishing this broken man health and healing. In the back of my mind, I heard my own voice admonishing me, “Thomas, stop that. That is Dick Cheney. You are not to pray for Dick Cheney. He is the Dark Side of the Force.”
But another voice in me said, if we can’t pray for our enemies we are no better than they are. Anyone can pray for their friends. But if we don’t see even a fraction of God’s presence in the face of our enemy, then we have missed the whole point of the search.
We’re all hobbling, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, and the warm light of compassion that binds us all is available to us all if we recognize it. It makes life so much easier. But unfortunately it so often takes a life-altering crisis to pay attention. It should not require a near-death experience to rediscover life.
It is not for me to forgive Dick Cheney. He has done what he has done, and the Universe will judge him accordingly, as it will judge all of us. But at least I can hope for his sake he squares things with the Universe while he still has time.
Early one evening during my weeks of rehab and PT in the hospital, it was decided I should be rolled out in my wheelchair to the hospital garden so I could get an airing out. (I was too weak to shower or bathe.)
Then the orderly left, saying he would be back in twenty minutes. What the…? And he just left me there. Without a laptop, mobile device, iPad, nothing. What the hell was I supposed to do, watch the tall grass grow?
Bored, and agitated that my mobility was so limited, I quickly got tired of the tall grass and began to stare at it contemptuously. And then I saw it.
It was a native California species that was there before the 49ers came with their pickaxes and panhandles; before the First Americans came from Russia fifteen thousand years earlier with only their mortars and pestles; before Mt Diablo rose 4,000 feet and there were no sentient eyes on the planet to see the sweep from the Farallon Islands in the West to the snow-capped Sierra to the East.
I’d read books about the Big Bang and had a general idea of what it was: out of nothing there suddenly appeared the singularity, of zero mass and infinite density, from which exploded all that was, is, and will be. Everywhere and everywhen.
Now I was seeing the Big Bang playing out in front of me. It was a very mundane sight: a slight breeze was blowing through those tall grasses.
I realized I was witnessing the lingering notes of the Song of Creation, still reverberating across the cosmos these 14 billion years on.
The energy released way back then was there before me, as wind rippling the grass. And the grass itself is ancient energy cooled down, made substantial, and now alive. Perhaps even sentient, for all we know.
Like many, I’d been taught to see science and technology in one silo called the physical or natural world, and meaning and virtue in another called the metaphysical or supernatural world. But my experience in the ICU and in the garden made real to me that there is only one expansive field: existence itself.
In my enforced reflection time, until the aide came, I realized at a basic level that we are all ripples of energy that originated in the first fire. Our common genesis and destiny in an always-changing, but always-complete, cosmos demands that we give to, and get from, mutual support because, in fact, we are each other.
Increasingly, the uni-verse seems to be one web of existence; each node dependent on all the others. From the quantum to the cosmic scale, the universe is open-ended and simultaneously governed by inflexible laws of mind-numbing precision.
Work to do and bills to pay
A few days later, it was time to leave the hospital and go home, and then start rainmaking to generate work as a freelance tech writer again. Q3 Estimated Taxes were due in a few days. Q1 and Q2 that year were profitable, but with no work in Q3, could I cover it?
Whatever I had learned that let me be a ‘little Buddha’ for a week or so, began to fade away. I felt something like HAL at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “It’s going away. I can feel it. The Knowledge. The Grace, the Light. I can feel it going away.”
How do I keep sight of the visions when to do so will mean failure in the tumult and fierce competitiveness of the work world I knew I had to reenter?
But at least I know how there is such a place. It does exist, even if I have to leave because there is work to do and bills to pay. But still I wonder how to get there without having a near death experience, and how do we manage to stay there and still pay the mortgage and college tuitions?
Some on their deathbed see a halo of light and the loving welcome of departed friends calling them on. I didn’t see what, raised as a Christian, I would expect to see. But I didn’t see the possibility of ugly hell gaping below me as the Christian vision holds, either.
What I did see was the heart of all darkness, and all it could do was scuff my shoes.
Maybe twenty years ago, my long sleep might have been fatal. Perhaps modern technology brought me back from a point where before people could no longer return. Sometimes I want to put it all behind me. Sometimes I know I can’t.
And what have I learned, or what have I forgotten since then? I fear the insights of my life-transforming summer a decade ago are long gone now. I cannot see Dick Cheney’s face on TV anymore and feel kindness for him as I did that night in August 2011. But that reveals my brokenness, not his. That is something I must heal.
And if what the ancient Tibetan texts say is true, my enemy and my enmity are illusions of my own making? How do I un-make them when the novelty of nirvana dissipates?
In the ten years since, I know my brain does not work at is did. It has become very hard to hold a thought. I used to be an inveterate reader before, yet I have only read about five books in the last ten years. It’s like I don’t want to learn any more, I have learned enough. What I cannot seem to do it to process it: for myself and maybe even as a ‘teachable moment’ for others.
What was that all about? For all that drama back then, I was no more than a dumb rock on the beach. Sure, over 10,000 years the rock will wear down and be reshaped. But I won’t live for 10,000 years so what good did the experience do me?
Memorable books and films and music and revelations are derived from encounters that others had with something ultimately primal and inexpressible. I also had that close encounter. I saw something wonderful and for almost two weeks I walked in wonder.
But it left me, or I left it, and I don’t know what I was supposed to do with it. Maybe I was gifted but, fool that I am, failed to live up to the gift. Maybe this is my new black phantom: to have seen so much and learned so little.
I have tried to read about Buddhism, as I read books about Christianity when I was a student. But you do no need to get far in before you are overwhelmed with technical, and ever more technical, terms — many disputed by this school or that — that only the dedicated scholar can comprehend.
My encounter was unmediated, there was no scholar or dogmatist interpreting the encounter. I only know what I know. And it was more than enough. But what did it mean? Or is even asking that question the mark of a newcomer, a pesky insect?
And on the matter of work to do and bills to pay, I found I could not return to work anymore. After visiting heaven and hell, it was too hard to go back to writing news releases about a revolutionary new generation of chips that will be obsolete in 18 months. Besides, I had aged out in Silicon Valley where 70 is way past the sell-by date.
I could hardly pitch new business when long-time friends who saw me said I looked death warmed over.
Needing any work, I focused and got out my best suit and polished Ferragamo loafers and got hired at a local department stores during the Christmas shopping season. And was then fired before the Post-Christmas Sales Event because I could not figure out how to work the Point-of-Sale machines.
And soon after came two heart attacks and five stents. And the resulting cumulative stress on my wife contributed to the massive, fatal stroke she suffered three years ago.
Then selling the house and giving away most of our furniture. Then giving away all my books that I would never read them again and they should not sit unread in my home. Better the local library circulate them.
And then to a small apartment in a desert community. Offloading as much as possible before, you know, the final exit.
But this is the strangest part. For all that cumulative failure before and after the big sleep, I did learn one thing. I don’t fear death. When it comes, it comes. It is in the natural order of things. We treat death like a medical failure, as if we are supposed to live forever. We’re not.
And when I see some of the extremely wealthy Silicon Valley types plan to upload their brains into cryogenic tanks to live forever, I want to remind them that there is nothing to keep their descendants from just pulling the plug on grandpa and inheriting the booty now. What’s one centi-billionaire more or less. (See how far I have fallen since my prayers for Dick Cheney years ago.)
But I know that if I focus I can look at something like those blades of tall grass and see, as the great Naturalist John Muir (namesake of the hospital) said, they are connected to everything else in the universe. I just have to focus.
Now I can look at someone as he passes me on the street and, with a little focus, see the child he was and the senior he will be. Is this a blessing or a curse? Or does it matter?
When I go through The Bardo again, for real, and I re-encounter the demon fierce and mild, and he starts to growl and hiss and roar with flames, I’ll remind him I saw this movie before and this time I’m wearing the old tennis shoes that I wore when I had to walk to school, through snow, 14 miles a day, uphill, both ways.
You were right, old fiend, it is all in the mind. But what is the function called that controls our minds? That is what we should be looking for.
Meantime, for the first time in my nearly 80 years I no longer suffer from clinical depression. Instead, I sit and stare out the window and reach for two incongruous ideas and knit a synapse between them. And for a moment, in a small corner of the universe, a pattern never seen before forms. And for a moment, again, It’s okay. It always was and always will be. It all fits. It’s all okay.
* * * * * *
In appreciation of the skills and care of the surgeons and staff at John Muir Medical Center, and all who minister to the living and the dying.
And bottomless gratitude for the love and support of Mary, my late wife of 45 years, and our adult children, Christopher, Joseph and Katherine, and D-Bone, de grandson.
© 2021, Tom Mahon