I died on the day of my ordination to the ministry. I was in an operating theater, at one of the better hospitals in downtown Phoenix, during the actual ordination ceremony when my heart stopped beating. So you could say I was ordained after the fact. If there was some kind of message in that, I obviously missed it, though the irony was not lost on me. I had studied with an eye toward interfaith chaplaincy and end-of-life care, previously having done both grief and bereavement counseling as well as spiritual direction. And though some people do actually die reading a book, most people don’t die by one, and so nothing important that I knew about death was of any help to me when I underwent the process myself, in the very hospital where I had wanted to work.
In a lot of ways, this was a perfect metaphor for my ministry, although I didn’t understand that back then. One minute I was listening to the anesthesiologist talking about the Diamondbacks with the surgical technician and at some point they knocked me out, obviously, but for me there was no transition whatsoever. I did not undergo anything like a life review. There was no tunnel of light; no religious figure came to greet me—none of that. I went from the soothing banter of my surgical team into what I was later told by an NDE researcher was the waiting area, although that is not the right word, because when you get right down to it, spatial terms simply do not apply. I didn’t go anywhere. Rather, I became aware of being held securely within the attention of an all-suffusing radiance, which not only knew me intimately but which loved me unconditionally and with which I was continuous. I had but a dim recollection of having once had a body, but I was not in the least bit concerned with it. Of my earthly existence up to that point, I had no memory at all. What had my undivided attention was the fact that I was fully conscious of being alive, albeit without all of the encumbrances and challenges of my personal story.
Earlier, I had been misdiagnosed with hepatitis and told to go home. I had initially gone to a walk-in clinic, and their reasoning came down to this—that if you went there you probably couldn’t afford treatment. Implicit in their service was the unspoken directive, “Please go home and die.” Being rather accommodating, I did just that, thinking that I would get better…which, of course, I did not. It turned out that I had a bile duct obstruction. By the time I checked myself into a proper hospital, I was going into septic shock.
I thought the triage nurse would send me home with an aspirin, but my temperature was ambient with the temperature radiating off the pavement outside, my urine was the color of coffee, and my skin was the color of a Lemonhead candy. The nurse asked me if I knew where I was (I did) and did I know my phone number (I did not). I was immediately put on an IV and scheduled for emergency surgery, to be performed as soon as my blood chemistry was stabilized. What they didn’t tell me was that my chances of surviving surgery in the first place were rather slim, given my severely weakened state at the time.
But I came back, and awoke in cardiac intensive care. At some point during my two weeks in post-op the nurses informed me that although the operation had been successful, my tumor markers were elevated, which meant nothing to me at the time except the possibility that I was dying anyway.
I didn’t quite believe it at first. They kept running new tests, tapping my blood like some coterie of vampires, but eventually they told me my new diagnosis, end stage pancreatic cancer, and did I want palliative care or did I want to try chemo. Well, given my chances of survival, that was a no-brainer. Keep me on the morphine, thanks. And get me one of those cheap, plastic rosaries with the glow-in-the-dark Jesus, to go, if it isn’t too much trouble, I thought. I already had my bags packed, as it were. No chaplains came to visit. Their unsolicited consolations would have been a nuisance. In truth, I was terribly excited to continue my existence apart from the rather exuberant train wreck of my earthly life. I wanted back into the light.
After all, I had more pressing concerns – like expiring – than all of the countless practical and logistical details that were now left for my family and friends. Drifting in and out of consciousness, a breathing tube up my nose, weighted down by surgical drains and assorted IV bags, I slowly let go of my personal story, my struggles, and my self-importance. I couldn’t help anyone anymore anyway. I remember my brother telling me at some point that there was a stranger, a woman whose name he didn’t know, camped out on my sleeper sofa back at my apartment and that she was drinking herself senseless, and what on Earth was he to do with her? I couldn’t follow the logic of that at all. I was no longer interested in such complicated dramas. As far as I was concerned, all such entanglements as comprise our dealings with the quotidian could, and undoubtedly would, go on merrily without me. Wordless questions of meaning, of what I had done with my life, were vying for attention.
The body has its own way of grieving, you see. It has its own way of letting go of life, and it has tremendous integrity. I remember lying in my hospital bed listening in on my body’s intimate conversations; sometimes it would cry and sometimes it would be afraid, but my awareness was filled with the echoes of fragrant dreams, of healing and of surrender, that allowed me to make peace with my life and to come to terms with it, even as it afforded me a tremendous sense of serenity, grace, simple acceptance, and gratitude. It was profoundly beautiful, to be present with a force so completely beyond the control of the human mind. And if you come back, your entire life becomes alive with that power. If you come back, you come back for the sake of love.
I mean, whether you interpret your near-death experience as the last hurrah of your nervous system or of proof of life after death, it really doesn’t matter. In either case, you get to keep your day job—whether you want to or not. And it doesn’t get any easier, because you will spend the rest of your second chance at life trying to somehow make real the rather urgent demands that so drastic a re-conceptualization imposes.
Nothing changes, you see, but all is different. Until our center of gravity shifts away from the goal-directed dreams and visions of the conscious self, we scarcely realize how heavy a burden our desperate clinging to the bondage of our freedom and self-reliance really is—until we lose it in the sheer spaciousness of dying.
When you get right down to it, awareness survives death, and love is the only word we have to describe what that is like—our life stripped of its personal story as we experience it here and now. I mean, as far as consciousness is concerned, life and death are pretty much the same thing; like the inhalation and the exhalation of a single breath. But that is certainly not true from our limited, living perspective. We do not experience ourselves as inseparable from existence. We die as we have lived, though, and that is a decision we make with every experience, with every human encounter, and with every breath. I know this now, having been there, that death is the space, the context, into which we effortlessly grow the richness and depth of our storied lives.
Oliver Hoffmann is a German-born philosophical entertainer with a lifelong passion for the power and magic of words, of language and of story. An ordained minister with a background in psychology and comparative religion he can often be found creating strange semantic spaces in performance art venues and watering holes in and around Chicago. A writer, storyteller, and performer by vocation he enjoys nothing more than making people think creatively about the often frightful—and frightfully funny—mess we call the human condition.