How It Felt to Come Back to Life

Coming back from near-death was a gracious endeavor, but it was also deeply heartbreaking

“T“Thank God you’re alive,” my mother said to me with tears in her eyes. I lay on a hospital gurney, hooked up to machines that whirred and beeped rhythmically, the acoustic proof that life hadn’t given up on me yet.

In her eyes, I saw the pain she’d been pushing down for days. A mother who gets a phone call that her young daughter is in the ICU and might not make it. A mother who haphazardly throws clothes into a suitcase, who reaches out for the boarding pass as the airline attendant catches the terror in her face, who sits on a crowded plane for five hours staring out the window at the clouds, a full 300 disconnected minutes of not knowing if her little girl is alive or dead.

“Yes,” I said, as the tears streamed down both of our faces. “Thank God I’m alive.”

But it was a lie.

A lie I’ve told for almost a decade, until now.

In that instant, I lied out of respect for what my mother had just been through. But thereafter, that lie protected a sacred truth only I knew. A truth that I didn’t want to share, for fear of sounding irrational or condescending. A truth that eventually became my reason to live more fully — but taken the wrong way by someone else, might be a reason not to.

A truth about death that the living could never understand.

InIn my wildest imagination I could never have realized the impact it would have when I published my story about almost dying from a pulmonary embolism. Hundreds of emails began pouring in from complete strangers. Stories of husbands lost, wives lost, parents lost, children lost. Cancer. Heart attacks. Old age. Suicide. Long emails. Some were essays, others practically poetry. Detailed accounts of the final months, the final moments, the struggle to understand it all. Regrets about not being there by their side.

Deep angst about not knowing, for sure, if it had been peaceful.

The not knowing for sure. That was the common, residual pain each of these people carried with them, every day, since they lost their loved one.

I’m neither religious nor wise, but for some odd reason, after I almost died, what I became was sure. I don’t understand it, but I am absolutely, positively, unequivocally — sure.

I still worry that my story will be misunderstood. But all those emails… their words, their gratitude for some relief. I have to keep going, keep sharing. I have to trust that what I experienced that day was far bigger than just me.

IIt’s imprinted on my mind forever. The look on the faces of my family and friends when they each walked into my hospital room in the ICU. It was dozens of emotions in one expression, like a chaotic painting you grasp instantly. A tangle of shades, all in the same color.

Fear.

I could see their fear. I could recognize it, but I did not understand it. And I certainly did not feel it.

What I felt was separate — of this world and yet apart from it. I had almost died, and though I saw and heard the regular, living world all around me now — the ticking clock, my cell phone ringing, the television blaring, the plastic hospital band around my wrist — it was secondary to what I’d just experienced.

That’s when I decided to start lying.

I pretended to understand their fear, and because I loved them, it became my mission to do whatever needed to assuage it. So I cried with them as they held my hands and recounted how scared they were when they got the phone call. I nodded when they said, “Thank God you’re alive.” I joked and smiled when the nurses administered shots of anticoagulant into my abdomen. I changed the subject when the “what if” questions arose. I even cajoled them into Scrabble games.

The doctor came in and reported the blood clot was still there. If I had another pulmonary embolism over the next 48 hours, it would likely kill me.

Again I saw the fear on their faces.

Again I pretended to understand.

Again I diverted their attention.

It’s okay, I so badly wanted to tell them. Even if I die, it’s okay. In fact… it’s wonderful.

What they didn’t know and what I’ve never before shared is that I wanted to die again, to go back there. Near-death was a beautiful force field, and it was as if every cell in my body had been reprogrammed to a different electric current, pulling me inward, calling me back to where I finally felt… myself.

Myself.

My self.

My soul.

I longed to come close to death again, even as I lay in the ICU surrounded by my family who were so thankful I had survived. I would close my eyes and believe with unwavering faith that I was going to return. I believed that this survival was temporary, that I would soon go where I belonged. Even amidst the miracle of my survival, what gave me solace was that soon enough, I would be back.

But I never told anyone.

“You’re probably in shock,” my mother said, perceiving my distance as only a mother can. I nodded, pretending to understand.

But I understood something different.

The way the clouds felt. The way the leaves danced. The rain that fell all around me, but not on me, in a symphony of percussions. The weightlessness that revealed what it means to shed the human condition, to escape the mental trappings that hold us prisoner. The voice that I heard so clearly, but not with my ears. That voice.

But death, I am sure, is transcendent of anything we know here in life.

As each hour and day passed in the hospital, with each 3 a.m. shot of anticoagulant and 5 p.m. dinner tray, I sensed the prospect of returning wane. It was the feeling of being in love and being sure your lover would come rescue you, confirming all that is right and magical in the world… only to be left at the altar, waiting.

Eight days of waiting.

When they discharged me, I didn’t just return to my house. I returned to life.

Life is a blessing, they say.

Life is a gift, they say.

Life, they say, is a miracle.

All of that is true.

But death, I am sure, is transcendent of anything we know here in life.

Coming back to life was a gracious endeavor, but it was also a deeply heartbreaking journey. It was the hardest breakup I ever had, being that close to the purest love, to my soul, and then ripped away, back into the doldrums of the human condition. Back into the limitations of the human construct.

Coming back to life showed me just how little we understand about death, and just how much we forsake in living.

Coming back to life revealed to me that our fear of loss is precisely how we stop living. It is natural and loving and understandable, yet it is also antithetical to life’s highest purpose — the evolution of others and ourselves.

Coming back to life was the beginning of an evolution for me, one that is still turning and churning and ablaze. It was a recognition that my soul, the deepest part of my essence, was all I ever needed. It was my soul that I came close to that day and my soul that I longed to return to. It was my soul I pined for and my soul that seemingly left me at the altar. My heartbreak was for how very close I’d come to my soul, and how far I felt now.

Coming back from death showed me that the journey of life is not what we often believe. On the surface, it appears as a journey outward — toward things, people, organizations, achievements. But in truth, it is a journey inward — toward the soul. Toward becoming who you actually are, no matter how far outward you may have to travel in order to discover that all the answers are within you, where you belong.

Coming back to life is not something that requires a close brush with death.

We can all come back to life again.

But only when we start coming back to ourselves.

Only when we realize we are the journey, and we are the destination.

Dedicated to all those who are losing, or have lost, someone they love; who are struggling to understand death, to find its meaning, to move forward in life. Because death is too beautiful not to understand it as such. And life is too precious not to live it while you still can.

I write about serious tech stuff for work. But here, I tell true tales from my wacky, wonderful life. (read more: www.christenobrien.com)

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