5 Things I Learned About Living When My Husband Had a Near-Death Experience


I believed once that love could save us.

I was still a child then. That was back in the days when I sang "Jesus Loves Me" in Sunday school and knew it was true. Before I decided because 'the Bible tells me so' was not a sufficient explanation.

That was before broken vows, and pieced-together hearts. It was before I had ever heard of Leonard Cohen, before I understood that everything had a crack in it. After that I would spend my adult life gluing things together to conceal the damage.

Then my husband had an experience I couldn't explain through conventional reasoning. My beloved scientific method was no longer a comfort. It was the end of what I knew, an emancipation from my outworn understanding. It was goodbye to things I wasn't ready to say goodbye to; my husband the way that he was before the NDE, my nursing career, a spine untouched by scalpels, a life without significant pain.

But grace is subtle. It whispers. Sometimes we don't hear it without closing our eyes and bowing our head. Other times it requires open eyes even if it means the truth shatters our hearts. We have all been cut and witnessed the miracle of our bodies heal the wound. We forget that hearts are like that too. Sometimes these things just take a while.

This list is the cliff notes of what I learned when my husband nearly died and lived to tell about it. It happens to be a list because lists comfort me, but these types of lessons rarely come in neat little lists. Being able to articulate these five things has taken me seven long years. Sometimes these things just take a while.

1. There are things around us we can't see.

Things like the movement of subatomic particles, things like gravity. So why does it seem impossible that there are other worlds we lack the ability to see? Ghosts, angels? These concepts are not the stuff of science fiction when we consider that a force we cannot see governs the movement of the galaxies and stars, our planet, the tides and that nearly 100 years after Einstein proposed that gravity was the result of the curvature of space-time we still don't understand what the hell it is or how it works.

How is it that some so vehemently deny the possibility of things considered "supernatural" when so much of what we know is uncertain? Most of the known universe is made of that which we cannot see.

But we witness evidence of things unseen all around us- things like the oxygen given off during photosynthesis that we require for breathing, plants reaching for the sun, our bodies healing the scrapes on our knees. We forget how much of life we do not see because we can't see it all through a microscope or telescope. It's clear how interconnected all life is on this planet, that each action has a reaction. We know that there is an order we do not fully understand. We don't know why, we don't know the details-- we just know that by some miracle, it all works -- that somehow, life always finds a way.

Anne Lamott wrote, "The opposite of faith isn't doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty."

In this way, the universe is like faith -- built on uncertainty. It makes me feel better that I can't explain so many of the crazy things that have happened in my life when I realize physicists still can't explain gravity. I don't have to have all the answers. Faith doesn't excuse me from asking questions or seeking answers, it just keeps me from going crazy when I don't have the answers, or when they don't happen to be the ones that I wanted.

2. Stop trying to control what you can't control and concentrate on the things you can do something about.

AA uses the Serenity Prayer not because it's feel good pop-religion, but because the act of surrender is transformational. That's why it is so powerful against something as difficult to overcome as addiction.

Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can.
The wisdom to know the difference.

Giving up control to a power greater than ourselves is the point. It doesn't matter what we call it - God, is of course the most popular name for it, although it has gone out of fashion with the horrible things done in this name. The point is, this power, by whatever we call it, lies in the surrender. Our illusion of control is difficult to relinquish but when we do, it frees us to focus on things we can actually do something about. Surrender is about being ok with what is, good or bad, and knowing it will pass. It's about taking responsibility for our behaviors and our imperfections. It's about knowing that being cracked doesn't mean we are irreparably broken. And accepting what is and continuing to keep going, keep living, trying to do better tomorrow than we did today. We find the courage to change the things we can. We ask for wisdom to know the difference.

3. Make Love.

Yes, the kind you are thinking, but not just the sexual type. Love of all kinds. I'm talking about making love the center of your actions and your intentions. Not just when it's easy, but when it's ugly, when it's difficult. When it requires forgiveness, of ourselves, of others. I'm talking about the kind of love Galway Kinnell writes of in his poem, Flying Home:

Love is very much like courage,
perhaps it is courage, and even perhaps
only courage.

This is why love, the true kind, the selfless kind -- is never easy. This is why it is rarely the path of least resistance. If it were easy, we would be better at it. If it were our default state we wouldn't have to ask what Jesus would do, we would have already done it. In fact, Jesus told us what to do: Love your neighbor as yourself. This is no easy task, especially when we do not love ourselves. This is why love is usually the more difficult thing -- it requires courage.

4. We are all going to die, but as long as we are breathing, we have another chance.

This might seem obvious but as someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, there are times I get lost in the hopeless abyss. There are times I have to stop and ask myself, did I wake up breathing this morning? Breathing helps with this. Jon Kabat-Zinn says in his Mindfulness for Beginners, "If you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you." That alone is a miracle.

So I breathe. I think about the fact that I am breathing. I wonder at the fact that I am breathing. I focus back on the breathing. Shorter breath in, longer breath out. It grounds me. Breathing is totally underrated.

It is the same reason I love quotes. When the words in my own head are nonsense, I seek ones that can reel me back in. Bukowski is always great for a slap in the face when I need one: "We're all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn't."

It's because we forget. We forget that we are going to die and love is what we should be doing. We forget that love is a verb and as long as we are breathing, we still have a chance. When I stop long enough to ponder this, it gives me the courage to keep going. Rumi wrote,

"Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come."

I love that. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Love is patient like that.

5. "Whatever you are seeking won't come in the form you're expecting." ~Haruki Murakami

When your husband, an agnostic/atheist Jew from New Jersey tells you he saw Jesus and starts talking to your dead grandmother, it will make you question everything you have ever held to be true. Now every watch we buy him stops; he knows things, he sees things. Apparently it isn't uncommon for things like this to happen to those who have had a near-death experience. Our lives have been a series of odd things for which I have no explanation. When I get too caught up in that, I go back and find comfort in my list. I go back again and start at number one and remind myself that what I'm seeking never shows up in the way I think it will.

But I keep asking questions. I've had a long list of them since my husband stood at the edge of somewhere unknown and came back to tell me about it. Some have taken me years to know I should be asking, and some likely have no answers. Questions with answers that turn back around and inside out on themselves like a Mobius strip. Just when you think you have it figured out, someone flips everything on its side and number 8 becomes infinity.

I've learned that things never show up the way we imagine they will. So I try and find God wherever I happen to be. That means sometimes my daily devotional is Rilke on my yoga mat and other days it's a couple episodes of Black Jesus with the man I am lucky enough to call mine. It means some days I am called to write about my depression and on others, I might be called to a tea party with my daughter.

I've learned that on some days my prayers are silent, other times they might be poems. But on days when my pieces are scattered and I forget what the sun feels like on my skin - on days when I need to remember that I am still a child of God and that being alive means that things will get broken. On those days,
only the lyrics to songs will do:

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum

Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.