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What a Near-Death Experience Gave Me

People who don't hold a belief in spirit or higher power or religion or faith may bristle here. But I know what I felt and I heard this nurse -- and others -- say it out loud. Some force was at work in the room.
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Every year, I take the time and space to talk about the time my brother almost died.

I post each June 29, the day he overcorrected and drove his motorcycle off the side of the road, as a way to bring awareness to helmet safety and mandatory helmet laws (yes, he was wearing one, and yes, we believe it is the reason he survived) and to give words to the overwhelming gut-deep pain, gratitude and awe that followed the phone call from the emergency room.


It has been important to honor that moment in time and to turn slightly to look back on all the ways our lives have shifted since that June 29. This year (astoundingly) marks 11 years since that sunny, beautiful summer day that called my family to the fluorescent-lit ICU thousands of miles away from our home to be with my unconscious, brain-injured brother.

It is harsh to put those words together -- almost as jarring as it was to be the first to arrive, to see him hooked up to wires and tubes, with road rash down the length of his body, wrapped in bandages and a head brace, broken and bleeding and in a coma. The hospital staff needed a confirmation of his identity from a family member. I stood next to him, my fingers tracing the tattoo on his arm, and gave it.

Maybe it is not him, I thought as I was ushered back to the farthest bed in that ICU. Maybe it is a mistake. Someone else's brother.

But it wasn't. He was my brother, and I knew as soon as they pulled back the curtain, that underneath all of the beeping and stabilizing and monitoring was my cocky, tender-hearted, courageous brother. I saw my brother. I felt him there.

As he emerged from the coma, went through laborious and agonizing rehab, came home with us for more therapies and eventually returned to his life of school and work and relationships (minus the motorcycling), there were many lows, there was much fear and there were incredible and inexplicable moments of miracle.

I do not say that lightly. I do not give that up without knowing there are people who will not get it, will not believe. But I am not asking anyone to be a believer. Just to trust that I was there, and like the identification of my brother, I felt more than I saw.

The ICU nurses became comfortable with us after a few days of being crammed into that small, curtained space around my brother's hospital bed. We built relationships with some of them, and one nurse who seemed to have a particular investment in my brother's ambition to be a sound engineer confessed to us: There may appear to be a randomness in who survives an injury to the brain. Some people have small injuries and don't live. Others have profound injuries and somehow live. Response time counts. Those who have family present seem to do better.

And then he said something that I hope will never leave me.

But there is more than that here. More than medicine. More than doctors and nursing care. More than randomness. There is a higher power present. We have all felt it in the room.

Holding on, holding strong, last summer

I'm paraphrasing, perhaps out of nostalgia or time or what my soul longed to hear. People who don't hold a belief in spirit or higher power or religion or faith may bristle here. But I know what I felt and I heard this nurse -- and others -- say it out loud. Some force was at work in the room.

The force may have been luck. Or timing. Or the energy of hands lain on my brothers solar plexus to steady his rapid breathing or unconscious twists and turns and body contortions. But I believe it was more.

When members of churches we've never been to, prayer circles full of strangers, and supposedly one very well-known singer on stage before a large audience said that they'd lifted my brother up in prayer, I felt it. In a moment, my muscles would ease, my thoughts would settle, my heart would also slow to a steadier beat. I felt that.

When I dug and dug and finally found the name and number of the couple who were driving down the road when my brother had his accident, who were the first responders, rushing to his side and calling 911, who in turn alerted a medevac helicopter, and I heard what happened from their vantage and was able to thank them through sobs on a pay phone, I felt it.

When an old, blind African-American man seated next to us in the hospital cafeteria chapel service turned to my mom and said, "Your son is going to be alright, ma'am," I felt it.

When a Buddhist chaplain intervened in a moment of despair and panic when all I could think of was the deep well of ache of living without my brother, and told me to instead love this moment, embrace this breath, I felt it.

When sleep came finally, heavily. When Norah Jones' voice lulled me in the back seat of my father's car as we drove away from the hospital each night. When I saw my brother take steps, master writing his name again, reach out to hold a hand. When he said something to me only he would say, even though the words were still coma-hazy. When his friends gathered around us with kindness and jokes and a cooler full of water and bagels. I felt it.

It has come in other moments as the years have passed, but the feeling is softer now. Sometimes it flits away like a maple seed helicoptering through the air during another summer's sunny day, so that I do not even recognize it until I've passed it by. Oh, there was another one of those moments when everything felt like it would be OK.


I came to this June 29 wanting to write about the gifts and lessons of trauma, the pain we would not choose to take back once we have been through it because of all it has brought us inside the terror and heartbreak and fear. I've been meditating on this, quietly and to myself, after watching Andrew Solomon's brilliant TED talk on how parents accept and love children the rest of the world deems different, particularly when raising those children can be difficult and fearful and emotionally, accidentally injurious. There are too many heart-spoken, wise and wonderful quotes from that talk to list here (listen to it here; it is worth every one of the 20+ minutes of play time), but the point that stuck most in my center was that many people would not take back the biggest difficulties of their lives because of what they found for themselves moving through those times.

I thought first of my brother's accident and recovery and how it has become one of the main narratives of my family. My own hell would be reliving those weeks and months, and most days, I am sure that, given a big, pink Life Eraser, I would smudge out the physical and psychological and emotional scars of that time.

But what I wouldn't change surprises even me. I wouldn't change what happened to me spiritually. I've hesitated, even in the decade-plus since the ICU identification, to call myself religious. But what happened in the confines of that hospital shifted me far beyond the spirituality I had claimed until then. And now that I am over 40 and have been through much of my own stuff, both amazing and deeply difficult, I can pinpoint the minute and call it religious.

It doesn't matter which God or gods or goddesses or force or powers I grasp. It just matters that I felt it then, that I feel it still. It may not take a loved one coming that close to death or standing in the center of the greatest fear you can imagine or surviving tragedy, enduring trauma, rising up from your own ashes to feel your whole soul shift. If you can get there when a cardinal lands on your window sill or during a lazy Sunday reading the New York Times or as you take the stage during a glorious moment of your own brilliance, then, well, God bless you. And if you are rolling your eyes at the woo-woo-ness of this all, of the science you can throw back, of the glossing over of the great and the grave, then that is absolutely OK with me. If you think all of that and feel something inexplicable and unnamable stir within you during some moment far from now, then perhaps we will find connection through our experiences more than our beliefs, and that is OK, too.


But if you are, at this moment, in the most vulnerable, dark or sobby place you've ever visited in your life, and there seems to be very little hope or way out or other person who gets it, please know that there is still room to feel the spirit within, without and lifting you up. There is more.

I cannot write words enough to share how grateful I am to have had all of these years with my brother, to celebrate the smallest victories and to be there during the momentous celebrations -- his graduation from college and then graduate school, his wedding, the birth of his boy. In just about a week, my brother and his wife will welcome another boy into our family. While I won't be there when he enters the world, I know from experience and through reluctance -- I know -- I will feel it.

In honor of all who lifted us up, for the angels we encountered on the road and in the hospital and through recovery and in church basements along the way, for the steady heartbeat, for the slow, slow healing of the gaping wounds, and for my brother -- this June 29, I am placing my hands upon my own solar plexus, letting the sounds around me quiet and miles between us shorten. I will be thinking of you in your dark place and hoping that you feel it and are lifted up along your way.

More on Seth's suvive-iversary is here and here and also here and on CarePages here.

Jessica Ashley is author of the single-mom-in-the-city blog, Sassafrass.

For more by Jessica Ashley, click here.

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