When I was three and a half years old, I went crashing into a glass door on the first floor of my family’s home in Chevy Chase, Md.
The worst damage was not from my arm going through the door, but from it coming back out. A shard of glass, still fixed in the door frame, entered my arm at the armpit and then, as I fell backward and down to the ground, sliced open my arm all the way up to the wrist.
I suffered complete severing of my radial artery, and total or partial transection of the radial, ulnar, and median nerves, and of various muscles.
I nearly bled to death right there on the carpet in front of my horrified mother. I was saved — at least in part — by the quick thinking of an elderly neighbor who heard Mom screaming. Mr. Shepard ran into our home, found something to use as a tourniquet, tied off the top of the arm. He kept me alive till the ambulance arrived.
Most of my life I had no memory of the event, apart from the physical reminders — the long nasty scar from armpit to wrist, the slightly diminished use of arm and hand.
Through the help of a skilled and patient therapist, however, I was recently able to relive the accident.
I didn’t expect the recovered memory to be anything other than horrifying. But I wanted to do it anyway, under the theory that it might help me move forward, might make me a better writer, or person.
But as it turned out, reliving the accident wasn’t disturbing at all. The parts which came back weren’t the pain, blood, and broken glass. Instead I relived a stunning, blissful sensation of floating between life and death.
I was dimly aware of background noise — the ambulance siren, my poor mother screaming. I could feel a medical worker’s hand on my chest. But if anything, these were just minor annoyances. I was focused on the extraordinary feeling of floating, the spectacular visions, the peaceful knowledge that no matter how scary and confusing events might be, everything turns out all right.
A thought occurred to me as I floated.
Dying is no big deal. We do it over and over. It’s not the end.
I survived the accident, obviously (although in the therapy session I did have a recurring fear that I actually had died and that the intervening 48 years were the dream of a ghost, as happens to Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense).
After the accident, I wound up with a couple hundred stitches in my right arm and a long process of recovery.
I got rid of my security blanket because, according to my mom, I didn’t like the way it felt anymore, being held in the unfamiliar left hand.
I got pretty good at throwing left-handed.
My family would occasionally instruct me, Palm down! — or for short, PD! This meant that I shouldn’t curl my right hand inward, shouldn’t rest the back of my wrist against the floor, chair, desk, whatever. That posture wasn’t good for recovery, supposedly.
I was taught exercises for my fingers, to help my hand recover.
I went for periodic nerve-conduction studies. A doctor would give me electric shocks at one end of my arm and then measure how fast the signals traveled. I guess that’s what she was doing. All I know is, I dreaded those tests. (As Wikipedia helpfully tells us, “The test is not invasive, but can be painful due to the electrical shocks.”)
One thing I lost, as I moved through life and into adulthood, was the memory of the otherworldly wisdom and peace which I experienced, unexpectedly, right at the height of the bloody, screaming mayhem.
It all turns out okay. Dying is no big deal. It’s not the end.
I have since read about the near-death experiences of others. Different people report different sensations and visions. An interesting one to me was Kyle Buller, who suffered a severe snowboarding accident as a teenager. He reported some of the same feelings which I experienced.
One bummer about intense trauma isn’t the accident itself, but the long slog of recovery afterward and then the drudgery of daily life.
Once you’ve had a vision of heaven — or whatever I saw that day — it’s hard to get excited about baseball cards.
Or cleaning up your room.
But that’s okay. Nearly dying as a toddler gave me a sneak peak, a shocking glimpse of radical bliss. For a few moments, I felt such indescribably beautiful feelings. And then remarkably, I was able to experience the feelings once again, all these years later.
Reliving the accident didn’t solve everything.
Nothing solves everything.
But it was fascinating. And it gave me a memory which I can try to plug into now, when I start drifting toward fear and obsessiveness.
It’s okay. Everything turns out okay.