At the age of 14, I had a near-near-death experience that left me convinced life is best lived as a series of revelatory moments. I decided from that moment that it was this sort of life I would seek.
I say near-near-death as it couldn’t properly be called near-death. No medics were needed. No ambulance arrived on the scene. I required neither Heimlich nor CPR nor even a good slap on the face and a ‘snap-out-of-it.’
It was summer. My family had taken a trip to St. Augustine, Florida. It was to be the last family trip before my brother, Joey went off to school on a football scholarship, and in that way, it was meant to be special — more special somehow than other times we’d spent together. Under the pressure to enshrine these memories, my family buckled. The vacation was like all others. We had no tender nights telling Joey how we’d miss him, how he’d been a good brother, a good son, and was going to become a Great Man. If anything, the whole dynamic was more tense.
My mom took to crying and playing Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” on repeat. My father took long, solitary walks along the beach and would return seeming like he wanted to announce something important. He’d approach Joey as if to impart some wisdom, put his hand on Joey’s shoulder, then stumble and just shake his head.
On the day of my near-near-death experience, Joey and my parents had retired to their rooms for an afternoon nap while storm clouds rolled in over the Atlantic. I wasn’t tired. I stepped outside.
At first, I went out to the beach looking for a elfin girl I’d seen at the resort pool. She was older than me. Must have been 16 or 17. She likely hadn’t given me a single thought or even seen me ogling her from the poolside, pulling at my swim trunks and trying to flex my meager muscles. Still, I was thrilled by the idea of a summer fling and invigorated by my brother’s tales of post-virginity life.
It was a hopeless pursuit. She was nowhere to be found. As I stepped onto the beach I was passed by throngs of vacationers clearing out as the skies darkened portending a storm. I wandered for a time along the shore, letting the sea lap at my toes. Slowly, the beach emptied of people who’d left to watch the storm from their screened balconies.
But I didn’t want to go inside. I felt called to the sea. I waded into the choppy waters like a young Poseidon. As soon as I was deep enough to do so, I began to swim, setting my sights on a buoy several hundred feet out. I wanted to touch it.
Perhaps it was to prove to myself I could. As a young boy, most of the things I did were only to prove something to myself. Picking up snakes, climbing telephone poles, sneaking glasses of my father’s whisky and making myself sick on the sting of it. All of it, while dreaming of the hair it might put on my bare chest.
I did reach the buoy after some struggle free-styling against the tide. But on the way back, the rain picked up, the visibility became poor, the tide stronger. Something happened. I lost control. The waves pummeled me down. My body scraped against the rough sand. I struggled to get back up, but every time I neared the surface, a new wave would push me down again.
It couldn’t have lasted more than two minutes, yet it felt much longer. I struggled there, caught beneath the water somewhere between breathing and drowning.
I am not sure if I blacked out, but there was a moment when I saw something. It wouldn’t be right to call it a light, as at the end of the proverbial tunnel. But there was a lightness to it. Shimmering, golden, not like heaven’s gates. It was a gold somehow both divine and profane. It shone as if it came directly from the earth’s molten core. A warmth spread over me, growing out from inside my skull and radiating down my arms through my fingertips. My eyes were open and instead of seeing the murky kaleidoscopes one usually sees underwater, I could see as clear as day. There lay my own body balled up against the sand, and I was separate from it, outside of it. I watched my body pound down and down under a glorious spotlight. It was theater—magnificent. The theater of my own life coming to an end. I saw myself as an actor. How can I say it? It was more than in the Shakespearean “all the world’s a stage” sense. It was metatheatrical yes, but also metaphysical, metamorphic, meta-morbid. I was the audience, but so was Death, and the ocean, and the sand, and the kelp, and the little lost legs of jellyfish that whipped me from time to time. I saw it all. I saw it so clearly.
Then I was on the shore. I made it. I inhaled and filled my lungs. I lay there for a long while as the rain fell on me.
Somewhere in me came a deluge of ecstasy and fear and understanding. And I was alone in it. And I understood somehow that I would always be alone in it.
At last, I rose and returned to our rented condo towel-less, my trunks dripping over the tile floor. My whole family was still asleep. I went to the small, covered deck and sat for a long while watching the storm recede. I stayed there as my family stirred one by one and came to sit and watch the horizon with me.
I never told them what occurred, but there was a change in me. They knew it and I knew it, but none of us ever spoke of it.
A week later, I found a hair spurting from my chest.
I am 44 now, an age I never thought I’d reach, not because of any premonitions of early death, but because aging itself is such a baffling process. Each year that I make it through seems both more miraculous and more mundane than the last.
A week ago, I received an email from my mother letting me know that Joey was hit by a falling bucket while leaving work. A window cleaner had improperly strapped the bucket to his harness and in an improbable turn of fate, the bucket fell 23 stories straight onto Joey’s head.
The bucket only weighed 1.5lbs when empty, but physics being what they are, it landed with a powerful plop and Joey suffered a concussion.
“It was a miracle in a way,” my mother wrote, “because they had to scan his head to make sure there wasn’t any internal bleeding. And when they scanned it, they discovered a tumor.” My mother, I was sure, did not properly understand what a miracle was.
She informed me that Joey was now undergoing testing to determine the nature of the tumor and to decide on possible treatments. In the final line, she asked that I come home to see him.
“It would mean a lot to him, Damien,” she wrote.
Joey has a wife, Claire. They have two sons I never met, whose names I must have known, but at some point have forgotten. The boys are somewhere in their teens and terribly worried for their father. I too worry, but at this point in my life, I do not fear for Joey’s death so much as I fear for his life, one he has chosen to spend toiling in triviality.
When I received the email I sought guidance from Sven, my spiritual mentor. Guidance from Sven is often difficult to obtain because Sven and I don’t communicate in earthly parlance. Sven has taken a vow of silence.
Sven is from Ohio. His birth name is Patrick, but he chose the name Sven—which means young warrior in Old Norse—early in life to represent his strength. His is an internal strength. When Sven chose internal strength as opposed to the external variety, he forwent his physical form to achieve a higher position in the spiritual realm.
Medical personnel might say that Sven’s muscles have atrophied from years spent laying supine and meditating wordlessly. But medical personnel don’t understand that as his physical tissue wastes away, there is growth in other, deeper places.
After reading my mother’s email, I came to Sven’s inner sanctum, which lies in the basement of our shared Jerusalem apartment. I felt the old urge to spill forth to him all that I had read in the email but remembered myself. The urge to speak was a desire I’d worked hard to put behind me. I knew now that words were nothing. So I sat by Sven’s bed where he lay, eyes closed, his arms shriveled at his sides.
My heart told him of my brother, of my worries for his spiritual being. I didn’t have to move my lips. Sven and I’s cerebral waves reached out to one another and I heard Sven’s voice from the ether.
“Go, Damien,” came Sven’s message. “Go to be with Joey. Tell him all. Give him clarity.”
It was with this wordless permission that I boarded a plane to Newark to see Joey. Upon hearing of my return, my mother became disconcertingly excited and told me she’d made the bed in my old room and would love for me to stay there. But I demurred and eventually declined. Instead, I made arrangements for a motel room on the far side of town.
The motel was near the old Occult Bookstore I’d visited for lectures and study in my late-teenage years. It was where I first learned of the Sufi rite of dhikr, Tibetan sky burials, Buddhist samadhi, and of course, gematria which eventually led me to the great works of the kabbalists, which, in a roundabout way, led me to Sven.
At the airport, I was given a rental car that smelled of fast food and synthetic fertilizer. The whole drive to the motel I burned incense and focused on my breathing. The motel room offered little sanctuary as it smelled similarly of forgotten meals and stale chemicals. But I had the Zohar with me and read it until my mother called and told me I should come over for dinner she was hosting with my dad, Joey, Claire, Lucas, and Damien.
For a moment I was confused and almost corrected my mother but recalled all at once that Joey named one of his sons after me.
Strictly speaking, Joey and I hadn’t talked in years. Of course, I had been sending him messages by heart, and by way of prayer, but these were letters Joey never opened for he was unable to open them. He had no spiritual practice; he was unwilling to establish one.
The table was set by the time I arrived and though no one said so, it was undeniable that they had been waiting for me. Claire answered the door and immediately threw her arms around my shoulders.
“Look at you,” she said. “You’re so skinny and bald.”
It was an accurate assessment of my physical being. I ate little with Sven and, like him, kept my head close shaven to remove all barriers to enlightenment.
I looked in behind her to see two sullen-looking boys eyeing me.
“Lucas, Damien, do you remember your Uncle Damien?” Claire said, chipper despite their obvious disinterest.
“No,” the one who was Damien said.
“You live in Russia, right?” asked the one who was Lucas, not out of curiosity, but politeness. He was reaching for the only thing he knew.
“Not anymore,” I said. I almost launched into a story about my days in an Eastern Orthodox monastery but remembered myself. I didn’t want to speak more than necessary. I wanted to save my words for Joey.
“Are you a communist?” Damien asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Uncle Damien lives in Israel now,” Claire clarified.
“Oh,” Lucas said.
“Are you Jewish?” Damien asked.
“Alright, let’s go to the table.” Claire ushered us into the dining room.
Nothing had changed since I left. A framed family photo still hung above the china chest. In the photograph, I saw my younger self and Joey smiling from a bench while my parents stood above us looking proud and happy to an unnatural degree. A still life of pears my mother purchased years ago hung opposite the photo. There were traces of dust on the frames.
Claire stood in front of me and announced, “Here’s Damien!” even doing some jazz hands as if to present me as the opening act.
My mother came and hugged me tight and disbelieving. I wasn’t sure why she seemed so surprised. I told her I was coming, but she grabbed me as if I would turn to steam if she didn’t squeeze.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she whispered. She held my arm and did not let go until I gently broke away.
My dad did not rise from his seat. He merely nodded in my direction.
“Where is Joey?” I asked, seeing that the one person with whom I needed to speak was absent.
“He’s watching the game,” Claire said. “I’ll take you there.”
She led me to the den. The lights were off. A faint glow alternating between blue and green lit his face. He sat in the recliner, nearly supine.
“Joey,” Claire said, knocking on the door frame, so lightly she might as well not have knocked. “Your brother is here.”
“Who?” He stared straight at the TV.
“Damien, your brother.”
Claire nudged me in and then took off quickly, leaving me in the dark with my brother.
“Well, come on in.” He did not turn off the television but motioned to a couch beside his seat.
Neither of us spoke for some time. He was entranced by the glow of the box. I did not watch. I had taken a vow many years ago to shun all unnecessary forms of technology. But watching him watch was its own sort of meditation. A slackness overtook his face. The colors played upon it and the lights illuminated the wrinkles he’d acquired over the years.
Occasionally he’d say, “What the fuck are you doing?” or “Goddamnit throw it” and it would take me a few seconds to realize he wasn’t talking to me but to the illusion of reality shown through the screen. It seemed to upset him, what went on in that magic box. Then he would say, “Yes, yes, NICE!” and would become very excited, even agitated. Eventually, there was an ad break, and the TV began to speak of stain removers and nausea medication. It was then that he turned to me.
“So, you showed up.” He laughed a little at this.
“Yes, I came to speak to you.”
“You know it’s not a big deal, this tumor situation. Modern medicine. They caught it early. Nothing to worry about.”
“I’m not worried,” I said.
“Well, that’s good to hear. You can go back to the Holy Land then. Talk to you in twenty years or so when I’m really dying.”
It was odd. The words he spoke should have indicated frustration, but instead, he delivered them with a certain humor. Mostly, he seemed impatient for the game to come back on.
“I wanted to see you. Sven told me I needed to speak to you.”
“Who is Sven? Your lover?” He laughed again.
“I have no lover.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
The ad break was coming close to ending, I feared I didn’t have much time before I could reach him. The words began to flow out of me. I was guided not by mind, but by spirit.
“I need to tell you that at this moment. Now. Right as you are losing, could lose, might lose, will eventually lose your life. Right now. It is now that you must understand. The eventualities. Not just mortality. But all eventualities spread out on the continuum of life, death, love, hate. You are a being of air and water. You are a being that is coming close, so close to it. You must reach out and seize it. You must grab hold of it. Close your eyes. You must close your eyes and see. Then open them.”
I was about to continue but Joey’s eyes had glazed over. He looked past me, into the dark den. The TV cast shadows on his face. He wasn’t understanding. He didn’t want to understand. The game began, and I waited for him to turn back to watch it, but instead, he kept his eyes on me. He started shaking his head. Then he smiled. Then he frowned.
“Damien, what are you talking about?”
“You’re missing it. You’re missing everything. You’ve had no revelations. You’re nearing 50, nearing death and you’ve had no moments of clarity.”
He seemed very sad suddenly. “I’m having a moment of clarity now,” he said. “I’m having one right now.”
Then he turned off the TV. The room went completely dark. He rose from the recliner and walked out of the room.
I sat there for a while before I heard my mother calling “Damien, time for dinner.” Then I rose and went to the table.
I didn’t eat. But I stayed for decorum. I watched Lucas and Damien whispering to each other and texting under the table. Claire and my mother went on about a new show they’d been watching together. My father asked the boys if they had any thoughts about college yet. They said they didn’t, but they would think about it. Joey told my father about the game. My mother asked Claire if their family wanted to go to Florida this year, for a vacation.
When I left, my father shook my hand. My mother almost cried, but held back the tears. Joey, Claire, and the boys waved at me from the front porch as I got into the rental car.
It was late when I got back to the motel. I looked out at the dingy motel pool and decided to get in. I had no swimsuit, but it was dark, so I stripped naked and stepped out onto the cracked concrete deck. Many leaves floated in the water in different states of decay. More carpeted the bottom of the pool, making it appear more pondlike, less manmade. I walked to the far end and climbed onto the diving board. I walked out to its tip then pencil-dove in, landing my feet on the soft leaves at the bottom. They squished between my toes. I let the air out from my lungs until my body rested there naturally. I opened my eyes.
I saw nothing.
Elizabeth J. Wenger is a queer writer from Oklahoma. She is currently an MFA student at Iowa State University. Her work has been published in essaydaily.org, Flash Fiction Magazine, the Hopper, and more.