The Mysterious Power of Near-Death Experiences
By Edwidge Danticat
July 10, 2017
Over the course of my life, I’ve had a few close calls, incidents that, had they taken place a second or a minute later, might have changed my life—or ended it. I’ve never had the classic near-death experience, the one that includes an out-of-body moment, when one’s spirit floats away from one’s body, to hover in a state of heightened awareness from the ceiling or some higher plane. I don’t know what it’s like to have died and come back, only what it’s like to momentarily feel that I might have possibly come close to dying.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I bought my first car, with a six-figure mileage, from a friend of my father’s. I was a reluctant driver at best—a terrified one, really—and an overused lemon was not a good starter car for me. Once, when I was driving along a busy street in New Rochelle, New York, the car turned on its own and headed toward a garbage truck in the opposite lane. There were only a few inches between us when both the truck and my car miraculous stopped. If the truck had hit me at the speed we were both going, I might have died.
A few years ago, I was standing on the landing of the steps in front of a friend’s apartment in lower Manhattan. The front door was an entire story above the ground. It had snowed a few days before, then had warmed up, and then the temperature had plunged again. Black ice covered both the steps and the sidewalk below. I’d just pulled the door shut, and had my back to the steps, when I suddenly felt myself slipping. My arms flailed, and for a moment I felt as though I were flying. I somehow managed to catch the railing before I could freefall all the way down. Had I plunged backward and landed head first on the concrete, I might have been at least brain dead.
There was also the time, soon after my mother died, when I looked up from my phone while riding in the passenger seat of our family car and realized that my husband had accidentally driven onto the wrong side of a highway ramp. Had any cars been coming off the highway at high speed, nothing could have saved us. That particular brush with death made me think of all the close calls that I, and a few people I know, have had over the span of a lifetime. Some of those close calls happen so quickly that we barely notice them. Others are so intense that they might change the way we think about not just living but about constantly being close to dying.
Every once in a while, a friend with whom I have traded such stories will send me links to close-call videos on YouTube. In them, people cluelessly walk into the paths of speeding cars, buses, and trains that somehow don’t hit them. Dangers graze but don’t annihilate them. In that one moment, it looks as though these people are covered with some invisible death-protection shield. Or, as my mother might have said, “It just wasn’t their time.”
I have wanted to sit down and tally my close calls. (There have been a few others involving being caught in the middle of a police chase, a near-drowning, and a dodged bullet during a drive-by.) But I have been afraid to do it. What if I tempt fate, and tip the balance, by paying too much attention? What if my becoming fully aware of the frequency of such moments makes me terrified to leave my house? What if I start wondering if my house is even safe? After all, fifty-foot sinkholes have been known to spontaneously appear in Florida living rooms.
I once sat next to a woman in a commuter turboprop plane, who, as soon as the plane landed, started thanking God at the top of her voice. This same woman, at the start of the trip, had refused to change seats with another passenger who was travelling with a friend.
“My seat number is how they’ll identify my body if the plane crashes,” she said apologetically, though loud enough for everyone to hear. There had been some recent crashes involving the same type of plane in different parts of the world, I later found out, so her fear was justified. Surviving a routine plane ride had seemed like a close call to her, something to be extremely grateful for having lived through. She couldn’t fully trust that the plane would land and that we would all walk off and go on with our lives.
She had a point, I realized. After all, don’t most catastrophic events suddenly interrupt perfectly ordinary days? The “ordinary instant,” Joan Didion calls it, in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her memoir describing her husband’s sudden death from a heart attack and the process of writing about it.
“Confronted with sudden disaster,” Didion writes, “we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames.”
Unless a person is being executed, death rarely announces its exact place and time. Against the backdrop of the ordinary, it often feels abrupt, exceptional. And even if the circumstances right before death are extraordinary—if one is getting married, for example, or giving birth, or had just climbed Mt. Everest—how could these otherwise exceptional events not pale in comparison?
Among the first words Didion wrote after her husband died were, “Life changes in the instant.”
The ordinary instant.
“Nou tout ap mache ak sèkèy nou anba bra nou,” my mother had been casually saying for years. “We’re all carrying our coffins with us every day.” Or, “We are all constantly cheating death, ” which is how I usually translated that Creole phrase to my mother’s doctors and nurses whenever she asked me to, usually after they tried to reassure her, during some agonizing diagnostic test or another debilitating chemotherapy session for her stage IV ovarian cancer, that everything was going to be okay. “Media vita in morte sumus” might have also been another suitable translation: “In the midst of life, we are in death.”
The French essayist Michel de Montaigne was apparently afraid of death until he had a near-death experience of his own. One day, he was thrown off his horse after colliding with another rider. He ended up unconscious for several hours and believed himself to be dying. Then, as he recovered from his accident, Montaigne realized that dying might not be so bad. He’d felt no pain, no fear. The limbo state of being alive while feeling dead is what he found to be most intolerable.
“I can, for my part, think of no state so insupportable and dreadful, as to have the soul vivid and afflicted, without means to declare itself,” Montaigne wrote, in his essay “De L’Exercitation,” translated as “Use Makes Perfect.”
This is, perhaps, why we have so many tales of near-death experiences, firsthand testimonials and fictional accounts whose authors are attempting to understand—and explain—what it’s like to exist in a body that’s hovering between life and death. There’s so much to imagine, so much to project into that inexplicable void of people’s medical and spiritual purgatories as they swing between living and dying.
“The poets have feigned some gods who favor the deliverance of such as suffer under a languishing death,” Montaigne writes. The gods of which he writes might appear as dead relatives or heavenly figures, angels, spirit guides who offer the choice of either staying or going. Some writers, like Dante, in “Inferno,” have us travel with them through several circles of Hell, if only to possibly emerge frightened but cleansed, kinder and wiser than we were before.
While medical professionals might attribute these same type of visions and apparitions to neurochemicals working overtime, many of us would like near-death or half-dead experiences to be real, because we’d love to have a second shot at life, or we’d love to see our loved ones miraculously return from the brink before it’s too late. Or, as Dylan Thomas wrote, to “not go gentle into that good night,” and to “rage against the dying of the light.”
Writing about near-deaths means trying to penetrate that space where death could be imminent but living still remains a possibility. Whereas death is the end of life as we know it, and as others around us are living it, having a near-death experience means someone’s been given an opportunity that most other people haven’t had. Survivors might rightfully feel anointed—or guilty. A few might even wish they’d died, even though their survival had seemingly required supernatural interference or assistance from faith, if not fate. Their lives should have greater meaning now than mere existence. Or should they? Maybe there’s some larger mission to complete, something better to do, someone to love, or mourn.
Although it’s not a typical near-death narrative, my favorite close-call book is Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient,” a novel that is, among other things, about a man who escapes death only to spend the rest of his life mourning the woman he loved. Burnt beyond recognition, the so-called English Patient, Almásy, who is actually Hungarian, ends up in the care of a young nurse, Hana, who looks after him in an old Italian villa, at the end of the Second World War. Bedridden, Almásy is constantly thinking of Katharine, the married woman he fell in love with while exploring and mapping parts of the North African desert.
Even though the war has ended, the characters are still living with the constant likelihood of sudden death, particularly from the hidden explosives or mines that the retreating Germans left behind. Kip, the Sikh mine sapper and Hana’s lover, is the one who must dismantle many of those explosives, whether they’re hidden under bridges, in statues, or possibly in pianos.
Kip is constantly living in the shadow of death. The life expectancy of someone new to his job is ten weeks. Hana, too, has seen a lot of death as a nurse during the war. After helping Kip with one of his trickiest mines, Hana breaks down and declares:
I thought I was going to die. I wanted to die. And I thought if I was going to die, I would die with you. Someone like you, young as I am, I saw so many dying with me in the last year. I didn’t feel scared. I certainly wasn’t brave just now. I thought to myself, We have this villa, this grass, we should have lain down together, you in my arms, before we died.
Reading this, I think, Who would I want to be with before I die? Who would I want in my arms? Or whose arms would I want to die in? Certainly my husband’s. I would be hesitant, though, to subject my young children to watching me die. Would they be able to carry that memory with them for the rest of their lives? Would they be able to carry me?
Hana’s declaration also brings up the inescapable link between sex and death. One way the French refer to orgasm is as “la petite mort,” or “the little death,” an antidote to Freud’s “death instinct,” or what he saw as our longing to self-destruct and return to our preëxisting state through war and other means. Sex, after having just barely escaped death, would have been another way for Hana and Kip to continue to circumvent “la grande mort,” or “the big death,” and to counter one of Freud’s other notions: that we’re not convinced of our own mortality and can’t imagine our own deaths. (Though having watched my mother die, I can now perfectly imagine my own death.) Hana and Kip also cannot escape their mortality: it confronts them every day in the devastated landscape around them, and in the dying faces of their comrades and friends.
“In a painting of his imagining the field surrounding this embrace would have been in flames,” Kip thinks, soon after Hana falls asleep in his arms.
Yet both Kip and Hana survive. And the English Patient continues to live, even though some of his friends, as well as his beloved, have died. But always shadowing the survivors of this internal and exterior war is one of Almásy’s favorite words from his native Hungary, “félhomály” (“twilight”), the type of twilight that the French call “l’heure bleu” (“the blue hour”), or what Joan Didion refers to in “Blue Nights,” her memoir of her daughter’s death, from acute pancreatitis, twenty months after her husband died, as “the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres,” and that Michael Ondaatje calls the “dusk of graves.”
This type of sorrow-filled dusk offers itself as an atmospheric bridge between life and death. It is the dying of the light against which we are constantly raging, the light over which death might indeed have some dominion, as it is part sunset, part nightfall, the gloaming, eventide, or prologue to the end. It is, as Didion writes, “the fading,” so it would not be unusual for it to linger over the holiest of places, those even holier than Chartres or any other designated holy place.
Places can be holy, Almásy reminds us, not because we are told they are, but because we want and need them to be. Places can be holy because we are sharing them with someone we love, just as some places become cursed because they’ve taken people we love away from us.
“It is important to die in holy places,” Almásy thinks, toward the end of the novel. Though sometimes as we walk this earth, with the memories of our loved ones shadowing us, we might also become our own holy places: roaming churches, cathedrals, and memory mausoleums.
This piece is drawn from “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story,” by Edwidge Danticat, which is out July 11th, from Graywolf Press.
Edwidge Danticat is the author of many books, including “The Art of Death,” which will be published by Graywolf Press in July.Read more »