I still don't know how to die.
You'd think having done it once I would have some expertise on the subject. Most people punch a one-way ticket to the Great Beyond, but mine was a return ticket.
The surgery was scheduled. Death was not. It came abruptly and unannounced. There was no shuffling in line, security checkpoints, or waiting at the gate. It came without warning. I was unconscious when I stopped breathing. I had gone under the knife to remove nose cartilage occluding my airway. You don't typically write a will before undergoing a routine nasal surgery, but I went into cardiac arrest from a reaction to the anesthetic. For 20 minutes, I was gone. The medical team fought to bring me back—and finally did. Thank God for the resuscitating powers of defibrillation, atropine, and ambu bags.
My experience on "the other side" didn't reflect much of what I've read on the subject. If I'd paid for my ticket, I would have felt a bit ripped off. No tunnels of light. No angel wings flapping. No grandparents telling me to relay messages to loved ones. Who knows, maybe I died wrong.
All I know is that it impacted me profoundly. In the opening chapter of the C.S. Lewis novel Perelandra, the narrator observes a change in the lead character Ransom after he's returned to England from Mars. "A man who has been in another world does not come back unchanged. One can't put the difference into words."
This has certainly been true of my experience. To this day, I can't talk about it with tears forming in my eyes. At the time of my experience, I was living in Wales doing missions work. The word that comes closest to describing what happened is what the Welsh call the hiraeth. The ancient Celtic word has no English equivalent. It usually refers to someone longing for their homeland. And yet even that doesn't quite capture the word's meaning. It's something deeper. Like many Welsh words, hiraeth is better felt than explained. The hiraeth is the tug in the chest from an invisible cord reminding the traveler that he's sojourning on a distant and foreign shore.
This is the word I uttered during the neurological check after the crash team revived me. I'll never forget the fascination and awe I felt confessing, "I'll have the hiraeth for heaven for the rest of my life." I knew it then. I was changed forever by setting foot inside of forever, if only for 20 minutes.
Eternity in my heart
When a patient regains consciousness or awakes from general anesthetic, they don't just snap back to full consciousness. Mental orientation is regained in stages. The brain gets its bearings slowly, piecing together what just happened after a mental reboot. Every time a person is knocked unconscious, the brain resets and goes through system processes like a computer. Orientation typically occurs in the following order:
Orientation to self (x1)
Orientation to place (x2)
Orientation to date (x3)
Orientation to situation (x4)
When I was an RN, we charted that the patient was oriented x3 if they were fully aware, while paramedics add the fourth designation because it's associated with temporary memory loss right after trauma. Because self is generally first in the reorientation process, we first ask, "Can you tell me your name?" Then, "Do you know where you are?"
But I seemed to skip these steps. Before I could open my eyes, I was oriented x4. In fact, I was still oriented to heaven. It felt like some of it had come back with me. The physical trauma of dying lasted weeks, but eternity's afterburn lingered much longer.