I saw everything I did in my life, my father told me while he lay on his hospital deathbed. He then slowly and deliberately lifted his skeleton of a right arm, and moved it in an arc from 3 o’clock to noon. The images of his life review were less than an arm’s reach away.
Perched beside him on one of those miserably hard hospital chairs that give no embrace of comfort to caregivers, I leaned closely up against and across his narrow mattress in order to hear the airy whispers leaking from his mouth. To any passerby in the hallway who may have caught a glimpse of this, surely it must have looked as though the top half of me was trying to climb in the bed. In truth all I was trying to do was get close enough to hear my father, without making him any more uncomfortable than he already was, just hours away from the end.
Pneumonia had been swallowing my father’s breaths for days. It was doing its damndest to cut in on the tango of lung and lymphoma cancers that had been plaguing him. The pneumonia had exhausted me too, as it forced me to hold my body in an unnatural, silent yoga-like pose just so I could catch a consonant or vowel escaping from his lips.
It was mentally draining trying to form the string of precious, doled-out words into a strand of Joseph’s wisdom. His pneumonia kept me always tense, and always afraid of any unintended noise I might make, as that meant I could miss some really important truth he wanted me to know. Or worse yet, that I might misunderstand, and thereby force my father to waste his strength to repeat.
You know how they say the cliche about people who are about to die see their lives pass before them? my father whispered. I nodded. Well, it’s true, Giselle. That’s what happened to me on the bridge. I saw my entire life flash before me.
I do not recall in our conversation there having been a precursor, a tiny something that might have prepared me for what he had just spoken.
Do you know how it is with some people when they start talking out of the blue kind of matter-of-factly about whatever, and you suddenly feel caught off guard because in that moment you did not and could not have anticipated what they were saying to you was something they had actually been contemplating for a long time – and it turned out it was really big stuff?
That’s what it was like, because my father had never spoken to me before of such wonders and mysteries. He had never spoken about what he had learned as an altar boy or what he thought about his or anyone else’s salvation or damnation. I don’t know if he thought those were all too private, too sacred or maybe just too un-resolvable, making them pointless to discuss. What I knew was he wasn’t about to waste words now, not while he was gasping for each breath.
He said it was when the ambulance was crossing the Hudson River headed to the emergency room he knew he was about to die. Lights out is how he put it.
The scenes of his life were all in color, he told me. Each image was in sharp focus, set apart from the next, yet seamless and continuous. Like frames of a movie, he said.
How long had I been dangling in awe through every gap in his speech? I’ll never know. But as my father struggled to grasp for the energy to continue the story of what had happened to him three weeks prior, I became aware his labored breathing had caused a suppression of my natural rhythm. My shallow inhales had become synchronized with his.
His life literally flashed by, yet mysteriously there had been enough time for him to see everything he had ever done. Everything. He also told me he felt everything, all of the emotion that came with the events he was being shown. He said that you would think seeing everything he had ever done in his life would have taken a long time for him to look at. Yet it all happened within what he guessed was just a few seconds.
He was perplexed, as was I, by the whole time element thing. Neither of us could reconcile how this could be that he was able to see, understand and feel the whole sweep of his life in what amounted to not more than a New York minute.
As my father continued, his words seemed to bypass my ears, going directly into my heart. He knew he had to try and hold on, he said, and not die until I got to his bedside. He knew what he had to say to me would completely change my life.
After his death I found myself giving extra thought to one particular aspect of his life review that differed from any other life review I had read or heard about.
My father explained that when he saw a scene where he had made a mistake, it was brighter. It also stood out more. It looked, he said, like it was lit from behind making those particular images appear especially three dimensional. Those mistakes put on display with this additional spotlight guaranteed there was not a chance in hell he would miss seeing them.
It was obvious to him that his mistakes on display like this were more important than any good he had ever done, or joy he had known.
Then he told me he saw one mistake that stood out even more from all the others. He said, it was brighter than the rest somehow. “It was the only mistake I knew I made that I regret.”
I had known long before my father spoke of his ride in the ambulance that near death experiences such as this were for real, and not the result of oxygen deprivation. That was one of the more creative explanations I had heard, neurons misfiring, sending electrical currents and chemicals into memory stores and churning up all kinds of images or hallucinations.
Though it seems quite plausible that as brain cells implode on their way to the ultimate dark hole, a spasm of images may appear, I also know a spasm of images does not constitute the full experience of one’s life in a soul review.
From the deliberate way the images unfolded to the wisdom they conveyed, this was not a sputtering of my father’s life force or a misfire of anything. These scenes were not just spilling out of nowhere. These were reflections from a very intimate part of his truth.
Those few seconds in the ambulance were exquisitely choreographed to transform. In the timeless moments my father saw all of his mistakes, he said he knew he had to try and fix the one mistake he regretted that had caused the most suffering. He told me he realized in that instant in the ambulance, that he had to try as hard as he could to stay alive so he could fix it.
Who knew he would have to wait nearly three agonizing weeks for me to finally get to his bedside where he could then confess how sorry he was that he had not told me or shown me enough that he loved me. That he hadn’t expressed enough his love to all those he loved.
The questions raised in my mind by the light in my father’s eyes were not Why, but rather: Where did that extra light come from?
–Giselle M. Massi copyright May 25, 2017; For more on my father’s wisdom, please read my column “The Law of Invisible Consequences” www.gisellemassi.com/the-law-of-invisible-consequences and my book “We are Here for a Purpose: HOW TO FIND YOURS”.