On June 10th I almost died. In fact, if not for the concern and quick thinking turned to action on the part of my children, I would have. I have no memory of what exactly happened, but I know they found me unconscious in my apartment; for how long, is still a mystery and may remain so. Though everyone assumed I had Covid19, it turned out I had a rather virulent form of Legionnaire’s Disease, whose symptoms present a lot like the virus. That quickly turned to a horrible pneumonia which led to me being put on a ventilator, multiple IVs, two weeks in ICU, the works—but, while people do die of this disease, at least there is a treatment protocol that my family was told would work. They were so relieved! The health team at Presbyterian Hospital in New York are miracle workers. They literally saved my life. Now, four weeks later, I am back home beginning to regain my strength and heal, reaching out to the hundreds of people of all faiths and no faith who were praying for me. It’s a process that consumes nearly all of my energy and I realize will take quite a while. Like they say in recovery work, one day at a time.
I do not know about you, but in spite of all my years in the rabbinate, studies, and teaching I do not have a consistent theology of the afterlife. I tend to think of soul as energy and as we know from science, energy cannot be destroyed, only changed in form. What I usually say then is that the energy that makes us, us (which I am comfortable calling the soul) continues on even after the body’s death. In what form, I have no idea; and I am okay with not knowing.
Nevertheless, I want to share with you an experience I had while on the ventilator, my very life hanging in the balance. I know some of you will say it was just my imagination, a drug-induced hallucination. That’s okay. I am not trying to convince anyone here. This was not a laboratory experiment, nor am I trying to prove anything through rational argument. Just one experience that I know many others, in many different faiths and cultures, have had.
I stepped into the next world. It was quite peaceful and I was not anxious or afraid. As I softly glided I saw my parents, sitting together at a table, talking to one another. This is so emotional that I cry every time I tell it, even as I am crying now. They appeared as they were in their 70’s, vibrant and healthy, not as they were at the end of their lives. Though they have been gone for quite some time now, I miss them dearly and speak/think of them often. They looked up as I approached and asked me, “Terry, what are you doing here?” I told them I came to join them, to be united once again. Then they said, “But it is not your time to be here. Go back. We will be waiting for you when your time comes.” I tried to convince them to let me stay but they insisted and I obeyed. As I was leaving, I turned around for one more look and I could see many other indistinct figures behind them. And then I was in my hospital bed, briefly conscious before I slipped back into, “never, never land.” My parents, who literally gave me life, gave me a second one as well.
I have always thought of myself as a grateful person and I believe others would say the same about me. Ever since childhood, I begin each morning thanking God for another day of life. I don’t take anything for granted. Yet this near-death experience has kicked my gratitude “mometer” into over drive. Being able to open the juice container, hold a fork, sit up in bed, brush my teeth—there are so many “little” things we do each day that we don’t even think about. Well, I am thinking about them. A lot. It’s all a gift; all a miracle. I thank you God. Blessed are You, Spirit of the Universe, who has restored me to life and is the Source of all the goodness life itself has to offer.
In these last few weeks, I have had copious time to think about and reflect on what happened to me. It was a stroke of bad luck that I contracted Legionnaire’s; I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But then I got very lucky that my children, not having heard from me after they knew I was going for a Covid19 test decided to come to my apartment late on that Wednesday night. I am not afraid of dying and this near death experience has not changed that. Death comes to all living beings and none of us know just when our time will come; death is the price we all pay for the privilege of life itself. However, the thought that my children would not have had the opportunity to say goodbye to their fully conscious abba, fills me with overwhelming sadness. It is one of the reasons I end every conversation we have with the three most important words they ever need to hear (and I need to say)—“I love you!”
P.S. When I was about eight years old, I drowned in a community pool. I haven’t thought about that in a very long time. But days after I left the ICU this month, I had a clear memory of that moment in the water that when I stopped struggling and let go, I saw a number of shadowy figures in the distance. The next thing I recall was my sister pumping my stomach on the side of the pool. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Now, with a second experience, the biblical phrase for death, “gathered to one’s ancestors” has taken on a new reality for me. I will never be the same.