Twenty years ago I was driving down the highway in Minnesota. It was nighttime. I was on my way home to St. Paul and driving on auto pilot, the way you do when you know the route really well. The road was empty and long, the night quiet. Suddenly my car was hit from behind, a tremendous slam by a truck. Before I even had time to be afraid, I was thrown through the windshield, where I flipped through the air, over the hood of my car, broke my neck and died. It all happened in an instant, and it was very peaceful after that initial shock of the truck hitting me. When I flew through the windshield I felt a tremendous sense of peace, release and elation. "Whee, here I go! I'm flying!" It was blissful, tranquil and thrilling all at once. I have never forgotten it, that feeling of absolute freedom and well-being.
When it was over, I was still on the road in my car driving. There had been no hit from behind, no truck, no shattered windshield, and I was fine. Nothing had happened. Except that something had. Something huge and important and inexplicable. I pulled over. The quiet of the night now seemed eerie. So very quiet and peaceful. We didn't have cell phones back then so there was no one to talk to, no lifeline to reality in case I was losing my mind. I simply sat for a moment, sat to absorb what had happened and to make sure that there was no truck behind me, in case what I had just experienced was a premonition of things to come, to make sure I was okay to drive. As soon as I got home I told my boyfriend what had happened. He was supportive but confused, as any rational person naturally would be. The next day, still haunted by the episode, I phoned my new friend Sari to tell her.
What I learned was that Sari's good friend David Etoll had been killed the previous night in a car accident. He was in a car with his brother and friends going in the opposite direction - heading toward Minneapolis from St. Paul while I was heading toward St. Paul from Minneapolis. To this day I believe the accident remains unsolved, but the others in the car report that they were hit from behind by a truck. David was in the passenger seat and went through the windshield of the carů you know the rest. He died in his brother's arms at the side of the road, aged 16. I won't tell you in any detail how I wound up talking with the police detective who was trying to solve the mystery of this hit-and-run and who thought I may be able to tell them something more specific about the truck that hit. But I think it's fascinating that the police respected my experience enough to at least check in on it (I learned that they do work with psychics from time to time when trying to solve cases). It was too dark to see anything, and the impact came so hard and so fast that I didn't have a chance to see a retreating vehicle. I so wished I could help them find the truck driver who killed David on the highway that night.
But there was someone I maybe could help, and who I did help. In sharing the information that, during this experience, "I" had died peacefully and without pain, I gave Sari something comforting to tell David's family and particularly his mother, Debbie. Sari is an atheist and not prone to belief in the supernatural. Debbie is a faithful member of the Orthodox church and not prone to look outside a traditional faith structure for consolation and a sense of meaning about David's death. I am a Unitarian Universalist and open to pretty much every possibility and so maybe a bridge between those two perspectives. Whatever else, I'm glad I didn't keep the experience a secret for fear of being thought crazy or silly. There was no reason for me to speak of it to Sari, yet I did. And in doing so, what had at most a very vague meaning to me, became something tremendously powerful for someone else. I believe this is how the spiritual ties that bind us work: we cannot know how our seemingly insignificant words or deeds or experiences impact the lives of others.
I have no explanation for what happened that night. I only have a working theory, which is that in my state of what we call "auto pilot" while driving the empty road that night, I was in some way receptive to extra sensory experience and perception. Because I was connected through bonds of friendship to Sari, who was connected through bonds of love to David (whose brother was her former boyfriend), the power of his dying experience somehow communicated itself directly to me - and through me - on his way out of his body. That's what it felt like. I can't vouch for the timing between the moment of his death and the moment of my experiencing this sensation on the road being exactly coordinated. I only know that this happened and that my sharing it with her was, to use Sari's words, the thing between us that stapled down our friendship for life. David has now been dead for longer than he was alive. But he lives on in his family's memories. He lives on in the friendship between two women. Now you have heard his story and he lives in you. We are each a thread in an amazing tapestry. In our lifetimes and far after, we are being woven into the fabric. Perhaps only eternity grants the perspective to see how our thread gets woven in and where it finally disappears. As the verse of "Amazing Grace" goes,
When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing God's praise than when we first begun.
I don't know if any of you watch "Dexter" on Showtime on Sunday nights. I am a big fan. Dexter is a serial killer who only murders truly evil sociopaths. Recently, his sister Deb, who is a detective at Miami Metro where Dexter works as a forensic blood analyst, has learned Dexter's secret. She's a law-and-order gal, he's a murdering vigilante. They love each other but they're in a moral struggle that's fun to watch. Dexter is committed to catching the bad guys and so is Deb, but he thinks his way is more effective while she thinks her way is the only acceptable way. In last week's episode, the two of them sit in a car together after Dexter has dispatched with his latest murdering psycho. "How do you feel?" he asks Deb, who has arrived on the scene. We see Deb struggle with her emotions. She was almost one of the killer's victims, and she has watched the legal system try, and fail, to keep this guy in custody. Finally, she says, "Glad." And then she pauses. "What does that make me?" And Dexter waits for a moment, and he responds, "Human."
The thing is, we have all had the 3 AM existential crisis of wondering about the hour of our death and the reality of our demise. I think of mine - my death - as a book that will finally close. I hope it will close gently, and then my story as it is lived by this main character, will be over. What happens next is that I will become a character in the books of others, and then maybe a footnote, and then eventually no one will trouble my soul with any further memories of me. I will become woven into the fabric so smoothly that I will become indistinguishable from the other threads, and then simply disappear into the larger, beautiful textile.
We each must choose our own metaphors. That (the book) is the one I have chosen, because it feels true. I know that the metaphor of a machine breaking down is popular among Unitarian Universalists when talking about death. The only reason I don't resonate with that metaphor for our life and death is that a machine is not made of organic materials, nor is it interwoven with other machines - it stands alone, performing a function, and then when it breaks it is useless except for parts. However, there is a word much like "machine" that I do use a lot when I reflect on our mortality, and our poignant awareness of it, and that is the word "mechanism." I believe that we are human mechanisms, and I believe that we are actually designed NOT to know - not to be able to know by virtue of our workings - what happens after we die. To wonder about it, to worry about it - I believe that makes us human. But I believe that this knowledge is permanently locked away as the ultimate mystery and that there is nothing in our DNA that holds the key, now and forever more.
"I lie awake obsessing about death," someone says. "I can't figure it out. Is there a heaven? Will I just cease to exist, just obliterated? Is there some kind of afterlife? Are we reincarnated? Could I come back as a golden retriever? Does my constant thinking about this mean that I'm depressed?" I would reply that it could mean that - it depends how long the death obsession lasts. But more likely, it just means that you're human. As such, you were designed to be deeply invested in life: in survival, in perpetuating the species, in fleeing danger, in fearing the threat of hurricane or earthquake, in desperately wanting to protect your vulnerable young. Worrying about death or reflecting on mortality is an expression of that will to live, that love of life, and that survival instinct. If we didn't care that we are mortal, we would not be invested in living. It's all there in the brain, in our hard-wiring, in our magnificent neurological design that includes the capacity to remember the past, anticipate the future, and reflect on metaphysical possibility and intangibles. We are alone of all creatures on the Earth in having those abilities. We alone carry the burden of awareness of our own mortality.
As I have said many times, my dog and cat don't have a Bucket List. They will eventually have a creaturely sense that they are dying, but their ultimate innocence comes from their total unawareness today that their lives are finite. They live in the moment and then they will live in my memory and in my body that has loved them. This is another kind of memory that we don't always honor. Our beloved dead do live in our bodies as well as our minds. They live in cellular memory, the body-memory that remembers their smell, their sound, their touch, their laughter and their company.
I have had other mystical experiences than the one that night in Minnesota that connected me in some amazing way with the moment of David Etoll's passing out of this life that gave me a glimpse into the limitations of our perception in this dimension of reality. Another that comes to mind happened almost immediately after a friend's death from ovarian cancer. I was walking through the airport - also in that sort of auto pilot "zone" of consciousness in which I was driving the night David died - when I had a total shift in perception. In a split second, as I was walking, I walked out of my body and into another dimension and then my body and spirit met back up. (This sounds like a Woody Allen joke, doesn't it? "If my soul exists without my body I am convinced all my clothes will be loose- fitting"). My reaction to the epiphany that came with this experience was to call my sister and to leave her an embarrassing, rambling voice mail about how I had just experienced the spiritual realm and that within that realm, there is no separateness, just one consciousness. And that Michelle wasn't gone, she had simply become part of that consciousness and that we were all one being - one thing - and I felt it! I knew it! We were all completely One but couldn't fully experience that until we got out of our bodies. My sister is very patient with me and never held that message against me, although I suppose it could come up in future mental competency hearings.
I joke about this because to take it too seriously is probably beyond my genetic or neurological capacity. I share it only to comfort you in some measure, to validate for you your own irrational moments of fleeting wisdom when you know that mortality is in some ways terribly real and final, but in other ways an illusion caused by our limited perception. Saint Paul put it so well when he said about death and the afterlife, "Then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." We don't know much now. We can't. There are safeties, I believe, built into our brains to keep us from knowing more than we can reasonably handle and keep on with the project of life.
We began this morning with a poem by Wendell Berry. I'd like to conclude these reflections with more of his poetry, because he understands so well. And I dedicate this poem to David Etoll, a man I never met, but whose life after life has given me a gift, which I hope I have passed on today to you:
He goes free of the earth.
The sun of his last day sets
Clear in the sweetness of his liberty.
The earth recovers from his dying,
The hallow of his life remaining in all his death leaves.
Radiances know him. Grown lighter
Than breath, he is set free
In our remembering.
Than vision, he goes dark
Into the life of the hill
That holds his peace.
He is hidden among all that is,
And cannot be lost.
"The Handing Down" by Wendell Berry