By Barry Benepe
I once asked my therapist, Alice Gerstman, how many people who had returned to life from death were grateful and how many disturbed at being wakened from a deep sleep. She replied, “About half and half”. None reported a glimpse of heaven or even purgatory.
Several years ago, a close friend told me that a couple were desperately seeking help for a fatal illness of the wife. While traveling through Europe, consulting specialists, she finally said, “Let us stop chasing life and share my experience of dying. He consented and she shared. “ I see a great overwhelmingly beautiful shining light approaching,” she exclaimed with a grateful smile, and quietly died. Another person reported a similar experience.
In 1959, while driving in Rome, I was hailed by a man holding his father, asking me to take them to a hospital. His father died in my car, quietly and peacefully.
In 1978, my own father, while driving north from Florida with my stepmother Jane to East Hampton, pulled over to a gas tank to fill up. “ We recently filled, “ she said. “ I just wanted to get some here where it’s cheap. While waiting in line he put his head back to doze. “You can pull up now, Bob.” When he didn’t respond, she discovered that he was dead. He must have had a premonition.
My mother-in-law lay very quietly on her hospice bed when her last breath lifted an invisible feather into the air.
At the age of 92, already nine years older than my father when he died, I have reached a profound and moving sense of existence. There is the realization that there are two experiences of knowledge. One is the world of “shoes and socks,” as William James called it, and the other was existence outside this world. He experimented with ether dreams, which I replicated with my college roommate, a pre-med student. And indeed I was in another existence looking down and he and I conversing as if in distant dream. When I woke I was flabbergasted that the dream was “reality”
During my lifetime, like all of us I have accumulated infinite knowledge, including the minuscule role that human life plays in the cosmos, our earth and its “civilization” being a particle on a planet in a solar system in a galaxy, one of many galaxies spanning several light years into a space, contained or not. I respect that this knowledge is reality as I accept it. However, it only exists for me if I perceive it. If I die does it still exist? How do I know?
Of course there is the reality of my senses, the joys of sleeping, smelling, eating, walking, hugging, loving, hearing Bach’s St. John Passion or Schubert’s Liebe Selusehdie Bitte or Mozart’s Ave Verum. A minute of beauty or ecstasy can be infinite.
This led me to the unsettling experience of observing myself and my surroundings, including my wife Judith, family members, close friends and others as if they were in another liferoom, apart from me, I in an audience watching them and myself as actors upon a stage, which leads me indeed to the stage and finally Macbeth, who learns of the Queen’s death while at the castle Dunsinane.
‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more
It is a tale told by an idiot
Full of sound and fury
I have looked at three corpses in my later years, the last being that of my first wife, Jagna, whom I had to identify in the Town of Woodstock morgue. The body was the one she had lately inhabited, but where was she? What happened to that charming voice, intelligence, aspirations, caring for others and love of life. Above all, from where had the well of creativity come and to where did it go? What is that substance we call life, so many millions of minutes in the making to be so suddenly snuffed out in one?