The day I almost died probably wasn’t the first. We spend our entire lives almost dying in the hundreds of mundane decisions we make every single day.
Go here, not there.
Do this, not that.
One destination or decision over the other is really all it takes. The only difference on that particular day, is that I actually saw it coming.
The story I’m about to tell, is about souls and spirits and miracles and magic and premonitions and the afterlife and everything else I know almost nothing about. Depending on your upbringing, biases, filters, and beliefs, your opinions here may be strong. That’s ok. I’d still love for anyone who’s willing, to feel free to come along. That being said, there are a few things that I need to make perfectly clear up front.
I don’t need permission.
I don’t need validation.
I’m not ashamed.
I’m not deranged.
I’m not psychic.
I’m not being “attacked my Satan” or “led astray by The Enemy”.
I have nothing to justify.
I have nothing to debate.
I want to know what I know, and feel what I feel—which means the experiences I’m about to share don’t belong to religion, or to anti-religion, or to any belief factory in between. After thirty five years of loaning them out to all of the above, I’m simply claiming them as my own.
When I was growing up, the Bible was a book of hidden landmines that only the extra saved knew how to navigate. One wrong step could blow you straight into hell—but if you were extra-lucky, then the extra-saved, would share their super special secrets with you.
The Extra-Saved could talk extensively about the rules, but when it came to the supernatural, they were the last people you wanted to ask. On paper, we believed in The Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In action (or inaction) we treated Holy Spirit like that unhinged relative who chews their nails and burps at the table that you hope doesn’t show up for Thanksgiving.
Because spirits are ghosts.
And ghosts are Satanic.
An invisible God was fine. So was a Savior who died, and rose from the dead. But a Ghost or a Spirit, even a Holy one I guess, was clearly the line in sand.
Outward displays of worship (like love and joy) were frowned upon as well. They weren’t controllable, or qualitative, and couldn’t be put in the weekly bulletin as proof of our success. “Three more baptisms already this month! Only 7 more to go to reach our goal!”, as if our souls were Target Red Cards, and they were aiming for that corporate bonus. Every now and then, when a stray emotion wandered through after hearing a favorite song or verse, I’d feel a flutter in my chest, or a sense of hope from deep inside. I learned early on what to do: pretend it was the holy jalapenos from my nachos the night before, and keep that spirit stuff where it belonged. With the “crazy” churches. Who weren’t extra-saved and special. The ones who held their hands in the air and their faces towards the sky like a child begging for attention. Adoration unashamed. The thought of it made me shudder.
Until the day I almost died, the most supernatural experiences I’d ever had, were getting gifts in December from a fat, voyeuristic stranger who could apparently see through walls, or finding a quarter from a magic fairy, when I lost a tooth. So imagine what it would be like, to wake up one morning with a terrible premonition, that you knew was going to come true. And from that moment on, it’s like a doorway opened up, to a place you couldn’t possibly understand. And in that place, you knew things you shouldn’t know, and felt things you shouldn’t feel, and did things you shouldn’t do.
Like talk to people who are dead.
When I first started writing this blog, I made a promise to myself: I either write it real, or not at all. No filtering for a certain audience. No branding or labeling a thought, feeling or experience, to fit an ideology, religion, or belief. No pretending to know or understand, what I will never know or understand. At least not until this life has passed, and maybe not even then.
That being said, I’m a Jesus Girl. Not a particularly well behaved one. Or the kind that most other Christians accept, apart from a patronizing pat on the head. I don’t do sects, or memberships, or affirmations, or affiliations, or prayer on-demand, or food-for-your-soul ministries, or dogmas, or committees, or casserole baking, or ladies class, or group sharing of any kind, and listening to Joel Osteen radio for all of eternity, is my ultimate idea of hell. But a Jesus Girl is still who I am. I get it though. Claiming to belong, without being bagged, boxed and branded has a way of making people mad. But that kind of belonging—where we filter thoughts, feelings, and experiences, to look like we fit in—is the exact kind of belonging that I never want again.
My favorite bakery downtown has a punch card. Collect 12 heart shaped holes, and you get one piece of cake free, as in “Yay you! You’re a cake eating superstar. Just a few more to go, before you and your insulin resistance win a free trip to Diabetes!”
I handed the cute Millennial in the blue apron and the fully tattooed arm, my almost-full card, for the second time that week.
That’s when I heard it. The metal punch, clicking through the card stock. It was a sticky click, where she had to turn her wrist and wiggle it a bit to coax a slow, reluctant release. It sounded just like the metal click on the crumpled paper card I used to carry to the fields, on those early summer mornings when I went strawberry picking as a kid. Except those cards weren’t a pristine blue and pink with cupcakes and ribbons on the front. They were smeared greasy red and brown with berries, warm bologna, and mud. And instead of a free piece of cake, the hole that was left, meant a Band-Aid tin full of dollar bills at the end of each picking season. If you saved your dollars, that is. I usually spent mine as quick as I earned them, for Lemon Heads down at Sam’s Drug Store, or on an Orange Crush in a cold glass bottle that sweated cool drops of forehead heaven, or on a red, white and blue rocket-sicle, that always melted before I could eat it. One year though, I saved every single penny, and bought a lavender velour jacket to match the Shawn Cassidy bell bottoms that I got for Christmas the year before. His child bride face and Palomino hair covered the bottom left leg, from the knee clear down to the hem.
At the start of each season, it took me a week or so of distraction to remember that there was no lemon candy, or melty popsicles, or pastel velour until ripe berries actually made it into the flat. And that didn’t happen if you sat in your row and ate them. Or if you army-crawled between the rows and peeked your head up just long enough to pelt your friends in the back with the rotten ones. Or if you took an entire handful and smooshed them in each others hair, yelling “strawberry shampoo!!!” while hurdling over flats and maybe landing in one or two.
I can still see the field boss, with her work gnarled hands and a choppy Scandi accent, pointing to me with my red stained face and berry filled hair, and yelling at my sister.
“Christy! You gonna have to do someth’in ’bout your ‘lil sister!”
I used to wonder what that “someth’in” could be. And from the look of despair in her well-behaved blue eyes, so did my poor big sister.
It doesn’t take much, does it? A sound. A smell. A slightly familiar object. To transport us back to a long forgotten time and place, that feels so right now, we think we can reach out and grab it, if we only tried hard enough. In that one sticky click of metal through paper, I could smell the wet, muggy warmth rising off of the fields as the sun came up over the trees. And I could feel the hot summer sun, baking my back as I picked (or ate) my way up rows of fat red and ruffly green. Standing at that bakery counter, absently pulling a loose strand of hair, I was almost surprised to look down to find clean adult fingers with manicured nails, instead of the chubby stained nubs of a child, sliding globs of mud and berries from her head.
The entire month of March, with it’s slow blooming trees, both bitter and sweet, and the feel of warm, wet days, that end in cool, dusky evenings, release a gauntlet of memories for me.
When I tried to write this story back in March, I couldn’t follow through. It felt too intimate. Too invasive. Like a close talking uncle on his fourth glass of sherry, who leans so far into your face, you can feel his breath across your cheek. It left me recoiled in my chair, thinking of polite ways to leave. So I shoved in April and May as a buffer, like that empty seat in the theater, to keep a shoulder, or a leg, or heaven forbid a hand, from accidentally touching someone else. But even that wasn’t enough, because here come the tears again. The super concentrated kind, like those cardboard cans of frozen juice, they sell five for five dollars at Fred Meyer. Just add water, or the truth, and you’ll end up with a whole lot more.
There are parts of this story that I’ve told out loud, many times before. Then there are some parts, that until recently, I’ve never even said to myself. I’ve learned that telling a story, and feeling a story, aren’t the same thing at all. Feeling it out loud, as I am right now, is like waiting for the trap door to open on one of those free fall water slides, with words like Death and Insanity in their names. Even though you know you’ll probably be ok, there’s still that lingering doubt in the back of your mind as you smile and wave goodbye.
You’re at the mercy of gravity until you reach the end.
-March 6, 1983-
Chores. My older sister and I were fighting over chores. I was 14, and she was 17, and for as long as I can remember, we fought over chores. Mostly because she did hers, and I didn’t do mine. Or at least not all of them, which meant that most of the time, she did mine and hers both.
“Christy! You gonna have to do someth’in ’bout your ‘lil sister!”
The usual, not-nice words were exchanged. I don’t remember exactly which ones, but I know they weren’t nice, because we weren’t nice to each other in general. Some of it was normal, but the majority of it was not. I like to believe that the love was there, but a relationship would never be possible. Not all parents want their kids to be friends
I was leaving for a church swimming party that morning. Not with my own church. My church was over an hour away in “the city”, although it wasn’t a city church at all. It was a suburb church. But since we lived in “the country”, anything not in the country, was the “the city”. Where we were going, was a town in-between, that wasn’t the suburbs, or the city, but it was a bigger town than ours and had an indoor swim park and a pizza parlor.
The argument over chores came to an abrupt end when I heard the dog barking out front, and I knew a car was headed up our long wooded driveway. I grabbed my bag to run outside, but then right as I opened the door, an overwhelming urge to hug my sister and apologize kept my hand paused on the knob.
Apologies didn’t happen in our family. Not for real at least. Especially not the hugging kind. And definitely not between my sister and I. We’d had an unsaid agreement for as long as I could remember, to touch each other as little as possible. We shared a bed when we were younger, with two Yorkies and a pile of dolls, and the nightly ritual went something like this: “G’night. Love you. Don’t forget to say your prayers………AND DON’T TOUCH ME.”
I practically had to chase her down for a hug and an apology that morning. “Love you…..and uh…..sorry” is about all I got out before she wrinkled her face and pushed me away like she’d just smelled something foul. Not that I blamed her. Huggy and sorry isn’t who we were. But in that moment, I desperately needed it to be us, to soothe the ominous sense of knowing that something terrible was coming our way.
As I ran out to the waiting car, and crawled over the front seat and into the back, the second part of that same premonition came barreling in out of nowhere.
“Wear a seat belt” it said.
“It won’t matter” came the response.
We were country kids in the early 80’s and as far as we were concerned, seat belts were for weaklings and whiners who couldn’t brace themselves on the dashboard, like normal people did. I ran my finger across the shiny silver buckle that was lying in the seat, but didn’t clip it in. There was an empty glass bottle on the floor and a curling iron in the back window. I grabbed them both and shoved them up under my seat, so when the car rolled later, they wouldn’t hit me in the head. That wouldn’t matter either, as it turned out.
Why this supernatural frequency opened up to me, is something I may never understand. Unless chronic fear was a spiritual gift, I had nothing special to speak of. I was just an emotionally constipated church kid, who worshiped eye shadow and flavored lip gloss and thought a lot about feathering her hair. But like the prints on my fingers, or the color of my eyes, it’s become a part of me now. I can’t explain how, but I knew what I knew, to the tips of my rainbow striped toe socks: something awful was coming our way, and we couldn’t have stopped it if we had tried.
We drove to the neighboring town, while I waited for IT. We swam, while I waited for IT. We ate pizza while I waited for IT. Then we laughed and joked on the way home, while I still, waited for IT.
Our older teenage driver was so good. Heartbreakingly good. She kept both hands on the wheel and her eyes on the road, even with the distraction of three middle school girls who couldn’t sit still in her car. She was no different than the rest of us—there was nothing she could have done to avoid what happened next.
About half way home, the three of us girls fell asleep—almost instantly it seemed. One minute, my friend L was waving her hands and telling a story while bouncing up and down in the front seat, and the next thing I remember is waking up with clammy hands, a racing heart, and a desperate need to escape. The third and final act of the premonition had arrived, and I had never felt so much fear in my life.
I pulled myself up between the two front seats, with an arm over the back of each. I listened for noises. A bump, or a rattle, but the air was calm and quiet. The radio was on low, and I heard that song by Nazareth, Hair of the Dog, begin to play on KGON.
“Heartbreaker. Soul shaker. I’ve been told about you…..”
I stayed perfectly still, like a fly on a window, with the shadow of a swatter hovering over it. Then we headed into a straight stretch, gaining just enough speed to pass the person in front of us—and our car began to shake and weave.
“Make it stop!” I remember begging. But I didn’t mean the shaking. I meant the IT, that had been gathering strength all day.
“I can’t….” I heard her say with her arms locked on the wheel as we drifted towards the ditch. Then there were bumps, and a fence, and we were headed straight into a field.
“This is it?” I remember thinking, with a momentary flood of relief, that we were landing out in the grass. Then we lifted off the ground like a plane rolling down the tarmac, and we were flying through the air.
Even when a car rolls multiple times (they put ours at around 6, end over end) the worst of it is over in 30 seconds or less. But time as we know it, isn’t the same, when Death decides to show up. It’s like a hidden doorway opens to a secret room—that’s neither Here, in this world, or There, on the other side—and seconds and hours feel exactly the same.
The first thing I remember, is the sound of metal grinding on pavement as we flipped back towards the road. Then there was the crack of my skull on every roll, that hurt so bad I could barely even feel it. The firework show behind my tightly closed eyes looked just like Disneyland at night—and I knew if I hit my head one more time, that Death would be taking me away.
Then a sliver of light began to open in the distance, like a mouth full of braces, yawning in the dark. As the light became wider and began swirling with color, I felt a deep, ancient pull that I had known forever, like the tides must know the moon. Some dark fuzzy figures like a Rorschasch Inkblot, began hovering off to my right. Not good. Not bad. Just detached workers, with no authority of their own, waiting for permission to start their work—as if spiritual housekeeping, can’t clean your room, until the Do Not Disturb sign is gone from your soul.
Then a Voice who felt the way lightening looks, filled the entire room.
“It’s ok, Alyssa, this is supposed to be happening,” was all it said, and I wasn’t afraid anymore.
“Can you please get me out?” I immediately asked “I’m going to die if I hit my head one more time.” The next thing I knew, I broke through something solid, and away from The Room and The Voice. I saw the pavement spiraling towards me as I flew through the air and the car rolled away in the distance. I was still fully conscious when I landed face down, in the muggy wetness of that old country road.
I’ve spent my entire my life, wondering who Lightening Voice was, but up until recently, I’ve never bothered to ask. Religion would give me it’s opinion, then Anti-Religion would give me theirs, but neither of them would know the truth. Then one day, not long ago, I got brave and asked God itself. “It was The Whisper in your ear, who’s been with you all along,” was the answer I received. In my heart I know it was Holy Spirit, although now I just call it The Whisper.
The first thing I did after landing in the road, was to take inventory of my bits and pieces. Besides one hanging pinkie, my hands and arms were still there, which was a surprisingly positive start. Patches of hair were missing and my body felt sticky and wet, but I could see, and crawl, and I assumed I wasn’t dead, which I was still finding hard to believe. I laid down in the road, with my cheek on the pavement, afraid to move in the eerie quiet. Then I heard the windshield wipers scraping over broken glass, and Hair of The Dog was still on the radio, blaring at full volume now.
“Now you’re messing with a…..Son of a Bitch!”.
I still hate that song, more than I can say.
The details of what came next, aren’t completely mine to tell, but at the very least, I need to say this: my friend L, with her jokes and her stories and her effortless charisma, died when the rest of us didn’t. I’ve rewritten that last sentence over and over, using Oprah-eque phrases like “crossed over the veil”, or “stepped into the light”, to try to spruce it up a bit. It’s a compulsion I guess, to give the ugly truth a new suit and tie, and hope no one sees it for the mangy rat it is.
There were no cell phones back then. No Trauma System to alert. No Life Flight to swoop in. No Level I Trauma Hospitals with teams of nurses and surgeons waiting for us at the ER door. So my friend N and I sat by the road in the dark, with cloth diapers held tightly to our heads. Then the volunteer ambulance full of friends and relatives, bandaged us, and consoled us, and kept us safe, until we reached the community hospital, almost an hour away.
In the beginning, before help arrived, my friend N and I had gone to search for L. We were worried that the car was going blow up, like it always did in the movies. The man from the car that we tried to pass, had already found her first. “Don’t come down here!” he begged, with his arms open wide and waving back and forth, like he was trying to herd confused ducklings. But there was no amount of pleading that could have kept us away—she was our friend, and we weren’t going to leave her.
When we finally found her, each of us grabbed a hand, but then we both stopped pulling in unison. With her perfectly feathered hair, and that smile on her face, we thought it best to leave her “sleeping” until help came.
Even later on, as we saw shaking heads and the blanket that was reverently put over her, we still believed our friend was “sleeping”, and would wake up when she was ready. Then sometime in the night, between stitches and x-rays and being left behind curtains under bright florescent lights, we got the news that our friend was gone. I didn’t learn the truth of what had happened to L, until that following summer when I overheard an EMT telling a friend about what she had seen. She said the beautiful vision, that both N and I saw, had never existed at all.
So how did two separate sets of eyes see the very same image of peace and joy, shining from the inside out? This is what I believe: we were given the gift of seeing our friend as she was from the moment she died, safely on the other side. And it was an act of mercy, from a God who cared, who created a memory that we could both live with. Even after 18 years as a medic, that vision has never changed.
So if your God is so caring, then why isn’t everyone protected like that?
And why did your friend die in the first place?
And why are some babies sick and starving while others are healthy and fat.
How’s this for an answer: I don’t have one.
What I do know is that in 6 rolls of a car on pavement, my world was divided into two realities.
In one, I ate Doritos and Pop Tarts at sleepovers my friends, and I would have sold my soul to watch MTV. I also had a blue satin jacket that wasn’t soaked in blood, and children didn’t die.
It the second one, I was left with visions and voices from a place I didn’t understand. Dreams became night terrors. Fears became phobias. Rage became outbursts. Anxiety became self-destruction, compulsion, and recklessness. And guilt for surviving fed that old time religion, of shame for being alive at all.
No one did counseling back in the 80’s. It was half-heartedly offered, but even if I would have wanted it, I knew the right answer was an indignant “no way”. Counseling was for weak people. For crazy people. For people who weren’t Extra Saved. Not that I didn’t talk about it. I talked about it incessantly. Exhaustively. To friends. To family. To complete strangers. Even more in my later teens, when I found the comfort of a boozy oblivion.
The best part about being hammered, was being able to talk about ghosts and spirits, and a Lightening Voice in a Secret Room, and how sad I was all of the time without ever having to feel a thing. As an added bonus, everyone else was wasted too, and they wouldn’t remember anything you said. Talking didn’t mean feeling, so for the longest time, a drunken ramble in the middle of the night was as real as this story ever was. And by never being able to feel it out loud, it became an alcohol soaked network of risky compulsions, that tried to destroy me in a different way. I know I wasn’t the only one.
I still grieve for the kids, who walked single file down the steps of our school, past the playground, and the baseball field, to the church. We said goodbye to our innocence and to our childhood friend, and then marched back to class to take a spelling test.
I still grieve for the boys in the pew behind me, with tears streaming down their faces. It was the first time I had seen any of them cry.
I still grieve for the families, so paralyzed with pain, that they never knew what to say. And I hurt just as much for all of the kids, who mistook their silence for blame.
I still grieve for the siblings, who lost their sister. I didn’t know how to tell them I was sorry.
I still grieve for the parents who lost their child. I hope they know how much we all loved her.
I still grieve for the friend, who’s name we stopped saying, to protect all of the hearts that were broken. But pretending she didn’t die, hurt worse in the end, because it felt more like forgetting she lived.
L came to visit me a couple of years ago. Dead people still do that sometimes. I was sitting in the parking lot of my daughter’s school on a miserable, rainy evening. As I stared at the trees, checking off a laundry list of failures, I felt a familiar tingle down the back of my neck. The Room was open, and L stepped through as if we did this all of the time, instead of it being the first time in thirty some years.
“I’m sorry……” I said, starting to cry. I didn’t even know what for. For living when she died? For everything we had done without her? Like drinking hot chocolate on sleep overs with the mini marshmallow she loved. Or buying dresses for homecoming and prom. Or graduating from High School, and picking careers and spouses and homes and curtains and baby names….
“Stop”, she said, in an older sister voice, that sounded nothing like the girl I used to know. “You’re spending so much time on the things that don’t matter, you’re missing out on the ones that do. Like your daughter’s game, that you should be at right now—you’re already 10 minutes late you know.”
I looked at the clock. It was 10 minutes past 6. I gave her a watery thanks and dried my face on my sleeve. My friend Denise says when Souls are on other side, that God gives them jobs to do—I like to think that maybe L’s job is me. As I ran towards the school, I heard a sigh of relief rush through the trees, that “‘lil sister“, heard the message loud and clear.
In her newest book, called Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown describes “the wilderness” as the metaphoric wild place, where we all must go to feel what we feel, and know what we know, and tell the truth about who we are. Even if no one validates us. Or believes us. Or agrees with us. Or wants to hear what we’re saying at all.
“Belonging is being accepted for you who you are” she writes. “Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.”
We all want to belong. We need it, crave it, feel like we’ll die without it. We want our stories and our experiences to fit into everyone else’s boxes, as proof that we’re normal and ok. But unless we live in our own truth first, we lose the sacred parts that make us unique, in our insatiable desire to fit in.
In an interview in the early 70’s, Maya Angelou once said this: “You are only free when you realize you belong no place. You belong every place. And no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”
Everyplace. And no place. Being a part of it all, with the courage to stand alone. For the first time in 35 years, I know exactly where this story belongs.