© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 24, 2011
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Fear is the word most associated with death. This is of course because death is the largest unknown most of us will ever consider, and we tend to fill the unknown with our greatest fears. Some religious traditions offer a different vision, real answers that they claim to draw from their great teachers and divinely inspired sources. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition makes no specific claims about what the afterlife is like. We create no image of what the next chapter holds, simply because we believe it is a great unknown. But I believe that we can help people overcome their fears of death nonetheless.
First I want to share a story for you that gives me great peace when I think about death, and then I want to offer the greatest tool I have discovered for approaching this most perplexing of topics.
To begin with, the story I am going to unfold for you this Sunday would be a much easier one to tell if its protagonist was a saint. You see, this story really happened. It was told to me by its complicated main actor, and is truly incredible. It is the kind of thing we all, whether we admit it out loud or not, want to hear. It is a story about a life cut short, then miraculously saved. It is a story about the afterlife that hints at all the kind of tales we would like to believe, of deep connection, of shared love and something waiting just on the other side of life that is neither the fires of hell nor the eternal rest of pure blackness.
I met Larry at Massachusetts General Hospital not on the floor where I met most of my long-term patients, which was a floor that specialized in bone marrow transplants, but rather on a floor that generally had rapid turnover, called the Cardiac Step-Down Unit. This unit was generally populated by people who had survived a heart attack and were soon to be released back into the real world, as hopefully more calorie-conscious versions of themselves.
Larry, however, had never had a heart attack, making his month-long stay on this unit somewhat of a novelty. As I would soon learn from his own lips, Larry himself was somewhat of a novelty as someone who was living relatively healthy almost twenty years after having his natural-born heart replaced with someone else's. It is the story of his journey to that heart transplant that I will tell you today. And I say it would be easier to tell had Larry been a saint because we - well at least, I - want to believe that these kinds of things happen to the people that deserve them: the saints among us who take care of the downtrodden, who live a life of service to others. Larry was many things, but certainly not that.
Larry was a teacher who cared deeply for his students but, as he and his estranged wife shared with me over many visits, he was also a drug addict, a terrible father to his children, and an even worse husband to his wife. But, for whatever reason, this story happened to Larry rather than to a less complicated figure, and I personally don't think that makes it any less powerful.
The story begins twenty years ago in upstate NY, not too far from the gorgeous Lake George. Larry was in his early thirties and had recently settled down and started a family. He had a very difficult childhood, with a villain of a father who he had been racing to escape, and had pinned his hopes on his lovely new wife to save him from all his bad inherited patterns. They had purchased and moved into a small but adequate home and had welcomed a son and a daughter into it within the first two years of their marriage.
Things were difficult for the two of them right from the start, between Larry's small salary from being a starting schoolteacher, and two young ones at home. But it truly surprised Larry how angry he would become with his wife most nights over something he knew was truly trivial. And the worst part was the physical pain that was plaguing him during these bouts of anger. His heart would literally feel like it was swelling in his chest and the pain would be unbearable. Finally he confessed this fact to his wife who urged him to see the doctor.
Things began to move rapidly from that point. It became clear that without a heart transplant in the next few months, Larry would die. They spent the following weeks begging and pleading with every transplant list and hospital they could find. And about 6 weeks later, in the dark of a snowy winters night, the call they had been praying for came. He was told that time was of the essence and that due to the snow storm he should expect a helicopter to meet him near his house in less than an hour. They hurriedly threw some clothes in a bag and dashed out of the house and through town, and just as they pulled up to the meeting point, they first heard and then saw the giant metal beast tearing through the air in their direction.
Larry told me that almost immediately upon entering the helicopter something in him began to feel different. He had no words for what that difference was, but he was merely aware of, in his own best attempt to describe it: "extra life" within him.
The medical personnel aboard the helicopter began sedating Larry and preparing him for the procedure he would undergo when he arrived at Mass General, and it was then, long before he would arrive, that Larry said he began feeling her with him. Most of the flight was a drugged blur for Larry, but as he was moved into the operating room in Boston, he began to be fully aware of what was going on around him through a new and unfamiliar vantage point, about 6 feet above his body, as he looked down at the action unfolding around him.
He later described to the surgeon what he saw, which most memorably was the moment he noticed his heart no longer in his body, but rather sitting in a tub next to him, and then her heart, his new heart, being lifted by the surgeon's hands and gently placed within his fragile body. He says he watched as his old heart slowly pumped its last beats, and marveled as he watched his new heart reciprocate, growing stronger with each fleeting beat from the old one no longer within him. He watched as they literally traded places, his old heart dying outside his body, while his new heart came to life within him. His surgeon would later confirm this rhythmic transfer and relate that he had never seen two hearts change places in such a poetic way.
And that, by itself would be an interesting story. It would fit right in line with others that you and I have no doubt heard through the years, of a near-death experience accompanied by an out-of-body experience. But it was what came next, after that new heart was connected to his body, that was truly extraordinary.
As soon as that new heart was stitched in to his body, Larry left the operating room. He was transported instantly to a completely different location, one heretofore completely unfamiliar to him. He was aware that it was cold. Very cold. There was snow everywhere; some of it was in his face, covering parts of him. He was even possibly looking through some snow; something at least was obscuring his view. He could see bits of twisted metal, and then colors, first blue and then red, blue and then red, blue and then red, getting closer, or at least bigger. And he was overcome with a feeling of gratitude, of joy, which seemed somehow out of place for that moment.
The next thing he remembers, Larry came to after this incredible psychic adventure in a boring old white room in the hospital, miles away from where his mind and certainly his hearts had been just the instant before, as far as he was concerned.
In the days that followed, Larry would meet with his doctor, who excitedly related to him what Larry already knew, that indeed some incredible hand-off had taken place between his old heart and his new one when they were exchanged. That the rhythm of the two muscles appeared to slowly trade off, with the old one slowing just as the new one gained energy. Larry then described what he had seen in detail and the expression on the doctor's face only continued to become paler and more mystified as each of the things that had happened were described by the patient that was fully unconscious while it had all occurred.
The next week, after much pleading, Larry met the husband of the woman who he had received his heart from. He had been holding the story of what he had seen out of his heart's eye view for this moment, for he did not wish to pollute it by cheaply parading it out before its time. But now was his moment, and he asked if he might share what he had seen with this man. As he described the scene, all of the snow, the twisted metal and the red and blue lights, he watched as the husband completely dissolved into sobs in front of him.
Just before Larry had received the call to meet the helicopter that night, this mans wife had been returning from her late shift at work through the same snow storm that Larry would later fly through. She had made too hard a turn, lost control in the icy conditions, and her car had flipped several times, crushing her and eventually leading to her death as she lay helplessly trapped in a snow bank. Very few people had known the circumstances of her death, certainly none of the surgeons or anyone that Larry had met with. It seemed only miraculous that Larry could have this information.
But the husband was less concerned with miracles than he was with this last chance to feel connected to his wife that he had so suddenly and shockingly lost. No one had known if she suffered, no one had known anything except that when they reached her, she was already unconscious, and lived just long enough to get to the hospital and to give them the chance to make the final and immensely difficult decision to harvest her still-functioning organs, most notably the heart that was now beating within Larry's chest.
The two men spent the next hours together, neither wanting to leave the other's presence. A bond beyond words had formed that continues to this day - one man living with the heart of the other's deceased lover.
So, what are we to make of this story? It is certainly possible to explain most of the details away, if you find the spiritual implications too unnerving. I spoke with Larry's doctor, the surgeon who had done the original operation, as he still checks in with Larry monthly at the hospital. After his initial confusion, he had done some research and found evidence that possibly there are memory cells that live in other parts of the body than just our brains. Perhaps, his scientific mind reasoned, the woman's heart had come along with some cells that recorded her last moments of memory.
But Larry would have none of that. He was sure of what he had experienced, some kind of mystical spiritual connection with someone who had already departed their earthly life. He is sure that what he felt as he received her heart was the gratitude that her death would help him continue to live. Is this his justification for not having survivor's guilt, or what he truly feels? I am not one to judge, and simply take him at his word.
I don't see my role as minister as being one who ever offers a definitive interpretation, but rather as someone who offers up stories, experiences and information and allows you all to make up your own mind about what it means. But I wanted to share this particular story today to suggest that perhaps the wall between life and death is more permeable than we currently understand, and at the very least that there is more mystery, wonder and unknown in this world than there is certainty, and to welcome you on this day, and all others, to embrace that with all the curiosity you can muster.
That is the resource I have to offer you: your own curiosity. This is, I think, the best way to approach the unknown, it puts us in a decidedly non-judgmental state of mind, prepared to take in new information and compare it to what we already know, while remaining very present in the entire experience. Being curious is also non-anxious, it allows us to remain within ourselves. It takes the power away from the unknown that it gains when we allow it to be a repository for our fears.
Curiosity allows you to be in touch with your feelings, to check in and ask yourself, how do I feel right now? Without having to let the answer overwhelm you. When you are curious, you are in charge, you are the investigator, cool, calm, and collected.
It is not a final answer. Heck, it's not an answer at all. But it is a strategy, a tool you can remember you have in your tool box, that you can pull out in those times when the unknown begins to overwhelm you. When the dark shadows creep into your light, meet that unknown on your own terms, with your curiosity.
May it be so. Ashe.
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