The summer I was nineteen, I had a close encounter with death.
I was entering my junior year at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and had decided to spend my summer in the remote coastal village of Mendocino, California. My tiny, rustic studio cottage was only a ten-minute walk from the great mother Pacific, and I could hardly believe my good luck!
Most evenings after I finished work, I’d walk leisurely to my special spot on the rocky headlands, overlooking the ocean sunset. I began to know every ocean wave, gust of wind, and seagull as my own heart. I felt a wild intimacy with life blossoming inside me.
Somewhere along the way in those idyllic summer days, I began experiencing a host of concerning health symptoms. I noticed an unusual constancy of thirst, a weird, creeping pain in my left shoulder, debilitating headaches, and a steady, dramatic weight loss. Before I knew it, I was in the E.R. getting blood work and cat scans, eventually diagnosed with a cyst the size of a cantaloupe swelling rapidly with blood inside my abdomen. While the cyst was non-cancerous, it was apparently still life-threatening, due to its enormous size and content. My father flew out from Boston that same day and rushed me back east to surgeons my parents could trust.
While all this drama was occurring on the outside, an equally captivating conversation was happening on the inside. This was not my first rodeo with serious illness. Physical sickness had been my attentive teacher since I was a little girl, first with meningitis as a toddler, and later with severe asthma. Privately, as I tuned into this current challenge my body was facing, I had the clear sense that I would not survive it.
There I was, nineteen years old, and my best guess was that I only had a few months left to live. Whether this was a realistic intuitive assessment or not, what it brought me to was a startling revelation. Suddenly I saw, quite simply, that if I didn’t get to live out the remainder of my adult life, didn’t get to finish college, or fall in love, or have sex, or become a mother, or get enlightened, or any of the rest—then all that mattered, finally, was Love. Facing this possible ending of my life, it was easy to recognize Love as the only thing that ever matters.
My heart filled with the immensity of this truth: the whole point of the entire thing, all along, had always only been Love! Everywhere I looked, I saw this Love. I saw it in the tender concern shining from my parents’ eyes, in the gaping cracks of the sidewalk, in the summer squirrels leaping from branch to branch, even in the IV needle, giving me fluids. Everything, everywhere was this Love. How could it be anything else?
You would think that this profound revelation of Love would have been enough of an awakening to capture my heart’s affection for life. But instead, the sicker I grew, the more aware I became of my life-long ambivalence about being alive. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure about sticking around in this crazy world, in this obviously fallible human body. I noticed a part of me that was actually happy and relieved to have apparently found a way out. It seemed like maybe I could just depart now, with an easy, nineteen-year-old bow of gratitude; just slip over to the other side, and be complete with this human journey.
As my body grew thinner, the veils between the worlds also grew thinner. I realized I could actually see with my own eyes the angels who circled close, and they felt familiar—as though I’d known them for a very long time. It felt special to be able to see them now, and I noticed how comforted I felt by their presence. Clearly these angels also dwelled in the knowing of all as Love. They emanated this truth, feathering whispers of wisdom and encouragement, their luminous hands weaving webs of light around me.
The night before my third and final surgery for the removal of the cyst, I had a startlingly lucid dream that seemed to confirm my sense that I was going to be released from my body.
In the dream, I was walking along a breathtakingly beautiful, tree-lined path, with branches glowing, all loose and leafy. Suddenly, four huge white-bird angels appeared before me on the path. Their heads were like birds, while their bodies were like angels. They spoke to me telepathically. One of them said kindly, “Can we see you fly?”
I was flustered and honored by the request, and I wanted to impress them. I dropped in to the place that knew inherently how to fly, and I rose effortlessly into the air before them. I could feel them conferring amongst themselves, and I knew that they were pleased. The last image of the dream showed me flying away with these angels.
I woke alone in my bed, only a couple hours before my surgery, and was stunned silent by the message I had received. Perhaps now was my time? I felt spacious and trusting.
In the operating room, a kind man placed a mask of anesthesia over my face and asked me to begin counting backwards from ten.
The next thing I knew I was sitting at the head of a long, white table in a simple white room. It could have easily been a room inside the hospital, with four walls and no windows, and a cool, sterile light. The table was fully seated, with maybe twelve of us total. Quickly, I recognized this well-attended meeting was somehow gathered on my behalf. An older man to my left was in charge. On the table directly in front of me sat a thick stack of papers. Nobody else had anything in front of them. The energy was very somber and serious. I had the distinct and uneasy feeling of being somewhat in trouble, as though I had broken a rule, or possibly many. I felt cornered.
Slowly and gently, the man to my left began to go through the stack of pages with me. He showed me each paper, one by one. They appeared to be legally-binding contracts. Each one was stamped and signed. He brought my attention again and again to my own signature at the bottom of each page. Suddenly I understood. These were the contracts that bound me to my lifetime. I might wish to be done, but I was not done. I had not yet completed what I had agreed to do. I had not yet finished what I’d come for.
I became upset then and I began to protest. The weight of these life contracts felt heavy and burdensome. As he leafed through the pages, I caught glimpse of the content they contained. I saw who I was here to be in this world. I saw all I was meant to give.
I cried out, “It’s too much. I don’t want it. There must be some other way?”
Everyone at the table glanced downwards, as though my struggle discomforted them. The man beside me shook his head firmly, with unwavering clarity. “I’m sorry,” he said. Then he picked up one of my hands and placed it on top of the stack of papers, and rested his own soft, strong hand on top of mine. With wise love shining in his eyes, he said to me resolutely, “You signed.”
When I woke in the recovery room, I still had a thick tube in place from my nose down my throat and into my abdomen. I couldn’t speak. My heart felt full of grief. I hadn’t gotten to leave with the angels after all. Tears rolled down my cheeks. My father sat beside me, with my cool hand held in his warm one. I was filled with the awareness of all the daunting tasks before me now.
Not only was I required to stay alive, I had learned, but I had a strict set of assignments to adhere to. In order to successfully remain free of disease, I would need to clear out any remaining ambivalence I still harbored about life. I would need to come all the way into my body now, in a way I never had before. I had seen that I was meant to become a healer and a teacher and a mother, and that in order to grow into any of these roles, I had a long, steep path of self-healing and learning ahead of me. I lay in my hospital bed and wept.
After taking a semester off from college to heal my body, I returned to Sarah Lawrence in January for my junior year. With much trepidation, I decided to dedicate a large portion of my curriculum to the studying of modern dance. Having never danced before in my entire life, and with remaining nerve damage in my legs due to childhood meningitis, this was not merely a brave or risky choice for me to make—it was revolutionary.
Prior to my previous summer of illness, I’d been studying psychology, philosophy, and religion, as well as the visual arts. But after nearly dying that summer, I knew in my heart those scholarly pursuits alone just weren’t going to cut it.
I hadn’t died. But if I was going to successfully remain free of disease, I needed to learn how to fully live, come into my body, and face my fears of being irrevocably broken. No more fucking around.
I also began to meditate in earnest. Much to my surprise, even with my health fully returning, the angels stayed close. The veils between realms remained thin, and my inner sight continued to open. I spent hours every day in front of my bedroom altar, exploring the inner terrain of my consciousness.
I wouldn’t have called it prayer then, but that’s what it was.
I had to find my rightful place in the Great Mystery. I had to find my way home to the Beloved within. I had to squirm in the discomfort of unrest, to wrestle with habitual distraction and chronic dissatisfaction. I had to learn how to lean into the heart of emptiness. I had to sit in the fire of my well-honed self-loathing, and burn all the way through to the deeper truth of self-love.
My life literally depended on it.
I was guided to dedicate another large chunk of my curriculum to writing; to learning the art of voicing my heart and soul.
Under general anesthesia I had been shown that hovering above one’s life is not the same thing as living one’s life, and that in order to stay alive, and to become a fully realized woman, a woman who loved herself—I had to dance, I had to write and I had to pray.
My close encounter with death undoubtedly catalyzed the deeper incarnation and commitment to life I had long been avoiding. From my revelation about Love being the essential point and purpose of it all, to the gracious lifting of the veils between realms, to the shadow work of facing my own sub-conscious death-wish, to the ruthless re-visiting of all my life contracts, this experience gifted me with a wake-up call of the highest order.
Fear and avoidance of death is a widespread human experience. It is natural to not want to lose this body and personality and lifetime we are attached to, alongside all of the sacred relationships and assignments it includes. And it can also be natural, as it was in my case at the age of nineteen, to harbor ambivalence and resistance to being alive at this time in our world.
In our willingness to face the possibility of losing it all, there’s a chance of being freshly claimed by our own lives, our own hearts, our own certainty about Love.
In our willingness to bravely open to any hidden ambivalence, any private death-wish, any prevailing resistance to life, we are given the chance to choose whether or not we truly wish and will ourselves to live.
In our willingness to feel what’s yearning still to be expressed in our lives—what isn’t finished—we open to the beauty of our sacred contracts in these lifetimes. What lessons have yet to be learned, what love has yet to be shared, what gifts have yet to be given, what roles have yet to be played?
Feel the life contracts remaining, and place your human hand and heart firmly upon them.
The spiritual possibility inherent in the arrival of this global pandemic, as I see it, is about meeting our deaths before we die. It’s about opening to our fear and our grief, and letting this be held by our love and our holy commitment to life.
The treasure we can glean in this meeting, without necessarily needing to physically die, holds the potential to bless the remainder of our days, infuse all our intimate relationships, and ignite our inherent capacity and desire to be of service.
And if it is, in fact, truly our time to go, then may we surrender with full-hearted curiosity and openness to whatever follows.
Let’s be open and brave together, dear friends. We can meet this, whatever this includes.
We can face the possibility of losing it all, and open to what’s revealed. Perhaps we will realize what cannot be lost!
Or perhaps we will recognize more fully all that we cherish: our own selves, our fleeting lifetimes, our dearest ones, our assignments, our communities, and our planet.
May we allow this unprecedented event to inspire us to give all that we are here to give.
May we allow it to open us afresh to this sacred chance to live our love.
Photo Credit: Ahri Golden.