Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

An Unexpected Brush with Mortality

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

An Unexpected Brush with Mortality

Article excerpt

April 3, 2013, is now permanently deposited in my memory bank as the day when I stared death in the face. And death blinked.

I'll be honest. Facing unexpected triple bypass surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, I thought I might die as I was lying on a gurney headed into the operating room. But it was not the first time I had an unexpected brush with mortality. It probably won't be the last.

In 1961, when I was an Air Force chaplain stationed in Asia, I was aboard a C-124 aircraft that had lost three of its four engines and we had to make an emergency landing in Korea. The crew chief warned us to get our parachutes ready Thankfully, I never had to answer the question "to jump or not to jump."

I was more frightened when I participated in civil rights marches: in 1964 in Hattiesburg, Miss., just after three civil rights workers had been killed; and in 1987 in Forsyth County, Ga.

As a rabbi, I have witnessed other people's deaths (mostly in hospital rooms) and officiated at countless funerals. But it's different when facing your own. Is there anything beyond this life? Is there a calming blissful feeling as recounted by people with near-death experiences? Will I "see" my deceased parents and brother if the medical team loses me on the operating table?

Or is death the end of all sense perception and consciousness? Is it akin to the "blankness"--feeling and remembering nothing--that patients experience with deep anesthesia?

Despite the religious teachings about heaven, "eternal life" and the "world to come," maybe death is like the eons of time that transpired before I was born and that I'll never know about. Maybe it's just oblivion and emptiness.

I wondered if that day was when I'd finally have an answer.

I had met earlier with my surgeon, who had performed more than 1,500 bypass operations. …

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