All right, yes, I am in an Italian mode today. I’m afraid you’ll have to deal with it, even if not for long (though you may have to put up with me longer). Besides, it’s good to stretch your brain every once in a while, and at this point in my life, it’s about the only part of my body I can stretch without its hurting. In any event, if you’re not up to doing the translation, you’ll see soon enough where this is heading. Right now, it’s to my mother who was not Italian, though when she was young she was as beautiful as a madonna in a painting by Raphael.
However, by the time she was close to the end, her beauty had long been gone and she was eager to get on with it. At that point, I thought I might be of some help to her, but as you’ll see, I was left only with a rueful smile after my mother responded to my offer to advise her about what she would be in for when she died.
My mother had a sad life and a long and slow descent toward the edge of the cliff of her death over which she toppled at the age of almost 89 in June of 2001. Her last years were spent in a nursing home in Berkeley where, until her last year or so, I was accustomed to pushing her around the neighborhood in her wheelchair. She was, however, lucid to the end, even though she was by then hard of hearing and generally very passive. She did not like to be touched, and mostly she was taciturn, too. I tried to entertain her by recounting my latest adventures and sharing family news.
“You talk too much,” she said to me one day.
On another occasion, when I thought she might not have long to live, I spent five minutes or so telling her about my work on near-death experiences. Finally, I asked her, “So, mom, what do you expect will happen when you die?”
She narrowed her eyes and replied in a flat voice: “Nothing. I expect to be dead.”
Once, on what turned out to be one of our last times together, I asked her if she could tell me some of the things in her life that had given her the most happiness.
“You,” she said.
I found myself thinking of my mother today when I was trudging on a dirt path along the creek that runs in my neighborhood on my way to my local bookstore to pick up some sustenance for what’s left of my brain. Lately, I have been having a helluva time walking, and this short journey to the bookstore, which I used to traverse easily without thinking, has become, if not an arduous undertaking, at least one that requires more effort on my part than I had been accustomed to for so many years. It was as if what had been a flat path had suddenly become a sharp incline.
What made me think of my mother was that in her last years she had developed what I was told were “contractures” in her legs, so that she was no longer able to walk at all – hence her wheelchair. Since I am now only a few years from the age my mother died, it occurred to me that perhaps my walking days might also be on a short leash. It could be that I will become one of those old duffers who scoot around in one of those motorized chairs, zipping along the sidewalks, frightening dogs and terrorizing old ladies carrying their groceries home from the market.
Even now, however, I make a pretty pitiful sight ambling down the avenue, listing to my left from my scoliosis and bent over as if I am searching for a precious lost coin. Now that my vision at least has improved somewhat, thanks to my finding a competent optometrist recently, I may have to relinquish my self-appointed title as Mr. Magoo of Marin, only to be dubbed the halt alter cocker of Kentfield. (As you can see, my linguistic versatility enables me to switch easily from Italian to Yiddish.)
Whether I will share my mother’s fate about the use of my legs is uncertain, but of course I know that I will be sharing her ultimate fate when the state of my legs will no longer be of concern. Actually, I don’t have much a family left at all to accompany me on the road toward death. I am now twice the age of my father when he died, so both my parents are naturally long gone. I am one of four male cousins. My cousin, Roger, a podiatrist who attained fame (or perhaps notoriety) in his final years as a UFO researcher, died a few years ago at 79. Not long afterward, my cousin Don, an internationally renowned jazz pianist, succumbed to cancer at 81. Now only my cardiologist cousin, Cliff, who is really like a brother to me and who is close to 80 himself, is left of that original quartet, along with me. I am now the eldest as I head for the unchartered territory of 83. Like many people of this vintage, I’m sure, I wonder what I’m doing here; I never expected or wanted to live this long.
To be sure, I have my children, and that is certainly a boon to me as I venture ever closer to my dotage, but here I am thinking about my contemporaries who are gradually sliding down the embankments of the road toward death that I have been treading along, however lamely, for a while now.
There’s that old song, “You’ll never walk alone,” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, but as you walk along that final road, while you may never be alone, the ranks of your friends and family gradually thin out, so that waiting to die is always punctuated by loss and sadness. My knowledge of NDEs, frankly, does not help me much to assuage the loss of irreplaceable family members and dear friends.
One of those dear friends who recently died was a Dutch NDEr with the unusual name of Joke (pronounced “Yoka), short for Joanna. I first met her about twenty-five years ago on my first trip to Amsterdam. Quite by chance, at the last moment, one night she impulsively invited some friends and me to her apartment after dinner, and I still remember how astonished I was to find it lined with thousands of books, from top to bottom, along all of its walls. I was immediately enraptured; I felt that I could be very happy there for months exploring her many books – notwithstanding the fact, of course, that most of them were not in English. But what happened next was really what bonded Joke and me for life, as it turned out. While others were talking, she was speaking to me and happened to put on a recording of Fritz Wunderlich singing Tamino’s aria from The Magic Flute. I happened to love Fritz Wunderlich (as did Joke) and recognized his voice immediately. The rest of the evening was passed in a mood of enchantment; I have never forgotten it.
Joke and I stayed in touch ever after, and we saw each other again, too, both in Amsterdam and here in California.
But you know what I particularly remember about that trip here? It may surprise you; it certainly did me. She loved to shop, so we went shopping together. She tried on clothes and I either nodded or shook my head. We had a ball together.
Otherwise, we maintained contact over the years by e-mail. She would write me funny letters in her quixotic English, and some that were not so funny, but more serious, as when she was having troubles, either physically or emotionally. But I was always happy to see her name in my inbox.
I kept in touch with her until almost the very end when she was no longer able to write. She would sometimes ask me to send her jokes, which I did. I was happy to give her something to make her laugh while she still could.
In just about her last note to me she wrote:
“I would like to stay in a beautiful hotel and look at the blue sea. And I would like to talk with you and go shopping with you one more time..."
I live day by day now. Have no idea how long this will last
This life as Joke.
Please keep sending your thoughts.
I love you.”
As I write, I look off to my right, and a few feet away me, on the wall of my study, is a large framed color photograph. In the background, we see Patmos on a sparkling clear day, with the cerulean waters of the Aegean Sea providing more atmospheric beauty to the scene. In the foreground, there is a woman seated on a white ledge who is holding aloft in her right hand a bouquet of white flowers. On her face is a smile that radiates pure joy.
It is, of course, a photograph of Joke – Joke on her wedding day about ten years ago. Beside her stands her husband, Robert, in a dark suit, much older than his beautiful wife, with his shock of white hair. I can’t tell if he is looking bemused or perplexed or simply with indulgent affection at his new bride.
This has always been my favorite photo – of many that I have – of Joke. It expresses so well her joie de vivre as well as the beauty of her spirit. It has been my daily companion for years now, and it will continue to remain on my wall as long as I am here. My knowledge of NDEs may not help me when I mourn the death of close friends, but this photograph of Joke does, especially now.
But as a kind of compensation for these losses, and to remind me that the road toward death may also have its unexpected rewards, some recent encounters have certainly served to lift my spirits and helped to banish these gloomy reflections. More new people are coming into my life now, seemingly to make up for the ones I have lost. And not a few of them have come my way as a result of reading these little essays of mine on the University of Heaven website. Here I’d like to share just a little bit about two of them, who have already become new and valued friends of mine.
First, not long ago I received a letter from an NDEr who had attended one of my workshops in Massachusetts in the mid-1980s. I had not heard from her in all these years until I received this letter out of the blue. It went on for four pages, but here are just the first few paragraphs. You can imagine how it bucked up my spirits to read it.
Dear Dr Funny or, should I say, Dear Dr Clever....
Whatever might prove more apropos. I must begin by sharing what a good giggle I got from your rendition of the arduous challenges of an aging body. Your light touch has proven to be a helpful counterbalance to my own daily challenges of pain and stiffness. Clearly, I'm not as philosophical nor am I as sanguine as you seem to be. I regard my morning misery as a thief of time robbing an hour or more each day before my brain clears and my body moves without clenched teeth and considerable grumbling and fear of crushing the cat. Please tell me this fate of creeping senescence doesn't inflict every oldster as it does us. That's quite a horrible vision to have in one's head. Thanks for lightening my load, and my groaning revolt with your delightful humor.
I also want to thank you for your kind and enthusiastic response to my email about NDE. When reading your books through the years, I have always been deeply impressed by what I sensed to be your genuine warmth and true appreciation to those who write to you. I must add that it is my observation that these qualities are unique to you. None of the other NDE researchers project the kindness, appreciation and genuine affability with which you "ring" so true.
More words of gratitude coming your way... This time for the manner in which your writing, especially Omega, provided a map of the realm of life after NDE. I may have never found my way had it not been for what, I assume, may have been a bit of risky business when you conjectured about the evolutionary path of Mother Kundalini…
Then there is a woman I’ll call Florence who also had been familiar with my work and books on NDEs, and was full of praise for them, which naturally caused me immediately to go out and buy a new hat for my now somewhat inflated head. But it quickly turned out that Florence wanted to write me about an important new discovery she had made (that I am not at liberty to disclose) that could lead to important advances in anti-aging research. The strange thing about this discovery, however, was that it also had implications for NDEs, so Florence was writing to me about a research project she had in mind involving out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and evidence for the subtle luminous body that is often referred to in the esoteric tradition.
I was instantly fascinated.
However, at the time, as usual, I was also then preoccupied with a number of my painful bodily infirmities, and happened to allude briefly to these annoying distractions in one of my early letters to Florence. She immediately wrote back a long letter with a number of specific suggestions for remedies, most of which I had never heard of, but some of which I was persuaded to try (and they did help). But what particularly struck me about Florence’s letters over the next week or so was how deeply knowledgeable she was about these matters, so much so that she soon had become something like my health guru and was offering to share her knowledge on all sorts of treatments that would help to make me well. She seemed to take a personal interest in extending my life and nurturing me back to health, which certainly was at odds and threatened to interfere with my “waiting to die” orientation.
But what impressed me even more forcibly was Florence’s constant compassionate solicitude for my welfare; I was very touched by and grateful for her dedication to my well being.
Our letters, which were now nearly daily exchanges, were about more than the trials of my body, however. Eventually, Florence started to write to me about some of the ancient authorities on death – mostly Greek and Neo-Platonist philosophers, who often wrote about the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece and whose writings clearly anticipated the findings of modern NDE research.
As it happens, I had written some articles on this same subject many years ago and was familiar with most of the writers Florence cited. But what knocked me out was the specific quotations Florence was able to cite, which I had long forgotten, whose relevance to NDE findings she was keen to remind me of. To give you a sense of what Florence, who now gave me the impression of being a classical scholar, was then sharing with me, let me simply quote some extracts from one of her letters:
I have no doubt that you are right when comparing the Mysteries rites to achieving the NDE.
Plutarch considered people who did not understand these things as being deprived (according to comments attributed to Plutarch in a fifth century A.D. compilation by Joannes Stobaeus), evidenced by his remarks when comparing the release of the soul during Mystery rites to what was believed to occur at death:
“When a man dies, he is like those who are being initiated into the mysteries...Our whole life is but a succession of wanderings, of painful courses, of long journeys by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of quitting it, fears, terrors, quiverings, mortal sweats, and a lethargic stupor, cover over us and overwhelm us; but as soon as we are out of it, pure spots and meadows receive us, with voices and dances and the solemnities of sacred words and holy sights. It is there that man, having become perfect and initiated – restored in liberty really master of himself – celebrates, crowned with myrtle, the most august mysteries, holds converse with just and pure souls, looking down upon the impure multitude of the profane or uninitiated, sinking in the mire and mist beneath him – through fear of death and through disbelief in the life to come, abiding in its miseries.”
We can check this against Porphyrus, who put things this way (for those who reached the épopteia during the Eleusinian Mysteries): “Then, finally, the light of a serene wonder fills the temple; we see the pure fields of Elysium; we hear the chorus of the blessed...”
Proclus said this about the Eleusinian Mysteries (and, like Porphyrus, he appears to be talking about those who reach the highest stage so that they see the Divine Light): “The soul also, beholding that which is arcane shining forth as it were to the view, rejoices in, and admires that which it sees, and is astonished about it.”
You are, of course, also right about Lessons from the Light – and Diodorus would cheer you on. Speaking of the Samothracian Mysteries, he wrote (Diodorus, Library of History 49.1-6, Loeb tr.):
“The claim is also made that men who have taken part in the mysteries become more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before.”
I think this is a mystery to be clinically studied and duplicated because these lessons might be the only thing that can change the hearts of those who war monger for profit or sit on billions while ignoring the poverty stricken of this world.
But the most astonishing revelation of the range of Florence’s accomplishments was yet to come. She was not, she insisted, a classical scholar of the sort I had imagined. Not at all. What she is was the woman who had helped to promote an ingenious theory of how the Egyptian pyramids had been built! Indeed, she had developed and made the case for an interpretation that had originally been advanced by the man for whom she had worked for many years to whom she gives all credit – years when she seems to have spent much of her life crawling all over the great Pyramid at Giza until she knew every limestone intimately. She eventually had written a highly praised book about this discovery – which I then started to read and was bowled over by – and was often cited for her groundbreaking research on this subject.
Once she had made me aware of her writings and work on this subject, and I had got over being thoroughly dazzled by it, I could now understand more about this extraordinary woman who had entered into my life. Though her excessive modesty would surely take issue with my impressions of her, to me she was clearly an autodidact, a polymath, and a certifiable genius. In helping us to understand how the Egyptians had built the first Wonder of the Ancient World, I could see that Florence was, as it were, at least to me, the eighth Wonder of the Modern World. She was a treasure, and had certainly become more than that to me. I began to think that maybe she was a lifesaver, too.
Her serendipitous entrance into my life – along with several other new people I don’t have the space to mention here who have also brought excitement and stimulation to me recently – has got me thinking that maybe I need to reconsider my waiting to die conceit that has been the theme of these essays. Maybe it’s really that I am just entering another stage of my life before my death. Maybe I will be around for longer than I had supposed. Who knows?
So now I think – so what if I can only stumble around my town like the decrepit hunchback of Norte California on legs as wobbly as an unbalanced kitchen table? As long as I can let my fingers do the walking over the non-noisy keys of my computer and as long as I have people like Florence and others to both entertain and thrill me, I’m inclined to hang on for another round. Who knows who will next show up in my inbox to intrigue and delight me? Hey, maybe it’ll be you!
Dr. Ring is Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut where he researched near-death experiences. He designed scientifically structured studies of 102 near-death survivors that further developed Dr. Raymond Moody's early NDE findings. He is well-known for his ground-breaking research of investigating NDEs among blind persons in his book Mindsight. Ken Ring is the co-founder and past president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and is the founding editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. He has published several near-death experience related books, including Life at Death (1980), Heading Toward Omega (1984), The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large (1992), and his most well-known and celebrated NDE book, Lessons from the Light (2000).
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