When I saw the title of a new book by Chris Licht, “What I Learned When I Almost Died,” I flashed back to my own near-death experience. Had I learned anything that could be of use to others?
I was an archaeology graduate student on my first dig outside of the U.S. We were in an idyllic, tropical forest on an isolated peninsula populated by howler and white-faced monkeys. The site was on the northern coast of Costa Rica and scheduled for development. We had the good fortune to be allowed to see what we could learn about the ancient settlement of this area before this tropical paradise was altered forever for tourism.
It was midseason, and we were given a break of a few days for rest and relaxation. Most of the crew had elected to take a boat to the mainland, then a bus into San José, the capital. But three of us — Bob, Ellen and I — chose to enjoy a work-free few days at our cabin on the bay. Our site was not easily accessible, and we seldom saw others. It was our own tropical island.
Ellen proposed we do some exploring. She had already surveyed much of the area for sites, and there were some beautiful spots to which she wanted to return. So off the three of us went with our machetes and a local dog, Captain, who had befriended Bob. Ellen and I lingered on a sandy beach on the ocean side of the peninsula as Bob and Captain raced ahead.
Ellen and I proceeded at a leisurely pace as the sandy beach turned to stepping stones and boulders along the face of the sheer cliff rising above us. This would be a dangerous place to walk if the tide were coming in, but we knew the tide schedule and that we were safe. Nevertheless, Ellen, in the lead, noticed a sudden rise in the water level at her feet. When it continued, she handed off her new camera to me because I was in shallower water.
But very quickly, the water rose higher on both of us. What was going on? We scrambled onto some boulders, but water swelled up around us there, too.
We were lamenting the destruction of Ellen’s camera in saltwater when we soon shifted our concern to our own situation. The water was rising over our heads, and we had nowhere to go! Then, the waves rose and sucked us out to sea. Ellen disappeared. My body was thrown about like an abused rag doll — alternately dragged into the sea and smashed into the cliff. I remember feeling badly that Ellen was dying so young — she was about 10 years younger than I — but then I had to face the fact that I might die, too. My mind was racing searching for options.
Could I cling onto the cliff face? No, no matter how hard I gripped it, the next wave would grab me off. I had to face the fact that there was nothing I could do but continue to protect my head as best I could from the cliff.
As no option materialized for me after five or six waves, I found my brain going into a calm place. I knew that I must be screaming, but I didn’t hear it, and I felt no panic. Instead, I experienced a peacefulness taking hold and, yes, I entered a tunnel of white light as so many who have approached death have described. I don’t remember seeing anyone there, but I recall its safe, womblike walls.
And then, just as suddenly as they had arisen, the waves receded, and I was spat out of the sea. I gasped to see Ellen appear on a nearby boulder. Whereas I was laughing in relief, Ellen, red hair flying and Celtic temper bursting, was cursing like a sailor. I had forgotten she had been a champion swimmer. She had swum out to sea to avoid being battered by the cliffs. She was angry about her camera but had not been in fear for her life.
By then, Bob had returned. I was a little angry at him, but I know there was nothing he could have done for me had he been there. I was surprised at how superficial the cuts to my arms and legs were, and that I had not I swallowed dangerous amounts of water. I had done a good job at self-defense.
Now, all was calmness itself. The sea was back beyond the sandy beach, but I had to cross some open areas of water to get to safety. It took all the courage I could muster to go forward into that open water. But I did it, and soon we were climbing back onto dry land.
Later, it was explained to us that this had probably been a minor tsunami, the result of a little earthquake far at sea. It would not have been noticed by anyone but by those where we were.
What did I learn? I’ve thought about this experience often in the past 30 years. Two things stand out. The first thing I learned is true for us all: No matter how good our plans might be, we are frail and vulnerable in nature, should take nothing for granted and seek joy every day.
Is the second universally true? I feel that it is, but I can only speak for myself from my own experience. I learned that no matter how terrible a death might appear to be, death is a peaceful process. Whether through the intervention of the almighty or through natural neurological processes, calmness and security enfold us in death.
Life is to be treasured, protected and fought for, but death should not be feared.
For me, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was right only to a point. At the end of our struggle, we need not “rage, rage against the dying of the light”; on the contrary, the light grows, and gently, we are embraced by it.