How Near Death Experiences Change Your Perspective.
In Yorkshire there is an expression “Is he being buried with ham”?, in other words is there going to be a wake? I’ve decided that when I do go I’m going “up t’chimney” but my family are only allowed to send me off with ham if they promise that it will be an opportunity for laughing about all the dumb things that I have done throughout my life.
There have now been two occasions when they very nearly needed to put an order in for the ham.
Thinking that you’ve had it gives great clarity to life.
It’s interesting to me how a near death experience changes your whole perspective on life. When it comes to my two brain tumours it started with a very vague diagnosis of “you have two tumours but we don’t know what they are”. Human nature immediately makes you assume the worst, maybe as a protection mechanism? As I write this blog entry, I am now one Tumour lighter with Marty the Meningioma gone and according to my Neurosurgeon the most dangerous operation is now out of the way.
We still don’t know for sure but it is still being assumed that Gary the Glioma is low grade in which case I should be good for a long time once most of him has been removed. This will mean regular MRI’s for the rest of my life but I don’t mind them and it will be an on-going excuse to have days out in Leeds and eat at Mowgli’s, nom!
The Creature from the Rather Pleasant Lagoon.
My first genuine near death experience was actually a diving accident that I had many years ago when on holiday in Cyprus with some friends and their kids. Cyprus is gorgeous and so was our hotel whose name escapes me and at the time was quite new. It sat on a cliff top looking over a beautiful lagoon which you accessed by some steps that were cut into a cliff wall.
It was a great holiday with lots of laughs including us all piling fully clothed into the pool on the last night party for no other reason than we were told not to. There was one exception to these fun filled days and nights, an incident that my wife and I played down at the time so as not to spoil the holiday.
After a couple of days of slobbing around in the sun I was woken from a snooze by the sound of activity in the pool which turned out to be a local SCUBA diving school. They were giving holiday makers the chance to try out diving in the safety of the pool with the hope that they would book a paid dive session in the lagoon. SCUBA diving was something that I had wanted to try for a long time so I skipped the tryout and just booked myself onto the next dive session.
Large Aquatic Mammals.
A couple of days later I found myself at the diving centre having a safety briefing about clearing water from your mask, understanding your gauges and other safety basics. We were only diving to 6 metres which didn’t seem too challenging and we were with a seasoned ex-military diver who was our instructor. After this it was time to put on our wetsuits and other gear. When I saw myself in the mirror I was somewhat disappointed to see that I looked more like an upright walrus than a brave explorer of the unknown depths.
Then as a group we waddled down to the waters edge like the oddest looking bunch of penguins ever seen and one by one followed our dive instructor into the sea following a blue guide line, each penguin disappearing under the waves with a surge of bubbles until it was my turn to follow them. Once under the surface, the weights that had been so cumbersome out of the water became helpful as they helped us to become buoyancy neutral and like all large aquatic blubbery mammals, I was far more graceful in the water than out of it.
It was wonderful down there. The water was clear and once we reached the sea bed we were allowed to disperse around the area a little and enjoy the freedom of being able to explore without needing to surface regularly to take a breath, I absolutely loved it. I found myself a sandy spot where I could sit and let the fish swim around me, it really was other worldly.
Eventually our time was up, we regrouped, swam back to the shallows and once again began our penguin waddle back to the diving centre.
I was absolutely buzzing when I got back to the hotel and couldn’t stop talking about the dive so when a few days later the dive instructor saw me by the pool and offered a one on one dive down a bit deeper to 12 metres I had no hesitation in saying yes.
Bad Omens & Bad Ideas.
I suppose that looking back, I should have heard little alarm bells ringing, when on the day of the second dive, my original experienced instructor was not available and was replaced by a newly qualified instructor. We travelled to another bay near the hotel that provided the deeper dive and were soon geared up and entering the sea.
The beginning of the dive was even more magical than the first dive but as we got further from the shore line the sea current began to get stronger, which for an inexperienced diver was unnerving and before long, visibility began to reduce rapidly and I realised that we had lost sight of the blue guide rope that marked the route back if we wanted to stay submerged.
My instructor had obviously realised this too and he gave me the hand signal to wait in position as he swam off, presumably to look for the rope so as not to spoil the dive by making us swim back on the surface. This was his big mistake, leaving someone on only their second dive alone.
The minutes ticked past with me alone in the murky green fog of the turbulent water and I realised that he had no chance of finding me with that level of visibility. I also noticed that my air supply was getting low as with such a short dive planned, we only had single air tanks. I decided to surface as I guessed that in the end he would do the same. As I surfaced, I instinctively removed my regulator from my mouth, This was my big mistake! Being buoyancy neutral for diving meant that I was lower in the water than a normal swimmer would be when treading water and as I removed the regulator and took a breath I was hit in the face by a wave and inhaled a lung full of sea water. The shock of this caused me to react by flipping backwards away from the water but this action along with the weight of an air tank on my back took me just under the surface of the water laying on my back like an upturned turtle and I breathed in more sea water.
I was in big trouble.
The water inhalation triggered a panic reflex that an experienced diver would not have had and of course an experienced diver would have never gotten themselves into a position like this in the first place. I was now unable to recover myself and was without doubt drowning. If you’ve ever thought about the moment of your death, you might hope that your last thought would be of your family or something profound but mine was ‘what a stupid way to die’.
At that moment a pair of hands pushed me upright, my instructor had found me. He then swam around to my front and inflated my buoyancy vest (something an experienced diver would have done for themselves in the first place upon surfacing) and finally put my regulator back into my mouth to get some oxygen into me, but not before I had choked up a large amount of sea water. He made me rest until I had calmed down and then we made our way back into shore, although I was so exhausted by the accident that he had to tow me some of the way back.
Something is up with you!
As we drove back to the hotel neither of us said much. He looked like he was in shock and was probably thinking that he would never teach again. We both made mistakes but mine was the kind of mistake that proper PADI dive training would drill out of you through repetitious practice. His mistake was to overestimate both my fitness and capabilities.
I decided not to tell my family and friends about what had happened so plonked myself on a sun bed and announced how great it was, apparently not very convincingly and after 17 years of marriage my wife, Andrea, could tell that something was wrong. She forced a confession out of me later when we were alone but agreed that we shouldn’t tell the others.
Reconsidering my priorities.
For the rest of the holiday I couldn’t help but think a great deal about what so nearly happened. I had always wanted to be able to lay flat on a flight but in the hold in a bodybag was definitely not what I had in mind. How would my wife and kids have coped with losing me and how would their life be?
These thoughts eventually gave way to thoughts about my life so far and what was important to me now and what wasn’t, after it so nearly ending. I started to become more aware that many things that I had treated as priorities were important simply because society said that they should be, chasing promotion and money for example. But the accident had so nearly deprived me of the things that truly mattered such as my wife, kids, family and friends.
No one will build a statue of me and I don’t care.
I also began to spend time thinking about what I had and had not achieved in my life. It seems to me that people often find themselves worrying about not being remembered, not making their mark. It’s why so many chase fame in a desperate bid to be ‘someone’, but just think about how many have enjoyed brief fame only to be unable to cope with the obscurity of normal life that followed. Even those who find fame and are not forgotten don’t benefit in any way from it after their death and how much did they sacrifice to achieve this fame.
Stoicism teaches that life is for living now, what is the point of sacrificing everything for fame and fortune just to end up alone and paranoid about losing your fame as so many so called celebrities do? The Stoics have an expression ‘Memento Mori’ which translates as ‘Remember that you (have to) die’. This is not intended to be morbid, it is intended to be a kick up the backside to get on with life as you do not have time to waste.
As part of my reflection after the diving accident, I became fascinated with how brief and small a human life is on a universal scale. This lead me to understand that while my presence and disappearance will go unnoticed by the world, I really don’t care because in my little corner of the universe I do matter to the people who matter to me.
I will undoubtably never have a statue erected to me but do you honestly think that Nelson, Churchill or Wellington know or care that they have been somehow immortalised as a granite pigeon toilet.
There is a great line at the end of the movie ‘Star Trek Generations’, a movie very much about growing old and legacy, spoken by the character Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) “What we leave behind is not as important as how we’ve lived.” This line really resonated with me and fitted in with the new attitude to life that I had after the accident. Time with the people I love and care about was the most valuable thing that I could have because, it is inevitably going to end, so it is to be treasured.
Legacy is not that important.
For anybody worrying that they have not made a difference or will be forgotten after their death just remember that in a few billion years even Einstein will likely be forgotten. Egyptian society lasted for 3,000 years, longer than Christianity has existed and yet only a tiny number of even the most rich, famous and powerful of them are remembered.
My advice, for what it’s worth, is to remember that not everyone can change the world but you still matter to those who know you. Enjoy life to the maximum that you are able. Today matters and tomorrow is unknown.
As my accident and my tumours have taught me, life could be over much sooner than we expect and tomorrow is definitely not guaranteed so why waste today?
PS: My wife never let me go diving ever again.
PPS: I will definitely be buried with ham!
The Brain Tumour Charity
The Brain Tumour charity has been a great help to me since my diagnosis. They have a podcast which is always of interest to people with tumours and their families and also have the ‘Brian App’ ( yep that is spelt correctly, it is ‘Brian’) which offers advice and the ability to track your symptoms, appointments and treatments.