In April of 2010, during a routine cosmetic surgery at St. John's Hospital in Sherman Oaks, California, I received an accidental overdose of anesthetic. For 18 hours, I lay comatose, with no brain activity, my body functions sustained by machines. By most definitions, I was dead. Despite this, my memories of those 18 hours are as vivid as this morning's breakfast.
The first thing I remember is walking into the Light, an experience recounted by others who have crossed over. For a few moments, the Light is the only thing you see, bright and white, with a divine purity almost unbearable to behold. What no one tells you, though, is that you're walking blindly down a ramp made of some kind of smooth glass-like material -- and there's no handrail. I saw two Japanese dead women slip and almost take a spill, and although I don't speak Japanese, I'm pretty sure one of them said something like, "This goddam thing is a lawsuit waiting to happen."
Once you're through the Light, you wind up in a cavernous waiting room in which the walls themselves appear to be made of unearthly blue light. It reminded me of the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim, although without the handrails. People -- or souls -- arrived and lined up in front of a triangular doorway a thousand feet tall. Two men in white robes with transparent tablets stood by to admit the faithful to their eternal reward. That's right, two men, in charge of who-knows-how-many souls. A guy behind me in line, who worked for the TSA when he was alive, said if he'd come up with a system like that for airport security, he would've had his ass handed to him on a platter.
After they check you in, you're whisked in large, floating "bubbles" to meet your deceased family members. Each individual has his encounter in a familiar setting, which in my case was a 1970s, split-level ranch house. I walked in the front door and was greeted with a hug from my Grandma Doris, who died in 2003. Then I was reunited with my Grandpa Harold and my cousin Alex, who died in a terrible boating accident. A creepy-looking guy with chin whiskers and a bowler hat sitting by the fireplace turned out to be my great-great-great-great grandfather, Ezekiel, who died 110 years before I was even born. I have no idea why he was included in my reunion because all he wanted to talk about was whether "Booth finally smote that scoundrel Lincoln" and why 13-year-olds "maketh the most gratifying brides." I don't know if heaven has ever considered putting expiration dates on loved ones, but I'd say it's time to maketh it happen.
After catching up with dead relatives, you're flown in a bubble to a welcoming dinner at an all-white restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on an endless meadow of flowers. A maitre d' welcomed me, saying "Eat all you like, for in heaven you'll never gain an ounce." He seated me by a window, and I ordered two steaks, a lobster and a Baked Alaska. Everything was delicious, and my only complaint was the wait staff. Don't get me wrong, they were efficient, but I sensed an unspoken hostility, as if they were thinking, "Are you shitting me? I made it to heaven, and I'm still a waiter?"
As I was finishing my second dessert, Jesus rode up on a rainbow-colored horse and gazed down upon me. He looked like Kenny Loggins during his "Danger Zone" period, except with bluer eyes, and smiled the most compassionate smile I had ever seen. He said something about, "I impart upon thee now the wisdom of all eternity," but I wasn't really listening because I was thinking, "Wow, they let horses in the restaurants here?"
At the same time, I glanced down at my dessert and saw what looked like a short, brown hair that seemed too thick to be human nestled in a layer of vanilla ice cream, and I wondered if it could be from some other barnyard animal they let parade around the place.
I tried to flag down my waiter, but he did one of those things where he walks by "without noticing" you, even though you totally know he sees you. Frustrated, I took my spoon and tried to scoop out the hair, but it kept sliding off because of the melting ice cream. After like 10 tries, I finally got it out and held it up for closer inspection. At this distance, it looked more like a shaving of cinnamon, although I couldn't be sure. I decided to see what Jesus thought, just as I heard Him say, "Let these words guide you on your journey through eternal life," and He galloped off toward a back entrance I hoped wasn't the kitchen.
Then, as I was unsuccessfully trying to get the attention of another waiter, something miraculous happened. An entire wall of the restaurant opened like a great door, and before a glorious light, appeared the man himself: the restaurant manager. I raised a finger, and he came immediately to my table. I showed him the spoon and was about to say, "What does this look like to you?" when everything went black. When I awoke, I was back in my bed in St. John's Hospital in Sherman Oaks, with my wife and kids standing around me.
Now, more than four years later, I am consumed with the day-to-day business of family and career, and those 18 hours sometimes seem like a dream. But I know they weren't a dream, and they've changed me. I used to fear death. Now I fear it even more and worry about the level of quality control in the afterlife. Death is never far from my thoughts these days, nor is the lingering question, what exactly was that in my Baked Alaska?