On the last day of 2013, I met a man, Paul, who told me he had died in a ditch in Florida several years ago. He had flipped a boat he was towing down the highway onto his truck, and then rolled over several times like a crushed can. He tried to lift himself, but his arms were limp. He saw blood everywhere, and then stopped breathing. A fireman came and resuscitated him enough to load him into a helicopter. The crash had left him with a life-threatening brain hematoma, and no one expected him to make it, he said, with a proud tilt of his chin.
While listening, I kept glancing at the shine of his bald head and the dent that nearly smashed his skull. He spoke matter-of-factly, but his own eyes welled up a few times and I was struck by how truly fragile we all are. How it's kind of a miracle that we all are here in the first place.
For the last six months I've been gathering experiences like Paul's for The Extraordinary Project, a true story collection of our most unusual human experiences: strange coincidences, feelings that foretell the future, and other anomalies that happen to all human beings. Paul's was the first Near Death Experience I've ever heard first hand, and I wasn't prepared for the tenderness I felt at his recollection of death.
While I was dead I didn't see a bright light. I didn't talk to God. I didn't see anything, but I felt warm, like the warmest bath I would ever have, the most comfortable, peaceful, and contented feeling I had ever been in my life. I knew I was dead and I was okay with it. I felt no pain and no regret and no fear and none of the things you think you'll feel when your time comes. My head was split and my whole body was shattered. I was ready to die, and I don't know that I'll be as ready the next time.
Paul was a big, burly southern man confident with his vulnerability. The experience, he said, made him tougher in that he feels less afraid of life's challenges. But he is more careful. He thinks twice about how he uses his body, what circumstances he enters. His rehab was brutal, but was aided by the fact that the hematoma that should have killed him all but disappeared.
My body was broken, and over the course of three months I had plates in my head, broken shoulder, broken ribs, and every type of medical test you can imagine. The pain was unbelievable. I was furious I had left the warm bath. I came back to life but had to deal with a broken body. The rehab was brutal. But one day I got my third CT scans, and the doctors had to double check the first two. The hematoma that had been there for two months was just gone. This just doesn't happen, they told me.
He shrugged, and then smiled.
I felt strangely fortunate to bear witness to Paul's story of escape from certain death. Everyone, yes everyone, has odd, hard-to-explain, extraordinary experiences they can't quite explain but that change their perspective, and around 1/3 of the population notices them. When I began the Extraordinary Project, I expected the same types of endings for each of the stories, the same lessons about the mystery of the universe. But Paul's story gave me gratitude, appreciation and hope for the nuances and complexities of the future right in time for the New Year. I hugged him goodbye with the sense that anything is possible, and you never know how things are going to end until they end -- for good.