When I was nine, I nearly died by drowning.
It happened during my first-ever overnight camping experience, on a day when camp counselors had taken us to beautiful place where a steep, natural rockslide led into a pool of deep water and an underground spring. Unlike the other children in my camp cohort, I did not know how to swim; though I was too painfully shy and embarrassed about my inability to express it aloud. Instead, when we arrived at the rockslide, I said I was tired and would rather watch, but other children teased and coaxed until I conceded. “Don’t be a sissy, just hold on, you’ll be fine,” they chided. I sensed it was not safe but, rather than calling any further attention to myself, I stepped into the freezing cold mountain water, sat down on the slippery stony surface, and wrapped my arms tightly around the waist of the boy in front of me.
The train of children began moving downward, slowly at first, over the slimy stone, picking up speed as we neared the river below. The counselors were splashing in the water nearby, and one was on the bank. As we reached the bottom, the boy I had been clinging to disappeared into the water. I was alone, trying to find my footing on the slippery bottom, then falling backward, struggling against a maelstrom that pushed me deeper and deeper into the pool of water. My arms flailed wildly, grasping for anything to hold onto. My screams erupted from beneath the water. I struggled, choking and terrified, gasping for air, until I could not struggle any more.
After the struggle, which ended in a deep exhale, my body floated freely, my voice mute. Cradled in invisible arms, glimpses of home flashed before my eyes like a movie: my family, smiling and laughing; my dog; my books; and my pink dresser, littered with feathers; rocks; and dandelion wishes I kept in a special jar. I reached out my arms toward them, but they disappeared as quickly as they arrived. A warm white light appeared in the distance, where the images had been, like a full moon hanging low on the horizon. Gazing into the warm light, my body completely relaxed, floating easily toward the light. I felt content, at peace.
I do not remember what happened next, but I later awoke to feel the warmth of stone against my cheek. My body was leaning against a large rock, my legs outstretched. Without lifting my head, I could see children standing around me, peering and whispering. I felt sad and disconnected from them. From somewhere, I heard a deep voice, like a whisper in my ear: “Now is not your time to go, there is more for you to do.” I turned to look behind me, but the hand on my back was attached to the young female counselor from my cabin. “Who said that?” I asked. She was moving her hand up and down my back in a soothing way, but she did not reply, so I asked again, where was the man who had spoken to me. She looked at me with a confused expression and said, “Don’t worry, it’s just us here, you’re safe.” I leaned against the warm stone and cried. Another counselor said it was time to board the bus, and the young woman behind me wrapped me in a towel and carried me to my seat. I did not feel “okay.” I buried my head in the towel and sobbed.
When we arrived at the church, my mom was waiting and, as soon as we got in the car I tried to tell her what had happened. With a nervous wave of her hand, she shushed and dismissed me with the words, “you’re fine.” Then she remarked that I probably just needed a good night’s sleep. I did not feel “fine.” Later, at home, she asked me not to speak of my near drowning because she did not want to worry my father.
A few weeks later, in a whispered voice, so as not to alarm anyone else, I told my Gram the story in great detail. She listened intently, putting her arm around me and lightly scratched my back--a universal expression of love for the children in her life. I looked up to see her expression when I suggested that maybe the voice, I heard was God. She smiled, squeezed my shoulders and said, “Sure! Why not?” Gram said she understood that I did not feel alright, that after something like that I would never be the same again. Then she suggested the possibility that because of that experience I would be even better than before. Then she told me a story about how the road of life is not a straight line, but more like a spiral, and the twisty parts are both the hardest and the most important.
It was years later when I realized that my underwater ‘dream’ was actually a brush with death. I did not understand Gram’s words about a spiral path until decades later while working with a therapist who was well-studied in the ways of the Lakota people. She integrated indigenous wisdom and rituals into her counseling practice. Echoing Gram’s explanation and situating my near-death experience within a framework of indigenous teachings, Alex described life as a spiral path wherein we return again and again to experiences that build upon each other to help us learn fundamental lessons. What was the lesson, I wondered? “You're here.” she said, “to know yourself better.”
Over the years, I have spoken with other people who have experienced near-death, including several by drowning, and I have noted some commonalities in our stories. People report initial feelings of terror and panic at lost control followed by a desperate struggle to reclaim oneself in a situation of helplessness, a life review featuring beloved people or places showing up as images or thoughts, a sense of serenity or peacefulness following the struggle, a bright light in the distance, and, finally, awareness of a profound message derived from the experience.
As Gram suggested, perhaps I am better for having glimpsed death. From the experience, I gained certainty that the doorway to the next place, wherever that may be, is bathed in a light so warm and inviting that one may willingly, even eagerly, merge with it. The experience ignited an insatiable desire to connect with and understand the unseen energetic presence that held me in those moments between worlds.
In the decades since my near drowning, having steeped myself in diverse explorations of that which is unseen, I now regard the voice I heard as something not apart from me but, rather, within me. The message of yet-to-be-expressed purpose now registers as an invitation to what mythologist, Joseph Campbell referred to as the Hero’s Journey, an adventurous exploration of one’s own unique calling. And to better understand how my life fits into the larger story of the universe.