A Near Death Experience

I completely lost my writing rhythm in November because my dad nearly died in a bad car accident.

He’d been out bush on a five day cycling and camping adventure with 6 mates (all upwards of 70 yrs). They were driving home in two cars on the last day when the leading vehicle, 4 or 5 minutes in front, had a head on with a 4WD on an isolated stretch of country road. The woman in the sturdy 4WD only suffered a broken ankle but the car dad was in crumpled around the four occupants like tin foil. After being badly injured and trapped for about an hour, dad was the first cut out and airlifted to Canberra.

He was in the operating theatre as I flew down from Byron. Before going into operate, apparently the surgeon had suggested, to the rest of my gathered family, that it was unlikely that dad would make it through. Anyway, it was seeming more hopeful when I arrived after midnight, just in time for us all to go in and see him when he came out. He was in an induced coma but one of the nurses encouraged us to speak to him as if he were conscious.

A number of years ago a psychic friend had predicted that my father would die that year. In the end, it turned out to be his brother but I was so appreciative of that prompt to say everything important to my father then. He’s had a pretty impressive career and I was often stirred with a surge of pride and admiration when I thought about it or spoke of it with others. I wanted him to know that I felt really proud of his accomplishments and I wrote it all out in a card that I gave to him on a visit that year. He really loved it. He told me he read it over and over.

So it was nice that night in intensive care that I didn’t have the weight of unfinished business to try to put into words while he lay there unconscious and hooked up to all the ICU equipment with the respirator breathing for him. The first thing out of my mouth ended up being very trivial. Perhaps not the most sensitive thing to start with but I remember, as I bent down close and put my hand to his head, saying to him that his hair definitely felt like he’d been out camping for 5 days.

Which reminds me of the greeting that my brother didn’t really appreciate. I hadn’t seen him for about a year but upon hugging him I noted that he smelled like curry. (Indian take away that the family had ordered for the hours in the waiting room). Oh well, I’m a sensual creature I guess. And crisis can certainly scramble the brain.

Anyway, by dawn we were deliriously overjoyed to find that dad had regained consciousness, and although he couldn’t speak because of the respirator, he took to communicating via spelling words out with his finger. First on the palm of people’s hands and then on a pillow in front of him. I’m not sure why we didn’t just give him a pen and paper but perhaps it was because his right hand was broken and the angle was tricky with lying down. Anyway, it became quite an engaging game for all of us to speak the letters as he marked them out, remember what they were, and to guess ahead at the words and then sentences that he was getting at.

It took us a while to confirm that we had one of the very first words correct.

S..M..O..O..T..H..I..E..

Turned out he was pretty hungry and completely parched. They’d all had breakfast the previous day before packing up camp but never made it to the little town they’d been headed to for a late lunch on the way home. Anyway, the doctor said no to the smoothie and suggested sucking on a fat cotton bud soaked in water instead. He seemed happy enough with that. He was a very surrendered and compliant patient.

It was such a huge relief to find that his mind was fully functioning. He actually seemed sharper than ever. Usually he tends to get lost in books or his iPad or watching sport on TV and sometimes it can be hard to get his proper attention. But here we had it completely. It was invigorating to have such intimate and immediate engagement. I was very impressed at how much he was able to communicate via his finger spelling. He shared how he’d heard his mate in the front passenger seat call out suddenly to the driver right before impact. He recalled how one of his friends in the car following behind had managed to push his fleece in through a window to cushion dad’s shoulder which was jammed hard against the inside door as the car lay perched on its side. He mentioned the long, long wait as the emergency crew worked to free them and the fear that his friend alongside in the backseat, hanging from his seatbelt, would fall on top of him.

And he told us details of the five day adventure beforehand.

It had been pretty steep terrain on their trip. A bit too steep. He said his bike was really light compared to the others and at the top of the hills he’d often walk back down to help push the bike of one of the other guys who was nearly 78 and carrying beer in his paniers. He had us laughing when he wrote out the story of somersaulting his bike down a particularly steep descent. But he hadn’t been injured because he was carrying all his gear in a backpack that cushioned his fall. These little stories of misadventure were especially precious to hear just a day after nearly losing him forever.

He made us laugh in disbelief when he shared his thoughts about getting free of the crushed vehicle. He’d been sure that as soon as the roof had been cut off the car and he was out, that he’d be able to get into action and help direct the rest of the rescue. He was a bit surprised to find himself so critically injured and carried off immediately to the helicopter.

At some point, it became apparent that he wanted to know about his good mate who’d been in the passenger seat in front of him. Devastatingly, both he and the driver had died at the scene. I was nervous for this to be disclosed while he still had the respirator down his throat, fearing he might choke upon hearing the news. But ultimately it appeared that not knowing would be the greater stress. In one of the many strokes of synchronicity the helicopter doctor, who’d saved his life by reviving him at the scene, appeared in intensive care on his day off to see how dad was going on that first day. I asked him if he would be the one to tell him about his mate because he’d been present at the time.

It was my favourite moment of all the weeks that we spent with dad in hospital. That doctor turned out to have such an incredible bed side manner. Dad had immediately recognised him when he appeared in the ICU in his casual clothes and was overjoyed to see him. They’d obviously forged one of those precious bonds that come from sharing something very traumatic. My brother wasn’t there but my sister and mother and I stood around dad’s bedside while the doctor spoke of what he’d been doing at the scene and then revealed, with repeated apologies, that there was nothing more he could do for dad’s dear friend and that he had died. Dad took a sharp intake of breath and closed his eyes for a long time. My mum, sister and I all stood in frozen silence with tears streaming down our faces. The beautiful doctor allowed this long silence and great stillness amidst all the overwhelm of emotions. He didn’t continue talking to give any more information or to provide further comfort. He just remained there in perfect silence to let the devastation land and ripple through. The great shock was evident in dad but he shed no tears. Eventually he opened his eyes and there was some more communication.

I guess doctors must receive training in how to have those kinds of conversations but gosh I was impressed. It’s such a rare thing for people to allow enough space for feelings to move through without interrupting or trying to make things better.

The medical staff said he would probably forget and that we might have to repeat that news a number of times but he didn’t forget.

I ended up staying in Canberra for two weeks. I absolutely loved the whole experience. It was better than Christmas. The vulnerability that was flushed to the surface in everyone was so endearing and delightful. I felt so much closer to them all because of it.

I’d actually stopped returning to Canberra for the family Christmas in recent years because I just found myself feeling somewhat lost. I was somehow disconnected from myself and everyone around me. It wasn’t until this emergency experience that I came to understand it properly.

I’ve spent many years now, journeying deeply into myself and practicing feelings all my feelings. I’ve come to be very fluent with my emotions and because of that now I’m very much at ease with all manner of disturbance in myself and others. My family (parents, brother, sister and their partners and kids) are much more ‘normal’, in that they are quite resistant to fully dropping into the uncertainty of vulnerable emotions. But with the gift of this hospital crisis, they were all forced into a storm of overwhelming feelings that they couldn’t escape. Physical symptoms emerged in association.

My sister got freezing cold and her feet turned purple on that first night during the long wait in hospital. There was so much fear in her that she wasn’t practiced at allowing. If she’d just been able to open fully to feel the shock of fear and panic, then it would have moved through her and lessened considerably. But because she held herself tight against it, her body manifested the symptoms of her constriction.

My brother, upon entering into intensive care, became queasy and had to lie down on the floor. The nurses gave him a pillow so that he could lie there and recover. Anger is usually his go-to emotion. He’s much less practiced with fear and vulnerability. And so his body became physically overwhelmed because he couldn’t surrender into the feelings of insecurity.

My sister’s partner is a firefighter so he’s been cutting injured people out of horrific accidents for years. He’s never really felt affected by it at all. He’s also a very successful endurance athlete. He trains long and hard for extreme physical contests. I don’t think he would acknowledge this but exercise is the drug he uses to outrun his uncomfortable feelings. He was shocked to find that he also became very queasy and nearly fainted when he visited dad. The personal connection had cut through a massive backlog of disassociation.

From almost as soon as I got the first call from my mum, I had a strong sense that dad would be okay. I was flying down from Byron while he was in the operating theatre and I tuned in and saw him hovering over his body, while the surgeons worked, very eager to get back in. He would later describe a near death experience when he was pulled out of the car at the scene when he wasn’t sure if he’d come back, but during his operation I felt an almost impatient determination in him to carry on with his life.

So I didn’t really have much fear to contend with. I burst into tears immediately upon hearing that dad’s mate (a long time family friend) had died, but otherwise the emotional tone of my experience mostly consisted of an outpouring of loving care for everyone else in disarray around me.

Dad recovered at an incredible pace but was alarmingly disconnected from his grief and from feeling his physical body. His injuries included 8 broken ribs which he continually astounded the doctors and nurses with by feeling no pain whatsoever. In an unfortunate oversight one of the nurses left a tourniquet on him overnight which he didn’t even notice until someone else discovered it in the morning. But he was broken open emotionally in a very beautiful way.

From the moment he regained consciousness he became so sweetly tactile with us all. We soon learned to greet him on the left side of the bed where his unbroken hand could reach out easily. The grandkids would be welcomed with his hand to their faces, stroking their cheeks and then just resting his hand on their faces. He would hold hands for as long as someone was sitting or standing beside him. I’d never seen him be so lovingly tactile. It was delightful.

He was sent off to boarding school when he was just eight. I guess he had learned to disconnect from pain and suffering and to close down his need for physical affection with being so far away from home so young.

The many visitors and friends would inevitably say something along the lines of, “Oh how awful, what a nightmare.”, to which I strongly disagreed. I genuinely found the whole experience to be so joyously touching. For the first time in a very long time, I felt completely like myself amidst my family. Everyone was united together in loving support for dad in his recovery. Insignificant distractions fell away immediately and opened the space for meaningful connection and conversations. There were opportunities to develop bonds with some of dad’s friends whom I hadn’t known so well. The care shown by the hospital staff was outstanding. My young niece and nephew asked nearly every day if they could return to the hospital to sit quietly by dad’s side. I stayed with mum for nearly the whole time and it was lovely to keep her company and for us to support each other in a surprisingly seamless flow.

I came across a lovely quote recently:

“A give and take of emotion creates a relationship.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’m very grateful to have had this little crisis to compel my family further in that direction.

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