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The First Time I Died
About five minutes before I died, I could hear the roll of thunder as another storm marched into Aiken, South Carolina. Out the window I could see lightning streak across the sky, making that sizzling sound before hitting the ground with a pop -- "artillery from God," someone in my family had called it. Over the years I had heard dozens of stories about people and animals being struck and killed by lightning. The lightning stories my great-uncle would tell at night when the summer storms rumbled in and the room would strobe with bright flashes were as scary to me as ghost stories. That fear of lightning had never left me. Even on this night, September 17, 1975, at the age of twenty-five, I wanted to get off the telephone quickly to avoid a "phone call from God." (I think it was also my great-uncle who used to say, "Remember, if you get a phone call from God, you usually become the burning bush," but I am sure he meant it as a joke.)
"Hey Tommy, I've got to get going, a storm's coming."
"So what?" he said.
I had been home from a trip to South America for only a few days and had planted myself on the telephone. I worked for the government and was also involved in several business concerns of my own. I owned and rented a number of houses, bought and repaired old cars, helped in my family's grocery business, and was in the process of, starting a company. As the rain fell outside, I had to finish this last phone call to a business partner.
"Tommy, I gotta go. Mother always told menever to talk on the phone during a thunderstorm."
And that was it. The next sound I heard was like a freight train coming into my ear at the speed of light. Jolts of electricity coursed through my body, and every cell of my being felt as if it were bathed in battery acid. The nails of my shoes were welded to the nails in the floor so that when I was thrown into the air, my feet were pulled out of them. I saw the ceiling in front of my face, and for a moment I couldn't imagine what power it was that could cause such searing pain and hold me in its grip, dangling over my own bed. What must have been a split second seemed like an hour.
Somewhere down the hall my wife Sandy had shouted, "That was a close one," when she heard the thunder. But I didn't hear her say that, I only found out about it much later. I also didn't see the horrified look on her face as she peered down the hall and saw me hanging in midair. For a moment all I saw was the plaster of the ceiling.
Then I went into another world.
From immense pain I found myself engulfed by peace and tranquility. It was a feeling I had never known before and have not had since. It was like bathing in a glorious calmness. This place that I went to was an atmosphere of deep blue and gray where I was actually able to relax for a moment and wonder just what it was that had hit me so hard. Had a plane crashed into the house? Was our country under nuclear attack? I had no idea what had happened, but even in this moment of peacefulness I wanted to know where I was.
I began to look around, to roll over in midair. Below me was my own body, thrown across the bed. My shoes were smoking and the telephone was melted in my hand. I could see Sandy run into the room. She stood over the bed and looked at me with a dazed expression, the kind you might find on the parent of a child found floating facedown in a swimming pool. She quivered for a moment and then went to work. She had recently taken a course in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and knew exactly what to do. First she cleared my throat and moved my tongue to the side, then she tilted my head back and began to breathe into my mouth. One-two-three breaths and then she straddled my stomach and began pushing on my chest. She was pushing so hard that she grunted with each downward stroke.
I must be dead, I thought. I could feel nothing because I was not in my body. I was a spectator of my final moments on earth, as dispassionate about watching my own death as I might be if I were watching actors reenact it on television. I felt sorry for Sandy and could feel her fear and pain, but I was not concerned about that person lying on the bed. I do recall one thought that shows how far from pain I was. As I gazed at the man on the bed I remember thinking, I thought I was better looking than that.
The CPR must have worked because I was suddenly back in my body. Above me I could feel Sandy pounding on my chest. Normally, such bone-cracking pressure would be painful, but I did not feel it. The electricity had coursed through my body, and there wasn't a single spot on me that didn't feel as if it had been burned from the inside out. I began to moan, but only because I was too weak to scream.
Tommy showed up in less than ten minutes. He knew something was wrong because he had heard the explosion over the telephone. He had been a Navy corpsman so Sandy let him take over. He wrapped me in a blanket and told her to call the emergency medical unit. "We'll do what we can," he said, placing his hand on my chest...