TITLE: Three Times Over - Part I October 24, 2015
By Catherine Craig
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A moose browsed on willow just outside my kitchen window, stripping the branch of its leaves. I raised the coffee cup to my lips, savoring the strong hot brew my wife Catherine finds overpowering.
Irritated, I set the near-empty cup abruptly on the table. Unable to feel the smooth handle of the cup, I examined my calloused hands, and grimaced. I’d stroked my wife's shoulder the night before, but couldn’t experience sensation through my fingertips then either.
We’d speculated, as we have other times during the seventeen years of our marriage, over the fluctuating desensitization in my fingertips. I shouldn't worry about all that, though I do. I'm fortunate to be alive.
I've asked myself – and the doctors – if it might be the multiple incidents of frostbite suffered from my 30+ years as a telephone Installer/Repairman working in the Alaskan Interior. Temperatures sometimes plummeted as low as –60 degrees. Or could the lack of feeling in various nerve groups in my body, face, and hands be attributed to other circumstances, from which I should have several times over?
I use the term “should have” loosely. A car accident did – but didn’t – kill me. Along with this incident, I have died and come back to life three times. So, you can understand why I say I shouldn't be alive.
In 1969, on a warm sunny June day, I escaped the restriction to the house my father had levied. A friend and I drove out Chena Hot Springs Road in the water. About 3 o’clock we turned back to beat Dad’s return home, but I never made it.
I’d been speeding and lost control. About half way, the car swerved and rolled. The road came up on the passenger side window as I looked over at my companion. It was the last thing I remember. (The AK State Troopers later reported that, by examining the crash site, evidence revealed a speed of over 110 m.p.h. My friend walked away with only a scratch on his right elbow.)
When I became conscious, I heard familiar voices – my doctor’s, parents – and a stranger’s. I listened as they discussed my injuries, watching them against the background of the Emergency Room’s pastel green walls and annoying beeps from nearby monitors. The unique vantage I had was that I was hovering, looking down from the ceiling at myself in the bed.
The scenario changed when I abruptly found myself in a tunnel of light. It was bright, but not blinding, warm, comforting. I didn’t float; I walked – toward an even more intense radiance somewhere ahead.
As I approached what appeared to be the end of the tunnel, a voice spoke to me quietly. It seemed to come from everywhere at the same time, and surround me, saying, “Your time is not yet. You need to go back.” It felt like it was God, or maybe Jesus. I didn’t know. Then, just as rapidly, I was back in my body.
The thing I remember is waking up the next day. My head had been partially shaved on the right-hand sphere, and they’d sewn it together using stainless steel wire. The left side of my face had been crushed, and had been stitched.
Cotton chord hung from the stuffing they’d packed my sinus cavities with. I was spared from blindness; a neat row of sutures ran down my right cheek from the outer corner of my right eye. The damage was contained to my head and face.
Painful as it was having my face crushed, and jarring to experience my own mortality, I got through. Leaving it behind, I joined the army that September. I was young, only 17.
During a stint overseas, I encountered the nightmare no American soldier wanted. We were under attack by the North Vietnamese at a firebase in South Viet Nam.
The night before the enemy had reversed the perimeter defenses we had set prior. When we activated them, the Claymore’s blew back in our direction. I was behind a large truck. Shrapnel hit me just above the knees down to my feet. The blast separated my kneecaps a bit from my legs.
Not only were my lower extremities shredded by the detonation, but I also contracted spinal meningitis, and an upper respiratory infection while recovering in the hospital. My head felt like an 18-pound sledge was pounding it every time I coughed. Every nerve in my fevered body was in agony.
Again, I “died”. Like before, I ended up in a tunnel. It was bright, a gentle light, the same as the last experience. I walked toward the front, where it brightened. I wasn’t gliding, and I had no sensation of body mass. Rather, everything was light, airy.
I heard that voice – different words from the prior, saying, “It’s not your time. You have to go back; you have work to do.” As before, I was rudely snapped back into my body, back to the pain and discomfort.
I turned toward God. I knew something was lacking in my life, but uncertain as to what, or how to find what I didn’t know I needed. I would go into the military chapels, searching for answers, or to seek peace and solitude. I cried out to Him, but nothing happened.
After this near-death experience, I saw each day differently. I appreciated every moment – what God had created. I especially enjoyed sunsets and sunrises, God’s artistry, rendered new each morning. I photographed hundreds.
I began attending Sacred Heart Cathedral in Fairbanks and went regularly for several years. There were specific priests that, when they spoke, their words, pregnant with meaning, would hit home.
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