My first experience of time as a continuum occurred when I was about ten years old. Before that, I think time was invisible to me.
I was riding my bike past Johnny Sybulski’s house and I stopped, suddenly, for no particular reason. I looked at the simple brick facade, the white trim, the unkempt bushes, and I became aware of myself looking. I thought, “This is just one second in my life, and I’ll never remember it again.” But that moment is one of my more vivid memories from childhood. It marked the beginning of my sense of myself as mortal.
Both of my grandfathers had died that year. In each case I had seen them nearing death in the hospital some weeks before and had seen their dead bodies in the funeral home. Perhaps that’s why I noticed that moment, or perhaps ten is when most boys begin to understand time and death; I don’t know. What I do know is that from that point on, time had a kind of linearity it had not had before, and this linearity soon became part of my background understanding of the cosmos. As I got older, time became invisible again, but differently than it had before.
Dr. Stephen L. Thaler, a physicist who has modeled near-death and death itself on a neural network, believes that as neurons die, the surrounding neurons experience the loss of their compatriots as life events. Somewhat like dreams or hallucinations, the death visions created by dying neurons are as real to the dying person as anything else he or she has ever experienced.
Thaler hypothesizes that this process continues until death is complete, and that “for all intents, the dying individual may experience forever, through the cascading death of nearly 100 billion brain cells (and an unfathomable number of interconnections) within an instant, resulting in a torrent of experience tantamount to eternity. It is as if life is going on for the trauma victim. However, the timeline at death has only a moment’s projection on the timeline we call ‘real.'”
According to the doctor and the nurses who resuscitated me, my near-death experience must have lasted no more than a minute or two. They said I was talking to them all the while they were attempting to transfuse me, and that even during the blackout period I had continually crossed my hands over my chest, perhaps in an effort to warm myself. (Like Snowden in Catch-22, I was cold, so cold). They seemed surprised when I told them I’d had a near-death experience. Busy with trying to keep me alive, they hadn’t noticed I’d left the room.
During that minute or two of their time, however, my time seemed infinite, my experience of being alive at once the most intense and the simplest of my recollected existence. In near-death, time does more than slow down, as it might during a more routine emergency. It changes altogether, collapses into a singularity and then spans out again, altered, like light refracted by a prism.
After surgery, time moved in a jerky fashion. No longer stopped dead, as it had been during the near-death experience, time nevertheless stretched out almost endlessly. Days went on forever, much as they had when I was a child, and the two weeks I spent at St. Peter’s Hospital seemed — seem, still, today — to contain the experience of years.
Those days are by far the longest of my existence, but this way of experiencing time continued for several months. Later, when I began to circulate among the ordinary living again, I felt as if decades had passed. It was as though I had been rewarded for my troubles with an elongated sense of time. This seemed good. But it was also as if I were a modern incarnation of Rip Van Winkle returning to a time and place that had moved on without me, a people among whom I could walk but with whom I no longer belonged. I could not talk about the things I had once cared about, could not easily pick up any of the activities I left behind. I had been away too long and had forgotten my old ways.
Like before, time had become visible.
Now I think about time a good deal more than I used to, especially during the gaps between ending one thing and beginning another, the “waiting for a bus” times: waiting for someone to pick up the phone as it rings, waiting for a television commercial to end, waiting for my computer to save a file so I can get back to work. Those times.
I think about the minute or two I was over there, on the “other side,” or if not there then very close to it, and of the similarities and differences between that minute or two and those others. (Waiting for a bus and waiting to die are both, after all, waiting, though in the former very little seems to change, while during the latter, when life actually was on hold, everything did.)
Then I think about other minutes that divide everything into “before” and “after”: the minute you find out your mate is having an affair, your boss tells you you’re fired, your doctor tells you you have cancer, your car slides out of control. Or the other side of the equation: the minute a child is born, a lottery won, a love relationship consummated.
These minutes, too, contain more life in them than an average month of ordinary and predictable experience, and I wonder why it is that instead of seeking out the moments when every drop of life, bitter or sweet, is hot and passionate, most of us gravitate towards those empty minutes, find comfort in those in-between times.
In the ensuing years since my near-death experience, time has once again started to become invisible, and as more years pass I suspect this process will continue. But like before, it will do so differently.
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