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Life/Death/?

Originally written 1986-87 Re-edited with addendum 6/1993 by Geraldine Berkheimer.
August 8, 1959, Paris.

I wonder if it was a sunny day?  Could it have been a cloudy day?  Certainly it wasn't a rainy day, the day I decided to take my roll of film to the Latin Quarter to have it developed.  I'd never have ventured into the rain on a Vespa—I had more sense than that.  It must have been a good day; Patrick and I would go on a picnic in the afternoon.  But the afternoon never came.  I can only deduce that I was going to the camera shop from the fact that a roll of film was found in my jacket pocket.  At least that's what someone said sometime later.

I had spent the past academic year in Paris with the Middlebury Group preparing a Master's Degree.  It had been a great year!  I had learned to speak, read, write and understand French very well.  In spite of the hard work at studies I had managed to go to the theater, travel on student tours throughout France, Spain and Italy, and enjoy a full life of experiencing the "City of Lights".  Each of these activities allowed me to make friends from all over the world and from all walks of life.  I was happier than I had ever been.  Among my closest friends were two French students, both of whom were in medical school: Christine and Patrick.  Patrick had sold a Vespa of his to Sandy, another Middlebury student, and me.  She never wanted to learn to drive it, so I had it to myself most of the time. 

I drove all over Paris (once I raced up the Champs Elysees with another scooter addict) and in the suburbs.  I was quite comfortable with it and Sandy had no qualms about riding on the back, so we decided to spend the month after classes were over traveling through Europe, visiting some of our classmates and celebrating our graduation which would officially be in August.  I asked Patrick to make sure the scooter was in top running condition for our trip.  He had it completely overhauled and promised we'd have no trouble with it.  The night before we were to leave, Sandy and I loaded our luggage and made our way across town to make sure we'd know the best route to take in the morning.  Something was wrong.  I couldn't get the scooter to go fast enough.  It was as if I were driving in second gear the whole time.  Sandy was worried so she took the metro home and I tried to find a service station open to get it fixed—without luck.  It was late at night; no garages were open.

Rather than forgo our trip we decided to start out the next day hitch-hiking through our planned itinerary.  We left the Vespa behind with a note for Patrick telling him that if he fixed it he could use it while we were gone.  On our return we all had a good laugh—the brakes had been tightened too much.  That was around mid-July.

In spite of strange, unwanted feelings that I should return (in fact, that I was being drawn back) to the United States, I wanted more than anything to spend another year in France.  Thanks to the fact that my home town, York, PA, is twinned to Arles in southern France, I was to have a job there in the fall teaching "American" in the elementary schools.  Sandy returned to the States after our trip so I had the scooter to myself for nearly a month before heading to the Midi.  There I was, virtually free in Paris, now living at the Cité Universitaire at the southern end of town and loving it!  Needless to say, I made the most of it, touring the city and the surrounding area.  Of special importance, as it turned out, was the visit from an American friend whom I had known at Middlebury, Marcia.  While in Paris she introduced me to friends of hers who were to become my friends and be of great help later.

First there was Godin.  She had a full name, but to most people she was Godin.  Marcia had spent a full year in that household years before, and I would return to Paris to live with them two years later.  Secondly, there was Ginette, who before the war had planned a career as a concert pianist.  Due to the war those plans were put aside and when I met her she was in charge of helping refugees who came to the Quaker Center and giving them concerts from time to time.  As I recall, the day I met them there was a simple "Hello.  I'm glad to know you" between us.  I was Marcia's friend and was received as such.  I doubt if at that moment either of them thought they'd see much more of me.

During the course of those events I had a nightmare which I would put out of my mind until perhaps years later.  I know it was a very long time before I connected it with what was happening in my "real" life.  In the dream I was in a casket, the lid of which was being shut; I called for my brother but he didn't answer or come.

At Easter in 1959 I toured Spain with a group of students.  Like most tourists we visited entertainment offered by gypsies in the cave homes surrounding Granada.  At intermission, a Gypsy woman read palms of the clients who were seated along the walls around the room.  I was the last one in line and was quite bewildered when, after having given reasonably long readings for everyone else, she looked at my hand, shook her head and hurried away into another room without saying a word.  I thought about it then and have often thought about it since.  Years later, I would have an equally bizarre experience with gypsies passing on a Paris Street.

But by August I was assured of my diploma from Middlebury, a happy end of summer vacation in Paris, and I was intent on getting on with my new job in southern France.  That is, until August 8, 1959.

I don't remember setting out for the Latin Quarter that morning.  There is no question that is where I was headed.  It was a familiar jaunt and the location of the accident indicates the destination.  A policeman at the scene said a taxi pulled away from the curb and ran a red light.  I was in the intersection at the time.  I have a few memories of the next few days and they are as vivid as if the events took place yesterday.  (I'm told I called for my brother, who never wrote to me at the hospital, as well as for Patrick and Christine.)

The first thing I recall is the impression I must be in "heaven".  I was above my bed looking down at my body, and I saw white clad "angels" coming and going.  Of course it was the hospital staff.  I realized this immediately.

That was the first of several out-of-body experiences related to this accident.  Sometime after that a doctor and a few other persons came in with objects for me to identify—a pencil, an apple, and what I recall as a radio or something resembling a small portable radio.  I thought to myself "How stupid do you think I am?" as I told them the names of the objects.  However, my communication was not received!  Those present apparently had no idea that I understood and responded.  I don't know how many similar incidents there may have been during the next few days.  I remember several of them.  And I realized quickly I wasn't getting through to those around me.  Due to the extent of my injuries I was transferred to a hospital better equipped to take care of this sort of trauma.  I wasn't expected to live and my family was notified.  I remember vividly the day I was put on a stretcher and wheeled down the long, barren hallway to the waiting ambulance, and the second out-of-body experience.  They had pushed my stretcher to the back of the ambulance.  I left my body and circled the vehicle from the back to the right side, around the front, stopping by the driver's window to look at the dashboard, and went back to the stretcher.  I was fascinated and intrigued.

At the second hospital I became cognizant of my situation, although no one told me immediately of my broken bones, loss of hearing, nor, as I recall, of my lack of communication skills.  Then, too, it is possible that I was told and the information didn't register.  Only later, after my release from the hospital, when I read the description of my injuries provided to me for "insurance purposes", did I encounter for the first time the name of my condition: aphasia.  And even then I didn't know what it meant.  For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, aphasia describes a condition in which the afflicted looses one, several or all of his or her abilities to communicate verbally, be it listening, speaking, reading, writing or several skills I shall not try to describe here.

It was in this second hospital that I underwent the prescribed testing, i.e.  EEG and others.  And it was here that the most unique experience of my life, other than that of being aphasic, occurred.  I do not know whether it happened the first day of my hospitalization there or a few days later. 

However, my impression is that it was the first day.  Once again I was outside my body, to my right and above my head.  I looked down at my body and then looked straight ahead of me where I saw a light, a clarity.  I was puzzled by this and I distinctly recall asking myself if I wanted to go see what it was or return to my body.  I chose to go back to my body, but part way back in I changed my mind and returned to the area above my bed.  This time I saw a tunnel leading to the clarity.  I don't remember seeing it the first time.  Somehow I knew that if I chose to go through the tunnel I would die, but, strangely, it didn't seem to matter to me.  I laughed because I wouldn't have to return to my parents' house and clean out things in the attic I had accumulated over the years.  As I look back at that I'm surprised that I'd find it amusing.  I'd always considered myself a responsible person and still do.  As I stepped into the tunnel this out-of-body experience became quite different from the others.  In the "ordinary" OBE one is immediately drawn back into the body by the slightest sound, fear or other thought from the physical world.  One is attached to the body by what some refer to as a "silver cord".  When I entered into the tunnel there was no attachment to nor memory of the physical world as we know it.  This is my experience; I don't know about "others'" experiences.  I did feel like I was swirling, at first slowly, then faster and was accompanied by "others" after I got part way through the tunnel.  As I approached the clarity at the far end I was disoriented but as soon as I exited from the tunnel I heard voices "Gerry's here. 

Gerry's here!"  Some people having had similar experiences report having seen relatives, friends or religious figures.  I did not recognize any "beings".

Several things struck me.  First of all was the feeling of joy, of euphoria.  No other word even comes close to describe what is inexpressible.  Nothing negative was evident.  I did not encounter or see any "bodies" such as our physical bodies.  What I "saw" were a few (three or four) what I can describe only as essences, clear in substance (if there was substance) shaped like inverted drops.  After 30 years I'm inclined to think "they" may have been different vibrations of light and that perhaps that is precisely what spirit is. 

Communication was not speech as we know it, but rather similar to what we call"mental telepathy'".  There was immediate recognition of the meaning of the communication.  I cannot express well enough the feelings of joy and euphoria (what some call love) that not just permeated the experience but which was its very essence.  It was an expression of total acceptance only spoken of on the physical plane.  There was a point where I said to myself" this must be where I'll see my past go by me".  If I had that experience I didn't bring it back to this plane with me.

Another unforgettable thing was the lack of time and space, i.e.  the experience of timelessness and spacelessness.  I was at one and the same time in the "past" (medieval times),"present", and "what will be".  It was as if the three "time" frames were superimposed in a fashion similar to that of numerous layers of film laid one on the other.  "Space" was experienced in somewhat the same way.  When I was at the exit of the tunnel I was on a hill overlooking a city or village in the distance, and instantaneously, again almost telepathically, I was somewhere else.

As mentioned earlier, there was a pervasive sense of total acceptance and I realized that there is no such thing as sin and guilt, that these are earth-bound, man-made concepts designed to control someone or something.  This has had a lasting impression on me and changed my perspective of life considerably.

So there I was.  It has been pointed out to me by a sensitive (psychic) that I appeared to those who greeted me just as they appeared to me.  That has brought me new insight to the experience.  At any rate I was as ecstatic as the others, eager to learn whatever there was to learn.  They were about to take me "farther" when another essence appeared.  Those who had greeted me at my arrival told the newcomer that I had just arrived and that they were going to take me wherever it was they were going to introduce me.  However, a firm "NO" from the newly arrived essence put a stop to it.  Neither the essences nor I were happy with that response and I tried to insist on staying, saying I absolutely did not want to go back.  In return we got a simple "Gerry must go back because they don't know."

I don't remember saying good-bye.  I know that coming back through the tunnel was faster than going towards the clarity and that it was accompanied by a swooshing sound.  I reentered my body through my head, through what I have since learned is referred to as the crown chakra.  (Here, I must underscore the fact that before my accident and for years afterward I had never heard of the chakra system nor of the associated metaphysical concepts.)  That is where and how I found myself back in my hospital bed.  Whether the experience of having been "on the other side" lasted a few seconds or minutes or more I have no way of knowing.  No one ever mentioned to me that I had "died" but then, the French ways of keeping records and dealing with hospital patients vary somewhat from those with which we are accustomed in our country.  In any event, I had been sent back to the physical plane against my will.  Once back there was a point, a very poignant and frightening point, where I became aware of the fact that I had no strength that even to lift my little finger literally exhausted me.  I recall the impact of that realization.  Unless I took charge of myself I'd be an invalid the rest of my earth-bound existence, someone else would feed me, clothe me, speak for me, and move me from wherever I was to wherever I wanted or needed to be.  No way was I about to let that happen if I could help it so I struggled and "pained" to regain physical strength and to communicate.  One day I realized I wasn't hearing what was being said to me on my right side.  It was the first and, to my knowledge, the only time during the entire experience I am describing that I cried.  It is the only handicap other than tiring easily in noisy situations that has remained with me to this day.

My biological family was not closely knit, and although my mother did come to Paris at the request of the physician and friends, it was more harmful than helpful.  That is one of the reasons that Ginette's unexpected visit provided what I consider the key to my recovery.  Also, I asked her to send her personal physician to see if he'd tell me if I'd ever hear through my right ear again.  The doctors at the hospital wouldn't say more than that they didn't know and that didn't satisfy me.  I needed to know how and to what to adjust my life.  Ginette's doctor was to the point: "No", I would not regain my hearing.  I often wonder, though, whether I would be able to hear today if I had worked as hard at hearing as I did at learning to speak, read, write and pay attention to what people said to me.

Although it took me about five years to recover completely the early steps were exceptionally rapid.  In a week I understood English fairly well and began speaking enough to ask for my radio and a necklace, and to recognize the music from The King and I.  Within the following two weeks I began conversing in French.  The doctors had told me I'd never speak French again and possibly not English!  In less than a month, at my mother's insistence, I was released from the hospital.  The document I was given upon my release states that the aphasia had "notoriously regressed."

As I mentioned, prior to my accident I had made arrangements to teach English in the schools in Arles.  In spite of the doctor's advice I went to Arles so I wouldn't have to return to the States and stay at my parents' house.  I must add that I felt I was truly ready to reenter my profession and thought I would he able to continue my career at that time.  After one-half day on the job I knew I was mistaken.  However, the school administration suggested I stay for six weeks and then try again.  I did stay until mid-November but it became obvious I was not ready for work.  Therefore I returned "home" where I convalesced for a year before returning to teaching.  After one year I became aware I needed more time off.  Since my communication skills were again normal and my lack of strength was disguised by my enthusiasm, no one knew of my accident and experiences related to it and therefore could not understand, let alone believe, my decision at the end of the academic year to leave for where even I didn't know.  As it happened, I was able to return to France for two years where I audited courses and worked part-time.  During those years my "self" (for lack of a better word) was slower at returning to my chronological age than was my body.  One person, a friend in York, PA, was aware of this because I would indicate to her the various stages of focusing to her.  It was most interesting to observe and to go through this process at the same time.  There were specific moments where I said to myself "I feel like a first grader; I feel like I'm about a senior in high school" then in college, and finally at my then chronological age.  It was one of the most unusual experiences I've ever had.  That process lasted about four and a half or five years.

For years, many years, I continued my search for what it is "they don't know".  At times I still am haunted by it.  However, I 've given up on that search for the most part confident that I am doing what I must do.  I hope, simply, that the telling of these experiences will have helped someone understand him or herself, or someone else.  It is not necessary that anyone agree with it, or even believe it.  I would like to have contributed to a better understanding of anyone with similar experiences.

Addendum

In the years immediately following the incident described above I was intent on getting my life together, of coming to grips with "reality" and making ends meet.  Struggle is an understatement.

It was not until the early 70s when someone asked me about my aphasia that I was, in essence, forced to relive my experience.  Painful as it was, it was also cathartic and since then I have been able to share what happened to me.  The same person introduced me to metaphysics and to parapsychology; both these fields have helped me understand my experience.  I have also become a neophyte astrologer.

I had tried for years to write about my NDE but it wasn't until about 1986 that I was able to do so.  Much, obviously, has happened since then.  I learned about the International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS) and have attended one of their international congresses.  I've read all I can find on the NDE.  One author in particular, PMH Atwater, has helped me.  In her Coming back to Life she states that her research has shown that it takes a MINIMUM of seven years for an NDEr to BEGIN to assimilate the experience!  It put to rest my wondering if I had suppressed my experience for some reason.  The process of integrating the NDE with "normal" life is a continuous, daily one.  Even today, nearly 34 years later, I make adjustments due to what I experienced in the NDE.  I spoke to a 65-year-old who told me the same thing ...  his experience was in childhood!  And, the experience is as vivid as the moment(s) it occurred.

Much has been written on the subject, particularly the past ten-fifteen years and mostly by researchers: Moody, Ring, Sabom, Atwater (herself a three-time experiencer) and others.  Material by experiencers is limited though there are now an estimated 13 million of us, in the US alone.  I often try to explain to groups to whom I speak that the NDE is more intimate than sex.  Here we are dealing with the very essence of being, with the soul.  Beauty and pain go hand in hand in describing the experience unless one detaches him/herself from it and few experiencers can, or are willing to do that.

Therefore, the reader must accept that what I have written in these pages is the tip of the iceberg.  Please, ask no more at this time.

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