Salaam and Greetings of Peace:
This is a true story.
A few months after my 40th birthday, on January 14th 1986, I was rushed to the Emergency Room due to the devastating effects of a misdiagnosed illness. Had my sister not been visiting to see my condition and insist I go to the hospital immediately, the doctors said I would not have lived through the night.
In the emergency room my heart stopped, and the doctors had to revive it with those electric paddles you see in the movies. I remember it only vaguely, though I did have slight burn marks for a few days. Eventually they discovered that I had Cushing’s Disease, a benign tumor on the pituitary gland (which is in the middle of the forehead) that caused the hormones levels in my body to run wild. The natural steroid hormone ACTH, for instance, has a normal level of 200. Mine was 6000.
And since the pituitary gland controls other glands and body functions, I had also gotten high blood pressure and diabetes. It was the undiagnosed diabetes that was killing me. Eventually I learned that the diabetes had been untreated for so long and gotten so bad so quickly because of the tumor that I was fortunate to be alive. By that time my eyesight was blurry, my muscles so atrophied by dehydration that I could barely walk, and I found it difficult to think clearly. There were numerous other symptoms, but those were the major ones.
Alas, we are captives to this fragile shell of flesh. Fortunately, they had an experimental drug, aminoglutethymide, that very slowly brought the hormone levels under control. Blood was drawn every hour to check the hormone levels, so both arms soon became black and blue from shoulder to wrist. Of course, being in a hospital has its own dangers, and I soon got a staph infection, endocarditis, which attacks the heart valves, and spent six weeks on Oxycilin therapy; another tube in my arm. I have a heart murmur to this day because of it.
I had so many tubes in my black and blue arms that it was almost comical. What wasn’t funny was the hormone-level induced paranoia. Like anyone on steroids, they affect both the body and the mind at those levels. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say I was my poor nurses worst patient.
The hormones would spike at night, and in the first days I would often go into a kind of catatonic state, sometimes for days. I would come out of it and the nurses would be standing around me saying, “Are you awake? Are you ok?” I once asked how long I was out, and they said, “Three days.” I didn’t know where I had been or what I had been dreaming, if anything.
About two weeks after I was admitted, when the doctors were still not sure if I would live from one day to the next, I remember lying in bed, on my back because both arms had tubes in them, and feeling very weak and strange. I had learned to recognize the physical symptoms of the onset of one of the catatonic states, but this was different. I felt certain that I was going to die.
And I did.
Like a flash, my consciousness, or soul, or spirit, or ka, left my body. I was flying upward around the balloon-like curved right hand rim of the universe at an impossible speed, faster than thought. I still had a body, but it was ethereal, light as a feather. I could see the small oval shapes of thousands of galaxies on my left as I sped past. A heartbeat later I was there.
In front of me was a long luminous table, like a raised dais, and seated there were beings bathed in light, but human in form. They had heads and bodies, and were robed in white, but I could not make out their faces. Were they angels? Judges? I don’t know. I think there were ten of them. At least that is the number that is in my head. Then I began to spin like a top attached to a string, though my consciousness looked straight at them. I am spinning and looking straight ahead. How is that possible? And I began to weep. I must be dead, I thought, and began, without any prompting or question being asked, to recount the sins of my life, and they were many.
Lying, cheating, stealing, gluttony, sex, drugs; all the small and great sins of boy and man. How small or large they were makes no difference. They were as big as my life then, and, besides my children, all I thought I had to show for it. Through my tears, I begged for forgiveness.
The being in the middle spoke easily in a calm, male sounding voice that I heard in my mind. “You are forgiven. It is not your time yet.”
Instantly I was flying back around the rim of the universe. The galaxies were on my right as I flew past, with an uncanny sense of going downward. In a heartbeat I was back in my hospital room in my body sitting bolt upright in bed. I was never more awake in my life.
When I finally went to sleep that night, I had a dream that I wrote a book that changed the world and brought peace to mankind. Now that is a sinner really trying to make amends, lol!!!
I began to recover then. Perhaps the medication was finally taking effect. Some years later I had occasion to see my medical records. On top of one page was written: Recovery is astounding. And so it was.
I left the hospital on March 7th, 1986, walking with a cane because of my atrophied leg muscles. For nearly a year I had to climb the stairs of my house by literally crawling up them on my hands and knees because my legs would not hold me. Slowly the muscles got stronger with use. By the time I had the operation to remove my pituitary gland on December 23rd 1986, I was fully recovered. After it was removed, the diabetes went away. The blood pressure returned to normal.
In those nine months between my release from the hospital and the surgery I began to write poetry. The words just streamed out of me in gulps, like great gusts of breath. I was so happy to be alive that love poured out of me in poems and in tears.
My state in that in-between time was one of infinite gratitude for the gift of my life, and for God’s infinite love and mercy and forgiveness. Like the stories I have read about people who have had near death experiences, everything afterwards seemed illuminated with love and the peace of mind of a new understanding of life. I wept a great deal at the most mundane show of tenderness and emotion, and still do. My kids make fun of me for it, but I don’t care. I know how precious a gift is this short life we are given, and the chance in it to give love and experience love, and through love, God’s love for us.
This ‘change of heart’ gradually diminished, and the ego-centered nafs roared back as strong as ever, but something was activated that did not go away and sought an outlet to nourish it. It led me eventually to the Sufi path and to the door of the Beloved.
Five years after being hospitalized and my out of body experience, I stepped on the path of the heart and was initiated as a darvish in the Nimatullahi Sufi Order. Six months after initiation, an idea for a book came to me during zekr, and twelve years after that I finally published the Sufi novel, Master of the Jinn. I doubt if it will change the world, but if it gladdens one heart for one day, that is enough for me.
Every word of this post is true. What details I have left out are not important to the reason for telling it. You may think it was a dream, a vision, or a hormone induced hallucination, and for a long time afterward, so did I.
I had been a cynic and agnostic for as long as I can remember. I have never believed in hell, but always desired to know what, if anything, lies beyond this life, to know what is meant by God. Perhaps this is always at the edge of consciousness in everyone. Now, after fifteen years on the Sufi path, I am sharing this story so you will know that beyond everything you experience and believe, there is a truth that is unimaginable, and that one day you too will experience it. It is written about in Holy Books, and phrased in lovely language and parables and aphorisms, poetry and stories, and lived through the lives of Prophets and Saints.
It is love and mercy and compassion and forgiveness and love again, so complete and encompassing that we are born out of it, and return to it in the end. It is the bond of this Love that each of us shares, felt most strongly in the bond between mother and child, but felt nonetheless by each of us to the degree that we let it in. The Sufi path is nothing more than this, life is all of this, and that is all I know.