To Almost Die

white light/white heat
Image by .mariols.

Have you ever come this close to death?

Morbid, but fascinating nevertheless.

“What’s it like,” asks Don Draper to his bellman, who almost died of a heart attack during the opening episode of season 6. Draper, a character that faked his own death, obsesses with mortality throughout the overall show arc. One wonders when he will find out for sure. But I digress…

The Bell Man answers with the usual trite response of a white light appeared.

So, is that really all there is?

Science shows us the white light experience and other near death moments produce a strain on our minds, in turn creating a chemical reaction which in creates heaven’s limelight.

We are just fascinated with death, so maybe we can explain the biology of it, but there has to be more. What about impact on the human soul?

When You Almost Die


Being an idiot, I’ve arrived at death’s door a few times.

The first time I was in my freshman year of college I passed out drunk and stoned in a snow bank in Syracuse, NY. When I came to, I was groggy and moved on to my dorm, but God damn was I stupid. No hallucinations to report other than bizarere drunken fantasies of an 18 year old boy.

The next time, I was older, 27 to be exact. I was hiking off trail at Great Falls on the Maryland side (pictured above). For those of you who know the Billy Goat Trail, this was the spot, and I was on top of a small cliff. I lost my footing on the trail, slipped and fell off, perhaps a drop of about 30 feet.

Now, this, this I remember like it was yesterday. It happened fast, and I almost wet my shorts, except I didn’t have the time. I grasped at anything I could and managed to get a bit of a finger hold, not enough to catch myself, but enough to cause me to bounce along the wall a couple of time, and rip off my fingertip pads in the process.

When I hit the floor, I had clearly broken my arm and had one thought only, “Thank you, God, for not making it my head.” I was grateful to be alive.

My friend Eddie basically carried me out of the woods and saved me, a fact he always reminds me of every time I see him. When we got to the hospital, the x-ray revealed I had broken the ball of my elbow clean through. Fourteen years later, I still don’t have full rotation on my right arm, and it hurts every damn day.

The third time I almost died was on a motorcycle. I was riding by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. going about 30-35 miles per hour. Oncoming traffic approached me from my left, and a stopped bus was on my right. That’s when a gentlemen pulled out across my lane about 10 yards ahead of the bus to make an illegal left turn with his minivan.

I had nowhere to go, and not enough space to brake so I tried to pull ahead of the bus, and cut the corner.

Bus passed, corner I could not. I clipped the minivan’s left rear quarter, and slammed by my entire left side into the vehicle before getting thrown off the bike onto the pavement. My last thought as I drove toward the minivan, “Fuck it, I’m getting a Harley.”

Perhaps I sensed I would live. Thanks to the full face helmet and the body armor I was wearing, I did. The bike got totaled. I suffered a grade 2 concussion, and couldn’t work a full day for two weeks… I also bruised my left thigh through and through, and suffered road rash on my chest in spite of wearing a leather jacket. The minivan driver got a ticket, and that was it.

Three near deaths, and no fade to white, just a lights out, or a graying (more of a fade to black).

Oh, I did buy a crimson Harley Davidson Road King a month later for my 30th birthday. I hated it. It drove like a bus.

Flirtations and Avoidance of Death

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Two weekends ago a young lady died at a Tough Mudder in the DC area. It was terrible story to read, a reminder of how dangerous that race actually is.

Every day I wake up and my entire right side hurts from the elbow injury and my right knee that I blew out running a Tough Mudder last fall.

You have to sign a death liability waiver to run a Tough Mudder, and I’ve been thinking about that all week. I may not run again, contrary to macho claims of recovery. Motivating the reversal is the consistant pain, and of course, what I have to live for, which is quite a lot.

In all three near-death instances, I did not have any inclination that I might die that day. This drives home how fleeting life is. Every moment matters. Nearly dying leaves you with a real sense of questioning value for impact.

You really have to wonder what the overall contribution means, and stay laser focused on outcomes.

Yes, I question the value of existence, or at least this one, a place where people get miffy and/or celebratory over inclusion in “influencer” lists. It doesn’t mean much to me to ranked 74th on Mad Magazine’s 100 influencers list, comprised of people who talk A LOT on social media about social media. No, I won’t leave the Internet because I don’t like the influencer game.

I want to contribute and help someone’s career, or to help a company/nonprofit or even a sector grow. It does mean something to lead with actions so my daughter understands that real impact comes from achieving things. That’s opposed to seeking the attention gravy that’s really just an outcome of right actions.

There are clear reasons to be present and give.

I may not run the Tough Mudder again for the same reason I sold my Ducati two years ago. Soleil means the world to me. I would die for her, but not for a silly adrenaline rush or to prove I can come back from a bad injury.

Would I die running a Tough Mudder? Extremely unlikely, but my orthopedic surgeon told me I faced an exponential chance of seriously injuring myself again. And god damn, even though I have full use of knee again, it aches. All the time. I want to keep at least the left side of body feeling good.

When I was a 15 year old boy, my high school football coach recruited me to play line for the team. My father prevented me, suggesting I would get terribly injured. I’ve had many friends who suffered bad injuries playing football, and in the wake of my own breaks and surgery, I finally realize that my Dad probably did me a favor. Afterall, I broke bones four different times playing basketball. What would an amateur football career have done to my body?

Am I going to run away from every possible flirtation with death and injury? No, I still bicycle on the street, I love climbing mountains and going on hikes (though I stay on trail now), I would run a marathon, and so on, and so forth. But it’s managed risk.

When it’s our time, we can’t run away, but I certainly want to avoid death due to testosterone-based foolishness. Ah, the wisdom of middle age.

Deliver to the End


They say the world may end in a big rip, a result of the universe expanding too far. Then we all die, and our little conquests for meaning won’t add up to anything.

Yet, some simply walk about mindlessly just trying to feel good, others find contentment in momentary presence, and a few insist on packing everything they can in life.

Roger Ebert recently passed away, and he worked to the very end. He’s not the only one, many people work to the end, doing what they love, what matters to them and the people they have come to now.

I get that desire. Make every day matter, try and deliver to the world something useful, interesting, entertaining, or at least something to smile about. Somehow, I think presence is a part of that and walking your truth. Know who you are and do what you love.

Then I see others, the elderly in particular, folks that I’ve had to care for or have seen pass. Some enjoy their remaining time with their families, others are left alone to die, wasting away the years before TV sets and books, talking to fewer and fewer daily as their friends die off.

Sometimes I think there’s a real injustice done to our elderly by crating them off and leaving them in retirement homes. But some of those same elders continue putting themselves into the stream of life, while others give in to a slow surrender of loneliness.

I hope I never get to that point, frankly. I hope I go the way of Roger Ebert, doing what I love to the very end. Better to burn out than fade away, right?

You don’t know when it will end. You just know that it will.

What do you think about death?


  • As I was reading the earlier part of your post, I thought… life changes when you have a child. Even though I don’t have any, I still get that… and then the rest of your post bore that thought out.

    I think the way you describe these conscious decisions: managed risk – is spot on. There’s some element of risk in practically everything we do, but we consciously or unconsciously weigh the pros and cons, and the level of risk involved, and whether or not we can bear it. So I’m glad you are now more in that camp.

    As to death: honestly, it fascinates me. I’m very, very curious about it, but unfortunately there’s only one way to find out for sure. ;)

    • It truly is fascinating. One of the darkest taboo topics of all, yet one that we inevitably think about. I think it’s healthy to discuss it openly and embrace it, though in concept, not literally ;) Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Boy, this is a heckuva post, Geoff. I’ve never had a near-death experience that I can recall, but I was put under for a big surgery when I was a kid, and I still get dizzy trying to figure out my perception of time when I was unconscious. I had no visions or any exciting dreams. Maybe you actually have to be close to death to get the good stuff.

    I have been near someone who came close to dying – they experienced a massive heart attack, a 99% blockage it turned out. But they never lost consciousness. It’s strange how much television shows and movies color our ideas of how life should go, isn’t it?

    I’ll be thinking about this post for a long time. And thank you for the ping, again!

    • Thank you! I’m glad you liked it. It just kept chewing on me, so here we are.

      On the coloring of ideas, someone had a fascinating comment to this effect on my Facebook stream. He said there are no words. It’s beyond anything told to us.

  • Wow, quite the post. Surely something most of wonder about, from time to time.
    I’ve had a few near misses, surgery and a herniated lower back since my 15th. Living with pain makes you think all sorts of things. But the one thing it does is raise your awareness, your consciousness. Appreciate the better things and moments.

    As for death, I believe the lights just go out and that’ll be that. I don’t fear death.., I fear the pain before.

    • I totally get that, the fearing the pain before. Nothing worse than a long slow death over months and years. Declining is not for the weak of heart. Thank you!

  • I think “could have died” is different than literal near-death experience. I have been thinking a lot about this topic – well not about death so much but about souls, the universe, etc. Living in South Africa there seems to be a lot more untimely death around me than in the US, although there is also a lot of incredible beauty and humanity in a way that is lost to DC. Your mention of influencer lists made me wince actually … I am coming back to DC in 2 months – looking forward to it, but I wonder if I will still love it? Anyway, there is a book you might like, written by a highly regarded neurosurgeon who experienced a complete coma, with the neocortex shut off for a week, and then survived with no side effects. He was so shocked by what he experienced while in coma that he wrote it all down and took two years analyzing his own medical records and reading about near-death experiences – which had often been reported to him by patients but he had brushed them aside/rationalized them as most trained experts on the brain would do. He then wrote a book, at the risk of his own professional/scientific reputation, in which he explores the nature of conciousness, chapter by chapter breaking down what happened to him and looking at what the science explained, and what it did not. The book is called Proof of Heaven (I am sure that is the publisher’s title and not his, because it is not a religious book, per se, and he does not really talk about “heaven” — but about the idea that consciousness may not, in fact, be grounded in the grey matter like he had thought before.) The author is Eben Alexander.

    • It will be great to see you, Allison! It’s been a long, long time! Welcome back. And the Internet creates influencer lists, not DC, so rest easy.

      This book sounds awesome. I’ll definitely check it out. Interesting to hear Alexander’s experiences. It certainly does challenge the convention of medicine and near death experiences.

  • I have almost died a few times. The last time was just last month. I was crossing the street, and got hit by a car. Next thing I knew, I woke up in an ER being told I suffered skull fractures and was being choppered to another hospital due to my severe concussion. That was a moment that made me realize life can (and does) change in an instant. Thanks for the reminder Geoff.

    • Dear God, Nancy. I am so glad you are OK and can write this. I hope your recovery continues with speed.

  • I was in graduate school during the DC sniper years, travelling back and forth from Fairfax to Winchester a few times a week. One night, I stopped for gas in Manassas along 234/Sudley Rd — not five minutes before another victim was shot. I heard the report as I was getting back onto 66W headed back home.

    • Oh man, that was God awful. So scary. And right after 9-11. It felt like the world was ending.

      I am glad the snipers waited for a five minutes, Jason. We would have missed out on some great writing.

      • I think back on that night often. Gives me perspective when I feel like I’ve lost my way.

    • Yeah…that was too close to home. They shot one victim from the parking lot of my Safeway. I was holding a board meeting of Washington Independent Writers in my condo when a SWAT team crashed through our conference room, thinking the sniper was shooting up my building. The sound someone reported turned out not to be gunfire, it was a woman who jumped to her death from the 10th floor. What a day. Geoff, yes, I felt like the world as I knew it was ending.

      • Wow. Because I didn’t live in NOVA proper, I never really experienced all the fear that others did. One of my college roommates refused an invitation to visit because of the news.

  • I have buried more than a few friends. I can name 5 friends who never made it to 40, two of them left kids behind.

    And then I can add the stupid things I have done to this list and say I have been lucky.

    It is different as a parent. What fathers do is look out for our families. It is part of why I am waiting to go skydiving. I want to do it, but my kids are still young so…

  • Mortality is what gives you appreciation. Reckoning there is some control or logic to it is as crazy as passing out in the snow. Grasp that this too shall pass and you will not let it pass with so little attention to the miraculous details of each moment.

    • Indeed, understanding our own mortality is the key. Once we acknowledge that, we can begin to appreciate life more completely.

  • Geoff,

    I have had one, near death, experience. It was about 10 years ago and I remember it like yesterday. I don’t recall any “white light”. What I remember is defiance.

    I was near drowning. I was in panic mode. I had almost given up. I was preparing myself to take my last breath. Somehow I found the strength to keep afloat and make it to safety. The will to live overcame the panic. The terror at the thought of dying pushed me to perform as I had not before.

    I have not taken one moment for granted, since.


  • I agree with Allison Scuriatti that ‘could have died’ is different from an NDE. The interesting thing about NDEs is that the description of them is so uniform. I personally do not believe the scientific viewpoint that the effects are purely the result of changes in the brain. And some interesting research was done recently, which was reported on here:

    • Well, there’s only one way to find out… None of us wants to do that comparison.

      A nitpick. Could is not the wright word choice, it’s did. Believe me, when I landed on the canyon floor I knew I had almost died. And make no bones about it, it changes you. Immediately.

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