This article is my account of a pivotal event of twelve years ago, and the profound lesson it held. When we look at the most essential component of our lives, we find the flow which is life. A cord of consciousness connects us to that stream. It seems we often need a traumatic experience before we become aware of that essence and of the cord's strength. This article about my life-threatening injury speaks about the constancy of that connection. It's the one possession we always have.
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And, umm ... yep, it's a true story.
JOEL / / / / / The Thread of Life
-- Joel Metzger
Imagine yourself in an unknown, unlit place. You are restless, but unable to move with control; alone, but unaware of what surrounds you. You have no desire to know where you are, your concern is of immediate senses. More than the pain you feel is the intense discomfort you suffer. You try to move to relieve the distress and need to move again. And again.
You are an infant, just born, but with a body full-grown. You are beginning life -- no past, no memories, no knowledge. Every sensation is all-encompassing: there is your body, and that's all; there is your arms, and that's all; there is your discomfort, and that is all. You do not know the day; you have no concept of time. You are not in blissful ignorance -- far from it, all awareness is of the physical. In the physical exists only physical pain. The mind which could know of any other thing is lifeless.
Anyone else would see you are in a hospital bed, bandaged and barely conscious. Tossing. Groaning. A nurse walks in the room. The nurse leaves. Time stretches on. For you, there are no thoughts and little awareness outside of total concern for body. You have no purpose, nor do you wish for purpose. There is only immediate distress.
Yet part of you is safe...
This is where I have been. I know only what others have told me: a late summer night, driving alone down my street, going home, my car passing over a bridge. I was going thirty-five, the other car ninety. I must have seen it coming, they have said, as I crossed over the bridge.
Perhaps I slammed on the brake, perhaps I had no time. The other car jumped the median, flew across the bridge, and collided with me head-on, tearing off my roof, and dragging it a block. The other driver was killed instantly, along with his passenger. I was pulled from my car -- broken jaw, lacerations, and severe head trauma.
An existence without conscious thought was the best my family was told to hope for, "The rest of his life in a nursing home ... irreversible brain damage ... never speak again ... no functional activity." Doctors said, "Pray for a miracle." One friend fainted on seeing me lying amidst the medical instruments, tubing, and support systems. The brain injury would most likely be fatal, coupled with the high fever and brain fluid infection. There was little hope. My wife was given the remains of my wedding ring -- bent metal, glass, and blood.
For two months I lay unconscious, while my wife lived in the waiting room. People brought her meals and comforted her. Friends gathered around my bed and sang songs to wake me. The small party was an unusual sight for the ICU.
So people tell me, but I recall nothing. Once my home was in another city, I know, and my career was different. There are even vague memories of that past lifetime: paddling a homemade boat with my daughter in our backyard pool, fabricating hi-tech aircraft components at my job, watching my wife and daughter play ballerina in our living room.
Again, imagine: you are alone, far alone and solitary. There is sadness here, with no thought; pure emotion, with no concerns. Here is heartbreak without the story, a single frame from a movie. Every second gauges your distance from every person and every care. Far from you is the mass which is your body. All has been taken, you are left with nothing, and you are impotent to act. You have no thoughts, and cannot know of the lack. The cry from a sad song is heard with no music or lyrics. You are left with only your life's skeleton. The flesh that had filled your moments is gone and you are in a vacuum, unable to think even one comforting thought. Each thing that has given you joy, and all you cared for, has gone, but the caring has not.
Imagine: you are sightless, falling from an airplane. You do not recognize the contents of the large pack on your back. It is heavy and massive; you are far too frightened to wonder.
You are a lone diver, deep in the sea. You are in the black, with no glimmer of light. The ocean's floor stretches without end, and water fills all space in all directions. Your depth underwater is not known. Life hangs on a tether stretching to the surface, the thin line carrying air.
You are lowered further into the unknown darkness, leaving the cares and the people who have accompanied you every minute of your life. You cannot cry. Your heart sinks as if weight pressed your chest. Slowly you are dropped to the ocean floor, and there you are deserted.
This is the bedrock, where each person will come, as the movement of life winds down. Here the action turns slower until its motion is imperceptible and all else is taken away. Once you were happy that people befriended you. Now you have no company. The people are over there -- far away. You stand alone as if abandoned. But it is not they who leave, it is you. You go where no one can follow. You are alone.
Yet a baseline remains that can never be taken, the common ground of all moments and events. A part of you is safe...
I slowly recovered. The miracle came. After two months my coma lightened and I drifted in and out of restless dreams. I was flown to another city for rehabilitation and there my earliest memories begin. They are not the recollections of a joyous blessing. I remember pain. In my memory, I was pushed and dragged. In truth, I was nursed and cared for.
I remember therapy, a nightmare of being mauled and manipulated. In reality, I was casted and stretched to counteract the severe muscle spasms caused by the head trauma. I worked and exercised through the pain and past my limits.
I could not sit in my wheelchair. I had to be tied into it so I would not roll out onto the floor. I hated that -- unable to speak, accustomed only to bed, forced to sit. My casted feet hung heavy from my legs. Nurses left me to go about their business. Frustrated and furious, I banged my casts against the floor. Let me out! Let me lie down. I beg you.
I could not drink. I had no swallow reflex and did not have the coordination to compensate, so doctor's orders: no liquids. A spelling board was brought to me, to point out letters. My first word: "THIRSTY." That spelling board was my only communication. Once I asked a visiting friend to pass the urinal. He interpreted the letters as, "You are in a hell." I laughed so hard that my request was almost too late.
My condition improved. I learned to speak and I was ready to begin life again as a new person. I would soon be walking and learning a new career. Finally I was to go home to live with my family. The seven months in rehabilitation had seemed forever.
Then came a second tragedy, as devastating as the car accident: two months later, my wife left me. To her I was a different person. I was awake by this time. Wide awake and conscious, and I remember it. My wife and daughter gone? For weeks I wept. I was a new person, alone and barely recovered. More than ever I needed help.
But the crying was not endless. I expected to become a small fraction of my former self, instead my life became rich. Mine is the opportunity that everyone wishes for: "If only I could do it over again knowing what I know now!"
Now I can walk. This is new, a dance of triumph -- hard to learn, harder to relearn. I must consciously synchronize weight shift, gait size, foot placement, balance control, and arm swing. How many people recall the delight that is every baby's? I remember the day I took my first three unaided steps.
Now, every step is a celebration: I take four-mile walks to the movies across town, waving my arms in the air. "I'm free! I can walk." I walk to the kitchen for a snack, carry out the trash, ride the bus. What a feat that is. Climb on board, squeeze my way to a seat, and sit there almost giggling.
The doctors were wrong. Never speak? No functional activity? More than ever I talk and function. They said I'd live in a nursing home the rest of my life.
Ha! One friend said, about the prognosis that I would be like a vegetable,
"You're doing better than any broccoli I've seen." No one who sees me has any idea from where I have returned.
A favorite joke of mine: "You only live once." Truthful is the sentiment, ironic is the statement. I have lived twice. I began my second life after the two accidents: of my car and of my emotions. I have come to the edge of death, then to the brink of emotional ruin -- closer than almost anyone to experiencing reincarnation in the same lifetime.
In my life, suddenly, the rug was pulled from beneath me and everything changed. Life was stripped of thought and action. There remained only the necessary: myself alive. I was without a body I could command, a personality I could call my own, and a memory I could retain.
And all the while, a cord held me. I watched life rebuild someone, myself almost dead, into a real living person, my new self fully whole. I fell to the bottom, where I lay flat, and saw time stretch out in the distance, and said, "No one can go lower. From here one can only climb uphill." As I ascended, I knew this lifeline. Now I have returned.
Once again, imagine yourself: a newcomer to this life, isolated and vulnerable to surroundings. You are exposed, open to harm, yet part of you is safe...
Along with your fragile condition imagine the vital thread that will continue. You feel its unbroken cord sustaining you. You stand on a foundation of stone, the life in your body, but now without the physical and mental capabilities that were yours. Still you feel the power that will persist. As you fell, you recognized the massive pack on your back to be a parachute. It broke your fall, letting you down gently. In place of your identity, you now lie on ground common to all. A bed of rock supports you, warm and smooth. You are able to stand and walk.
Here you go, right to the edge of existence. That thread will follow you to the end, as always. The thread defines safety: that which survives intact. Now, for all your days, for all you do, for however long you exist, you will know. You are held by life and you are safe. You are safe.
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