NDErs

 When my mother first told me about her time in heaven, she thought I’d understand because I wrote in my high school diary that I was spiritual. I told her that she had to know that was bullshit, that an argument that went “my daughter was spiritual in ninth grade, therefore she will understand that her mother went to heaven” made no sense, and asked her why and when she read my high school diary, as I didn’t remember saying she could.

When my mother first told an audience about her time in heaven, she said she was lucky to have her daughter there for support. She gestured to my seat in the back row. She had spent the last hour in front of a crowd of twenty in the basement of the Pine Springs Library, talking about how heaven is home and God is great. When I went up to her at the end of the talk, she was crying. “Maggie,” she said, “Someone came up to me afterward and told me I was brave. Told me I’d touched her.”

After that, she was booked at the Pine Springs Library for the second Tuesday of every month. I went along after my professor let me switch my Tuesday night class to a Thursday night lecture. My mother said she needed me there for emotional support, though I suspected she just needed someone to set up the projector. She began her talk as if she was confessing, solemnly facing the crowd, waiting for silence, and then—My name is Yvonne, and I am an NDEr.           

I liked to watch the crowd when she began. You could tell why certain people came: the elderly looking for end-of-life comfort, the local parishioners curious whether my mother spoke divine wisdom or heresy, the guy who thought that seeing a pseudo-religious nut-job would be a good fourth date. The other NDErs were easiest to spot. “Raise your hand if you survived a near-death experience,” my mother would say. “Look around, the room is full of NDErs—you are not alone.” The few with hands stretched toward the ceiling would smile in nauseating solidarity, grinning at their lot. God’s chosen people.

The first fifteen minutes of the speech are about my mother’s childhood. It’s awfully boring. Each time my mother would take the crowd from her baptism to her first husband, she’d fail to notice the frustration that filled the room, where people had been waiting for her death for a quarter hour. She would push on, talking about her divorce, about moving from New York to North Carolina. Then, after telling us about her love for the Carolina beaches, she would begin talking about her heart.

“I heard it fluttering. I could hear it in my ears; it would keep me awake at night, kerplunk kerplunk kerplunk.”            

She never did the sound right. On bad days it was like a pair of shoes tumbling in the dryer. Erratic, her doctor said. He’d diagnosed her with an arrhythmia, put her on beta-blockers.         “But then one night, it started again, kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk, louder than before. I took extra medication so that I could sleep, and the next thing I know, my heart stopped. All of the sudden I was floating. I remember this best, my back tapping on the ceiling as if I were a balloon. The room filled with light, and the light spoke. It said it was time to go home.”            My mother would pause here, scan the crowd, deciding how much they liked her. The less she thought they liked her, the more she’d talk.

“I’m glad to be speaking to the converted here. Anywhere else, people would be looking at me like I’m insane right about now. But you know. I crossed the entire universe in less than a second, and then I was there, heaven. As soon as I got there, my heart filled with joy. I say light, we all say light, light light light light, but there’s no word to express it. Heaven is made of light, like gold-spun cotton candy, like a world of golden glass. It’s beautiful, and everyone in Heaven is beautiful. I was beautiful, too. When I met Jesus, he looked at me like I was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.”

I would wait for laughs, the chuckles about cotton candy, for the whispers about Jesus’s taste. It wasn’t that my mother wasn’t pretty—she was, the sort of mom-pretty that makes you look forward to puberty and then disappointed when it’s over—but now my mother wasn’t just a woman who’d went to heaven, she was a woman who went to a heaven with cotton candy skies and a compliment-prone Christ. Her heaven was the brain spasm of a dying preteen, a hypoxia-induced hallucination of joy and gold glass. The room would be full of whispers, but the audience would save their laughs for the ride home.

My mother would go on.

“Imagine,” she would tell them, “you have infinite knowledge, infinite love, and then you are back on Earth. We don’t want to be here anymore, and we live with guilt because we wanted to abandon our loved ones. I wanted to leave my daughter, my parents.”

My mother had tried to explain this to me—how life stopped being real, how you end up with two realities, and that one supersedes this one. She tried to make me understand how hard it was. How as time goes on, you are asked to stop talking about the most important thing that has happened in your life because people think you are crazy, or, if they believe you, because they get bored of it.  I didn’t understand how that was supposed to make me forget that she wanted to leave me, that she didn’t want to be here, that she didn’t care about me when I was on Earth and she was up there partying with Jesus.

***

My mother met Neil after she’d been giving talks for six months. She told me that I would like him, but he called me princess and my mother hun and talked a lot about wine. He was an NDEr too, she said, hit by a bolt of lightning while jogging on the beach. That’s what I liked best about him, that he’d been hit by a bolt of lightning.

Neil was apparently an NDE expert. He knew parts of my mother’s story that she said she’d forgotten herself. My mother told me that she thought they met in heaven, that she felt a connection with him too powerful to just be earthly. I found out that he used to be a professor at Northwestern, in the psychology department. Now he taught at the psychical research center in Fayetteville, where he’d first met my mother. She went to all of his lectures. I only ever made it to one. When we walked in, the slideshow was already up on the screen, “NDErs and Bioluminescence” in white letters on a blue background. We sat in the third row back behind a woman in a sequined sweater. My mother smoothed her skirt and twisted her earrings. Neil was introduced by the center’s director, who noted that Neil was at the forefront of his field, that he had been published everywhere from the Journal of Scientific Exploration to Accounts of Psychical Research. Then, Neil took the podium.

He began his speech with a personal history. I had heard this part before from my mother, the one million volts, the pastures of heaven. That’s the only part I had heard though. For my mother, the trip to heaven was the only thing that mattered. It was the reason she was extraordinary, and so if Neil was special, it had to be the reason he was, too.

Neil realized that something had changed in him the day after he came back from the hospital. He was driving to his mother’s house. He had never been a good driver, called himself “highway anxious,” but now he just got it. “I could almost see lines coming from each car, arrows telling me what they’d do next. I knew everything that could—that would happen.” He saw the same lines coming from people, from animals, everything drawn out, everything predictable. “I knew more than any man should.”

“You don’t need to believe it,” he continued. “At first, I didn’t either. In fact, at one point I even thought it could be brain damage. But the thing is, I didn’t feel damaged. I felt better than I ever had.”

He set out to find a scientific explanation for this change. He read about how lightning affected the brain first, but plenty of people had their brains shot full of electricity, and none of them could see what he did. He moved on to researching near-death experiences, reading about how scientists had shot potassium chloride into the heart of rats, and between the death of their tiny rat hearts and their slightly larger rat brains, neural activity spiked. He read that a lack of oxygen has been seen to lead to hallucinations, an excess of carbon dioxide to a dissociative state.

“But I had so many questions that couldn’t be answered by this data. How is it that NDErs see the same thing—green pastures, golden skies, the welcoming arms of the Lord? How is it that all people either go to heaven or hell? We don’t hear about people going to alien planets or zombie worlds. We either have to assume the rats are seeing the afterlife too, or there’s something special about what humans are seeing.”

I had read about the rats after my mother first told me about heaven. The authors of the study had called the EEG spike “the heightened consciousness,” the peak brain activity of the rat’s lifetime. The rats made me want to believe my mother more. A mother that went to heaven is more admirable than one who, at the highest brain function she would ever have, saw cotton candy skies and felt she was beautiful.

Neil brought up his concerns to his colleagues at Northwestern. He told the crowd that because his questions had to do with religion, they went unanswered. “They are not,” Neil said, “bad questions. They are not unscientific questions. All they do is allow us to wonder if there’s something greater.”

Neil told us his breakthrough was after reading a study by Alfred Greenly about bioluminescence and healing. “Greenly offered a thousand dollars to any healer who could show how they did it. He met people who called on their ancestors and who worked for the devil, he met those who snuck painkillers into the meals of their patients, but eventually he met a man who said he knew how to control invisible particles.” Greenly had thought this man was crazy, until the man offered to prove the particles’ existence. When Greenly measured the man healing a child with a photomultiplier tube, he saw the amount of biophotons spike. “The healer had transformed the child. He filled the child with light until he gave light off himself. Greeley’s experiments have been replicated dozens of times, including by this lab. That healing can produce bioluminescence is a scientific fact.”

After reading about Greenly, Neil bought a photomultiplier tube into a dark room and meditated in front of it. He told us that the amount of biophotons he produced was up to ten thousand times the normal level, and a thousand times higher than the child. “I had a choice. I could accept the scientific readings I was getting as fact, or I could stick with the mainstream scientists, preserve my reputation. As a man of science, I felt it was my duty to stand by the evidence. And the evidence said that Heaven was real.”

After the lecture, as my mother and I watched Neil take questions, I asked her what she thought of the talk. “It’s still hard even for me to believe it,” she said, “It just sounds so wild. But I’ve seen Greenly’s research. I’ve seen Neil’s. I can’t find a mistake, and neither can the other researchers at Neil’s lab.” Earlier in the year I would have replied that most of the people at the psychical institute were there after spending the eighties using remote viewing in an attempt to steal Soviet secrets or after spending the seventies ghost hunting and working as consultants on horror films. But now I knew what she would say—And I spend my Tuesdays talking to people about the time I met God.

Neil measured my mother’s biophoton levels before we left. “Her numbers indicate she must be very gifted,” he said. “Your mother is almost all light.” She beamed while he said it, holding her printed data set under her arm. She would be his proof, my mother confided to me later. If Neil hadn’t found her, he would never have been able to show the world he was right. “Neil says I should be able to do extraordinary things. That I’m somehow more heaven than human. A fallen angel.” That’s what bothered me the most. More than Neil offering to help me with my biology assignments and saying that no good music was made after the 1960s, more than Neil making my mother try to type her name out on the computer only using her mind, more than my mother asking that our knives be moved to the pantry because Neil told her that her energy levels meant she was electromagnetic. My mother believing that she was an angel. I tried to convince her otherwise. It’s weird that you look exactly the same, mom. It’s weird that you don’t feel any different, mom. It’s weird that you still can get colds, mom. “Who are we to understand God’s work?” she’d say.

***

On a Tuesday in August, Neil asked me if I could give him and my mother a hand. They were doing an experiment, he said, and they hoped I could work the camera. I followed Neil to the car. My mother was already sitting in the front seat, looking anxious, running her hands over her thighs, picking lint off her jeans. Neil started the car and I buckled up in the backseat.

 “What’s the plan this time?” I tried to cheer my mother up. “Neil’s trying to get you to play checkers without hands?”

Neil answered for her. “Don’t worry about it, Mags. It’ll just take fifteen minutes.” As Neil smiled, as we turned onto the state road leading out of town, I realized that he wasn’t going to tell me what they were going to do.  “I think I want to go home,” I said, “Maybe we can do this another day?” Neither answered and moments later, we stopped in the middle of the Sansbury Bridge, pulling over to the side. As Neil turned the car off, I realized he was going to push my mother off the bridge. Neil was going to kill my mother. He was insane and he was going to kill my mother in the middle of August. I got out and stood in between them. I had went to a couple jiu-jitsu classes during high school, but now all I remembered was the stance, left foot forward, hands clenched in front of cheek bones. I wondered if I should grab the pencil from my pocket. I couldn’t remember if it was sharp.

As I walked to the railing with Neil and my mother, Neil gave me his camcorder. I remained between the two of them and got ready to film, taking off the lens cap, pushing the on button. He told me that I needed to make sure to capture both my mother and the river below. I focused on my mother’s hands, stretched out over the water as she leaned on the railing. Her skin looked like tracing paper, veins visible, tendons pushing at the surface. I told myself that he couldn’t push her unless I moved, that he would have to push me off first. I zoomed out again, attempting to fit into the frame both the upper half of my mother and the gray water below. I turned to tell Neil that we were set. He was already over on my mother’s right.

In the video you can only see my mother. She reaches her hand towards her head to twist her earrings, but rethinks the action before her hands are more than halfway there. When Neil arrives at her side thirty seconds in, the shot drops an inch. I had taken my eye off the viewfinder, attempting to keep the camcorder steady while peering at Neil over top of it, looking for his hands. You can hear my voice—“Take a step back Neil, you’re in the shot,” see the camcorder steady when he moves away. My mother wears sunglasses that she bought at the dollar store, the tortoiseshell pattern already peeling to reveal the cheap plastic beneath. Ten seconds later, you can see Neil’s foot in the top right corner. The shot wobbles as I notice it enter the frame. The video camera is now closer to my mother, cutting off the top of her forehead.

Then, Neil speaks, sound quality destroyed by the wind. “You can do it, Yvonne,” Neil says. “Move the water. Move the water. Push back the current in the other direction. Push it back. C’mon, Yvonne.”

You can see my mother peer down at the water. She squints, grits her teeth. When the water doesn’t move she opens her eyes wide, sucks in air like a beached fish.

“C’mon, Yvonne.”

I watched my mother on the two-inch screen of the camcorder, my hands shaking in the wind. She pushed her eyes together again, and when she opened them up she was crying, the wind causing her tears to streak back in a line parallel to her eyebrows. When you watch the film, there’s a sudden shift in focus, birds down below becoming clear in an attempt to blur my mother out. I turn back to her, then to the water again. The camcorder oscillates. I had wanted to keep looking at her, to see if there were still tears on her face.

“We’re done here,” said Neil. “Let’s go home.”

The ride home was silent. Neil was disappointed and my mother was scared and I sat in the back, trying to figure out if there was anything I could say to make it okay that my mother couldn’t turn around a river.

***

Neil left my mother in October. Took her out to dinner, asked her why she had made it all up. What she had done to the photomultiplier. Why she had tricked him into thinking that she was heavenly. Why, he’d said, gritting his teeth, would she have told him all of those things about the light and the void and why did she say that she felt it when he held up a magnet next to her pinky?

My mother fell off the bridge in November. Someone had seen her sitting on the railing and called the police, so that she was pulled out in only ten minutes. She had broken a leg and was bleeding internally. I imagined that her heartbeat slowed from shoes tumbling in a dryer to a tree hitting a window in a mild storm, a thump, then a thump-thump, so quiet you might have thought you were making it up. I got to the hospital while she was in surgery, an exploratory laparotomy. The doctor made a long incision down her abdomen, entered her body cavity, packed the surfaces of the liver and spleen with sponges. The intestines were explored, the spleen, liver, and pancreas, as the doctor looked for the source of her bleeding.

She would want me to pray for her to survive it, though then again, I wasn’t sure at this point if she had wanted to live or if she had wanted to die. I thought of my mother, packed with sponges and wide open. I asked God for her to live. When she woke up a couple hours after the surgery, leaks stitched up and leg set, I cried because she was alive.

“How are you feeling?” I asked her, “Are you okay?”

“Did anyone else visit?” my mother asked, and then the nurse noticed she was awake.  


Fiona Furnari is a writer and philosophy student, currently studying at Princeton University. She received Princeton’s John McPhee ’53 Award for Summer Projects in Independent Journalism in 2016, which she used to attend psychic experience groups, parapsychological research meetings, and a science and spirituality conference. She does not currently hold any paranormal beliefs, but is open to hearing arguments why she should.