We met Tom on Christmas Eve a year ago when, as if preordained, a frantic bustle of customers vanished, leaving this thirty-something man and his young children alone at FoxTale with me and Karen. Tom was tall and muscular, ruggedly good-looking, the epitome of good health. Except that he wasn’t. We were strangers to Tom, and I think that’s why he felt comfortable confiding in us that he had just been diagnosed with a ravaging illness. Surgery was scheduled for the week after Christmas, followed by, who knew what? Would he be able to keep working? Would he have to have chemo? What would happen afterward? We listened. The kids, oblivious, kept running up to Tom with a toy or book to show him, interrupting the options and outcomes, the what ifs and a reiteration of how his world had been turned on its head after one doctor visit. So many questions, no easy answers. Just the knowledge that good, bad or indifferent, Tom’s life would never be the same.
It’s that very life-altering moment in time that is a hook for Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander. One minute the author is making professional decisions as a neurosurgeon for his own sick patients, and the next he is careening with wild abandon towards (he would say well into) the afterlife. The irony of Alexander’s story is that he had spent his 25-year career denying the very experience—a glimpse at heaven—that would go on to utterly change his life among mortals (as if the sudden illness that caused the near death experience wasn’t life-altering enough.)
Alexander devotes a section of his writing to a description of his journey into heaven, and this is the part of the book I least enjoyed. As a scientist, he seemed too intent on categorizing the experience for my taste: The Core, The Gateway, The Realm of the Earthworm’s Eye View. But don’t mind me; I get bored with all of Tolkien’s inner sanctums too. What’s interesting is Alexander’s reaction to his experiences in light of his lifelong training to think scientifically. Of course, he had listened to patients describe unearthly experiences before and delegated them to the not-thinking-clearly-yet department. But to survive an illness that by all accounts should have killed him or left him hopelessly brain-damaged, and then to recall with clarity his journey to another realm where all his questions were answered . . . well, that was a horse of a different color for Eben Alexander.
When the doctor-turned-patient described what he’d been through to his own physicians, he recognized the dismissive head nod, the quieting words that were meant to rationalize his journey and keep his recollections within acceptable this-worldly confines. Thankfully, Alexander couldn’t stay silent about what he’d been through, and we have a well-written, honest account of his life story with a new big-picture perspective. “Humor. Irony. Pathos. . . . in addition to being consolations, these qualities are recognitions—brief, flashing, but all-important—of the fact that whatever our struggles and sufferings in the present world are, they can’t truly touch the larger, eternal beings we in truth are,” he says.
It’s naive to restrict your beliefs to what is scientifically provable, this doctor/author now believes. To think that the soul/spirit/essence of life is permanently extinguished, to discount the possibility of an afterlife, to believe that passing souls cannot surround our earthly lives and give us comfort, requires—in his book—a much bigger leap than to embrace that which is now obvious to Eben Alexander. There is more.
During the chaos of Tuesday’s weather/traffic crisis that is referred to as Atlanta Snow Jam ’14, two seemingly unrelated events occurred. A baby was born in a car on I-285, and our friend Tom succumbed to his illness. Neither birth nor death waited or cared about these earthly troubles, and somehow that seems appropriate and ironic. “I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be,” said Albert Einstein (as quoted in Proof of Heaven.) Tom did, and by now he knows exactly what is on the other side. He has all the answers. Maybe he even celebrated the birth of that new baby.
That makes me hopeful, ironically enough.