Upon a Peak in Darien (Part 2)
I should hesitate altogether to affirm positively that such is the case; but, after many inquiries on the subject, I am still more disinclined to assert the contrary. The truth seems to be that, in almost every family or circle, a question will elicit recollections of death-bed scenes, wherein, with singular recurrence, appears one very significant incident – namely, that the dying person, precisely at the moment of death, and when the power of speech was lost, seemed ‘to see something’ – or rather, to speak more exactly, to become conscious of something present (for actual sight is out of the question) of a very striking kind, which remained invisible to and unperceived by the assistants.
Again and again this incident is repeated. It is described almost in the same words by persons who have never heard of similar occurrences, and who suppose their own experience to be unique, and have raised no theory upon it, but merely consider it to be ‘strange,’ ‘curious,’ ‘affecting,’ and nothing more. It is invariably explained that the dying person is lying quietly, when suddenly, in the very act of expiring, he looks up – sometimes starts up in bed – and gazes upon what appears to be vacancy with an expression of astonishment, sometimes developing instantly into joy, and sometimes cut short in the first emotion of solemn wonder and awe. If the dying person were to see some utterly unexpected but instantly recognizable vision, causing him a great surprise or rapturous joy, his face could not better reveal the fact. The very instant this phenomenon occurs, death is actually taking place, and the eyes glaze even while they gaze at the unknown sight. If a breath or two still heave the chest, it is obvious that the soul has already departed.
Does the brain then, unlike every known instrument, give forth its sweetest music as its chords are breaking?"
Frances Power Cobbe, ‘The Peak in Darien’,1882, page 253-254.
Frances Cobbe gives ‘a few narrations of such observations, chosen from a great number which have been communicated to her’. Her first case describes how a poor man, lucidly aware but racked with consumption, suddenly fixed his gaze on one particular spot in an otherwise vacant room. When, “At the same time, a look of the greatest delight changed the whole expression of his face, and after a moment of what seemed to be intense scrutiny of some object invisible to me, he said to me in a joyous tone, “There is Jim.” Jim was a little son whom he had lost the year before, and whom I had known well; but the dying man had a son still living, named John, for whom we had sent, and I concluded it was of John he was speaking, and that he thought he heard him arriving. So I answered: "No, John has not been able to come.”
The man turned to me impatiently and said: “I do not mean John, I know he is not here. It is Jim, my little lame Jim. Surely you remember him?”
“Yes,” I said, “ I remember dear little Jim, who died last year, quite well.”
“Don’t you see him then? There he is!” said the man, pointing to the vacant space on which his eyes were fixed; and when I did not answer, he repeated almost fretfully, “Don’t you see him standing there?”
I answered that I could not see him; though I felt perfectly convinced that something was visible to the sick man, which I could not perceive. When I gave him this answer, he seemed quite amazed, and turned around to look at me with a glance almost of indignation. As his eyes met mine, I saw that a film seemed to pass over them, the light of intelligence died away; he gave a gentle sigh and expired. He did not live five minutes from the time he first said, “There is Jim,” although there had been no sign of approaching death previous to that moment.
Her second case concerns a boy of about fourteen years of age, who was also dying of consumption. He was a refined, highly educated child, who throughout his long illness had looked forward with much hope and longing to the unknown life to which he believed he was hastening. On a bright summer morning it became evident that he had reached his last hour. Through weakness he had lost the power of speech, but he was perfectly sensible, and made his wishes known to us by his intelligent looks. He was sitting propped up in bed, and having sadly turned away from the pastoral scene outside the open window, he faced the end of the room, where there was nothing but a closed door. When all in a moment the whole expression of his face changed to one of the most wondering rapture, which made his half-closed eyes open to their utmost extent, while his lips parted with a smile of perfect ecstasy. It was impossible to doubt that some glorious sight was visible to him; and, from the movement of his eyes, it was plain that it was not one, but many objects on which he gazed, for his look passed slowly from end to end of what seemed to be the vacant wall before him, going back and forward with ever-increasing delight manifested in his whole aspect. His mother then asked him, if what he saw was some wonderful sight beyond the confines of this world, to give her a token that it was so by pressing her hand. He at once took her hand and pressed it meaningfully, giving thereby an intelligent affirmative to her question, though unable to speak. As he did so, a change passed over his face, his eyes closed, and in a few minutes he was gone.
Frances Cobbe similarly relates how her own long-suffering elder brother, who on his deathbed: “Assumed the rigid countenance from which life and intelligence seemed to have departed, then suddenly opened his eyes wide as his surviving relatives bent over him, and gazed upward with such an unmistakable expression of wonder and joy that a thrill of awe passed through all who witnessed it. His whole face grew bright with a strange gladness, while the eloquent eyes seemed literally to shine, as if reflecting some light upon which they gazed.”
In another case she relates that: “I am told that at the last moment, so bright a light seemed suddenly to shine from the face of a dying man that the clergyman and another friend who were attending him actually turned simultaneously to the window to seek for a cause.”
Luminosity of the countenance and eyes of the dying in their final moments are frequently reported by nurses, clergymen and hospice workers, such as: “On his last exhalation he turned his head towards the window, slowly opened his eyes, the colour of which were the most piercing luminescent blue I have ever seen. After a few seconds the colour slowly faded back to normal, and he slowly closed his eyes again.”
Recently Martin Scorsese’s film, ‘George Harrison: Living in the Material World’, was shown again on British TV, and I was once more touched by this ex-Beatle’s dignified passage from our material world, through his focus on what he called ‘the art of dying’. Olivia Harrison says of her husband George’s death: “There was a profound experience, he lit up the room. Let’s just say that you wouldn’t need to light the room if you filmed it.”
And on the subject of filming: Herbert Kalmus and his wife Natalie first pioneered the use of Technicolor for the Hollywood film industry. In 1949 Natalie Kalmus wrote an account about her sister Eleanor’s last moments, which she then published in a magazine. This article describes how Eleanor began calling out the names of the deceased loved ones that she alone was seeing, then just before her death she saw her cousin Ruth, and asked, “What’s she doing here?” Ruth had died unexpectedly a week before, but because of her condition Eleanor had not been told of this.
One of the more recent published 'Peak in Darien' cases comes from the Welsh nurse Penny Satori, who is now researching NDE’s and lecturing on deathbed awareness to ICU nurses and hospital staff. Penny Satori’s report concerns a male patient whose condition was so severe that his family was called to the hospital at 3am to say their final goodbye's to him. At one point he smiled and appeared to converse with someone no one else could see, before telling his family that he had just been visited by his deceased mother and grandmother, and also by his sister. His sister had died a week earlier, but his family had likewise concealed this news from him for fear of hampering his recovery.
The most recent ‘Peak in Darien’ related experience, which has received enormous public attention, is that of the neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, whose No. 1 best-selling book, ‘Proof of Heaven’, recently featured as a cover article for Newsweek magazine in October 2012. The controversy that has since erupted from the publication of this book and its subsequent Newsweek article illustrates well the ideology of the three established groups that Dr. Raymond Moody, who (to quote) 'actually had the balls to write about' in his daringly honest book, ‘The Last Laugh’. Dr. Moody, who first coined the term 'near-death experience' for his groundbreaking NDE book 'Life After Life' in the mid 1970's, identifies these three groups as:
(1) The Parapsychologists, who ‘scientifically’ study NDE’s and sincerely believe them to be true, and the experiencers themselves who almost unanimously know them to be 'more real than anything'.
(2) The professional Skeptics, with their vested interests of ‘scientism’ and their relentless ridicule of all psychic or 'spiritual' phenomena through the medium of books, the internet, television and stage entertainment.
(3) The Christian Fundamentalists, who believe that all such spiritually transformative experiences are the works of the Devil 'himself'; who they believe is well capable of assuming the forms of deceased loved ones, heavenly angels, Jesus, and even God 'Himself' in order to deceive those who have not been born anew into their particular denomination.
After twenty-five years as a practicing neurosurgeon, fifteen of which were spent as Professor of Neurosurgery at Harvard University, Dr. Eben Alexander’s academic credentials are definitely impressive. He was thus in a unique position to undergo what Raymond Moody describes as ‘the most astounding near-death experience I have heard about in more than four decades of studying this phenomena’. What was most astounding about Eben Alexander’s NDE was that throughout many of the sequences that arose during his coma in 2008, which was brought on by a rare form of bacterial meningitis, he was accompanied by a loving angelic presence that he could only best describe verbally as the ‘Girl on the Butterfly Wing’. The ‘twist’ in his story is that as an adopted child he discovers that his biological parents later got married and gave birth to several other children. One of these children, a sister named Betsy, had died some years before he first contacted his biological family, so he only got to meet them in 2007. Although they spoke of Betsy and her compassionate nature, he had never seen a picture of her until four months after he left hospital, when an envelope arrived from his birth parents. Within this envelope was a photograph of Betsy with David Romano’s poem, ‘When Tomorrow Starts Without Me’, affixed over it, which ends with the lines below. When he looked at the photo of Betsy, her loving smile, her deep blue eyes, he realized he was looking into the exquisite face of that beautiful ‘Girl on the Butterfly Wing’, who he now recognizes as his eternal soul-sister and spirit guide.
So when tomorrow starts without me,
Don’t think we’re far apart
For every time you think of me,
I’m right here in your heart.