River of Death, River of Life
“Death is not the end of life; it is the beginning of an eternal journey.”
Good friends, sunshine, and the beautiful outdoors--that January morning in 1999 began with the same excitement and anticipation I had felt on countless previous kayaking adventures I had shared with my husband, Bill. It was our final day before returning to the United States, and it was my husband’s birthday. We planned to celebrate by paddling in a remote part of Chile, on an infrequently run portion of the upper Fuy River known for its many waterfalls. As experienced whitewater kayakers, Bill and I knew the ten- to fifteen-foot falls would be challenging, but well within our skill set.
We’d be paddling with Tom, a professional raft and kayak guide who had been leading trips in Chile for more than twenty years, his two adult sons, Chad and Kenneth, and Kenneth’s wife, Anne, as well as several other clients.
This stretch of the Fuy requires focus and a complete commitment. That’s because, in addition to being in a remote part of Chile, the river is often closed in on both banks by steep hillsides made impassable by dense bamboo forests. This topography makes getting off the river sooner than the designated downstream take-out point extremely challenging, if not impossible. Once you start down the river, there’s no turning back.
When Bill uncharacteristically awoke that morning with severe back pain, he made the difficult and disappointing decision not to kayak with us that day. Instead, he dropped us off at the river, giving me his bright red paddling jacket to wear beneath my equally bright red life jacket, kissed me good-bye, and told me to be safe. He planned to find a sunny spot to spend the day reading, intending to meet us downstream at the end of the day. It felt strange going without Bill, but I couldn’t wait to get started.
As our group pushed off, I moved out of the eddy, confidently paddling my kayak forward into the swiftly moving river. We didn’t know that disaster would strike within minutes.
Ahead of us were two waterfalls. I moved toward the smaller one, which our group had agreed would provide the safest descent into the waters below. But as I approached this waterfall, I could see that someone else’s kayak was lodged sideways in its entrance, and the powerful current was pulling me straight toward them. I had to act quickly.
With no other option, I veered away, only to be propelled straight toward the larger waterfall. I would have to make the best of it. As I was thrust over the lip of the waterfall, I saw tremendous turbulence below. In a flash, I pictured what would come.
At the bottom, I would flip upside down. The turbulence would keep me from being able to right myself, so I would have to detach the neoprene spray skirt that was keeping me dry before I could push myself out of my boat. I’d get tumbled around by the chaotic waters and claw my way to the surface while being flushed downstream. Then, gasping for air, I’d swim to shore and sheepishly begin collecting my belongings. What can I say--most whitewater kayakers have endured it at least once. I prepared myself for the inevitable.
But what I assumed would happen did not.
I rapidly dropped into the turbulence below and, predictably, plunged deep below the water’s surface. But then I came to a sudden and sickening stop when the front end of my boat became jammed in the underwater features. I remained upright in my boat instead of being flipped upside down, but instead of quickly popping back to the surface, I was stuck under six to eight feet of water that quickly closed over my head.
I tried vainly to rock my kayak free. Then I tried to free myself from the boat. But the sheer weight of the water overhead and the force of the current bent my torso forward and kept even my arms pinned to the front deck of my kayak. I had no air pocket and no time to spare. No matter how hard I tried, my efforts to move were laughable. And I began to realize then what would actually happen.
I would drown.
I had always imagined that drowning would be a terrible and terrifying way to die, and I took note that instead of experiencing terror, I actually felt quite peaceful. I experienced no air hunger, no panic, and no fear. And I began to calmly pray. Oddly, I didn’t beg God to rescue me. Instead, I prayed only, “Your will be done.”
It wasn’t about giving up. It was more about actively turning toward God. That’s why I often say, God did not take my future--I willingly gave it to Him.
The moment I relinquished my future to God’s will, I felt the physical sensation of being held and comforted by Jesus. I don’t mean this in an abstract, greeting-card kind of way. I felt his embrace as tangibly as I could feel the plastic of the boat around my legs and the weight of the water pressing on my torso.
As I wrote in To Heaven and Back, Jesus assured me that everything was “fine,” that my husband would be “fine,” and my young children would be “fine,” regardless of whether I lived or died. It felt as though Jesus was pouring his boundless love, kindness, compassion, and mercy into my very soul.
Time seemed to stop. I sensed my spirit expanding and becoming a part of everything around me. I felt connected to everything. Time for me could have ended at that moment and I would have been more than content. But Jesus was with me. It was during this time that Jesus lovingly showed me the story of my life and reminded me of the great beauty that comes of all events. (In the pages ahead, I’ll talk more about life reviews.)
While I was basking in the bottomless kindness and compassion of Jesus, my kayaking friends had figured out that I was under the water below the falls. They became increasingly desperate in their attempts to reach me, but nothing was working.
The dying process seemed to be taking a very long time and, although I had no sense of my friends’ efforts, I could feel the powerful currents pulling my body out and over the front deck of my boat. Eventually, the current ripped my helmet from my head and my life jacket from my body. My knees were forced to bend forward, breaking bones and tearing ligaments in the process, yet I felt no pain.
As my body was leaving my boat, I could also feel something else happening--Jesus was releasing me, and my spirit was slowly separating from my body. Suddenly, I felt my spirit release with a small pop. The separation felt painless, gentle, and beautiful. I never experienced being conscious one moment and unconscious the next. Instead, I felt conscious and then more conscious. I had a heightened clarity and intensity of consciousness, and I felt more alive than I had ever felt.
My body finally broke free from my kayak and was dragged downstream, sometimes bumping and scraping along the bottom of the river, sometimes tumbling in the current. But I don’t remember any of that. What I do remember is this: gracefully rising up out of the river, feeling freedom and lightness as the water fell away from my outstretched arms, and feeling the brilliant sunshine that seemed to pull me upward . . . until I could look down on the entire scene.
I was not afraid. With God’s perfect love so profoundly present, fear had no room to exist.
As I hovered above the river, I was welcomed by a group of “somethings.” Perhaps I should call them people, spirits, angels, or soul friends. But these words mean different things to different people, so I am never quite sure what to call the beings who welcomed me. All I can say is that I had absolute knowledge that these beings had known me and loved me as long as I had existed, and that I had known and loved them also. I believe if I had looked closely at those in my welcoming committee, I would have recognized each of them as someone who had been important in my life experience, regardless of whether I had known them on Earth or not. For example, one might have been a great-grandparent who died long before I was born.
But here’s the important thing. They were radiant, brilliant, and overflowing with God’s love. In that moment, I knew without a doubt that they had been sent by God to comfort, guide, and protect me. In their presence, I felt completely and unconditionally loved by God in a way that is elusive if not impossible on Earth. I was filled with an inexpressible peace and joy that made life on Earth seem pale and unappealing by comparison.
I felt like I had finally returned home.
Turning Toward Heaven
But I still hadn’t left Earth. Not yet. I found myself reveling in my new existence but still watching what was happening on the river below. Yes, a different sense of time and dimension existed in this world I had entered. The past, present, and future all seemed to merge into one reality. I seemed to be in a different spacial dimension as well. But all the while, I was able to look down on the scene at the river.
By now, I had been under the water for almost thirty minutes.
Downstream, my bright red life jacket bobbed to the surface, catching the attention of Tom’s eighteen-year-old son, Chad, who quickly jumped into the river to retrieve it. As he swam toward shore, he felt something bump into his leg. It was my body. Serenely, I watched as he grabbed my wrist and pulled my lifeless body from the water.
Later, observing my friends begin CPR, I came to the full realization that I must be dead. Surprisingly, this did not provoke concern or sadness in me--I simply took note of it. On the riverbank, one of the other kayakers encouraged my friends to stop CPR. Too much time had passed since I had drowned, she said. She warned that if they were able to revive me, I would “just be a vegetable.” Another kayaker wanted to videotape everything. Another panicked and ran up the hillside and out of sight.
My friends below were frantically focused, but I felt calm. I thought about what a delightful and wonderfully rich life I had lived in my body. It had been a life of opportunity, adventure, and growth. I had a loving husband and four precious young children who expanded my heart beyond what I would have imagined possible, dear family and friends, and a fulfilling job. I had loved deeply and been loved deeply in return. But as I watched the events play out on the riverbank, I felt certain that I was now home and that my life in that body was over.
And honestly, I did not want to return. Today, I am a little chagrined to admit my lack of desire to return, knowing the grief my family would have endured. But if you think about what I was experiencing in those moments, perhaps you will understand. I was getting my first taste of our true home in God’s love.
Swept up in that love, I gratefully acknowledged the life that had been mine, then silently said good-bye and turned away from the riverbank in the direction of heaven.
I began to move with my guides up a path to the entrance of a great domed structure that I knew was the point of no return. As we gently traveled, my companions and I communicated without words and moved without walking. We didn’t speak using our mouths to form words, but the communication was pure and clear. I heard the communication in English, my native language, but it was as if the words were being sent from one person to another in their most elemental form, just transference of energy and meaning.
Our travel was not instantaneous, but we moved gracefully and effortlessly. I don’t know if I actually had feet, and never even thought to look. The path we traveled seemed like a physical surface--it looked like a solid surface--but it existed in the midst of nothing. The indistinct edges of the road, as well as the space above and below the road, expanded into the universe. With no beginning or end, this path was inexplicably beautiful.
The colors of nature and the magnificent aromas of flowers and trees have always touched me deeply and, not surprisingly, this is what I began to encounter. As I looked more closely, the path we were on seemed to be stitched together with every color of the rainbow and even some colors I’d never seen before. A seemingly infinite variety of flowers sprouted along the edges of the path, and my very being was infused with their sumptuous aroma. The array and vividness of the colors, the intricacies of the flowers, and the allure of the aromas were all far more intense than anything I have seen or experienced on Earth. I not only saw and smelled these things, but also heard, tasted, and felt them. My senses expanded, and I could both experience them and understand them.
Of course, I realize this description is difficult to fathom, but I felt that I was a part of the beauty, and it was a part of me. And overlaying and saturating all of this was God’s palpable, complete, unwavering, and all-encompassing love. It was a greater love than I had ever understood or experienced. Even now the feeling is impossible to put into words. I never wanted to leave.
At the Threshold
I may not have wanted to leave, but far below me on the riverbank, Tom, Kenneth, and Chad were doing everything in their power to thwart my intentions. While Tom and his sons performed CPR, I could hear Chad pleading with me to come back and “take a breath.” Hearing his urgency, I glanced backward and was struck by the vulnerable expression on this young man’s face. Overcome with compassion, I traveled back down the path to my body, where I lay down in my body and took a single breath before getting up to rejoin my companions and travel farther up the path.
But then I heard Chad pleading again. “Come on! I know you are still here. Breathe! Just one more breath!” Again, I felt compelled to return to my body and take one more breath. My return to take a single breath, which is how I quite literally interpreted his pleading, occurred repeatedly as we slowly made our way up the path. Again and again and again our progress along the path was delayed as I retuned for another breath in response to Chad’s calling.