I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, experimenting. There was no pain in my chest. I took another and became even more aware, as if waking up from a dream. Then I felt a familiar touch. When I opened my eyes, Tamara was right next to me. She was real, too; I could feel her. She was alive. I could feel her familiar vibration even more powerfully than her physical presence.
She looked the same as she always had, beautiful, but now I could feel her presence at a deeper level than ever before. Beyond how she looked, I was experiencing everything about the essence and power of her soul.
However, she was crying and upset.
Why were we here?
Was the crash a bad dream, or had I died? Had we both died?
And where were the boys?
I had read about experiences like I was having. Many people described passing through a tunnel toward a bright light, but that wasn’t happening to me. I felt like I was in some kind of protective bubble of light, with no tunnel or traveling at all. It was as if the light came to me. And I felt alive, not dead. I felt more alive than ever before. What was happening?
“You can’t stay here,” Tamara said with a voice that cracked with both urgency and sorrow.
“You have to go back. You can’t be here.” Why was she crying?
“You can’t come. You cannot stay here.”
What did she mean I couldn’t stay? I belonged here with her.
“You have to go!”
She was as real as ever. The thought of our boys raced through myhead. Where were they? Were they here, too? If I stayed with Tamara, would Spencer be left orphaned? And where was Griffin?
“You have to go!” Tamara insisted. “You can’t come. You have to go back.” But I didn’t want to go anywhere. It seemed odd to me that in this glorious bubble she would be upset. Was it Heaven? I didn’t know, but it made my earthly existence seem like a foggy dream. What I was experiencing was far more real, far more tangible, and far more alive than anything I had ever known. I pulled Tamara to me tightly. She was tangible as well. I evenfelt her wet tears on my skin. I kissed her. That was real. I smelled her hair. Not in the earthly sense, but with senses that seemed to be magnified tenfold.
“You can’t be here. You have to go,” she sobbed.It almost felt as if my course was set. I didn’t want to go, but I also knew she was right; I was not meant to stay. I felt I had a choice, but something deep within me knew I had to get back to Spencer. I had a little seven-year-old boy in the backseat of that crashed car. I felt like a contestant on a cosmic game show who knew the final answer, but wanted to quickly review every possible option, just to make sure, before the buzzer went off.
I looked into Tamara’s eyes, those crystal, sky-blue eyes. Everything in the universe was calling me back to Spencer, but I wanted to stay with her. And where was Griffin? I felt a warm tear from her eye land on my face and roll slowly over my upper lip.
“I have to go,” she said.
“I know.” I heard myself say with hesitant conviction as the reality of going back sunk deep into the knowledge of my being.
I looked at her one more time, the love of my life, and the wife of my dreams. I leaned forward, putting my forehead on hers. Another tear fell from my eye and onto her eyelashes. I watched as it rolled down over her collarbone.
“I love you.” “I know.”
I’m not sure I consciously made any effort to leave. I believe I would have stayed there with her, if not for the haunting reality of Spencer crying in the backseat of our crashed vehicle. I knew he deserved to have me there with him. He couldn’t have every member of his family taken away in a blink.
My thoughts rushed to Spencer, his little-boy hands and long, thin fingers. The way the rooster tail in his flaxen hair bounced as he ran, danced, and played. I thought of the time a few years ago when we had sat on the back patio and shared licorice whips. I remembered that day. I could feel it, smell it, and taste it all again. The fresh-cut grass, the rhythmic sounds from the sprinklers and the sweet taste of the licorice. It all came rushing back. Most powerful was the feeling of my little boy right there with me watching the sunset. I had to get back to him.
As smoothly as I had ascended to that place of peace, I was away again. It had only been a brief peek into something profound, and as I drifted away, there was only one overwhelming question, not asked by a voice, but with energy that echoed into every cell of my being: “To what degree have you learned to love?”
This excerpt comes from one of the doctors who treated Jeffery Olsen, Dr. Jeff O’Driscoll. His book Not Yet: Near-Life Experiences & Lessons Learned is a stunning, tender reflection on medicine and spirituality. Here the doctor shares his encounter with Tamara, Jeffery Olsen’s wife, who had died just a short time earlier in the fatal car accident:
“She’s here,” Rachel said. “You’ve gotta come to the trauma room.”
“Who’s here?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”
“His wife. She’s here.”
Everybody in the department knew a trauma patient had arrived. We’d been warned far in advance. We knew about Jeff Olsen’s automobile crash in southern Utah, though we did not yet know his name. We knew about his visit to the local emergency department prior to his air transport to Salt Lake City. We knew his wife and 14-month-old son had died at the scene, and that his seven-year-old son had been transported to our neighboring children’s hospital. The transferring facility wasn’t just communicating morbid information for the sake of speaking; knowing that someone died in a crash tells you something about the magnitude of the impact and energy absorbed by those who survived. Sometimes that information is important in providing care. We’d heard a preliminary report of Jeff’s extensive injuries and the overhead announcement of his arrival. Rachel had been in the trauma suite and seen him arrive. Now she was tugging on my arm.
“She’s there,” she said. “C’mon.”
I finally gave way to her insistence as I realized what she was saying. Prior conversations in more relaxed circumstances had primed me for her assertions. She’d experienced numerous spiritual phenomena in the past. Some of her experiences, as she’d shared them privately, had brought me to tears. I’d had my own experiences. We’d discussed some at length. That Rachel had experienced Tamara’s presence in the trauma suite did not surprise me; that I believed what she was saying did not surprise her. We quickened our pace as she spoke.
I had no responsibility for Jeff’s medical care. That’s one reason I saw and heard what I did, why I experienced it. When I’m too busy being a doctor—when I’m too busy seeing with my eyes and hearing with my ears, trying to keep someone alive—I may completely miss the profound and eternal around me.
Another emergency physician, along with a trauma surgeon, residents, nurses, and others, had all arrived in the trauma suite prior to Jeff and had immediately initiated his care when he arrived. I’d been blithely engaged in other duties when Rachel approached. Now I was simply an observer.
In the trauma suite I saw the usual army of professionals surrounding a gurney. Bits of an unconscious and battered body were visible through the cracks between personnel. I saw the usual flurry of activity and heard the hum of voices: vital signs, the tail end of a report from the transport team, orders, acknowledgments, tentative plans. Almost as quickly, however, the sounds all faded into silence, like a television show with the sound turned off. People’s lips still moved—they could still hear one another—but the room fell silent for me. Even Rachel’s voice was gone. A tingle—almost a vibration—began in the center of my soul and radiated outward to the tip of each digit. I felt the hair on my arms and neck stand at attention.
The treatment area was large, with an elevated ceiling and a mirrored observation room that looked down on the scene for teaching purposes. Tamara stood high above my right shoulder and about ten feet away, about halfway between Jeff and I. We’d never met, but I knew her. She calmly surveyed the room, sometimes looking toward me, sometimes toward her severely injured spouse. She had a pleasant countenance and a warm, welcoming disposition. She had long, wavy, blonde hair.
I walked to the gurney and looked at Jeff for the first time. I looked at his badly injured legs. People moved around me, all doing their respective tasks. I had no tasks. I was free to take in the experience, keenly aware of Tamara’s continued surveillance over my right shoulder. I may have felt for a pulse in Jeff’s left foot; I don’t remember for sure. I knew his popliteal artery had been jeopardized by his knee injury. The window for vascular intervention was rapidly closing. His prolonged extrication, previous ER visit in southern Utah, and his air transport, had all chewed away at that critical window of time. His leg, as important as it was, couldn’t be the first priority. Before anyone could save his leg, they first had to save his life.
I recall saying to myself, or to Rachel, “He’s going to lose the leg.” I just knew.
That was about the extent of the medical care I provided. I may have consulted with other doctors or done something more—trauma care is a team sport—but I was not Jeff’s primary doctor and did little, if anything, for his medical benefit.
I don’t recall what Tamara said to me in the trauma suite, looking down from her elevated position. Though facing toward Jeff, I could see her behind me. I could see her as clearly behind me as I could see him in front. I could see in every direction at the same time and take it all in more efficiently than if I’d been focusing on a single spot. It’s been more than twenty years, and I’ve rarely spoken of it, but I remember that part clearly.
Tamara may not have said anything at all. Whether she spoke through the silence or communicated without words, I remember quite clearly her expressions of pure gratitude. She was grateful for the team and all they were doing. She was grateful to me for being aware of her. My overall impression was that she was a grateful person and would express her appreciation to each individual if she were able to do so. In that moment, to borrow a phrase I would later hear Jeff use, I knew her heart.
Tamara knew at that moment that Jeff would live—that he should live, and that there were things for him yet to do in this life. And I knew it with her. It didn’t come as some profound revelation or grand mystic truth being pushed upon me. It felt more like common knowledge hanging in the ether, available to any spirit willing to listen. It was like the first twinklings of dawn announcing to anyone willing to open their eyes that another day was approaching. In my experience, that’s the way spiritual knowledge feels; even when it’s new, it’s not a surprise. It feels more like a confirmation than a revelation.
I love such moments because everything reorders. Nothing trivial or temporal matters. In those moments, I see souls as they are, without the filters that incline us to separate people into groups and label individuals who are different from ourselves. Suddenly I see everyone as alike and I love them all, including myself—something that is difficult for me to do when I’m in the trappings of mortality. I love such moments. I wish I had more of them, except that such experiences make it hard for me to find contentment in this world . . .
Looking back, I wonder if Tamara might have been thanking me in advance for what would yet transpire. I wonder, too, if she’s been in and out of my life since.