By David Larsen
Edited by Karen Americus and Ilona Kassissieh
This is the first paragraph of a letter I wrote in 1969 while stationed at the Marine Corps base in Camp Pendleton, California. My sister found it recently while cleaning out our mother’s house after she died. It was fun to read again, but more importantly it prompted me to reflect on an extraordinary event.
Archie, Jay, and I had been bar-hopping in Tijuana earlier in the day and had just driven back to a friend’s bungalow near the beach in Oceanside. After a few more rounds of drinks, we walked up the street to catch a bus back to the base where we encountered a train stopped on the tracks. It totally blocked our path.
As we ran between the cars of the train, we were surprised to see a second train stopped on the next set of tracks. At the same time we heard a third train approaching. Archie and Jay sprinted forward to run between the cars of the stopped train. I followed them, but my sprint was less of a decision than a reaction. With a burst of adrenaline, I tried to catch up with my friends. After running between the cars of the second train, I was hit by the approaching third train.
On impact, time did not just slow down, it completely stopped. I felt the impact of the train hitting my entire body so hard it was like doing a belly flop into an empty swimming pool. But I felt no pain. I was surprised at feeling so calm and relaxed as I was hurtling through the air and wondered if that was because I had been drinking. I recalled hearing that people who are drunk are less likely to be injured when they get in a car accident. So, I decided to stay relaxed and told myself “Just roll with the punches.” I was aware that I might die but I did not feel any fear. And, I felt disconnected from my body. I was amazed at the high volume of thoughts racing through my mind in such a short period of time.
Time restarted when I hit the ground, but it was in slow motion. It seemed that I rolled and tumbled for an impossibly long time through the black rocky cinders that lined the tracks. Although I never saw the train that hit me, I guessed it was going around 50-60 mph based on the force of the impact, the pace of the railroad cars roaring by my ear, and the length of time I rolled through the cinders. After the impact, I laid still for a moment to feel whether any part of my body was hurting. I heard Archie ask Jay, “What happened to Leif?” “The train run over him,” answered Jay flatly. The lack of emotion or any concern in Jay’s voice bothered me. But maybe he was just unnerved at seeing me get smashed by the train.
I felt surprisingly good, so I stood up slowly and noticed that every square inch of my pants was filthy. It looked like I had been tumbling around inside a cement mixer full of cinders. My face felt okay, but my hair felt like a bird’s nest and there were cinders embedded in my scalp that took a while to pick out. Archie said that because I looked like Paul Newman with my sunglasses on that we should catch up to the train and tell the engineer that he ran over a famous actor. We had a big laugh about that.
Except for trying to share this story with my sergeant, who dismissed it as nonsense, I only mentioned it a few times over the years. I did not think much about it again until my sister found the letter. My young age and the toughening process of boot camp had made me feel invincible, so I initially dismissed the magnitude of the event. I shrugged it off and assumed it was luck that had saved me. But now, after reliving and reflecting on what happened, I am not so sure anymore.
Maybe it is only my sense of self-importance that makes me think my fate was too significant to be left to chance. But in retrospect, I have begun to believe that the outcome was due to something more than just dumb luck. The timing of impact had to be extremely precise for me to have been thrown both forward and away from the speeding train. If my sprint had been only a fraction of a second faster, I would have been run over. And how was it even possible that I did not at least suffer from some broken bones? If it were luck, I would have to reenact the accident 100 times over to get the same result. My altered state in the moments following the accident was so extraordinary, as if it was my soul experiencing the flood of thoughts. And even though I did not “see the light,” it is easy to imagine that for me this was a near-death experience.
After rediscovering the letter, this new perspective on the accident triggered other recollections of a spiritual nature. I reflected on the death of our middle son, Kevin, who had moved into our home for hospice care five years after being diagnosed with melanoma. Kevin told me that when we die, we move from the physical world into the spiritual one. I did not think much about his statement at the time, except to be glad he found comfort in that belief. But now his statement rings true for me as well. It is as if my emotional self is speaking to me about the unknown in a way that my rational mind cannot.
While sitting in my car two days after Kevin died, I felt a wave of grief coming on and decided not to fight it. Each wave took me lower until it felt like I was in the darkest place ever, like being in the bottom of the deepest, darkest well. I was sobbing uncontrollably. At that moment, there was a tap on my car window. I lowered the window and a man asked if I was alright. I told him our son had died a couple of days ago. He said he was a minister and offered me his hand. I grabbed it with both of mine and squeezed hard as though it was my lifeline, and he was rescuing me up and out of the well. The timing was so perfect that I wondered whether his appearance was a coincidence or perhaps it was divine intervention. My only explanation for the source of such powerful grief is that there must have been a connection between Kevin and me that went deeper than our physical relationship of father and son.
The spiritual incidents related to Kevin’s death remind me of the full solar eclipse I observed a few years after Kevin’s passing. It was a powerful sight, like looking into the eye of God. I was awestruck, humbled, and most importantly, I felt completely connected to the people around me and to the universe. Understanding that the cause was simply the moon passing between the sun and the earth did not diminish the spiritual experience of the eclipse. The eclipse sparked a primal emotional connection between myself and the eclipse’s other spectators. And I felt a comforting reassurance that we are not living all alone in a cold and indifferent universe. It was visibly spectacular, but its power was in the positive emotions of feeling eternally connected to everyone and everything.
More recently, I experienced a medical issue that caused me to think I did not have long to live. It started with me feeling very tired, like I was getting the flu. Then I felt a severe stabbing pain in my right shoulder followed the next day by the same pain in my right side and I felt bloated all the time. When the pain lasted longer than any normal flu-like symptoms, I saw a doctor at urgent care who quickly whisked me over to the hospital emergency room.
After a full battery of tests, the nurse said, “The doctor will be in soon so you can face the music.” I thought, “That’s an odd comment and it certainly doesn’t make me feel any better.” She had a heavy foreign accent though, so maybe she meant well but it came out wrong.
The doctor popped in just long enough to tell me I had a tumor on my liver the size of a grapefruit. I asked him if it was malignant and he said, “Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t.” He referred me back to my primary care physician, who he said should order an MRI. The emergency room doctor was in and out so hurriedly that I thought he had written me off as a lost cause. While walking out of the hospital, I caught his eye in the room off the hallway, but he quickly looked away. Outside, the parking lot had emptied early due to the fresh deep snow and had turned eerily desolate. That bleak scene reinforced my somber mood of feeling so alone.
While driving home, I concluded from my symptoms, the lack of any optimism from the doctor, and the information from the many tests, that I had liver cancer. And during the ten days of waiting for the liver surgeon to review my MRI, I had plenty of time to think about my life soon being over. It was an extremely sobering experience that focused me in a way I had never experienced. I wavered between worrying about my family, wondering what I should do with our family business, and tearing up during bouts of sadness.
The next afternoon I stumbled upon a movie on TV starring Ray Romano. I knew him only as a comedian, so I decided to see how well he could act in a dramatic role. Incredibly, it was about a guy dying from liver cancer. He wanted Romano’s character to assist him in committing suicide to minimize the suffering of a natural death. The timing was disturbing but I was so enthralled that I probably never blinked during the entire movie. The tone was gloomy as they followed their plan to its sad ending. When it was over, I was forced to wonder “What am I supposed to do with this information?”
When I returned to the hospital for the MRI results, a young lady dressed in a black Goth style with tattoos came out to greet me and led me to an examination room. I was looking desperately for signs of her competence to relieve my anxiety. It was only when I finally met the intern and lead doctor, who were both specialists, that I found my reassurance. The lead doctor was very thorough in his explanation. He told me that I had a cyst growing inside my liver and that it was harmless.
Physically, I would be fine. But the cancer scare left me with the need to work on my spiritual health. I needed a philosophy for dealing with my own mortality. I did not want to be shrugging my shoulders at the end of my life wondering what comes next. I wanted to be as prepared as Kevin was.
What I did know for certain was that my spiritual experiences were emotionally comforting. When my nephew, Jared, spoke at Kevin’s funeral he said, “When somebody in our church dies, we say ‘He’s going home.’” Thinking of where we go after we die as the same place we came from before we were born felt right to me. It was what I needed to hear, and it made me feel better. Then Jared’s father sang a gospel song. There was something so comforting about the power of that song. It was an emotional kind of truth that felt just as valid as a rational one.
Toward the end of writing this story, I started to notice the whistle of a faraway train that occasionally woke me in the wee hours of the morning. Next, I heard the powerful roar and rumbling of the engine and cars. The sounds reverberated down to my core and were profoundly comforting. The roar slowly faded to a quiet symphony that I could hear for as long as I continued to listen, leaving me blissful. It sounded close by, but the closest tracks are miles away. I have not heard it in a while, so I asked my family members if they had heard the train recently. To my surprise, they had never heard it. It was like a phantom train in a recurring dream, as though the same train that has lingered in my thoughts all these years had come back to comfort me.
All these experiences have something in common, which is the comforting sensation of feeling connected to something larger than me, something eternal. Fear related to our own mortality is an emotional rather than a rational concern. If science and reason fail us on an emotional level, we can find comfort and emotional support through our spiritual experiences and our connections to others. The knowledge of reason spoke to me through my mind, but the comfort of the spiritual world speaks to me more loudly through the emotions of my heart.
Faith was a hollow word until I saw the strength it gave to Kevin in his final days. Whether to satisfy the heart or the mind, there comes a time when we believe what we want to believe and that makes it so. Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead and scientists believe all matter in the universe originated from a particle smaller than an atom. I believe that when my time in this world is over, the train will return one last time to take me home.
About the author:
David Larsen was born in New York State and moved with his family to Washington State when he was 14 years old. He graduated from the University of Washington in English literature and business Administration. He served in the Marine Corps between 1968 and 1970 and joined the Boeing Company in 1975, where he worked for 29 years. In 1989, he founded a winery that he still operates today. He is the author of “Yellow Footprints” published in The Able Muse in 2017.