I’m not a religious man. I guess, if you pushed me to categorize myself, it would be as an “optimistic agnostic”. I’ve just never been able to get on-board with the whole religion thing. When I was a kid my mother would force me to go to Sunday school. To try and get out of it I’d hide at the top of the garden behind my dad’s crumbling toolshed, trying to avoid the mass of brambles that grew back there but always managing to get stung by them. I can still remember the smell of the creosote soaked wood and the aroma of the earth and weeds that grew undisturbed in the gap between the shed and our neighbor’s fence. My mum would inevitably find me, of course, and after a hurried clean-up, she would hustle my little sister and I out the door and we’d walk the couple of miles to the church hall together.
Do you remember the scene in The Omen where Gregory Peck’s character tries to drag Damien into a church but the kid is kicking and screaming and refusing to enter? That was pretty much me; at least in my head it was. If I’d actually tried to pull a stunt like that I would have gotten a clip-across-the-ear and still have had to spend the next three hours listening to the Sunday school teacher drone on. So my tantrums were always thrown wholly in my head. I had a pretty good imagination, even back then.
Looking back on that time through adult eyes, I realize that this was probably the only quality time my mother and father would get with us kids out of the house. But that’s not the point of this story. I just wanted to set the stage for you; let you get to know me a little better.
This is the point: For about six or seven years my dad’s sister, Gwendolyn, lived with us. She took over the front room of my parents’ modest three bedroom council house on the outskirts of my hometown of Cardiff, Wales. She was just one of several of our family who lived in that little 12 by 8 room. Over the years a couple of my brothers and their families would live there too, and my father would eventually pass away in that same room. But my Aunty Gwen would be the first to take up residence. I would often find myself sitting at the kitchen table listening to her tell me stories of her life while she sipped from a cup of tea, a couple of Rich-Tea biscuits perched precariously on the cup’s saucer. My aunty was in her late 60’s at that time, and I, still a young lad of nine or ten, would listen completely enraptured by her tales of a different lifetime.
There are many stories I could tell you about my Aunty Gwen. I could tell you about the time she had to carry me up the stairs to my bedroom because I was so sick I could not stand; or the time a stray cat I had adopted and kept in the back garden managed to get into the house and corner her in the living room (she was terrified of cats); maybe the story of her slapping the local bully across the back of the head until he cried after she witnessed him punch me, or even the last time I saw her, confined to a hospital bed as she listened to me talk about my holiday in Greece, only to die the following day from terminal lung cancer, the result of a lifetime of smoking.
The story I am going to share with you is about the first time she died. She was just a teenager, so this would have taken place in the early 1930’s, not a good time to be sick. A nasty infection had turned into pneumonia and she had been transported by ambulance to the local Infirmary. Despite the doctor’s best efforts to control it, the pneumonia grew steadily worse until my aunt’s heart stopped and she died.
Gwen told me that she remembered standing in a tunnel with a bright light at its end; a light that she felt inexorably drawn towards. As she moved through it she found herself on a grass covered plain. Nearby, a brook bubbled and flowed, cutting a meandering path towards distant hills. High above her, brilliant white clouds floated across a perfect blue sky and Gwen knew instinctively that these were the souls of her friends and family who had died before her. She wasn’t afraid, in fact she felt quite the opposite; a “perfect sense of peace and tranquility” is how she described it to me. Gwen wandered over to the brook and knelt down, she scooped up a handful of the water and drank deeply, but she was surprised when the water tasted salty, more like sea water than the pure water she had expected.
At that same moment, Gwen found herself pulled from this beautiful dreamlike heaven, travelling back down the tunnel and away from the comfort of the light until she found herself lying in the hospital bed as her doctor worked frantically to return her to life. Beside her bed my Grandmother stood sobbing for the little girl she thought was surely lost, but who now, miraculously, had been returned to her.
“My mother’s tears were falling on my cheek and trickling into my mouth. They tasted very salty,” Gwen said to me, smiling as she recalled that distant memory.
Of course, I realize that my aunt’s near-death experience could be explained by any number of scientific or biological rationale, but still, her story stuck with me and, as I grew older, it’s helped me to recognize the incredible mystery of this universe we exist in. While science and religion have done their best to define our place within it, the unexplained and unknown still outweighs all that we as humans believe we know. If you’ve read my novel, Towards Yesterday, you might even recognize this as a major theme of the story. In fact, you might even remember Gwen’s story from the book’s closing chapter.
Years later, after my aunt died for the second and final time, I found myself remembering her story. I still smile at the thought of her having returned, this time for good, to that beautiful valley and that even now she is with her friends and family, endlessly floating through a tranquil blue sky; happy, content, and finally at peace.