I met Brent a month before he died. An inoperable malignant tumour in his brain hadn’t taken him yet… but it was about to. One of his favourite songs filled the background as we chatted about cancer, life and death.
“Look at me standing, here on my own again… it’s a wonderful, wonderful life, no need to run and hide,” sang the male voice, its low tones resonating with my body so powerfully they brought me to the brink of tears. I swallowed hard to push down the guttural urge to sob as I listened to Brent tell me all about dying young.
He told me when the headaches first started. How he’d been diagnosed only two months ago and that the doctors said he only had weeks or a few months, at the most, to live. He smiled peacefully when he said, “It seems I’m living on borrowed time right now.”
I couldn’t believe that someone so young was facing death so courageously. I wondered whether I would be able to stand bravely ‘on my own again’ when it came my turn to meet the grim reaper. I’d lost a loved one to a terminal disease. I’d spent years studying theology and philosophy and contemplating my mortality. But I wasn’t sure I would be as peaceful about it as this young man was.
“Do you get angry?” I asked.
Without hesitation he said, “No. Why would I?”
“Well, I know all the standard answers like ‘why not me’ and ‘it could happen to anyone’. But, sitting there talking to me so wisely about your deepest feelings, can you honestly say you don’t feel any anger?”
“Honestly, none at all,” he answered.
Then, averting his eyes to some virtual point outside the window, he continued. “At first, when I heard I had weeks or months to live, I felt anger and fear. Bucket-loads of it. But those emotions are a waste of time. We don’t realise it until someone tells us time is up. It struck me like a hammer blow… and then… they just disappeared.”
“Well, when I had them it felt like I couldn’t separate myself from them. It felt like they were stealing what little time I had left. The anger and fear came on the back of thoughts and emotions that ran through my mind and my body linearly to the ticking clock of sequential moments in time. I saw the clock counting down in my mind to this roller coaster ride of thoughts and emotions. When the reality of so little time hit me, I was sure I didn’t want to watch it counting down. So I looked away from the clock with my mind’s eye. I turned away from the incessant loop of angry and scared activity in my brain.”
Brent stopped for a moment and his eyes zoomed and panned back in to meet mine. I thought he was trying to fathom if anything he said made any sense to me. It did. And I think he saw it. So he continued, now looking deeply into my eyes.
“The clock stopped counting down once I turned away.”
I wasn’t sure if he was smiling with his mouth, but he was definitely smiling with his eyes. There was a living glow in them that seemed beyond this world.
I was enthralled. “Please explain more, Brent.”
After a few seconds he went on.
“Time as we normally know it stood still. It’s not that time wasn’t passing. Of course it was still passing… but I was passing with it. It wasn’t passing me by. I was in it and it was in me. I was in the present moment. My life with the tumour was out there being timed, in time, but separate. It was in a time-bound world, ticking down to its expiration. Now I was seeing my life from a distance… from a place where I was eternal. I was time. I was space. There was no time, no space. There was only nothingness.”
He took a deep breath.
“That nothingness fills my awareness now. It is not really nothingness though. It’s actually so beautiful and peaceful. It is perhaps love, but not any love I was taught about or experienced. All that plays in my head is ‘God is love’. It is my anchor now. It keeps me away from anger and fear… and the ticking, linear time of my brain’s clock.”
He paused for a while, but I said nothing. I was certain I was in the presence of an extraordinary person – or maybe an ordinary person extraordinarily aware.
“Now I don’t feel alive like normal. I’m definitely not dead. I don’t see a boundary between the two. I don’t feel either one. My soul has already entered an eternity beyond our conceptions of life and death. I can’t understand it… but I know it.”
He smiled a bit with his mouth as well now and asked, “Do you understand? When you feel intense love, do you care about the next moment? How can there be anger in this love?”
I couldn’t answer. The welling tightness in my throat had rendered speech impossible.
He did not blink throughout his slow, deliberate explanation. Every now and then his eyes panned past me, as if they were watching things moving around us… as if there was something floating around to the music in the background. The experience was so convincing, I turned around to check. There was nothing. Brent didn’t seem to notice.
I left his house that day not sure I understood what he said. But I was sure there was something profound and real about his experience. There was something extremely convincing about being in his presence. He was no guru. No academic. Just an average eighteen year old with an epiphany on death’s door.
Two weeks later he collapsed and fell into a coma. Shortly after that his heart stopped and whatever activity was left in his brain ceased forever.
I often replay Brent’s words. What is real, I wonder? Science will say tumours can lead to unusual sensations and even hallucinations. Was Brent a fool of tumour-induced mirages? Is it any less real if it originates in the brain? Did Brent’s experiences stop when his brain stopped? Or is consciousness more than the brain? Is the mystery of life more than the sum of its parts?
Years later, my friend Steve Tsakiris published a book of his poetry. One poem titled ‘Now’ had the line “The now does not exist in time, time exists in the now.” My blood instantaneously coursed cold through my veins when I read these words.
I’m convinced Steve, in his poetic contemplation, sensed what Brent experienced in his dying days. As I continue to wrestle with the mystery of life and death and consciousness, I’m convinced we all can experience eternity in the present moment. I believe we all will.