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Jim Duke | Author

Quest for the Hereafter

My dad died on November 11th, 1976 during a heavy fall blizzard. I had driven my brother-in-law, John, down to Denver from Laramie, Wyoming to catch a flight back to Austin where he had taken some time off from his vet clinic to join the rest of us in dad's final days. Dad had taken a sudden turn for the worse during my short absence and, although I'd had no communications with the family, I'd been driven by compulsion to ignore severe weather warnings and even dodge roadblocks to make my way back to Laramie. They had moved dad to the hospital while I was gone and mom had just returned home to rest while my sister, Peg, stayed with dad. Almost as soon as I walked in the door, Peg called to tell us we'd better get back to the hospital quickly, dad was fading fast. We came into his room to see him struggling to breathe. Mom rushed over to try to hold an oxygen mask over his mouth, but dad used the last of his strength to push it away and to hold her hand instead. It was as if he had been waiting for us although he never opened his eyes.

My mother and several other family members were crying as they slowly shuffled out of the room and nobody seemed to notice that I stayed behind. I needed to know. I was looking for a sign, his presence, his absence, his leaving. I needed to know where he was, where he was going, and I knew that if it was possible, he would provide me something. It wasn't possible.

I had asked dad only a few days earlier what he thought came after life...after death. I believed him to be the smartest, wisest and most insightful person I knew and expected something grand and enlightening. He merely said that he'd be finding out soon enough and didn't really care to speculate. My search for answers nearly killed me.

Not long after my father's death I moved back to Texas and started taking a few more classes at U.T. while working on brother-in-law, John's, ranch. There was somewhat of a nitrous oxide fad sweeping the campus in those days. Nitrous oxide, also known as 'laughing gas' was commonly used as an anesthesia by dentists for oral surgeries. It was also used to pressurize whip cream dispensers at restaurants. Commercial whip cream dispensers and the nitrous oxide cartridges could be purchased through restaurant supply companies. There were two comical characters that had just been elected President and Vice President of the U.T student body, representing the school of "Arts and Sausages". The university's newspaper showed a picture of the new president's celebration party with him sitting in a bath tub hitting off a whip cream dispenser. The fad took off!

I was at a friend's house in Austin where a few of us fellow students were taking turns passing around a 'whippet charger' (whip cream dispenser) and inhaling nitrous oxide. While I wasn't actively seeking any spiritual experience at that moment, my dad's death and my search for answers were never far from my thoughts. It was there when first experimenting with nitrous oxide that I had what I believe was a near death experience which led to the most calm, familiar and safe sensation I've ever had. I was floating in darkness without a body. I was floating toward a brightness between myself and other formless, but friendly and welcoming beings. It was a place I had been before and beings that I knew though I didn't know who they were. It was a timeless place with the feeling of forever and I had never before had such a strong sense of belonging and of security. This was 'home base' in life's game of tag.

My security was interrupted by the thought of my body. Where was it? Why was I not in it? Had there been an accident? I suddenly struggled to return to it, which happened way too quickly and easily. I was disappointed to find myself sitting on a couch between friends with a whip cream dispenser sitting in my lap. I desperately wanted to return to where I had just been. It was obvious by the mid-sentence of the ongoing conversation that my 'timeless' experience had been the blink of an eye, a second or two at most. I tried again several times, but never had another similar experience, at least not one that allowed me to keep the memory of it. It seemed almost like a gift, a partial answer to my desperate questioning. Further research on near death experiences from others described uncannily similar experiences.

I was fairly certain that at least part of the overwhelmingly familiar feeling I'd experienced in my 'floating through darkness' experience had resulted from the several times I'd been knocked unconscious. Always the risk taker, my life was somewhat of a series of really good jumps and really bad landings, sometimes on skis, sometimes on equines and sometimes performing dumb barroom gymnastics. I was far too familiar with the bright flash of cranial impact, but had never been out long enough for most folks to even notice my condition. I almost always 'came to' already on my feet trying to act unfazed.

As much as I wanted to revisit my near-death experience, I didn't want to die or to knock myself unconscious or try any sort of choking rush, or anything else potentially dangerous or unhealthy. I had a girlfriend that enjoyed sniffing amil nitrate (smelling salts). This was available for first aid kits in small cartridges called 'snappers' and also became a small fad for a while. I tried 'Amy', as my girlfriend called it, one time. All I felt was an uncomfortable "WHOOMP WHOOMP WHOOMP" in my head (probably my heartbeat) like a whoofer speaker. It was an uncomfortable and unhealthy feeling and I never tried it again. Although it must seem that I was almost suicidally casual in my experimenting with drugs, I actually tried to be careful and researched potential health impacts of all substances I dealt with. Except one.

I was at work at Kyzar's vet clinic one Sunday morning, feeding, mucking out cages and kennels and doing the weekly janitorial cleaning. I was mopping the surgery room and had just moved the anesthesia tanks over to mop the corner. It was completely unplanned and spontaneous when I casually wondered what that sort of anesthesia felt like. Having aided in countless surgeries, I knew how to adjust the settings for a dog my size. I wasn't planning on putting myself under, I was merely curious what sort of sensation it might cause. I never even sat down or anything.

I held the cone shaped muzzle delivery mask to my mouth and took a lungful. I felt nothing. I took another and still felt nothing. Next thing I remembered was hearing a loud shrill whistling noise like some sort of urgent alarm. I struggled to gain my senses and found myself lying on the floor next to the anesthesia tanks with the valve broken off the oxygen side, whistling into my ear. I was still extremely groggy, but was overwhelmed by guilt, stupidity, embarrassment and shame beyond description. I actually thought about strapping the mask on and turning on the pure gas just to end it all. I thought about getting in my car and heading north without telling anyone what happened or where I went. As my head cleared, it occurred to me that I could tell Kyzar that I had merely knocked the tank over while mopping. But I knew I had to tell him the truth.

It didn't take Kyzar long to get to the clinic. It was the most shameful and painful experience of my life trying to tell him what I had done. I had come to idolize Kyzar as the true cowboy that I dreamed of being and I was about to become one of his greatest disappointments. He would obviously have to fire me, maybe even press charges of some sort. I really didn't even care about any consequences other than having been such a loser and disappointment. I knew I deserved the worst he could offer. I had planned to tell him the minimum truth, take whatever was coming, and then leave the clinic and Kyzar forever, possibly in handcuffs.

Although I felt like the lowest possible glue sniffing, junkie drug addict, I tried to steel myself to take this like a man and pay my dues. Instead, I found myself pouring my heart out to him, telling him about my father's death, my search for answers, my nitrous oxide experience and finally breaking down to weep pathetically in front of him.

Kyzar didn't know how to respond. He seemed, more than anything else, to be totally embarrassed by the whole situation. Part of the veneer of a West Texas Cowboy was the emotional impenetrability of character, one of the things I admired about him. Raised in that sort of culture, I doubt that he had ever witnessed such an emotional display. He didn't know how to take it. Unlike some of my redneck cohorts in Texas, Kyzar had never gotten any sort of pleasure out of having a hippie sidekick, but had sort of reluctantly tolerated my presence, primarily because I was his partner's brother-in-law, but also because I was a pretty good animal handler and a hard worker. He would never have tolerated incompetence. He had slowly come to accept me and maybe even enjoy my company. Losing that was the most painful part.

It was the only time I ever saw Kyzar at a total loss. He wouldn't even make eye contact with me, possibly because he didn't think I could take it. Finally, he said that this didn't need to go any further than between the two of us and that I'd have to put in some overtime to pay for the damages. Until now, after fifty years, I'd never mentioned that incident, more out of lingering shame than by Kyzar's pact. I knew that he wanted it kept quiet to protect whatever shred of integrity I might have left, but more importantly, to protect his own. He didn't want anyone to think he'd grown soft enough to not fire me on the spot and boot me out the door. That was the end of my quest for knowledge of the hereafter.

It never seemed to occur to me, except in retrospect, that if I had thought to sit down for that experience, in the small surgery room, the gas would have continued to flow. If I had done anything except break the oxygen regulator, and only the oxygen regulator, I would have had all my answers that day. Or maybe not. Maybe the end is just that. The end.

I have never revisited my quest for the hereafter, but plants often provide unsolicited insight. The twisted old juniper wraps its living core around its own ancient skeleton, suggesting that life and death might not be entirely distinct.

twisted juniper tree
Twisted juniper