Wales 1966 – 1967
Summer 1966, age 14
The world reassembled as my eyes opened. I was looking up at a plain white ceiling, smooth with no cracks. It was not my bedroom ceiling. My gangly 14-year-old body was lying on a bed covered by a sheet and thin blanket, dressed in baggy blue-striped pajamas—definitely not my pajamas. The room had a faint disinfectant smell and it was empty except for the bed and a bedside table. Like the room, my head was empty—blank.
A thought popped in out of nowhere: I’m in hospital. It came with a feeling of swimming up from some unknown depths, gasping for an illusory breath. Another odd-shaped thought slipped into my mind: I’m alive.
Like catching a glimpse out of the corner of my eye, I sensed another place, restful, soft and inviting. Its soothing peace reminded me of waking when I was a child to a sunny morning filled with birdsong, a day that stretched endlessly with no demands and no worries. So that’s what it’s like when you die.
As I looked around the white room trying to fix on something familiar, the sense of peacefulness began to fade like a pebble dropped into a deep pond, sinking slowly out of sight. Memories started to trickle back…
I remembered my numb hands and dream-like warmth, the freezing water stealing my life, my mind contracting like the closing of a camera aperture, time distorting. The rocking of the waves lulled me with a rhythmic message: Let go; don’t struggle. A dim animal instinct insisted I hold tight to life but it faded, growing less and less persuasive. Fewer and fewer thoughts wormed into my brain, each more sluggish than the last. I’m dying. It feels like going home. This world is hard; the other world is welcoming. I let go and let go a little more; moments slipped away into eternity…
Back in the hospital room, I tried to figure it out: How had I got here? Who’d saved us? Another memory rose to the surface. I’d wanted to stay in that other place, but something dragged me back to a harsh gray world. Much as I tried to resist, something kept pulling at me: my younger brother Toody was screaming! Dad’s deeper voice echoed Toody’s. Reluctantly, salt-laden eyelids cracked open to a bleary image of a dark shape looming over us. It materialized into the hull of a massive ship.
A head peered over the edge of the smooth black cliff and called out. A rope ladder snaked down and hit the water with a splash. Toody thrashed over to it in his oversize life jacket, grabbed hold and sped up the ladder like a monkey; he seemed to fly. I shook myself awake and got to the ladder and pulled myself up the rocking rungs, hand after hand, surprised at my own strength. The ladder jerked behind me as Dad followed. Hands reached over a metal rim, grabbed my life jacket by the collar and pulled it over my ears, dragging me onto a cold hard surface. Images fragmented into a mist of hazy impressions: a blanket across my shoulders, foreign voices, hot tea with whiskey—then nothing.
We must have been taken to hospital. Where were Dad and Toody? What day was it? Fuzzy and unfocused, I tried to string the images together. Suddenly, like a dam bursting, memories of the shipwreck flooded back…
We’d set out from Cardiff Docks, the part of town filled with rusting warehouses and scary men in cloth caps. Toody, my 12-year-old younger brother and I were jumping out of our skins with excitement. It was to be our grand adventure, just the three of us on a sea journey down the Bristol Channel and around the coast to the town of Barry.
Dad had built an odd hybrid canoe, kayak and sailing boat at a local woodworking class over the previous winter. It was made of canvas over a wood frame—dusky red above, slate gray below—with wooden leeboards hanging down each side to keep it stable when the three sails filled with wind. We each had kayak paddles to push it along and there was a tiller and rudder at the rear. Toody named the long, narrow craft the Magog after a mythological Welsh giant. It was oddly beautiful and quite unstable.
“Time to get aboard. You first, Toody,” Dad said, stretching out his hand.
Once Toody was settled, I caught Dad’s knobby fingers in mine, feeling his surprisingly strong arm. The Magog wobbled and for a moment I was afraid it might capsize. Dad kept it stable while I snuggled into the middle seat. He handed each of us a paddle, clambered into the back seat, pushed off and the craft glided away from the jetty.
We paddled in a ragged rhythm, pulling the Magog out into the bay. I tried to follow Toody’s erratic rowing as he maneuvered his paddles side to side, short arms hampered by the life vest. Away from the shore, the wind strengthened, gusting across the sullen water, whipping up whitecaps of sea foam.
Dad sat behind me, intent. A wild seabird with his prominent beaked nose above a trim white beard, he peered over the water, graying hair blown every which way by the wind. Unlike his ordinary diffident self, Dad was in his element, relaxed and confident, directing our actions and answering our questions.
With the tide sweeping us out of the estuary and the winds blowing against us, it felt like we raced down a massive river emptying out into the Irish Sea. We set the mainsail, lowered the leeboards and raised the narrow foresail, while Dad set the mizzen sail at the rear. The boom swung over, the sails filled and we picked up speed, cutting through each wave, driving splashes of seawater over the bow. Toody turned and beamed a wide smile: this was what we’d been waiting for.
“We don’t want to get too far out in the channel. That’s where the big ships go. Get ready to tack back in. Mind your heads when the boom swings over.” Dad shifted the tiller and we turned towards the shore.
A stiff breeze gusted under a sky that had turned gunmetal gray. Toody was chattering away while Dad was quietly concentrating as we rounded a point into a semicircular bay of rocks and pebbles. The bay looked calm and empty, a place to spend time searching in tidal pools for crabs and tiny fish.
Just then, Toody gestured and yelled, “What’s that, Dad?” He pointed to a line of white in the distance beyond the headland of the bay.
Dad cleared his throat: “I’m not sure—it could be a tide race. We’d better head in.”
We paddled hard but the powerful tide kept sweeping us around the bay and away from safety. Now we could see it: a huge wall of white-topped waves stretching far out into the main channel.
Dad’s voice was tense as he yelled. “Moey, we’d better head out into the bay and see if we can get around it.” It was hard to hear anything over a distant roaring, getting louder with each minute.
We turned the craft, the sails billowed and waves broke white over the bow. Moving swiftly against the tide, one of the leeboard stabilizers kept rising out of the water. Between paddle strokes I tried to hold it down, my hand freezing in the spray. Toody paddled hard, breathing heavily. Dad called out commands, his words snatched by the wind and overwhelmed by the roaring sound.
Slowly, relentlessly, we were sucked backward into the maw of a monstrous watery beast. Turning, I saw a massive wave towering high over the mast; it struck like a fist, engulfing us, tossing our craft like a toy.
The Magog flipped. Toody screamed. Dad called out something as I struggled to get out of my seat. Then the sails waterlogged, pulling the craft over and I went under. Icy saltwater filled my mouth and eyes as I scrabbled to get free. Shocked and spluttering, I surfaced to find my brother and father clinging to the Magog’s sides. Our life jackets kept us afloat as we each locked fingers onto a slippery ledge of the upside down craft.
Waves danced and heaved, but in moments we’d sped past the tide race and the sea settled back into its normal swell. Water chilled my back and the life jacket chafed my neck. My face and hands quickly became numb.
“What’s going to happen, Daddy?” Toody cried, his tears mixing with seawater. “I’m cold. Are we going to be rescued?” He looked small and helpless, a little boy needing comfort.
Dad’s voice was strained but calm, his training as a World War II pilot coming to the fore. “There’s no chance of getting the boat upright. We’ll have to wait until we get rescued. The main thing is to stay with the boat and hold on tight. I’ll set off the smoke signal as soon as we see a ship. They’ll come and get us.”
Dad’s composure settled me. It was no use getting upset; I’d have to trust everything would be OK…
Time passed. A chilled silence settled over us. Clinging to the boat, we rose and fell with the long slow waves of the open ocean. From the top of one swell, we saw a black shape far in the distance, a drift of smoke rising from its stack. Toody called out for help and lapsed into jumbled muttering. Dad reached under his life jacket for the emergency rescue canister. He pulled the tab and a long cloud of red smoke spread out behind us—our last hope.
We drifted, each lost in our own shrinking worlds. The only sound was the swish of water against canvas; all around stretched a wasteland of gray endless waves.
Random, hard-to-capture images tiptoed at the fringe of my mind. Wave and water drew heat from my body, inviting me to let go. Out of nowhere, something opened up inside me, an expansive view of everything: it was as it should be; there was nothing to fear. All I had to do was surrender.
Intruding on the peaceful calm, one thought remained: What about my sisters? I saw Dilly, Jeffie and Veronica standing around three graves with sorrowful ashen faces. They were left behind, overcome with sadness. Then a new thought: They will suffer; we are the fortunate ones. It’s OK to let go…
Back in the hospital room, a sharp knock startled me, sending a shock through my body. A door opened and in strode a blonde nurse consulting her clipboard, all brisk manner and starched white uniform. For a moment I was confused; I’d forgotten people existed.
“Owen Evans, isn’t it?” she asked in a singsong Welsh accent.
That was puzzling. Owen? Who was that? Oh, that’s me—but no one calls me Owen. I’m Moey. I pulled myself together and mumbled something vaguely affirmative.
“Your father and brother are in the next room. You’ll get to see them in a while. Now I need a little sample. I’ll be back to collect it.”
She placed an odd-shaped bottle on the bedside table, turned on the heel of her sensible shoes and left abruptly.
It took me a moment to recover. What was that strange thing she’d left? It crouched on its side like a distorted animal looking at me with a mouth-like spout. What is it? What am I supposed to do? Then it clicked: she wanted me to pee into it. I struggled shakily to my knees, opened the flap in the blue-striped pajamas and inserted my penis into the neck of the bottle.
After a moment’s pause something let go, and kept letting go. The floodgates had opened and I couldn’t stop the surge, even as the bottle threatened to overflow. Gritting my teeth, I finally clenched my bladder shut. A few drops of pee splattered onto the sheet.
When the nurse returned, she found me kneeling on the bed, carefully holding the bottle upright, filled to the brim with urine. Without a word, she wrapped it in a cloth and took it away.
A surge of embarrassment swept over me, flamed my face and jolted me into my familiar painful self. I was back in the world and part of me wished I wasn’t.
We should have died. A tiny speck in a vast heaving sea, there was little or no chance of being found. The rescue was a fluke, a long shot—one of those hokey endings in a Hollywood disaster movie. By chance someone saw our signal; by luck the captain decided to turn his ship around and find us before hypothermia set in. It all seems so unlikely, as if behind the scenes something was directing the action and outcome.
To be caressed by the hand of death is an unsettling gift. We are confronted by the precariousness of our little lives and the fragility of our minds and bodies. It shakes something loose within and forces us to face fundamental questions: “Why am I alive? What does it all mean? What is life for?”
Certainly, my own glimpse behind the veil disturbed me to the core—though I was too young to realize at the time. It fueled my insecurity while at the same time weakening my connection to everything around me. At the center of my being, the instinct to survive wavered. The reflexive fear of dying diminished and I no longer strongly desired to be alive.
In his memoir, the great psychologist C. G. Jung describes his experiences following a heart attack:
“For it seemed to me as if behind the horizon of the cosmos a three-dimensional world had been artificially built up, in which each person sat by himself in a little box. And now I should have to convince myself all over again that this was important! Life and the whole world struck me as a prison, and it bothered me beyond measure …”
My own near-death experience (NDE) does not compare with Jung’s. I did not see a tunnel of light, heavenly sights or deceased relatives in waiting. Instead, I received an inner experience of comfort and peace—inviting but not particularly exciting. That is possibly because my immature ego was unequipped to hold the full experience. Just as with dreams, our conscious minds cannot grasp and hold certain images—so we instantly forget.
Forgotten or not, that inner experience became a touchstone. I have no choice but to contend with the big question: what is the purpose of my life. I thoroughly enjoy being alive yet part of me does not want to be in this clunky world; it is too demanding and constricted, like wearing clothes that are too tight. I feel a tidal pull from that other place of comfort and peace. Not wanting to leave my loved ones behind, I am yet subtly attracted to my own death.
Even though cushioned by my NDE, I was still traumatized. Our egos are designed to keep us alive, so threats to survival are always disturbing. Younger and more vulnerable, Toody had a worse time than I. Later that summer at Aunty Peggy’s house, he lost it. My cousin and I found him wandering in an open field, face waxy, eyes glazed. He muttered to himself in a small scared voice, “We could’ve died. We could’ve died.”
Toody had a typical reaction of traumatic shock and dissociation. Also typical for our family, no one took his experience seriously. Like the others, I pushed him away, ignored his pain. In recent discussions with my brother, he has little memory of the shipwreck and none of his response. He lost a part of himself in those frigid waters.
Trauma overwhelms our ability to cope, distorts and frays the thread of our identity. We lose continuity and connection to parts of our self. How much an experience impacts a particular person often looks random but is actually dependent on three interlocking factors: vulnerability, the intensity of the event, and the quality of the healing environment.
Young children are vulnerable so they are most easily damaged by incidents any adult might cope with. Powerful events such as extreme loss, violence and sexual abuse devastate almost everyone—yet many people find healing and resolution. So why are some individuals more traumatized than others? Why do similar vulnerabilities and traumatizing events have such different long-term outcomes?
The determining factor is almost always the quality of the healing environment. When a child is hurt, she/he naturally runs to a safe nurturing person—most often a parent—to receive sympathy, care and reassurance. If the parent is present, understanding and soothing, the child cries for a while but soon the hurt goes away and is forgotten. In contrast, when a parent is distracted, uncaring or critical, that same small hurt leaves a permanent scar. Trauma is a devastating hurt that requires someone to be there fully present, engaged and competent to help.
As a therapist, I am usually the first person to provide an adequate healing environment. Most often, the traumatized client experienced overwhelming experiences of abuse and emotional deprivation as a child. No one was there to confide in; no one cared enough to listen or understand. The child learned not to expect support, so the festering wound was suppressed and left untended.
Toody and I had a defective healing environment. Not one person asked us how we were doing or if we needed help; no one showed they cared. Toody got the worst of it. I was older and did not feel his terror of dying, so the shipwreck impacted me somewhat less, but with no access to healing, both of us were scarred.
 C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961). Vintage Books, New York, p. 292.
 In a study of over 300 near death experiences (NDEs), 82 per cent mention calm and peace while a far smaller percentage describe a tunnel or light. See: Peter Fenwick and Elizabeth Fenwick, The Truth in the Light (2011). White Crow Books, Guildford, UK.