The Miracle of Facing Death

They say your life flashes before your eyes when you come face-to-face with death. It’s true that those who’ve had brushes with death feel an immense, loving omnipresence surrounding them, abolishing any fear that may have existed around the inevitability of dying. Certainly, it was the case when I faced a near-death experience.

It was the summer of ’85. I was fifteen and ready to take on the world. Well, maybe not the entire world, but definitely a small part of it—2000 miles away on the sunny shores of Greece. I had just arrived with a group of young adults, excited and eager to get this 30-day guided tour underway. I had begged my parents to let me go, unsupervised. There would be chaperones, I assured them.  They finally capitulated to my incessant pleas on the caveat that I be extra vigilant.  

I remember day three of the tour as if it were yesterday. We ferried from Athens to the first of three smaller islands we were to visit that day. I didn’t hear my father’s voice telling me not to do anything stupid or dangerous when I got on the back of a rented moped with a friend. Didn’t think twice when we took off without helmets, weaving in and out of island traffic. Everyone rode mopeds in Greece—no one bothered with helmets back then. Soon we were flying alongside another friend down a remote dirt path, racing to the finish. Young, carefree, and in hindsight, utterly oblivious to the danger looming ahead. 

With the wind lashing at my hair and the warmth of the tropical sun glistening in my eyes, I almost missed seeing the abrupt sharp bend up ahead. Just before us was a serpentine curve in the gravelly road, and I knew instinctively that we were going to crash. I only had a split second to think about my life—to feel the fear course through my veins as though it were venom. During the actual crash, my fear was replaced by calm. My life flashed before my eyes. Literally. It was like watching a film in slow motion of my fifteen years, one image after another arranged in sequential order. The film strip even had sprocket holes along the side. 

I don’t remember anything else about the crash besides that film-like life review. I woke up in the hospital, bandaged, bruised, and unable to walk. Needless to say, my much-anticipated trip was essentially over. I wish I could say that something profound happened to me after that accident. Some illuminated moment of truth or clarity of life after death. I didn’t even see a white light like most who have faced near-death often witness.

 Instead, lucky to be alive, I developed a seemingly irrational fear of dying in a catastrophic way that would haunt me for years. I was certain that I would die in some calamitous event. As the years passed, this fear haunted me, but I wanted to explore the world and to do that I needed to overcome this fear. I soldiered on, accepting a job as a flight attendant despite my distaste of flying. Flying seemed like a perfect way to face that fear almost daily. I knew this new career would come with challenges; namely, my utter dislike of flying. Somehow, I would have to get past the queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach every time the aircraft lifted off. But soon I found that the repetition of flight diminished much of my apprehension.

It was 1992. I remember that it was a Tuesday in April only because I had a cruise vacation planned for the following Saturday. I had one more day to sit “reserve” before I was off on my trip. Reserve days were unscheduled days where we were required to be on call should anyone call in sick on a scheduled flight. Tuesdays were a great day to be on reserve. There was a three-day layover to Cancun that left on Tuesdays, with an overnight stay in Vancouver, and a quick scheduled stop in San Jose before reaching our sun-drenched destination for a relaxing day on the beach. 

What were the chances that someone would call in sick on the Cancun layover? I had a better chance of winning the lottery. And yet, a small voice deep within me knew I would be on that flight. As though it were a “fait accompli” or somehow written in the stars. My phone suddenly rang, and I found myself on the other end with crew scheduling. 

     “It’s your lucky day. You’re on the Cancun layover.” Yes! I knew it! I quickly threw a few things into my suitcase and headed for the office.

What should have been my lucky layover soon turned into a hellish nightmare. From our initial missed approach landing in Vancouver, not once, not twice, but three times, it was like the gods were sending us warning bells on this layover. During our debrief in Vancouver,  we learned that our landing gear hadn’t fully retracted and locked into place, but the flight deck’s computer indicators hadn’t shown signs that anything was amiss. The pilots had begun their approach oblivious to any signs of trouble.  Had the ever-observant men in the control tower not seen the half-retracted gear on our approach, we would have crash-landed onto the belly of the aircraft, completely unprepared. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief and headed for our respective hotel rooms for the night. My nerves were rattled, but I convinced myself all was fine. The next morning, we would head out for Cancun with a quick stop in San Jose. 

That morning began like any other morning. The maintenance crew had checked out the aircraft and all seemed fine. I couldn’t wait to get to Cancun and soak up some rays. I was looking forward to kicking back and relaxing with the crew. Since it was the last flight of the season to San Jose, we were scheduled to be completely empty. However, during our briefing we learned that 36 travel agents would be joining us; they were headed to San Jose on a familiarization trip to learn about the different hotels. These trips are usually complimentary to the agents and particularly important, as they are also a way to showcase the airline and the service it provides. 

I was in a particularly good mood that morning, chatting with two of the agents who were seated across from my jump seat. They had never heard of our airline; the company was only in the process of opening a base in Vancouver, where the agents were from.

“Well, you’re in for the ride of your life,” I quipped cheerily, before moving on to help another passenger place their bag in the overhead bin. I don’t know what made me say this to the agents. I had never said anything like it before. Of course, I had no idea how ominous that declaration would soon be. 

It happened about three hours into the flight, while we cruised at 39,000 feet towards Texas. Bar service had already been completed. The pre-lunch wine was poured onto trays, and meals were in the oven. I had just finished making my way through the aisles with the duty-free cart when the seatbelt sign turned on. I found it odd since there was no turbulence, so I ignored the chime and carried on with my duties. All of the passengers were seated in rows one to twenty, so we had the entire back cabin to lounge around and relax in without the prying eyes of the passengers. 

Out of nowhere, the aircraft started to jolt and rattle. I paid it no mind as I was accustomed to a bit of turbulence by now. I proceeded to finish counting the money from the duty-free sales. But then it got worse. The pilot came over the address system advising us to discontinue service and put our seat belts on. When that happens, it’s time to pay attention. I quickly took a seat in the last row and strapped myself in. 

Within minutes, the aircraft began to shake violently. It was not the kind of turbulence I had ever experienced before. The tail of the airplane creaked and crackled at a feverish pitch. I tormented myself with thoughts of it breaking apart, taking those of us seated at the very back with it into the abyss. There was no visibility outside, save for the ominous grey of storm-like conditions. The occasional flash of lightning ripped through the darkened sky like fireworks. Fear assaulted every cell in my body. It was the longest few minutes of my life. I knew we were obviously flying through a harrowing storm and I figured we would come out of it soon. I held onto that hopeful thought. This was not the first time we had flown through a storm, and we always made it out intact.

When the lights shut off in the cabin and the emergency track lights along the floor came on, I feared we would not be so lucky this time around. This was followed by a noxious burning smell, which, despite all my training, I could not identify. We go through rigorous training to become flight attendants: six to eight weeks of drills, tests, accident scenarios of every kind. Yet nothing could have prepared me for the intense fear that would catapult me into a new sphere of existence. This was a fear unlike any other. It took me in its deathly grip and strangled the life force out of me. It’s one thing to survive a moped accident, but few survive airplane accidents at 39,000 feet in the air. In fact, they are almost unheard of in the aerospace industry.  

The feared cataclysmic event that was triggered by that moped accident in Greece years ago was seemingly becoming my future. I took as many breaths as I could, knowing my last one would come soon. And one by one, I began to say goodbye to my loved ones, thanking my parents for a life well lived. I imagined it was just a matter of time before the aircraft would explode mid-air, sending us all to our final resting place, wherever that might be.

I call what happened next nothing short of a miracle. Instead of exploding mid-air as I had anticipated, the aircraft took a drastic nosedive and plunged towards the ground at warped speed. It’s inconceivable to call such an incident a miracle, but it’s what happened to me during this plunge. 

Everything suddenly slowed down. 

Tiny particles floated in slow motion before my eyes. Had I left my body and joined another dimension? 

Time stood still. 

It seemed uncanny that during the worst of this situation, I would no longer be gripped by the earthly emotion of fear. In its place was the warm embrace of calm, immense joy, and a boundless love so exquisite that it still takes my breath away. In all my 22 years, I had never experienced this euphoric kind of love. It felt mystical in nature. That blissful and exalted state that modern mystics and sages talk about experiencing during meditation. This was not anything that the rational mind could conceive or understand. It was spiritual in nature. Intuitively, I’ve come to understand it as God or Universe or Angels or Guides assisting me during the most tumultuous moment of my life. The Divine wrapping me in complete and rapturous, and expansive love like no other. I think they call it nirvana. Whatever the outcome, I knew I would be okay. I was going home, and if this was how it felt to join God, then I was certainly ready. 

After this 3000-foot plunge through the air,  the pilots managed to get the aircraft under control long enough to make a May Day call to the Texas control tower and initiate an immediate emergency landing. I was violently jolted out of that nirvanic angelic embrace and thrown into flight-duty mode. I would have to process all that had happened later in my hotel room. Now was not the time to panic or become hysterical, and yet the fear had started to suffocate me once again. I tried to hang onto the calm euphoric feeling that enveloped me during the plunge, but the human senses of the mind took over and I promptly went into shock. 

We never did make it to Cancun. As the airplane touched down in Texas, we were escorted down the runway by fire trucks racing alongside us on both sides. As we deplaned the travel agents, now traumatized and white as ghosts, I turned to the two that were seated across from my jump seat and in my state of shock, said, “Did I not tell you this would be the ride of your life?” They stared at me mortified, before stumbling out of the aircraft. 

I have tried to reconcile what it meant to have not one but two incidents in my life when I faced death head on. While both were vastly different in nature—besides the calm—I have come to believe that the first incident might have been in preparation for the latter. However, I also can’t help but wonder if the initial episode was meant to awaken me in some way to the spiritual nature of life, much like the second one did—but failed to do so. 

In those crucial moments when my life hung in the balance, it was impossible for me to predict which way the scale would tip. I was knee-deep in terror. Yet in those moments, something remarkable happened. My terror at the thought of dying was suddenly replaced by a feeling of love so intense that it wrapped me tightly in a warm cocoon. Perhaps it was the wings of angels that surrounded me in those moments when I believed my life was in peril. I can’t concretely explain it because how does one define the unseen? Whether it was spirit guides, God, or angels that lovingly embraced me, it was immaterial. The experience of facing death awakened a spiritual faith so profound that it affirmed the deep beingness that exists behind the scenes of this world. While the first episode exacerbated my fear of dying, the latter experience banished any fear I had of meeting my maker and moving on from this life.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his 1933 inauguration speech, said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I have come to understand just how true that statement really is. I think the fear of dying has more to do with fear of the unknown—the uncertainty of what awaits us in the afterlife is a mystery to us. My personal experience has taught me that there’s nothing to fear in death because a loving presence is there to comfort us through our transition to wherever we go. This has been documented by scores of people who have had near-death experiences. Since then, I have also come to experience this “loving presence” as a guiding hand through life—not only in my most precarious times—but also during major life decisions. I am comforted and at peace knowing that in life or in death, I am never alone.

Viki Posidis is in her final year of undergraduate studies, major/minoring in Communication & Media Studies and Professional Writing at York University. Writing has been a part of her life for longer than she can recount. She currently operates her own film production company and aspires to add publishing to her ever-growing resume. When not working Viki enjoys travelling the globe with her partner.