At 9:37 on the Wednesday morning before Easter in 1986, I “died” for the first time. At least I thought I did. I remember a voice far off in a fog saying, “Blood pressure 90 over zero,” and a nurse cutting off my T-shirt. Someone kept slapping my right hand. Someone else pushed a tube up my nose. I tried to tell my wife, Ginny, to call my office and say I wouldn’t be in. Everything seemed out of focus and jerky, like an old movie. I remember thinking: “If I am dying, why am I so calm?”
On that day when I nearly bled to death, Ginny and I never imagined what awaited us in the next 14 months: three more life-threatening hemorrhages, 125 nights in hospital beds, the gradual decay of mind and body and, finally, a grueling 10-hour liver transplant at the Mayo Clinic that postponed my death. Nor could we have imagined how our lives would be enriched, our faith deepened, by having death as our next-door neighbor.
To my mother, I’m a journalist. To my neighbors, I’m a guy who does something for a magazine. But to people in the news business, I’m a general assignment reporter. For 30 years I’ve made a living as a scribe-of-all-trades, a paid busybody more adept at asking questions than giving answers.
I’ve interviewed a 350-pound flagpole sitter atop his perch on Christmas Eve, and Bobby Kennedy in his campaign plane after he learned that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Political conventions, riots, high school basketball games — you name it, I’ve covered it.
More than anything else, a general assignment reporter, like a cop, spends much of his working life following death’s trail. And the memories stick for life: the little boy in a Halloween mask killed by a hit-and-run driver; the toddler floating face-down in a marshy field; the thin man who gassed himself in his old Buick, a rosary but no ID in his pocket. Our Lady of the Angels school fire in Chicago; walking in the rubble after downtown Richmond, Indiana, blew up; calling relatives of the nurses slaughtered by Richard Speck; reconstructing the last hours of Charles Whitman before he started shooting people from the Texas tower; watching workers remove bodies from John Gacy’s basement.
I dealt with death by growing a thick scab over my emotions — that, and by not calling things by their right names. The first thing a general assignment reporter learns is to keep it impersonal: The hobo killed by a train is a “fatal”; the pregnant teenager who jumps from a rooftop is a “leaper.” In our death-denying society, people resort to similar euphemisms when whispering about the “grim reaper.” People don’t die, they become “terminal” and then “pass away.”
One gloomy winter afternoon, I rounded a corner and bumped into the guy I had been tailing most of my adult life. That’s when my doctor told me that I had only months to live. My body was being ravaged by chronic active hepatitis, an inflammation of my liver caused by an unknown virus called “non-A, non-B.” There was no cure for the disease which was relentlessly destroying the powerhouse and detox station of my body. All I could do was sit down on death’s doorstep and wait to be called inside.
At least twice I slid right to the threshold of that door. Because of modern resuscitation techniques, maybe I never came as close to a clinical death as did some of the people interviewed by thanatologists like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Raymond Moody, Jr., and others. But I’ll tell you what a general assignment reporter remembers about rubbing elbows with death.
After interviewing hundreds of people who have walked the tightrope between life and death, researchers like Moody say there is a “core experience” that many of them share. For one thing, they can’t find words to explain what happened. Some met dead relatives or a “being of light.” Most felt peaceful and unafraid. Some, not all, felt detached from their bodies, even watching like bystanders as doctors worked to revive them, an experience thanatologists call “autoscopy.”
"It's a land where you know things but can't explain them to others, where God touched me — though I can't explain how."
After my first bleed, I drifted awake in the hospital’s intensive care unit feeling detached from my body, as if I were in another dimension, at peace and unafraid. A phrase I once read in a book by Frank Sheed comes close to describing it; for a time I floated on “the other side of silence.” To this day I can’t explain it other than as a place where I understood things, not in words or theory, but personally, directly. Weeks later I tried to describe it in my journal:
“It’s a land where you know things but can’t explain them to others. Maybe to some it’s a frightening place. But to me, it was a place where God touched me — though I can’t explain how.”
Only later, when I began to “regain” my body, did I feel the sharp bite of the helmet holding in place a pressure “balloon” down my throat to stop the bleeding. Thirst and the pain of the helmet reminded me that it was Good Friday, and this was my crown of thorns. The symbolism of my faith provided a framework as I tried to make sense of my predicament. I got back to basics, doing what the nuns taught us to do when faced with hurts or setbacks: “Offer it up.”
I kept thinking of an infant girl we knew who had been born with a deformed heart, and I decided to bargain with God: Since I was in bad shape, take me and save the baby. I know that sounds unsophisticated to the worldly — even, I confess, to me. In my helplessness, I reverted to thinking of God as I had as a child, as the kindly old Bookkeeper in the Sky, someone you could make deals with. Weeks later Ginny told me that the baby had died while I was in intensive care.
For more than a year after that, Ginny and I lived in death’s shadow. My belly bloated, my skin turned yellow and itched constantly, my stamina evaporated, my mind and spirit collapsed. Some days I couldn’t understand a simple sentence in a newspaper, much less function in my job as a Midwest bureau chief for Newsweek Magazine. Then, on St. Patrick’s Day 1987, my heart quit the fight. At 16 minutes before 5 in the afternoon, it stopped “for a long episode,” as the medical records put it. Fortunately, at the time I was hooked to monitors in a hospital because of hemorrhaging the day before. Doctors and nurses in ICU yanked me back to life with drugs, physical stimulation and the insertion of a temporary pacemaker. All I remember of that second brush with death is hearing distant voices and feeling frustrated that I couldn’t understand what the voices were saying.
Till then, I had behaved like a football coach who won’t admit he’s about to lose the game — even as I watched the final seconds ticking off the clock and my doctors run out of timeouts. For more than a year, I lived on two emotional levels. In my reading, prayers and the writings in my journal, I prepared myself for death. But when I was with family, friends and coworkers, I stepped jovially around “It” — like the lawyer who, knowing better, can’t bring himself to write his own will. Ginny faced my death directly several months before I did, bluntly asking one of the doctors how long I had to live. “He could bleed to death at any moment of any day,” he answered.
After what our four grown children now call “Dad’s St. Patrick’s Day Party,” I flew to Mayo Clinic for risky liver-transplant surgery, a procedure that, at the start of this decade, had a one-year survival rate of only 30 percent. Mayo now expects 85 percent of its liver transplant patients to make it through that first crucial year.
For the rest of my life I will take drugs daily to keep my immune system from rejecting the organ that the generous family of some unknown man or woman gave to me. (Most donors are young accident or homicide victims. Sadly, some are suicides.) Ginny and I pray each day for the stranger whose liver keeps me alive for reasons only God knows. Maybe it’s naïve, but I pray as if it were moments before the stranger’s death. There’s no past or future “on the other side of silence.”
Friends ask me about seeing death close up. Death fascinates yet frightens them. They want me, the only Lazarus they know, to assure them death’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
I can tell them this: Ginny and I were led down a road we never would have taken voluntarily. We met pain, fear and, at times, depression. To our surprise, we found a peace that “surpasses all understanding.” We learned that God truly is a God of paradoxes. He can draw strength out of weakness and life out of death.
Four years after his successful liver transplant, Frank Maier died in 1991 of kidney failure. His career at Newsweek included a September 1988 cover story, "The Miracle of Transplants."