The story you are about to read is totally true. There is no poetic license taken in its telling or any further embellishment needed. It is because sometimes our lives’ most mysterious and magical events happen in the briefest hole within our mundanity. Stories such as this would probably go unnoticed and untold but for a random fix of our gaze in a particular direction at that perfect moment.
For a six-year period immediately after I finished college starting in 1975, I lived overseas on a small farm on an island within commuting distance to Goteborg, the second largest city in Sweden. I helped grow tomatoes in a greenhouse on the small island in the summertime and taught English as a second language at a university extension program in the city during the long gray winters.
Why I chose to go into exile and how I picked Sweden are important to this story only for one major reason. I had grown up in Los Angeles, a city with a population equal to Sweden’s by itself. Perhaps I saw too many Ingmar Bergman movies, but the quiet solitude of the landscape was something that intuitively called to me. I made friends, explored the country, learned its language fluently and had some wonderful times. But more importantly, it was a refuge to get to know myself a bit better in this largely benevolent gray cocoon before adult responsibilities back home beckoned.
One Thursday evening in early spring in 1978, I entered a Swedish public school building to teach an advanced English conversation class to a group of about a dozen adults. I always looked forward to this class because it was a rare departure from tedious grammatical drills and structured lessons. The students had enough fluency to be very expressive, and the conversations could be quite lively at times. Teachers are not supposed to have favorites. But there was one middle-aged man in the group who was irresistible, a ringleader of sorts because he had a delightfully wicked sense of humor. A banker, no less!
As I went through the door and started up the staircase toward the third floor classroom, I saw the back of the head of this favorite student. It was unmistakable because he was bald, and I immediately recognized the distinctive pattern cast by the hair still lining the sides of his head. The zigzagging stairway between each floor was divided up into two sections separated by a landing. As I put my foot on the first step of the ground floor, I saw the back of his head twisting to
turn and go up the next half-stairs. When I got to the landing and he had reached the second level, the same thing happened again—his head turned and disappeared up the next set of stairs.
I decided that I wanted to surprise him from behind, so I went a little bit faster to catch up with him, but to my chagrin he, too, sped up and kept pace. I saw the back of his head for the last time reaching the landing of the third floor before turning away into the hallway leading to the classroom.
When I got into the classroom itself, the banker was nowhere to be found. And strangely enough, the others had not taken their customary places at their desks. Instead, they were huddled together talking very quietly in the back of the room.
“What’s wrong,” I asked, since their energy made it a safe assumption. “You didn’t hear,” one of the students replied. “Oh, I guess you wouldn’t have.”
I stood there in shock but also in a state of absolute wonderment. I was told that the banker had died that very same afternoon.
“He was coming back to his office from lunch. He collapsed going up the stairs. Heart attack. They couldn’t revive him.”
Quite appropriately, the class was immediately called off for the evening. We said the things to each other that one would normally say in that situation. We exchanged “see- you-next-weeks” to somehow collectively exhale and re-enter that safer place where consideration of death and dying was to be comfortably put off to another time. And I certainly did not volunteer anything of what I thought I had just witnessed.
Back in my rusty old car, I sat for a few minutes and rolled back the memory tapes. The first step was to question myself with urgency. Did I really see what I think I saw? Or was it just a ridiculous daydream from an over-stimulated imagination? A stupid coincidence? A trick of the lights? Maybe that extra cup of coffee had taken my sanity temporarily over the edge?
No, no, no, I thought. I saw him. That was beyond doubt. I turned on the car engine. Before I shifted into reverse, the skepticism started again. Come on! Tell me exactly what you saw. Describe him. Go on! Did it feel or look like any other living body that happened to be walking up the stairs? Hmm, I can’t really say for sure. I thought more and more as the car remained motionless in the parking space but belching exhaust.
As I backed the car, I did so with my mind finally at peace on the matter. I did see him—that was for certain. But there was no sound from his footsteps on the floor or anything that could be heard on the subtlest level, for example, from the movement of his arms rubbing against his clothing. I was convinced that it wasn’t a normal human being, but neither was it a holograph or something fuzzy like a film image projected and viewed with 3D glasses. I just knew it was the banker, and from my mind’s view, he walked with integrity
As my car disappeared into the city streets and onto the highway towards the island, I tried to make further sense of what I saw. Perhaps the banker didn’t believe he was dead. And, in a slightly self-flattering way, maybe he didn’t want to miss out on my wonderful class and said, “Hell no, I’m going and death is not going to stop me.”
But that line of investigation was unsatisfying and felt daft compared to what was truly coming forth as the big question.
By the time I turned off the main highway and onto the narrower road through the farmlands to the ferry landing, I considered the following: Why had this happened specifically to me? And what was I supposed to learn from it? My answer came swiftly. What I had experienced that evening was not of the realm of the intellect. So, the idea of trying to explain it in words or in concept seemed humorously antithetical. That thought was oddly comforting, and I let out a sigh.
I did not have to try to explain it to myself or anyone. But, at the same time, I also realized that what happened was not to be ignored, discounted, dismissed or ever forgotten.
The ferryboat stood waiting for me. It was simply enough that it had happened. But the rules were now and forever changed.
Today, Joel Brokaw is the Communications Director for GIFT.