We’ve all heard near-death experience stories. A very common experience seems to be “heading toward the light.” I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I can’t deny that the story has come up too often across too many cultures for there to be no legitimacy to it. I imagine that it’s a commonality hardwired into the human brain, that somehow, some way, it’s a frequent pre-death hallucination, kind of like when people see their lives “flash before their eyes.”
“But Adam,” you may protest, “if it’s just an illusion, then it means nothing. It doesn’t matter.” For me, that’s not true. Imagine a dream of awakening in a glorious place that is your personal take on heaven, just before you pass into oblivion. In the way of dreams, it requires no logic or justification to function, and it is the last experience you have. I don’t think that’s a bad deal. I’ve had some truly fantastic, uplifting dreams. I’d love for one of those to be my final experience, one that I can believe is eternal even while I cease to exist.
So, all of that is to preface this fun fact about me:
On occasion, when I hear a song (especially if it’s one I really like but haven’t heard in a long time), I imagine what it would be like if that song were the last one I heard.
Not like it was playing in the background when I died, but like my brain queues it up and plays it for me, perfectly, as I launch toward the light in my final moment. It plays as the soundtrack as I go down the tunnel toward oblivion. It becomes not just a song I enjoy, but the final anthem of my life.
The fun part, of course, is that the dreaming brain doesn’t care what we want. The song it chooses as it dies could be anything — something somber, something silly, or anything in between. It could be Vivaldi, Dr. Dre, a remix of a video game soundtrack, or the latest Taylor Swift single. It’s an interesting thought experiment because it forces me to ascribe all kinds of meaning to every individual component of the music — not just the lyrics (if it has any), but the melodies, the beat of the percussion, the bass line. All of it.
I went through a phase of my life, after I stopped believing in God, when the concept of death terrified me on a daily basis. Weirdly, this concept of one last song helped me come to terms with it. Yes, death is inevitable. Yes, it comes for everyone. Yes.
And yet —
As the song starts there is a spark of recognition; an instant of joy like recognizing an old friend. As it continues into the chorus and the bridge I forgive all its faults and relish every piece of it. There is no more private way to hear a piece of music, no mockery — either from within or without — in this moment. I cling to every instant of it, wring every bit of insight and memory from its notes. The music spools out and I can sense the end is coming, but there is no fear, only happiness that I was allowed this final moment, this final experience. The ending might come with a triumphant flourish or a gentle fading. Either way, its final moments are my final moments; I hold its hand as we die together.