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'In My Time of Dying': A brush with death prompts an exploration of the afterlife

The cover of "In My Time of Dying" and author Sebastian Junger. (Courtesy of Simon & Schuster and Peter Foley)
The cover of "In My Time of Dying" and author Sebastian Junger. (Courtesy of Simon & Schuster and Peter Foley)

Sebastian Junger has embedded with troops in Afghanistan. But his most dangerous moment came in 2020 when an aneurysm almost killed him. What he experienced as doctors worked to save his life led him on an exploration of what happens when we die.

Junger published the book “In My Time of Dying: How I Came Face to Face With the Idea of an Afterlife” and joins host Robin Young to talk about it.

Book excerpt: ‘In My Time of Dying: How I Came Face to Face With the Idea of an Afterlife’

By Sebastian Junger

PROLOGUE

We’ve Been Expecting You

I had an Al Merrick Tri Fin and a brand-new 5-millimeter winter suit, and I squatted on the beach waxing my board and watching heavy January surf pound the outer bar. The sand was hard with ice and scattered with storm wrack—lobster traps, busted-up carpentry, buoys, nets, dead fish, and shrubs ripped out of the dunes on the storm tides. The temperature was in the twenties and a high-pressure system had scraped the world clear of clouds and delivered a stiff little northwest wind that held the peaks nicely and feathered them before they plunged forward. The waves were well over head high, which was nothing I hadn’t surfed before, but that was in the summer; I had no idea that a winter swell broke very differently. There were clues, though: bottom sand getting sucked up the wave faces, turning them dirty beige, and trapped air rupturing out their back walls as they collapsed. It was late morning on a weekday in mid-January, and I was the only person on the beach. I stood up and stowed the board under my arm and waded into the water.

I had neoprene boots and hood, but the water was weirdly heavy; even smaller waves packed a punch. A nor’easter had passed offshore a day earlier and was sending back huge, perfect swells that broke with so much force, they left the water boiling almost until the next wave came through. I waited until a set swept over the bar and then pushed off and started digging for the horizon, hoping to get outside before more waves came in. I was in deep water between the bars, but the big sets closed out everything.

I made it outside and sat my board facing the sun and feeling the ocean shift and roll beneath me. The beach was barren and stripped by winter storms and looked very far away. A few times I tried paddling into waves, but they jacked up and went concave so fast that I always pulled out, heart pounding. I didn’t know that winter bars are steeper, which pitches waves forward more violently, and that cold water is denser and breaks with more force. The result is that winter waves are far more powerful and dangerous than the same-sized wave in the summer. And you can’t hold your breath for nearly as long in cold water— twenty seconds, maybe thirty. The only way to avoid the power of a breaking wave is to get off your board and dive deep, but depending on the water temperature, you might not be able to hold your breath long enough for the turbulence to subside. I was thirty years old, I’d surfed this spot since I was eight, and it never crossed my mind that I could die here.

I had been out there half an hour when I saw a huge wave starting to shoal outside of the bar. It darkened as it came, advancing with the slow determination of something designed to kill you. More peaks were lined up behind it like the ranks of an advancing army. If the waves were starting to steepen that far out, they were true monsters, and I didn’t know whether to paddle like crazy and try to get over them before they broke or just stay put and take my beating. I stopped paddling and sat on my board to calm myself before they hit. On the lead wave came, towering, reaching, and finally detonating right in front of me—the worst possible place. I was beyond all human intervention. I took one last breath, slipped off my board, and dove for the bottom.

The force was so shocking that I caught myself thinking, There must be some mistake. My board leash snapped immediately. Vortices heaved me up, changed their mind, drove me down, somersaulted me, stripped off my hood, stuffed my wetsuit full of sand, and thrashed me with what felt like actual malice. I had no idea which way was up, which was a problem because I ran out of air almost immediately. Ordinarily, the hydraulics of even a large wave dissipate in a few seconds, but this was different—it went on and on. The wave wanted me and was going to keep thrashing me in the darkness until I finally gave up and breathed in.

What amazed me was how malevolent the whole thing seemed—Me? Why do you want me? I was young and had no idea the world killed people so casually. Oddly, I remembered that there was a pile of dirty dishes in my sink that someone was going to have to deal with. Files and notes for a book I hoped to write on my desk. Work clothes scattered across the floor. My parents

lived a hundred miles away, and I was essentially camping out in their summer house to write my book. It had no insulation, and the baseboard heaters were so wasteful and expensive that I almost never used them. I lived in quilted canvas work clothes and slept in a wool hat and sweater. On very cold nights, my drinking water froze. Virtually nothing bothered me. And now all of that seemed to be over.

Excerpt from “In My Time Of Dying” by Sebastian Junger Copyright © 2024 by Sebastian Junger. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, NY.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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