By Tan Yu You (21S03H)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
The answer to life, the universe and everything may be 42 (a reference to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)—but is there an answer to death?
Even with all the advances and progress humankind have made toward deciphering the great mysteries of our universe, the mystery of death is—and continues to be— unsolved. Desmond Kon, a near-death experience (NDE) survivor, attempts to articulate the image of death as he witnessed and lived through it in The Good Day I Died, a book that is nothing short of unique and novel.
The very first line on the cover of The Good Day I Died reads “a quasi-memoir”. It immediately caught my eye and begs the question: why did he choose such a strange classification for an autobiographical book? In the words of Desmond, “a quasi-memoir transcends the conventional autobiography and all the reader expectations that comes with the genre.”
It is immediately evident that this is no ordinary memoir even before the prologue begins. The chapter titles are phrased as questions directed at Desmond himself, akin to a self-administered interview. Rather than giving an account of his personal life before and after his NDE from start to end, he is answering questions that you, the reader, may have asked him. It is a memoir, but it is also intensely self-aware and self-critical.
“Why then should we believe you? Why should anyone believe anything you’ve written?”
This is one of the questions Desmond posed to himself. He readily admits that the reader has no need to believe anything that has been written; it is simply a personal story, an account of what he saw and perceived without any concrete evidence to back it up.
This is perhaps my favourite aspect of the book: it does not come across as pretentious or boastful, much like a be-all and end-all of NDEs. Instead, Desmond offers his own unique perspective and interpretation as he recounts his personal NDE—engaging the reader through the honest, down-to-earth tone adopted in the book—while leaving it to one to believe its authenticity. Nonetheless, it makes one wonder how it must have felt like to experience such surreal beautiful things in person.
In the quasi-memoir, Desmond highlights the similarities between his own story and the accounts of NDEs that other people had experienced by comparing the two frequently while recounting his NDE. However, he does acknowledge that his story is distinctly his own and does not presume that it is an universal experience. It is this aspect that makes this memoir, his own memoir.
Throughout his NDE, the line between fantasy and reality is constantly blurred as logic is defied over and over again in place of surrealism and absurdism from the moment he died to his sudden return from death. In addition, the paradoxical theme of two contradicting things occurring at once recurs. For instance, he notes that the entire experience felt so real that he thought he was alive the whole time—a bizarre duality that seemed to underscore how he perceived things in the strange realm of the afterlife. It took him years before he finally came to terms with the fact that he actually died, passed into the afterlife, and returned back to life.
What struck me as interesting is that despite not feeling a desire to return to the living, Desmond recalls having a great resistance holding him back, keeping him from fully passing on even as the angels beckoned him to join them—as if his soul was letting him know that his time was not up yet. Is this a sign that every one of us has a fate, no matter how much we want to believe in free choice? What would have happened if he had decided to heed the angels? It seems that the hallmark of a NDE is a reminder that some questions in this universe can never be answered, that some things in our world exist outside the realm of possibility and should be left untouched and unexplored.
It perhaps does not come as a surprise that even after witnessing such ineffability, Desmond openly confesses that he did not come out of his NDE as a very changed person. Neither did he devote himself to spirituality, piety or devotion. His mind instead settled on denial as a form of mental release, unwittingly or not, and effaced this aspect of his past.
However, the aftermath of his NDE still remains crystal-clear in his mind. One common narrative among multiple stories of NDE survivors is a heightened sense of the paranormal for some time after their brush with death. He admits that he too became more sensitive to the supernatural post-NDE and started seeing apparitions.
The first apparition he saw was after he had undergone an operation after an accident just over a week after his NDE. He remembered waking up in his hospital bed and sighting an ominous black figure standing in front of the window in his ward—he described it as most closely resembling the angel of death. It unnerved him to the point that it remains etched to his memory. He divulges that he had written about a character who had visions of angels—in particular Azreal (the angel of death in Jewish and Islamic religions)—in one of his previous works, Singular Acts of Endearment.
Just like something out of Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories, Desmond presents to the reader a few more perturbing supernatural encounters that he had over the years—the apparition of a transgender sex worker in Changi Village, a haunted museum in Malacca, and even a spiritual attack just to name a few. At times, I did find myself reading his encounters with the otherworldly apparitions with a grain of salt, but I did truly enjoy reading the mini ghost stories sprinkled throughout the book.
In his reflection, Desmond looked back on a class on Death and Dying in which his professor mentioned how little people even thought of death, not until they had to confront it in their life in some way. He notes that for most people, encountering an NDE is usually transformative and life-changing. It is evident that despite his denial of his NDE for years, it has brought about everlasting changes in his life, and he truthfully presents these changes and his own thoughts about the impact of his NDE to the reader.
One change that he has adopted is a more gentle outlook on the world at large. Desmond talks about how he wants to think that he has become more receptive towards the perspectives of others and is willing to listen to all kinds of stories. He quotes a memorable phrase from his professor which he finds highly applicable to himself—“no patience for willed ignorance”. Yet despite his kinder outlook, he confesses that he still has his shortcomings, such as how he has lost his altruistic zeal which he had prior to his NDE because he learnt that it is as important to care for the self as it is to lead a life of service—something which he finds ironic.
Another change is his appreciation for learning to let go and not hold on to too many sentiments. How each moment in life, each stop on one’s journey is nothing but a mere snapshot, a single frame in life’s movie. He strongly believes that detachment, as taught in the doctrines of Buddhism and Christianity, is the key to peace—a greater spirit of acceptance and lightening of the heart and mind.
Perhaps the biggest transformation is being more conscious of being present in the moment. Desmond began to desire a lifestyle of purpose and balance, shunning away from the excessive lifestyle synonymous with Singapore and instead embracing the idea of decluttering and leading a simple life. He does so by doing things that bring deeper meaning to his life, such as art, teaching, reading and editing.
“I came back from the hereafter, knowing I needed to utilise my second lease of life better. These days, I’m more interested in immersing myself fully in my present lived experience.”
The Good Day I Died is at its core a heartfelt and upfront confession of a man who died and was resurrected, and his transformed life after his return from death. It invites you to contemplate your own outlook on life, and in the process find your own existential path that brings you closer to the happiness you seek in spite of life’s vicissitudes.
There may be no answer to death, but there is an answer to how to live life to the fullest. And only you yourself can find the answer.