''WHERE HAVE you been?" people have asked.
I have been away -- really far away, almost to the other side.
For those who have wondered what happened to my musings all spring, the official answer of ''on leave" didn't tell the entire story. To those who produced a mountain of correspondence and gifts, I have been more than overwhelmed even as I attempt to answer each one.
Near-death experiences are far from unique, except for the poor slob who almost dies. For each tale of the famous bright white lights, there are countless others like mine of sudden, impenetrable darkness. As with any condition or disease, information is a large part of the battle.
So here is what happened. I remember very little of it, but it's the information I've been able to piece together thanks to my wife, my kids, and the others who saved my life.
On a sunny Saturday in March, I was dressing for a drive to the country when I went over like cut wood. When I came to, I was violently sick to my stomach with the mother of all headaches. With typical guy stuff self-delusion, I assumed I had hit my head falling and had a slight concussion. My memory started to disappear, but I pretended to feel better.
Tuesday evening, with my wife away on business, the headache returned. The next morning I told my wife on the phone I had to meet with a group of Republican businessmen in Cincinnati. Amidst the jibberish I hurled at my nearby daughter, I asked where Brigadoon was. That was enough to get my wife on a plane home, my daughter to try to get me to answer the door, and my youngest son to succeed in getting me to the emergency room.
One of my first ''memories" days later in the intensive care ward is something that never happened. I recall removing the sensory devices from my chest and getting out of bed, only to be restrained by a tube protruding from my head and extending to a plastic bag hung on a metal stand.
The staff on duty rushed to my room. I recall offering a convincing explanation of why I should be allowed to leave. I explained that I was just a couple of blocks from my house on the beach, and that if someone went downstairs with me it would be obvious we were practically in the Pacific Ocean. I could point out where my house was, and be gone.
Where was I really? In a suburban Virginia medical complex.
The attempt to get out of bed happened, but the debate turns out to have been a hallucination -- a rupture of a brain aneurysm and some morphine will do that to you. Time and place have no grounding. 2005 suddenly becomes 1953. You're talking about your childhood TV set. And you have no idea who the president is -- it really was possible to forget George Bush for a while.
My next hazy memory is real. A person in a white coat -- man or woman, doctor or nurse, I cannot remember -- told me what had landed me there more than two weeks before. It had been a rupture of an aneurysm inside my head.
From the bed I mumbled a question or two to find out if my condition was stable, but that was just noise to cover up my jumbled thoughts. I recall almost desperately trying to remember whether aneurysm is spelled with an ''i" or a ''y," which conveniently obscured my most disturbing realization that I could not remember what an aneurysm is. More than staying alive, I was determined not to depart this world without knowing what had killed me.
Decades of journalism helped me pretend to have knowledge I didn't have. I asked if my aneurysm was big or little, what it most resembled, if it was unusual in any respect, why my head felt like Tom DeLay was inside it swinging a pick ax. Slowly, aneurysm became something much more than a word I had heard countless times before, but couldn't spell or define.
An aneurysm is a bulge in the wall of an artery. I think of it as a zit. There are perhaps 25 million of them in American heads at any given moment, but each year 15,000 to 20,000 bleed or rupture. I survived (most people don't) because a resident neurologist figured I was bleeding in my head and drilled a hole to drain the blood off and relieve the pressure. My roughest emotional moment was meeting her as an outpatient and realizing that I had no memory of her heroics. She relaxed me by explaining that neurologists often have to reintroduce themselves to patients.
I also survived because the doctors involved knew where to send me and how to fix me with a tiny platinum coil threaded all the way north via an artery in my leg and used to shut off the blood flow to the aneurysm. That tube sticking out of my head sent red liquid into a bag for two weeks. When the color turned light pink I woke up -- sort of.
Normally, aneurysm patients have problems -- delicately called deficits -- for months. Miraculously, I can concentrate again and finished reading a book last week. Sadly, I now know who the president is.
I'm therefore free to keep asking why I survived. A neurological nurse checking me out the other day gently argued I had come to the wrong place to ask, and that if we hurried we could catch the noon Mass at St. Stephen's around the corner.
There is an answer, not necessarily the answer at St. Stephen's, but it is at least an answer worthy of the question I will wrestle with until I die for real.
This place where I have been is a dark one. The one thing I know is who belongs there -- your family and the pros. No one else, especially not the government. You want the loving hands and the healing ones to bring you home or let you go.
Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.