Para Versus Normal

A hard look at perception.

Goodbye Big John

The photograph had come full circle.

Big John Jimenez was a hard-core member of our diverse, iconoclastic community of dedicated athletes in Portland, Oregon. A tough, soft-spoken, kind-hearted and inspirational, Puerto Rican angel to everyone whose lives he touched, John once weighed in at over 600 pounds with 67% body fat. Only a few years later, he had dropped his weight to 270 pounds of mostly lean muscle mass, with only 18% body fat.  He was training to enter a body-building competition. Had he lived to achieve his greatest ambition, John intended to use his transformation to inspire children of every community - and especially Inner City children - to feel good about themselves and believe in their abilities.

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By the time he was down to 450 pounds, he was already considered one of the best in the business when it came to running fitness facilities - not only because of his considerable skills in management and sales, but also because of his ability to inspire other people to follow his example. He was an American original - a self-made role model not only for those who needed to work their way up, as he did from his own humble beginnings in the lower income neighborhoods of New York and Los Angeles, but also for all those who needed to be inspired to believe in themselves. It is impossible to believe that he is dead at only forty years old. I was with him at his deathbed and attended his funeral last Sunday.

Only thirteen months ago, I was lifting weights with my workout partner Danniel Rolfe - a towering Brazilian athlete and personal trainer - when I first saw a picture of John on the wall of our local gym. "By the way, this is John," Danniel said. "He's the club manager and he's also my closest friend. He's an incredible guy. I want to introduce you two." I didn't know much more about John at that moment, except that he had lost a lot of weight some years before. There was, nevertheless, something inexplicably disturbing about seeing his picture - a sense of vertigo - the feeling that something was wrong.

I've had that feeling before - at certain times when someone close to me, or even a stranger, has been seriously ill or dying. I don't know where the feeling comes from, but it usually happens when I see someone in person, and not necessarily when there is an obvious problem. It is the feeling of impending death - of looking back from some future moment that is still to come and remembering the present moment - of seeing someone who is still alive and feeling that they are already dead in the not-too-distant future. There have been times when that feeling has served as a warning of an underlying problem, like an early stage ovarian tumor, that was caught in time to save a person's life. There have been other times when nothing could be done.

This time, the feeling was coming from seeing a photograph.  Even though Danniel and I didn't yet know each other very well - even though I had done everything I could to escape from a life where too many people treated me like a Magic 8 Ball because they believed I was some kind of psychic - I still made the spontaneous decision to take the risk of saying something, because the feeling was so powerful. "There's something wrong," I said. "There's something wrong with him. You have to tell him to go see a doctor, but please don't say I told you." I put my hand over John's stomach in the photograph. "There something wrong right here. He needs to get this looked at right away. You have to tell him."

It is one of the surprising things I would learn about people like Danniel - about so many of my friends from the everyday world of our extended community of athletes - that they often have an easier time adapting to unexpected possibilities than many of those who consider themselves to be official experts in the field of paranormal phenomena. Danniel didn't ask if I might be delusional, or react as if he thought I might have some sort of grandiose vision of my own intuitive abilities. He only asked if I might be picking up on the fact that John had undergone stomach by-pass surgery years before - which was something that I didn't know. He asked the question so matter-of-factly that it seemed completely normal that a person might look at a photograph and have the sense that somebody they never met in person was going to die.

"I don't think that's it," I said. "I think it's something much more serious."  Danniel never treated me differently after that conversation.  He did encourage John to see a doctor, but it was already too late.

We only discovered much later that John had fallen victim to a virulent form of stomach cancer that would eventually kill him. When we finally did meet, on a night when he could still perform his award-winning rendition of Baby Got Back that brought the house down at the grungy karaoke bar where he was a featured performer, John's first words to me were a playful jab about the fact that I was older than him. I responded that age was a relative thing, depending on your physical condition and your state of mind. Neither one of us knew that he was dying of cancer, but his stomach was already beginning to hurt. He wrote it off to over-indulging in the wrong kinds of foods.  I asked him when he planned to see a doctor.  He told me to get out there and dance with a gorgeous young woman who was moving like a goddess on the dance floor, before I let my own life get away from me too soon.

Danniel and I sat with John last week as he was lying on his deathbed. After we watched a television show about the best roadside barbeque joints around the country, and John absorbed himself in every moment of that vicarious culinary experience, he suddenly fell silent, rolled over, took my hands and looked into my eyes. It was an unmistakable goodbye between two former strangers who had become the closest friends over the past several months. "I love you, man," he said. "Love you too, brother," I said, and we sat without saying a word for a while, until John's compassionate and beautiful girlfriend arrived and crawled into the bed beside him.

Danniel and I very quietly slipped out of the room. It was the last time that I saw John alive. I did receive a text message the following day, that said, "Hey Keith thank you for last night I really felt the love. Love u man." I texted back that we would all go out again as soon as he was feeling better. He wanted to go out to one of his favorite nightclubs and watch all the beautiful women dressed up and dancing.  He embraced life to the very last moment.  He didn't want to talk about death.

A few days later, Danniel called to say that there was very little time. I needed to get to John's house right away. I arrived less than five minutes after John had already passed into the Great Oblivion. For a moment, after I walked into his room and saw him lifeless on the bed, I let myself imagine that I could see him faintly breathing - that there was still some element of his incredible spirit left in his magnificent and tortured body - but the former stranger who had come to call me brother in the last days of his life was gone forever from this world, into the nothingness and everything that may or may not lie beyond it.

Two days later, I was looking at John's photograph in the funeral chapel where his friends and family gathered to share our testimonials about the extraordinary ways in which he touched and changed our lives. The photograph had come full circle.  His friends gathered together in the karaoke bar, after the funeral, to lift our glasses high above the crowd and collectively sing John's favorite songs with everybody in the place joining in.  He would have loved it.

There may be some simple explanation for the feelings that I had when I first saw John's picture. There may be an explanation that I've never considered, or there may be no explanation at all.  Maybe I just caught wind of something in the atmosphere around the gym that none of us consciously recognized.  Maybe there was some unconscious expression on Danniel's face when he showed me the photograph - something he also may have noticed about John that hadn't reached the surface of his mind.  Maybe there really is an undiscovered level of perception that moves between the layers of our conscious thoughts. 

I must admit, in any event, that I am still not enthralled - at this point in my life - by those who have the egotistical audacity and lack of appreciation for the mysterious qualities of ordinary reality to identify themselves as being psychic. It is no great comfort to know that there was also a time when I was one of them - when inexplicably perceiving that somebody was sick or dying would be counted by those around me not only as something mysterious, but as an almost supernatural achievement to be added to a list of credits in a virtual competition to be considered The Most Psychic Person In The World. I have never fully understood why anyone would want that kind of recognition. It is so meaningless compared to the many more significant things that one might accomplish in this world, on both a personal and public level.  John's life was only one example of the endless possibilities.

I have come to believe that whatever is really going on is probably something very different - quite possibly a level of perception that we do not understand, or many different elements converging into what only feels like a single perceptual experience. Whatever that something may turn out to be, it cannot be dismissed either by shrugging it off as non-existent or by writing it off as other- worldly, paranormal or beyond the normal boundaries of the natural world.

The only sense of certainty I feel, at this point, is that the answers we are ultimately compelled to seek can only be approached by asking the kinds of questions that we haven't yet been asking. I believe that the answers may turn out to be simple, but that they will not necessarily be obvious.

I have finally found a home in a community where my perceptual experiences are accepted as no more or less important than any other quirk or capability of all the other athletes, artists and other equally significant members of our exceptional community. It is a basic foundation in everyday reality. It is a good place to begin.

 

 

Keith Harary is a research director of the Institute for Advanced Psychology.

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