Recently two related memoirs have come into my hands within a short space of time. The first, Heaven is For Real I picked up from a secondhand book sale at a local Warwickshire Open Gardens event.
The second, I bought at a writing conference in the Hayes Centre, Swanwick, just this weekend (3-5 June 2022).
There at the Association of Christian Writers 50th Anniversary Conference, “Worth Our Weight in Gold”, we listened to the author of the book Eye Can Write, Jonathan Bryan, a 16 year old boy prodigy with severe cerebral palsy, give a presentation to us, with the assistance of his mother, Chantal Bryan.
This must have been the most stunning of all the talks we listened to during the weekend. The queue that formed afterwards to buy his book was the longest in the whole conference!
The curious relationship between the two books immediately struck me: for within both of them a child recalls his impressions during an apparent near-death experience, and over the course of time, relates the details to the adults in his life. It was fascinating to read both accounts, in different circumstances, and to pick out the many ways in which they corresponded with each other.
Jonathan Bryan’s account is probably the most outstanding because it emerged later after he had been taught to read and write, via his perspex spelling board from which he chooses letters and words using his eye movements. His experience took place in Intensive Care while he was in an induced coma during ventilation, which he was highly unlikely to survive.
“Alive. I had never felt so alive.” He describes a beautiful garden which he identifies as “Jesus’ garden” and he vividly relates how he walked and ran around and swung his free arms, sauntering through an orchard full of “trees laden with delectable fruit”, playing with other children by the trees: all things he had never experienced in this life in a crippled, dysfunctional body.
“With the sibilance of the oxygen silenced, I inhaled deeply, the fresh air revitalising my new body and filling my soul with joy… the atmosphere was saturated in a deep, contented peace.”
His most compelling image was “As I stretched my body to its full height (my scoliosis had elongated and vanished altogether), I realised the dragon cerebral palsy had been banished from the lair of my body.” He also describes meeting his friend Noah who had died the year before from a brain tumour. Four year old Colton Burpo also refers to meeting family members, some of whom had died before he was born. Jonathan refers to the choice he was given, to stay to meet the gardener, or to go back to his fragile, sick body, back to “my mind trapped in my silence; back to the family I loved.”
In Todd Burpo’s book, little Colton, whose experience took place when he was three years old and seriously ill with a ruptured appendix, also refers to the choice he was asked to make. This does seem a common feature of accounts of near death experiences.
I found both books very moving but Jonathan Bryan’s was the most powerful. Children’s author Michael Morpurgo wrote the foreword to the book, and Jonathan has founded a charity called “Teach Us Too” pleading for all children regardless of their “label” to be taught to read and write. A significant proportion of the profits from his book will go to that charity.
Do let me know if you’ve read either of these books, and what you think. But if you haven’t yet come across them, I do recommend both to you.