Terry Gilder is a blunt-spoken former electrician and construction-firm owner who is still trying to make sense of the six near-death experiences he remembers. (He doesn't recall what happened during his first NDE: He came into this world stillborn, before being revived.) Now 60, overweight and still casually defying death by puffing away on cigarettes, he has made a new life for himself in the past several years: remarrying and opening up an antiques-and-collectibles store in Wilton Manors, Florida, called Recollections.
In his jam-packed store Gilder is squeezed behind a tiny desk, surveying his kingdom of nearly 300,000 items. But he hasn't been able to understand the purpose of his life or forget the peace of mind he experienced during some of his afterlife journeys.
"I'd like to know what the reason is I'm here," he mutters. "A lot of times, I'm not happy about being here." Naturally, he's somewhat frustrated: He's seen heaven, but now he's stuck behind a desk in Wilton Manors.
He starts ticking off some of his accidents: "I got hit in my ankles by lightning. I was hit in my back, again by lightning. I was accidentally electrocuted on construction jobs twice." He also temporarily died during operations to sew up his stomach and to repair a brain aneurysm. He pauses for a moment in telling his incredible tale of survival and says, "If it wasn't funny, I couldn't talk about it."
By his late 30s, Gilder says he'd faced even more electric shocks - and near-death experiences. He was running his own company, producing reinforced concrete, when he was hit by lightning while in his shop, petting a dog. The bolt hit a nearby puddle and traveled inside to electrocute him and the dog. This time, when he left his body, he says, "I had enough time to make it to the light." But he was free to decide whether he wanted to go all the way to meet the welcoming, loving light or return to his life. In the ambulance, he recalls, "By now, I'm getting concerned. Why am I surviving this sh_t? I couldn't figure out why I was still alive."
Prior to all his strange experiences, he admits, "I had no interest in the supernatural." Even after his initial NDEs, he thought, "The only reason you come back, you put it to being lucky."
Actually, he's more like a walking miracle. As a 28-year-old construction worker, Gilder tried to fix an improperly connected piece of electric fitting known as a bus plug. In the process, he jammed his screwdriver inside and was hurled off a 12-foot ladder, burning his eyebrows and singing his face. Before awaking, he felt himself starting to travel inside a tunnel, heading toward a light, before turning back and returning to his body.
He had a nearly identical experience a few years later doing electrical work at a high school. This time, he got closer to the fabled light before returning to consciousness. But he didn't mention it to anybody, even his wife: "If you started to talk about a light and a tunnel, it looked like you were a lunatic."
The next lightning strike hit him in the back on a golf course about a year later. Once again, he had a transcendental experience of sorts, and as he recalls, "I was in the tunnel again. I was halfway up the goddamned tunnel, and then, I woke up."
A few years later, he went into a Toronto hospital after his doctor told him he needed a stomach-stapling operation. He then weighed more than 400 pounds (now, he's about 220), and his organs were starting to fail. He faced a grim choice: He had only a 50 percent chance of surviving the operation but only six months to live if he didn't get it.
Gilder took his chances, but suffered a cardiac arrest during the operation. "I passed away, and as I entered the tunnel with the light, I turned around and saw them put the [defibrillator] paddles on me," he says. "After they did it three times, I came back. I was standing there in the tunnel, and I was angry." Before returning, he saw the light ahead that he still hadn't reached.
Soon, he was back in his body. Besides having to spend more than a week in the intensive care unit recovering, Gilder had to grapple again with puzzling philosophical issues he couldn't answer. "Why am I here? Why did I survive? How come I was brought back?"
He didn't get to raise these issues with anyone until he was hospitalized six years ago at Holy Cross Hospital with a cerebral aneurysm. He had moved from Canada to Oakland Park, remarried and entered the antiques business before suffering from blinding pains in the head, which led him to the hospital. Waiting for a transfer to a more experienced brain-surgery team at Mercy Hospital in Miami, he decided to unburden himself to NDE author and researcher Dr. Barbara Rommer. Rommer had just that day mentioned in an aside to him her research on near-death experiences. His wife was at his bedside, shocked as she heard him tell his afterlife tales to Rommer. "Being that I was dying and people couldn't ridicule me anymore, I decided to tell her mine," he says.
He finally made it to Mercy Hospital and underwent the brain operation, but he didn't wake up in anything that looked like a hospital. Instead, when he opened his eyes, "I was in the library, and there were aisles of books that were very high and out of sight. I was there to read my book of life. Then, they sent me from the library down to the tunnel and to the light," he says. He believes that he died somewhere between the operating and recovery rooms. But this time, he finally got close to the elusive light and the wondrous vistas that awaited him. "I thought I wasn't coming back," he says. "I got there, and I was waiting to cross. I could see on the other side. I was looking through a diaphanous curtain and it was beautiful: I saw rolling hills and grass and flowers. I wasn't upset about anything. I was so relaxed and happy."
Even that memory, however, embitters him. "Let me tell you, I found out what hell was. Everybody's hell is of their own making. You know what mine was? Never getting through that curtain, never being able to get to the other side, never being able to be with God, never able to feel that love, that caring," he says. "That's my hell."
He continues, "A person came out, and he said to me, `Terry, you haven't learned what you're supposed to learn, and you haven't done what you're supposed to do, and you have to go back.'" The being also told him that he needed to be more tolerant when he returned. But as Gilder saw it, he missed out again, feeling "total disgust." He notes, "I didn't want to come back. It's like never being happy."
He adds, "You know I'm 60 years old, and I never had one day where I had - what's that term? - peace of mind. I felt totally rejected." But after being revived and leaving the hospital, "[Rommer] took me in her hands, brought me to the meetings of the local chapter of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, and here I am."
He found comfort and support at the meetings as one of the group's first members. "I've listened to their stories, and I'm with intelligent people - doctors, lawyers - and when they give their stories, I don't feel alone."
He is sure of one thing: "My goal is to get back there. When I've learned what I'm supposed to learn and become the person I'm supposed to be, I'll be allowed to stay."