The Day My Life Ended, It Began

3 December, 2023
What could have been the end of life was instead a milestone that led to the writer’s greatest epiphany.


Karim Shamsi-Basha


April 8th, 1992 was a warm and sunny Spring day in Birmingham, Alabama. I worked at the time as a photojournalist for the morning newspaper, The Birmingham Post-Herald.

At 11:23, I heard a call on the scanner dispatching several units to a church fire. I rushed to the scene and saw the Independent Presbyterian Church engulfed in flames. Firemen doused the building with water as people watched and cried, and medics worked on the victims. There were no direct injuries, but a few older congregants suffered from shock upon seeing their historic church destroyed.

Documenting the mayhem with my camera, I felt a slight pain in my head. I dismissed it, but within seconds, what started as a headache evolved into a debilitating explosion in my brain. The pressure was so severe, I closed my eyes to keep them from popping out. I screamed in pain and collapsed. Fortunately, the medics were close and rushed to my aid.

They asked me to open my eyes. I couldn’t. They began to work on me as I started to pass out, and I heard one say, “Looks like an aneurism.” I remember thinking, “Ann-you-riesm?”

My colleague at the newspaper, Steve Joint, asked me about the location of my car. I raised my hand and pointed in a circle saying, “It’s over there.” I heard him chuckle, then unstoppable blackness descended upon me.

The doctor at the hospital informed my ex-wife about the massive blood leak in my brain, and that they couldn’t operate due to the depth of the aneurism. When she inquired further, he said my chances of survival were slim. I was hooked up to plenty of cords, and a tube went down my throat to keep the airway open.

Family and friends converged onto the waiting room of the ICU unit at Baptist Medical Center – Montclair. I remained in a coma for three weeks, then I opened my eyes but could not say or do anything. I was paralyzed on one side, and one pupil pointed to the left, the other to the right. They told my ex-wife the setbacks are usually permanent.

My first week at the hospital was rough. I have no memory of this, but they told me later that I thrashed in bed, and they had to tie me down. Another week passed, and I calmed down and improved a little each day. One time I made a shriek of some sort. Another time I looked around the room. When my speech came back, I spoke in Arabic. A Jordanian engineer at the hospital translated for the nurses until my English came back, broken and slow.

I functioned like a toddler. I was taught how to brush my teeth, how to use utensils, and how to go to the bathroom independently. They moved me to Lakeshore Rehabilitation Hospital where I stayed for another month, then two months at their Daytime Treatment Facility.

Doctors were surprised at my progress and insisted the improvements could stop any minute, but they never did. My speech came back, and my paralysis vanished. I used a walker first, then a cane, then walked all by myself. I had double vision that improved slightly with three eye-muscle surgeries, but I still see two of everything. Somehow, my brain suppresses one eye. I only see two if I’m thinking of my double vision.

Six months after the aneurism, I returned home.

Karim Shamshi-Basha and his three children.

What I didn’t know at the time, because my brain was still learning how to process information, is that nearly dying was the beginning of something mysterious and new, something I hold the dearest to my heart.

On that day my brain exploded, an intoxicating and new life began. I now operate in this universe with complete awe and wonder. I am aware of every breath I take — no, I marvel at every breath. I am aware of everything around me from scents to colors to beauty to emotions, to the complexity of this life combined with its ease.

There was another delicious result to my near-death experience: This unfathomable universe revealed a secret as enduring and indelible as the sun keeping us alive.

Allow me to digress and make one thing very clear: By no means am I bragging about my ability to survive and conquer what kills a large percentage of its victims. I give full credit to this powerful universe, endowing us with time to find our purpose, to contribute to our human civilization, our humanity, and to make sense of a nonsensical existence.

We do occupy a tiny planet hurtling through space with trillions upon trillions of other planets and stars, each rotating around themselves and others according to an unexplained gravity, ensconced in a random order and embroiled in organized chaos.

Einstein explained this mystery with his theory of relativity and the space and time continuum, defining time as a fourth dimension. He was credited with discovering the secret of this immaculately wayward and vast universe.

Each of us have their own secret, mine is this: Our life is fleeting and ephemeral, we must turn our energy to what matters: LOVE. We must embrace love as the motivator of all our actions and not just an emotion.

We must also seize every moment and gulp every drop of nectar from this exquisite life. We must stop time with every breath; between inhaling our past and exhaling our future, a present beyond imagination awaits us.

Don’t just live like there is no tomorrow, live like there are no more seconds left. Devour the smile of a baby, the kiss of a lover, the scent of a flower. When you watch the sunset over the ocean, feel the heat of that orange ball of fire sinking in the cool jade waters. Revel in the autumn breeze twirling yellow leaves and caressing our skin with the breath of our gentle and giant planet. Don’t just eat, close your eyes and celebrate the rhapsody in your mouth, in E minor.

Leonardo da Vinci coined the term, Sensazione: Awakening our senses. I think of that complicated concept as combining our senses. When you appreciate a renaissance painting, touch it and feel the texture, smell the air around it, then close your eyes and visualize the artist cutting his heart open and laying it on the canvas for his lover. Embrace the heat that action stirs within you. Jump into the painting and drink with the peasants and kings, kiss the princess, fly on the horse, touch the finger of god. 

I will never forget the best day of my life, April 8th, 1992, the day I, humble and naked, touched the finger of god.

Carpe diem.


Karim Shamsi-Basha immigrated from Damascus to the United States in 1984, at the age of 18. He attended the University of Tennessee and acquired a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After that, he pursued what he loved, photojournalism and writing. In 2021, his children’s book, The Cat Man of Aleppo, won the 2021 Caldecott Honor, the Middle East Book Award and five starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and others. Presently Karim works as Food & Culture Columnist with The Star Ledger in New Jersey. His work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Sports Illustrated, Coastal Living, People, Time, Southern Living,,, Aramco World magazine, New York Times, Washington Post and many others. He strives to bridge the gap between East and West, and aims to contribute to a truthful view of his Arab and Muslim heritage, one that includes peace, beauty and compassion. He is a single father to Zade, Dury, and Demi.

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