Later that morning, we all received the call, the what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about news that my mother, with Rachel’s astonished assistance, dialed out to the family. But Katharine, one hundred miles east of my parents, in Montréal, received her message differently.
‘On the night of my father’s death,’ she would tell mourners at his memorial service some weeks later, ‘I had an extraordinary spiritual experience.’ My sister, please know, wasn’t prone to spiritual experiences. Stress, she was familiar with, as the single mother of two teenaged boys. Laughter, she loved. Fitness of any kind – she was vibrantly physical. Fantastic intellect, fluent in three languages. But she hadn’t been paying much attention to God.
‘It was about four thirty a.m.,’ she said, of that night, ‘and I couldn’t sleep, as usual, when all of a sudden I began having this amazing spiritual experience. For the next two hours I felt nothing but joy and healing.’ There was a quality of light about my sister Katharine, a certain radiance of expression, a melody of voice that hushed every single person in the church – atheist, agnostic, devout. She clutched the podium carefully, determined to be graceful while terminal illness threatened her sense of balance. ‘I felt hands on my head, and experienced vision after vision of a happy future.’
Katharine had described this strange and lovely predawn experience to her elder son as she drove him to high school, before she received the call about Dad. She also wrote about it in her diary: ‘I thought, is this about people praying for me? And then I thought of Dad cocking his eyebrow, teasing me about hubris.’ She hadn’t known how to interpret the powerful surge of energy and joy she felt in her bedroom – the sense of someone there, the healing hands–until the next day. ‘I now know that it was my father,’ she told the mourners. Flat-out, she said this, without the necessary genuflections to science and to reason, no patience for the usual caveats: Call me crazy, but . . . ‘I feel deeply, humbly blessed and loved,’ she said simply, and sat down.
Astral father, there yet not there. Love flowing unseen. A benign companion of some sort, whose embrace is light but radically moving.
We have quietly learned from the dying that additional channels of communication, of which we previously hadn’t been aware, enable us to know things in mysterious ways. They enable us to connect in mysterious ways – with one another, with the dying, and with the dead – along uncharted or long-forgotten paths.
Open doors, open communication
This shared sense, that the dying have opened a door to us that leads elsewhere, comes in hushed confidings. During the summer and fall of 2008, people began to tell me things. Some were friends and colleagues I’d known for years, others sitting beside me on an airplane or meeting me for the first time in a bar. If I told them what I’d witnessed with my father and sister, they reciprocated. Almost invariably, they prefaced their remarks by saying, ‘I’ve never told anyone this, but…’ Or, ‘We’ve only ever discussed this in our family, but if you think you might do some research…’ Then they would offer extraordinary stories – about deathbed visions, sensed presences, near-death experiences, sudden intimations of a loved one in danger or dying. They were all smart, skeptical people. I had no idea this subterranean world was all around me.
Comfort of a tribe
But the grace I see, now, comes from the comfort I draw from my tribe, my sisters and brother, cousins, aunts, and uncles, extended family, and friends. ‘Love is the coin of the realm’, said Eben Alexander, and he’s right. We can’t know what comes next, what beauty or terror or hero’s journey, but we can draw our intuitive wisdom about how to live from what we hear and see. The family has drawn ever closer, unself-consciously so, through the astonishments of death, and the new confidings about our respective experiences with the mystic.
When the dying leave us, it’s like a footprint in the sand that needs to be filled in. Where the water rushes in, where love rushes in.
From Opening Heaven’s Door, ©2014 by Patricia Pearson, published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd