What happens to us when we die?
For many, that is a question of faith with very definitive answers. For others, it is a mystery subject to debate and speculation. There are people who claim to know exactly what happens when we die via near-death experiences. When clinically dead, they visit the other side, which for most is a beautiful experience. When they are revived and return to this life, they no longer fear death and are changed by the experience. Some publish their experiences and a few are best sellers.
I was riding my exercise bike the other day while watching Dr. Oz. The Long Island Medium Teresa Caputo, who has a show on TLC, was his guest. She claims she can speak with spirits who passed over and spent the better part of the show surprising audience members with messages from their loved ones. People receiving these messages believe and embrace them, which gives them comfort, while skeptics dismiss them as cheesy theater.
The characters in my debut novel Atomic Summer have belief-based conversations, and like the many people we know in life, they too have varying opinions. Readers tell me these characters remind them of people they know. There is the deeply religious Faith, who is like her name, faithful and convicted in her belief that a pure soul is her passport to heaven. Octavia is stoically agnostic. She can’t reconcile a good and great God amid the pain and injustice she sees in the world and experiences in her own life. Then there is Bernadette. She believes her churches’ teachings because that is what she has been raised to do but leads the most godless life of them all.
While my mother was alive, we would talk about faith, religion, near death experiences, relatives reaching out from the other side, and ghost stories. It was an eclectic combination with the common theme “what happens to us when we die?” As my mother faced death in the waning weeks of her illness, I traveled to New York to spend time with her. Aware that her time was limited, she asked me if there were things I wanted to talk about while we still had time. I asked her if she was afraid. She answered in her most matter of fact way that she was not and was quite sure of where she was going, which I knew to be heaven to be reunited with her mother, father, and friends who passed on before her. She was a nurse and she knew what might lie ahead and told me the only thing she feared as she faced death was suffering.
If I possessed a deep and abiding faith of my own instead of the mustard seed faith that sometimes fails me, I might have left the conversation alone, satisfied with knowing she was at peace and eternity awaited her on the other side. I didn’t have the same stability of faith she possessed, so I asked her to send me a sign and let me know she had completed her journey to her destination. Ever the mother wanting to comfort her child, she held me in her gentle gaze and said, “If I can, I will”.
Two months later, my father called me in Florida and told me it wouldn’t be long and I should immediately travel to New York where they lived. I spoke with my mother’s cousin who was helping my father care for my mother in what would be her final days. I told her to tell my mother that she didn’t need to wait for me. She was suffering and that is what she feared the most. I didn’t need her to hang on for me. I wanted her fears banished and her to be pain free and at peace. Besides, we had left nothing unsaid between us.
The earliest flight I could book left the next morning. As I packed my bags and gathered my things for an undetermined amount of time, I wanted to have with me something personal that belonged to my mother. Years earlier, my father gave me the first wedding ring he put on my mother’s finger. His father wed his mother with this ring. It was a thin gold band set with seven tiny diamonds. I slipped it on my pinky finger.
The early morning flight from Tampa to White Plains was surreal as I flew 38 thousand feet above the earth while my mother struggled to let go of this life. Once that happened, I would never see her again. It didn’t seem possible. She was more than my mother. She was also my best friend, and I was losing both. And what about my father? What would become of him? They were married at 15 and 17. Six weeks earlier, they just celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary. She completed him. What would he do without her?
I sat in my window seat gazing out the window listening to music on my iPod. Midway through the flight, I got up to use the bathroom. As I made my way back to my seat, I briskly rubbed my damp washed hands together, encouraging them to dry. My hand scraped over something rough on the pinky finger where I wore my parent’s wedding ring. I glanced down at the petite band of gold and noticed that one of the diamonds was gone. Damn it! Of all things to happen, I had to lose a diamond on this family heirloom I insisted on wearing like some security blanket to comfort me. I should have left it in the jewelry box.
I made my way back to my seat annoyed while the music on my iPod played in my ears. I paused as a Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli duet caught my attention. I didn’t understand any of the Italian words in the song Con Te Partiro, only that one singular phrase they sang in English, “time to say goodbye.” The song was one of my mother’s favorite songs. The annoyance I experienced over losing the diamond was replaced by an overwhelming feeling of peace. I looked at the missing diamond on the ring and thought, “she’s gone.” The words “time to say goodbye” repeated themselves through my iPod ear buds. As I sat back in my seat, I looked at my watch and noted the time.
When my aunt met me at the airport, I immediately said to her “she’s gone”, as an affirmative statement, not a question. She nodded and said “yes”. I can’t explain the peace I felt. I was sad and relieved, yet filled with an indescribable serenity. When I arrived at my parent’s house, I asked my mother’s cousin what time my mother passed away. The missing diamond that caught my attention and the song that soothed me happened five minutes after she died. The peace I experienced and the strength I drew from that experience sustained me that week as we made funeral arrangements, gathered with family and friends, mourned, eulogized and buried my mother.
On her way to the other side of this life, as she crossed over, had she visited me at 38 thousand feet telling me it was “time to say goodbye”? Was this the sign I asked for or an interesting coincidence? I suppose how you answer might come down to faith and what you believe about life after death. I can’t prove anything about what happens to us when we die, but here is what I do know: mother’s seek to comfort their children and heal their wounds, and on the day my mother died, I had both comfort and healing.