Remember the first time deluded Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear popped open his terillium-carbonic wings, raised his arms, flexed his knees and took a leap of faith to prove to Andy’s other toys that he could fly? It was 1995 and my 70-year-old mother immediately fell under the animated astronaut’s spell. No matter that his first flight was a miracle involving a strategically placed rubber ball, a plastic car on a bright orange race track and a motorized model airplane. He flew!
Buzz’s unflappable belief in himself – despite the fact that he was just a mass-produced plaything – appealed to Mom’s affinity for the underdog. His empowering declaration – shouted as he jumped from Andy’s bedpost – became her chosen way of expressing abiding love for her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. She wrote it in dozens of birthday and Christmas cards over the years … and in one of the precious notes she left behind for me when she passed away.
With Love to Infinity and Beyond!
This Tuesday, December 9, 2014, Mom will have been gone for a year. With every fiber of my being, I dread the sunrise on that day. A little past 9 a.m. the Earth will have completed a full orbit since I last saw my sweet mother alive. 12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. 28,880 breaths. Any way you choose to count, it is a long, long, long time.
And yet I know, with the faith of a thousand virtuous hearts, that these tallies are nothing more than mortal measurements. Time is a human illusion. Soul lives on to Infinity. Love transcends the Great Beyond.
Those are my beliefs. Mom, on the other hand, was never certain about the hereafter. She wasn’t an atheist or an agnostic. She was exposed to different faiths throughout her life and sporadically tried to understand and practice the tenets. When she was a child, she won a small Bible in a contest that involved memorizing scripture. As a young mother, she intermittently took my sister, brother and me to Baptist and then to Presbyterian worship services and ensured that we were all blessed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. On Easter Sunday, whether at church or at home, she took great joy in singing Christ Arose with enthusiasm and vigor.
Mom disassociated herself from the church when our kind but passive minister offered no consolation after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and could not muster any tangible help in the face of my father’s mental breakdown in 1971. Shortly after the latter disappointment, Mom took a job with an order of Episcopalian priests and monks who carried out their mission through a printing press and nursing home. She undoubtedly picked up some spiritual knowledge during the 15 years she was employed by them, but she remained on the fringe as far as the religion itself was concerned.
Finally, in the last months and weeks of her life, she was forced to come to grips with the fact that her oft repeated affirmation, “I’m going to live forever,” was not true … at least not from a mortal standpoint. My sister, brother and I have divergent beliefs, but we all took our turns reassuring her that there is more to existence than what we can see and touch on Earth. Religious doctrines aside, I find it a little sad that she could not at least embrace that general point of view … especially since it seemed to me that she had one foot in this world and one in the next for quite some time. You can believe that or not, but there was sufficient evidence for me to trust what I saw and heard.
In the book Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, an entire chapter is devoted to stories of people near the end of life who begin to talk about taking a trip or making a change. Their conversations are symbolic. “Travel,” the authors say, “is a clear metaphor often used to describe this need to go forth – to die.” If I hadn’t read the book, I may have missed the hidden meaning of a rather odd conversation I had with Mom about a month before she was approved for hospice care.
It was mid-September and she had just visited her friendly, young podiatrist for a toenail clipping. Although I had taken the afternoon off work so she could spend it any way she wanted, she couldn’t think of a thing that interested her. Once upon a time she had enjoyed tooling around in her wheelchair, looking at the next big thing on every merchant’s shelf. Now the exertion was too much for her weary bones. There were no shops she wanted to visit, no joyride she wanted to take. She mentioned that, next time we were out, we should make plans to eat at our favorite Mexican restaurant. I asked, “Why not right now?” She smiled and nodded in agreement. A few moments later, she suddenly said in a faraway voice,
“One of these days you’re going to come home and I’m going to be gone. You probably won’t even notice until midnight.”
“Well, Mom,” I replied, “I hope that’s how it happens. I hope you just slip away in your sleep. But I will probably notice before midnight. I always check on you when I get home from work.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked with a trace of irritation. “That’s not what I mean. I’m going away. I’m going to walk out the front door and just keep going.” After a short pause, she added, “I think I can fit everything I need into a small bag.”
I was puzzled but decided to let it go. I could see that she was completely serious and not in the mood to be questioned. We went to the restaurant and enjoyed what would be her last meal out on her last foray from the house. Later that night while lying in bed, I remembered the chapter in Callanan’s and Kelley’s book. Ah ha. Somewhere inside, Mom knew she was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime.
That conversation wasn’t the only indicator that Mom had an inexplicable ethereal connection. For a couple of years, in fact, she had periodically made comments about people and animals only she could see or voices only she could hear. Next week, in Part Two of this column, I will share some of the amazing stories that would certainly have made me a believer in the afterlife if I was not already. For now, I will focus on the common experiences that Callanan and Kelley consider proof that “death is not lonely.” Deceased loved ones or some other spiritual beings always serve as “companions on our journey.”
I ascribed to this theory long before Final Gifts ever found its way into my hands. My grandmother saw her deceased brother, Will, just before she passed in 1979. My husband’s grandmother saw unidentified family members in the days leading up to her death in 1984. My father-in-law had only a few days left when I heard him alone in his bedroom asking someone, “I know who that is, but who is that over there?” Based on those experiences, Mom and I made a pact. If she began seeing the dearly departed, she promised to tell me. I was curious to know who would come for her and, besides, I might want to say hello to them, too.
Apparently, Mom did see someone … or perhaps more than one someone … near the end. Unfortunately, she was unable to communicate that to me, and by then I was too immersed in the physical demands of her final care to recognize what was transpiring.
One day after falling into the deep, unshakable slumber of the dying, she suddenly and very clearly asked, “Where are we?” Foolishly, I said we were at our home and quoted the house number, street and city. In that moment, I wanted her to know she was not in a hospital or care facility but in her own room. In hindsight, I realize that isn’t what she was wondering about, and I kick myself for not asking, “Where do you think we are?”
Another day my sister was sitting at Mom’s bedside when she asked, “Where are we going?” I don’t know how my sister responded or whether she said anything at all. In a conversation later, though, we agreed that Mom wasn’t speaking to her.
“Where are we? Where are we going?”
Knowing that she asked those two simple questions as she was slipping away is like a gift because it speaks to my unwavering conviction that death is a journey for our souls. The fact that Mom directed the questions to no one the rest of us could see adds to the bank of evidence I’ve witnessed with my own eyes and ears over my lifetime. It also has allowed me to enjoy a rather fanciful adaptation of her departure.
As her heart wound down and her breath slowed to a halt, I can imagine Mom’s soul drifting up and perching on the foot of the bed. Just like Buzz Lightyear’s miraculous vault in 1995, she opened her angel wings, raised her arms, flexed her knees and took a leap of faith. She flew! In my mind I can hear the echo of her triumphant shout …
To Infinity and Beyond!