My elderly father died in the middle of the night, and I learned the next day from a phone call. But my sister, Katherine, who was suffering from a spread of metastatic breast cancer at the time, received her message differently. From Opening Heaven’s Door.
“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. My family is not in the habit of experiencing ghosts. Arriving at my parents’ house on March 19, the day after Dad’s death, I heard about Katharine’s vision for the first time and collapsed to the carpeted floor of the hallway, on the verge of hysterical laughter. My reaction wasn’t derisive so much as surrendered. Reality was vibrating, close to shattering.
“Dad is dead, Dad is dead,” I had muttered for twenty-four hours already, like a child fervently memorizing new instructions about the way of things, crisscrossing the icy park beside my house, pacing back and forth. Dad is dead.
Now Katharine had had a vision.
We took it in as an aftershock. But almost immediately, it began to make profound sense, like puzzle pieces slipping perfectly into place. Without discussing it, we were convinced as a family that he had done something of great emotional elegance. He had died for his daughter. He had seized a mysterious opportunity to go to her, to her bedroom in Montréal, to caress her and calm her before heading on his way.
Later, I learned that this sort of experience when someone has died is startlingly common, not rare, but families shelter their knowledge, keeping it safe and beloved like a delicate heirloom, away from the careless stomp of strangers.