Book excerpt: Opening Heaven’s Door

What my sister taught me about what might lie beyond

Book excerpt: Opening Heaven's Door

Source: Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May be Trying to Tell Us About Where They’re Going. Copyright

My father died in his blue-striped pyjamas on a bed in a silent house. He wasn’t ailing. At three or four in the morning, he gave out a sigh, loud enough to wake my mother, who sleepily assumed he was having a bad dream. A sigh, a moan, a final breath escaping. He was age 80.

In families, one’s attention is directed toward crisis, and during that early spring of 2008 we were all transfixed by my sister Katharine. It was she, at age 52, not my father, who faced death. Vivacious Katharine, an uncommonly lovely woman’mother and sister and lover’now anguished by the wildfire spread of a metastatic breast cancer. We hadn’t expected my father’s death. That morning, we all received the call about Dad, the what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about news that my mother dialed to the family. But my sister, Katharine, 100 miles east of my parents, in Montreal, 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, in essence, to God.

‘It was about 4:30 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. I felt hands on my head, and experienced vision after vision of a happy future.’

Katharine had described this strange and lovely pre-dawn 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 until the next day how to interpret the powerful surge of energy and joy she had felt. ‘I now know that it was my father,’ she told the mourners. She said this flat out, without the necessary genuflections to science and to reason, no patience for the usual caveats: Call me crazy but… None of that. ‘I feel deeply, humbly, blessed and loved,’ she said simply, and sat down.

We are not a family in the habit of experiencing ghosts. Yet later I would learn that this sort of experience when someone has died is start­lingly common, not rare. Families shelter their knowledge, keeping it safe and beloved like a delicate heirloom, away from the careless stomping of strangers. There was much I would learn in the ensuing year about the kept-hidden world all around me, but at the time I understood this much: What a gift this was for Katharine. For the previous 12 months, waking up had meant regaining knowledge of her predicament, which was like an immersive drowning terror in the darkness.

Katharine moved to a Montreal hospice on May 14, 2008. The palliative care physician guessed that she had weeks, at the outside margin, but nobody told her that. She was left to envision a horizon distant or near, bright or dark. She didn’t ask. Instead, she became a peaceful queen presiding over her court as 50 or more friends, relations and colleagues arrived for one last conversation, a final kiss. The short hallway of the hospice seemed to be streaming to and fro with weeping people carrying bottles of Veuve Cliquot. Just one more toast, another laugh.

The hospice nurses were fascinated, they told me later, for they were more accustomed to small family groups visiting elderly patients in a quiet, off-and-on way. They watched as we cracked open Champagne and played Katharine’s favourite songs while she swayed dancingly in her bed, and brought her foods for which she had a fleeting craving, and offered her lilies of the valley to bury her nose in, inhaling. Never have I seen human beings so exquisitely emotionally attuned to one another as we were when we spent those last days in May with my dying sister. When she wanted the volume of energy up, we turned it up. When she wanted it down, we brought it down.

When I kissed my sister’s cheek, she would kiss me back and behold me in a manner that was so loving it startled me. Generous love, released from need. Often, we sat about wordlessly as she slept’my other two sisters, my brother and me. Sometimes we massaged her hands with cream and sang softly. Her sweetheart, Joel, played his guitar. My mother, awash in two waves of grief, read Katharine the love poetry that our father had penned for her in the early 1950s.

Katharine spoke very little in these final 10 days of her life. A few sentences here and there, more often just a word or two. Yet it was clear from everything she said that she was present, and observing. Which was why it grew remarkable to us that she seemed so content. She enjoyed our company and the music we played, and gazed admiringly at the garden beyond her window and the light playing in the curtains.

‘Wow, that was strange,’ she re-marked once upon waking up, her expression one of delight. ‘I dreamed I was being smooshed in flowers.’

All this appeared to interest her, and to please her, as if she were engaged in a novel and agreeable adventure. She looked gorgeous, as if lit from within. Sometimes she would have happy whispered conversations with a person I couldn’t see. At other times, she’d stare at the ceiling as a full panoply of expressions played across her face’puzzled, amused, skeptical, surprised, calmed’like a spectator angled back in a planetarium, watching a heavenly light show.

I watched her ardently, but she couldn’t translate it for me. The sister with whom I’d shared every secret had moved beyond words. ‘It’s so interesting,’ she began one morning, and then couldn’t find the language. ‘It must be so frustrating,’ I said quietly, ‘to not be able to say,’ and she nodded. We touched foreheads.

I was left to guess, or to glimpse what she was experiencing in the accounts of others, others who’d recovered their voice. I would read later, for example, about the Swiss genealogist Albert Heim, who fell off a mountain and wrote, in 1892: ‘No grief was felt, nor was there any paralyzing fright. There was no anxiety, no trace of despair or pain. But rather calm seriousness, profound acceptance and a dominant mental quickness.’

We could say, Well, she has forgotten that she’s dying. But she hadn’t. ‘Is Mum all right?’ Katharine might ask me with concern. Or, ‘You guys must be falling apart faster than I am.’ Indeed we were. My brain was a computer in meltdown, a car shoved into neutral, an old black and white tele­vision whose brightness had narrowed to one fizzing star. It is difficult to describe, in truth, because I was not capable intellectually of observing my own disintegration.

I was lost, but Katharine wasn’t. Forty-eight hours before she died, she told us she was on her way. Literally, as in ‘I am leaving.’ How did she know? Hospice could have lasted two months or six months or two years. If nothing else, hope could have swayed it; she’d subsisted on hope for the first 11 months of her illness. A study conducted by Harvard researchers found that 63 percent of doctors caring for terminally ill patients wildly overestimate how much time their patients have left. The patients themselves, however, become crisply precise, sometimes nailing their departure to the hour.

Katharine woke up one morning and, looking decidedly perplexed, said to Joel, who lay in wild dishevelment on the cot beside her, ‘I don’t know how to leave.’ As if its difficulty was akin to learning to water ski, or the trick to making bread dough rise. Clearly she didn’t feel the way that we felt anymore, with our thirsting, ecstatic joy to find that she was still alive when we raced to her side each day. She teased Joel that in his hollow-eyed disarray he looked like a drug addict. She remained present, but also elsewhere. Kath­arine had removed herself to some new plane of consciousness where we were now unable to follow.

That afternoon she gazed through her French doors for a long time, with a look that seemed to me, sitting beside her and stroking her hand, to be slightly vexed.

‘What are you looking at?’ I asked. She lifted her arm languidly and pointed to the garden, remarking, ‘Hapless flight attendants.’

We all laughed in surprise. Just then a hospice volunteer wheeled in a trolley of snacks. Katharine turned alertly to this new visitor and asked, ‘What’s the situation?’

Said the hospice volunteer with brisk cheer, ‘Well, the situation is we have lemon tarts, Nanaimo bars, oatmeal cookies. All home-baked.’

My sister regarded her as if she were insane. ‘I mean,’ Katharine clarified, ‘when do I leave?’

Joel, masterfully suppressing his raging grief at losing the love of his life after only three years, assumed a comical Indian accent (they’d met in New Delhi) and, wobbling his head, offered, ‘That is for you and God to decide.’

Katharine left the next night, in silence and candlelight, while I lay with my cheek on her chest and my hand on her heart, feeling her breathing slow and subside like the receding waves of an outgoing tide. Joel sat on one side of the bed, my sister Anne on the other. The nurse came in to confirm death with a wordless nod.

My sense that the dying might open a door that leads elsewhere came first 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 were people I’d met for the first time, say on a flight. If I told them what I’d witnessed with my father and sister, almost invariably, they said, ‘I’ve never told anyone this, but…’ Or, ‘We’ve only discussed this in our family, but if you think you might do research…’ Then they’d offer extraordinary stories about deathbed visions, sensed presences, sudden intimations of a loved one in danger or dying. They were all smart, skeptical people. I had had no idea that this subterranean world existed all around me.

The director of a large music company drove me home from a dinner party, and when I explained that I was thinking of investigating what my family had gone through, he told me that, as a boy, he had come down to breakfast one morning and seen his father, as always, at the kitchen table. Then his mother broke the news that his father had died in the night. He briefly wondered if she’d gone insane. ‘He’s sitting right there,’ he’d said. It was the most baffling and unsettling moment of his life.

While researching this book I found countless stories of people who felt a presence when a loved one dies, and of people in near-death, and dying, experiences during which they feel utter joy and peace.

Yes, there is pain in loss. And in our culture, there is further pain in the silence born from fear of being dismissed or ridiculed when that loss entails something unexpectedly wondrous. Tell someone your sister felt a presence in her bedroom on the night your father died and, at once, the explanations come. Hallucination. Wishful thinking. Coincidence.

After my father and sister died, I wanted to understand what we know about these controversial modes of awareness. It wasn’t enough for me, as a journalist, to accept the officially received wisdom. So I tried to pursue these questions. Why had my sister had a powerful spiritual experience in the hour of my father’s unexpected death? How did she sense a presence and feel hands cupping her head? Why did she enter into her own dying afraid, only to become increasingly joyful? What was she seeing and learning, what would she have told me if she could have?

What I learned in the ensuing few years has been far richer and more mysterious than I ever imagined.

Excerpted from Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May be Trying to Tell Us About Where They’re Going. Copyright © 2014 by Patricia Pearson. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., a Penguin Random House company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.