I held my mom’s hand tightly as she took her last breath. The look on her face froze in that half-smile the Buddha is famous for. It was as if to confirm, absent breath, absent life, that there will always be something worth smiling for.
Since that moment four years ago, I’ve had a lot of what I like to call “unknowable experiences.” The flickering of lights. The letters that have shown up when I needed them. The few psychics and mediums that have reached out to me, rather than vice versa. An apocalyptic house fire that was not fatalistic. The list goes on.
These are the kind of experiences that, when placed under a microscope, could be intellectualized I suppose. It all comes down to what you believe in.
We all hold hope and faith in something, whether it’s reason and science or Jesus Christ himself. We all worship our own opinions and Truths. Because this is what’s required to experience meaning in life before death.
Having hope and faith in anything requires and justifies relinquishing one’s control in a “let go, let God” or a “let go, let Science” kind of way. That’s what’s always scared me.
As the optimistic skeptic that I am, I have tried to reason my “unknowable experiences” away. I’ve tried to contextualize them and explain them. Even wrestle with the science that contradicts them.
But there are two experiences that I still cannot seem to make linear sense of. And I believe it is my duty to be open to that fact. These experiences are the foundation of my faith and hope, of my belief in something beyond life itself.
For now, I only have the time and energy to share one with you.
And my only hope is that you — yes, you — whether facing your own mortality or that of someone you love, find some semblance of comfort in this story in particular. I know I did.
My mom’s best friend from high school, Gayle, came to visit days after we entered her into in-home hospice. I remember thinking it was too early for hospice, but the nurses assured us she was “the perfect candidate.” (How relieving!)
When Gayle arrived my mom was “rallying” (an actual scientific term used in hospice circles to describe a surge of additional energy in the final days or weeks — it looks like recovery, but isn’t). She was outside, entertaining the 20+ people who’d come to see her.
When Gayle was leaving the next day, she asked me:
“Take care of her until I get back here, okay?”
The implication in her tone was that maybe — just maybe — I’d have to work to keep my mom alive until she returned. Gayle had another visit planned for less than a month down the road. And because I was ignorant to the physical degradation occurring in front of me, I obliged (silently thinking it was a ridiculous request).
Of course she’ll still be here, I thought. This wasn’t the final knockout. My mom had a few rounds left in her like she always did.
When Gayle called a few weeks later, she had no logical reason to believe my mom had passed. Her health had quickly gone from okay to bad to worse to morphine drips to, well, where we found ourselves on that morning crowded around her lifeless body.
Sure, she had an idea that things were not okay. But it’s not like we were texting Gayle the play-by-plays:
“OOP — we’re hooking her up to an IV now!!!!”
“And now — she’s unconscious!!!”
There’s no time for that two-dimensional communication when someone is dying in front of you.
So when she called that morning, she stunned us. My dad busted into the bathroom while I was taking a shower.
“Gayle has something she must tell you right now!!!”
I listened as she described the following:
That morning, Gayle, and her husband, Scott, woke together to the sound of their son’s pitter patter. He urged her, because of her recent and crazy travel schedule, to get some more rest.
And so she did. She fell back into a blissful sleep. And as she slept, she dreamt:
She and Scott were driving. She looked to her left, and a woman was pedaling hard on her bicycle beside them. Based on the woman’s profile, she recognized her as my mom — a healthier, pre-Cancer version of her anyway.
She was smiling wide, when she took a sharp left turn off the main road onto a random dirt road. Gayle urged her husband to follow.
Eventually, after a short bit of driving behind the fierce pedaler, they arrived at an open field. There, Gayle found her group of close-knit high school friends and me standing in a line, preparing to send off the woman of the hour — like I imagine a family sends their loved one off to war.
And there my mom was ready to go — in all her glory. Her skin had lost the gray tone that had developed after years of battling cancer and the after-effects of chemotherapy. Her real hair had grown back in and was waving in the wind. She was vibrant, energetic, and refreshed. [Although, I guess she was missing a tooth?]
She was free from the confines of this human experience — of the struggle itself.
She waved to say goodbye to all “her girls.” And then she turned, walking toward the sunlit trees, off into the distance —
Gayle woke and called us immediately — to confirm that she had passed.
I was speechless and spellbound as she spoke. Chills ran up my spine.
But it wasn’t long before the left-side of my brain kicked in. What at first was a visceral reaction, dulled quickly. I attempted to codify it.
The timing lined up, I reminded myself. My mom’s soul left her body and traveled quickly (as I’m sure souls do) into Gayle’s dream. Why hadn’t she had that dream two weeks ago? Or why didn’t she have it tomorrow?
I battled with myself to make sense of it. I wanted so desperately to believe that this was a sign, not of life-after-death or Heaven necessarily. But that my mom was okay.
During those few weeks before Gayle’s next trip, we did what good pseudo-Catholic families do when someone dies: we planned a wake, funeral, burial, and celebration of life (or what my mom so fondly used to call “The Thank God It Wasn’t Me Party”). We picked out a casket, a weird concrete box to place the casket in, and a small plot of land in one of the two cemeteries in town.
We greeted thousands of thankful souls at her wake. We hosted a nice funeral (by my estimations). And I drank a lot of tequila at the after party, in honor of my mom who never drank at all.
When Gayle finally arrived, a few weeks after everything was settled, we sat and talked for hours. We talked about mom’s high school days, the services, and the dream. After shedding a few too many tears, we hopped in the car and I drove her to the burial site.
As we got closer, I could feel her getting anxious. It’s an unnerving feeling to see someone’s entire life compressed into a stake in the ground. I grabbed her hand.
But then, as I turned onto the dirt road where the cemetery is located, she let go and started shouting:
“THIS IS IT. THIS IS THE DREAM. THIS IS THE PLACE.”
As we drove further down the road, she kept shouting. She predicted what would come next. She described the the entire scene, as we continued toward my mom’s resting place. The trees. The walking paths. The open field. The grass. The rock wall. All of it.
We belly-laughed and snot-cried.
The truth of it is: I don’t know with any degree of certainty what any of this means. I don’t know what it says about Heaven or an afterlife. I don’t know if it’s evidence of the implicit biases of the human mind — mine and Gayle’s in particular.
But I don’t care because what I do know is this:
There are two cemeteries in town — we could have chosen to bury her at either. We chose that one, despite never having been there before. And because we chose that one, and because Gayle had that dream, we shared a moment together that I will never forget. We shared a moment together that made me believe.