So, I bought Patricia Pearson’s new book about the experiences many people have when they’re dying, and I find it hard to put down. It’s written in a clear, no-nonsense way, and draws heavily on the social-science and medical literature recording the experiences of others, as well as on interviews with family members, medical personnel, and hospice care workers who have attended the dying.
Last night, I came across something that resonated with the experience my sister Ruthie had as she was dying. Here’s an excerpt from the Pearson book:
One intriguing aspect of Nearing Death Awareness is the tendency for some of the dying to hallucinate visions of deceased family members, friends, and iconic spiritual beings in the days and hours leading to death. Forty-one percent of the dying patients in a study done by the University of Virginia psychologist Emily Williams Kelly reported a “deathbed vision.” Are these the kind of sensed presences my sister encountered on the night my father died, there to comfort imperiled, frightened souls? Fifty-four percent of staff in the five-hospice study had patients who experienced a “visit” from a deceased relative very close to the time of death. Informally, nurses often use these visions as a gauge for impending demise. “When a patient says that they have been ‘visited’ by a dead loved one, you know that their time has come,” Perry Sartori, a former critical-care nurse turned academic, told me. She described the first time she encountered this mystery. “When I was a student nurse, I remember crossing over with the night shift, and they said very matter-of-factly, ‘So-and-so has been chatting with his dead mother for the last five hours, so he’ll be off soon.’ I thought they were joking: ‘Are they saying that now because I’m now and they are trying to freak me out?’ I kept going to check on him, and he was talking away to someone I couldn’t see. He had a big smile on his face. He died later that day. That spooked me, but I soon realized it was common.”
Back in the early 1990s, when my Aunt Julia lay in a hospital bed near death from cancer, my grandmother (her mom) sat next to her bed, and watched her converse with unseen figures. I recall from her account that Julia said, “John Wayne, why are you here?” — the figure being not the film star, but a man from our town, John Wayne Fudge, who had died over a decade earlier from cancer. It was an odd thing for her to have said, I think, because I don’t think Mr. Fudge and my aunt were close. Anyway, she died a day or so later.
That was on my mind in 2011 after I got a call from my folks. Here’s how I tell it in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming (I gave you the added detail about Aunt Julia’s story above):
Around the same time, I made my customary morning phone call to Mam and Paw on my way in to the office one morning. Mam was in an especially anxious mood.
“Ruthie told us she’s been having dreams,” Mam said. “Julia came to her, and Mullay, and Dede.” These were, respectively, Mam’s sister, who died of cancer at 42, and our paternal grandparents, both long dead.
“What did they say in the dreams?” I asked Mam.
“Nothing. Ruthie said they just smiled at her.”
I thought: They’re coming to help her get ready to die.
That night, I called Ruthie to confirm the story.
“Yeah, they came,” she said, as matter-of-factly as if the deceased kinfolks had dropped by for coffee.
“All at once?” I asked.
“No, I had three dreams.”
“What did they say?”
“Nothing. They just smiled at me, and looked real peaceful.”
“Do you think maybe they’ve come to, you know, prepare you for something?” I said, uneasily.
“Nope,” she said. “I really don’t think so.”
I believed these dreams were real, but I did not believe they were meaningless. Back in the 1990s, when Aunt Julia lay in the hospital, dying of cancer, I dreamed of Mullay. In the dream, I stood on the outside of the rusted wrought iron fence at Grace Church. I watched at twilight as worshippers moved steadily beneath the arching live oaks into St. Francisville’s old and elegant Episcopal church for worship. A woman broke out of the crowd and came to me. I noticed that none of them had feet.
The woman was my grandmother. She wore a mottled purple and blue dress, with a matching pillbox hat, and carried a Bible against her breast. “You have to go to Julia and tell her death is nothing to fear,” she said to me. I tried to talk to her, but she turned and walked towards the church.
When I woke up, I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but inasmuch as I had never had a dream like that, I didn’t dare ignore it. I dressed, went to Julia’s room at Our Lady of the Lake, and at her bedside, told that story. She laughed and shook it off. I couldn’t tell whether she was too far gone on morphine to take me seriously or not. After I told her goodbye, I stopped by the chapel in the Catholic hospital to pray that Julia would reconcile with God, from whom she had been estranged, before her passing.
Julia died the next day, with my grandmother at her side. At the very end, she was calling out to dead people from St. Francisville, addressing them as if they stood in the room around her bed. In her final moments, she screamed uncontrollably, though whether from pain or some other terror, nobody knows. One of the nurses, a devoutly religious woman, ran into the room, stood over Julia, and said: “Julia! Julia! Jesus loves you and died for your sins. He can give you peace. Do you want him?”
Somehow, Julia assented. Her screaming stopped. She laid for a moment in silence, then passed away peacefully.
This is why I took Ruthie’s dreams seriously, even if she didn’t. I believed she was going to die soon. But when? Would I have time to see her? I hoped so. I wanted to save my vacation time and my money for one last visit from our family. Maybe Christmas? Yes, Christmas.
Ruthie, of course, died suddenly within two weeks of our conversation about her dreams.
A couple of interesting things about that passage. First, that my dead grandmother Mullay, who wasn’t related to Julia (Mullay was on my dad’s side; Julia was my mom’s sister), came to me and asked me to go to Julia with this message. Second, that Ruthie, knowing this story well, refused to believe that she was being sent a similar message. Well, I guess that’s not entirely surprising; she didn’t want to die or to think about dying. Thinking back on it, Ruthie was not anxious or defensive when she told me no, she didn’t think there was a message for her in those dreams. Her denial of impending death went very, very deep.
I’m finding Pearson’s book fascinating and challenging, in part for the questions it raises about the phenomenon of mind, of what the dream state may really be, and how the experiences of others may conflict with my own theological convictions. But it’s also deeply comforting. And it ties into that Rupert Ross book I’ve been reading. More on that later today. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to write about the Ross book without quoting massive parts of it, because it’s so, so fascinating.