I wrote before that I wanted to share my thoughts about death that were empiric, and scientific. That’s because there is another set of experiences that are not easily explained, are subjective, and to some extent are based on faith. I want to be clear to begin that although I am a practicing Catholic, I am the kind that believes in the natural world and natural phenomena. To me, the fact that a single event (the Big Bang) could lead to the organization of matter such that planets are formed and intelligent life forms develop on them is miraculous enough. I don’t need a burning bush to feed my sense of awe. After all, given a periodic table of elements, my understanding of science would lead me to predict that you would get an endless primordial soup universe whose most interesting features would be the occasional bubble of gas. (Which, of course, would be immensely amusing to any intelligences observing at the time, because potty humor is always funny, even in a universe where potties don’t exist.) Instead, we get Panera! And kittens! And Lady Gaga! We truly live in a miraculous world.
So I don’t expect miracles and don’t look for them. Still, I wonder. And in the days before and after my mother’s death, I had a few things to wonder about.
Before my mother died, she exhibited signs of nearing death awareness, a phenomenon well-known to hospice workers where the dying person exhibits a characteristic set of behaviors. They look or gesture into the air or the distance, speak of visitations by dead family members, and attain a sense of peace. They also often act like they are going somewhere, and may attempt to get dressed, or get out of bed. With Mom, because she had a mental disorder that causes hallucinations, and furthermore was in the ICU on a hard cocktail of drugs that also cause hallucinations, it is no surprise that she hallucinated. However, hallucinate she did, in that specific way of dying people, and she also constantly tried to get out of bed, repeatedly indicating she was going somewhere. Although one might reasonably have been afraid of death at that time, there was no medical reason to think it was imminent. (And ultimately her death was caused by a new condition that arose without warning.) Still, she apparently somehow knew.
After she was gone, I went home in a state of shock and grief. We all stayed up late, knowing there would be no rest that night. Eventually, I went to bed and slept a couple of hours. I remember speaking to her in my thoughts, asking her to give me a sign. I woke to her voice calling my name, “Catherine.” It was maybe 3 AM.
So, sure, I was sleeping. It is easily explainable as a dream. Still. I’ll note here for the record that I heard her voice. I got up and restlessly paced the house. I felt distraught. I did not know where to go to find my mother. I remember looking out the window in my front door and saying, “Where are you, Mommy?”
Eventually the sun came up, and we got on with planning the funeral. Over the next five days, I was afflicted with new and strange symptoms, mostly GI in nature. I have never been the kind of person who gets a lot of heartburn or has indigestion, but for a few days I did. These were all symptoms my mother struggled with most of her life, especially with the cancer. Attributable to anxiety, sure, but still very unusual for me. In fact, I was awake the second night with quite severe heartburn–something I’ve never experienced. Also, everything tasted strange to me. My mother-in-law’s potato salad tasted sweet–something that I’ve never noticed before, and the red velvet cake she brought tasted strongly of the red die. It was difficult to eat, because everything tasted wrong. My mother had a lot of trouble with off flavors, because of her chemotherapy. Later, I ate another piece of the red velvet cake, and it tasted like one would expect, like chocolate.
The weirdest part was a little bit TMI. However, sharing here for the sake of completeness. For that brief period of several days, I also had mild urinary incontinence. I know, right? Here I am, sad and forlorn, making arrangements to bury my mother, and I am….WETTING MY PANTS? What?
This was a symptom my mother experienced, as well, due to her spinal injury in 2005. I can think of no rational reason I should suddenly be having that kind of problem. It went away after she was buried.
When we visited the church to make arrangements for the funeral, another remarkable thing occurred. My sister and I had ordered a custom flower design, adding pink flowers, including pink roses, to a red and white flower design. We felt the red and white was too stark, so we asked them to add the pink.
The church where the funeral was held is the National Shrine of the Little Flower. It is a church built and dedicated to St. Therese Lisieux, known as the Little Flower. She is associated with pink roses–a fact I had not recalled when we requested the flower design. So not only would my mother lie in state in St. Therse’s chapel, which is adorned with carvings of pink roses, but the outdoor rose gardens at the church were in full bloom with pink roses. I find this unusual, although not unheard of, for November. I have kept roses in some form at my homes for 15 years, and my roses will bloom a second time in late fall about every fifth year. Usually, though, it does not happen when we’ve had such unseasonably cold weather, as we had that week. In fact, my home roses did not bloom. But the Shrine roses bloomed for my mother’s funeral. Make of it what you will. I would be interested to know if any rose-keepers elsewhere in southeast Michigan got a second bloom in the first week of November.
After the funeral, I followed my mother’s casket to the grave site. We had the commitment ceremony in the chapel, because some family members couldn’t face going back up to the family plots so soon after Grandma’s death. But a few of us went to the grave site anyway, so we got to witness a rather more pragmatic burial than the typical graveside ceremony. My mother’s casket was placed in the vault, and then the entire fault was brought over to the grave and lowered in with heavy equipment. Then they used the backhoe to fill it in. We waited, and then decorated all three graves–my mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather.
In spite of what some might find a very upsetting and ungentle scene of interment, I felt great peace while I was at the cemetery. I felt that my mother was where she had wanted to be for a long time, with her parents. I remembered her crying after Grandpa’s burial, that she didn’t want to leave him there alone, and I felt comforted.
After we left the cemetery, that feeling of comfort left me, and I went back to feeling very distressed and grief-stricken, a feeling that has only faded slowly. I have not had any unusual experiences since that day.
What does it all mean? Well, I don’t know. At the very least, it is part of the narrative of my life. Each and every observation has a naturalistic explanation. None of these things would stand up for scrutiny by the church’s standards of miracles for sainthood. But like our dreams, we all interpret the reality of our lives, and for me these are signs that my mother’s spirit is still “out there,” in some form. At the very minimum.
Going one step further, those experiences may indicate that my mother is in heaven. I have waited and watched for signs from other deceased loved ones, and never had anything as powerful as wetting my pants.
My mother was a good person. She was not a conventionally holy person, because of her mental illness, so she doesn’t fit the typical profile of a saint. However, I would argue that by virtue of her incredible suffering during her life, it is likely that she skipped purgatory and went straight to heaven. Whereas my other deceased friends and family who experienced only average suffering in their lives may be tied up with the ongoing perfection of their souls, some have suggested that Mom not only completed the work of her own suffering, but was actually a “victim soul,” a rare individual chosen to join in the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of the world.
It is worth noting that while she did not practice Catholicism for most of her adult life, due to the distortions of religious beliefs fed to her by her psychosis, that on the last day of true lucidity in the hospital she made a confession and received Last Rites, so she definitely died in a state of grace by any standard.
If all of this is true, then she surely is a saint in heaven now, and would have the ability to show herself to me. The wetting pants thing is, of course, exactly her kind of humor, and also her kind of gentleness. (Else, why not afflict me with some of her more terrible symptoms like the agony of her back pain or an asthma attack?)
Do I really believe all of this? I don’t know. And I don’t think I have to know. What I do believe is that my mother is still with me, and that she is now healed of the spiritual affliction that tormented her in life.