This is an odd topic to discuss this time of year, just a week away from Christmas, but today I want to talk about death.
We’ve had so much of it this year, we simply can’t ignore it. (Don’t worry, this won’t be depressing.)
First, let’s talk about Sister Fabian at the convent where I work.
Sister Fabian stood maybe 5-feet tall and was 105 years old. She was a Franciscan Sister for 86 years and get this: she retired at the age of 99.
Ninety-nine! (No fooling!)
Her hearing remained perfect, her vision nearly so, and with the help of a walker she was able to get around the convent pretty darn well, right up until her last day.
As to her last day, here it is: It was a little over a month ago, on a Wednesday. Sister Fabian attended evening prayers, ate dinner in the dining hall, had a short conversation with one of the other sisters, then went upstairs to her room.
A nurse came in to assist her as she got ready for bed. Sister Fabian said something the nurse didn’t quite catch so the nurse turned and said, “What was that, Sister? … You aren’t leaving for heaven, are you?”
Sister Fabian smiled and said, “Oh, it won’t be long now!”
That night, Sister Fabian passed away in her sleep.
Whenever I hear stories like this – and I’ve heard several – they always make me smile. The idea of someone having a premonition of when they will die… that’s kinda cool, don’t you think?
Then my rational brain kicks in. I think to myself, at the age of 105, Sister Fabian was probably expecting to go to heaven at any moment.
Even so. It’s a cool story.
It reminds me of my mom on the day she died.
One of the nurses at the care home was saying goodbye, telling her that she was going home for dinner. (It’s important to know that at this time, Mom was rarely talking and when she did, it was never more than one or two words, tops.)
My mom looked at her and said quite clearly, “I’m going home too.” The nurse was more surprised by her talking than by what she said. The nurse continued, “I’m going home to have dinner with my husband.”
To that, Mom nodded and said, “That’s what I’m doing. I’m going home to have dinner with Dave.” (Dave being my dad, who died two years prior.)
That night – you guessed it – Mom passed away.
My mom was 74 and while she was having memory issues, enough to go into a care home, none of us were expecting her to die so quickly.
So the question becomes, how did she know? And why, after so many months of not talking beyond a mumbled yes or no, does she speak with such clarity?
This story makes me smile too and I’ve told it to many people. But even then, my rational brain must have a say.
My mom might have said the same thing at other times to other nurses, but you only remember words like that after a patient dies. Or maybe this nurse told the story just to make my family feel better?
But you have to admit, it’s a pretty cool story.
Here’s another one: A couple of months after my mom died, I swear she paid me a visit.
I was alone in our house in Phoenix and had just woken from an afternoon nap on the couch. As I sat there, I could smell my mom’s perfume very distinctly. It was as though she was standing right next to me.
I didn’t know anyone else who wore that perfume (Mom had been a Charlie girl). It lingered for about a minute or so, then drifted away. As though she left the room.
The memory of that afternoon never fails to make me smile. (I’m smiling now.) But rationally speaking, was I fully awake? Could it have been a dream?
I’m certain I was awake, but I would understand if you had doubts.
And if I’m being completely honest, I don’t understand how my mom got a hold of perfume in heaven.
Does heaven have a Walgreens?
Now we come to my final story. It was told to me just a few days ago from a hospice chaplain whom I know and trust.
The chaplain was visiting with one of the patients and in the course of their conversation, found out she had been an orphan back when the convent had an orphanage. She was a shy, scared little girl, but one Sister in particular went out of her way to make sure the little girl felt loved and included.
This Sister was one I knew. Her name was Sister Therese and honestly, you couldn’t help but love this nun. Her voice was soft, with a low purring quality, and her whole face lit up when she giggled.
She giggled a lot.
Fast forward several years, the woman had moved to the area and the two of them reconnected. They spent much time together before the pandemic, before the woman entered hospice. Because of the pandemic, visitors were restricted and Sister Therese was unable to see her friend.
Even the chaplain could rarely get in. Shortly after this meeting with the patient, the chaplain learned Sister Therese contracted Covid. She died shortly after.
It happened so quickly, the chaplain felt bad she never had a chance to tell the patient.
She called the woman’s daughter with the news, thinking she could tell her. It was just a few days later that the patient died too.
The chaplain called the daughter to offer her condolences and asked, “Did you get a chance to tell her about Sister Therese?”
The daughter’s response: “I didn’t have to.”
As both had tested negative for Covid, the daughter was able to visit. She said as soon as she entered the room her mother said, “I’m not afraid of dying anymore! Last night Sister Therese visited me. She was on her way to heaven and said she’ll be there waiting for me, so I’m not afraid anymore!”
She didn’t know Sister Therese was ill, much less had died.
And yes, she had died right before the patient said she visited.
This story makes me smile big time and my rational brain doesn’t have the slightest idea what to make of it. Did Sister Therese visit her friend on her way to heaven? Was the woman told she was about to die?
There’s a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.
Some people believe thin places are actual locations that you can visit. In an article from the New York Times, Eric Weiner writes,
[Thin places] are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.
I’m not so sure thin places have to be particular locations. I think they can be accessed wherever you are, based on your openness to the situation, your willingness to let go and allow the experience to wash over you.
To let the divine reach out and envelop you with its fragrance.
In this year of so much death, anger and hurt, maybe it’s time we travel a little deeper. Maybe we need to spend a little more time seeking the thin places and looking at our world — and the one just beyond it — in a new way.
After all, according to the Celtics, it’s less than three feet away.