My grandmother’s spirit left her body one year ago today.
I was there with her when it happened, and despite the steady stream of visitors she had most hours of most days during the final week of her life, it happened shortly after 2AM, and I was the only person in the room with her at the time.
Around 1AM, I fell asleep on a hospital cot that had been pulled up next to her hospice bed. Before lying down and closing my eyes, I said out loud, “wake me up if you need anything”.
She had been unconscious and unresponsive for a week.
Shortly after 2AM I had a dream of a glass cookie jar with nothing in it. When I reached my hand out towards it, it shattered into thousands of pieces. It hurt me to watch the jar shatter, but the glass shards themselves were beautiful and did not injure my skin as they passed through my hand.
Suddenly I was awake.
I looked over at my grandma, and listened for the sounds of her breathing. I didn’t hear anything for a long moment, and bolted right out of bed.
The moment I got my face near hers, she exhaled.
And then did not inhale ever again.
I walked into the hallway to tell the hospice nurse that my grandma was gone. She followed me back into the room and put her stethoscope on the soft, bare skin of my grandmother’s back.
“Her heart is still fluttering a little bit”, she said to me. “I’ll give you another minute alone together”.
And then she walked out of the room.
I held my grandmother’s hand, and looked at her for signs of life.
Her face was still so soft and sweet as if she were peacefully sleeping, but her hands felt a bit colder than they had a few hours before. I didn’t know what to say or do, or how to be with someone while their heart was still fluttering, but their breath had already left their body.
My grandma was one of the greatest loves of my life, and my own heart felt like it was breaking.
Just as I was about to let myself surrender into the mess of feelings I had been holding back since I first learned of her stroke 7 days before, I felt something I can only now describe as a shimmering, sparkling, tingling, pulsing wave of the most exquisite joy and tenderness move from her, and fill the whole room, including my own body.
I’ve never felt anything like this before or since.
It was like those luminous glass shards from my dream had turned into the finest dust, and I could feel both their luminosity and their former sharpness all at once. It hurt in the way it hurts to feel something so gorgeous that you can’t believe it’s true.
I would try to compare it to something like seeing the sunset over cliffs and water, or looking at your baby’s face for the first time, or falling in love, or reconciling with an estranged friend, as all of those things remind me of this feeling a little bit. But all of those experiences pale in comparison, truthfully.
This feeling was so stunning and impossible, that it was very hard for me to breathe while it was happening.
As the intensity of that tenderness began to subside a little, I told myself I should stay in the room and linger in it’s fading presence, but I couldn’t. I felt like I needed to step outside of the room in order to catch my breath and slow my heart down to a functional rhythm again.
I walked outside the room and told the nurse that she was indeed gone now.
The nurse came in, listened for my grandmother’s now silent heartbeat, looked at her watch, and then turned her attention on me.
“Are you alright?”, she asked.
“My chest hurts, and it’s very hard for me to take a full breath. I’m going to call my family, and then I think I need to be outdoors for a bit”.
“Do you need medical attention?”, she seemed really concerned for moment.
“No, no. It’s not like that. I don’t know. I’m okay”.
I called my family then, and when I did, I wanted to say, “I’m so sorry you weren’t here for this. I wish I had woken up 20 minutes before and called each of you then. Being here at the end, it was like receiving a holy blessing. I will never be the same”.
But I didn’t say that. Who can say that? I was so disoriented.
Then I stepped outside into the courtyard of the hospice center. There was a light breeze, and a hundred twinkling stars in the sky. The plants were swaying softly, and there was a sweet smell in the air. For a brief moment, I felt that luminous glass dust in everything all around me.
“I’m everywhere now”, she whispered. It was her voice, but it was coming from my own heart.
The Kingdom of Heaven is in your midst. (Luke 17:21).
For the first time in my whole life, I stopped worrying about what happens to us when we die.
I haven’t worried about it ever since.