Leave it to an old lady like my mother to try to cheat death. You wouldn’t have expected it from a staunch Wisconsin Synod Lutheran who once assured me she’d followed her confirmation vows to the “T”. Her faith should have invited a calm and easy acceptance of the inevitable. But for some reason, about the time she turned ninety-five, she began having dying episodes—none of which reached fruition. Her speech would disappear; she’d stop eating; her breathing would become as irregular as Minnesota weather and her face would age a decade in a day. We’d all gather. Well, that is, we’d all visit more frequently. Grandkids would interrupt their game-boys long enough to stop by. My sister would drive up from Tennessee. We’d comb her hair, put our hands on her brow, read the Bible with special emphasis on Psalm 23 and assure her it was alright to let go, and to go. But then, a few days later, maybe due to all the attention, she’d be back to her old self asking about the grandkids, filling our ears with family history, and fussing about the Democrats.
Actually her mother behaved somewhat similarly. Grandma Ida sewed her own funeral gown ten years before she needed it and in the interim, periodically, would call my mom on any given morning announcing this was her last day, but by the time mom got there she’d be hanging out the wash. Genetic? Who knows?
If mom was afraid to die, there didn’t appear to be a good reason for it. She was nothing if not the embodiment of the Christian faith. Besides attending church regularly, she was a person who truly lived out the ways of Jesus in her daily routine. She gave to the needy, visited the sick, and I never heard a word of gossip, a racist inference, or a swear word. Well, one swear word.
One time in the early sixties, my dad butchered the chickens by wringing their necks instead of the usual chopping off of the heads. Alas, the birds did not bleed out. Mom had to squeeze the blood out of the chicken’s flesh by hand as she dressed them. It was time consuming and difficult. As she struggled with it over the kitchen sink, I heard her utter a most awful cussword: “Damn” spewed forth from her pursed mouth. It scared me. As a fourteen-year-old boy, I’d rarely even heard my mother raise her voice. I’m sure God forgave her instantly and I’m sure she trusted it to be so.
So why might she be worried about death? Well, the truth of the matter is, nobody knows what’s on the other side. Christianity, as well as other religions, besides providing moral guidelines, health edicts, ritual, and song, have some answer regarding the end of life. People without faith assure themselves that when it’s over, it’s over, and the journey ends at a blank wall, and they may be right. But the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, sanguinely postulated that even while we can rationally believe that when we’re dead, we’re dead, we can’t, on the other hand, totally accept on an emotional level that we, as persons, as unique individuals, will someday completely cease to exist.
Mom’s religion trusts that if you are a confirmed believer upon your last day you will be transported to live with the Father above through the sponsorship of His devoted Son, Jesus the Christ. But how’s that going to work? Do we vaporize like in the movie Ghosts? Does the soul slip out of the body like ammonia evaporating from a Windex bottle? Will there really be a welcoming committee, or is there a series of stages (Lokas, in the Tibetan religion) that a soul traverses before it reaches its final destination?
I have a few pet theories about it. One came from a Lutheran minister’s daughter, who was very close to her father. As he lay dying, he was able to communicate telepathically to her the first few days of his afterlife experience. Here’s what he related: he was first welcomed by persons within his own Synod, but gradually joined the entire Lutheran community and eventually merged into the greater interdenominational Christian congregation. Presumably he went on to live as a spirit person in the world community of all those who have gone on before.
But what about those who are not so bound into a religious belief? My dad for instance, grew up a minister’s son in the Church of Christ, steeped in Christian Gospel—song and verse, but was forced to re-think religion when he studied science at the University of Iowa in the 1930’s. While there, he was shown a jar containing a preserved human fetus. The fetus appeared to have gill slits—possible proof of evolution. If Darwin was right could the book of Genesis also be right? Many who believed in evolution in those days were damned to Hell, yet Pop died more at ease with himself than his own wonderfully Christian mother who seemed to be afraid to die.
Several months after dad passed, he came to me in the form of an apparition while I was meditating. He was confused and was in a place I intuitively perceived to be Tibetan Lokas. Somehow or other I knew what to do. I pointed him in a certain direction, towards a tunnel, and said, “Pop, go on through there.” He relaxed, turned, and was gone like a dragonfly. I haven’t seen him since, and assume he found some sort of peace in the great beyond. Perhaps the tunnel I pointed him towards was a birth canal into a new life-form.
So we don’t know what’s beyond the earthen grave. And we all know we don’t know. But I had a jolting thought after one of my mother’s “death bouts.” It came to me that she wasn’t just having some sort of short term physical debilitation (a mild stroke was mentioned), but that she was taking short excursions to the other side in order to “test the waters.” She was putting her toes in to see if it would be warm enough (important to Minnesotans), or safe enough. When she returned from one trip, which lasted about a week, she regained consciousness as I sat next to her bed in the nursing home, and exclaimed wryly, if not a bit exuberantly, “I’m back!” Then with a soft grin—her face too stiff for a full smile—she whispered, “I’m going to live!”
And that’s how my mom cheated death. Maybe the old adage “we go when it’s our time to go” just ain’t so. At least for my mom, it looked as if she was going to go when she was damned well ready to go.
Marie Ella Gertrude Nase Hurd Florine died in 2011 at the age of ninety-six. She went placidly into the night.
© 2019, John Hurd
JOHN HARRISON HURD started to pound out more words and pound in fewer nails. Now he writes all the time and has been selected as runner-up in a few publications. Two have published things. John is presently working on two books. One is a Peace Corps Memoir from time in Botswana. The other spans a five year period when he lived on an old farm place with a shaman. The shaman helped him raise his kids. John was born in the Hidden City, Oak Ridge TN, where his dad worked with heavy water for the atom bomb. Later we moved to a farm in Minnesota. He’s been active in environmental and social justice activities for many years.