Last night, as I lay dozing on the couch, I awakened with a start at 10:30 and jumped up. It was time, I suddenly knew, to make a pan of lasagna for a family where a death was imminent. Right now. Not in the morning, as I had planned. Now.
As I went into the kitchen to layer the ingredients into the pan, a sense of peace and well being came over with me. I knew without a doubt that the dying woman, who had been in a coma for almost a week, had passed out of her body. And I felt clear, though I had no memory of a dream or any message from her, that she had instructed me to make this food as a symbol of my ongoing care for her twelve year old daughter.
This morning I learned that the woman had indeed died last night, at 10:31 PM.
When I took the lasagna over today, I told this child, who is still trying to absorb the fact that one of her parents is not on the planet anymore, about being instructed to make lasagna, and the sense of peace that I had felt as I made it. I told her that I thought as her Mom’s spirit left the earth, she visited people to tell them to be sure to care for her beloved daughter after she was gone. The twelve year old told me that she, too, had been awoken from a sound sleep, but not by her Mom’s spirit. It was the telephone, she said, looking a little embarrassed about how pedestrian that sounded.
Later, at home, when I was doing some mundane chores, it suddenly occurred to me that this child might be really angry about my experience. So I called and left a voice message and said,
“You know, it occurs to me that you could be really mad that your Mom’s spirit visited me to say goodbye, but didn’t visit you. I need to tell you that every time this has happened to me, and it has happened a number of times when people are dying, it has been someone telling me to care for their loved ones who are still alive. It has never been someone I am particularly close to. When my parents died, and when the two closest friends that I’ve lost died, they didn’t contact me in any way.
But what I do have with the ones close to me, who have died, is a clear sense that they are with me at particular times. I dream that we are together. I feel them around me. I have seen their spirits in birds or in butterflies. I think they didn’t say goodbye because they weren’t leaving me. I think they knew we would be in touch later.”
This experience last night made me think of the times I have experienced contact in the moment of death. At the graveside of one young man who died from AIDS in the early 90’s, a chain smoker, I learned that a number of people’s smoke alarms had gone off at the moment of his death. I didn’t actually have a smoke alarm at the time, but his death caused me to wake up as if someone had grabbed me by the throat—DEMANDING that I care for his partner, submerging me in the hellacious grief of his partner’s heart and mind and spirit for a moment so that I experienced a sense of complete freefall, no connective tissue, utter disorientation, as if it were my own. OK, OK, I sputtered. I get it, I get it! I will help your beloved go through the motions of life until he is alive again! And immediately that grip loosened and a sense of peace came over me.
When I’ve talked about these experiences with other ministers, they generally nod their heads matter-of-factly. Yes, they say, and tell me of their own experiences that mirror my own.
I know a lot of folks will dismiss all this as hogwash. I probably would too, if it hadn’t been my lived experience. Honestly, I don’t pretend to understand it a bit. But for me it’s a reminder that, as much as we try to act as if things make logical sense, we are surrounded by mysteries we can’t begin to comprehend.
And, ultimately, whether we feel connected to the dead or believe we walk only with the living, it all comes down to making lasagna for one another when the going gets tough.