At the memorial service for my mom, it poured torrentially on the Episcopalian roof we gathered under, as if she was crying from the clouds. And our crying echoed up against hers. And when we crowded out of the church lobby, readying to disperse our mourning gathering, the clouds split and a rainbow shot through the sky, a glowing grief sponge arched like an embrace, gently encouraging us to step into our lives without her. And when my sister and I left home, driving off with the last few belongings we cared to take of her life, we looked in the rearview mirror and saw another rainbow streak the sky, like a goodbye as our grief trailed south, leaving her death behind us.
And so, she is rainbows now.
And when my mother-in-law, that fiercely loving, busily fluttering woman, who her husband would fondly call his “hummingbird,” lay still, dying in her hospital bed at home, not 30 feet away, just outside her front door, a mother hummingbird with her eggs suddenly appeared at eye level on the bend of a palm frond, sitting vigil over her babies. Every exit and entrance into the opening death portal that was my mother-in-law’s home those last days of her life was accented by this bird quietly warming her babies before their hatching. And the hummingbirds won’t stop reminding us, all these years later, of our mother; countless fantastic stories of this bird with its infinity wings, magically visiting us, so often it might be the only bird chirp I recognize when I hear it.
And so, she is hummingbirds now.
And when my wife sings “You Are My Sunshine” to my son, he bursts into tears, perhaps feeling my wife’s great grief wrapped in that song, but maybe he’s crying because it’s his Grammy, singing it through her daughter, singing it to her grandson. And she’s there. As real as real can be.
And I ask myself, “Is it real? How can it be real?”
Even in those moments of seemingly undeniable miracle.
When I drove away from my mom’s empty apartment for the last time, with that rainbow in my rearview, there were only a handful of things I took, intentional keepsakes of growing up – measuring spoons with which she scooped and poured parts of so many recipes, a magnet bottle opener that perched out of reach on our refrigerator door, a picture of her holding me with her free arm clasping both my sister’s hands… not much, but all the ways I cared to have her around now that she’d died. One other thing I took that day was a book I grabbed for no conscious reason at all, I just took it on an impulse, a book I’d never read, one her sister gave her back in the 1960s: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
A day later we poured her ashes out into the ocean at Point Reyes. Like a little boy, totally lost, I stood with my older sister, next to that old ancient artifact of shipping, that broken beacon of another time, watching the grey dust of my mom swirl and dip out into the frothing waters that broke against the cliffs. I left there alone, driving back to my life in Los Angeles, with her spoons and her book, but with half of me stuck in that portal our dead drag us into, with all those parts combined, part of my heart and mind and spirit still with my mom, wherever she’d gone.
So I took my time heading south. I took Highway 1 that runs along the time warp coast of middle California, and stopped in Big Sur after dark, looking for a place to stay in a town I’d never visited. For some reason, attributing it to my grieving unrest at the time, I passed on the first four perfectly accommodating options, to finally find myself in the lobby of Big Sur Lodge. As I waited for the nightshift clerk to help me, for him to finish with the customer standing at the front desk, the office door opened...
The person that stepped through that door was the only student, other than my best friends, who’d had a close relationship with my mom when I was in high school. Someone I’d personally never been very close to, but one of those acquaintances you have fond memories of, but quickly lose touch with after graduation. Of all the towns and all the lodges, of all the times... it was her. We cried in one another's arms when I told her Mom had died. And of course I'd be staying here for the night! Of course you can have a three-bedroom cabin, with a full kitchen, a hot tub and a fireplace for practically nothing! Of course. Of course. Of course. Like arriving home when home has died. And the next morning, when I checked out at the front desk to say thank you and goodbye, my friend wasn’t working, but she’d left me a gift:
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
And even now, even as I write it out, it feels dramatically unreal and impossible.
Is it real? It’s just a coincidence, right? How can it be real, Mom?
Why don't we accept these after death experiences of our loved ones for simply what they are - a chance to be with those we've lost, as surreal as it might be, as different and maybe even unfamiliar, but somehow, someway as real as if they’re still alive? And instead of thinking we need a belief system to confirm or deny these moments, why not let them be, as wonderfully spirited and magical and yes, seemingly impossible, as they are, without further answers needed?
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl’s account of experiences during the holocaust is less about why it happened and far more about how people survived it, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. He describes a moment, amidst the constant onslaught of all-consuming wet, cold, dark prison terrors, when his thoughts, for survival’s sake, turned to his young wife, by then lost to him in some unknown way, somewhere else in the nightmare of those times:
“My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing - which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.
“I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out […] but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. ‘Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.’”
So, look around you and be comforted by how you find them.
Seek them in your dreams and enjoy your time together.
Creatively open and revel in how you receive them.
It takes the work of opening up. That’s it.
You don’t need to do anything else.
They just want to be with you.
After these losses in my life, all these years later, it’s just another way I’ve found that death, and the space it thrusts us in, where we are so broken open, where there are often no clear answers and so much is unknown, can sometimes be an incredibly powerful, childlike, wondrous, limitless, freeing place for us to be... and like surprised children, eyes wide and mouths agape, we might let ourselves float there, inspiring our being in unimaginable ways and radically informing our greater lives, our greater living.