I've waited one year to publish this post. By the end, you'll know why.
One year ago, I had one of those unbelievable life experiences. The kind that offer a look into another part of life. A part of life we don't experience very often. At least most of us. I had to wait two weeks to even start writing about this experience. I'm not really sure where to start. Hence I haven't really said much yet, have I?
Okay, I'll start.
I'm hesitant to put this experience down on paper, on a screen, to take it out of my body. It was quite powerful. I'm nervous that putting it in black and white takes away the power, the color and the depth of the experience. I'm extremely concerned that my experience will be misunderstood. And I don't know where to start.
Okay, I'll start.
I was called home to Wisconsin in the early part of May, 2013. My 92-year-old father, Rev. Stan Hayes (the Rev. part, as you can imagine, is important to this story), had suffered a heart attack. The prospects of recovery were grim. You'd think I could have easily made the decision to get there as soon as possible. I couldn't. Something told me I could wait, in fact I should wait. Something told me to be last. That's another story. For the sake of brevity, let me tell you that I got there late on the first Sunday of May. Out of the seven siblings that make up the Hayes family, I was the last.
I now know why I was the last. I had to be the last. I had to help my father leave this life and go to the next. Oh, it's not that everybody else wasn't there to help, but my help, well, let's just say it was unique.
Now you're thinking I'm one of those crazy Christians. I'm not. It is true that I was raised in a Christian household, by a United Methodist minister and his wife. Both were believers and raised their children in the ways of American Christianity of the mid-20th-century, which was not nearly as demonstrative as American Christianity of the 21st century. For some reason, this upbringing caused a spiritual blossoming in me that embraces aspects of many religious beliefs. This belief system, if you want to call it that, probably appears to many to be wacky, paper-thin, easily blown over by anyone who has taken a basic theology or philosophy course. To others it appears to be open, warm and loving. Throughout my life, this belief system has served me extremely well, so for now I will stick with it. I'll tell you this – I am open to as many possibilities as possible. This means wacky is as possible as intellectual.
By the time I arrived in the hospital room, Dad was clearly wigged out from his morphine drip. He never opened his eyes, but I know that he recognized my presence. He was peaceful for the first couple of hours and then some respiratory distress kicked in. I didn't think the distress was out of the ordinary (“my husband breathes like that lots of night”, I said to my concerned sister. She gave me one of those older sister looks). I was wrong. Fortunately, the two other sisters who were in the room had been there for a couple of days; they recognized this level of distress as something extraordinary and called two other sisters who had gone home for some much-needed and deserved rest. They returned and the five of us took turns holding Dad's hands, wetting his lips with a cloth, holding his legs, basically the laying on of hands. The power of touch.
At one point I looked out the large window of the lovely hospital suite (modern American medicine is approaching hotel-quality experiences for the families of the ill and dying) and saw an airplane approaching. There's not a large airport within 50 miles of this particular hospital, so I thought that was odd. But even odder was this extremely clear thought that passed through my head - “That's for Dad.”
I sat for a long time with my hands on Dad's left calf, covered by a quilt lovingly made by one of my sisters (a number of them are quilters). With eyes closed, I meditated on sending good energy through my body to him. And that's when the first clear image came to me. The image of a bus. Yup. A bus.
The bus was a nice bus. Old, probably from the 1950s, but clean and felt new. White and red. The bus drove up to my left, stopped and opened its doors. Immediately I realized the bus had come for Dad and my purpose was to get him on the bus.
At this point, I need to tell you that my father was a United Methodist minister and that his salary did not always cover the expenses of having 7 children. When I was 4 or 5, Dad took an extra job driving school bus for our local school district. I loved this time, as I would go along and Dad would let ME open and close the door with the very cool, complicated handle. So when the bus showed up, this is where my mind went. “How cool. The bus has come for Dad. Interesting that it isn't a school bus. I think that's a good sign. This is one of those buses that goes long distances. He'll be more comfortable”. These thoughts went on for, well, I don't know how long. It felt like 45 minutes.
Then I realized Dad was not getting on the bus. He was standing on the pavement in front of the open door, but not getting on the bus. He wasn't scared, he wasn't belligerent, he just wasn't getting on the bus. My mind immediately flashed to What About Bob?, a 1991 Bill Murray film, where Bill, er, Bob, has trouble getting on a bus.
Did I find it absurd that my father is dying and I'm thinking of Bill Murray? You bet. I tried to clear the idea out of my mind. “Come on,” I said to myself, “this is serious business! Your father is dying! This is no time for a joke.”
And then I realized it WAS time for a joke. It WAS time to feel the light-hearted breeze of this moment. Because just like Bob, my father was having trouble getting on the bus. He needed help, and very soon, it became clear to me that he needed MY help.
Let's step back for a second and review the situation. A 92-year-old man, a respected member of communities throughout the Midwest, is dying. He is surrounded by 5 of his 7 adult children. Some of them are crying; some are praying; some are checking his medical situation. And then there's me, with my brain taken over by a zany 1991 Bill Murray movie. Oh man. The guilt for being the last one in must have me in some strange hallucinogenic state. Oh well.
What did I do? I gave into Bill, er, Bob and I mentally started to tell my father, “You have to get on the bus. You need to get on the bus. You should get on the bus. Come on Dad, get on the bus.” Finally, just like Wing, the bus driver did for Bob, I resorted to mentally yelling at him,“Get on the bus!”.
It's okay. Dad and I had that kind of relationship. Sometimes I just had to get serious with him, like when he would complain about a cousin that he found particularly annoying. I would remind him that the cousin was ill and needed compassion and patience, even though that was difficult. Reads nicer than it did as those words came flying out of my mouth. Anyway, this was one of those times.
Did he get on the bus? Yes, he did. Did I see him get on the bus? No, I can't tell you that I did. But I did feel his spirit leave the room, around 3:00 am. His body was still alive at that point, and would stay alive until just before 6:00 am. But he got on the bus around 3:00 am.
Dad officially died. We called the rest of the family. Those who were in the area came to say goodbye. We drank coffee, we discussed preliminary details, we talked to a lovely chaplain, some of us went out for breakfast. I went back to my hotel room and felt remarkably elated. I was happy. Happy for Dad. He got on the bus and he was happy to be on the bus. He hadn't suffered much. We had all gotten there. We were there to help him go to the next place. We could plan his funeral, which would be a celebration.
There's some things you need to know about my father. Stan was born a farmer. Actually, I think he would have loved to have been a farmer, but he was the second son, so the farm went to his older brother. After his first retirement, he returned to work the farm (as well as continue to preach) with his nephew. He always gardened. He loved the green, he loved the black. Because of this, he, like most people who live and breathe farming, understood and embraced the cycle of life and death. Death was not a scary proposition when you talked to Dad. And he didn't give you all that “Jesus will be there waiting for you to wash away your sins” kind of talk. His faith was quiet, but deep. Sometimes it is time to leave this life. There is another life. It is a better life. We all get to go there.
I told you earlier he was a minister. His specialty was being with people in times of great distress. As news of his death spread, story after story came to us. Stories like:
“I've never forgotten when I was 10 and my mother died and your father came to comfort my 3 siblings and me. He made a frightened child know that it was going to be okay.”
“Stan came to the hospital on Christmas Day to be with my husband when he was very sick. He sat there with us when he could have been celebrating. I've never forgotten that.”
Story after story of Stan's amazing ability to be there in the scariest moments and to make people know that it was going to be okay.
Somehow, this understanding of the beauty, the necessity of death has rubbed off on me. Look, I'll be honest. I was seriously concerned when I got on that plane to see Dad for what would turn out to be the final time. I had never been in the room when another person had died. I knew there was a good chance I would be there for Dad's death. Would this wacky spirituality of mine stand up under the reality of another human dying? And not any human, but the one whose very life was passed on to me?
Yes, it did and I am filled with gratitude for my father and mother for raising me with this deep understanding. Death is not always a sad event for the person who dies, not even for those who stay behind. Yes, some deaths (like the Sandy Hook Massacre) are tragic and unjustified. For these deaths, we cry and mourn and feel the pain and loss. But for someone like Dad, having lived a marvelous life for 92 years and having been the best human he could be, going peacefully, how bad could it be? Why shouldn't he be getting on the bus and leaving? For me, that type of death is certainly not a tragedy. Am I sad? Certainly, but not as sad as I expected.
Hours later, I realized the second level of significance to the bus, one that some of you have certainly thought of already. C.S. Lewis. The Great Divorce. “Okay,” I thought. “There you go. That's where the bus came from. The logical answer is that deep in my subconscious was the memory of a brief encounter with The Great Divorce.”
Perhaps that is the logical answer. But in my wacky spirituality, I found this to be an affirmation of my experience, not a logical explanation. For those of you that are of the rational type, this has probably caused you to roll your eyes and throw whatever device you are reading this on across the room. Sorry.
I was struck then, and I am still struck, by the coming together, the weaving of threads from across the years, the randomness making sense, the awe, the beauty, the joy that I experienced during my Dad's journey. Even in the sad moments I've experienced this past year, as I realize Dad is no longer on this earth, remembering the bus has given me an odd comfort.