At the gates of heaven: A new book, drawing on the stories of dying patients and doctors, will transform the way you think about your final days
By PATRICIA PEARSON
PUBLISHED: 19:38 EST, 16 May 2014 | UPDATED: 03:32 EST, 17 May 2014
At around 4am that morning, my father gave an audible sigh. It was loud enough to wake my mother, who sleepily assumed that he was having a bad dream.
But he wasn’t. That sigh was his final breath as he died.
No one, least of all my father, had known he was ill. As for my mother, she’d assumed he was still asleep when she rose a few hours later and had breakfast alone.
Afterwards she’d returned to the bedroom and tried, with increasing desperation, to wake him.
There was, however, one person who knew about Dad’s death well before Mum did: my sister Katharine, who lived 100 miles away and was herself suffering from terminal breast cancer.
‘On the night of my father’s death,’ she told mourners at his memorial service some weeks later, ‘I had an extraordinary spiritual experience.
‘It was about 4.30am and I couldn’t sleep, when all of a sudden I began having this amazing experience. For the next two hours, I felt nothing but joy and healing. I felt hands on my head, and experienced vision after vision of a happy future.’
When she awoke that morning, she’d described them to her teenage son Graeme as she drove him to school. Among the visions of the future, she told him, was one of his own child — a yet- to-be conceived five-month-old granddaughter — whom she’d played with on her bedroom floor.
It wasn’t till Katharine got back home that my mother phoned to tell her Dad had just died.
Suddenly, she knew the reason for the powerful surge of energy and joy she’d felt in her bedroom, the sense of someone there. ‘I now know that it was my father,’ she said.
Now, my family isn’t in the habit of channelling ghosts. Indeed, my first reaction to my sister’s vision was close to hysterical laughter.
But, almost immediately afterwards, the vision began to make profound sense, like puzzle pieces slipping perfectly into place. Without discussing it, we were convinced as a family that Dad had done something of great emotional elegance.
He’d seized a mysterious opportunity to go to his very sick daughter, to caress her and calm her, before heading on his way.
A month later, in early April, a scan revealed that Katharine’s cancer had spread to her bones and liver. In the final ten days of her life, in a hospice, she looked gorgeous, as if lit from within.
Sometimes, she’d have happy, whispered conversations with a person I couldn’t see. At other times, she’d stare at the ceiling as a full panoply of expressions played across her face: puzzled, amused, sceptical, surprised, becalmed — like a spectator watching a heavenly light show.
‘It’s so interesting,’ she began one morning, but she couldn’t find the words to describe what she’d seen.