This was harder than you might think. A few years ago, National Public Radio ran a series called “This I Believe.” Listeners were to submit 500-word essays sharing beliefs they held to be unequivocally true—anything from “I believe in ghosts” to “I believe in democracy.” The only rule was to include the phrase, “This I believe.”
The response was overwhelming. I submitted one myself. It was about my daughter’s choice to join her high school cross-country team because students were required to have an athletic activity, and she was not an athlete. Cross Country was a no-fail sport. You competed only with yourself, a situation a lot like life, I imagine.
So, my submission was about learning to cheer for everyone—always. We are all attempting to at least place in the same event: a life of consequence lived with kindness. This I believe.
The topic of what I believe has been on my mind since last week’s class in “Near Death Experiences,” in which we learned about the concept of the Life Review. People who have been resuscitated after being declared clinically dead report remarkably similar experiences across cultures.
I’m not talking about encountering a religious figure or a tunnel of light. I am talking about being greeted by a love of inexpressible depth. I’m talking about the near- universal first words of those revived being, “Why did you bring me back?” And another important commonality: no one dies alone. This I believe.
In my mother’s journals, some of which I read after she died, I found a sketch she’d drawn 50 years ago titled “Image of Death.” A prone stick figure reached up toward three stick figures hovering overhead——their arms extended in invitation. Dotted lines between the figures below and those above indicated an energy flowing between them. A rudimentary sun shone in the sky, one tree, flowers, and grass.
All my life, I had tried to include my mother in every meaningful moment—every holiday, birthday, vacation, graduation, and school program- often at the expense of my own family. Because she had been alone since the age of 42, I was determined being alone should not mean feeling alone, but death is an outlier.
It was the week after Christmas; I was working and had a house full of family, guests, meals to make, and a kitchen to clean. I was at my desk trying to finish a manuscript when my mother’s assisted living facility called to say it was time to bring in hospice. Having just visited with Mom up, dressed, and talking days earlier, I was taken by surprise. I thought this meant she might die within 3 months, and I was overwhelmed at the very word. Hospice. I suddenly couldn’t speak.
But Mom didn’t die within three months. She died within 3 days.
On what would be her last day, I spent the afternoon in her room, just the two of us. Her bed had been lowered nearly to the floor, so I sat on the carpet next to her. She was unconscious, the room dimly lit, with soft classical music playing. I picked up a book of her published poetry titled A Fine Thin Thread. Since she once wrote, “My poetry is me, inside out,” I thought I’d read to her.
As I read, I realized I was recalling in exquisite imagery, every relationship, hope, loss, longing, and love she had ever had. I was, in essence, reading a life review.
That’s another commonality of near-death experiences. You are able to review your life with a compassionate understanding and lack of judgment we are incapable of here.
After a few hours, I became anxious about the holiday company I’d left sitting at home. My youngest was visiting with a new boyfriend. I’d need to help get dinner started. I’d need not be a big drag. So, I texted home, asked if I should stop at the grocery store for coffee and more eggs, then told Mom, “I’ll see you tomorrow” because, in my inexperience, I fully believed I would.
At the threshold, I suddenly stopped and turned back, intuitively unwilling to part quite so casually. I went back in, kissed her, and told her something much different. Something about how there would never be a day in my life I didn’t want her to stay and about what I imagined was waiting for her if she chose to go. Hospice was scheduled to come explain their program to us the following week.
Just before midnight, the night nurse called to say, ‘Come as fast as you can! Your mother is actively dying.” I was the only local daughter, the only one whose name and number they had used countless times over the last decade for every emergency, but inexplicably, when every second counted, they had not called me first. They had called my sister–the only daughter of three who lives out of state. The only one who could not possibly get there in time, which delayed telling me.
I’d just gotten in bed—so I threw on jeans and a sweater, and we drove back as fast as possible. Christmas lights and stoplights lit the darkness. Within 15 minutes, we were at the facility, but it was nearly midnight, and the doors were locked. We beat on them, rang the bell, and called on cell phones as time dragged on until finally, a lackadaisical security guard came strolling through the lobby and let us in.
I raced up to the second floor—on the mission of a lifetime—to not let my mother die alone—only to be greeted by a staff member ten feet outside her door, framed by fake tinsel and a string of lights. “She’s gone,” she said. “Your mother died a few minutes ago.” I was stunned. She didn’t say ‘oops’ or ‘my bad,’ but might as well have.
Had a trio of angels arrived? I’d spent my entire life making sure Mom wasn’t alone for important occasions—once even leaving a New Year’s Eve party with my new boyfriend unkissed at midnight to race the clock home—and here I’d missed the biggest transition to something new any of us ever encounter.
I went into the quiet room I’d left only hours earlier. My mother was lying on the bed just as I’d left her. But she wasn’t there.
I have since told myself she knew we were coming and chose to die with the same independence with which she had lived. But it’s hard to forgive myself for being so clueless. For not understanding the significance of what was happening that afternoon. For honoring the wrong priorities.
I anticipate having a hard time explaining this in my own life review, so I’m telling you.
But sometimes, I think the indifferent security guard was part of a plan. And the nurse who waited too long and then called the out-of-state daughter was part of a plan. And maybe three angels hovering overhead heard my footsteps on the stairs and whispered, the love that’s approaching can’t compare to the love that is waiting. And with joyous anticipation, she just let go.
A belief is not, by definition, a truth. It’s just a thought you’ve had for a long time. So, although I can’t be sure, and this theory cannot be verified, this I choose to believe.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.