The father who appears before you in a dream, hours before you find out he’s died. The accident you knew would happen. These tales are real—and collected in Opening Heaven’s Door. Read an excerpt.
A humid night in summer, no sounds but the incandescent humming of the streetlamp, the tick of an invisible clock on an antique dresser.
Ellie Black rouses quietly to consciousness at around 3, her eyes unfocused, mind placid. It’s not time to get up yet; nothing is troubling her sleeping child. There is a smell of August grass and last evening’s cigarettes. In the stillness, a movement at the end of her bed commands her attention.
There, amazingly, she sees her father. Why is he here, she wonders, now fully alert, this difficult man from whom she’s so long been estranged? Why here in her bedroom? And what on earth is he wearing? Is that a top hat and tails? Her father gazes back at her happily, tips his hat, and bows with a flourish. He is bidding her—his audience?—some sort of farewell. Then he’s gone. She blinks. Her bedroom reverts to shadow and silence.
The following morning, she related the experience—whatever it was, a waking dream—to her daughter at the breakfast table. My childhood friend Michele remembers the breakfast conversation with her mother clearly, because she was so surprised when the phone rang later that day, bringing news of her grandfather’s demise.
That seeming whisper across the universe, a susurration or hint transmitted by some unknown current the way that birds bend their wings in unison, or ants follow their invisible queen: Humans clearly and repeatedly encounter some kind of unexplained attunement.
Research done in Wales, Japan, Australia, and the United States shows that between 40 and 53 percent of the bereaved experience “anomalous cognition” when someone close or connected to them has died. Usually, they sense a presence; sometimes they see or hear one. Psychiatrists call these experiences “grief hallucinations,” although they have not been studied neurologically. We don’t know what to call the intimations—like an estranged father at the foot of the bed, that are our first gleanings of death.
In 1991, the British neurosurgeon J.M. Small wrote to the medical journal The Lancet to describe a perplexing experience he had had. “Sir,” he began, “what are those waves of communication, that extra sense not yet understood? Something remarkable happened to me.”
He went on to describe a Sunday morning, “when crossing the hall to the kitchen to make tea, a presentiment of doom beset me and I feared we had been burgled. When I opened the kitchen door all appeared normal, but then there seemed to be a curious descending dark shimmer in the far part of the kitchen, immediately gone—but I knew it was death and female. I thought some catastrophe to one of our daughters-in-law. Disturbed by these suppositions and deciding not to tell my wife, I made the tea and took the tray to the bedroom. As I reached the bedroom, the doorbell rang and I was not surprised to see the village policeman.”
One of the two elderly sisters who lived next door to Small had just died in the hospital; the policeman had received the message on his radio and thought Small or his wife might know the surviving sister and could help him break the news. Small was shocked. Why him? Had the dying sister been trying to recruit his help for the living one? “Was that the cry? My wife and I did have to support the sister, a woman we did not know who had a considerable disability.”
To The Lancet, he concluded: “As a neurosurgeon my mind has been pragmatically directed and I had had no interest in telepathy or extrasensory perception. Here was the reception of information from a source I did not know nor comprehend when it declared its nature, female death…For me to have received such a message remains astonishing.
It would be valuable if declared telepathic communicators could be investigated by scanning and electroencephalography to find which areas of the brain are involved with inception, reception, and onward conscious recognition. There was a message in my mind. How it reached there is not defined; although at first confused with fear, it was so very clear.”
In 2012, the psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson reported a comprehensive study he had done on 340 cases of extraordinary encounters around dying and death. They happened to men, to women, to young and old, to scientists and sailors, to the bereft and to the content.
They happened at night and in the day, waking or napping, traveling, or working. Most commonly people encountered their fathers or mothers, as if the parental impulse to connect and to reassure continues past death. About a quarter of his subjects saw or heard the deceased person either at the hour of death or within the day. In 86 percent of those cases, they weren’t aware of the death yet by ordinary means. Thirty-eight percent of the subjects had not expected that such an encounter was even possible.
A musician, Rory McGill, sent me a letter that captured this sense of being absolutely mystified and at the same time moved by the symbols and portents of spirit:
“The night my dad died,” he wrote, “I dreamed about him passing.
“I had last seen him three weeks prior. He had suffered something like a stroke. He was unable to speak or otherwise communicate, apart from some signs of recognition in his eyes, and the touch of his right hand. He was also completely naked, lying under a sheet, for his own comfort, and his scalp was shaved clean on one side for medical purposes. So, he had a striking new look, which remains vivid in my mind’s eye today.
“When I left to return to university, the doctor’s prognosis was for a fairly good recovery. Three weeks later, I dreamed of my father. He was lying on a hospital bed, on top of the sheets, and he was wearing beautiful new yellow pajamas. Rich yellow, like the color of zucchini flowers. And he had a full head of hair. I was delighted. I climbed onto the bed and held him in my arms, but in an instant I was standing alone in the room, he was gone, and the bed was now empty and neatly made, set in a different corner. The beautiful new yellow pajamas were folded on the pillow.
“I woke up perplexed by the dream but, strange to say now, I didn’t make much of it. It didn’t trouble me much, oddly, but stayed in my head and colored my day somewhat. When I returned to the rooming house in the late afternoon, I found a handwritten note pinned to the front door. It said, RORY CALL YOUR MOTHER.
“I went immediately back down the street to the nearest phone booth with my heart speeding and my throat beginning to close. I dialed my mum’s phone number and my head started to spin. I had no conscious idea of what would come next as the phone rang, but then the instant she picked up at the other end, I started to sob and I just knew. My dad had died while I slept and dreamed of one last visit.”
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