The Big Question

Having been raised in a Catholic home, I was taught that Saint Peter would be waiting at the Pearly Gates with a large book containing the names of every human being, and if you had been a good person he would grant entrance to heaven. Otherwise, you would descend into hell. As a child, there were many times I worried that the keeper of the keys to heaven would see my name on the naughty list. I spent a lot of time in the confessional.

As I matured and became educated in science, logic, and reason I fell away from my Catholic beliefs; religion to me was seen as a means for authorities to control the masses, and history of the Christian Church confirmed my beliefs with facts and historical evidence. Even now I see many outdate parables in the bible involving selling children and stoning sinners, things that would put a person in prison a very long time today. I’ve drifted from Catholicism and into other religions and eventually decided we all are worshipping the same energy. There is only one God, one Source, one Divine presence. And the Big Question – is heaven real? Yes, heaven is real.

My first experience in hospice was as a volunteer at the hospice inpatient unit. I wasn’t yet sure about a career change, so exposure to hospice patients seemed like a logical yet noncommittal step in that direction. The first assignment was to sit with an elderly woman until her family traveled from out of state to be with her. What I witnessed in her room forever changed my way of thinking.

I do not recall her name, but she was from the era of the 1940s because there was a wedding photo of her and her husband next to her bed set in that time period. The nurse told me she has severe dementia and had not spoken a word for years. She was heavily medicated for comfort and unable to move on her own; she had not opened her eyes since they found her on the floor in the nursing home. Technically, she was comatose. It’s likely those in this condition are able to hear, not with their ears but with their spirit, so I talked with this woman while we waited for her family. I told her I was sorry she had fallen and was in a hospice, and because of the religious artifacts in her room I said a few prayers over her. I said that her family was in route to see her and to hold on a while longer so they could see her before she leaves us. For the next couple of hours I made small talk, held her hand, wiped her eyes, and let her rest. She never once moved or made a sound.

It was getting late and I was nodding off in the chair next to her bed. I jumped at the sound of her voice, saying “Bernie…”, and then I saw her hand, her frail, contracted hand, lift up and reach toward the ceiling. I stood up to see her eyes were wide open and she had a peaceful smile across her lips as she repeated, “Bernie…my Bernie.”

“Oh my,” a voice from the hallway startled me. The daughter and son-in-law were at the door, chins dropped, amazed at the sight.

“Is Bernie her husband?” I asked.

“No,” said the woman. “Bernie was my brother. He died last week, that’s why we were out of town. But we didn’t tell Momma. She doesn’t know.”

There is no way to explain for certain how this happened – how her ability to speak, move, and see returned. How she was seeing her recently deceased son in the ceiling tiles. There’s no way to know what she really saw, and why she was calling Bernie’s name. I know what I believe. I was witness to the connection between two souls on different planes of existence. I believe I was witness to the transition between life and death, a holy place where spirit lifts our souls from this world to the next. Something is out there, and loved ones are waiting.