18: The Heaven We Know

18: The Heaven We Know

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles and More

The Heaven We Know

I guess that’s what saying goodbye is always like — like jumping off an edge. The worst part is making the choice to do it. Once you’re in the air, there’s nothing you can do but let go.

~Lauren Oliver

My brothers and I, along with our families, had gathered to hang out at the acreage where my father, diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, had chosen to spend his last days. It had been ten years since the last time we’d all been together in the house where we grew up, the house that Dad built.

Friends and relatives had dropped off casseroles and baked goods. The smell of comfort food filled the house. As families do, even in times of sorrow, we told stories and shared jokes. We also took turns talking to Dad as he lay in a hospital bed in front of a wall of windows looking out over the rolling plains of Nebraska. He was mostly coherent; he recognized us and could still talk, albeit weakly, but as the evening progressed, Dad started slipping in and out of consciousness.

Later, as I headed home, I figured we’d all said our goodbyes. I knew I had. I suspected Dad had, too. I braced myself for “the call” to come sometime in the night.

But it was late morning when my cell phone chirped. My aunt, who adored my dad, her big brother, told me his breathing had stopped and started. Her voice trembled as she said, “You’d better come.”

I rushed back out to the farm for what I thought would be Dad’s last moments. When I got there, I found him quietly lying in front of a window Mom had cracked open, saying it would allow Dad’s soul to leave. The other brothers were on their way.

Once everyone had arrived, we took turns talking to Dad, holding his hand, telling him we loved him. The day wore on, and before we knew it, we once again were laughing, telling stories, and sharing humor around the hospital bed of my father, who by then was no longer responsive. Around evening, the wives and grandchildren started showing up. We could hear the kids playing in the basement, the sound of pool balls clinking together over the background of their voices. Casseroles were again popped in the oven and warmed the house with delicious smells. Still, we all had one eye on Dad. It felt like he could be gone at any moment.

But he held on. His breathing was rhythmic and shallow but steady and unfailing. As night fell, we all went home and went to bed.

The next day, my youngest brother had to fly home. My wife went to the farm to check on everyone. A couple of work issues needed my attention, but I wrapped things up in time to see my brother off. He took a few moments to say an emotional goodbye to our dad for the last time.

Suddenly, distinctly, someone said, “Don’t go!” I looked around to see who had spoken. My brother still sat by the hospital bed, head hanging. The voice sounded again, anguished. “Don’t go!” It was my father’s voice I heard, but as I looked at him, lying lifeless but for the rapid rise and fall of his chest, I knew he couldn’t have spoken. My father had crossed into a realm where communication doesn’t happen with audible words.

Tears sprang to my eyes. Dad’s plea reminded me of a time when I was young, and my parents invited a couple for dinner. They had a little boy who was my age. He and I had so much fun playing together that when the night was over and it was time for him to go home, I cried because I didn’t want it to end. Not having experienced much life, I didn’t know I would have fun times like that again.

But Dad knew there wouldn’t be any more times. He knew he’d never again be in a room filled with family. His wife, his boys and their wives were laughing and talking, and the voices of the grandchildren were drifting up from the basement. That’s when I realized what sheer bliss the last forty-eight hours had been for my father. No wonder he hadn’t left us yet. He was in heaven on earth.

After hearing my dad’s telepathic outcry, and then saying goodbye to my youngest brother, I felt drained. I needed rest. I drove home and had just lain down to stare at the ceiling when I got the next phone call. It was my wife, who’d stayed behind at the house. “I don’t think he’s going to make it much longer,” she said. “Hurry.”

I rushed back to the farm and went again into the living room where my father lay. The window was still open, and the sounds of the windy spring night sobbed in the background as I held my dad’s hand. It was still hard and strong from many years of work, but so cool to the touch now. I told him I loved him, and he breathed his last breath. He left the heaven he knew for a heaven unknown.

That night, my father came into my dreams. He showed me the things we see when we die. Hundreds of thousands of lights floated, fell and moved. They were like snowflakes, constantly changing shapes. Each time they flickered, a pulse of love showered over me, shimmering with light, bouncing and flowing, filling my empty places. Dad said, “I thought I was going to miss you, but I don’t. Now I’m with you all the time. I’m with everyone all the time.” He told me there was no pain, no fear, and no hate. I could tell those concepts were already fading from his memory. As he left my dream, he said, “This is great!” And then I was awake, and he was gone.

The father I saw in that dream wasn’t the old man who died in the home he’d built with his own hands, the man I’d come to regard as a friend, or the man who’d lived a whole life of trials, tribulations, triumphs, and joys. It was the father I knew when I was a little boy — young, vibrant, and full of exuberance and hope for the life in front of us.

The night my father died, he gave me a gift — a little peek into what awaits us when we move on from this plane. I have a good idea of the peace he felt, surrounded by his family in the last days of his life. I can’t fully explain what he showed me or how it made me feel, but I will always remember those last simple words: “This is great!”

~J.P. McMuff

More stories from our partners