9: Otherworldly Answers

9: Otherworldly Answers

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Messages from Heaven

Otherworldly Answers

When you open your mind to the impossible, sometimes you find the truth.

~From the television show Fringe

How does God, or Spirit or Jehovah or Krishna, depending on our personal belief system, decide when it’s time for us to learn another lesson about life? Is it when we become too complacent, too sure we have all the answers? Answers not just to our own life’s questions, but also to those of our family and friends?

The sign outside the large, old Victorian house read “Psychic Science Spiritualist Church.” I had promised myself for years that someday I’d check it out. But if it hadn’t been January, with little to look forward to until spring, if my friend Susanne hadn’t been looking for diversion to take her mind off a failed romance, if I hadn’t run into a couple at a Christmas party who had declared it fascinating, I probably wouldn’t have been sitting in a wooden pew in the old house one Thursday evening.

The room was suggestive of the good parlor in grandmother’s house, smelling not unpleasantly of furniture polish and old plaster dust. It had beamed ceilings and was lined with windows. Potted plants and ceramic figures of angels decorated the wide windowsills. A raised stage with a small piano, a lectern and several chairs took up one corner, and the empty fireplace under an ornate mantle attested to the house’s domestic past. The entire house had that surface shabbiness generally indicative of limited resources, and there was definitely nothing otherworldly about it.

A dozen or so ordinary-looking people were scattered throughout the rows of pews. I glanced at one of the pamphlets I’d grabbed on the way in. “Serving the Indianapolis Community since 1923.” I tried to dredge up any information I could remember about the Spiritualist movement, but pictured only séances and floating tables.

One of the pamphlets listed the nine principles of Spiritualism that had been established by the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. That information lent an aura of legitimacy to the group that I hadn’t expected. The second surprise was that most of the principles sounded so normal, so similar to many slightly liberal Christian denominations. Excepting the one about spirits continuing to communicate with the living.

We sang several songs from the Spiritualist Hymnal, which looked a lot like the Methodist Hymnal of my youth. The realization that the Spiritualists had their own hymnal reminded me that this little group was part of a larger entity, a network that had been in existence for over a hundred years. Maybe not exactly flourishing, but still around.

The speaker, Bob Bianchi, led another Spiritualist church in Illinois. His talk, a pep talk for living our convictions, could have been given to many traditional church groups. Entertaining but hardly unique.

When he finished, his wife Sharon took the stage and started giving short readings to random members of the congregation, mentioning the name of a departed spirit as the source for each one. The messages sounded like the generic daily horoscopes in our local newspaper, and I could only concentrate for so long before my thoughts drifted to my own family problems.

My father, in his late eighties, needed round-the-clock care, and had recently entered a nursing home in his small Indiana town. He was not adjusting well, refusing all food and insisting that he was ready to die. But I couldn’t just let him starve himself to death when he might live another few years with professional caretaking. He had a living will and a DNR order, but I knew that, as his healthcare proxy, I could override these documents. At a meeting with the doctor and nursing home administrator scheduled for the following day, I planned to ask for whatever it took to keep my father alive. Surely in time he would adjust to nursing home living.

As I was mulling over this problem, an image of an old photograph flashed through my mind — a photo of my maternal grandfather, William Franger, holding my three-year-old self in one arm and stroking the muzzle of a horse with the other. A rascal when he was younger, according to local legend, he’d been a bootlegger of regional renown back in the Prohibition era. Family history still includes tales about the prominent customers who drove down from Chicago to buy his “hooch.” By the time I was born, though, he had become a prominent businessman whose opinion was respected in the community. He died when I was four years old and my memory of him is fuzzy, relying on old photos and stories more than actual recollection. But I’ve been told he called me his sweetheart child. Indeed, I’m sure I can remember sitting beside him on the porch swing while he sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” just for me.

Now, in the hushed atmosphere of this religious organization, I realized I’d only ever heard him referred to as “Dad” or “Grandpa,” never by his given name. Had he been called William, I wondered, or was he called Bill? I felt a wave of sadness, not only for my father’s situation, but also for all the time with my grandfather I had missed and the wisdom he could have shared.

My thoughts were interrupted at this point when Bob, the speaker, took over the readings. He was giving a message to a man behind me when he stopped.

“I’m sorry, I’ll get right back to you. First, I have someone here who needs to talk to. . . you.” He looked directly at me. “His name is Bill, and he says to tell you they call him Bill, not William.” He paused, seemed to listen, then repeated, “Bill, not William. And he says to tell you, about that problem, the right decision has already been made.”

I was stunned. It was unfathomable that Bob, or as he would have insisted, a spirit named Bill, was aware of my silent question and had given me a direct answer. My belief system was rocked. And I knew, in that moment, that I had no right to decide life or death for my father. As painful as it was, I had to let his decision stand.

My father died two weeks later from a case of pneumonia that his body was too weak to fight off. He seemed at peace at the end.

Spiritualism did not alter my belief system. I can’t say I truly believe that an individual’s existence and personal identity continues after death or that communication with the so-called dead is a fact. I do, however, now admit its possibility.

~Sheila Sowder

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