The Afterlife of Billy Fingers
How My Bad-Boy Brother Proved to Me There's Life After Death
By Annie Kagan
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc. Copyright © 2013 Annie Kagan
All rights reserved.
The First Thing That Happens
The Miami Dade Police left a message on my answering machine at nine in the morning. "If you know William Cohen, please contact Sergeant Diaz at 305 ..."
Oh no! Billy must have been arrested. Not prison. Not again. Not this late in his life.
It still made me queasy to think about the time my brother was arrested almost thirty years ago; the thud of the gavel, the words "twenty-five years to life," my mother crying in my arms, begging the judge to change his mind. The day I watched the police handcuff Billy and drag him off to Sing Sing for selling cocaine was probably the worst day of my life.
I was shaking when I punched in the phone number of the Miami Police.
"This is William Cohen's sister. Has he been arrested?"
"No," Sergeant Diaz said in a soft voice. "He was hit by a car at two-thirty this morning. I'm sorry. Your brother is dead."
My heart went cold. Dead? My head spun. I was dizzy. I reached for a chair and sat down.
"William was coming from the emergency room at South Miami Hospital. He was drunk and ran out onto the highway," the sergeant reported.
"Were you there?" I asked.
"Yes, ma'am. I was called to the accident scene."
"Was Billy injured?" Injured? What am I thinking? He'd been run over by a car! "I mean, was he taken to the hospital?"
"No, ma'am. Your brother never knew what hit him. Died instantly. Didn't suffer at all."
Died instantly? Didn't suffer? How on earth could he know that? The sergeant was trying to cushion the blow, but it wasn't working.
"William was wearing a hospital ID bracelet. We got your name and phone number from their records."
So that's how they found me! Billy always wrote me in as his "in case of emergency" person.
Sergeant Diaz cleared his throat. "Listen, ma'am, you don't have to identify the body. The bracelet is good enough. Better to remember him as you do now."
Better to remember him as you do now? Oh my God!
The sergeant must have heard me start to cry, because the next thing he said was, "It's kind of against regulations, but if you give me your address I'll send you the things your brother had on him."
Since I didn't have to view Billy's post-accident body, there was no reason to fly from New York to Miami. By the time my sixty-two-year-old brother died, he was homeless, so everything he owned was in his pockets. My brother had left things neat and tidy for me—not like when he was alive. What I had worried about for years had now happened. Billy was dead.
I called Billy's drug counselor at South Miami Hospital. Eddie's voice was edgy.
"Billy showed up at the ER last night, high and coughing up blood. He wanted to be admitted to the hospital so when the nurse told him he'd have to go to the detox unit instead, he got belligerent, picked up a chair, and threatened her. She called the cops, Billy ran out, and, you know the rest. Your brother just didn't trust his Higher Power. I'm really disappointed in him."
Disappointed? Billy was dead. And Eddie was disappointed? I hung up on him and threw the phone across the room to get his words as far away from me as I could.
Oh God, Billy is dead! My body ached so much I felt like I was the one who'd been run over. I got into bed with my clothes still on and pulled the covers over my head. Then I remembered the incredibly strange thing I'd done the day before.
Although we hadn't spoken in months, for the last week I'd been thinking obsessively about Billy. This was unusual because trying not to think about Billy was a survival tactic I began practicing in fourth grade. As a little girl, I adored my big brother, but I was always afraid something terrible was going to happen to him. Billy was constantly in trouble. I didn't really know what "trouble" meant, but when the trouble got bad, he would be sent away to some mysterious place. And when the trouble got really bad, my parents didn't even know where to find him.
In fourth grade my parents explained that the trouble Billy was in was something called "heroin addiction." To distance myself from my anxiety, I began practicing the art of cold-heartedness.
All these years later, the week before he died, no matter how cold-hearted I tried to be, I couldn't stop thinking about Billy. Living alone in a small, secluded house on the Long Island shore and working at home didn't help. I tried to distract myself from my angst by keeping to my routine—up by six, feed the cats, meditate, walk by the bay, make lunch, go to work in my music studio writing songs.
Sitting at my electric keyboard, all I could think about was Billy. I wanted to phone him, hear his voice, tell him I loved him, help him in some way. But I didn't know how to reach him. Part of me was afraid to reach him. I was sure he was in bad shape.
The day before Billy died, a bitterly cold January morning, I layered on two sweaters, a down jacket, and two wool hats and ventured into the raw air. I walked across the frozen brown leaves, through the bare winter woods, and climbed down the wooden staircase that led to the bay. I never ask God for favors, but that morning I looked up at the silvery sky, raised my arms, and imagined pushing Billy into the hands of the great Divine. "Take care of him for me," I whispered.
Hours later, Billy was dead.
The next few days I stayed in bed, unable to do anything but drink tea. They say there are different stages of grief—shock, guilt, anger, depression. But all those feelings collided and came crashing in on me at once.
My friend Tex stopped by to see how I was doing. "It's weird," I told her. "It's not like I'm sad, exactly. I feel like a voodoo doll with pins stuck in me everywhere."
I had given Tex her flashy nickname because she was five-foot-eleven, dark-haired, angular, and partial to cowboy boots. Even though she looked tough, she was kind and always thought about what she said before she said it.
"Oh, honey," Tex said, taking my hand, "That's grief." Tex would know. She lost her older brother, Pat, in a plane crash when she was just a teenager.
Three days after Billy's death a monster storm moved through Long Island. I pushed the foot of my bed up against the window and watched the blizzard tear up the world outside. Billy loved wild, turbulent weather, and as the storm obscured everything, I felt a kind of satisfaction. The snow was "whiting out" my world, just as death had "whited out" Billy's. I've always believed something exists beyond death, but what that something was, I had no idea. As the wind screamed through my windows, I was sure it was Billy's spirit, making his usual racket, knocking around the sky, trying to find his way.
The storm passed and the winds subsided. I spent my days mostly in bed, crying. The rest of the time I was swallowing Valium until I was a walking zombie. My long, dark, wavy hair was lank and uncombed, my eyes puffed into slits, my skin haggard. I didn't look forty-something anymore, I looked a hundred—and that was okay with me, because every time I saw myself in the mirror the verdict was always the same: guilty.
Over the last few years I had done everything I could to help Billy: hospitals, rehabs, psychiatrists, methadone clinics. Nothing worked. His struggle became a black hole that sucked me into his chaos. I came down with a different ailment every other week and saw one doctor after another. Finally, I pleaded with him, "I can't take this anymore! Please stop calling me!" But he didn't. He couldn't. Then, instead of talking, we were mostly crying and screaming at each other. One day he did stop calling. And now he was gone.
Three weeks of post-death misery and self recrimination later, it was my birthday. Just before sunrise, as I was waking up, I heard someone calling my name from above me.
Annie! Annie! It's me! It's me! It's Billy!
It was Billy's unmistakable deep, mellow voice. I was startled, but not at all afraid. In fact, I felt comforted.
"Billy?" I said, half asleep. "You can't be here. You're dead. I must be dreaming."
You're not dreaming. It's me! Get up and get the red notebook.
Suddenly, I was very much awake. I'd completely forgotten about the red leather notebook Billy had sent me last year for my birthday. I was touched that he had made the effort to send me a gift even though he was becoming overwhelmed by his addictions.
I jumped out of bed and found the red notebook on a shelf in my bedroom closet. The pages were blank, except for an inscription written on the first page.
Everyone needs a book dedicated to them.
Read between the lines.
What a strange thing for Billy to have written! Read between the lines? I ran my fingers over the familiar handwriting. Then I heard him again.
It's really me, Annie. And I'm okay, it's okay because ... I grabbed a pen and wrote what he was saying in the red notebook.
The first thing that happens is bliss; at least it was like that in my case. I don't know if it's that way for everyone who dies. As the car hit me, this energy came and sucked me right out of my body into a higher realm. I say "higher" since I had the feeling of rising up and suddenly all my pain was gone.
I don't remember hovering over my body or looking down on it or anything like that. I guess I was pretty anxious to get out of there. I knew right away I was dead, and went with it, more than ready for whatever was waiting.
I wasn't aware of traveling at any particular speed. I just felt light and unburdened as the sucking motion drew me up inside a chamber of thick silvery blue lights. People who have near-death experiences sometimes say they went through a tunnel. I'm using the word "chamber" because a tunnel has sides, but no matter what direction I looked, there was nothing but light for as far as I could see. Maybe the difference is I had a one-way ticket and theirs was a round-trip.
And even though I didn't have my body anymore, it felt like I did and that it was being healed. The lights in the chamber penetrated me and made me feel better and better as they pulled me up. It wasn't just the wounds from my car accident that were being healed. In the first nanosecond that the lights touched me, they erased any harm I suffered during my lifetime: physical, mental, emotional, or otherwise.
Soon, Daddy appeared right there beside me, young and smiling and handsome as ever. He was making jokes and asking, "What took you so long?" It was so great, seeing Daddy, but I'm guessing he was there to be a familiar landmark in foreign territory. I'm saying that because he was only with me for part of the ride and Daddy definitely wasn't the main event.
The main event was the silvery lights and their party atmosphere. Those healing lights had a festive feeling, like they were cheering me on, saying, "Welcome home, Son."
I can't say how long I was floating up the healing chamber, because I no longer have a sense of time. But I can say that chamber was some kind of cosmic birthing canal that delivered me into this new life.
I want you to know, darling, there's nothing hard or cruel for me anymore. I glided from the chamber right out into the glorious Universe. I'm drifting weightlessly through space with these gorgeous stars and moons and galaxies twinkling all around me. The whole atmosphere is filled with a soothing hum, like hundreds of thousands of voices are singing to me, but they're so far away I can just barely hear them.
And although I can't exactly say anyone was here to greet me, as soon as I came out of the chamber I felt a Divine Presence; a kind, loving, beneficent presence, and really, that was enough.
In addition to the Divine Presence I also feel beings around me—Higher Beings, I guess you would call them. I can't explain why I'm using the word "beings," and not the singular; I just know there's more than one. I can't see or hear them, but I can feel them moving about, swooshing by, doing different things that concern yours truly. And although I haven't got a clue what these things might be, I'm guessing that floating out here in space is euphoric instead of terrifying because I'm being attended to by this celestial crew.
I'm looking down on the earth, and it is down. It's like there's a hole in the sky, a hole between our two worlds, I can look through and see you. I know how sad you are about my death. Sad is too small a word. Bereft is more like it. But death isn't as serious as you think it is, honey. So far, it's very enjoyable. Couldn't be better, really. Try not to take death too seriously. As a matter of fact, try not to take life too seriously. You'd enjoy yourself a lot more. That's one of the secrets of life. You want to know another secret? Saying goodbye isn't as serious as it seems either, because we will meet again.
As suddenly as it came, Billy's voice dissolved. I was sitting on my bed, the red notebook resting against my knees, its first pages filled with Billy's words in my handwriting. Had I just imagined his voice? Maybe. But where did these words come from? They definitely weren't mine.
Inside the front cover of the notebook I found a card my brother had sent along with it—a cartoon of a big orange tomcat hugging a girly little purple kitten. The card's message was uncanny. Are you real or am I dreaming you?
Was I having some weird dream-like grief reaction? How could I know? I couldn't, and at that moment I didn't really care. For the first time since Billy's death I felt happy ... more than happy. Billy was okay. And as he described floating blissfully through the stars, the atmosphere of his world had somehow flowed into mine. I was almost euphoric.
And all of a sudden I was hungry. I got out of bed, went to the kitchen, and made a pot of tea. As I sat at the table gorging myself on biscuits and marmalade, I opened a magazine. Staring at me was an ad for White Cloud bathroom tissue. It featured a cloud with a piece cut out that made it look like a hole in the sky. Hadn't Billy just said he saw me through a hole in the sky? I got chills. Maybe the ad was some kind of sign.
"That's ridiculous," I told myself. "I really am going a little mad." But some part of me wondered if there really might be a connection.
Are you real or am I dreaming you?
Everything was so strange but it all fit together— Billy's appearance, the forgotten red notebook, its inscription, the card's message, the picture of a hole in the sky. And before I heard from Billy, I was so depressed I could barely raise my head off the pillow. Now, I felt completely serene.
Had Billy appeared just this one time to let me know he was okay? Was that the end of it? I hoped not. If he visited a second time, I would be ready. I would be objective and alert so I could figure out if he was real. I decided to lure him back by keeping the red notebook and a pen with me all the time.
I decided not to tell anyone about Billy. Ten years ago, when I was taught how to meditate on the light within, my teacher instructed me to keep my spiritual experiences to myself; otherwise, I might lose them. Hearing from Billy in the afterlife was a spiritual experience, wasn't it? If this was real, it wasn't something I wanted to risk losing.
Five days after my birthday, as the sunrise cast my white bedroom into shades of rosy pink, I heard Billy's voice again. Blurry-eyed, I reached under my pillow for the red notebook, propped my head up, and started scribbling.
Hey, Princess. Good morning.
When Billy was alive, his calling me "Princess" was never a compliment. From the beginning, my life seemed charmed compared to his, and he held that against me. Billy was a "problem child"—and I was a "little angel." I sang and danced in school plays— he tried to sing in a band but couldn't carry a tune. Billy flunked out of high school—I was a straight-A student. The better I did, the worse he looked, and felt. Feeling guilty, I tried to win his affection, but that was something I couldn't succeed at.
Was Billy now using the nickname "Princess" because he was still holding a grudge? It didn't seem like it. The light that came along with his voice filled me with love. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Afterlife of Billy Fingers by Annie Kagan. Copyright © 2013 Annie Kagan. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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