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A Visit from a Red-Haired Stranger
"Da is going to the sky!"
— Jushua Sylvan Brandon
My father-in-law was sick, and the prognosis was not good. Life had been rotating around his illness for a number of months, and I was way behind on my household chores, including grocery shopping. Living on an island off the Texas coast, pickings are slim for a vegetarian palate. Every few months, I trek to the mainland for what my children call "Momma's weird food."
After one such trip taken during a long afternoon in stagnant, ninety-degree conditions, my traveling companion—my three-year-old son, Joshua—was exhausted, hot and hungry. Too tired to nap and boosted by the return to the car's air conditioning, he began demanding a breast for comfort.
While navigating the steering wheel with one hand, I reached back and patted Josh on one of his plump little legs. I knew he was becoming very tired because he was rubbing his eyes. "Honey, Momma can't nurse you right now."
"I can't go to sleep without it, Momma. You come back here so I can have some," he cried.
Knowing I was in for a battle, I decided to try logic. "Well, honey, if I come to the backseat with you, who will drive the car?"
My young son looked at me as if I were just dumber than dirt. "Let Damus drive! He can drive!" Checking my rearview mirror to make sure I didn't have another passenger with me, I asked, "Josh, who is Damus?"
With exasperation and a yawn, Josh replied, "Damus is right here, Momma. Now let him drive the car!"
No longer in a mood to argue, I said, "Damus can't drive." There! I thought. That should settle this! It didn't.
Looking stunned, Josh replied, "How do you know?"
The next day, Josh and I were again on the go. While I was driving—enjoying the scenery and the breeze that had come up—I suddenly remembered Damus. I decided to ask Joshua a few questions about his friend. Josh was busy looking at a new dinosaur toy with huge teeth, some vicious-looking creature his father had recently bought him. I asked, "Honey, who is Damus?"
With a growl he replied, "Oh, he's just some kid from the sky. A kid with red hair."
A kid from the sky! With red hair? I silently moaned. Then I thought, Where have I gone wrong! I'm a qualified mental-health provider! Why does my child need an imaginary friend? The stress of his grandfather's illness had been overwhelming, but I try to give Josh lots of hugs, attention and love. He goes to the office with me and is not neglected. And he's three years old, and I'm still breast-feeding. This is just too much! I was beside myself with another one of my "rotten mother" panic attacks. Once I calmed down, I decided I needed to know more about this Damus character.
"Sweetie, how long has Damus been around?" I asked, keeping one eye on the rearview mirror and another on the beachfront street.
"Oh, Damus just got here a few days ago," answered my son as he attacked the backseat with his fanged creature.
"Damus just got here?" I asked. "Is he a friend of yours?" Still growling away, Josh said, "No, Mom! He just got here! He came here for Da!" "Da" was what the boys called their very ill grandfather, who was in the hospital looking very gray around the gills.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I suddenly felt very chilled and overwhelmed. I pulled the car on to the beach, turned off the engine, faced my son and asked, "Joshie, is Damus here right now?"
His green eyes were already taking in the beach. "Momma, can I go play in the water? Hey! Let's build a sand castle! Maybe we will see those jelly things on the beach!"
Once again, I asked, "Honey, is Damus here?"
"No, Mom. He isn't here right now. He only comes when he wants to!" my little boy replied with much irritation. He then started to crawl out of his supposedly childproof car seat. Obviously, Damus wasn't as important to him as was seeing if any jellyfish had floated to the shore.
After playing in the ocean and running our errands, we were off again. Once in the car, I asked Josh if Damus was back. He looked to the seat beside him, smiled and said, "Yes."
I couldn't see a thing, so I asked, "What does Damus look like, honey?" Returning his gaze to the seat next to him, Josh answered, "Mom, he looks just like a big kid." With this, he picked up his dinosaur toy and returned to his play.
Damus was with us for the rest of November while Pop's condition continued to deteriorate. Every once in a while, Josh would announce that Damus was back and all of us—myself, my husband Michael and my older son Aaron—would turn to catch a glimpse of this elusive creature. None of us ever saw Damus, which was very confusing to Joshua.
On Thanksgiving Day my father-in-law was out of the hospital, and he and my mother-in-law joined us for a somewhat traditional holiday feast. Michael had cooked a turkey, upside down, and I had made a tofu pumpkin pie. In spite of our cooking, everyone had a great time. Michael and I shared family gossip with my in-laws, while the boys wrestled under the table with the dog. Pop was looking better than he had in weeks. We were all very hopeful.
The day after Thanksgiving, Pop was hit by a huge stroke that completely paralyzed him. After this, he was no longer able to eat or talk. We also were never really sure if he understood what we were saying. The kids were absolutely devastated, especially my older son, who worshipped his six-foot-tall, bigger-than-life, war-hero grandfather. Our family was camped out at the hospital at least twelve hours a day, with different members taking shifts. More relatives flew to the island as doctors and nurses poked and prodded Pop. Being in the hospital before this major stroke had been very difficult for my father-in-law. For years he was an eye surgeon, a Frenchman who was used to giving orders and being in control. To see him laying helpless in a hospital bed was heartbreaking.
December crept into our lives. It was the season of Hanukkah, a favorite time of the year for Jewish children. With potato pancakes, singing and merrymaking, Hanukkah was a time to celebrate with friends and relatives. Sadly, the season was difficult that year. Pop was dying and we all knew it. The only question was when. My sister Lila had flown from California to be with us, and she distracted my children with her eccentric aunt shenanigans. Having her with us was a blessing. She had been a hospice nurse and knew firsthand about the dying process. Michael and I were spending more and more days at the hospital, at the same time trying to keep everything as normal as possible at home for our sons. In spite of Pop's condition, we wanted them to have their eight nights of Hanukkah. Their Da would have wanted this for them, too.
One evening, we were hosting our annual Hanukkah dinner. The house was full of loving friends. Michael and I were bursting into tears every five minutes, while our wonderful friends took turns holding us and providing words of comfort. The stress was incredible and definitely starting to take its toll. Everybody pitched in, and we were able to make the party happen. After the Hanukkah candles were lit, the latkes devoured and the wrappings of the presents scattered across the floor, my oldest son asked, "What will happen to Da when he dies?"
Our family had always been very open about death, and both of my young sons were full of questions, as usual. Josh reminded us all that Damus would take Da to the sky, but my oldest boy wasn't quite comfortable with this idea. As a card-carrying member of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, I was able to share with my children vivid tales of people who were close to death, yet who returned to life with visions of heavenly landscapes. Because of my role as a licensed marriage and family therapist, I had worked not only with the grieving, but also the dying. With this wealth of experience, I was able to speak about the many stories I had heard from clients who had been at death's door.
Stories of encounters with angels and loved ones who had already passed on were common in my office. An acquaintance of mine, Dr. Raymond Moody, had written a number of bestselling books on this topic, a phenomena he called the near-death experience (NDE). I passed his works on to my mother-in-law and my oldest son. Then I decided to share with my family an experience I had with my own mother when she was passing.
When I was sixteen, my beloved mother died a terrible death. When she was just thirty-three, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Back then, treatment for this disease was hit-and-miss at best. By the time her thirty-eighth birthday rolled around, she was on her deathbed. At five in the morning, moments before her passing, I awoke from a deep sleep and knew intuitively that my mother was dying in the hospital. A chill ran down my spine as I arose, put on my fuzzy pink bathrobe and slippers and then went downstairs to sit by the phone. Alone in the early dawn, I could feel the sadness penetrating every cell of my being. As the sun came up over the backyard orchard of fruit trees, the tears began to slowly slide down my cheeks. My beautiful, vivacious mother was gone and I knew it. About fifteen minutes later, a dear friend of hers called our home to tell me she had died. When he shared this news with me, I quietly replied, "Yes, I already know."
At this same time, two very good family friends were also getting out of their beds and slipping into bathrobes. They too had suddenly awakened at 5:00 a.m., miles away from the hospital in separate locations. As their eyes opened, they also knew my mother was departing this world and making her way to the next. At exactly the same moment, all three of us had known and felt that my mother was leaving us to begin her journey through the veil of the unknown. Just before my mother passed, a part of her had reached out to touch all three of us. She gave us all one final good-bye hug before she had to go.
Researchers call what I had experienced a deathbed vision. As I shared this vision with my family, their expressions turned to wonder. I was confronted with a multitude of questions about life after death. I shared that my experience with my mother's death had proved to me that something—some part of us—survives after the physical body dies. I continued to explain that a deathbed vision, or DBV, is a paranormal experience or otherworldly vision that takes place—moments, minutes, days, weeks or months before the actual death—for either the one who is passing or for that person's survivors.
After sharing this information with my loving crew, my husband pulled me aside and asked, "Do you think Damus has provided a deathbed vision for Josh?" Startled by Michael's revelation, I replied, "I don't know, but now that I think of it, you just might be on to something. Damus didn't show up until Pop was really sick, and Josh said Damus was here to take Da away."
That evening, Michael decided he needed some time alone with his father. I had just put the kids to bed when Michael announced he was going to spend the night with Pop in the hospital. I had tears in my eyes as I nodded silently and gave my husband a hug. Then I packed up some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and sent them and my husband to Pop's deathbed. The next morning, my tired husband returned home looking ragged, yet at peace. The boys were upstairs watching some new video on snakes, so Michael and I sat down in the kitchen for a private talk.
"You won't believe what happened last night," Michael said with a look of amazement in his eyes. "I feel kind of funny telling you about this," he added.
Totally confused, I asked, "Is Pop dead?"
"Oh no. It's nothing like that," he answered. "Last night, at about four in the morning, I had the weirdest experience." My husband is not one to share openly at the drop of a hat, and watching him begin his tale I knew I needed to remain quiet and listen. "It was about four in the morning," he repeated, "and I was sleeping in the big, overstuffed chair next to Pop's bed. I awoke to see this swirl of pastel color rising from Pop's chest. He looked so peaceful as this light swirl of . . . I don't know what . . . continued to rise. He is going to die soon, isn't he?" Michael asked as the tears rolled down his cheeks.
"Yes," I replied.
Later on that day, I talked to my cousin Yvonne. Yvonne had also had a strange experience at the moment of her mother's passing. "The paramedics had arrived, but Dad and I knew they were too late. I sat there with my mother as she died and watched this gray wisp of vapor leave her body. As it disappeared, I knew Mother was gone."
After sharing Michael's experience with her, she said, "Yeah, sounds like the real deal. Call me if you need help with the kids when Uncle Sava [Pop] passes."
It was Friday the thirteenth. We had decided to take a break from the hospital and round up the boys for a family-night service at our temple. We belong to a great Jewish community where the rabbi is called "Jimmy" and children are allowed to run wild through the temple halls when they need to burn off energy. Once a month, many of the families in the congregation bring food for a big family meal after services. Rabbi Jimmy is a wonderful, down-to-earth guy who loves not only telling stories with a message but also hearing about the mystical experiences of others. He has also experienced a bit of the "weird" in his role as a rabbi. I have always felt comfortable asking him questions that seem strange or unusual for normal conversation.
After we had eaten, I pulled Jimmy aside and asked him if he had ever heard the term "Damus." This was all I shared with him. He suddenly took out his pen and started writing in Aramaic and then Hebrew. After pondering over his writings for a moment, he looked up and said, "Sure, Damus or Damas, depending on the spelling, translates to +messenger of death.' According to our tradition, the messenger of death or angel of death is a positive being who assists the dying. Where did you hear this term? It isn't that common."
I was speechless! I didn't know what to say. My young son had been receiving deathbed visions. Suddenly, I started to cry. Rabbi Jimmy found my response somewhat alarming and asked "What's up?" While blowing my nose I shared with him about our strange visitor.
His only response was "Wow!"
Earlier that day, we had moved Pop from the hospital back to his room at a local elder-care facility. Both Michael and I believed he knew his time was near. Even though he could not talk, we had always known he was adamant about not dying in a hospital. Once back in his own room, with his familiar blankets, comforter and pillows, Pop seemed to relax. Michael had put a map of the world on the wall next to his bed. When I asked him why he had done this, with tears in his eyes Michael said, "I thought after he passes and leaves his body, he could use the map to help him visit those places he so loved. You know, he just loves to travel and has never gone anywhere without at least a dozen maps." That evening, Michael had also opened his window. When I asked him about this action, he replied, "Something told me to do it. I know this sounds strange, but it was like a nagging internal thought. It drove me nuts, so I finally gave in and pushed the window wide open." Then knowingly he added, "I bet when Pop leaves, he will go through the window."
After my visit with Rabbi Jimmy, I had planned on making the nightly trip to Pop's bedside and had even hired a baby-sitter for the evening. In spite of my well-thought-out plan, I was beat. Feeling absolutely drained, I decided to put off my visit and take some much-needed quiet time for my own soul. The kids were upstairs with Laura, the baby-sitter, and Michael had left for his father's room. I was flipping through television channels, looking for something to numb my emotions. I was definitely on overload. Finally I found an old Mel Brooks movie. Stretching out on the couch, I wrapped myself in my grandmother's bright blue afghan. One of my orange tabby cats had just jumped up on the couch and was making himself a bed on my chest when the phone rang. It was Michael.
"He died in my arms, Carla. He waited until the ten o'clock news was over and then he left."
My father-in-law's room was a stone's throw away from our house, so I just replied, "I love you. I'll be there in five minutes."
Pop had been a control freak with a dark sense of humor, and his death experience had been totally and completely his. As I moved the cat and stood up, I just had to chuckle. He had waited for Hanukkah to pass because he knew how important the holiday was for his grandsons. Just to get at us all, he had chosen Friday the thirteenth to make his exit. Such a trickster, I mused as I folded the afghan, preparing to leave for Pop's place. Being a lover of the evening news, he had waited until the ten o'clock broadcast was over before taking flight. For a moment, I felt his presence and sighed, "You really are something. I hope your transition to the other side was a good one." Then I burst out laughing and thought, I bet it was quite a surprise. You sure were fooled! Pop had always been a die-hard atheist.
Later on that evening, after the family had invaded Pop's room and our friendly mortician, David, had taken Pop's body away, I returned to my house full of sleeping children and animals. Michael was helping his mother back to bed, and I knew I needed to tell my oldest son his grandfather had finally died. As I crept into his room, I tripped over a football and then a tennis racket. After landing on his bed with a "thunk" I heard, "Mom? Is that you?" As Aaron rubbed the sleep from his eyes he asked, "What is it? Is it Da?"
Embracing him close to me I smoothed his tousled hair and said, "Yes, honey. Da left."
As the tears began to spill, my son then held on to me tightly. He sobbed his heart out for a good thirty minutes. After he cried all he could, I told him, "I love you." After that we just sat in silence.
The next morning, my three-year-old woke me up at the crack of dawn. As he pried my eyes open with his little chubby fingers, I thought to myself, Oh, I still have to tell Josh about Pop. Half-awake, I pulled myself out from under the warmth of my favorite afghan and said, "Sweetie, Da died last night." With this he climbed on to my bed and snuggled close to me. "How do you feel about that?"
He replied, "Sad." Then the tears came. Eventually, Michael and Aaron wandered into the bedroom and before long, the four of us were in the bed, sharing our sorrow.
All of us grieved Pop's passing in our own way. We cried and talked about our feelings as they came up. Both Josh and Aaron had a lot of questions about death and we discussed them, time and time again, with honesty and care. Each of us participated in the funeral. When it was time to lay Pop's headstone on his grave, we took matters into our own hands. With Aaron rallying the troops to the cause, we laid the stone ourselves as a family. We dug the dirt, mixed the cement and then Michael, Aaron, Josh and I set the two-hundred-pound stone into the ground. As we did so, all of us had an overwhelming sensation that Pop was watching, laughing away and wondering what on earth had possessed us to do what we were doing. After cleaning the dirt off the stone and ourselves, we sat around the cemetery and told stories, stories about our Da who had gone to the sky with Damus, who never visited us again.
(c)2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted from One Last Hug Before I Go by Carla Wills-Brandon. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.