My Atheist Dad’s Deathbed Visions
The week before mom died, as she lay intubated in the ICU, we received news that my father had advanced kidney cancer with mets all over his 92 year old body. And so, after brief discussion with his doctors, the day after mom’s funeral service, he was placed on in home hospice care. Our family gently braced itself for what would come next and the unknowns about how dad would die. Because my father was very weak, but still mentally active and independent, my husband placed a mattress on the floor next to dad’s bed and slept there every night, to assist him to the bedside commode, and later to administer breathing treatments that kept him comfortable. All of us in the household would alternate lazing about on the mattress at various times, keeping dad company, the kids after school, me after work, Tim on night shift.
In the weeks before dad died, he began having visions. One saturday morning I was lounging on the mattress and reading a book when dad spoke.
Where am I?
Right here, dad, in your bedroom, with me.
I feel like I’m in a tunnel, and I’m waiting for instructions on where to go next.
I sat up in a bit of a panic. I had read about these types of near death phenomena. I read Raymond Moody in the seventies and Elizabeth Kubler Ross, too, but I really did not want to have to give my dad instructions.
Um, gee dad, can you describe anything? Is there anybody around? I was fishing to understand.
I see a staircase, right over there. He began gesturing towards the upper corner of the room, pointed toward the ceiling.
Ok, great. A staircase. Shit. Maybe this is it. He’s going to somehow ascend this invisible staircase and then my daddy’s going to be gone. I looked around for help. We were alone.
Dad, can you describe the staircase?
It’s olive green with black metal handrails.
Honestly, this was kind of a let down for me. I was thinking, silver and gold, or jewels or at least something shiny or sparkly. Olive green? Black metal? Nevermind, I told myself, it’s his staircase, not yours. I told myself that the staircase sounded, well, elegant, dad was never a fussy sort, and kept talking.
Uh, well, is there anybody around? Do you recognize anyone? You could ask for a guide you know, if you don’t know what to do.
I said this feigning confidence as if this was a customary procedure. I mean, when you go to the air port there are flight attendants, when you at a train station, you ask the conductor, if you see an invisible staircase in the corner of your room, there should be some kind of guide to go along with it. Right?
All the while I was thinking, maybe I’m the guide, maybe it’s me. Oh no, what do I do? He deserves a much better guide, or at least a dead guide, for heaven’s sake. I admit I was a bit of a mess. I looked at dad and he looked pretty calm, actually. He’s better at this dying thing than I would be, I thought.
After a few minutes of appearing as if he was in a daze of sorts, or a waking dream, really, Daddy solidly came back to me. But this experience began a string of conversations between us. Opened the door to a crash course in spiritual beliefs, and it felt urgent to me. When I asked dad what do you think happens when you die, his answer without much hesitation was nothing. Wanting to remain neutral and supportive, I asked him, how does that make you feel right now? His answer: That every moment counts.
He didn’t appear fearful or in distress of any kind. Scientific to the end. Except for these pesky visions, you know. Over the next days, he would see his father every time he closed his eyes, standing “crisp and clear, like on a cold winter’s day.” One day he saw trees in the room, 40 feet high, with tall buildings beside them. Look at all the life forms up and down the trees, he said to me. Another day it was a garden, Where did all these flowers come from? he inquired, gesturing towards nothing. Once he saw people in many costumes of different countries, dancing, and celebrating. I told him they were celebrating his life. And then there was the time I looked up and dad’s face was beaming as he held his hands up in front of his face, as if framing an image: Look, he cried with delight – right here in front of me – it’s Times Square! He laughed softly with happiness.
My father had visions like these fairly frequently, and he would describe them to me as they occurred. It was an odd experience, listening to him and watching him, like he had one foot in the spiritual realm, and one foot in the bedroom, with me. He was translating, if you will, what he saw. I’d like to mention that these were all drug free experiences. And as I said, they opened the door to many a discussion on a variety of end of life and afterlife belief systems, which I think was a comfort to us both in the end.