Editor’s Note: Our culture doesn’t offer much guidance on how to die well. Sometimes even our churches don't know how to handle this topic. In her book, Glimpses of Heaven: True Stories of Hope & Peace at the End of Life’s Journey, former hospice nurse Trudy Harris shares her encounters with the many brave yet ordinary people that she’s cared for over the past 32 years. Harris collected these stories from those nearing the end of life's journey to offer comfort to those who have experienced loss as well as to share profound insights on the spiritual realm that only those getting ready to pass into heaven can offer. Having observed God's tender care for those He calls home firsthand, she notes, “Those who have allowed themselves the luxury of being present with patients as they are dying come away realizing in a whole new way that there is only one Divine Physician, and it is He alone who sets the timetables of our lives.” Mary Anne’s story is reprinted here.
Mary Anne, a wealthy investment broker, married with no children, came to my door one day. She lived in a world of social activity, wealth, and country clubs, a world that was very different from mine. “I understand your father died recently,” she stated as she pushed past me and seated herself in my family room early one morning. “I didn’t know what to bring you,” she said, handing me a brass door knocker wrapped in tissue paper. “So I got you this.” Nothing sat well with me that day in regard to Mary Anne. I didn’t understand the gift at all and did not want to, and only later did I realize the symbolism involved with the “knock at the door.”
I have to confess: I didn’t like Mary Anne very much. She was a strong, outspoken businesswoman, and I was sure we had nothing in common. Why was she here?
“I’d like to hear about your dad’s death,” she said. “How it was, what he said, how he died. I want to know all about it.”
Her prodding questions made me both uncomfortable and angry. In spite of my feelings, I somehow knew deep inside myself that this was the beginning of something that I did not yet understand, something I was to experience and from which I was to learn. What the lesson was to be, I had no idea. It seemed that God’s plan for Mary Anne and for the things to come was just unfolding. Needless to say, over a period of time and out of my control, we became very good friends. God taught each of us what He wanted us to know through the other.
She came to visit often, always asking questions about life and its meaning and purpose. She asked about God and about Jesus. “Where is it written? How do you know, how do you find Him?” Mary Anne had an unquenchable thirst and could barely get the questions out fast enough. She needed to learn about many things, and she seemed to be in a hurry.
During a visit one day she told me that she had inoperable cancer, which had been diagnosed just days before my dad died. She wanted to be close to someone who had experienced death firsthand, and she wanted to know everything she could about what happened and why. It was the businesswoman in her that made Mary Anne want to have a plan and to understand as much as she possibly could. It was God’s invisible hand putting her together with those who would walk this way with her, experience her struggle, learn from her, and be there for her when she found Him. It was awesome and humbling to be part of it.
Mary Anne’s diagnosis was deadly. Her cancer, first discovered in the breast, had spread rapidly to both lungs and the lining of her chest wall. Her prognosis was three to four months. She lived for two and a half years. What exciting, searching, joyful, and difficult years they were! It was more than evident to me from the start that God loved Mary Anne dearly and wanted her to know Him well. Thus began her long and wonderful journey. Visiting her was like being in a church sanctuary. You wanted to take your shoes off because you felt as though you were on holy ground. The presence of grace was always evident as Mary Anne journeyed toward God, experiencing Him in many, many ways.
My prayer for Mary Anne over this long period of time had been, “Lord, put Your arms around her, hold her in Your tender, loving care, and help her to know she is safe with You.” One day while I was visiting, Mary Anne explained the first of many spiritual experiences she would eventually have. “I was not asleep,” she said to me very pointedly. “I was awake, and He came to me here in my room. He put His arms around me, and I felt so safe and warm.”
“That was Jesus,” I said to her.
“No, it wasn’t, Trudy, it was you,” she said with a lovely smile.
What does it mean? I wondered. Is this how God visits with His children, through fragile and broken clay pots like us? How does it happen that God should let our prayers be answered in such intimate and undeniable ways? It’s as though He is tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “Do you recognize Me?” It was the first of hundreds of times that God allowed me to see His hand so lovingly and intimately touch His children as He drew them home to Himself.
Mary Anne asked if I had a friend, a priest perhaps, who might come to visit her. I told her that I did. Although we had often spoken about God and His place in our lives, we had never spoken specifically about church or religion, so I was both surprised and happy about her question. I asked a wonderful young man, newly ordained, if he would visit her at home. He was so happy to be asked and would often sit up on the king-size bed with her and share what he had come to know about God and His great mercy and love. I don’t know who enjoyed their talks more, because they both seemed to love the give-and-take of shared ideas and they both told of their awareness of God’s grace in their midst. They spoke often and long into the night, the wounded healer, healing the wounded. Which was which? I wondered. It was an enormous gift to watch this relationship unfold for both of them.
God loves each of His children so deeply and wants them to know Him. His desire for them is to find peace and to come home to Him when He calls. It is wonderful to watch the lengths to which He will go to make that happen. He gives us ample time and uses the everyday gifts we have had all our lives to help us find Him. Mary Anne was gifted with great curiosity and determination, which she had used in her successful business life. God enabled her to use those very same gifts in searching for and finding Him. What an awesome and loving God we have at our disposal all the days of our lives.
One day Mary Anne asked me why I thought God had left her here on earth so much longer than her doctors thought was possible. I said I thought that maybe He wanted to give her all the time she needed to find Him. “Have you found Him yet, Mary Anne?” I asked her one night. “Oh yes,” she replied with the same confident assurance she had reflected in business all her life, but this time peace and contentment covered her face.
More than two and a half years had passed since Mary Anne first visited with me. It was Christmas Eve, and once again you couldn’t miss God’s presence and precious love for her as little children gathered in the snowy night outside her bedroom window, singing “Silent Night.” They sounded like angels straight from heaven, and Mary Anne was baptized that very evening by the young priest she had come to know and love very much. Once again God was visiting her Himself through the person He had sent to comfort and guide her on her way home to Him. She died peacefully in the early hours of that Christmas morning.
For more information visit http://www.glimpsesofheavenbook.com/
Excerpted from Glimpses of Heaven by Trudy Harris; copyright 2008 Trudy Harris. Reprinted with permission of Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
Originally published August 6, 2008 in resposne to Professor Randy Pausch's death.
Trudy Harris, R.N., is a former hospice nurse and president of the Hospice Foundation for Caring. Taking on additional roles in marketing, public relations, and fund-raising, Harris raised more than $45 million in capital contributions for HFC. She is now retired and lives in Florida with her husband.