My brother died in Seattle early in the evening on Sept. 19, 2006, just before Rosh Hashana. I was sitting in the parking lot of his hospital, taking a moment to listen to an obscure song by an unknown alternative band when I got a call that he had passed away. The song was titled “Brother” by The Annuals. I missed him by minutes. Coincidence that I was listening to that song while his spirit left the earth? Probably.
But then the following night, after I had flown back to Orlando with Ray’s body, and my wife and I had gone to bed and fallen into a light, disjointed sleep, she suddenly popped up, wide awake, and told me, “I just had the strangest dream. I was at the funeral home standing by Ray’s coffin. The coffin was open and I could see him lying there. All of a sudden he sat up and looked at me and said, “Tell Eric I’m ok.”
The Eric he referred to had to be our cousin Eric Peisner. “That’s weird,” I replied. “Have you ever dreamed about Eric before?”
“No,” she said. “I’ll have to tell him.” I agreed, and the next day, after the funeral when we all returned to our house, she found Eric and conveyed the gist of the dream. We expected he would be mildly surprised, pleased at the connection Pat made between him and Ray, but he was stunned. His head jerked back. He looked, literally, like he’d seen a ghost.
“Ray and I made a deal years ago,” he told us. “Whichever one went first was supposed to send the other a signal if there was something after life.” Pat gasped. My eyes opened wide. We knew nothing of the pact they’d made. The signal had been sent and delivered.
Now fast forward to November 2013. My mother died on Nov. 18. The next day I was with my wife, my sister, and my brother-in-law, getting a quick lunch at Whole Foods before meeting with our rabbi. We’d just left my mother’s apartment, where we’d been cleaning and organizing. At the food bar I ran into a member of our Jewish community, a woman a few years younger than I, whose brother had been one of my brother’s good friends. (For the purpose of protecting her privacy, she shall remain nameless.) I had not seen or spoken to her in years. Running into her there was entirely coincidental. She asked me how my family was, how my mother was doing. “Strange you should ask,” I replied. “The family’s ok, but my mother passed away last night.”
She took a step back, the color draining from her face as it had Eric’s. “Really?” she said, out of breath.
“I had a dream with her in it last night. She was wearing a red blouse, standing in line waiting to see a movie.”
“Have you ever dreamed about her before?” I asked. I thought maybe this wasn’t so unusual. My mother had taught a great many children in Sunday School and at Hebrew High, the predecessor to Beit Hamidrash. Maybe she’d had dreams like this before. Maybe my mother was some sort of symbolic figure for her.
“No, never,” she replied. “Never.”
Standing vibrantly in line to see a movie...about what? Coincidence that I ran into her at Whole Foods? That we spoke? That she asked about my mother, and told me about a dream she’d had? I don’t think so. I think something else was going on.
Now lest anyone think I’m a quack, some overly metaphysical soul-searching mystic, rest assured. I’m not. At best I see the world in shades of gray. I have many questions and few answers. Doubt rather than certainty fills my mind. And yet I’m left dumbfounded by these spiritual coincidences that can’t possibly be coincidences.
Of all the great insecurities we face as Jews, perhaps there is none so great as the one we deal with regarding what happens when we die. In Judaism there is no emphasis on heaven or hell. It’s all about living life to the best and fullest while we’re here. My mother was convinced we simply vanish into the void. My brother wanted desperately to believe in reincarnation. We are taught that our souls are unique and precious and return to God when we die. I have an image in my mind of a giant universal soul, that when we expire that spark of energy that made us who we are, that bit of cosmic soul returns home. Perhaps as it goes it leaves a trail, a message for the more sensitive to pick up. Perhaps when a child is born that new, perfect, unique soul is made of snippets and pieces of many souls, largely one, but parts of others, all part of that great godly energy. I have found a sort of edgy peace in contemplating this, and what awaits me now doesn’t seem as scary.
For all of you who wonder and fret about death, for those of you who are elderly and facing your last days, or sick or wounded or just plain frightened of what happens when we die, I won’t say don’t. I won’t be so foolish as to tell you I have the answer, that there’s no reason to fear death, but I will tell you I believe there’s more. I don’t pretend to know what comes after life. I just think something does. I think something else exists. Take comfort in that.
And that’s the good word.
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