An eternal message of hope & faith
By Charlie Haeffner
ODESSA, Dec. 24, 2004 -- My wife Susan and I were seated on our bed late one evening in October. She had been reading, and I had wandered in from working on the computer.
We chatted about the day's events, the problems she was experiencing with her back, the chiropractic adjustments that had seemed to do no good, a couple of doctor's visits that had led nowhere, the next day's plans, and our boys -- and then lapsed into silence.
I don't know how long the silence lasted, but my eyes were downcast, staring into nothingness. I was lost in thought ... in feeling. Something on my face caught her attention.
"What's the matter?" she said. There was concern there.
"Nothing," I said. "Why?"
"Oh ... I don't know. You look worried."
"Yeah?" I said, and pursed my lips. "No ... well ... yeah ... It's strange. I feel as though there is an ending coming."
"An ending?" she said, raising herself from an elbow to an upright position. "Are you okay? You’re not sick, are you?"
I shook my head.
"It's not that," I said. "It's ... nothing definite. It's not necessarily me …”
I saw a look of alarm on her face – could sense her thoughts turn toward her back problems -- and so I added quickly:
“And it’s not necessarily you. It's just ... a feeling. It seems like we're coming to the end of something."
"Do you know what it is?” she asked. “Your website, maybe?”
I had been thinking about shutting it down for lack of discernible income. But that wasn’t it.
“No,” I said. “It’s something else.”
We fell silent again, for fifteen, twenty seconds. Then she spoke.
"You're okay?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said. "I feel fine. Look ... never mind. I'm probably just tired. Fatigue can play tricks."
But I didn't think that was it, at all.
A week later, I took Susan to the hospital. Her back condition had suddenly worsened, affecting her ability to walk. She wanted testing done, and so did I. Best guess from chiropractors and from friends who had experienced back difficulties was that we were looking at a pinched nerve, or perhaps a disc problem. Physical therapy would be warranted at the very least, the conventional wisdom said, and perhaps surgery.
The tests that night didn't show a pinched nerve, though -- nor a disc problem. They showed malignant tumors, one of them wrapped around Susan's spine, threatening paralysis. She had fought off cancer the year before, and blood work had been consistently good ever since. But it was back.
Radiation treatments were started the next day, and repeated the two days following.
After a weekend respite from the treatments, a fourth one was administered on her sixth day in the hospital.
An hour later, Susan complained to an attending nurse that she was dizzy. And with that, she coded. Pulmonary embolism. A team of doctors frantically tried to save her, but couldn't, and she was gone.
Gone ... two weeks after I had sensed an ending.
Now, I don't bring this up to depress anyone ... or to try to apportion blame ... or to try and appease any compelling need to psychoanalyze my mind or senses, or hers.
I bring it up as a thought-provoking lead-in to some phenomena of interest that occurred after Susan's passing -- while I and her sons and her brothers and her parents and her various friends and cousins and aunts and uncles were dealing with the shock of losing a kind, gentle, compassionate and wholly good person so suddenly, and only in her early 50s.
I present the things that follow as a message, if you will -- a series of events which, by themselves (like the feeling of foreboding), are explicable in a logical, earthly sense, but which together constitute for me a message of hope that has tilted me in the direction of faith.
Hope and faith -- hallmarks, after all, of the Christmas season -- the season in which I write this.
Several days before Susan's passing, she was on the phone talking to our son Jon, who lives in Pittsburgh. He was telling her that he had finally quit a dead-end job at a deli that had been made a virtual living hell by a female boss we in the family had come to refer to in less than flattering terms whenever the subject of the job came up.
Susan (pictured at right with the camera she often used to take photos for this website) had cautioned him not to quit abruptly -- to instead give notice and perhaps get a job recommendation out of the experience. But his boss had manipulated him once too often -- and he had basically told her where she could put her machinations.
"I wish he had given notice," Susan said to me afterward.
"Sometimes you can't," I answered. "Sometimes you just have to leave."
She thought about that.
"Yeah, I suppose," she said at last.
A day and a half after Susan's death, the woman in question -- the former boss -- died in a traffic accident in Pittsburgh. She was a passenger in a car that was struck by a second vehicle, and she died instantly. The only other person in her car, the driver, survived with minor injuries.
Word reached Jon -- by then up in New York State for his mother's funeral -- and he responded like this:
"Wow. How did Mom do that?"
I related that story to a friend, who thought it reflected badly on Susan.
"I mean, the woman died," said the friend. "Susan wouldn't do something like that."
Well ... no. She wouldn't in an earthly sense, I responded.
"But up there," I said, "assuming there is an 'up there,' I don't think that when they summon somebody, that they think in terms of killing them. I like to think of it like this: The woman had been extremely nasty to Jon, and Susan took exception, and maybe had built up so many good markers in heaven that she was able to call down to the woman and say, 'Hey, I want to talk to you.' And then pulled the woman out of here for a little chat."
True, I have some doubts on that one. But there is another matter in which I bestow my trust.
Just hours before the woman's demise in that crash, sunspot activity flared, and ion particles composing a plasma cloud were sent hurtling earthward on a journey that took less than a week.
The particles, when they reached the earth's ionosphere, yielded a light show normally referred to as The Northern Lights, and officially as the Aurora Borealis.
I saw the Aurora when I was a small boy, and was fascinated by its lights, and longed to see them again sometime.
But over the years -- over the decades -- I had been unable to do so. They are rare in our region, and so I hoped that at least once in our family's annual sojourn to Bois Blanc Island in Northern Michigan -- the very place from which I had witnessed the lights as a child -- I would again be bathed in their wonder.
Susan was very aware of this quest -- a quest that had spilled into the psyche of son Jon. He and I -- when together on Bois Blanc -- would venture out in the wee hours of clear nights to check the northern sky. But the years passed, and we never saw the lights. They never came out to play in our presence.
And I thought perhaps they never would.
But first, let me backtrack to light in general.
On the day of Susan's death -- in the emotional trauma that her passing cast upon us -- I found solace outside the hospital, in the parking lot across the street ... because of the sun.
It was a chilly day, but a bright one. The sun was strong, and its rays mitigated the chill.
I stayed in that lot for hours after Susan left -- grieving, fending off the good intentions of a hospital chaplain I didn't know, hugging family, wandering off by myself to struggle with the nightmare that had descended upon the Haeffners and upon Susan's family, the Baumans.
I would periodically turn toward the sun, close my eyes, and bask in its rays. They felt more than warm; they felt comforting.
"Bright," one member of the family said in passing when he noticed me facing the sun, head tilted toward the sky.
"More than that," I said. "I feel her in the light ... I feel her in the light."
On the day of the funeral -- a midday service at the Odessa United Methodist Church -- the minister in charge, Sheila Price, rose to speak. As she opened her mouth to present some loving thoughts about her friend Susan, the sun -- playing hide-and-seek in the day's cold sky -- suddenly burst forth as though on cue, pouring through the church windows and brightening the building's interior. The murmurs in the church -- which was filled with family and friends -- told me I wasn't the only one who noticed.
Later, as she spoke, after the sun had faded again, Sheila mentioned something about light -- I don't recall the exact context -- and it happened again. The sunlight burst through the windows, bathing the room, and Susan's casket, in its warmth.
There was another murmur, and I turned to my eldest son Bill, seated at my side.
"My God, she's here," I said.
The eulogy at the service was given by a man named Gary Tong -- a former Methodist minister now doing social work in the Syracuse area. He was, in fact, once the minister at that very church where the service was conducted. This was his first time back since leaving years before.
Susan and I had kept in touch with Gary over the years -- and on the night of the day Susan died, Gary and I connected by phone. Gary had decided, upon hearing the news, that he wanted to present the eulogy. But before I knew that -- while family was gathered at Susan's parents' house, dealing mostly in personal silence with the enormity of the day's events -- my son David had made this suggestion.
"You know, Dad, we ought to have Gary do the eulogy."
Upon our return home that night -- at 1:30 a.m. -- there was a message on our answering machine from Gary, saying he wanted to do that very thing.
"Think he's up?" I asked my sons.
"Well, probably not," said Jon. "It's really late."
"Yeah, you're right," I said, reaching for the phone. "But he soon will be."
As it turned out, Gary was up -- already working the eulogy into shape in his mind, creating what would be a personal and touching accounting of the life that was Susan's.
"I'm glad you called," he said ...
A note about that eulogy:
Gary, in his preparation, went to sleep either that first night or the next -- I was never clear on which -- and as he drifted off was visited by a vision of Susan.
He was, at the time, planning to utilize in the eulogy some material from Robert Fulghum's wonderful book, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
"You can't use that," Susan told him in his sleep.
"What? Why not?" he asked.
"You just can't," she said.
And so he didn't.
He told me days later about that visit, and about how he listened to Susan, and utilized another book instead.
Only after the fact -- during the funeral -- did he understand why Susan had been so insistent.
Nobody is ever prepared to figure out the details of a funeral -- not a surviving spouse, anyway. And yet, during funeral week, all decisions come down upon the spouse's shoulders. He (or she) is operating in a fog of grief, fighting back waves of emotion, while trying to make sure the needs of other family members are met. And yet decisions -- about the service, and the casket, and the calling hours, and the burial -- must be made.
Somehow, through that fog, I negotiated the shoals of particulars -- trying to balance the desires of family members with those I knew, or thought I knew, were Susan's. She and I had not, alas, discussed these funereal things in detail, so I was flying on the wings of intuition -- or, in retrospect, perhaps divine guidance, sent along through the light.
At the formal meeting at the funeral home, the matter of the funeral cards came up -- cards that would be distributed at the service. The funeral director asked me which verse of Scripture should be printed on them. He suggested that any verse Susan had cared about would be appropriate.
"Well, she read the Bible," I said. "But she wasn't a Bible quoter. So I don't know."
I turned to my son David, seated next to me. Other family members were around the table, watching and waiting.
"What do you think?" I asked David.
"I don't know," he said.
I thought a moment, and looked around the table for possible help. Seeing none, I thought some more.
And then it hit me.
"Fulghum," I said, and turned to David again. "Do we still have your mother's personal effects out in the van?" We had placed the effects bag given us at the hospital into the back of the van on that awful day -- and hadn't, to my recollection, moved it.
"I think so," David said. "You want me to go check?"
The van was parked outside, next to the funeral home.
"Yeah," I said. "There should be a book in there by Robert Fulghum. All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Bring it in, will you?"
"You got it," he said, and stood and left.
"Where's the Fulghum book?" Susan asked. It was Sunday night, Oct. 31 -- her final night, as it turned out, though we blessedly were unaware of that fact.
I looked around her room -- a private room at the Arnot-Ogden hospital in Elmira.
"Over there," I said, spotting it with a couple of other books -- one of them the Bible -- on the window sill near her bed. I stood and walked over to get it.
"Here," she said, holding out her hand to receive it. "I want to read some of it to you."
I had brought the book from home the day before, at Susan's request. Fulghum was one of her favorite authors -- a man of simple wisdom.
I handed it to her and returned to my seat -- a chair on the other side of her bed, near her.
And as I sat there, she opened the book and read from it -- the first chapter, which encapsulates the Fulghum philosophy, and then the second. I found it oddly comforting.
This was a quiet time-- late at night, long past visiting hours -- when we could share one another's company as we had for more than twenty-seven years, when we could enjoy the simple presence of the two of us, alone. And in the comfort of that situation -- despite the circumstance of a hospital -- I drifted into brief sleep,dozing for a few moments.
When I awakened, I felt a little sheepish.
"Sorry," I said. "Long day."
Susan was smiling.
"It's okay," she said. "I just like hearing you breathe."
The Fulghum passage of import in that first chapter lists the things the author learned in kindergarten that had gotten him through life.
Among them are such things as:
Clean up your own mess.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Live a balanced life -- learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
As I looked through the book David had just brought me from the van -- a book signed by Susan in the front -- that last lesson jumped out at me.
"That's it," I said.
"Fulghum," someone at the table said. The tone was neutral, but I thought the speaker sounded a little disbelieving.
"She read this to me the last night," I answered, not taking my eyes from the book, rereading the chosen line. "I think she was pointing me toward it."
I shook my head and thought this private thought:
Yes, I thought -- and still think -- that Susan knew ... knew that she was leaving.
In her final full day, a Sunday, she made phone calls to many people, including one to someone with whom she wanted to make amends. Which surprised me. Susan was a good woman, a caring woman who rarely created any situation requiring amends. And to pursue that end now ... well, when I learned about it after her passing, it merely solidified my opinion.
She had found a peace in her closing days -- had gone from feeling as though a nightmare had enveloped her, to these words on that final Sunday.
"Whatever happens," she told me, "it's okay. I'm in God's hands. It's okay."
The Fulghum quote, having been denied Gary Tong and introduced into the funeral planning session, made its way to the funeral card, and somehow -- I think I mentioned the book to her -- into Pastor Sheila Price's funeral oration. She included in that talk the list of Fulghum lessons, getting a chuckle from the assembled mass when she smiled and said, "Flush."
Hearing her speech, and seeing the funeral card quotation, Gary Tong realized why Susan had visited his dream, and was reassured once again that his strong faith in God is wholly justified.
"Let me tell you about a visit I had," he said to me afterward ...
And he told me of Susan's appearance, and her instruction.
Two days after the funeral, fatigue finally took me into a sleeping state that had proved elusive until then. I dozed in a recliner in my living room, the TV on. I started sleeping fairly early in the evening, and continued past midnight, into the small hours of the morning.
I was awakened by my son Jon -- staying with me for a couple of weeks as he tried to cope with the grief brought by the loss of his mother. His brother David was back at school in Morrisville, where he was nearing finals week.
Jon brought me out of my sleep by gently shaking me, and saying something.
"The lights," I recall hearing. Huh? I thought. What lights?
I opened my eyes, and there Jon was, leaning in toward me, his face earnest.
"What?" I mumbled.
"The Northern Lights are out," he said. "You gotta come see these."
"Oh, my God," I said, and sprang from the chair -- and with Jon ventured out into the cold night.
The best place to view the Northern Lights was away from extraneous, man-made lights. The best place for that -- and immediately accessible -- was the Odessa-Montour school property, just a short walk from our home.
We wandered there, casting looks skyward as we went, marveling at the show. Fingers of light -- only faintly colored, mostly white -- were dancing upward from the horizon, and seemingly sending fine mists of particles across the sky.
"Let's get to the athletic field," I said to Jon as we stopped at the side of the school. There were extraneous lights in the roadway below, and on the side of the school building. We walked along, through increasingly thick darkness, until we reached the field and felt our way along the fence and through the gate. From there, we finished our trek within a few yards, choosing a spot near the field's northern end.
Lying down on the damp lawn -- we didn't care about the moisture -- we gazed up at the Aurora, and watched as it sent wave after wave of those particles, of gauzelike white film, across the night sky .... pulsing, receding, pulsing again, covering the entire dome above.
"Amazing," I said.
"Oh, brother, is it," said Jon.
We lay there a few minutes, and Jon voiced the unspoken thought I was harboring.
"How's she doing that?" he asked.
I waited a few seconds, and answered.
"I don't know, but I think she's having fun."
And we stayed there, quietly, letting the night and its wonders embrace us and apply a salve of reassurance, a blessing of peace.
I broke the stillness with a request to the heavens ... to my wife.
"Nice show," I said. "What else can you do?"
And within a second, maybe two, a shooting star -- a majestic arcing band of light -- appeared from the southeast and carried across the fullness of the night, clear to the northwest horizon.
"Wow," said Jon.
"Thank you," I said.
We stayed there a half-hour, entranced and amazed and feeling a little better about things -- and then the clouds started moving in from the west, obscuring the Northern Lights.
"Show's over," I said, and we rose from the wet lawn.
We retraced our steps around the school, and out through the parking lot and down the road to our house. As we reached the lawn and started crossing it toward the back door, the clouds parted.
"There they are again," Jon said -- and indeed the lights on the horizon were visible again, though only faintly because of the encroaching streetlamps.
"Yep," I said, and noticed, above, a movement -- and tilted my head back to get the full effect.
It was another shooting star, moving from behind us, to a point above us, and then over the roof of the house and out of sight. And as it disappeared, so did the Northern Lights, as the clouds once again closed their curtain.
"Thank you," I said again, and went inside.
In this Christmas season -- one in which my family is finding it difficult to embrace the joy and gift-giving zeal that came easily in years past -- I find solace in the light.
I found it in the sunlight of a horrible day, and in the sunbeams that attended a funeral service, and in the night lights that played in the northern sky and danced across the dome of the visible universe.
I found it in the light trail of a shooting star above an athletic field, and in another star that traveled above me and out of sight, as if saying "Good night."
I find it still in the sunshine of a winter's day -- and will, I'm sure, in the spring and following seasons.
It is my message to you, this light.
It was Susan's message to me, I am sure -- one of reassurance and love -- and I entrust it to your care.
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869