Opening Heaven's Door


Chapter 1 - AN  UNEXPECTED  VISION 

My father died  in his blue-striped pyjamas on  a soft bed  in a silent  house. He  wasn't ailing. At three or four in the morning he gave out a  sigh, loud enough to wake my mother. A sigh, a moan, a final breath escaping. She leaned over to rub his back, sleepily assuming that he was having a bad dream, and then retreated into her own cozy haze of unconsciousness. Morning arrived a few hours later as a thin suffusion of northern March light. She roused herself and walked around the prone form of her husband of fifty-four years to go to the bathroom.

Downstairs to the humdrum rituals of the kitchen. Brewing coffee, easing her  teased-apart English  muffin halves into the toaster, listening to the radio. I was being interviewed about a brand-new book. There I was, the youngest of her five children, going blah blah blah with impressive authority about a lawsuit that had been launched by a man who had suffered incalculable psychological damage from finding a dead fly in his bottle of water.

"Did he have grounds?" the host was asking me. Was it possible for a life to unravel at the prospect of one dead fly?

My mother spread her muffin with marmalade, thought ahead to her day. Some meetings, a luncheon, an outing with her granddaughter Rachel, who was visiting for March break. She didn't wonder why Geoffrey, my father, still remained in bed. No heightened sense of vigilance for a healthy man who'd just turned eighty.

In  families, one's attention is directed towards crisis, and during the early spring of 2008 we were all transfixed by my sister Katharine. It was she, not my father, who faced death. Vivacious Katharine, an uncommonly lovely woman — mother and sister and lover — now anguished by the wildfire spread of metastatic breast cancer. Katharine's fate had become the family's "extreme reality," as Virginia Woolf once put it.

My father played his role unexpectedly.

"Rachel," said my mother, shaking my niece's slack shoulder as she snoozed in the guest room on the top floor of my parents' house. "Rachel. " My niece opened  her eyes and glimpsed an expression on my mother's face — wild  vulnerability in the visage of the matriarch — that shot her to full waking consciousness.

"Granddaddy won't wake up."

That morning we all received the call, the what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about news that my mother, with Rachel's astonished assistance, dialed to the family. But Katharine, one hundred miles east of my parents, in Montreal, received her message differently. 

"On the night of my father's death," she would tell mourners at his memorial service some weeks later, "I had an extraordinary spiritual experience."  My sister, please know, wasn't prone to spiritual experiences. Stress she was  familiar with, as the single mother of two teenaged boys. Laughter she loved. Fitness of any kind — she was vibrantly physical. Fantastic intellect, fluent in three languages. But she hadn't been paying much attention, in essence, to God.

"It was about 4:30 a.m.," she  said of  that night, "and I couldn't sleep, as usual, when all of a sudden I began having this amazing spiritual  experience. For the next two hours I felt nothing but joy and healing." There was a quality of light about my sister Katharine, a certain radiance of  expression, a melody of voice that hushed every single person in the church — atheist, agnostic or devout. She clutched the podium carefully, determined  to be graceful while terminal illness threatened her sense of balance. "I  felt hands on my head, and experienced vision after vision of a happy future."

Katharine had described  this strange and lovely pre-dawn experience  to her  elder son  as she drove him to high school before she received the call  about Dad. She also wrote about it in her diary: "I thought, is this about people praying for me? And then I thought of Dad cocking his eyebrow, teasing me about hubris." She hadn't known until the next day how to  interpret the powerful surge of energy and joy she felt in her bedroom. "I now know that it was my father," she told the mourners. She said this flat out, without the necessary genuflections to science and to reason, no patience for the usual caveats: call me crazy but ... None of that. "I feel  deeply, humbly blessed and loved," she said simply, and sat down.

Astral father. There, yet not there. Love flowing unseen. A benign companion of some sort, whose embrace is light but radically moving.

We are not a family in the habit of experiencing ghosts. Arriving at my parents' house on March 19, the day after Dad's death, I heard about  Katharine's vision for the first time and collapsed to the carpeted floor of  the hallway, crawling past the coat closet on the verge of hysterical  laughter. My reaction wasn't derisive so much as surrendered. Reality was  vibrating, pixilating; it was very close to shattering.

"Dad is dead, Dad is dead,"  I had muttered for twenty-four hours already. Like a child fervently memorizing new instructions about the way of things, crisscrossing the icy park beside my house, pacing back and forth. Dad is dead.

Now Katharine had had a vision.

We took it in as an aftershock. But almost immediately it began to make  profoundly resonant sense, like a puzzle piece slipping perfectly into place. Without discussing it, we were convinced as a family that he had done something of great emotional elegance. He had died for his daughter. Or he may have died unknowingly but then seized a mysterious opportunity to go to her, to her bedroom in Montreal, to caress her and to calm her before going on his way.

Later I would learn that this sort of  experience when someone has died is startlingly common, not rare. Families shelter their knowledge, keeping it safe and beloved like a delicate heirloom, away from the careless stomping of strangers.

There was much I would learn in the ensuing year about the kept-hidden world all around me, but at the time I understood this much: what a gift this was for Katharine. For the previous twelve months, waking up had meant regaining  knowledge of her predicament, which was like an immersive drowning terror in the darkness. How limited we have become, in our euphemistic language, that  we speak of patients "battling" cancer without affording them the  Shakespearean enormity of their vulnerability, as if they were pragmatic  and  detached, marshalling their troops, and nothing like Ophelia, or Lear.

I knew my sister better than anyone  else in my life, except, perhaps, my children. She was no more or less "brave" than the biblical Jesus when he  called out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" She stood keening in  the shower the night that the emergency room  doctor dispassionately informed   her that she had lesions on her brain; she begged an abstracted universe for  ten more years, to see her sons through school and marriage.

Then, suddenly, this astonishment when our father died — not knowing that he'd died — of feeling serene, protected and joyful.

For an unspecified amount of time, she wasn't sure if it was minutes or hours, Katharine watched herself — the future beheld in a mirror, a pool? — as she played with her unborn granddaughter on the floor of her bedroom. She somehow understood this to be her teenaged son Graeme's child, a five-month-old baby she knew to be named Katie. Wobbly little creature trying to sit up  straight. In her vision, Katharine was supporting this baby girl's back. She was helping her sit and crushing on her sweetness, admiring the wacky little bow in her hair.

"She  was beautiful," Katharine told  Graeme of his distant, future fairy child, when she drove him to his Montreal high school that morning. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

Back at the house, the phone rang. My mother, reporting that our father had died.

In early April I flew down to Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon. A scan had shown that Katharine's cancer had spread to her bones, her liver. "Beauty is only the first touch of terror we can still bear," wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. I remember reading that sometime later and thinking, Ah.

Along the south rim of the canyon, flies buzzed  about the twitching ears of  pack mules as they descended the Bright Angel Trail, hooves stepping lively along the steep traverse a few hun- dred yards ahead of my husband and me. We  leaned reflexively into the cliff wall as we followed the party of mule  riders, shrink- ing back from the empty, falling spaces that seemed  almost to pull at us, inviting us to swoon and tumble a thousand feet, head- long to our doom.

Were only tourists venturing down that crumbling path, I wondered, or pilgrims too? Intent upon humbling themselves, feeling their way with hands scrabbling rock, confessing to having no knowledge, really, of the vastness that engulfed them, lured by that very admission? When a scouting party of  conquistadors first set eyes on the canyon  in the sixteenth century, they  chose to believe their eyes and determined that the Colorado River, in the  canyon's depth, was simply a creek. A thread of blue, easily trudged across  at knee's height by their horses in a quarter of an hour or so. They never did grasp that the canyon was ten miles across, rim to rim, and that the river below coursed as wide as a mile.

We understand those dimensions now, but only because the guidebooks make it  plain. We fix our eyes accordingly, and when we spy the river, we calculate  in relation to what we've been told: if that ribbon down there is actually  one mile across, then this height is dizzying. We cower into the Supai  sandstone. How do we know what is infinite and what is not? Which do we  trust--our eyes or our instincts, our guidebook or our gut?

My sister's death, I felt, was imminent, perhaps a month away, although she  hadn't been given a prognosis--didn't want one-- and was still working out at  the gym. People there were starting to call her the Lance Armstrong of  Montreal, and she certainly looked the part, graceful and agile and strong. I  was acutely aware of her dying, so much so that it seemed to me the air  itself was dangerous to breathe, for each breath demarcated the passage of  time. I sensed the clock continuously, how it betrayed me, let go of me,  ruined me and broke my heart with every exhalation.

"It's not that soon, do you think?" my husband asked uncer- tainly, hiking  beside me, aware of my fear of the cellphone in my pocket, of its ring. Well, yes, it would be that soon. I'd done the research. Average time to death  after brain metastasis from inflammatory breast cancer: three months. But I  was alone with this knowledge,  because  Katharine's oncologist  wouldn't  say anything out loud  that didn't  involve  metaphors of war. He was currently engaged in bringing out the "heavy artillery," as he called it.  Shells were exploding  in the rain-dark trenches.

My clock felt increasingly internal and intuitive. When  you need  to read  the world differently, when ordinary channels of information are blocked,  what then do you do? About a quarter- mile down  the Bright Angel Trail, we stopped to rest. My hus- band went off to make sound recordings, a passion  of his, and I crouched  in the scant shade of an overhanging rock, perched uneasily on the slope. The view from there was altered, for the canyon now  towered above me. My tilted chin faced an immense wall of stone, as tall as a skyscraper. A red-tailed hawk circled high above me in the shimmering air. What I saw I labelled instantly, unconsciously: a bird of prey, a wall of  stone, the quick and appre- hensive  movement of a ground squirrel. Some   tourists, French and German, lumbering along, out of breath, their nylon  packs a jarring shade of blue. Someone's dog trotting, the flies, the mules'  dung. And far away a helicopter's burr.

What if I had been  a Hualapai woman pausing just here a few hundred years  ago? Would  I have broken down this vista into its constituent material  parts? Or would I have seen a land- scape rich with portent and spirit, where  that bird was not just a bird but a song?

"One has never seen the world well," wrote the metaphysicist Gaston  Bachelard, "if he has not dreamed what he is seeing." 

Father dead and sister dying. Time to welcome portent and spirit, even while the doctor yaks on, clickety-clack, about the efficacy of  the latest round of chemo.

We climbed out of the canyon, stopping frequently to take sucks of water  from the clear plastic tubes jutting out of our newfangled backpacks. As we approached the rim, I noticed a rainbow. A perfect, vivid little crescent  rainbow hanging in the desert sky as if a child had placed a decal on a  window. It was so incongruous, given the arid climate, that I chose to make  note of it, and checked my watch. Just shy of noon.

In the evening the sun set breathtakingly, spilling coloured light into the  canyon. From an Adirondack chair on the porch of the El Tovar Lodge, I called  Katharine in Montreal on my cell. No answer.

"Kitty- Kat," I tell her answer machine, "I'm at the rim of the Grand  Canyon." At the end  of the world, at the confluence of beauty and  terror; here for you, here without you. "I'm thinking about you all the time."

She didn't respond, my sister. At  the hour I saw the rainbow in the desert  sky, just shy of noon, she was being admitted to hospital  in  Montreal   suffering  from  acute septicemia, being urged by the doctors to scribble a living will.

A week later I lay entangled with her on her narrow hospital bed in   Montreal's Royal  Victoria Hospital, watching CNN  on the hanging TV in her  curtained-off ward cubicle. She, sipping Pepsi through a straw, bald as an  eagle in her wisp of a hospital gown, hands bruised from multiple IV punctures and her legs looking too pale and slender. My face tanned from the  Arizona sun, while my beautiful sister's was puffed by steroids and flushed  from the blood infection that was slowly being brought under control.

She  was finally on morphine, and for the first time a little smile played at the corners of her mouth, after a week-long stretch of pained  affliction due to wave after wave of intense headaches. Nothing had been  offered by the hospital but Tylenol, because they were treating her for the  infection and had lost track of the other  medical  team  that had  been    treating her for cancer. Katharine's characteristic grace and composure had  masked the degree of her suffering from the nurses and doctors on ward  rotation, until I had a Tasmanian devil-style tantrum at three in the morning, threatening--I am not proud of this--to saw off the nurse's legs and  offer her Tylenol if she didn't stop making that the only option "allowed"  for "Mrs. Pearson."

So that was where we were, my sister and I, holding hands on her bed and  watching coverage of the 2008 U.S. primaries, when her oncologist--finally aware of her presence on this ward, being treated for septicemia--came in to  break the news that he was transferring her to palliative care. No more  chemo. No fur- ther radiation. The guns would  go silent. It was time now, he said, to "manage the symptoms."

Katharine moved to the hospice on May 14,  2008. The pallia- tive care  physician  guessed  that she had weeks, at the outside margin, but nobody  told her that. She was left to envision a hori- zon without end, distant or  near, bright or dark. She didn't ask. Instead she became a peaceful queen presiding over her court as fifty or more friends, relations and colleagues  came for one last conversation, a final kiss. The short hallway of the  hospice seemed to be streaming to and fro with weeping executives in tony suits and well-heeled women with red-rimmed eyes carrying bottles of Veuve  Clicquot. Just one more toast, another laugh.

The hospice nurses were fascinated, they told me later, for they  were  more  accustomed  to  small family  groups  visiting elderly  patients in a quiet, off-and-on way. They watched as we cracked open Champagne and  played  Katharine's favourite songs while she swayed  dancingly in her bed, and brought her foods for which she had a fleeting  craving, and offered her lilies of the valley to bury her nose in. Never have  I seen human beings so exquisitely emotionally attuned to one  another as we  were when we spent those last days in May with my dying sister. When she  wanted the volume of energy up, we turned it up. When she wanted it down, we brought it down. The calibration was so precise that when visitors barged in, all innocence but with the wrong energy level, we tackled them like a  rugby team. Get out, get out!! You're too chipper/too sad/too alpha/too can-do.

When  I kissed my sister's cheek, she would kiss me back and behold  me in a  manner that was so loving it startled  me. Generous love, released from need.  Often we sat about word- lessly as she slept--my   other two sisters, my  brother and me. Sometimes we massaged her hands with cream and sang softly.  Her sweetheart, Joel, played his guitar. My mother, awash in two waves of  grief, read Katharine the love  poetry that our father had penned for her in  the early fifties.

One afternoon, Katharine's ex-partner came by with a vast bouquet  of spring  flowers that, he  explained,  had  been  left anonymously  on their formerly  shared doorstep. "Everybody in the neighbourhood loves you, Katharine," he  said, with fervent sincerity.

"Surely there's someone who doesn't love me," she responded with dry amusement.

She spoke very little in those final ten days of her life. A few sentences here and there, more often just a word or two. Yet it was clear from everything she said that she was present, and observing. Which was why it grew more remarkable to us that she seemed so content. She enjoyed our  company and the music we played, and gazed admiringly at the garden beyond her win- dow and the light playing in the curtains.

"Wow, that was strange," she remarked once upon waking up, her expression one  of smiling delight. "I dreamed I was being smooshed in flowers."

All this appeared  to interest her--to interest and to please her, as if she  were engaged in a novel and agreeable adventure. She looked gorgeous, as if  lit from within. Sometimes she would have happy whispered conversations with  a person I couldn't see. At  other times she'd stare at the ceiling of her room as a full panoply of expressions played across her face--puzzled, amused,  skeptical, surprised,  calmed--like a spectator angled  back in a  planetarium, watching a heavenly light show.

I watched her ardently, but she couldn't translate it for me. The sister with whom I'd shared every secret had moved beyond words. "It's so interesting,"  she began one morning, and then couldn't find the language. "It must be  so  frustrating," I said quietly, "to not be able to say," and she nodded. We  touched foreheads. I was left to guess, or to glimpse what she was expe-  riencing in the accounts of others, others who'd recovered their voice. I  would read later, for example, about the Swiss genealo- gist Albert Heim,   who fell off a mountain and wrote, in 1892: "No grief was felt, nor was there  any paralyzing fright. There was no anxiety, no trace of despair or pain. But  rather calm serious- ness, profound acceptance and a dominant mental quickness."

We could say, Well, she has forgotten that she's dying. But she hadn't. "Is Mum all right?" Katharine might ask me with con- cern. Or, "You  guys must be falling apart faster than I am."

Indeed we were. My brain was a computer in meltdown, a car shoved   into   neutral, an  old  black-and-white television whose brightness had narrowed to  one fizzing star. It is difficult to describe, in truth, because I was not capable intellectually of observing  my  own  disintegration. I  was lost,  but  Katharine wasn't. She knew very well that she was dying, and more than  that. Forty-eight hours before she died, she told us she was on her way.  Literally, as in "I am leaving." How  did  she know? Hospice  could have  lasted two months or six months or two years. If nothing else, hope could  have swayed it that way; she'd subsisted on hope  for the first eleven months  of her illness. A study conducted by Harvard researchers found that 63  percent of doctors caring for terminally ill patients wildly overestimate how  much time their patients have left. The patients themselves, however, become  crisply precise, sometimes nailing their depar- ture to the hour.

Katharine woke up  one  morning and, looking decidedly perplexed, said to  Joel, who lay in wild dishevelment on the cot beside her, "I don't know how  to leave." As if the difficulty of the task at hand  was akin to learning to  water ski, or the trick to  making bread dough rise. Clearly she didn't feel  the way we felt anymore,  with our  thirsting, ecstatic joy  to find  that  she was still alive when we raced to her side each day. She teased Joel that  in his hollow-eyed  disarray he  looked  like a drug addict. She remained  present, but also elsewhere. Katharine had removed herself to some new plane  of consciousness where we were now unable to follow.

That afternoon she gazed through her French doors  for a long time, with a  look that seemed to me, sitting beside her and stroking her hand, to be  slightly exasperated. Vexed.

"What are you looking at?" I asked her.

She lifted her arm languidly and pointed in the direction of the garden,  remarking, "Hapless flight attendants."

We all laughed in surprise. Just then a hospice volunteer wheeled in a trolley of snacks.

Katharine turned alertly to this new visitor and asked, "What's the situation?"

Said the hospice volunteer with brisk cheer, "Well, the situation is that we  have lemon  tarts, Nanaimo   bars and oatmeal cookies. All home-baked." She seemed pleased.

My sister regarded her as if she were insane.

"I mean," Katharine clarified, clearing her throat, for her lungs were becoming congested, "when do I leave?"

Joel, masterfully suppressing  his raging grief at losing the love of his life after only three years, assumed a comical Indian accent (they'd met in  New Delhi) and, wobbling his head, offered, "That is for you and God to decide."

Katharine left the next night, in silence and  candlelight, while I lay with  my cheek on her chest and my hand on her heart, feeling her breathing slow and subside  like the receding waves of an outgoing tide. Joel sat on one  side of the bed, my sister Anne on the other. The nurse came in, barefoot and  with a flashlight, to confirm death with a deferential wordless nod, and we  anointed Katharine's body in oil and wrapped her in silk. The  staff lit a  candle in the hospice  window.  Mymother, and  Katharine's godmother, Robin --three  thousand miles westward in Vancouver--awoke  in their beds, attuned to  some new-sounding clock.

All the world should weep at the loss of such a lovely girl, Robin found  herself dreamily thinking, as the curtains shifted and rustled in the  shadows of that dawn.

I remember holding my face to the wind when Katharine died, feeling the air,  the coolness and fluidity, the urgency. Every day, wind in my face, capturing  my attention in some fundamentally new way. I was aware of breath, of what  the ancient Greeks called pneuma, of a soul-filled world. I gulped the air.

"Welcome  to our tribe," someone  said to me wryly that summer, speaking of the crazy shift in perspective that comes with grieving, and that is exactly  how it felt. Suddenly  there were people  who  understood  how  you  could   feel as if you were constantly gulping air. It was a bond  that was fiercely  intimate; even  if we had  nothing  else in  common,  we had death in common  now. It's less hard to imagine this being the basis for tribal belonging two  hundred or five hundred years ago, when death and its rituals were shared. So  much about it now  seems taboo. The  experience of grieving is so socially  fractured. We  have no universal consolation to offer, such as "Your  father  and  sister are with God now."   Instead, people feel awkward around  you,   while those who  know all about your wild, unhinged  reconfigurations say,  "Yup,  I get it, my friend." Stuff gets weird. You respond to new-sounding  clocks, you gulp air.

For  a subset  of  this tribe--perhaps half  of  its  members--something else  unites them as well. Even  more quietly, almost invisibly: the sense that we  have encountered a radical mystery. We  have learned from the dying about  additional channels of communication that we hadn't been aware of before,  that enable us to know things in mysterious ways, to connect in mysterious  ways with one another, with the dying and with the dead, along uncharted or  long-forgotten paths.

The  sense that the dying  might open  a door  to us that leads elsewhere  came first in hushed confidings. During the summer and  fall of 2008, people   began  to tell me  things. Some  were friends and colleagues I'd known for  years; others were people who sat beside me on an airplane or met me for the  first time in a bar. If I told them what I'd witnessed with my father and  sister, they     reciprocated.  Almost   invariably,  they   prefaced   their  remarks by  saying, "I've never told anyone  this, but . . . " Or, "We've   only ever discussed this in our family, but if you think you might do some  research . . ."  Then they would offer extraor- dinary stories about deathbed   visions, sensed presences, near- death experiences, sudden intimations of a  loved one in danger or dying.  They  were all smart, skeptical people. I had  had no idea that this subterranean world existed all around me.

The director of a large music company drove me home from a dinner party, and  when I explained that I was thinking of inves- tigating what my family had  gone  through, he parked the car outside my house, not ready to say goodnight. He told me that, as a boy,  he had come down to breakfast one morning and seen his father, as always, at the kitchen table. Then his mother broke the news that his fatherhad died in the night. He briefly wondered if she'd gone insane. "He's sitting right there," he'd said. It was the most baffling and unsettling moment of his life.

On a hot summer afternoon I stood chatting with a woman on a sidewalk in  Pittsburgh. We  were waiting for some fellow tourists on a shared weekend  trip to the Carnegie and Warhol Museums. I explained what had happened to me,  and she nodded,  then offered the story of her sister, who had woken one  night to the sensation of glass shattering all over her bed, as if the  bedroom  window had been  blown inward by  a tempest. Adrenaline rushing, her  sister leapt out of bed and felt around gingerly for the shards of glass she  expected to find on her blan- ket. There was nothing there. The  window  was  intact; all was quiet. The next day she learned that her daughter had been in  a car accident in which the windshield had shattered. We spoke a little more,  about another death in her family, and by the time the other tourists  rejoined us, tears were filming her blue eyes. It struck me  again how   powerful  and  raw our  experiences around death are, how carefully we keep  them concealed and yet how close to the surface they stay.

In the late nineties,  the  palliative care physician  Michael Barbato  designed a questionnaire for family members of patients. He realized that  neither his unit nor most other hospice facilities had ever formally  investigated how common  such experiences were. To his surprise, he found  that 49 percent of his respondents had  undergone  an uncanny  encounter that  couldn't be  easily explained away. "Even if we cannot understand the basis for these phenomena,"  Barbato argued in a subsequent journal article, "the weight of evidence suggests we cannot continue to ignore them." Certainly you cannot ignore them when they happen to you.

There is pain in loss. And then--in our culture--there is fur- ther pain in the  silence born from fear of being  dismissed  or ridiculed when that loss  entails something unexpectedly  won- drous. Tell someone that your sister  felt a presence in her bed- room on the night your father died, and at once  the explanations come. Hallucination. Wishful thinking. Coincidence.  And   the implied condemnation: Know what? Yer kinda credulous.

I attended a Christmas party with old university friends, and caught up  with  a man I hadn't seen  for years, who  works in information technologies for a  bank. I told him about losing Katharine and Dad, and some of what transpired.  He said gently, "I don't  mean  to be  unkind,  but it is very likely that  she was imagining all those things."

Walking home, I mused about why he had found it necessary to say that. Here  was someone  who hadn't taken a single psy- chology course in his life, as  far as I knew, much less acquainted himself with hospice care, who felt he could speak with complete authority on the subject of what the dying see.  More to the point, he  had  casually stripped the meaning from one  of the  most sacred moments in Katharine's life. Just like that. Would he have jumped  up while she was speaking at my father's memorial ser- vice, this specialist  in IT for banks, and said, Oh, excuse me! I don't mean to be unkind . . .

When I stopped feeling angry, I wondered how he explained away his days. We   are meaning-seeking creatures. We  dwell among stories and myths; we don't do well when we are chained all around  by  a materialist frame and then, for good measure, are labelled as fools when we grieve.

I love you, a man whispers to his new wife at their wedding reception. A   scientist barges into the celebration.  Prove it! she commands. Prove that  you love your wife. Do you have an MRI scan?

Prove your anger, prove your empathy, prove your sense of humour.Nobody  ever asks you to do that scientifically, of course, because love, anger,  empathy and wit are considered  common elements of human nature, even if they  are not all that measur- able beyond  locating possible  neural correlations.  Spirituality used to be considered an ordinary part of the human experience  as well, but now  it qualifies as an extraordinary state requiring  extraordinary evidence. Why should this be? It has nothing to do with what  has been proved or disproved.

In 1979 a survey of more than 1,000 college professors in the United States  found that 55 percent of natural scientists,66 percent of social scientists and 77 percent of academics in the humanities believed  that some  sort of psychic perception was either a fact or a likely possibility. Only 2 percent felt it was outright impossible. This was before the rise of biological psychiatry in the 1990s and 2000s, and the deepening assumption that all human experience would be explained by understanding the workings of the brain.

In 1999 the psychologist Charles Tart put up a website called the Archives of  Scientists' Transcendent Experiences, to serve as a place for scientists to  anonymously confess their uncanny or spir- itual experiences without risk of  career blowback. Tart described it as a "safe space" for these scientists, as  if they were admitting to a lifetime of boozing or wearing women's underwear. Engineers posted, chemists posted, mathematicians and biologists posted. These   scientists, and many like them, put the lie to a very per- sistent belief  that only credulous and sentimental people fall prey to certain imaginings. A   recent study  in the British Journal of Psychology showed that there is no  difference in critical thinking skills between people who have had uncanny experiences and those who  call themselves skeptics; other studies confirm  this lack of difference.

The Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in 2007:
If one believes, as I do, that extrasensory perception exists but is  scientifically untestable, one  must believe  that the scope  of science  is  limited. I put forward, as a working hypothesis, that E S P is real but  belongs  to a mental uni- verse that is too fluid and evanescent to fit  within the rigid protocols of scientific testing.
What he meant was that the tools we have designed to map the genome  and   determine  what makes  wheat grow  cannot  be applied here. The  paranormal  or spiritual experience comes unbidden. We  cannot put my sister in a lab in  California and wait for my father to die one more time.

Dyson received flack for his assertion, but, like many of us, he'd witnessed  inexplicable phenomena within the confines of his own  extended  family. His   grandmother, he  wrote, was a "notorious and successful faith healer." A  cousin of his had been the long-time editor of the Journal for the Society of Psychical Research. Skeptics warn that such people are either con artists  or their credulous victims, and likely a few of them are. But when you know people--when you  respect their intelligence, their groundedness;when you  witness their discomfort with what they're picking up by unknown means--that characterization is simply unpersuasive. As Dyson  said of his cousin and grand- mother, "Neither  of them was a fool." Nor are the people who have been coming out of the woodwork to tell me about what they  encountered. Nor was my sister.

Private moments of conversion--from assuming that the uni- verse operates by  one set of rules to suddenly suspecting there might be other forces at play-- can happen to people "like a jolt," as University of California psychiatrist  Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer said after her own  encounter with perception that  seemed  to draw on some unknown sense. In Mayer's case, the jolt came as a  result of an act of clairvoyance, which is the ability to somehow glean   information  across a distance.  Her  daughter's  rare and valuable harp was  stolen near San Francisco in 1991; neither the police nor the family's public  appeals managed to recover it. After several months, a friend suggested to  Mayer that she had nothing to lose by consulting a dowser. "Finding lost objects with forked sticks?" Mayer scoffed. But her friend gave her the phone  number of the president of the American Society of Dowsers, a man by the name  of Harold McCoy, who lived in Arkansas.

"I called him that day.  Harold picked up the phone--friendly, cheerful, heavy  Arkansas accent." She told him she was looking for a stolen harp in Oakland,  California, and asked, dubiously,  if he could help her locate it. "Give me a  second,"  he said. "I'll tell you  if it's still in Oakland."  He paused,  then said, "Well, it's still there. Send me a street map of Oakland and I'll  locate that harp for you." Mayer sent the map by express post. Two days later, McCoy phoned back to tell her precisely which house in Oakland contained her daughter's harp.

Feeling as though she'd surely lost her mind, Mayer put up flyers within a  two-block radius of this house, which was in a neigh- bourhood she was  unfamiliar with. She soon received a phone call from someone who had seen the  harp, and he was able to get it back to Mayer.  "As  I turned into my  driveway [with the harp]," she later wrote, "I had the thought,This changes everything."

Mayer needed to completely re-examine her understanding of how the world  worked. After my father and sister died, I felt much the same way. I wanted  to understand what we know and what remains unclear, unexplored, about these  controversial modes of awareness. It wasn't enough for me, as a journalist,  to accept the officially received wisdom. It certainly wasn't enough for me,  as a sister, to ignore Katharine's intelligence and discernment and what she  was willing to put on the line at our father's memorial service in favour of  some information technology guy saying, Oh, she was just making shit up.  Sorry, too much at stake here, in terms of defending her integrity and of  respecting our collective experience.

So I tried to pursue these questions. Why had my sister had a powerful  spiritual experience in the hour of my father's unexpected death? How  did  she sense a presence in her bedroom  and feel hands cupping her head? Why did  she enter into her own dying experience afraid, only to become  increasingly  joyful? What was she seeing, what was she learning, what would she have told  me if she could have, after she could no longer converse?
What I learned in the ensuing few years was far richer and more mysterious  than I ever imagined. By sharing it with you, I am hoping that I open a door.

Excerpted from Opening Heaven's Door. Copyright © 2014 Patricia Pearson. Published by Random House Canada, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. 

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