Hawaii. It’s been awhile since I made a run here. Truthfully, islanders are better at death than mainlanders. People more in touch with their history generally have healthier, more ancient traditions to usher the dying into the next realm and they tend to mourn in expressive and healthy ways. Americans from the mainland and visitors from Europe tend to judge the locals here and other islanders for their loud wailing at the loss of a loved one, but what they don’t know is that the cries and shouts give wind to the sails of the dead, carrying them faster into the dimensions of the departed. There is deep love in their sorrow and, once the wailing is done, they feel the relief gained from the mourning. They don’t feel the need to hold on as long as mainlanders do because they’ve allowed themselves to be as heartbroken as they feel, fueling the healing process.
I’m here for a tourist who is uncertain and scared. Usually they don’t have much family around them so they become filled with concern and regret, wondering about loved ones thousands of miles away and how they will handle the death from such a distance.
I haven’t arrived in any physical manifestation; I’m here to watch and wait. We may be born in the divine realm but that doesn’t give us eternal consciousness. God formed us in the place where there is no time and set us to do work that serves the divine passion for showing great love and care for all of God’s creation. In my case and that for all of the death and comforting presences, that means tending to humans in their most vulnerable moments. God loves humans deeply and made us to be with them when the divine presence is most needed. But we do not share God’s all knowing essence. I do not know the exact moment when a soul will sever from the earthly plane. Moreover, I have no insight into the spiritual, mental, or emotional workings of humans. I try to fight against assumptions I have made about them over the centuries and dedicated my attention to doing just as my title indicates: be present.
Partly this is because the dying often make their own decisions about when to let go. We don’t always know if we’ll be needed to bring calm and peace in a time of uncertainty or if we’ll be preparing the spirit of the dead for the gateway. There are occasions when we arrive and wait but are not yet needed. This happens in hospitals often. Many souls come close to death here then either the medical staff intervenes or the human’s own body finds some way to heal and we aren’t needed.
I find my tourist in the operating room. She’s a woman from France on an extended holiday with her husband. The delicious duck she ate on the cruise and lavishly praised for its tenderness came with an unexpected surprise: a small sliver of bone that managed to navigate past her teeth, aimed straight for the lining of her stomach. Diagnosis: gastrointestinal perforation. She woke up with severe stomach pains. Luckily, the ship was coming into port and they were able to bring her directly here. The doctors are making their incision in an effort to pull out the sliver of bone and repair the tear.
I’m not here for the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff. They have others around them from our comforting division. I’m not sure what to call those others, or myself, for that matter. We aren’t spirits. Spirits or souls are what we come to assist. Humans like to call us “angels,” but that’s entirely wrong. I don’t want the angels’ job and they don’t want mine. That’s a whole different department. I guess you could say I’m a presence. There are many of us and we all have different expertise and purposes. Me, I’m a death presence. The comforting presences are here to steady the doctors and nurses while I’m here for the patient. Again, I’m glad I don’t have their job and they’re very glad they don’t have mine.
It looks like there are four comforting presences here today. This case must be more serious than I would have thought because they’re focused on their work and barely look up when I enter. They aren’t happy to see me. They know that since I’m here, death is near. The work of the comforting presences might need to change. If she doesn’t make it through the surgery and off the operating table, they will have to shift gears and prepare the medical team for the confusion, disappointment, and questions that come after such a death. I know not to take it personally.
The surgeons frantically try to save the tourist, but she’s starting to crash. I see her spirit float up and turn to look down at her body. The spirit is startled and afraid to see her abdomen split open and bleeding. It must be a shock for them to see themselves like this. I make my way over to her and place my hand on her shoulder. The Tourist turns to see me, confused, then relieved. She knows she’s not alone in here and wraps her arm around me. I smile at her and try to surround her with my energy.
She looks up at me with peaceful eyes that quickly open wide with surprise. Her heart stopped beating while the surgeons made their last stitch and now they have the paddles on her chest, charged and ready. The crack of lightning enters her body as the doctor yells, “Clear!” In a flash her spirit is pulled back into her body as the tourist’s heart starts up again. The other presences reach out to place hands on the shoulders of the medical team members to share in their relief and to give them a little more strength to finish.
I stay in the hospital for the next few days, overhearing the words “touch and go” batted around from doctors and nurses to the husband and then by the husband on the phone to all of the relatives.
“Hey, Sabine. Good to see you.” I say to the comforting presence that has drifted into the room.
“Oui. Good to see you, too.”
Sabine is here for the husband. She will sit with him for the next few days as he watches his wife struggle and then become stable again. We’ve worked together a lot and I really like her. She’s easy to be around, doesn’t talk too much, and is diligent in her duties. She was one of the few who managed to stay through the entire Black Death pandemic. The death presences had no choice but to work the duration of the plague – too much death for us to take shifts. But the comforting presences could trade off some in order to recharge. Not Sabine. She stayed and moved from family member to family member as one after another fell.
We worked several households together during those exhausting days. I remember one particularly painful family. I started the grandmother on her journey, then turned around to prepare for the infant grandchild the next day. I crumpled and rested as a stack of hay in the corner, knowing the rest of the family would fall victim due to their exhaustion and grief. Sabine stayed until the last of the nine family members, a 12-year-old son, made his departure. Ever since then I’ve been relieved whenever we make a run together. We both know we’ve seen worse and can manage most cases now with genuine ease and kinship between us.
The tourist stays unconscious for fifty-two hours but her spirit never rises again. I can tell she’s in there, hearing the husband as he reads her that morning’s edition of Le Figaro on his tablet. She also listens as he snores from his chair, having not left her side since she came out of surgery. The ragged sounds of his breathing bring her comfort as her body tries to heal.
As the husband sleeps, Sabine fills me in on her own travels. When shots rang out in Sandy Hook Elementary School, Sabine responded immediately. She consistently works during and after major tragedies, like Sandy Hook, and stays for months, sometimes years. In that situation, with it occurring at Christmas time, she faithfully travelled home to home to home without taking breaks. She stayed through Easter but I’ve seen her work nonstop for longer. Since then she’s been around the world multiple times to minister in volatile areas. Wars, mass shootings, genocide, these are the things that make even the best of us question how our God could love humans so deeply. But never once have I heard Sabine question or complain, only ever work with delicate care and compassion.
“You know the woman in Wales a few weeks back?” Sabine says, “The one in the hotel room? I made the run to her family. That was a good one. No one was heartbroken; sad, but not heartbroken. They talked about how happy she had been and uncharacteristically playful. She told her kids all about the young woman on the plane next to her, and how the young woman had listened as the widow went on and on, sharing childhood memories. Nice work.”
I look at Sabine with a grin. “Thanks. I had the luxury of time with that one and I couldn’t help but take advantage. She was lovely. I got to listen to her giggle like a child again and see her face light up. I was a little surprised she didn’t mention her husband and I was very surprised he didn’t make the full run with me.”
Sabine looked at me then away. “Phe, when I was with the family, I listened to their good memories of her but heard few mentions of him. Only after the funeral did the daughters-in-law speak with one another about him. They wondered what the widow’s and the husband’s reunion might be like, since he had died the day before he was planning to leave the family for his mistress.”
“All of these years and I still don’t get it—these human complexities baffle me. I didn’t see the family, but that widow was marvelous. How anyone would want to leave her is beyond my understanding.”
Sabine and I sit in silence only for a moment. The tourist slowly opens her eyes and speaks her husband’s name with a raspy, dry voice. He wakes from his nap and jumps up to be by her side, tears of relief streaming down his face. Between the medical interventions and her body’s desire to heal, she’ll be fine now, so I look at Sabine and give her a nod.
Earlier in the day I thought the Tourist’s crisis had ended and I could leave but I stayed to spend time with Sabine. She’s one of the old ones and it is good to spend time with an old friend. I suppose we all have days when even presences need some companionship. Sabine will have another day or two still with the couple, but my work is done. I smile at her one last time and say, “Thanks.” She smiles back then turns her loving attention back to the Tourist and her husband.