For those who know losses, I tell this story. It is the only one that I can think of now. It helps me to tell it, and maybe it is meant for you.
From the moment I could totally comprehend my son’s death, I pictured him rising from the corner of Sterling and Sixth up between buildings to the rich, blue sky.
Your rising broke me into pieces that, when reassembled, hardly resemble the woman who birthed you, nurtured you, centered her life around you.
I wrote poems, unsure of the recipient. Was I writing for my son or for myself?
I consulted mediums and counselors and prayed without ceasing. I answered every letter, message, and email from Brooklyn friends because in touching them, I was touching him. “He had such a light,” they said, one after another, in texts and messages from around the globe.
I learned to understand his love for his community at DeKalb and Vanderbilt; I tried to put myself into the life he lived, loved, and struggled through every day, bicycling from Vanderbilt to Union and back again.
Until he didn’t anymore. Until the accident took him and left his bike.
Was your life like this: ordering supplies, choosing dee-jays, reveling in your beloved music late at night in the deep blue dark? Designing logos, opening the bar in late afternoon, standing outside on the sidewalk with your phone in your hand, greeting customers, match-making, flirting, comforting others, like the mail carrier who had lost her son and “couldn’t go on”?
“You can go on,” you told her. “He would want you to go on.” Almost every day you told her until she stood in line in the funeral home to tell me, too. To send me the precious message that you cared for others, the way I’d taught you, even when I couldn’t be sure the lesson had stuck.
The theology teacher at the scene of the accident sought me out: He did not suffer, the young man, exactly your age, told me: “I held his hand. There was no pulse.”
Thank you, God, for this message I said aloud to a universe I couldn’t understand. And then the signs began to come, the lights that flickered and came on with no help from human hand, the deer and hawks that appeared uncharacteristically, the young woman I didn’t know who told me you came to her with a message for me.
Since April of 2016, I have come to believe in mystery and miracles.
When I walk the dogs down past the woods and the sun is just rising through the trees, I am surrounded by a light that circles everything and seems to hold it all together. I think: I am part of this light, and so is the child I lost.
Every morning clear enough to see the sun, I look into the brightness and say a prayer that he is lifted to the light, that I can connect to that light, that lost does not mean lost forever. I’ve been to mystics and a Catholic counselor. I’ve read books on physics and metaphysics, on life after life, and on how to live this one.
The December after the accident in Brooklyn, the flame in my heart had almost flickered out in the cold. People who loved me believed I might give up or give out. The holidays were agonizing, and I was sick in soul and body.
Walking alone on the beach that December, I asked for a sign that he was with me. There in the wet sand along the shore, where baby sand dollars never are in the cold of winter, rested one perfect baby sand dollar, a sign I have always looked for on every spring and summer beach trip. The appearance of these rare shells always seems like a sign, like a connection to something, like good luck.
If your heart has never been broken, you might not look for signs or miracles, but if your heart has been cracked or crushed, you know that the wound is where the light enters. I’m not the first person to say that; the Persian poem Rumi said it 800 years ago. The idea is not original, but in this time of mysteries, I’ve found it to be true.
I packed the sand dollar in layers of cushioning, but when I got home, it was broken. I knew the message immediately: ‘Don’t hold on to objects. There’s a deeper connection.’
I first learned that lesson in the fall after Zach’s death. I had brought the subway token and chain that my son had been wearing at the time of his accident into yard to clean and dry in the sun; I reached to pick the chain and token up. When I opened my hand, only the chain remained. The token was nowhere. It had disappeared from grass to hand. I searched everywhere, but the token was not found.
When my son died, the messages from around the world came to me every day: This is what your son taught me; this is how your son changed my life. There were unlikely connections to Italy, Portugal, Nicaragua, California, and, of course, his beloved Brooklyn. One friend who had known him in Albany, NY, Julia, wrote to tell me of a medium she had contacted in her distress. The medium said, among many other surprising things, that my beautiful boy had said, “I am not my things. Don’t hold on to things. Signs and symbols are baby stuff.”
Still, I went home and found another tiny sand dollar and put it on my desk to remind me of unexplained connections. I begged for signs and symbols, and I got so many that I pass them on here as a comfort for those grieving.
The first unusual incident of “light” occurred shortly after my friends and I returned from my son’s funeral in Brooklyn. My good friend, Jamia, still mourning, got into her car late in the afternoon about ten days after our return from New York and noticed that her dome light was on in a car she had locked hours before–with no light burning.
“I thought I had a short in the wiring,” she said. “I turned off the light and forgot about it.”
The next day the same thing happened. Car locked in the morning with no light on. Dome light over the driver’s side burning brightly in the late afternoon. “I looked up and saw that the light was pushed in, and immediately a certainty came over me. I knew it was Zach.”
Both Jamia and I saw a flame appear at dusk on our golf course walk as we were grieving, and approaching the flame, it disappeared. I was grateful Jamia was there to confirm the burning light, like a small burning bush.
In my reading about people who believe in the energy of the spirit, I have found that many say electromagnetic fields are somewhat easily manipulated by those “on the other side.” On April 19 of 2016, I might not have been open to such ideas, but by May I was reading scientific as well as metaphysical writings—anything to try to make sense of my loss. Most helpful to me were Raymond Moody’s Life After Life, which I had read many years before without the urgency I now felt. Laura Lynne Johnson’s The Light Between Us was similarly helpful.
One night when I couldn’t sleep, I took Brian Weiss’s book Love onto the screened porch. It had been a cloudy day, and the solar wind chime, given to me as a gift in Zach’s honor, was dark.
I turned on the fan and overhead light and was reading about a woman with a son who died at the age of 19. According to Weiss, the story goes like this: After her son’s death, in a dream, an angel and her son came to her and reminded her that she had known from a dream many years before that she would have a son who would be taken from her early. She tells Dr. Weiss that in this second dream she said to the angel that if she had remembered that, she would never have agreed or made the choice to have David. David, in her dream, said to her, “But I chose you.”
The minute I read that, the solar lights on the wind chime began flashing on and off. Even if the light from the ceiling fan had affected the chimes, they would not, for five minutes, with a bright flashing light, fired on for two seconds, off for two seconds. It was not explicable.
But there were light stories to follow.
Zach’s friend, Gina, tells a similar story of being at her father’s and having the light in her bedroom flash in the same way. “I knew it was Jay (Zach),” she tells me. “I asked my father if the light had ever done that before, and he said no. But it flashed for me in the night, and it flashed in the morning. It was Jay.”
Zach’s friend, Julia, tells of music coming on and interrupted, of computer screens leaving messages when no one has touched the keyboard.
I end with this July light story. I had been leading a workshop as a part of a Summer Soulstice Art Fest in Zach’s honor. I came home with my friend Nancy, a playwright, who was helping me with the workshop. I had kept a brave face, but the workshop was wearing on me, and we got home around 9:00 p.m., and we were tired. As soon as the garage door went up to let us in, the light fixture in the dining room starting flashing in the same way as the solar windchime had. It continued during our entire dinner.
My friend Jamia, who was also there for dinner, went in to work the next day stupified. She could make no sense of her second “light episode.” Our Catholic friend at work pulled Jamia aside. “I have an amazing story,” she said in a low voice. “Last night as I lay in bed, I was worried about all of you. I said for Zach to send a sign that he was all right–to help you. I told him not to let me know anything tonight, because I thought I might be scared, but I asked him to let me know. This morning, when I went into the bathroom and turned the lights on, they flashed on and off like a disco, like a party. They haven’t done that before or since.”
“What time was that?” Jamia asked.
Our colleague at work later told us that days after Zach had died, he came to her. He said he was fine—to tell us he was fine. She had never known Zach, and she thought she might be imagining the message, so she never told us until months later. “He told me to tell you something about a sun tattoo so you would know this was real, and he told me he came to me because I’m Catholic and would believe a spirit story.”
As Zach grew older, his tattoos were a point of contention. He designed each one and felt they were artistic expressions. He poked fun at my saying tattoos showed a lack of refinement.
His forearm was full of red emanating sunrays. Did he always know he would live in the light sooner than the rest of us?
It has been two years and seven months since Zach’s accident. Yesterday on the phone his aunt told me that the lights in her kitchen flicker inexplicably at significant moments; her son Gregg, Zach’s cousin, who was extremely close to Zach, reminds her about the manipulation of electromagnetic fields.
I have tried to read pieces on quantum physics in an effort to bridge the gap between physics and metaphysics, but my scientific background is limited. Still, I consider the immense possibilities.
Lest anyone think the Light offered such hope that the grief could not come crashing in at any moment, I remind those grieving of the analogy of waves that crash in and drown the griever unexpectedly. That comparison is apt. In fact, as Glennon Doyle has written, once you survive such grief, you are put back together as an entirely different person.
I felt after Zach’s passing as if I lived with a foot in two different worlds. One was a spiritual plane in which every thought seemed like a pleading prayer. One was the physical world where I grew increasingly withdrawn and solitary. I avoided most big social gatherings, preferring the company of small groups of friends who had loved Zach, too.
I still could not read any information about the accident itself, avoided movies or plays that might trigger grief, and grew close in heart to those who reached out to me with their own grief and love for Zach, or Jay as his friends in New York called him. Zach’s close friend Natalie wrote:
The day after the service Leo, Ben, Nick, Pablo, Adriano and myself went to Jay’s apartment. I think we all just wanted to be around his things and try and feel some of his energy. It was such a beautiful day. We all decided that we wanted and needed to go see the site of the accident. We knew that they had already put the “ghost bike” as a memorial. Together we walked the route of the last few blocks he would have ridden. It was such a tranquil view along the street. We brought flowers and lit candles. We cried and held one another. At some point a man approached us. His name was Charlie. He started to tell us that he was there when it happened and how sorry he was for our loss. I finally had someone to ask. I asked him, “Please tell me, was he alone?” He took my hand and shook his head. “No, no he wasn’t alone. He was not by himself. Immediately people came to him. They held his hand. They stayed with him.”
We all just broke down. He again said how sorry he was and left us. We tried to leave and made it just across the street. We were so overcome by speaking with Charlie, and personally I was so relieved and given some peace. Moments later another man came up to us. He was visibly shaken and had tears in his eyes. His name was Charles. He lived across the street and also had been there. He gave his condolences and said he was willing to talk to us if we wanted to know anything. We all agreed that yes we wanted to know. Again, I said to him that I was so afraid that he was alone, by himself. He also looked at me and said, “Oh no, not at all.” One of the first people to Jay was a woman who I believe he said was an ER surgeon who just happened to be on the street. Charles said that she immediately checked all of his vital signs. He next saw her stroke his hair, put her hand on his chest and drop her head. There was no suffering; he was gone. Even still, others held his hand and stayed with him. The fire department was the first to arrive within five minutes. He said they placed a white sheet over him with such care and dignity. They were reverent in covering him up, gently lifting his head to place the sheet under him. Charles said that he witnessed so much love and compassion come out of the neighborhood at that moment.
Jay was not with us when he left us, but he was not alone. He was cared for, held and comforted. We walked away from that experience feeling like we had been given a gift. A sense of peace and a different perspective to what went on that morning on that corner. We were not just acquaintances of Jay. We were family. It was no coincidence that both of these men, who themselves were clearly affected by the experience, were there at that moment. They were meant to tell us their story.
In times of grief, those who love your loved one–and those who love you enough to reach out and care for you–become an invaluable net and network of caring. I know now better how to care for others because of the ways I have been lifted up. I, too, have witnessed so much love and compassion.
Even within your grieving, especially if you have others to care for, you find moments when your heart breaks because you cannot ease someone else’s pain; you know from your own agony that being there for the one who is hurting sometimes is all that can be done.
Almost three years after Zach’s accident, my young friend and godchild, Annie, came to me with something she had written: “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.
Do you remember that time we came to New York when I was little and you took us to a dimly lit restaurant? I got to sit at the bar with you when it stood taller than I did. You said you’d be right back and left. We ordered our food and got our food and ate before you got back. Around 45 minutes later, you were back and told me you were doing errands. And that whole time I waited, I just looked forward to when you would come back. It really didn’t even feel like waiting. So now, I find myself waiting again. And I really hope this time, I can feel like that again. Not counting how many minutes you’ve been gone. But just being so excited to see you again that I could sit here unwavering once more.
All my love,
After I read her beautiful writing, I curled into a ball and wept in a dark room. She came in minutes later, held me, and cried, too. It was one of the most poignant moments of my life, and I could say very little except that I believed her image of waiting to be excited once again to see him was a true and valid hope. The reasons I believe that are in this book.
Dusk falls about 8 pm, and I walk with my dog Brinkley up toward the woods in the twilight. My beloved son has been gone for… how long? One day flows into the next, and when I wake up, he’s still gone.
I say a prayer aloud that my son will lift to the light, find peace, be safe and happy. Immediately, I see the deer, standing perfectly still and staring at me against the background of the deep woods.
I tell Brinkley to sit, and together we stare at the deer, and the animal does not look away or run. There is a palpable peace and energy that surrounds us all. We are perfectly still for at least five minutes, as is the deer, staring. He or she turns his head once or twice but returns to look straight at us. Brinkley does not bark.
Soon, another walker and her dog bounds over the hill from the opposite direction, and the deer jumps the low fence into the woods.
When Brinkley and I return from our walk, I look up the spiritual significance of deer in multiple Google searches. This is what I find:
This spirit guide might show up in your life to encourage you to trust your instinct.
A deer is a symbol of life regeneration and heart energy.
Should a deer come into your life, look for new perceptions and degrees of perceptions to grow and expand.
The deer is a spirit guide to develop sensitivity and intuitive powers. If the deer has chosen you, you may be called to develop sensitivity, refine intuition, psychic abilities, or intuition to reach farther out.
Deer is a messenger of serenity, can see between shadows and hear what isn’t being said.
The following morning, at 6 am, I take both dogs up the hill on the chance that the deer might appear again in the same place. The dogs are distracted, rooting around in the tall grass to my right. Wonder of wonders, there are two deer in the same place as last night. One, just like the deer of the previous evening, stands still again and stares, though the other pays no attention. I do not want the dogs to notice or bark or run toward the deer, so I catch the gaze of the animal for about 30 seconds, and she does not move. I begin to walk in the opposite direction so the dogs will follow me home, but I look over my shoulder at the animal beside the woods. All the way home, as long as I can see him or her, she doesn’t drop her gaze.
One afternoon while walking in June—unexpectedly, even to myself—I say aloud, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Where did that come from?
Not ten feet away, a single deer bounds past my left shoulder, out of nowhere. When I look to see where the deer has gone, s/he has disappeared.
Days, weeks follow, and I search the tree line for any sign, any deer at all; I never see the deer again. I’d like to say I have a sense of peace about what all this means, but I just put it out there.
I had a strong sense, not that Zach was present, but some other guide or force. What all this means, I’m unsure, but I’m trying to trust my instincts and intuition.
Zach was present to many other people who communicated to me long before I was able to feel his presence. From friends he had met in Albany, NY, came reports of his presence as a blue light, his presence in meditation, his visits as “swishes,” and in electrical malfunctions, in music and light.
I was helped in interpreting these signs by my friend Robin who had lost her son years before and guided me through the land mines of grief and the presence of hopeful signs. One of the most meaningful ways she opened my eyes was by sharing the book Orbs, edited by Sandra Underwood. The book has more than 250 photographs of orb-sightings from around the world. Robin exposed me to the work of Dr. William Tiller and Dr. Klaus Heinemann, both formerly of Stanford University, who acknowledge that the advent of digital cameras has allowed many people to experience the round, usually circular energy that can hover around us. For the more scientifically minded, writings by Heinemann, Ph.D and professor of Research in Materials Science at Stanford University, are available.
Robin showed me photographs she had taken in her own yard, full of orbs of what she described as spiritual energy. Her stories reminded me of my favorite Annie Dillard quote: “There are angels in those fields, and, I presume, in all fields, and everywhere else. I would go to the lions for this conviction, to witness this fact. What all this means about perception, of language, or angels, or my own sanity, I have no idea.”
Each year on the anniversary of Zach’s accident, my close friends go with me on excursions out of town, away from the places where I first heard the news of his accident, away from the places I stood immobile and alone, away from the memory of waiting to board the plane for New York to confront the unimaginable and impossible on the day he passed away. (I have since left the house and the city where I stood in these horribly reminiscent moments. Whether that leaving has been cowardly or brave, I cannot say.)
On the second anniversary of the excursion with my friends, two different cameras that had taken totally ‘normal’ photos otherwise, captured tiny orbs–one that followed behind me as I walked bundled against the wind along the beach, and one that rested in the crook of my arm where once I had held the baby Zach.
The effect of talking with mediums is the most difficult to understand and convey, but also life-changing. I have some fear about recounting even the most superficial of the things I learned, but for those who know despair and desperation, you will know why I went to the lengths I did.
I read about respected mediums, and although many books were paradigm-shifting, one of the most helpful ones was The Light Between Us by Laura Lynne Jackson.
The first medium I consulted was one referred to me by a friend. We consulted by Skype, and she channeled Zach’s words to my partner of decades and to me, knowing family dynamics, intimate incidents, and complex relationships in our family. She spoke in Zach’s phrasing with his vocabulary and timing. She offered predictions/suggestions about our moving, which we did, and about our future directions, which Zach seemed to understand; time will tell if some of them prove to be true, though some of them already have. For instance, he talked about a new baby in our family, which I learned months later had been born during the month we were talking with the medium. He talked about his presence with us and his perspective, his love and his peace. All of this was more than comforting.
He refused to come through to a second medium, which we traveled to see at some expense. Even though she seemed to know things about other deceased relatives and about the accident itself, Zach was clearly not coming directly to or through her. He told us later through the first medium, whom we talked with again, that we should have known he would not speak through the second person, who was, he said, uptight and, believe it or not, too conventional. A medium can be too conventional?
Over the course of the three years following Zach’s accident, we consulted four mediums, two of which were comforting and incredibly plugged in to Zach’s personality, and two of which, although perhaps gifted in some ways, not helpful in easing our grief. A fifth medium, came to us.
At the time, I was going to a counselor who was a devout Catholic and a mystic, and he did not discourage me from exploring the mystical. He was perhaps the most helpful ally of all because he seemed to understand the sacred relationship between us and the spiritual realm and confided that he had seen and spoken to angels. He was an older man, calm and believable.
The incident, though, that gave me the most peace of all and set my mind at rest about searching for a constant connection with Zach occurred two and a half years after his passing. I was checking my phone messages, and this came through from someone I didn’t know, who didn’t know me:
“I hope this is not out of your wheelhouse
but I was told to send you a message and I am here.
He wanted me to tell you he is okay and he is happy and he is around and misses and loves you.”
I later talked to this messenger by phone and found she had known Zach for two years in Brooklyn but had since moved to the opposite coast. I had not sought this message out, except in prayer. It came to me from across the country and settled my spirit.