From Hunter’s perspective the therapy sessions with Wendy Krispie had not gone well. He saw her twice a week and, each time he left her office, felt like Krispie had done her best to deconstruct the unique and beautiful gift which death had given him. The truth was, he did not want to renounce his near death experience as fantasy and, in fact, he could not. To do so would mean that, in essence, his reality did not exist: if the NDE was not real then everything, especially his intuition which he could not function without, became a flimsy facade, like one of those movie set towns in the old Western films.
So, after three weeks, Hunter discontinued his appointments with Krispie. And during the same time period his insomnia worsened and, if that was not enough, he began having trouble enjoying meals and was losing weight. Bags, the color of bruised peaches, appeared under his eyes.
Alarmed by these physical changes and his mental exhaustion, Hunter asked himself: What would make me feel better? The answer that came to mind was: I would feel better if one person in the world would listen to my story and believe it, believe that what I experienced was real. I need a support group, Hunter thought.
Each time he had tried to segue into some portion of his near death experience with Mandy she had let him know: “Those stories,” (which she had not even given him permission to talk about yet) “leave a very bad taste in my mouth.” In fact, they made her ill, she said, and were, besides, in her opinion, detrimental to Hunter’s recovery. Mandy informed Hunter unequivocally that she would not listen to anything having to do with his death. Subject, closed! “Maybe someday I’ll feel up to it,” she would offer as a weak consolation.
Hunter conducted a search online and found an NDE (Near Death Experience) support group that met in Lancaster, 86 miles north, an hour-and-forty-minute drive away. It met at seven p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. It so happened that the group was meeting that very week at the Lancaster Public Library. So Hunter picked up a burger on his way out of town and arrived for the meeting a half hour early.
At first it seemed the group might provide precisely what Hunter came for. But the longer the discussion continued the less he found himself fitting in with the group’s participants. Of the seven other attendees, it was clear that two were mentally unstable and if not on psychiatric meds, obviously needed them. Three other participants, two women and a man, kept steering the conversation towards alien abductions and were angry that the United States government had suppressed “known documents” proving that aliens existed, as well as the truth about the goings on at Area 51, for so long. One man added nothing to the conversation except to interject “That’s bullshit!” at points which made it dubious as to whether he agreed or disagreed with what had just been said. The leader of the group, in Hunter’s opinion, was a poor facilitator, which undermined Hunter’s confidence in him as an informed person on NDEs, even though he did refer to his own near death experience three or four times during the course of the evening.
Everyone was friendly, however, and the facilitator did, at one point, ask Hunter to explain why he was in attendance that evening and to give the group a brief description of his “inconvenient truth,” meaning the experience that his family and social circle did not want to hear. One thing seemed clear to Hunter—and something all the members of the group had in common—which was that these people had been ostracized by friends, family, and society for trying to share their stories with others.
On the drive home Hunter decided two things: first, the NDE group in Lancaster was not for him and, second, he needed to revise his statement about what would make him feel better which he did by adding one crucial word: I will feel better if one rational human being in the world hears my story and believes it’s true.
At nine a.m. the next morning, Hunter received a phone call from his stepfather, Stan Merrill. The last Hunter heard, his mother had come home from the hospital and was recovering nicely from her recent surgery. Hunter felt some guilt for not having made time to visit his mom since her surgery, but Mandy had visited Mrs. Carr as a representative of the whole family and had reported back that she had “good color” and was “chipper” throughout their visit.
The call on Hunter’s cell phone came up as “Mom & Stan” so Hunter answered it.
“Hello Hunter; this is Stan.” It was exactly how Stan Merrill began every telephone conversation and in the same tone of voice he always used—businesslike.
“Hi Stan; how’s Mom getting along?” Hunter replied.
“Well, that’s why I’m calling. Not too well, I’m afraid. You’d probably better come over.”
“Stan, what’s going on?” asked Hunter.
“Meredith had a bad night last night.”
“And I should come over because Mom had a bad night? How bad was it?”
“Really bad,” answered Stan.
Then something happened that Stan had not done before: he allowed his tone of voice to become fatherly as he continued his explanation.
“Hunter, Meredith is in and out of consciousness. Son, I don’t think she’s going to make it through the morning. It might be good— I mean, it would be good if you and Mandy and Greta came as soon as possible. I know Meredith would like to see you.”
“Where is she? Is she at home?”
“Yes, we’re at home. We have hospice here, too.”
“Stan, I had no idea things were—so advanced. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”
“I know you didn’t know. And thank you for coming on such short notice. I’ll tell Meredith you’re on your way.”
Stan hung up.
In thirty minutes Hunter, Mandy, and Greta were escorted by the hospice nurse down the long hallway and back to the guest bedroom of the Carr-Merrill home. Mrs. Carr had insisted that the hospital bed be placed in the guest room, so to not disarrange her own bedroom or Stanley’s during her illness. She insisted on this arrangement as if her illness was a temporary inconvenience that would run its course, after which everything would easily return to normal. Meredith Carr had always been a stubborn optimist.
Hunter, Mandy, and Greta found Mrs. Carr sitting up, dressed in a beautiful satin robe, with a powder-yellow turban concealing her hair. Her face was ashen except for the pink rouge that had been lightly brushed on her hollow cheeks and the pale rose lipstick, applied to the thin line of her mouth. Greta led the way to the bed and her grandmother accepted her with open arms.
“Come here my darling,” she said weakly.
Crying, Greta came to Mrs. Carr and embraced her.
“It’s so good to see you at last. Sorry grand-mummy could not fix up more for you. I know I’m an awful sight; I’m just so tired right now. But let me look at you. My, you are beautiful, my dear.”
Next came Mandy, tears wetting her cheeks, to embrace Mrs. Carr.
“We’re so sorry Meredith; we had no idea,” she whispered in her mother-in-law’s ear.
“I’m just tired today but it sure is good of you to come. I’d hoped you would.”
It was at that moment that Mrs. Carr appeared to lose consciousness momentarily. The hospice caregiver immediately stepped forward, grabbed the cord with the button at the end, and began adjusting the bed towards a reclined position. Mrs. Carr revived as the bed hummed and eased her back. The nurse pulled up one of the side rails and locked it.
Hunter took his mother’s hand and rubbed it gently.
“Mom, I’m here.” He bent and kissed her cheek.
“Missy? Missy? Burt, where’s Missy? I can’t find her.” Mrs. Carr’s eyes opened and rolled in search of her daughter.
“Mom, she’ll be here. Holly’s in California but she’ll be here as soon as she can.”
“Oh Hunter,” said Mrs. Carr, recognizing her son’s face close to hers.
Stan read the moment and, with a gesture, invited everyone out of the room to give his wife and her son time alone. Everyone quietly complied.
“Mom, everything’s going to be all right. You don’t have to be afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” she asked innocently.
“Afraid of dying,” Hunter answered.
“Oh Hunter, I’m not dying. I’m only sick. I just had major surgery.”
“Okay Mom. But we all die sometime and what I want to tell you is that there’s nothing to be afraid of. I know because I died and it was the most wonderful experience of my life—”
“If you died then how are you here?” interrupted Mrs. Carr. “Did I miss your funeral?”
The tone of her question was earnest, not sardonic.
“Did you know Burt came to see me?” she added. “I attended his funeral; I do know that.”
“Mom, you saw Dad?”
“When was that?”
“Right after surgery.”
“Yes, of course, this surgery!” She sounded exasperated at having to explain herself. “When I woke up, I was in a room all by myself and I felt very lonely. Well, then, someone came and pulled the curtain back. I was expecting the surgeon or the nurse, you know, to tell me how things went. But instead, there was Burt, smiling like the cat who had eaten the canary. I said, ‘Burt, how did you get here?’ He said, ‘I just flew in.’ then pointed at the ceiling and winked. He sat on the bed and we talked a while. Then he said he had to get back. To where I don’t know. He kissed me on the forehead and his mouth was wet as it always is and he said, ‘I’ll see you in a little while, okay sugar?’ He always calls me sugar. Then he left. Oh, and he fluffed my pillow, too. I knew Burt was dead, but I didn’t know you were dead too, son.”
“Mom, I’m not dead but I did die. But after I died I returned to my body and came back to life. Mom, you remember the pool accident?”
“Yes, I remember you scared all of us to death. Poor Mandy and Greta, how they must have worried.”
“That’s when it happened. That’s when I died, Mom; but then I came back; and now I’m alive again.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” Mrs. Carr asked.
“Mom, I did tell you but you wouldn’t believe me. Anyway, where I went, while I was out of my body, was a wonderful place and I’d love to tell you about it. It was so beautiful and I had a guide who answered all of my questions about life and showed me things I could never imagined existed. So, Mom, I’d really like to tell you a little about my experience while we have time, if it’s okay.”
“Did you see Burt?”
“No, Mom, I didn’t see Dad. I just thought, maybe you’d like to know what the place is like where Dad is—what death is like.”
Mrs. Carr chuckled weakly.
“I’m sure it’s different for everyone, son. But to tell you the truth, I think knowing would spoil the surprise. I’m rather fond of surprises; I always have been. And not to change the subject, darling, but I’ve wanted to tell you and haven’t had the chance lately, how proud I am of you for all you’ve accomplished.”
Mrs. Carr’s voice was little more than a whisper and talking seemed to wind her.
“Thank you, Mom, but I really don’t know what I’ve accomplished. And at this point it doesn’t feel like much.”
“Silly boy,” she whispered then coughed. “You have a successful career, a beautiful wife and daughter, a lovely home, plus you’re handsome and smart. What more could anyone ask for?”
“But those all seems like gifts rather than accomplishments,” said Hunter.
“The Good Book teaches: To him who has much, more shall be given. But he who has nothing, even that which he has, shall be taken away. So you see, Son: because you have used your gifts well, God has blessed you with more,” said Mrs. Carr.
Hunter did not understand the point of his mother’s Bible lesson but he smiled at her anyway, patted her hand, and thanked her for her pearls of wisdom that, as it turned out, where to be her last.
Later, during her morning nap, after Hunter, Mandy, and Greta had finished their visit and gone, Mrs. Carr lapsed into unconsciousness and died before dinner.
The funeral was held the following Wednesday. Meredith Carr’s wishes were that her body be cremated. So instead of a casket, parked below the pulpit, there stood a rich walnut table and, on the table, an intricate lace doily and, on the doily stood, a silver urn, containing Mrs. Carr’s ashes. Beside the table was an easel, displaying a large portrait photo of Mrs. Carr holding a pair of roses—one for each of her two children. The portrait was in sepia tones and mounted in a smooth wooden frame of black lacquer. Everything was painfully tasteful and completely void of sentimentality.
The service was held at the large, old, beautiful, brownstone and brick Episcopal church in Reinville. Its interior featured vaulted ceilings that echoed the solemn words of the minister as he spoke, and walls of arched, stained glass windows, depicting seven of Christ’s miracles, performed over the course of his brief ministry on Earth. The windows showered the congregation with flames of color.
The only odd thing Hunter noticed was his mother’s name in the printed program for the service. Her name was given as: “Meredith Dawn Carr-Merrill.” She had never gone by Carr-Merrill or any hyphenated last name. Her last name had always and only been Carr since her first marriage. Hunter suspected that Stan had had a hand in the alteration of his mother’s name for the funeral program. Perhaps Stan had resented his wife not taking his name, after all. But Hunter figured Stan had earned at least that small claim on his mother’s identity and was not offended by it.
It surprised Hunter that the church was full. He hardly knew any of the people attending. It appeared, however, that most in attendance that day were either friends, relatives, or former business associates of Stan Merrill who came to pay their respects, if not to Meredith per se, then to Stan. A handful of Hunter’s work associates from Matuka & Moore also attended, including Hunter’s administrative assistant, Jan Towner, and Gene Moore, M and M’s President.
At the close of the service, Gene Moore found Hunter, shook his hand, gave him a card, and said, “Condolences, Hunter, to you and your family from all of us at the firm. You’re in our thoughts.”
Hunter had purchased tickets for his sister, Holly, and her daughter to fly out to be at the funeral and to stay a couple of days afterward at his home. But at the last minute he received a text message from his sister saying she was sorry but it was impossible for her to miss work at that time. So neither Holly nor her daughter attended Mrs. Carr’s funeral. But Hunter was aware that Holly harbored lingering resentment over problems she and their mother had had in the past. Apparently, those conflicts had not been resolved to Holly’s satisfaction at the time of Mrs. Carr’s death.
Following the church service there was a motorcade out to Hillside Cemetery where Mrs. Carr’s urn was to be buried. Hunter, Mandy, and Greta rode together in one of the large, black SUVs, provided by the funeral home for the family.
“Dad, did Grandma ever live in Reinville?” asked Greta.
“No,” answered Hunter.
“Then why is she being buried here?”
“It’s where she and Stan bought plots, I suppose.”
“Did Stan used to live here?”
“I’m not sure but I don’t think so.”
“This is ridiculous!” said Greta. “Grandma’s having her ashes buried when they could be sprinkled somewhere nice, like at the ocean. And she’s being buried in a town where she’s never lived! How are we supposed to visit her?”
“I guess Mom wanted us to make a special effort. Otherwise, maybe she thought it wouldn’t mean as much.”
“To whom?” demanded Greta. “She’s dead so it won’t mean more to her. Even dead, she’s a pain in the ass!” said Greta resentfully.
“Shhhh! Greta!” scolded Mandy. “She’s your grandmother and you will respect her. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mom, but it’s still ridiculous.” Greta stared out the window and sulked.
It was a brief graveside service. It was a chilly afternoon and the wind bit through the mourners’ suits and dresses and through the pastor’s vestments. He stammered as he read the Twenty-Third Psalm. Some parts of the cemetery were sheltered by maples, sycamores, clusters of spruce, and trios of birches that burned brilliant yellow in the afternoon light and released, only grudgingly, their radiant leaves one at a time. But the plot where Mrs. Carr’s grave lay was in the open, where the cold winds marauded.
Hunter’s mind could not focus on the minister’s words nor on his mother nor on any of the people around him, and not even on the biting cold. Instead his mind went blank. All he could do was watch the birches, in their shimmering yellow leaves, and smell the fragrant air and listen to the mockingbird that sang from her nearby perch, atop the spruce tree that smelled like Christmas. And then inexplicably, Hunter began to weep.
He did not cry out of grief for his mother. He cried for Beauty’s sake. Beauty had overwhelmed him. How many years since childhood had he not noticed Her? Yet, She had never left and here She was, waiting for him in the cemetery. So as he stood at his mother’s grave, Hunter found Beauty once again. And She was as immaculate as ever. She, it seemed to Hunter, was his true mother and had not died. But for many years, he had ignored Her, had failed to embrace Her in love, and had not even noticed his sin. But as mothers do, Beauty drew him to Herself and kissed him on that radiant sunlit afternoon. And that was why he wept.
That evening Mandy paid special attention to Hunter and Greta stayed home. They watched a movie together. Mandy curled up beside her husband on the leather sofa in the family room, under a blanket, and she and Hunter held hands as the movie played. Greta had her own blanket, pulled up to her chin, and sat like a bird in a nest in the leather recliner nearby. For Mandy this was what family was supposed to feel like. Even Hunter seemed more relaxed and she noticed he smiled at the funny scenes in the film.
Before the movie ended Greta’s phone signaled that she had received a text from one of her best friends. So she excused herself and went down the hallway to her bedroom to exchange texts with her compadre about the latest tidbit of gossip. At the end of the movie Mandy felt no hurry to leave the cozy comfort of the blanket beside her husband. It felt as if they were reconnecting, something Mandy had longed for. Not since the accident had she felt as close to Hunter as she did that evening. And Hunter, too, seemed receptive to the intimacy they shared. Of late he had been cold and restless when they were together but not that evening. He had finally let his guard down and Mandy wanted to make the most of the opportunity it presented.
“Sweetheart?” she said softly.
“With your mother and the funeral and everything, it seemed it was never the right time to ask, but I’ve wondered: How did things go at the support group up in Lancaster? I mean, was it helpful? A positive experience?”
“No, it wasn’t very helpful, as a matter of fact. Most of the people there were kooks, though likable kooks, I must admit. Three of them kept talking about alien abductions and Area 51, that sort of stuff.”
“Really?” Mandy giggled.
“Yeah, really. So, you know, I felt a little out of place. I just expected something different, I guess. And there was this one guy—I think his name was Larry, or something like that—the only thing he said the whole night was: That’s bullshit!”
“What?” chortled Mandy.
“Yeah, a fellow named Bruce—one of the three abducted by aliens—said: ‘After my second abduction, two men in black suits—CIA, Military Intelligence, National Security; I never found out who they were, detained me for two whole days at a secret PsyOps location and ran all kinds of medical experiments on me. Most of the time I was out of it because of the drugs they gave me. But some of it I can remember quite clearly.’ ‘That’s bullshit!’ said Larry. But I couldn’t tell if Larry meant the story was bullshit or that Bruce getting abducted by men in black and them running experiments on him was bullshit!” Hunter laughed.
Mandy laughed, too.
“And he did that all night, anytime anyone made a comment,” said Hunter.
Sharing this light moment with Hunter made Mandy feel good and made her sorry for getting off to a rocky start after his release from the hospital.
“Honey, I know you’ve wanted to talk about your experience, your out-of-body experience, and I want to apologize that I haven’t been a very receptive listener. But did you get a chance to talk about those things with the support group?”
“Yes, a little,” said Hunter. “But it didn’t have the cathartic effect I’d hoped for; I think because it seemed like the majority of the group there were emotionally, if not mentally, unstable. In other words, it didn’t feel like validation to proclaim my sanity in the middle of a psych ward and have all of the residents agree with me. You see what I mean?”
“Yes, sweetheart, I do.”
“I need someone I can respect to hear my story and tell me that such a reality is possible. That’s what I want.”
“And you think I can do that?” Mandy asked.
“Yes, well, I thought so but—”
“I’m kind of limited as to whom I can tell my story. I’m mean, who else is there? Right from the beginning, Wendy Krispie made it clear it was her job to debunk everything I told her. So she wasn’t really listening. She was judging and planning her next move, like we were playing chess. But to answer your question: I’m not sure you would believe me, either.”
“Honey, I truly believe that your experience is real to you.”
“But you can’t believe that it actually happened, that a part of me went where it did and saw and felt the things I saw and felt. That part is impossible for you to believe is real.”
“Reality is a difficult thing to define,” said Mandy.
“Right. It depends on whose reality we’re talking about and whether or not it conforms to the realities of everyone else, doesn’t it. And if my reality doesn’t conform, well then, we can conveniently classify it as a pseudo-reality, mysticism, or a drug induced hallucination, which is where my experience falls. And I know the whole argument about ‘lack of oxygen to the brain’ and all that. But this was not like a dream, Mandy. This was far more. More than what we know as normal reality. This reality was so far beyond normal that no one, not even the most creative person alive, could possibly invent it. The depth and breadth of knowledge alone that I had access to, I mean, that alone was nothing short of phenomenal. The scenery, the places were truly unimaginable. There’s no way in hell that a brain, starving for oxygen, can function at such a level to invent that type of reality. It was simply beyond the scope of human function. I swear it was, Mandy. And the only explanation that makes any sense at all is that it had to be real. I mean, human beings of every culture have, for the duration of our species’s history, believed in an afterlife. Maybe there’s something to it, you know? Maybe there is another reality beyond this physical world. Only we can’t understand it because we’re trapped in this reality. One thing I know and I know it with every fiber of my being: No matter what anyone else says or thinks, I know my experience will always be real.”
Mandy looked down at her hands folded in her lap; she could not look Hunter in the eye. Then she began brushing tears from her cheeks quickly in a futile attempt to hide them but soon gave up because they came too quickly. They fell on her pajamas.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she reached for a box of tissues.
“Mandy, I’ve upset you. I’m sorry, baby,” said Hunter, putting his arm around her shoulders. “What is it? What did I say that made you feel bad? Please tell me what I said.”
“Only the truth,” answered Mandy. Her voice quavered.
“I know now that what I feared could happen has happened,” she stammered.
“Honey, what has happened?”
“But change is the one constant in life; we all change. When we learn, we grow, and when we grow, we change. You and I have both changed a lot since we’ve known each other. It’s not a bad thing! Please, baby, don’t cry.”
“But I liked who we were before your stupid accident. I loved who you were. You were confident and irreverent and vain and you could be an asshole at times, but you were also charming. And those were the qualities that made you charming. But now, you’re not any of that and I’ll probably never see the other Hunter again—my Hunter.”
Mandy began to sob.
“I only want you back. That’s all I want,” she cried.
That night as Hunter lay in bed, he thought about what Mandy said, the phrase she used: “the other Hunter.” How maddening it was that she could not embrace him for whom he had become. After all, he had not asked to be changed! It was the same as a soldier returning to his wife from the war but missing a limb, and finding that she could not love him because he was different. How utterly unfair of Mandy to be that way thought Hunter.