December 15, 2017

George, Mildred and the Thin Places

Photo by M. Burgoyne, http://www.thinplace.net

The three of us sat together and talked, as we had many times before — the old WWII vet, his daughter, his son, and me their pastor. They had designated me such, ever since I had been hospice chaplain for his wife and their mother Mildred, a lovely woman with Alzheimer’s disease. Upon occasion, when I visited, she would sing and “dance,” her body swaying to a melody in her mind the rest of us could not hear.

Her husband George, wheelchair bound, has had health problems of his own. He also has the most positive, sunny spirit of anyone I’ve met, despite having faced challenges I could not imagine. After two solid years of war zone action, hopping from island to island in the Pacific in WWII, seeing the majority of his companions killed, witnessing untold horrors, he came home to Mildred a broken man. It took him three years to stop having vivid nightmares, to be able to think, to be able to plan their future. With faith and sheer force of will he went into business for himself and became successful. They raised a family and experienced the post-war prosperity of middle America.

At one point, his business burned down. George turned to the insurance company, who called the fire suspicious and never did pay off. Somehow, they survived, rebuilt their lives, and went on. They had each other, loving children, a spirit of optimism, and Mildred’s music. She played the organ in church, and at home around the house was always singing. At times they had little more than that music to carry them through.

When they grew older and more frail, it became clear that Mildred had dementia. The songs in her mind were the only sounds that made sense. George was heartbroken. The two of them had been through so much together, and now she seemed far away. He could touch her, see her, talk to her, but Mildred was somewhere else. And so it it was George in his chair and Mildred swaying back and forth, a caregiver insuring her safety and supporting both of them in their final season of life together.

Mildred’s disease progressed and she became a hospice patient. I made several visits and we became friends. Though their faith was strong, they had not been able to attend church and it seemed like church forgot about them, hidden away in their senior apartment. So it was that I became a pastor of sorts to them, continuing to visit long after Mildred passed away and I conducted her service.

For the past two years, George has continued to amaze and inspire me. He has been through some heart problems and surgery. He has painful arthritis and has had to give up the idea that he might walk again. His hearing has steadily diminished, and the other day when I visited I discovered he could no longer see well enough to use his computer, even though he has a large flat screen monitor. It was his lifeline to the outside world, and now he has lost that.

Yet he won’t complain. In fact, when asked, he still goes out and speaks to groups about his military and post-war experiences, helps young people understand their history, tries to inspire folks to stay positive, to never give up, to trust God and keep going.

As we sat there in his living room the other day, he told me we could put the plastic surgeons out of business if we just kept smiles on our faces.

But George had a question for me that day, too. He had been having visions of Mildred. Lying in bed, he would look over at the bathroom door, and she would be standing there, dressed nicely, smiling. When he sat up to get a closer look, she began to fade and soon she was gone. One time she was lying next to him in bed. He wondered what it meant.

I asked him how it made him feel to see her. It made him feel good, he said, when she was there. He was a little bit confused about why she did not stay.

He had asked me about this once before, but I only had a vague recollection of what I’d said then. His daughter prompted me, “I think you said something last time about how maybe this was God’s way of letting dad know that mom is ok.” I nodded.

“But George,” I said, “I think there may be something more here. Most of us have been taught to think that ‘heaven’ is a place far, far away, out there somewhere. My understanding is that it is more like another dimension all around us, right here. There’s another reality surrounding us that we can’t see, but it’s here and it’s just as real as the things we can touch. That’s God’s realm, and we call it heaven. He and our loved ones are with us, they are close to us even when we can’t see them. And for some reason, at some times, it seems like God opens the curtain a little bit and gives us a glimpse into that unseen world. There are several stories in the Bible that lead me to see it that way.”

“Maybe it’s like that verse that says, ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms,'” his daughter suggested. “Mom is just in a different room, and God cracks the door open once in awhile to remind us of that.”

I wasn’t sure about her exegesis, but she was right!

“So George, Mildred didn’t come to you from far away when you saw her those times,” I assured him. “She is here, close to you all the time. But every once in awhile, God has given you the gift of seeing her presence.”

I asked him what he thought about that, and he liked it.

His son asked, “Why is it that we’ve never seen her?”

“I wish I knew. These are great mysteries and I am only giving you my thoughts based on what I understand from my reading of the Bible and experiences I’ve had as a chaplain. I would guess that God knows who needs to have these glimpses, and he grants them to those people and not to others.”

“You know, there’s another thing,” I continued. “The Irish Christians talk about what they call ‘the thin places’ — sacred spots here on earth where it seems like the veil between heaven and this world is thin, where God makes himself known and gives special manifestations of himself.”

“George,” I said, “maybe you are a man who lives constantly near the ‘thin places’.”

We closed our visit by praying together. George smiled that steadfast smile. And somewhere close by, Mildred was dancing.

Comments

  1. Wow! This is so beautiful and moving. Thank you for sharing this story and for sharing your life with other people, through your writing and through your hospice work.

  2. Wow….straight to my heart as a woman married to my soul’s other human half, and an old hospice nurse. George is seeing his Beloved because the bonds of matrimony are stronger even than those of motherhood (at least, once the child is no longer really a child).

    Similar sign of God’s love and the bond beween spouses: I was caring for a elderly lady who was at home with a paid caregiver, while her husband was in a nursing home. They were both Hospice patients with different diagnoses and probable length of time in this world. While I was in the little bungalow that had been their home for forty years, my patient, who had been in a coma for four days, sat up in bed and clealy stated “Herman? (pause) Really, it is time? (pause) Allright, darling, I will….I love you!” At this point she laid back down and was dead within 3 minutes.

    The phone rang a few minutes later to let us know her husband had also died, during the time that our little lady was “talking” before her own death. The nurse who had been with the husband told us that his last words were “Ethel, sweetie, it is time for us to go home. Take my hand, darling…”

    Needless to say, there are very FEW atheists in hospice…..the signs are all around you, every day. Moving through the sheer curtains from this room to the next is so normal and beautiful, at least under the best of settings.

    • Breathtaking. Thank you.

    • Just about burst into tears, Pattie!

      I’ve never been sure about the veracity of these kinds of stories, or whether God would do/allow this kind of thing, but like you all are saying, there are things we don’t understand, mysteries, and we shouldn’t rule experiences like this out.

      Lovely story, too, Mike.

    • Wow, Pattie — this brought tears to my eyes. Hospice work is so difficult on so many levels, but how fortunate you and CM are to witness scenes like this!

  3. It seems so important to have the attitude that there are many things that we truly don’t understand. these are beautiful mysteries. truly remarkable.

  4. CM, at the risk of sounding crazy, I had a dream the other night about a conversation with an old gentleman who was talking to me about the “afterlife”. In it, he made a statement something along the lines of “Do you really believe that death is so far removed from what you call life? Life never ends. God has only placed a thin veil between you and those who have journeyed on to meet Him. Too many people are looking for a doorway, or some tunnel leading to “the other”, but it’s only a veil. It’s as thin as the pages in a book.”

    Sounds strange, I know…but the dream was very vivid. I believe there are “thin places”, maybe not necessarily in the world, but in our hearts.

    “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” (I Corinthians 13:12)

    • Lee, I’m past the point of calling anyone “crazy” when they tell me of experiences like that. It is not that I accept everything I hear at face value, and I can often tell if what someone is saying is just an emotional reaction to some trauma, but many times I just listen and affirm that God must necessarily work beyond what I understand.

  5. Chaplain,

    I’m a firm believer that we have in our time (at least in the West) lost touch with the fact that just b/c we can’t see or touch something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I’ve had too many similar experiences to question otherwise.

    I think the flip side is true as well. We, even Christians, fail to realize that evil is a very present reality too. That there are spiritual forces of wickedness, demons whatever one wants to call them actively at work.

    At the risk of derailing this post and taking it in another direction, I’d love to hear your thoughts on those type to things. I’ve heard amazing stories from priest I know and trust to tell the truth about expereinces they have had.

    • Agreed, Fr. Austin. I think our culture likes spirituality, but avoids mysticism. Now, I’m not running around throwing holy water on my dog if she’s salivating out the wrong side of her mouth, because I think it’s a sign of a spirit or anything…But I’ve been around the spiritual block enough to know that there are things out there happening that are beyond the reach of my own comprehension; forces of good, and forces of evil.

      I’m a little cautious of folks who tell their sensational stories boldly and often. I Corinthians 2:13-14 says “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” It’s the quiet soul, the contemplative person that will be more aware of “thin places”.

  6. Keep writing, Mike.

  7. Tomorrow is the third anniversary of my first child’s birth—unexpectedly stillborn at full term. That thin veil feels like an iron curtain today.

  8. Well this made me cry. My Mum always believed she saw her Dad (who died when she was ten) at key points in her life. She’s been gone not yet a year, & I’d love to think she was so near.

  9. John Morgan says:

    Thanks for this, I hope the Kingdom is not some long distance journey away, I really do.

  10. I have heard stories like this for much of my life, and it seems to happen quite often when an elderly person is nearing death: it’s almost as though they begin receiving visits from their loved ones who have gone ahead of them. I’m a firm believer in the thin places of the veil.

  11. Chaplain, I beg of you….no, I plead……write a book! The stories you have tucked away in your heart must be shared. What an inspiring tale! Thank you for your life, being shared here at the iMonestary! It blessed me today!

  12. George sounds like an exceptional man and he is fortunate to have you. I am reminded of my (Irish) grandmother who called out to her husband, he being deceased for 12 years, from her hospital bed, “I’m coming James.”