It was April 2020 during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, a time when not even family members were allowed to visit assisted living homes. But by the grace of God, Peggy and I were granted permission as my mother had not much longer to live.
When we arrived at the front desk, we signed in, they took our temperatures and handed us masks to wear. “91.7,” the person behind the desk said. “You’re okay to go.”
Peggy and I saw no other visitors as we got on the elevator and pressed floor three. When we got to Mom’s floor, we heard the elevator bell ding and announce… “third floor.”
We exited, then buzzed ourselves through the automatic doors to the Alzheimer’s wing. There was not a soul to be seen. The hallways were empty as all residents were confined to their rooms. It was eerily still.
Mom’s room was just around the corner.
On the door of her room, hung a photo of a much younger woman. How beautiful she was, I thought. But what matters most “is not your outer appearance—the styling of your hair, the jewelry you wear, the cut of your clothes—but your inner disposition. Cultivate inner beauty, the gentle, gracious kind that God delights in.”1 Mom was still beautiful, despite her age. She was ninety-five.
The door was slightly ajar, so Peggy and I pushed it open and quietly entered. The room seemed dark and lifeless as Mom gently slept. Only her soft breathing could we detect. It was the same room we had always visited in the past, only it seemed different this time. She did not greet us. There was no, “Hello Dear. How wonderful to see you!” Instead, Mom lay with the covers pulled up to her neck; a stuffed toy animal nestled against her cheek. Her face appeared drawn and sallow, her body thin and frail. It was difficult seeing someone you love die, although thankfully, it did not seem that she was suffering.
As I looked around the room at the many family pictures hanging on the walls and her dresser, one picture stood out to me. It was of the house I grew up in. It was a tutor-style home, originally stained a dark “chocolate” brown, now beige. However, what was missing from the photo was the tall oak tree dad planted when the family first moved to 223 Mountain Way. I remember watching that tree grow from a sapling to maturity before a storm uprooted it. The backyard now looked empty without it. How profound, I thought. Just as the tree was a memory, Mom would be too, and so also would our life be empty without her as well. Ecclesiastes 3:1-3 says, “There is a season for everything, and a time for every event under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot what was planted.”
As I stood by Mom’s bedside and Peggy sat, we took turns gently rubbing mom’s arm and squeezing her hand. Mom squeezed back. She was glad we were there.
It had been at least several weeks since Peggy and I saw Mom last due to Covid regulations. Although we were confined to her room, we had fond memories of when we took Mom for strolls outdoors or down a long-windowed corridor where we would sit, talk, reminisce, and I would play my flute for her.
Mom enjoyed listening as did patients and visitors passing by. They often stopped to make song requests, to which I obliged. It was a mini concert! Mom just loved, loved, loved it! Sometimes I would bring the flute she bought me in high school. It was a 1968 golden-era professional Haynes flute. Surprisingly, Mom remembered it, even though dementia had erased much of her memory. “Mom, what would you like me to play for you?” I would often help her by making suggestions. And she would respond, “Oh, yes dear, that would be wonderful.”
As always, I played her one of her favorite songs, “Over the Rainbow.” I never thought much about the lyrics before, but they seemed to have greater meaning now.
The Bible describes such a place as an eternal place of splendor, a paradise. Can you imagine a place such as this where “troubles melt like lemon drops,” where over the rainbow bluebirds fly? Imagine every tear will be wiped from your eyes. “Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.” How wonderful, yet sad to see Mom leave us.
As I played for her, I tried to hold it together, knowing that Mom’s dream of somewhere over the rainbow would soon be a reality. My lips started to quiver, and my eyes started to tear. I knew I would never have another opportunity to serenade her.
The notes seemed to waft in the air as if on doves’ wings, bringing with them an angelic atmosphere to the room. She lay peaceful and calm, her breathing shallow. Yet, a small smile appeared in the corners of her lips as I played for her.
DON’T YOU SEE THEM?
Suddenly, Mom began pointing. Her hand slowly moved upward in the direction of the corner of the room, then to the left, then to the right. She wanted us to see what she was seeing. As her gaze roved back and forth, her hand followed. A chill went up and down my spine. “Mom, what are you seeing?” Even though her lips did not move, I could imagine her asking, her eyes wide, “Don’t you see them?” What she was looking at, I instinctively knew, was incredibly beautiful. It is common for angels to visit people who are preparing to crossover into the other side of eternity.
But then moments later her demeanor changed from one of elation to one of terror. She pulled her blanket up tight around her neck. There on the left, she pointed towards the ceiling. We followed her gaze but saw nothing. Oddly, this reminded me of a vision my dad had one week before he died.
It was not until months later after Dad died that my mother was able to share a vision he had in the night. It was 1962, a couple of weeks before Christmas, that Mom was startled out of her sleep when my father suddenly awakened in a cold sweat, frozen in terror. He was pointing at an ominous, black-cloaked hooded featureless figure standing in the corner of their bedroom at the end of their bed. As I was young and impressionable, hearing this scared the bejeebers out of me! Had I not already been afraid of going into our basement at night or walking up the stairs to the attic where a life-size doll named “Peter Doll” greeted me and whose eyelids blinked, compounded what I was already predisposed to, fearing the unknown and what could be lurking in the dark. Was the visitation foreboding of something bad to happen? Mom would say so. She said dad believed for quite a while that he was going to die prematurely. Dad died at the early age of 37 a week later.
DECEMBER 19, 1962
It was Christmastime in our neighborhood, a quiet tree-lined street of Sycamores in a small suburb of New Jersey just outside of New York City where from my bedroom window I could see the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world. Houses across the street were decorated with brightly colored lights. Occasionally you could hear carolers out singing. As in past years, Christmas was all about making memories, love, laughter, and happiness. It was to be a joyous time with family and friends. Glistening balls and lights on the Christmas tree, opening gifts, and homemade cookies and milk by the fireplace. This year should have been no different, but tragedy struck 6-days before Christmas.
On this cold and wintry night in December, our quiet neighborhood was startled out of the warmth and comfort of their homes to a night chill, sirens, flashing lights, and emergency vehicles while I sat in the seclusion of my basement watching a Dragnet police drama on our small RCA wood grain veneer black and white console television set with rabbit ears for an antenna. I was so engrossed in the police drama that I didn’t even notice the loud and high-pitched sirens of police and ambulance vehicles outside as they were drowned out by the “Waaaaaahhhhhhh” of police sirens on the TV inside.
Earlier in the day, Dad visited our family doctor with my brother Bob, both with flu-like symptoms. However, instead of Dad going home to bed afterward, and because of his unwavering devotion to his students, he returned to conduct the high school Christmas band concert that evening. By the end of the concert, he was feeling very sick and left immediately without speaking to anyone. I did not hear Dad come home that evening.
When I came up from the basement, I at once felt the outside cold air. The front door was wide open and to my horror, police, and ambulance people were scrambling in and out. A gurney was being brought up our front steps through our front door, and although the sirens had all but stopped, a single red beacon light that sat on the top of each emergency vehicle continued to flash. The red domed light, sometimes referred to as a gumball light because it resembles a dome top of a gumball machine, flashed ominously.
People in the neighborhood were starting to gather outside. “Mom, Dad!” I cried out. But there was no answer from either of them. Our next-door neighbor came running through the front door half-dressed with just a towel around his waist having just gotten out of the shower.
I was 11 years old and scared beyond words. I froze momentarily, but not from the cold air. Terror permeated every part of my being as I looked up in disbelief at my mom standing at the top of our hallway stairs outside their bedroom. “What’s happening?” I cried out, fearing something awful. Our eyes met, and then instinctively I knew something terrible had happened. She didn’t have to say a thing; I knew my Dad was gone.
My Aunt Sis had just arrived. She ran to me and placing an arm around my shoulder she took me aside out of the way of emergency people. My other brothers were taken to their rooms. Aunt Sis got my coat. “Let’s go for a walk,” she said. My Dad’s sister wasn’t crying, although inside I thought she was. As we walked around the block, kindly and gently she explained that my dad had gone to a better place. Tears welled up in my eyes and tears rolled down my face. My pain was unbearable. I was devastated. I was heartbroken. Again, I asked. “Where’s Daddy, Aunt Sis?” “In heaven,” she replied softly. I looked up at the sky full of stars on this cold winter night and wondered if my father was looking down on me now.
Aunt Sis and I must have walked a long while as the ambulance and police cars had already gone. There were no more carolers, and neighbors had returned inside to the warmth of their homes. I reminisced of walks with my father when I used to ask him questions like who is God, and where is God, and my father would reply – “He’s everywhere, son. He’s in everything, even in that tree over there that he created.” Again, I looked up at the star-filled night sky and thought of heaven being there. “Is that where Daddy is Aunt Sis?” She nodded affirmatively. I already missed him deeply. I cried out to him, but there was only silence. I began to shiver now. My Aunt Sis pulled her arm tighter around my shoulders. “Let’s go home, Billy,” she said.
For the next two weeks, I was in the care of our family sitter’s mother and father during the day as my mother was admitted for counseling due to her despair and hopelessness.
It was sometime later that I learned that Dad had suffered an anaphylactic reaction to the penicillin his doctor gave him. And because his doctor did not arrive in time, a lifesaving tracheotomy could not be performed by the EMTs without a doctor’s presence. When this happened, his vocal cords suddenly seized up when taking in a breath, blocking the flow of air into his lungs and he suffocated.
ANGEL OF DARKNESS
Was the presence the Angel of Death that my father had met, a Dark Angel expelled from heaven to bring tidings of death and suffering, to war for his soul, or was it some demonic presence to cause fear to well up inside him? Perhaps the answer to both questions is yes, depending on your cultural and religious beliefs. Or was it a benevolent angel, a messenger, and servant of God, to perform God’s will to warn of imminent death, to bring about an urgency that my father should get his affairs in order?
Most people believe that the black angel of death or angel of darkness comes to a person right before they die to take their soul. However, there is not a specific passage in the Bible that reinforces this belief. Satan was defeated at the Cross and had no power over my father to cause him to lose his salvation. Colossians 2:14 shows God to be a merciful God wishing for no one to perish. “He (Jesus) canceled out every legal violation we had on our record and the old arrest warrant that stood to indict us. He erased it all—our sins, our stained soul—he deleted it all and they cannot be retrieved! Everything we once were in Adam has been placed onto his cross and nailed permanently there as a public display of cancellation. Then Jesus made a public spectacle of all the powers and principalities of darkness, stripping away from them every weapon and all their spiritual authority and power to accuse us. And by the power of the cross, Jesus led them around as prisoners in a procession of triumph. He was not their prisoner; they were his!” Christ was victorious over death.”
SOME THINGS JUST CAN’T BE EXPLAINED
Several years ago, I found my father’s small pocket testament with his written confession of faith dated December 19, 1937. It comforted me to know he had been born again in the Spirit. It was also exactly 25 years later to the day that my father died on December 19, 1962. Both dates fell on the same day of the year. Dad was born in ’25 (1925) and died at the age of 37. In ’37 (1937) he was reborn into the kingdom of Christ, and in 1962 he died and passed into the heavenly embrace of the Father’s love. I do not believe these dates were by chance, nor do I have an explanation for his premature death. Yet, when a person dies is not a matter of accident or coincidence; the Bible clearly tells us that our lives are in God’s hands. He knows the time of our death and has even appointed it. The Bible says, “Man’s days are determined; God has decreed the number of his months and has set limits he cannot exceed.”2
WE SAID OUR GOODBYES
When Peggy and I sensed Mom’s terror, we instinctively knew what it was. There was a dark presence in the room, an angelic evil like my father had seen. “In the Name of Jesus” we called out and prayed the Father’s Love into her. Mom lay still now, peaceful again, her breath shallow; you could hardly hear her breathing.
As it was getting late, we squeezed Mom’s hand for one last time. Then kissing her gently on the cheek, we said our goodbyes. As we left, we shut Mom’s door behind us instinctively knowing that this was symbolic not of the end of a story as the world has defined the end of life, but of the continuation of life into the embrace of the Father’s love, a new chapter.
Peggy and I rounded the corner in the hallway and made our way toward the elevator. Still, no one was seen nor heard except for the sound of TVs coming from each of the resident’s rooms. I was sad knowing that this would probably be the last time we would visit. Later that night we got word that mom passed into the love of the Father’s arms.
Copyright 2022 by Bill Hutzel
1. 1 Peter 3:3-4
2. Job 14:5, NIV