I used to be so scared of dying. My terror took hold in childhood, when I learned that the sun would one day consume the earth, and nothing could prevent it. I’d lie in my little bunk bed at night and try to imagine this world void of life, closing my eyes tight against its unknowable breadth. Only one thing gave me comfort: stories of life after death – of ghosts and wonders and mysteries all around. Buoyed by hope, I flew from fear on the wings of these stories.
All these years later, I’ve arrived here, to tell hope-filled stories of my own – stories of people who’ve sensed the spirit of a person they’ve loved and lost. This is a book about the indestructibility of love.
Some readers will know that it is my third book on the subject of life after death. Yet it was writing about love after death as part of my research for previous books that paved the way for the one you’re reading today. The stories I gathered for Spirit Sisters, and its sequel, Where Spirits Dwell, changed my life. Slowly, I was awakened to mysteries that abound, in suburbia as in the bush, to the extraordinary events experienced by ordinary people from every walk of life, to the mind-bending gamut of phenomena. While some stories were heart-stopping, goosebump-raising chillers, others made my pulse quicken for reasons that were the very opposite of fear.
I learned that some people are haunted by love. And those were the stories that most haunted me.
It’s always an honour and a privilege when I’m gifted a tale, but it was the mothers’ profound stories of loss – and defiant hope – that would not leave me. After meeting these courageous women, I was a different person. One who held her children a little tighter, a little longer; one who found it easier to forgive trifles, to appreciate the goodness in people and to open her heart wider. These were powerful experiences, not only for the women who shared their stories – and in some cases, spirit communication was the only thing that kept a mother from wanting to join her child – but also for the reader, who could take away the bare truth at the heart of each encounter: love, as our late loved ones would have us know, never dies.
That radiant idea, as small as three words, as vast as the sky, inspired this book. Every page, I hope, is a testament to its miraculous power, and to the courage of the 60 or so people from all over Australia who shared their life-changing – sometimes lifesaving – experiences with me: strong as trees, they stand tall in the wake of deepest loss, keen to honour their cherished dead with a tale of love mightier than death. Mired in grief, they struggled to cope in a world emptied of warmth and light. For them, the earth had consumed their sun. Yet, in experiencing the presence of their loved one, each found solace and the path to healing. Children, partners, siblings, parents, friends and extended family, all reaching out to brush away the tears of those left behind with assurances of eternal love.
As you’ll go on to read, these assurances arrive in many ways. A teenage boy appears to his sister on the eve of his funeral, urging her to take care of their mother; in a dream more vivid than life, a young husband returns to his widow in time to prevent another tragedy; a grandmother lovingly settles her lonely daughter’s babies; with a cheeky grin, a son shows himself to his mother as she weeps in her kitchen; a gentle artist who fled life sends his sister exquisite green feathers wherever she goes; a man soothes his broken-hearted brother with an otherworldly embrace . . .
For the receivers of these gifts, these were moments to make them smile through their tears. With eyes smarting and skin tingling, I listened to their stories, marvelling time and again at the healing force of these encounters, at how often they gave way to a feeling of renewal, of darkness lifting – of hope returning.
In the chapters that follow, stories are grouped by the common message or reason for the communication. For instance, in Chapter One, ‘A Time to Heal’, the messages all offer solace to the bereaved. In Chapter Five, ‘Watching Over Us’, deceased loved ones return exactly when we need them most, each story suggesting that though they’re gone from our sides, the departed who’d cared for us in life still do so in death, just as they continue to want to help out during challenging times.
Chapter Seven, ‘Family is Forever’, honours familial bonds, where love flows like a river through multiple generations. Over and over, I was astounded to hear of the vital role long-gone family members, even those we’ve never met, continue to play in our modern lives. Stories from my own family have always played a key part in my life – since childhood, they’ve fed my passion for the unknown and inspired my work. Many years ago, my mother told me of an experience that planted the seed of my fascination for the kinds of stories that fill this book. I’d like to share it with you here.
One humid and tear-streaked day in the sunset of 1973, my parents boarded a ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires, the first leg of their journey towards new lives in Australia. At the edge of the River Plate, my mother imprinted the city of her birth, its skyline an unfinished poem, onto her dark and solemn eyes. Armed only with one suitcase and a two-year-old me, they were on their way to a country which promised them the world. Dizzy from the churn of the khaki waters and the mingled perfumes of the crowd who pressed kisses on her cheeks and prattled advice and blessings, my mother spotted him among the crowd, spotlit by his height. His hands were slung deep inside his pockets and a black sweater fell across his shoulders. His eyes were pinned on the turgid river, which seemed to have already begun its dirty work of separation. Excitement thrummed in the brackish air, but fear and sorrow, too. My mother will never forget my paternal grandmother squeezing me hard against her chest, howling into my hair.
My mum kept still and silent, until, as if awakening from a spell, she rushed to him, her closest cousin, Roberto, and threw her arms around his neck. ‘Hasta que te vea de nuevo, Roberto!’ Until we meet again! She wore her new high-heeled sandals but still he towered over her. She leaned her head against his chest, breathed in his smell of home and wept.
Of the huge and tangled family she was leaving behind, Roberto was her shadow, closer even than her two brothers. An only child with delicate skin and the whitest teeth, he was usually shy but when he laughed, adorable dimples bloomed. They grew up together, always together – my mum and Roberto, surrounded by the most expensive toys, parents who fawned over him, the best teachers their hard-earned money could buy. In turn, his cousin introduced him to her three scrawny dogs and her boundless imagination, which could turn yesterday’s stale bread into the most scrumptious filet mignon. Sitting side by side in the dirt, though Roberto invariably stained his crisply ironed white shirt, Mum told him about her astral travels, and the family she’d left behind in her past life. Between them, they turned the pages of last Sunday’s newspaper, as Mum taught him to read, succeeding where private school teachers could not. Afterward, as a reward, they’d pore over the obituaries, marvelling, in that morbid way of children, at any familiar names.
Sometimes they’d scamper hand in hand through their grandfather’s vegetable patch scented of parsley and oregano, or naughtily trample his purple geraniums. Roberto let her drive his red ‘Maserati’ (he was the only kid in the whole neighbourhood with his own toy car) and invited her to his spotless home where they’d sip hot chocolate from fine china mugs and share morning tea of orange cake served upon starched napkins. In less elegant moments, my mum, Silvia, who’d long ago read the melancholy in her cousin’s DNA and shielded his soft core from bullies and hardships accordingly, fearlessly defended Roberto in scraps. Then she’d dust herself off and march home, nests of her black hair lost in battle drifting like tumbleweed in her wake.
At the port, he held her tightly as they relived, wordlessly, a lifetime spent side by side. Minutes later, the ferry lifted anchor and we were gone. What my mother could not have known on that vintage December day was that in years to come, it would be Roberto’s turn to say goodbye, and that when that day came, he would find his way to her.
Researching this book, I was struck for the first time by the similarities between the journey taken by spirits we’ve loved and lost, and the act of leaving everything behind and beginning again in an unknown place, as my family and so many others have done. ‘Death is like immigration,’ Ban Guo, whose story of connecting with his father’s spirit appears in Chapter Three, told me during our interview. ‘You move to a new home, but you don’t forget the old place and the old people.’ Ban’s analogy shone in its simplicity. Our loved ones, he reassured me, will love us forever, and not even death can stop them from letting us know it.
Years passed, Roberto married and had children, and in our new home in Sydney, my mother gave birth to my sister, who lamented missing her home in the womb the moment she found her voice. Meanwhile, my homesick mum penned Roberto letters, which she always signed, ‘Your cousin, who loves you’. In one, she described how in immigrating she’d lost much more than she’d gained, how the dreams she’d carried across the seas had never manifested, how sometimes she didn’t know if she was woman or ghost.
And so time turned, arriving at last at one September morning in the mid-1990s. My mother awoke on her side of the bed, the other side long since cold, her pillow drenched in tears. She sat up, still sobbing, and recalled an extraordinarily vivid dream. In it, Roberto held her tight, and emotions – despair, the joy of a reunion and all-encompassing love – swirled around the pair, as palpable as the warm, solid and familiar figure who held her. Once again, she’d rested her head against his chest, felt the scratchy weave of his favourite black pullover, breathed in the tang of a Montevideo summer. Once again, they were children, running amuck through the herb garden in a giggly game of chase. ‘Don’t leave! Don’t you leave!’ she pleaded with him, knowing instinctively, in that magical language of dreams, that this was a final farewell.
‘No,’ he replied gently. ‘I have to go now.’
She looked up to offer a last kiss on his cheek, but found a black abyss where his face should have been. Then he turned and walked away, his tall form fading to nothing.
Afterward, as tears as heavy as pearls slid down her face, she reasoned she’d been neither awake nor asleep during the experience, which had left her deeply unsettled. A few hours later, feeling calmer, she phoned Uruguay and her father told her, in a whisper stinging of horror, that, no, things were not well with them at the moment, since they’d just learned that her cousin Roberto was dead. Yesterday, he’d shot himself through the mouth with his father’s antique shotgun. Her father sighed and it was as if my mother could see him, his green eyes red from weeping, as if thousands of kilometres of land and ocean between them had melted. A part of her knew, too, what he would say next. The gunshot had erased Roberto’s face.
But the violence of his passing played no part in the images that swam before her as she processed the news. Foremost was the child she’d so loved, the dimpled cheeks, his joyous laugh. The day he died, on his teenaged son’s birthday, he was 42, the same age as his father, Americo, when he died from a heart attack, as I’ve described in my first book, Spirit Sisters. A chain of fathers and sons, linked by loss.
What type of mind-boggling and stubborn love could return Roberto to my mother’s arms in a distant country after his death? How was it possible that she should see him so present, so solid and – except for the void where a beloved face should have been – so lifelike? The experience, she says, unfolded within and without her, so that everything – colours, textures, senses and emotions – were sharper and denser than in everyday life.
Roberto said goodbye in a dream, or something like a dream, but as you’ll read in the following pages, our darling dead find so many other ways to send us love letters from heaven. They flutter to earth on butterfly wings, write messages of hope on Scrabble tiles, drift from the ceiling in showers of feathers, help settle our babies, save us from illness and harm, stand whole before us in the garden or at our bedside, and speak to us in voices spun from sky and clouds.
Just as immigration, with its tyranny of distance, cannot sever the bonds between people who care deeply for each other, so it seems relationships continue to grow and thrive, even after death. Roberto continues to visit my mother today, greeting her in that shadowland between the pillow and cherished memories. Her skin announces his arrival, sprouting goosebumps in waves of ice and heat. Death, Mum suggests, is not as final as immigration, because Roberto always returns.
This celebration of the ways our loved ones come back seems the right way for me to conclude the trilogy that began with Spirit Sisters in 2009, though my understanding of the spirit world is still evolving. My childhood fascination with spooky tales has given way to acknowledgment that a spiritual encounter can be much more than a spine-tingling treat, it can offer a lifeline to the bereaved. I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling and the stories in this book offer crucial lessons for us all.
Humility, and the value of keeping an open heart, are high on the list. If a friend tells you they’ve awoken to their late lover’s breath warming their cheek, or that they’ve seen their mother beaming, rosy-cheeked and restored to health, at their bedside, don’t be fast to judge. Rather, rejoice that you’re hearing something precious. As the American writer Willa Cather once said, ‘Where there is great love, there are always miracles.’
A time to heal
Piercing the wall of grief
‘There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love.’ —Thornton Wilder
Late one afternoon in 2005, Margaret Marlow looked around in the quiet solitude of her Queensland home and noted all of the paraphernalia of domestic life in its place. Here, the kettle, there the toaster, the shiny kitchen appliances. Everything looked just as it did yesterday, and the day before that. Yet Margaret was not the same. A few months earlier, her son, John, 36, had died in a car crash, and nothing had been the same since. ‘I was having a really bad day,’ she recalls. ‘I’d been crying all day. I was just putting a pot of water on the hotplate and I just felt . . .’
She pauses, searching for the right words.
‘It was a really strange feeling, like there was some presence there, like I could hear a very faint rustling sound in the corner of the room. I jumped before I saw it. Like I really jumped because I knew there was something there! I saw my son’s face, he was only appearing from the waist up and he looked younger. He had the half-grin on his face that he always had. He had a creamy-coloured shirt on – I didn’t recognise what he was wearing – and his skin was really, really clear, like porcelain.’
Although the vision lasted only a few seconds, the effects were profound. After recovering from her initial shock, Margaret felt blessed to have been touched by something wonderful. ‘I felt so privileged, because I thought, how hard must that have been for him to place himself there like that?’ Thinking back to the expression John had on his face, that signature larrikinish grin of his, Margaret believes it meant, ‘Yeah, I get you Mum. I know what you’re going through.’
Empathy radiates from these encounters: for the person in mourning, they offer vital acknowledgment of their pain and the understanding that their loved one, whose return proves they still love them from afar, is doing their best to assuage their sorrow. Margaret, who went on to write a book, I Can See Clearly Now, about her experiences sensing her son’s spirit, is certain John felt her distress on that tear-streaked day, and that’s why he visited: ‘I believe he was there to say, “Mum, it’s okay.”’
Grief is universal and as old as time. The Roman statesman Marcus Cicero, who died in 43 BC, was famously crippled by grief when his daughter Tullia died. Nothing except millennia divides the experiences of Margaret and Cicero, whose sorrow survives in letters of condolence penned by his peers. Yet Tullia herself lives on in the story of the Perpetual Lamp, a potent symbol of life and love everlasting. Legend tells that in the fifteenth century, Tullia’s burial place was discovered in Rome and inside her tomb was a lamp still burning after 1500 years. In 1613, the poet John Donne celebrated the flame of eternal love in ‘Eclogue, 1613. Decemb. 26’:
Now, as in Tullias tombe, one lamp burnt cleare, Unchang’d for fifteen hundred yeare,
May these love-lamps we here enshrine, In warmth, light, lasting, equall the divine
Like Tullia’s lamp, John’s appearance was a testament to the indestructibility of love, lighting Margaret’s path to healing on one of her darkest days. His cherished face returned to her, a celestial offering in the everyday confines of her kitchen. In the knowledge that her son remains present in the daily lives of the family who miss him, Margaret could wipe her eyes and go on, refreshed, into an evening bright with new possibilities.
Spontaneous visits from deceased loved ones are known as after-death communications, or ADCs, as US researchers Bill and Judy Guggenheim first described them. Following interviews with 2000 people for their 1996 book Hello From Heaven!, the Guggenheims estimated that one in five
Americans had experienced an ADC. These phenomena, however, cross barriers of culture, religion, age, gender, socioeconomic background and time – reports of ADCs date back 2000 years. For as long as people have grieved, they have sensed the presence of their departed loved one, and drawn solace from it.
Those we’ve loved and lost find myriad ways to reach out. To name a few, they’ll speak out loud and clear; wrap us in a cloud of their signature scent; stand before us in broad daylight or at our bedsides, looking robust and lit with joy; imbue our spaces with their all-encompassing presence; send their love with butterflies who alight, fearlessly, on our faces and outstretched palms; or hold us tight in vibrant dream visitations that feel more real than life itself.
In 2001, the year after her father died, Jenny Gersekowski, a 58-year-old former farmer and photo-journalist from near Toowoomba, met him again in a powerful dream. Jenny recalls: ‘I could feel his warmth, I could feel his arm. He was dressed in a flannelette shirt. He said to me, “I’m alright. Don’t worry about me, I’m okay, so don’t worry.” I’ll never forget that, it was just extraordinary.’
Eight years later, following the death of her husband of 33 years, Alan, Jenny experienced a different form of ADC: ‘I felt him putting his arms around me in bed. I felt his breath on my neck,’ she remembers. Today, it’s a more subtle hint of Alan’s presence that embraces her all day, every day. ‘I just feel his love. I just feel the unconditional love close to me, though his presence is probably not as strong as it used to be,’ she reflects. ‘I think now he’s actually trying to let me live my own life a bit more.’
Whether the experience is visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, sentient, symbolic or in dreams – among the principle categories identified – the primary purpose of an ADC is to heal. ‘ADCs are essentially expressions of love because they are all about helping each other,’ writes leading grief counsellor Dr Louis LaGrand in his 1999 book Messages and Miracles: Extraordinary Experiences of the Bereaved.
Often, as Margaret’s story above illustrates, an encounter occurs just as the person experiencing it is at their lowest ebb, the communication working like a pick-me-up, buoying the bereaved, giving them the strength to go on.
Sydney talent manager Deb Carr was inconsolable following the suicide of her brother, Gary, aged 34, on 2 November 1998. ‘It was the most horrendous day of my life,’ says Deb, her bluegrey eyes turning stormy at the memory. Three days later, she recalls, ‘I was lying in bed crying, and I was wide awake, wide awake, and I heard him call me. I heard him yell out, “Deb,
I’m okay!” I heard his voice, it was not in my mind, it was his voice,’ she insists. ‘Then I had a vision of him and I was in the vision, too, sitting on a stone bench, crying with my hands on my face, just sobbing uncontrollably, and he came up to me and put his arm around me and he looked just like Gary, scruffy, in a jumper and black jeans. He put his arm around me and he held me and he just winked at me and said, telepathically, “Everything that you believe in life after death is true. I am so happy.”’
As with all the stories in this chapter, and many throughout the book, the experience heralded a turning point in Deb’s healing process. ‘I felt so comforted, because he and I used to talk about what happens when you die,’ she says. They’d always been very close and Gary, a talented artist and cartoonist, used to phone her to chat every day.
Growing up in New Zealand, Deb, Gary and their two brothers used to spend hours scrambling over hedgerows in their huge backyard, lush with plum trees and rambling vines. Her favourite memory is playing ‘clubs’ with the boys, with Deb as secretary and ‘poor Gary the treasurer’, she remembers with a smile. But a shadow fell over their world when Gary turned ten; his grades dropped, he became aggressive and health problems dogged him.
It later emerged that this was when a priest, a family friend, had begun to sexually abuse Gary. The rage that ensnared him and the depression that plagued him in adulthood are the poisonous outcomes of the abuse, says Deb. She tells me about a prophetic artwork of Gary’s that portrays the story of his stolen childhood – and its ultimate outcome. ‘There’s a castle in the background, a demon crouching and a little boy running, he’s got a little schoolbag and he’s put his hand out and a beautiful angel is picking him up and bringing him to heaven.’
Since Gary’s death, Deb receives regular signs of her brother’s steadfast love, such as the meaningful appearance of feathers, and she has also met Gary in her dreams. One poignant dream visitation took place three years after he died. The setting was a funeral at a church, where five coffins were being brought in and Gary stood at the altar, jubilant. ‘He was dancing and putting his arm out, saying, “Bring those coffins up here! You bring them up here, Debbie. You don’t know how happy it is over here! They don’t know what they’re in for.”’ Deb believes the quintet of caskets represented the five living members of their family. ‘In the dream I sat down in a pew next to Dad and he was crying. I held his hand and said, “Dad, what are you crying for? Gary is really, really, really happy.” Then I woke up and my pillow was saturated, saturated with my tears.’
Sustaining Deb is her conviction that Gary is ‘teaching art in heaven’ and her unwavering belief that life, like love, goes on. ‘I’ll be with him again. There’s no doubt about it. When I go, he’ll be there,’ she declares. Until then, the memory of their reunion on the stone bench is always with her, like a treasured photo tucked close to the heart. ‘I think about it all the time –I can still hear him and see exactly what it was like. It told me he was safe. I’d been worried that he was suffering more in the afterlife. I was worried he wasn’t being cared for because of what he’d done, but I think God said to him, “No, darling, it’s time to come home. You’ve done your stuff, it’s time to come home.”’
Communicating with her brother’s spirit also prevented Deb, a divorced mother of two and now aged 51, from succumbing to the same despair. ‘If he hadn’t come to me, I don’t know if I would have not done the same thing myself. It’s kept me going through some tough times,’ she says.
Deb’s belief echoes LaGrand’s assertion in his 2006 book, Love Lives On, that these encounters are ‘major forces that . . . often change the course of one’s life.’ Such events, he writes, ‘bring about healing and expanded consciousness for mourners’.
More than twenty years after he had a gut-wrenchingly vivid dream about his late father, Grant Hyde still looks back on it with wonder: ‘I will live with it in my heart until I’m old and useless,’ he says. A former Sydney Roosters rugby league player, Grant, 44, is now a novelist, personal trainer and father of two. He reveals that the standalone experience was ‘uplifting’ and says, ‘It made me feel really good.’
It was a Sunday afternoon in 1992 and in the bowels of the Sydney Football Stadium, Grant, then 23, sat with his elbows atop his knees and his head bowed. A month earlier, his father, Ray, also a former Roosters player, had died of mesothelioma, aged 62. Though he spoke little of it, Grant was deeply grieving the loss of his ‘best mate’. In minutes, he and his team-mates would take to the field against the Western Suburbs Magpies and the atmosphere crackled with anticipation, testosterone and tension. But Grant’s thoughts lingered on the dream he’d had last night, all night, it seemed. Though ‘dream’ was, perhaps, too measly a word to contain what had happened, because last night, his father returned to his side.
In the dream, Grant recalls, ‘I was on the field standing in the defensive line facing a giant front-rower coming at me. He was a scary-looking bloke with a shaved head. I heard a voice next to me, a young man’s voice, saying, “Here he comes, give it to him for your old man, hey?”
‘I looked to my side and there was my dad. Not as an old, sick man that was so fresh in my memory, but as a young powerful footballer, the likes of which I’d only seen in the scrapbooks. He had thick blond hair and his body was strong and lean. It was definitely my dad, it just felt right. I asked, “What are you doing here, I thought you were gone?” He shook his head and said, “As long as you remember me, son, I’m never gone.”’
In the locker room, Grant smiled to himself and took a deep breath. Thinking about the dream, he felt invigorated, ready to take on his opponents. ‘It was the best I’d felt since my dad died,’ Grant says. ‘I felt like I’d spent the previous night with him, playing the game we both loved.’ When the siren sounded for the match to begin, Grant got to his feet and whispered to his old man, ‘I’ll see you out there, mate.’
Fatherly support also arrived just in time for Sunshine Coast radio presenter Mary-Lou Stephens after her 61-year-old dad, Dick, died from asthma complications in 1987. Mary-Lou was 26 and in the grip of a heroin habit and a destructive relationship. ‘It was Dad’s death that stopped me using. When he died, everything changed and I needed to change with it,’ writes Mary-Lou in her 2013 memoir, Sex, Drugs & Meditation.
But what kept her recovery on track was the way their relationship flourished after his death. Now 52 but with a vibrant personality and girlish voice that makes her seem half that age, Mary-Lou tells me: ‘After my dad died, it really was the only time I felt him loving me.’ She explains how trauma in his own upbringing made him emotionally distant. ‘He was too scared to love, too scared to be himself.’
But after his death, he began again.
Mary-Lou had a benchmark dream that summed up the new way forward for her father: ‘We were sitting in a church, but there was no church service and there were lots of people and we were all reading books. Some people had very small books and others had big books and I looked over to my dad and he was only a quarter of the way through a large book.’ She remembers that, in the dream she sighed with relief, because she knew he wouldn’t be able to leave until ‘he finishes the book’. She understood he’d fulfilled only part of his mission in helping her – there was still a great deal of work to be done.
For the next eighteen months, Mary-Lou felt her dad around ‘very strongly’. ‘Very strongly,’ she reiterates. ‘There was a dramatic feeling of him being free of all that pain – it was phenomenal! I truly felt him with me all the time.’ Knowing she could finally count on her father’s love gave Mary-Lou the courage to triumph over her addiction. ‘I feel like crying when I say this, but he was going to stick around with me, or for me, for that amount of time because that’s what I needed. You know, it probably took me that long to get the heroin out of my system. I couldn’t believe the grip it had on me.’
Yet her father’s love held her even tighter. Mary-Lou describes it as ‘this presence of a loving dad, which I’d never experienced when he was alive, a love like a warm embrace’. She says it helped her to leave drugs behind and pour her energies into her passion for country music (she used to sing and play guitar in a band called, aptly, Chain of Hearts) and land her dream job in radio.
Today, Mary-Lou, who’s found solace and spiritual nourishment in meditation, no longer senses her father’s presence as powerfully, but she’ll never forget how he was there when she needed him. And, many years later, he was there for her again, preventing her from having a car crash (which she describes in Chapter Eight, ‘The Power of Love’). If ever she’s missing him more than usual, she picks up her favourite photo of him, taken on the east coast of Tasmania, and imagines it’s a snapshot of his new life: ‘It’s just him standing in this field with the sea behind him and the sky above and he’s so happy and joyous and free, smiling at the camera.’
As transformative as these ADC experiences are, in many cases they prove to be only the first, as spirit family members and friends find new ways to continue to deliver their message of love. Eileen, a 68-year-old retired occupational therapist, lost her husband Tom to a heart attack in 1988. Tom, a doctor, was only 55 years old and his sudden death left Eileen mired in pain. But just a few days after Tom died, she received a precious love letter from the hereafter.
‘I’d kept his letters to me and I found my letters to him in his drawer,’ says Eileen. ‘I’d read his letters, just as a way of trying to be close to him, and then something made me read my letters to him, too. On the third one, on the back of the envelope, he had written, Stand still to hear me in thine own heart beating, pause to feel my presence in this room, know that when you call me, I am with you.’
Eileen felt the hairs on her arms stand on end.
Decades later, as she reads the words aloud to me from her peaceful home in northern Victoria, where birds sing in the background of our conversation, it happens to us both. The stirring words, which she believes Tom authored, are an apparent testament to love after death. More than that, they are like a poetic instruction manual: the bridge is love, but you must know how to cross it. In our frantic 21st-century lives, it is easy to feel lost in the maelstrom and disconnected from ourselves – finding solitary time for reflection and spirituality is a luxury many of us feel we cannot afford. Tom’s words declare love never dies, but that we must stop – ‘stand still’ – listen, and have faith, to know it.
Reading his words for the first time, his widow felt her loneliness lift. ‘I took that as a message for me,’ she says. ‘I felt very, very happy. Reassured.’
There is another layer to Eileen’s lovely story. Three years before Tom’s death, and before they were married, Eileen, who’s a Christian and a follower of the universal spiritual teachings of the late Indian healer Sathya Sai Baba, went through a time of ‘feeling a lot of despair’. Then one day she opened her Bible at random to look for some sort of guidance – a ritual she hadn’t done since childhood but which had felt right in that moment – and the pages fell open to Psalm 46 of the Old Testament. Eileen recalls: ‘I read down the columns and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly significant, then I came to a couple of lines in bold type, completely different to the other print on the page. It said, “Be still and know that I am God.” I blinked and looked away and looked back again and it was just normal print.’
It’s intriguing that those ancient words, which magically shouted an answer of hope to Eileen, have so much in common with the verse Tom later penned. In solemnity and profundity, in their call for calm and stillness, in the way they worked as a salve for Eileen’s pain, his words echo the biblical passage. How this could be is a mystery Eileen accepts may never be solved, at least, not until she meets her husband again. She knows it is just a matter of time. ‘Tom believed that, too. He believed our loved ones are all waiting for us when we die.’
Sydney novelist Jess Tarn, 23, takes comfort from this, too. Her brother, David, was three years old when he drowned in a swimming pool in Singapore, where her family then lived. It was 1993 and Jess was four, only eighteen months older than David. But since then she has carried the burden of having been the last person who spoke to him, though she was barely more than a toddler herself. Her baby brother’s last moments play on loop inside her head, a movie whose agonising ending she can never rewrite.
Clusters of ex-patriot families surround a public pool in the unrelenting humidity of mid-afternoon in Singapore.
Children squeal and laugh, splash and shout. Small hands slap the surface of the water, cool and blue and benign. Mothers chit-chat.
‘I was holding my mum’s hand and she was talking to someone,’ says Jess. ‘David came up to me and asked me if he could go for a swim. Me being a naïve four-year-old, I said, “Yeah.”’
A tiny boy. Light-brown hair. Eyes like an Australian sky. Ever resourceful, he pulls and tugs at his puffy orange floaties until he is free. The water, so cool and blue, calls him. He jumps.
By the time a passer-by noticed ‘a shadow at the bottom of the pool’ it was too late for David. Jess recalls, ‘One of my mum’s friends dove into the pool, picked him up and they attempted CPR’, but being so young herself at the time, Jess doesn’t remember much. She knows her family, numb with loss, took David home to be buried near his grandfather, in Port Macquarie, New South Wales. She knows Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ played at his funeral.
For the next ten years, she’d cry whenever she heard that song; yet these were the moments when David seemed closest. Clapton’s lament for his own little boy was vast and deep enough to speak for Jessica, too. The lyrics carried David’s smile, the melody brought his blue-sky eyes within reach. ‘I honestly believe he was around me whenever I was listening to that song or whenever I was upset.’
Few memories remain to fill the David-sized space at her side but all brim with love. ‘He was always cheeky, absolutely beautiful and gorgeous. Mum used to tell me that whenever he was in trouble, he’d always run to me, so I was his second mother,’ says Jess. She laughs as she remembers one of his cutest quirks: ‘Whenever he was taking his pants or undies off, instead of stepping out of them and then picking them up, he’d take one foot out and then kick his little foot up to grab it so he didn’t have to bend down.’
But David was barely more than a baby, so the sweet memories must end almost as soon as they start. For years, Jess struggled with the disparity between the years he lived and the future he was denied – the future they were all denied. ‘He missed out on so much, because he was so little,’ she says with tears in her voice. ‘He is never going to get that first kiss or have a partner, those are the things that I think about. The boy he was. The man he would have been.’
In early 2008, following the death of a beloved great-aunt, Jess had an experience which proved a breakthrough in her healing. ‘I am Catholic, but I hadn’t been to church for ages,’ she explains. ‘I was really upset this day and I went out for a walk. I passed a chapel and went inside. I think I just let everything out, like I just cried over everything, and then it felt like someone was turning my head to the left. There was a picture in stained glass of a little boy who was standing up and an old woman who was kneeling down: Aunty Mary and David.’
The sensation of her head being physically guided towards the image – so representative of her loved ones – was undeniable, Jess stresses. Most important, though, was the instantaneous relief it brought. ‘I felt like the whole weight was lifted off. I knew that they were together and that they were there with me,’ she says, laughing and crying at the same time. ‘And that made me feel so much better. Together, they turned my head.’
David is also a frequent visitor in Jess’s dreams, usually appearing as the toddler he was, with one unforgettable exception: ‘I was dancing in the rain and I was wearing a reddish-purplish dress and, I don’t know, I just felt free,’ reflects Jess. ‘Then all of a sudden, this faceless man comes along and we just start dancing. I think that was David, you know? I felt so happy. I wanted the dream to come true. There was no music, just the sound of the rain . . .’
Joyous as a sun-shower, reassuring as a smile, beguiling as a poem – such is the love that imbues the following stories, too: a soulmate and a husband, no longer by their loved ones’ sides, yet ever a soothing presence in their lives, eager to help mend their broken hearts.
A hand to hold
‘She’s opened up the door for me to find out where she is.’
The first time Vikki saw a photograph of Kelsey, though she’d never met her before, it was like a reunion. Her skin and muscles, her heart and head, all floated, as if magnetised, towards the picture of the statuesque woman with blue eyes and red hair. The newspaper article was about a breeding farm for stallions where Kelsey worked. The photo showed her walking a mare and not even the hosed-down hues of the flimsy newspaper could dim her grace and presence. Or maybe she just shone for Vikki. ‘I don’t really read the newspaper,’ Vikki, now 38, tells me, ‘but for some reason, that day I did.’
Not long afterwards, the pair came face to face. Vikki, a horse trainer, had been working at a horse farm in rural Victoria for three years; she’d taken a couple of months off and when she returned to the farm, in October 2002, her stomach flipped at the sight of her new colleague, Kelsey. But love didn’t bloom straightaway. ‘We didn’t exactly hit it off as friends at first, in fact we didn’t like each other,’ says Vikki, chuckling. Though they soon thawed out – ‘we started to realise we both liked the same things, we were the same person, pretty much’ – and on Kelsey’s birthday in December, they had their first kiss.
Bonded by their love of horses and tastes in music – Melissa Etheridge and the Baby Animals were on high rotation – theirs was a serene and happy partnership built on their mutual appreciation of the simple things: just being together, dreaming big, living life. ‘Kelsey was one of those people that you could always tell when she walked into a room, everyone would look at her,’ Vikki says. ‘She was very bubbly and outgoing, easy to talk to. She used to draw a lot of people to her because she was so easygoing. She would try her hand at absolutely anything. She’d say no to nothing and nothing would frighten her.’
Kelsey wore that fearlessness like armour until two days before her death from ovarian cancer in 2011, aged 33.
Her diagnosis in 2009, Vikki recalls, winded the couple who’d pledged to be together until long after Kelsey’s autumnal hair turned silver. ‘We all thought she was going to pull through,’ says Vikki. ‘We had plans. The minute she got better, we were getting out of Dodge. We were going to bum it for a year or two, no more horses, no more anything.’
Fiercely private, Kelsey eschewed fuss and pity. ‘Her attitude was, “I’ll get over it, so don’t worry about it.” And she fought it for two and a half years,’ says Vikki. ‘She never stopped working. She worked through chemo, feeling sick, radiation therapy. She worked through everything.’
On the morning of Wednesday 7 December 2011, Vikki woke up and ran the bath water for Kelsey, as was their routine. By this stage, Kelsey was receiving palliative care at home and Vikki tended to her with exquisite tenderness, climbing into the tub with her partner every day and sponging her skin, half-blinded by unshed tears. Today Kelsey surprised Vikki by saying she didn’t want her bath, she was too tired, but almost immediately changed her mind and began to get in, even as the bath was still filling.
‘Are you okay?’ asked Vikki, unsettled by Kelsey’s urgency.
‘Yeah, I’m alright.’
‘Well, you didn’t bring your pyjamas in, I’ll just go out and get them.’ Vikki turned to walk towards the bedroom.
‘No, no, get in,’ said Kelsey. ‘This could possibly be our last time we’re going to spend together.’
Vikki obeyed, but after two minutes, Kelsey had had enough. She couldn’t sit up anymore. Vikki lifted her gently out of the bath, dried her and was helping her back to the bedroom when Kelsey stopped and looked into her eyes, a mirror of her own – sea and sky, impossible to know where one ended and the other began.
‘You know you’re my hero for doing all of this,’ said Kelsey. ‘You’re just my hero.’
Sharing this, Vikki’s strong and clear voice trembles and I’m awed by their love.
Kelsey died that evening at 9 pm. In her final hours, she’d slipped in and out of consciousness, with her mum and Vikki by her side, planting gentle kisses on her palms.
Kelsey’s first dream visitation to Vikki had all the hallmarks of their quiet, low-key love. Vikki recounts: ‘In the dream, I remember walking into our bedroom and she was asleep in our bed, facing the other way on her side of the bed. I remember, as vivid as anything, just hopping into bed and touching her on the shoulder and saying, “I love you, honey.” And she rolled over and said, “I love you too.”’
Another ADC seemed less subtle: around five days after Kelsey’s death, Vikki was jolted from a deep sleep by the sudden blaring of one of their favourite songs, ‘Love Takes Over’ by David Guetta, which had played at her funeral. ‘The music was coming from outside of me, from somewhere in the house,’ remembers Vikki, but she could not locate its source. Her mum, who’d been watching the cricket in the lounge room, didn’t hear a sound.
Sometimes, it’s Kelsey’s voice that wakes Vikki, calling her from the corner of the bedroom where Vikki piles up the gifts she buys for Kelsey – anniversary and birthday presents, a card for Valentine’s Day, ‘stuff like that’. Vikki will respond – ‘Yeah honey?’ – even though she’s just woken up from a deep sleep. ‘I know it’s her because it’s her voice and it’s in the room and the voice is talking to me,’ Vikki explains, then pauses. ‘She says my name.’
Just over a week after Kelsey’s death, her brother took Vikki to Noosa for a weekend away, a kind gesture ‘to get me out of the house’, says Vikki. ‘Her family are now my family.’ Walking with him at dusk along the beachfront, Vikki noticed the many couples holding hands as they strolled by. ‘I remember saying to Kelsey in my head, “Well, honey, you and I would have loved to be walking along here, holding hands.” And I felt something touch the inside of my left hand and it made me close my hand as if to say, “We are holding hands.” It was the feeling that she had actually just put her hand in mine.’
Vikki held her hand shut until they arrived at the restaurant and she took her seat at the table.
That’s not the only time Kelsey has laid healing hands on her partner. ‘Once, I was pretty much incapacitated with grief in the middle of a paddock, feeding some horses, and I was hunched over, bawling my eyes out. It had been a very emotional day and I just couldn’t take it anymore. There was no one to hear me out in the middle of 250 acres so I thought I would let it all out, and I swear, I just felt her put her hands on my back and say, “It’s okay.” It just made me feel better straightaway, like that,’ says Vicki, snapping her fingers. ‘The feeling was, it’s going to be okay, and then I stopped crying and said, “Okay, I got it.”’
During the most searing times, when Vikki, who wears around her neck a love heart pendant with Kelsey’s ashes inside, struggles to accept a future which doesn’t include the chance to hold her lover again, to draw a washcloth across her fragrant skin one last time, the only way forward is through Kelsey’s communications: ‘She’s opened up the door for me to find out where she is and what’s going on,’ says Vikki. ‘I look to the sky and the stars but I think she’s right beside me. She’s in the truck next to me when I go to work – we used to go everywhere together. She’s still sitting in the seat sleeping away while I drive somewhere. She’s still there. She’s not getting away that easy.’
Letting in the light
‘I said, “Am I dreaming or am I awake?” He said, “You’re awake. I’m with you.”’
Natasha Ponente stood at the altar of St Dominic’s Church in Melbourne and stared out at 350 faces. Her trembling hand held the eulogy but her throat was as closed as her heart, shut tight against a world that could inflict so much pain. The words she’d written tilted and swayed, became just so many black markings on a page. The quiet roared. She took a breath and turned her head to the right, towards the coffin, counting the roses on its lid in an attempt to calm down. When she looked up again, the pews were empty and she stood alone with the casket full of her future, a beam of sunlight painting it gold and amber.
To Natasha, it was now just the two of them. The doors were shut against the sweltering heat, but a breeze, as gentle as murmurs of love at midnight, found its way to her side, delivering the strength she needed. Natasha found her voice and began to read to her husband, Leigh, who’d exchanged vows with her in this very spot just two years ago. Tenderly, she read him her eulogy, her final love letter.
Exactly two weeks earlier, on 14 December 2012, Leigh had turned 31. Before leaving for her government job, Natasha pounced onto their bed at their Melbourne home and belted out ‘It’s Your Birthday’ in the tinny voice of schoolgirl Lisa, from Leigh’s favourite TV show, The Simpsons.
‘Bubby, you sound like a strangled cat,’ said Leigh, groaning.
Natasha laughed and whacked him with a pillow. ‘Well, here’s hoping I get better over the next 50 years.’
There was much to look forward to in the young couple’s lives. Summer days were long, hot and pulsing with Christmas, and 2013 loomed, with its promise of huge changes ahead for the high-school sweethearts, who planned to buy a house and start a family in the new year. Those dreams, the languid heat and the holiday vibe, the houses strung with lights and baubles – all helped to anchor Natasha when the dread that had been gnawing at her since early November threatened to consume her.
Natasha, now 33, recalls, ‘There were some nights when I would go to bed and say to my husband, “If I’m not up by the time you get up, you have to check on me, and check on me through the night as well.”’
Leigh, who could not stomach the thought of harm coming to his wife, would frown, and reach for her: ‘What’s the matter, Natasha?’
She would just shrug and shake her head, telling him, ‘I’ve just got this bad feeling.’
Before the bottom fell out of Natasha’s world, Leigh, too, had a premonition. One night, his howl of fear speared the black quiet of 3 am. Shuddering and weeping, he reached for Natasha, pulling her close then closer still. To Natasha, her heart racing with fatigue and confusion, it felt as if he wanted to unzip his skin and enfold her safe within. ‘Oh my God, come here,’ he said, his voice small and unfamiliar. His body shook as Natasha asked ‘What’s the matter?’ again and again. In reply, he squeezed her tighter.
Eventually he was able to explain: ‘I just had a dream you died and there was nothing I could do to save you and you left me.’ He was panting with fear. ‘Please, promise me you’ll never die.’
Natasha hushed and soothed him, like a child. ‘I said, “Okay. It’s okay. I’m here.” But he was terrified, like the fear of God was in him, and he said, “There’s nothing I could do. I found you. I found you. I just found you in bed.”’
A week later, Natasha stood at the bathroom mirror, applying makeup and getting ready for work. From the doorway, Leigh chattered away about the day ahead, when suddenly a morbid scene played in her mind. ‘I had this flash of people giving me condolences and me pushing them away,’ she says. It was over in seconds. Baffled, she put it down to subconscious ramblings, her mind revisiting something she’d seen on TV. But she couldn’t help wondering, ‘What was happening to them?’ First, there was her feeling of dread, then Leigh’s dream and now the hint of heartbreak she glimpsed in the bathroom mirror – the sense of foreboding was growing and steering Natasha towards the conviction that her life was in peril.
But today was Leigh’s birthday, and Natasha was determined to peel off the dread she’d been wearing since the last days of spring. Today, she would focus on Leigh and the celebrations planned for the evening. Ostensibly, it was to be a Christmas party thrown by Natasha’s uncle, but it was also a surprise party for Leigh, who, despite his youth and slight physique, would dress up as Santa for the children at the bash.
It was a lively night. Leigh, handsome in the G-Star Raw jeans and T-shirt his wife had bought him for his birthday, was in his element; chatting to everyone, making sure guests were fed and watered, and walking them out with a heartfelt thankyou at the end of the night. By the time he and Natasha got home, it was 2.45 am. Though they were yawning, they perked up when they saw that one of their favourite Christmas movies, The Ref, was about to start on TV. They cuddled up on the couch to watch it and afterwards, dragged themselves to bed. It was almost 7 am before they finally fell asleep.
Before shutting his eyes, Leigh turned to Natasha. ‘Listen, don’t let me sleep too long,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to finish the Christmas shopping.’ Natasha promised not to let him sleep past 2 pm: ‘The last thing I heard was him snoring very, very heavily, then I drifted off to sleep.’
Natasha and Leigh met on 9 October 1995. It was the first day of the last school term and as Natasha waited for the bus, she spotted ‘this little boy with long blond hair just staring at me’. In his slim fingers, the sixteen-year-old future jeweller was buffing a granite rock. ‘He flashed me a big smile and the first thing that came to mind was, “What a weirdo! Who polishes rocks?”’ remembers Natasha. Eventually, he summoned the courage to talk to the striking and confident brunette who was two years his senior and, as tends to happen with a couple who grow up together, the pair forged a loyal and passionate relationship that was not without its volatile moments.
‘Look, we would bicker – our friends gave us the nicknames Ike and Tina Turner – but then five minutes later, it would be over and done with,’ says Natasha. But their love defined them. ‘I once said to him that I felt like when we weren’t together, my heart didn’t beat, and he always said if I died, he wouldn’t live.’ Leigh was Australian, ‘but he was more Italian than I was’, says Natasha. ‘He was what we call “the Albino Gino”.’ The fun-loving prankster struck up an instant rapport with her grandparents, who’d unwaveringly side with Leigh if he went to them with sob stories of how his wife had wronged him. Leigh’s closeness to her family seemed older than it could be, like a remnant from some other time. It was a quality of Natasha and Leigh’s relationship, too. Little things – his relatives had once sold a house to her relatives – linked them, as well as calamities. When Natasha was fifteen, a vivid nightmare that had haunted her for six weeks came true when her brother had a near-fatal car accident and was rushed to hospital. The same night, as it later emerged, Leigh’s family were also there, facing their own heartbreak of a loved one’s life in peril. Two families, then strangers to each other, faced life-changing events together.
Says Natasha, ‘It’s like we really were one person split in two.’ The day after the Christmas/birthday party, 15 December, Natasha opened her eyes to the late morning light. The day was mild, she noted with relief, it would be nowhere near as hot as the previous Saturday, when the temperature had soared to 37 degrees. The time on her iPhone said 10.50 am and she wanted to get started on all the things she had to tick off her to-do list. Closing the bedroom door carefully behind her, she poured herself a glass of orange juice before dumping in a load of laundry. Lunch came and went in a blur of housekeeping and chores. Every time Natasha was about to walk into the room to wake her husband, something would draw her away from the door – her mobile would beep, the washing machine would trill, or her home phone would ring. Looking back, she wonders if the chain of distractions served as warnings, or tactics orchestrated by a higher power to delay the inevitable.
Just after 2.30 pm Natasha realised she’d let Leigh sleep in too long. She bustled into the room and raised the blind, letting afternoon light flood the space. Her mirrored wardrobe doors and dressing table mirror both reflect her bed in the centre of the room and Leigh was facing the mirrors. ‘Come on, wakey wakey,’ she teased his reflection, but then, it was as if her heart was freefalling out of her chest, to land with a thud at her feet.
‘I thought, “Why are you looking at me like that?”’ With a wail she registered he wasn’t breathing. ‘Leigh, Leigh, Leigh,’ she pleaded, bawling, as she began CPR and called the ambulance. ‘It was like slow motion. How I didn’t drop dead, I don’t know. The shock of it . . .’
Leigh’s heart had stopped in his sleep. Though the paramedics restarted it, he’d been deprived of oxygen too long and Natasha held her husband in her arms at the hospital as he slipped away. Only 24 hours earlier, they’d been celebrating his birthday and looking forward to what the dawning year would bring – now, Natasha was left to process this cataclysmic loss.
The pain of it was like nothing she’d known, like being eaten alive from the inside out, but there was Leigh’s funeral to organise and she was determined to see it through with her usual thoroughness and attention to detail. On Monday 17 December, two days after his death, Natasha was searching through his clothes for the suit and tie – his special wedding tie – she wanted him dressed in. She found the garments, as well as her gift of the G-Star T-shirt he’d worn at the party in his final hours. ‘I’m putting this in the laundry,’ she remarked to an aunt who was helping her. ‘I have to wash it because it’s all sweaty. Then I’m going to put this in the coffin with him.’ Four days later, on the Friday, Natasha took the suit to the funeral directors’ premises, where close friends and family lovingly dressed Leigh. In her fog of grief, she’d forgotten the T-shirt she’d wanted to place in the casket. The next day, Natasha returned to her husband’s side. Her hands hungered for the everyday tasks of fixing his collar, taming his hair, adjusting his tie, tugging at a lapel. They sought him out, force of habit, force of love. ‘I was smoothing down his suit and making sure he was all okay, then what do you think I found sitting at his feet?’
It was Leigh’s birthday T-shirt, the one she’d washed to put in his coffin but forgotten about. ‘I got such a fright I squealed,’ says Natasha.
She knew there was no logical explanation for how that T-shirt appeared in the coffin. She certainly hadn’t delivered it to the funeral director since yesterday, and neither had anyone in their family. She rang each of the men who’d dressed Leigh and all confirmed there was no T-shirt. Frantic enquiries then revealed it was listed in the receipt of items that had accompanied Leigh’s body from the hospital to the coroner on Sunday 16 December. But Natasha knew that was impossible. ‘I had that T-shirt with me at home on Monday,’ she says – and her aunt had seen her put it in the laundry that day.
‘It was a sign no one could ignore. That T-shirt was in my possession,’ says Natasha. ‘I took that as a sign that Leigh was with me, a very cheeky sign, as if to say, “You just bought me this. Do you think I’m going to leave it behind?” It was absolutely amazing.’
Welcome though it was, the mind-bending event wasn’t enough to draw Natasha out of her misery. She was alone in a foreign landscape where every signpost had been wrenched out. The successful and vivacious woman was struggling more than she would ever reveal to her friends and family. Rent with grief, incapable of facing a future without her soulmate, she began to plan her own death. She went as far as writing a pros/cons list, and letters – to her parents, her brother – and notice of resignation to her boss. On Friday 2 February 2013, Natasha says, ‘I went to bed and I knew that weekend, it was going to happen. When I set a rule for myself I don’t break it.’
At 4.45 am the next morning, Natasha opened her eyes. As usual, she savoured a few moments’ respite before reality presented itself, mountainous and rude, into the forefront of her mind. This time, though, it was tempered by a jolt of relief that she would soon be joining her love. She fell back asleep and dreamt she was in a large function room filled with computers resembling poker machines. She received an email on her phone, but could not access it, so she tried one of the computers. ‘All of a sudden, Leigh was beside me and he was wearing the G-Star Raw T-shirt and jeans and he looked exactly like he always did. He had his hair the way he always wore it. I could smell his Chanel Egoiste. He was just Leigh, in every way. I turned to him and said, “Am I dreaming or am I awake?” He said, “You’re awake. I’m with you.”’
Natasha now realises those words, Leigh’s words, marked the turning point in her healing – they were the first signpost in her alien world. She recalls their conversation: ‘I said to him, “Do you know how sad and hurt I am?” He said, “Yes, bubby, I know, and I’m so sorry but I’m never far away from you.” I was crying and he was crying and we were just holding one another. I could actually feel his touch on me! I could smell him. We had a full conversation. He said, “I was with you. I know you tried to save me.” I said to him, “What am I going to do?” And he told me that one day we’d be together again, that there are too many things I need to do first, but then he would come and get me. I said, “But when? Just do it now.” He said, “No, I can’t take you yet. You’ll be okay. I’ll never be away from you.”’
Natasha woke up, her pillow ‘absolutely saturated’ in tears and the unmistakable scent of Leigh’s signature aftershave thick in the air. She could feel him brushing her hair with his fingers, as he’d always done when he was drifting off to sleep; it was a physical sensation. ‘I knew in my heart that he was there.’
She is certain the timing of the visitation was no accident. ‘When he came to me that night, I believe he knew what I was planning to do. He was my saviour because no one else would have gotten through to me, and I thank him for that. I honestly do believe that he saved me that night.’
Leigh’s return empowered her to set aside self-destructive thoughts and embrace hope. Now, she’s learning to remember the good times with a smile on her face: the frequent overseas trips, their open affection and deep conversations, their once-in-a-lifetime love. ‘I believe in my heart that a love lost is better than no love at all,’ says Natasha, who senses Leigh around her every day – from smelling his scent in her office to feeling him brush her hair at night and playfully hog the blanket, as he’d always done. ‘I had him for sixteen years and the truth is, if I’d been given a crystal ball to know what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.’
Memories of the bond they shared prop her up during the hardest times. On the day of Leigh’s funeral, after he’d helped her find a way to deliver her eulogy written in tears, an exquisite moment from their wedding day bloomed in her mind. As Leigh’s coffin was carried out of the church, and the soaring strains of ‘The Prayer’, by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion, filled the cavernous space, Natasha remembered how the song had played during their first wedding dance.
Just as they’d found a way to be alone at the funeral, even as hundreds of mourners wept before them, so it had been at their wedding reception, when they wrapped their arms around each other, murmuring in private, as they slow-danced together, oblivious to their guests. Natasha recalls, ‘When we were dancing, I was crying and he wiped my tears away and said, “I never want you to forget this moment in time, bubby. If anything ever happens to me, just remember that I’m always going to be holding you like I am now.”’
Experiences like these are the proverbial gifts that keep on giving. For the people who have shared their stories in this chapter, not only did they draw solace and strength to take that all-important baby step forward in their healing, but in tearstained moments to come they can always cast their minds back to seek sanctuary in their memories of the day their loved one reached out with an offering of hope.
Margaret’s experience of seeing her son’s smiling face lasted only seconds, but it changed her day, her outlook and her future. Life, like love, goes on and acknowledging this shines a ray of hope onto a grey tomorrow. Intercession from the spirit world steered Mary-Lou off a dangerous path, unburdened Jess, rebooted Gary, and gave Vikki and Natasha respite at times when longing for their soulmates threatened to become too much to live with.
We, too, can learn so much from each encounter. Hold your partner long and tight, thank your parents for their guidance and treasure your child’s smile, while you can. David Tweddle, whose 23-year-old son, Gary, died after losing his way in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales in 2013, reminded us all of an often-overlooked truth in a raw and haunting tribute that he posted on Facebook – as widely reported in the media – when it became clear there was no hope of his son’s safe return: ‘Money, possessions and material becomes irrelevant now . . . cherish every second you are fortunate enough to have with the people you love. Waste not one moment, be available and show love at every opportunity . . .’
Excerpted from Love Never Dies by Karina Machado. Copyright © 2014 by Karina Machado.
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