A Visit from a Red-Haired Stranger
“Da is going to the sky!”
— Joshua Sylvan Brandon
My father-in-law was sick, and the prognosis was not good. Life had been rotating around his illness for a number of months, and I was way behind on my household chores, including grocery shopping. Living on an island off the Texas coast, pickings are slim for a vegetarian palate. Every few months, I trek to the mainland for what my children call “Momma’s weird food.”
After one such trip taken during a long afternoon in stagnant, ninety-degree conditions, my traveling companion—my three-year-old son, Joshua—was exhausted, hot and hungry. Too tired to nap and boosted by the return to the car’s air conditioning, he began demanding a breast for comfort.
While navigating the steering wheel with one hand, I reached back and patted Josh on one of his plump little legs. I knew he was becoming very tired because he was rubbing his eyes. “Honey, Momma can’t nurse you right now.”
“I can’t go to sleep without it, Momma. You come back here so I can have some,” he cried.
Knowing I was in for a battle, I decided to try logic. “Well, honey, if I come to the backseat with you, who will drive the car?”
My young son looked at me as if I were just dumber than dirt. “Let Damus drive! He can drive!” Checking my rearview mirror to make sure I didn’t have another passenger with me, I asked, “Josh, who is Damus?”
With exasperation and a yawn, Josh replied, “Damus is right here, Momma. Now let him drive the car!”
No longer in a mood to argue, I said, “Damus can’t drive.” There! I thought. That should settle this! It didn’t.
Looking stunned, Josh replied, “How do you know?”
The next day, Josh and I were again on the go. While I was driving—enjoying the scenery and the breeze that had come up—I suddenly remembered Damus. I decided to ask Joshua a few questions about his friend. Josh was busy looking at a new dinosaur toy with huge teeth, some vicious-looking creature his father had recently bought him. I asked, “Honey, who is Damus?”
With a growl he replied, “Oh, he’s just some kid from the sky. A kid with red hair.”
A kid from the sky! With red hair? I silently moaned. Then I thought, Where have I gone wrong! I’m a qualified mental-health provider! Why does my child need an imaginary friend? The stress of his grandfather’s illness had been overwhelming, but I try to give Josh lots of hugs, attention and love. He goes to the office with me and is not neglected. And he’s three years old, and I’m still breast-feeding. This is just too much! I was beside myself with another one of my “rotten mother” panic attacks. Once I calmed down, I decided I needed to know more about this Damus character.
“Sweetie, how long has Damus been around?” I asked, keeping one eye on the rearview mirror and another on the beachfront street.
“Oh, Damus just got here a few days ago,” answered my son as he attacked the backseat with his fanged creature.
“Damus just got here?” I asked. “Is he a friend of yours?” Still growling away, Josh said, “No, Mom! He just got here! He came here for Da!” “Da” was what the boys called their very ill grandfather, who was in the hospital looking very gray around the gills.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I suddenly felt very chilled and overwhelmed. I pulled the car on to the beach, turned off the engine, faced my son and asked, “Joshie, is Damus here right now?”
His green eyes were already taking in the beach. “Momma, can I go play in the water? Hey! Let’s build a sand castle! Maybe we will see those jelly things on the beach!”
Once again, I asked, “Honey, is Damus here?”
“No, Mom. He isn’t here right now. He only comes when he wants to!” my little boy replied with much irritation. He then started to crawl out of his supposedly childproof car seat. Obviously, Damus wasn’t as important to him as was seeing if any jellyfish had floated to the shore.
After playing in the ocean and running our errands, we were off again. Once in the car, I asked Josh if Damus was back. He looked to the seat beside him, smiled and said, “Yes.”
I couldn’t see a thing, so I asked, “What does Damus look like, honey?” Returning his gaze to the seat next to him, Josh answered, “Mom, he looks just like a big kid.” With this, he picked up his dinosaur toy and returned to his play.
Damus was with us for the rest of November while Pop’s condition continued to deteriorate. Every once in a while, Josh would announce that Damus was back and all of us—myself, my husband Michael and my older son Aaron—would turn to catch a glimpse of this elusive creature. None of us ever saw Damus, which was very confusing to Joshua.
The Beginning of the End
On Thanksgiving Day my father-in-law was out of the hospital, and he and my mother-in-law joined us for a somewhat traditional holiday feast. Michael had cooked a turkey, upside down, and I had made a tofu pumpkin pie. In spite of our cooking, everyone had a great time. Michael and I shared family gossip with my in-laws, while the boys wrestled under the table with the dog. Pop was looking better than he had in weeks. We were all very hopeful.
The day after Thanksgiving, Pop was hit by a huge stroke that completely paralyzed him. After this, he was no longer able to eat or talk. We also were never really sure if he understood what we were saying. The kids were absolutely devastated, especially my older son, who worshipped his six-foot-tall, bigger-than-life, war-hero grandfather. Our family was camped out at the hospital at least twelve hours a day, with different members taking shifts. More relatives flew to the island as doctors and nurses poked and prodded Pop. Being in the hospital before this major stroke had been very difficult for my father-in-law. For years he was an eye surgeon, a Frenchman who was used to giving orders and being in control. To see him laying helpless in a hospital bed was heartbreaking.
December crept into our lives. It was the season of Hanukkah, a favorite time of the year for Jewish children. With potato pancakes, singing and merrymaking, Hanukkah was a time to celebrate with friends and relatives. Sadly, the season was difficult that year. Pop was dying and we all knew it. The only question was when. My sister Lila had flown from California to be with us, and she distracted my children with her eccentric aunt shenanigans. Having her with us was a blessing. She had been a hospice nurse and knew firsthand about the dying process. Michael and I were spending more and more days at the hospital, at the same time trying to keep everything as normal as possible at home for our sons. In spite of Pop’s condition, we wanted them to have their eight nights of Hanukkah. Their Da would have wanted this for them, too.
In the Time of Dying
One evening, we were hosting our annual Hanukkah dinner. The house was full of loving friends. Michael and I were bursting into tears every five minutes, while our wonderful friends took turns holding us and providing words of comfort. The stress was incredible and definitely starting to take its toll. Everybody pitched in, and we were able to make the party happen. After the Hanukkah candles were lit, the latkes devoured and the wrappings of the presents scattered across the floor, my oldest son asked, “What will happen to Da when he dies?”
Our family had always been very open about death, and both of my young sons were full of questions, as usual. Josh reminded us all that Damus would take Da to the sky, but my oldest boy wasn’t quite comfortable with this idea. As a card-carrying member of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, I was able to share with my children vivid tales of people who were close to death, yet who returned to life with visions of heavenly landscapes. Because of my role as a licensed marriage and family therapist, I had worked not only with the grieving, but also the dying. With this wealth of experience, I was able to speak about the many stories I had heard from clients who had been at death’s door.
Stories of encounters with angels and loved ones who had already passed on were common in my office. An acquaintance of mine, Dr. Raymond Moody, had written a number of bestselling books on this topic, a phenomena he called the near-death experience (NDE). I passed his works on to my mother-in-law and my oldest son. Then I decided to share with my family an experience I had with my own mother when she was passing.
A Good-Bye Hug
When I was sixteen, my beloved mother died a terrible death. When she was just thirty-three, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Back then, treatment for this disease was hit-and-miss at best. By the time her thirty-eighth birthday rolled around, she was on her deathbed. At five in the morning, moments before her passing, I awoke from a deep sleep and knew intuitively that my mother was dying in the hospital. A chill ran down my spine as I arose, put on my fuzzy pink bathrobe and slippers and then went downstairs to sit by the phone. Alone in the early dawn, I could feel the sadness penetrating every cell of my being. As the sun came up over the backyard orchard of fruit trees, the tears began to slowly slide down my cheeks. My beautiful, vivacious mother was gone and I knew it. About fifteen minutes later, a dear friend of hers called our home to tell me she had died. When he shared this news with me, I quietly replied, “Yes, I already know.”
At this same time, two very good family friends were also getting out of their beds and slipping into bathrobes. They too had suddenly awakened at 5:00 a.m., miles away from the hospital in separate locations. As their eyes opened, they also knew my mother was departing this world a… (the rest of this story can be found in my book “One Last Hug Before I Go: The Mystery and Meaning of Deathbed Visions).