"Joe" and Grama
I have had a companion in spirit with me all of my life. He is my Guide or Guardian Angel, if you will. I call him 'Joe.'
He was my imaginary playmate when I was a kid. But unlike most children, my "friend" never faded away. By the time I was a teenager, I knew that none of my friends had a "friend." This really scared me and I ended up going to see a psychiatrist, to get him to help me to be 'normal.' But that is another story.
This story is about a series of strange events that happened right after my Grandmother died. It’s also a story of how I lost my faith for a time, and how, with the help of Joe, I regained it.
When my Maternal Grandmother died, I was devastated with grief. We had been extremely close. The day before her death, I paid her a visit. I could see that she was getting ready to pass over. The Doctor told me that she was hanging on to me and that I needed to let her go. In a childhood of inconsistency and fear, she had been my lifeline. I didn't know how I would let her go. But I knew I had to try.
I went home, and I stayed up almost all night, letting go of her, ritualistically. I felt that I must do this so that I would not hold on to her and delay her passing. I found out later that she had died just as I finished the letting go ritual.
At about 6:30am the next morning, Joe came to me and told me that she had passed. I felt so alone and helpless. I really felt I was not ready to go on without her.
Joe said to me, "Give your Grama to me, Sherry, I'll take care of her." I knew he meant that he would help her with her transition.
He told me that she was with her sister named Maryanne. I had never heard of a sister with that name, but I was too upset to argue.
I can still see myself looking in the bathroom mirror that morning, brushing my hair, thinking, "Here I am, combing my hair as I do every day, and my Grandmother is dead. Nothing will ever be the same again, and I am just combing my hair." This was the first time that I realized fully that life goes on, with or without us.
My Grama had made a final request of me at the very end of her life that went against what she had always said she wanted. It was outrageous and she had begged me to make a death-bed promise to her that I would carry this request out. I did promise her, knowing full well that my Mother had her power-of-attorney, not me, and that she would never let me do as she had asked - and rightly so. It was a very unreasonable request.
But I felt great guilt over this. I focused on this feeling instead of the real issue of my sadness and grief.
A couple of nights after her death, I was drowsing in a recliner and I suddenly woke up - it was 3:11am. My Grama was born on March 11, 1911. I had been dreaming and what I dreamed was that my arm was on fire.
I was just terrified and sure that my Gram was angry with me for not carrying out her final wishes. I thought she was after me! I didn't sleep for the rest of the night. I was extremely upset.
Later on the next day, I went with my Father to pick up Grama's ashes. When I held that box I felt the utter lifelessness of the contents. Never before had I ever felt something so completely devoid of vital energy and feeling. There were no subtle energies coming from it that was anything I recognized; nothing of my Grama was here. I felt an emptiness enfold me as I realized that everyone and everything that we know, love and work for passes away, eventually. It truly is "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Yes, I knew that intellectually, but now I felt it to my very core.
For the first time I became aware that for me, life is only an empty existence without my faith. And I felt my faith wavering.
The day of her memorial dawned beautifully. We were to drive up to San Francisco in two cars, meet at the Pier at Fisherman's Wharf and go out on a small boat to scatter her ashes in the water near Angel Island, in the Bay.
An old friend drove us, since I was in no shape to do so. She dropped me off with another childhood friend, Bill, who stayed with me. I stood on the pier, waiting for the rest of the family to find parking spots and join us. About 45 minutes passed, and no one came. I was holding this box with my Grama's ashes in it, standing in the middle of a Saturday crowd at Fisherman's Wharf, feeling the total desolation of the newly bereaved.
I once more experienced and realized that life without my faith was not worth living. I felt that I couldn't go on without it, and I couldn't imagine how I could restore it. With no belief or expectation that I would be heard, I decided to claim the promise that if we are truly in need of a sign and ask for one, we will receive it. Although I was very earnest, this was not a prayerful request; this was more like a challenge to God.
Bill and I were getting worried, since my normally prompt family was still nowhere to be seen. We were afraid that the funeral boat might leave without us. We decided to try and find the Captain of the boat and tell him to wait for us. We walked around, checking all of the places that we could see where there were boats and pier numbers. No boat. We couldn't even find the Pier that we were supposed to be at. The crowd was pressing around us and I began to feel panicky. At one point, we almost got on the wrong boat for someone else's Funeral. Finally, we walked around to the back of a restaurant, intent on finding a someone, perhaps a worker, to help us.
All of a sudden it became still around us. A man approached us wearing a boating cap. He walked right up to us, looking directly at me. He came very close and said:
"My name is Joe. Sherry, give your Grama to me; I'll take care of her".
I was in shock, Bill looked like he was about to faint. I handed the box to the man. Just as this happened, my family arrived. They heard this man say this strange thing to me. We looked at each other in amazement and shook our heads. We followed the man onto a boat.
It turned out that this man was the Captain of the boat and he was puzzled as to why he had said these things to me. He wasn't sure how he had known my name. It just "came out of his mouth." But, being a practical man, he shook off his "spooky feeling" and took us out onto the Bay.
As all of us sat in the cabin, Captain Joe took Grama's ashes out and was going to put them into a silver urn, but it had disappeared.
We all began to laugh, since the cardboard box was much more suited to my earthy Grandmother than a silver urn.
Then, Captain Joe reached into the ashes and brought out a medallion, which she had been cremated with. He told me that he didn't know why he was doing this, but he "knew" that she wanted me to have this metal token. He told me that my Grama loved me and would never be angry with me for anything, for long. He said repeatedly that she loved me more than anything and would never want me to feel bad at not being able to do something that she had asked me to do.
Throughout his dialogue, he continued to say that he didn't know why he was telling us these things and apologizing to us. He begged us not to tell anyone that he had done these strange things or given the medallion to me because it was against the law and he would be in trouble. He said that he felt that he must do this for me. I took the disk and looked at it; there were numbers on it. As morbid as it probably was, having this medallion really did make me feel closer to her and less bereft.
Captain Joe began to tell jokes. Off color jokes. This was something Grama often did. It was really strange and normally would have been quite inappropriate behavior for a man piloting a family to a loved one's last resting place. But somehow, it wasn't as strange as it sounds, and none of us were offended. Rather, we were struck with wonder. We all knew that somehow Grama was here and she was using this man to let us know she was okay.
Captain Joe took us out to Angel Island and cut the engines. The wind had come u and p and we were in very rough waters, but suddenly it became very still. A bird flew above us as we scattered Grama's ashes into the sea that she so loved. We all felt a peace come over us.
It is hard to explain, but each of us felt her presence in a strong way, including Captain Joe. At one point, my Father started to get very sentimental and morose and the boat rocked violently three times and then all was still, again. One of my friends said it was "like someone had put their finger on the bow of the boat and pushed it three times." We snapped out of our grief, all of a sudden, and began to feel better -- almost light-hearted. We started back to shore.
When we were nearly back, Captain Joe said that he wanted to buy me a drink. This was an uncomfortable idea and I hesitated. Everyone else came along, so we went into a nice restaurant and I had a Coke. He was very shook up, saying that in all of his years and maybe 5000 trips with people's ashes, he had never felt any sort of presence of a dead person before. He was mystified as to the way he had acted, embarrassed and overwhelmingly curious to find out what had happened.
He had recently begun to feel an emptiness in his life; his job only seemed to intensify it, because he took grief stricken people on these trips day after day and there seemed to be no point to his life -- or anyone else's -- anymore. He had gradually lost his faith in a higher power and was just coasting along. Captain Joe seemed desperate to maintain a contact with me to somehow continue the experience. He thought that I could shed light on his behavior.
I explained to him that it was Grama - and Joe - who engineered this experience in order to help me regain my faith - and maybe also to open Captain Joe's eyes. I ventured to say to him that he must have been open to it at some level or it wouldn't have happened. I asked him if it were possible that this experience was an answer to a request for a sign that he had made. I told him about my "Guardian Angel" Joe, and all that had happened. He was very thoughtful and open to that possibility. He really didn't want us to leave him that day and told me that he'd love to take me out to visit Grama anytime. But it's not possible to hold onto spiritual experiences. It was time to go.
We all said goodbye and headed for home. We thought that the experiences were over. But there were a few more revelations to come.
Several days later, we were sitting around Mom's house and sharing things about Grama's life and our own feelings. I told them about Joe saying that Grama was with a sister named MaryAnne. Grama's other sister was there and she told us a curious story.
We found out that there had indeed been another sister named Maryanne - and she's died in infancy. Over a hundred years ago, it was common for many children to die in early childhood, and we all knew that there had been several siblings that died prematurely. It was a large family with eight children who had survived infancy, but none of us could recall Grama or anyone else mentioning the sister's name, or the exact circumstances of the death.
MaryAnne had died when my Grama, who was about two years old, had pulled a pot of boiling water down on top of her, causing serious burns which ultimately killed her. My Grandmother felt a horrible guilt over having caused her little sister's death. As a result, no one ever mentioned the baby who had died so tragically. It was a secret that clouded Gram's life and actively effected it on many levels. Although I knew there was something she feared me knowing about and also hated about herself, I never knew exactly what it was.
But now I knew she was with MaryAnne again and that she was letting her know that she never blamed her. Grama would truly find that peace now.
A few weeks later, I was at a dinner before a meeting we were all attending. I was with my Mom, talking to some friends about Grama's death and Captain Joe. A woman we knew only slightly interrupted us with a startling story.
She worked for a local crematorium and had a strange experience of her own. It seemed that she had cremated a woman on the very night that we were talking about, at about 3:00am. She remembered the cremation quite clearly, and said she felt a little "chilled" when she handled this particular body. She said she'd never forget it. Why?
She was also born in 1911 and her name was Dorothy Smith--- which was my Grama's name!
Remember - I felt my arm burning the very night my Grama was cremated and woke in tremendous fear at 3:11.
I spoke to Captain Joe several times after the incident. He was a changed man. No longer did he do his job without a thought as to the spirit of the person that he was carrying. He had found a beginning point to explore his own faith. He said that he had come to feel that his Guardian Angel was with him always, guiding him back to a safe harbor.I had received my sign - several, actually. I received comfort, as well as a still continuing sense of wonder, from the experience.
The numbers on Gram's disk continue to "speak to me."
Most of all, I was reminded once again, that the Creator does not turn away from us; we turn away from Him.
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