As I pulled my car into the darkened Sacred Hearts cemetery earlier this week, I noticed something remarkable. The cemetery was dotted by lights, even in the depths of winter darkness. So I felt right at home, as I had come to place a candle at the grave of my mother, Mary K. Hanneman.
Mom left us at 11:49 p.m. on Dec. 26, 2018. That moment remains forever suspended in time for me. Her final moment reminded me in many ways of the birth of my three children. As soon as they entered the world, there was a moment before the first breath; a moment of anticipation. Time stopped and eternity intervened. This was so similar for the end of Mom’s life. With her last breath drawn and exhaled, there was also tremendous anticipation. Time stopped. Only I didn’t get to see her first moment in eternity. Although I knew it by faith.
Mom was a woman of great Catholic faith. She always arrived early at Saturday 5 p.m. Mass at Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church in order to pray the Rosary. She was always in touch with her prayer life. On any occasions that one of us needed extra prayers, Mom was on the phone to the good sisters at the Sacred Hearts convent. Much grace flowed from those prayers — great examples of persevering faith. In her final weeks and days, Mom knew where she was going. The night she died she sat up in bed and looked off into the distance with a look of wonderment. She knew. She saw.
We waited more than an hour at the beginning of a new day for her death to be officially declared. That could not be done until a hospice nurse arrived to check for a pulse. After she recorded the legal time of death (as inaccurate as it was), the nurse related some of her experiences at the bedsides of dying patients. She talked of the bodies of the recently deceased giving off smells. At first I thought of something unpleasant, but she quickly clarified these were good scents, like roses.
As I pondered that notion, I looked around Mom’s small room at the Brookdale care center. I felt for a moment like someone unseen walked past me. I smelled a scent that I cannot accurately describe. It was not roses, or flowers at all. It was the most pure, clean scent I ever experienced. The closest descriptor would be a citrus smell. I looked around the room and in the hall to see if someone was using a cleaning chemical. Nothing. Then it was gone. I remarked to the nurse about it. “Did you smell that?” I said. I tried to describe it. “You see!” she replied. Then just as quickly as it left, the scent returned. It was powerful and amazingly present. I felt there was something well beyond a mere olfactory manifestation at work. What is that?
After perhaps five minutes of this scent permeating the room, it disappeared. Gone with no lingering trace. I was quite struck by it all; unsure if I had imagined it. Over the coming days and weeks, I pondered the experience. Could the presence of angels leave a heavenly scent behind? I’d often read about the bodies of saints giving off what is called the odor of sanctity, but this was typically a floral smell. I searched the internet, but could not find anything that described what happened in Mom’s room that night.
I turned to my friend Steve Ray, a Catholic filmmaker, author and great teacher of the faith. He did not hesitate. “God gives graces to those who love him,” he wrote. “It seems like a great grace was bestowed on you in the death of both of your parents.”
Steve recalled my description of my Dad’s death in my 2010 book, The Journey Home. How even after Dad died and was silent, he returned long enough to mouth the word “love” three times. I never thought I would have another experience so profound. Until Mom left us. It was so very different, but just as impactful. Mom’s final gift.
It took me a full year to be able to write about it. I knew it would be impossible to accurately describe what happened. What words could convey the depth of what I experienced? Surely writing about it would be almost a disservice, since words on a computer screen simply would not suffice. But it seems a gift like that should be shared, so I do my best in writing this post.
I thought about all of this as I placed the battery-powered candle at the graveside. I asked Mom and Dad to pray for me and my family. I looked around the darkened cemetery again and was impressed with the flickering of candles and the glow of lighted wreaths at the graves of dozens of souls. “Look at all of these lights in the world, still with us,” I thought. As I walked back to my car, I said a prayer of thanks for the lives of everyone buried there, amid my hope they are all with Christ in Heaven.
Just before I pulled away, I turned back to look at Mom and Dad’s headstone.
It was just a little light, but how it overcame the darkness. •
©2019 The Hanneman Archive