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It is fitting that we begin with a true story involving three main characters: an elderly man nearing death, a kindhearted woman in robust health, and a deceased boy very much alive.

Five months earlier, physicians had diagnosed sixty-five-year-old Vernon Samuels with terminal lung cancer. They could do nothing but admit him to Rocky Mountain Hospice, in Colorado Springs, to live out his days with as much dignity and comfort as possible. Sadly, what relief palliative medicines could provide, human contact wouldn’t. For decades, Vernon had been known to one and all as a cranky killjoy—a miserable person who made everybody around him miserable too.

And so almost no one came to visit him, despite the dwindling of his days on earth. Only the most intrepid family members straggled in from time to time, and they didn’t stay long. Even the nurses braced themselves for barrages of criticism when they entered his room.

Vernon had just one regular visitor: Dee Ring Martz. A social worker with a cheerful disposition—in other words, Vernon’s exact counterbalance—Dee stopped in daily to check on him. Undeterred by his toxic attitude, she would linger by his bedside and chat, assessing his moods and seeking ways to bring solace. Asked how he was doing, Vernon would scowl and complain about the asinine shows on TV, or the ruckus made by the kids who visited across the hall, or the nurses being incapable of doing anything right.

It came as a shock, then, when Dee arrived one Tuesday afternoon and found the withered, pajama-clad man sitting up in bed and smiling— you could almost say beaming. The room, usually stuffy and dark, was bright; the curtains were uncharacteristically pulled open.

“Hello, Dee!” Vernon called out. “Don’t you look lovely today! And I want to tell you how much I’ve appreciated our daily visits.”

Dee’s first thought, naturally, was that the doctors had upped his medication. But they hadn’t.

“Vernon, you’re in high spirits today,” she replied. “In fact, you seem happier than I’ve ever seen you.”

“And with good reason,” he said. “Joey came to see me. My son, Joey!”

Dee had talked with the occasional visiting relative, and there had never been a son—she was sure of it. She asked him to tell her more.

Joey, it turned out, was Vernon’s long-dead child who’d drowned at age five. Vernon had always blamed himself for his beloved boy’s tragic death and had vowed never to get close to anyone again. His grouchy disposition was an all-too-effective defense mechanism to keep others at arm’s length.

“I’m telling you, Dee, Joey came into my room, just as clearly and visibly as you just walked in,” the man went on, words tumbling from his mouth. “He told me my time on earth is short and that I should be nice to people.”

Dee smiled at how seriously he took his son’s admonition.

“Joey said something else,” Vernon continued. “He’s coming to get me at noon on Friday. That’s when I’ll die, and Joey will be here to escort me to heaven. He said he was chosen to be my guide. Isn’t it wonderful?”

As much as Dee had been around dying people, she was no stranger to spiritual encounters: children who saw angels, semiconscious people who reported heavenly visions, those who in their final moments called out, “It’s so beautiful!” Still, she wondered about the specific timetable.

The next time she ran into the doctors overseeing Vernon’s medical care, she told them of his experience and asked about his life expectancy.

“He’s terminal, all right,” one said. “But I’d give him three or four months. He’s not so bad off that he’d die on Friday.”

The other concurred: “You better be ready to tell him something on Friday when he expects to be in heaven but discovers he’s still here.”

Friday came, and Dee showed up at 11:30. She and Vernon chatted as usual, Vernon offering more compliments and encouragement. As the minutes ticked by, Dee didn’t dare check her watch, knowing what he would think. She began rehearsing words of consolation.

Soon enough, the grandfather clock out in the hallway began tolling the noon hour. Gong, gong, gong. . . .

As if on cue, when the twelfth gong sounded, Vernon sat up, spread his arms wide, and shouted, “Joey!”

In that exact instant, the room filled with a palpable energy, as with the ionized air after a lightning strike. Dee felt the hairs on her arms stand up.

A split second later, Vernon slumped back on his pillows, his head lolled to one side, and the last gush of air escaped his lips. “Vernon? Vernon!” Dee shouted. No response. She pressed the emergency call button, and nurses scurried in. Checking his pulse, one announced, “He’s gone.”

Dee thought to herself, Yes, he’s gone—gone on to a better place with the son he longed to see again.1

Garlow, J. L., & Wall, K. (2009). Heaven and the afterlife: What happens the second we die?

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