Note: As yesterday was the thirteenth of the month as well as Mother’s Day, I’ve decided to re-release the story involving the death of my precious Sara in her memory. Many people have marveled at the unique events surrounding her demise and, perhaps, more will continue to be intrigued by this wonderful woman. RJ

 

 

 

Of What Price, Heaven?

By R.J. Godlewski

©2003-2007, All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

            Sara had been battling cancer for several years – indeed, since 1996 (though she had cancer previously in 1979 well before we met) – and passed away on December 13th, 2003. I, like probably most people in my position, had totally “ignored the signs” of her impending demise and wholly believed that she would get well. She had, after all, beaten the disease three times before in her short 52 years of life. It was, as it turned out, her final week that confirmed beyond all doubt the existence of Heaven for me.

            First, permit me to describe her condition. She possessed what I could only describe as a “Shark Bite” occupying where most of us have a throat. It was the only way that I could describe the wound to family and friends; half of her throat literally being eaten away. On the day after Thanksgiving, Sara had a nasty fall in our kitchen while I was momentarily distracted to turn on the overhead lights and which hastened her condition to the point where she laid bedridden for the duration upon the hospital bed that Hospice Home Care provided for her comfort in our living room.

            During her final week on earth, I had three very strange dreams. Two were of Sara appearing to me as if young, her hair the length of when we first met, but still possessing her “wound” as if a badge of triumph. She appeared to be outside, though I couldn’t be certain because the scene was washed out with a diffuse white light. I could call it a park setting, for there appeared to be flowering fields with butterflies – just the kind of environment that Sara would’ve loved. I could not make out her face – this seems to be a reoccurring theme of Heavenly visits, as I shall discuss later – but I knew that it was her because of ‘The Wound’. I felt like the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The third dream was one in which a “doctor” appeared to me dressed in what could only be described as a white “lab coat”. Although I could not make out his face, I could see that he had pitch black hair, appearing very flat or perhaps greased, and very short.

            This “doctor” told me that Sara would be dead in a week. When I awoke, she was lying on her bed watching television as was normal and I simply dismissed the dream as merely a routine ‘nightmare’. Three days later, Sara was dead. I now realize that a dying person can voyage into and out of Heaven and this was where things got very unnerving.

            Sara had laid in a coma from Friday night until her death at approximately 7:25 P.M. (Central) on that Saturday. During her final hours, her mouth had been moving rapidly beneath her lips as if she was either eating or talking to someone. Sara was, incidentally, physically unable to move her mouth because of the destruction done to her muscles from the cancer. Furthermore, she was unable to close her lips at all for several months which makes the fact that they were closed equally interesting. For two and a half years she was unable to take in food or subsistence orally and for over a year was unable to speak since emplacement of her tracheotomy tube. Yet, there she was moving her jaws as if she was without the disease!

            The other major event of that particular night was the one that really scared me. I had been resting on the floor – as much as one could whose wife was slowly dying from cancer – watching old VHS video tapes of Sara and me, with a woman that I had hired to care for Sara while I was at work. All of a sudden, in what was probably mere seconds but seemed to last for hours, I experienced every emotion that I had ever witnessed in my entire life, in such intensity and duration that I cannot even now begin to adequately explain. Fear, anger, frustration, hatred, anxiety, you name it!

            Confused, I suddenly turned around and immediately noticed that Sara had passed. Where she had laid as beautiful as an angel was a sickly green corpse devoid of any resemblance to the love of my life. I realized instantly that I had experienced Sara’s death even though I had been facing the other way and could not ‘see’ her passing. A few minutes before she had been alive, though still within a coma. I firmly believe that I had felt the “evil part” associated with every human being ripped away from her so that her soul could enter Heaven direct.

            Three days later, I had another ‘dream’. One of the last things that I had done for Sara was to place a damp blue washcloth upon her forehead. She had requested it because of a mild fever. In my dream, Sara stood in the bathroom near the sink from which I drew the water for the cloth. I knew that it was her even though the washcloth – the same, worn blue one – was covering her face completely. She told me that she just wanted to hug me and once we had, the brief dream disappeared and I woke to my thoughts.

            I’ve had numerous dreams before and since – mostly surrounding the thirteenth of the month – but none so “realistic” as these four. Now, I must reiterate that until two in the morning on that fateful Saturday, I had no belief whatsoever that Sara was dying. It was only when I couldn’t get her to respond that I paged the Hospice nurse and learned firsthand the God-awful term ‘passing’. Yet, Sara wasn’t done with me – not by a long shot. Her son came down to Arkansas from Michigan on that Sunday to help take care of matters. When he and his wife departed, they left behind a stack of files, papers, and other documents about two feet high on my coffee table (but a few feet from where Sara had passed away). Underneath the stack – wholly unknown to me – was a small notebook that Sara had used to communicate with people. When I grabbed as much of the stack as I could handle, the notebook was exposed, face up, and the only words shown were “Thank you!” I had to sit down and cry.

            Sara was a miser. She wrote so many words on one page that sometimes a person had a hard time reading what had just been written. This page, as you can see, was free and clear except for those two words. Yeah, I know that Sara had written them long before – during a period when her right hand was broken from a fall and hence the ‘scraggly’ penmanship from using her left hand – but I sincerely believe that she had “arranged things” so that I would find the little book as I had. After all, I could’ve easily grabbed the notebook within the stack that I lifted; the book could’ve faced down; it could’ve been somewhere else. It was just as you see it.

            I am a Roman Catholic; always had been. Sara had always been a Southern Baptist. I do know, however, that she is in Heaven much as we Catholics believe without first having had to go through the obligatory ‘pre-season training’ of Purgatory as will we normal sinners. I say this with much reservation for I know that she had gone through complete hell within her life. Born three months premature, shattering her spine at age thirteen, struck by lightning once, battling alcoholism, nearly killed by an ex, and four bouts with cancer! Events of such severity that even one episode would surely doom a mere mortal such as us!

            All of this leads me to wonder of what price is Heaven? Surely one cannot enter Paradise merely by reciting “Praise be the Lord!” For all of her suffering, which has been accurately described herein, Sara still remained concerned about the welfare of others literally right up to the moment that she entered into the coma – her last conscious act being to make certain that I paid the woman who watched over her for me. When I die, I will probably make everyone surrounding me miserable! J

 

            If you’re still not convinced regarding the reality of Heaven and its tremendous entrance fee, consider what happened to me as a child and then reflect upon the foregoing story…

            When about nine or ten years old, I had a severe fever and was burning up with a 104° temperature. Nothing stopped it, not even taking a cold bath prepared by my mother. As I slept in our living room on a sofa sleeper, I had a dream that I was slowly “rising up” as if on a spiral staircase, floating away from a crowd of people below. The higher that I ascended, the more everything became cloudy, somewhat opaque as if within a dense white fog. It wasn’t bright, just foggy. At the top I found myself leaning over something like a wooden railing of sorts and marveling at the masses scurrying far below. A man in white, with long brown hair and what I perceived to be an equally long beard with no discernable face stood next to me. I was, if ancient memory serves me, physically unable to turn my head and look at him. Regardless of the reason, I just couldn’t see the man’s face.

            He told me basically that “it wasn’t time” and I immediately began retracing my “steps” towards the crowd down below. The fog lifted as I descended, clearing the ‘air’ surrounding the people and upon reaching their location I instantly woke up to find that my fever had finally broken. Now I don’t care what critics may say of me; I actually believe that I had “died” that night so long ago, for at that age I knew hardly anything about what Heaven could be like. Today, after three decades of varying experiences, I know very little more. Nowhere within my wildest creative imagination could I envision what these ‘dreams’ presented to me in such clarity as to second-guess myself nearly every day of the week.

            People ask me frequently whether I dream in black and white or color. I offer a polite laugh in response. Color? I dream with my full complement of senses intact – smell, touch, hearing, sight, and comprehension (how many people with lousy math skills do calculus equations within their dreams, hmmm?)! Regardless of how much I shatter the preconceptions of routine dreams, nothing that I’ve ever had compares with those four dreams surrounding Sara’s death and the one singular example from my childhood. Oh, I still have dreams of Sara. Dreams where I’m chasing an ambulance screaming that “She’s not dead!” Dreams where I tell her that she’ll be okay because “My love is powerful enough to cure her of any disease!” I’ve even had one where her corpse materialized into a zombie and tried to attack me. Whatever they are, they aren’t the same as those five lifelike dreams that I’ll carry within my memory for the rest of my life. Trust me. I’m not that good of a novelist to simply ‘invent’ stories such as those. J

 

Update

 

            As I reflect upon Sara’s death – and life – I can’t help but come up with lessons that transcend the years and today is no different. I could literally write volumes about our short life together and what I perceive as her “purpose in life” – something that she constantly asked me about. What I do know, however, is that Sara’s life was far from easy; she had to battle against death her entire life and perhaps this is what made her so special. For example, being born three months premature she literally fit in the palm of her father’s hand. How close to her birth is the present ‘right’ of abortion? Would have Sara been less of a living, breathing person had she remained within the womb for the remaining three months?

            And what of her cancer? Surely, not having health insurance made her condition even more painful (I had lost my own coverage from General Electric when I was laid off). Yet, even with the tremendous advantage of having the best insurance around – in my opinion – which began on my first day of employment, didn’t guarantee her perfect care. While they stopped the cancer while under coverage, the medical staff at the University of Arkansas Medical Center (Little Rock) did something fully unforgivable had I the presence of mind to detect it. On the very day after her 50th birthday, Sara had her P.E.G. implanted so that she could receive chemo and a feeding tube (basically no larger than an I.V. tube) placed into her stomach so that she could eat liquid foods.

            For pain, the doctors prescribed OxyContin which has been in the news of late. Fully ignorant of the medicine, Sara (and eventually me) dutifully ground up the pills as with the rest so they could be squirted through her tube with the giant syringe. We did this for almost three years until the hospice nurse informed us that OxyContin was a timed-release medication and switched Sara to liquid morphine (which I felt even less comfortable in administering). Instead of a 12 hour dose, Sara was receiving the full ‘charge’ of OxyContin at once. The news broadcast the other day said it is like a heroin fix. I thought, “My God! Don’t these doctors know what they’re doing?”

            Even eating was a chore, for most of her ‘tube feed’ period required Sara to fabricate her own meal. How many politicians competing for office today can even comprehend someone with cancer literally liquefying ten pounds of chicken so that it can be sucked through a small tube? It was only after years of fighting red tape were we able to get assistance so that the $8/can nutritional supplement could be provided for her. Speaking of that, it took Sara over a year to get on Social Security Disability – for a disease that the government itself says is an automatic disability! The State of Arkansas was going to help with the cost of paying someone to watch Sara from 5 P.M. (when the hospice aide left) until I came home from work at 11 P.M., but this never materialized in time. I don’t complain about that – I don’t like being needful – but it would’ve helped as I was making $9.35/hour before taxes on a temporary position near the house and paying out $8/hour after taxes to pay for the lady to keep tabs on Sara. When we caught the Hospice aide sneaking off to McDonald’s, I never felt comfortable using someone that I didn’t have at least some control over. Do today’s politicians – Republican or Democrat – even comprehend such problems? Or do they simply ignore the needy as always being “poor” or there being a reason for being so “disadvantaged” in the first place?

            I had a great job with General Electric at the time, handling software responsibilities for a 1,200 person paper mill client. I had a brand new Chevy Impala – fully loaded. Our rent was miniscule compared with what we had when we first left Michigan. And, most importantly, we had money in the bank. None of this, of course, could match against a $900,000 medical bill when you get laid off. Contrary to the way that it may seem, I am not bitter. I merely write these things because 1.) I know that life can dish out some pretty nasty events; 2.) regardless of how much we could’ve used it, national taxpayer-financed healthcare is not a good idea; and 3.) I got laid off (at the end of August, 2001 right before 9/11) because I wasn’t performing to my fullest potential. Yes, I could lay blame on the fact that my wife’s cancer was distracting my mind and yes, I could even make the case that the union wanted all contractors to go before their members were laid off, but I won’t.

            I could also lay blame on either Big Tobacco or Big Alcohol but Sara fully knew the risks associated with both smoking and drinking and still did so. She battled her demons because they were her demons – not someone else’s.  I don’t smoke myself but I never forced her to stop. She knew that I didn’t approve of it, but the vice was within her history – having been born and raised on a Southern Virginia tobacco farm. Today, many people – politicians, activists, media types, etc. – are trying to distance the blame for people’s misfortunes from the people themselves. Even today, as I sit here within the country’s worst economy I have only myself to blame – I chose to be with family after Sara’s death and came back to Michigan despite it being ranked dead last in nearly every category. How many of my neighbors are convinced that it is President Bush’s fault! I moved here from Southeastern Arkansas, Mississippi Delta region, bayou country – and the economy was still better than here in Michigan where socialism and Bush Bashing seems to alleviate the responsibilities of people.

            Although it will be hard to move on after Sara’s passing – even at three years and counting – I will succeed. It will be because I am faithful to only one woman “until death do us part”. It will be because I try to learn from my mistakes and plan out my future. It will be because when I stumble and fall, I check my condition before I leap back up onto my feet. It won’t be because someone else screwed me over. It won’t be because the Republicans horde all of the money or that the Democrat’s plans aren’t being instituted. It will be because I am an individual and I will use the talents and gifts that God has given me to serve out His mission for me here on earth. Like Sara’s inquiry, I know that there’s a reason that God has me here and that purpose requires that I be responsible enough to accept it – whatever it is.

            Who knows, maybe in all of this there is a lesson for many people. To quote John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” The key here is that life happens to us and we can either accept the challenge or lay blame towards others. I prefer to accept the challenge, even if I should fail for my entire existence. I don’t know what my price is for entrance into Heaven, but you can bet that I’ll invest within my future so that whatever it is, I’ll have at least a down payment for which to borrow the rest from God. J

           

 

If you would like to create a memorial for Sara Ann Smart (Doss), please send a contribution to the Monticello Branch of the Southeast Arkansas Regional Library (107 East Jackson, Monticello, Arkansas 71655) and tell them that you would like to make a donation towards a self-help center for people suffering from terminal diseases and their families. Thank you!

 

 

            While Catholic theology mandates the confirmation of at least two distinct ‘miracles’ for a person to be canonized, I already know that Sara is indeed a saint. However, I would like to hear from anyone who might be inclined to pray to her and if she has responded to your pleas for her intercession. Feel free to contact me at:

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