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Chapter 1: The Door Opens

Afterlife Encounters: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Experiences
Dianne Arcangel

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

A door to the afterlife opens, revealing a whole new world of intrigue, hope, and wonder. The possibility of heaven captures our imagination. Some people occasionally peek through the portal to satisfy fleeting bursts of fascination. Others step inside, only to discover a lasting, and sometimes all-consuming, adventure. I, however, was propelled through on my very first day of school.

"Hello, I'm Mrs. Apple, your first grade teacher," she said as she ushered each of us to our seats. When every desk was taken, she stood in front of the room with her hands on her hips. "Listen, boys and girls. Shhh, I want to tell you something." After the bustling had subsided, she leaned over and reached into a bag beside her desk. Then up she popped with a cockeyed grin and an apple in her hand. "My name is Mrs. Apple, just like this," she said, pointing to the piece of fruit. We all laughed at her animation. "I'm your teacher this year. This is where I'll sit," she said, placing the edible on her desk. "My son goes to school here too, just down the hall. He's in the second grade. Now I want each of you to stand up, say your name, and tell us something about you and your family."

A boy in the first row jumped up and down in his chair, "Me! Me! Me!" he yelled. Although he was the smallest child in our class, his enthusiasm pulsated throughout the room. "Okay, okay," Mrs. Apple said with a giggle, "you go first."

I'm Jimmy!" he exclaimed, jumping to his feet.

"Good, Jimmy," Mrs. Apple encouraged as she sat behind her desk. "Continue."

"My grandpa died and then he came into my room and went by my bucket of?"

"Who came into your room?" Mrs. Apple interrupted, leaning forward in her chair.

Protruding his chest proudly, Jimmy answered, "My grandpa!"

"But you said he died," she inquired.

"Yes ma'am. But, but, but . . . he came to my room."

Mrs. Apple wrinkled her nose, "Huh"?

"You know . . . I'm talking bout his ghost," he explained.

"Oh, don't be silly," she scolded, twisting her mouth to one side.

Jimmy's eyes grew large. Dropping his head, he murmured, "But I'm not being silly. He was in my room by my bucket of?"

"Sit down," she snapped with her brows furrowed.

Jimmy sank to his chair. Oh . . . look at him, I thought, as I watched him trying to fight back tears. Why was she so mean to him? And besides, I wanted to hear what happened. Why wouldn't she let him talk?

But talk, Jimmy didn't. He did not utter a word, not for the rest of the morning or even while moving through the noisy, chattering, cafeteria lunch line. He appeared so downtrodden that I made certain to sit beside him. My numerous attempts to engage him in conversation seemed to be going nowhere, but then he leaned his shoulders toward me. "I really did see my grandpa," he murmured, keeping his eyes on his tray of food. I inserted my head between his face and plate, giving him no choice but to look at me. Flashing a half-tooth smile, I asked, "What happened?"

"Well," he whispered, "I was in my room when I saw my grandpa by my bucket of toys. He smiled and waved at me and I smiled and waved at him. Then he left."

Along with Jimmy, I relived his brief encounter, trying to imagine what it would be like to see a real ghost.

That evening, as usual, my family and I were gathered around the supper table, eating and leisurely discussing our day. Tonight was special, however, because this had been my introduction to school. My parents eagerly cast questions about the teachers and students. Their excitement fell to a hush, however, as I recounted Jimmy's attempt to describe his afterlife visitation during class and then our private lunchroom exchange. My sister chastised, "That's so weird--you're so weird--just plain old weird." Dad glared at her, then smiled at me. With that, we went on to other subjects--that is, until later.

Similar to other children, I concluded my evenings with a bedtime story. Unlike other parents, however, my dad never read stories from books. Instead, he either created spontaneous tales or narrated actual events from his life. This night Dad recounted a true story that involved his sister and her husband, Harry.

"Your mother, Aunt Lu, Uncle Harry, and I drove to the Chicago World's Fair in the summer of 1933. In those days, the fairs introduced the latest gadgets and inventions. We listened to music from strange new instruments, and we tasted food we'd never heard of. There were displays, and rides, and light shows . . . well . . . we couldn't do it all if we'd stayed a week. We were having a grand old time when the darnedest thing happened.

There were these fortune-tellers lined up along the boardwalk. Your mother and Lu started giggling and teasing each other, "Go get your fortune told!"

"After you, little missy!"

"You first, dearie."

They were getting the biggest kick out of those fortune-tellers. We kept on walking along, but this one started yelling at us as we passed her, "Hey! You! Come here! I've got an important message for you!"

The girls elbowed one another, laughing, "What're ya waiting for?"

But the woman was serious . . . and was looking straight at your Uncle Harry. "Please. Please, sir," she said, "Listen to me. I've got an important message for you." Lu pulled at the back of Harry's shirt, trying to get him to turn around. She said, "She's talking to you Harry. Go on over there. See what she's got to say." But Harry ignored her and just kept walking down the boardwalk.

Then the fortune-teller yelled, "Your wife's calling you, "Harry . . . Harry," she says." We didn't know what to think. Lu said, "Harry, how can that woman be calling your name?" Harry didn't even look at your Aunt Lu, so she ran around in front of him. "You know her?" He shook his head No and kept walking. But the fortune-teller yelled louder, "Your wife and little baby are here. Their eyes and hair and skin are dark; beautiful, both of them . . . and she wants me to tell you, "Harry, it's me, Ernestine. Harry, I'm so sorry." Your Uncle Harry didn't say one word--he just turned around and went back to the fortune-teller's table and sat down. Well, we had to know what was going on, so we followed him and sat down at the table too.

The woman said, "She's giving me a message? I'll give it to you. "Harry, I'm fine now and so is Andrew. We're together. Oh Harry, I'm so sorry for what I did, especially for taking our son with me. I was wrong. Can you ever forgive me? I didn't know what I was doing. I wasn't thinking straight. I was wrong. I'm so sorry. Please forgive me.?"

I could see your Uncle Harry was shook up. He just sat there, looking straight at the fortune-teller. She asked him, "Do you have anything you want to say to her?" Harry never moved a muscle, so she said, "She's saying, "It wasn't your fault, Harry. You didn't deserve what I did. We didn't deserve it. I loved you and always will. I'm so sorry. Forgive me. We're happy here, and we want you to be happy too. Please forgive me." She needs you to forgive her . . . for yourself?"

Harry stood up and walked out. I saw his eyes were glazed over, so I was worried about him, but Lu just kept laughing about how ridiculous that was. "Ha, ha, you've got a dark-eyed, dark-haired, dark-skinned baby? Is she blind? No child of yours could have dark anything!" Harry walked to the front of the fair, not even looking at us. The only thing he said was that he wanted to go home.

I drove us back to Michigan that night. We pulled into Harry's drive just before dawn. While the girls were busy taking Lu's suitcase out of the trunk, Harry leaned his head inside the car and whispered to me, "Come back at noon, but don't tell anyone. Lu won't be here and I've got something I want to show you."

When I went back to Harry's that day, he was waiting. He nodded and then motioned for me to follow him. We walked downstairs, into their basement. "We need to get to that trunk," he said, but I didn't see any trunk. All I saw was an old chest of drawers and boxes covered with dust. He said, "Help me," and we started trying to move the chest. I'll tell you . . . I was an athlete, tossed 150-pound weights around like they were feathers, but I thought I was going to bust a gut trying to get that chest moved. So he grabbed hold of the bottom drawer and gave it a good yank. Steel tools flew across the floor! Harry got on his knees and elbows, and reached into the very back of chest. He pulled out a key and put it in his shirt pocket. After we moved the chest and everything out of the way, I could see a blanket covering something, and when he pulled it off, there was a beaten-up old trunk. Harry kneeled down, took the key from his pocket, and put it into the lock. But then he stopped and got the blanket and spread it on the floor with the dusty side down. That's when I knew something really good must be in that trunk.

Well, when he opened it, all I saw were clothes. He picked up a woman's dress and said, "This was Mother's . . . most of these were hers." He started emptying everything onto the blanket?more clothes, a few baby things, a jewelry box, and other stuff. But when the trunk was empty, he leaned over, way to the back, and lifted up the bottom lining. There was an envelope. He picked it up, turned around, and sat down on the floor, so I sat too.

He opened the envelope and handed me a picture. He said, "That's Ernestine, my first wife." I couldn't believe my ears. He said they were only 16 when they got married and a year later had a beautiful baby boy named Andrew. He pulled out a locket and broke down crying when he opened it. On one side was a picture of his wife--she had long, shiny black hair and dark eyes. On the other side, across from her picture, was a tiny piece of hair--also shiny and black. Your Uncle Harry pointed to it and said, "Andrew's. One day when he was several weeks old, I got a bad feeling while I was at work. I kept thinking that something was wrong at home--to go check on my wife and son. By the time I got all the way back, it was too late. . . . Ernestine left a note saying that life was too painful and she couldn't bear the thought of her child living in this world. She had killed herself and our baby. After that, I left Canada. I was going as far south as I could, because I never wanted any reminders. But I was running low on money, so I stopped here to work until I could get enough to move on. That's when I met Lu. I've never told anybody about my wife or son. All I wanted was to leave them behind, but no matter where I went or how hard I tried, I couldn't. At the fair--that had to be Ernestine."

I thought there had to be some logical explanation, so while Harry was putting everything back in the trunk I asked him if the fortune-teller could've been from Canada or knew someone who knew him. But he said they lived outside a tiny settlement--only a handful of people--where everybody knew everybody. They didn't have a funeral parlor or any of that, so he and the neighbors buried his wife and son. No one but a midwife, the neighbors, and Harry had ever seen the baby.

As we headed up the stairs, I asked Harry if the fortune-teller could've seen pictures of them. He said the only picture of Ernestine was in the locket, and it had been hidden away since she died. There weren't any of the baby. He said, "Even if that woman had heard my name or what happened, she couldn't have known what we looked like. That was them all right. I just know it." Harry and I never talked about it again, but I noticed how much he started to change.

Your mother noticed too. She kept saying, "What's gotten into Harry?" He'd always been so glum and hardly ever laughed or said anything. You see him now he's always cheerful.

Well, your mother kept talking about Harry and about how much he was changing. Then one day we were at Lu's when he came home from work whistling. Ha! Your mother got suspicious--thought he might be up to something no good, so I told her what happened. She just couldn't believe he'd keep something like that to himself. She said, "No wonder he was always so sad."

If someone had told me a story like this before it happened to us, I'd never have believed it. Your mother and I have gone over it many times and wondered 'How could that've happened-I don't know'. Did the fortune-teller really talk to your Uncle Harry's wife? I don't know. Did your friend's grandpa really visit him? Could be. You see, Honey, no one knows what happens after we die. No one knows what's possible. But the important thing is that Harry got his life back. He wasn't haunted by his past any more.

I wanted to hear Mother's version of the story, so days later I carefully approached her, asking. "Do you remember going to the World's Fair?" Her big-eyed, "Oh yes!" was followed by, "It was Chicago, 1933." Mother told me an almost verbatim recount about the boardwalk fortune-tellers, the one calling out Uncle Harry's name, and the details of his encounter. "Your daddy and I used to wonder why Lu married Harry. He was always so sullen and withdrawn, but he sure changed after that," she said.

My parents believed that Uncle Harry's afterlife encounter catapulted him from a life of sorrow and despair to one of peace and forgiveness. As for me, the possibilities his story posed were forever etched into my psyche.

The most significant communication between people transpires below conscious awareness, in our deepest psyches. That seemed to be the case with my silent fascination with the afterlife, because schoolmates adopted me as a sounding board for their encounters. The accounts I heard carried a similar ring--that is, they were meaningful and comforting.

"I found this watch from Grandma!" --Jerri's Story
Jerri and I had been classmates since elementary school. By appearance and personality, we were as opposite as a photograph and its negative. Whereas she had dark hair, skin, and eyes, I was blonde, blue-eyed, and fair. She was an introvert and never interested in extracurricular activities; I was extroverted and in the middle of everything. Our similarities, however, were our basic values. We both were remarkably involved in our church and wanted to be missionaries. Like mine, Jerri's formative years were in the arms of an adoring grandmother.

I was delighted to see Jerri waving at me from the other side of our high school's campus after the Christmas break. She ran up to me. "I found this watch from Grandma! I found this watch from my grandma!" she squealed, holding her wrist in front of my eyes. Jerri pulled me away from the concourse and began again.

I have to tell you. My grandma . . . she had a heart attack and . . . ah, she . . . ah . . . you know . . . passed away before Christmas. We were all so sad that we hardly had any Christmas at all.

But that night, Grandma came to me in a dream and told me to go get my present from her. She said she'd wrapped it and hidden it away. The next morning, when I told my mom and grandpa, Mom said, "It was just a dream." My grandpa teased me, "What? She'd better've gotten me something too." He was laughing about it, but it seemed so real to me. I looked and looked everywhere but I couldn't find any present, so I knew Mom was right--it was just a dream.

I was looking out my window that night, trying to sleep, and I could've sworn I saw my grandma shining through the top of the trees, coming from the moonlight. That may sound weird, but then I heard her say, "Go get your present before something happens to it. It's a watch. Look in the bottom of my big sewing box in the back of the closet, in the spare bedroom. Dump all the material out. You'll see it--it's wrapped in a red and green box." Next morning when I told my mother, she said, "Oh go on," just like that. She didn't even look up from her newspaper. But my grandpa said, "Let?s go see!" He was laughing again, running in front of me, to the back bedroom closet. We took all her scraps out of the box, and sure enough, there it was just like she told me, wrapped in red and green paper. You should've seen the look on my grandpa's face--and my mom! Oh my gosh!

Jerri giggled.

Then, holding up her arm to display the slim wristwatch again, she said, "I'm so proud of it. Isn't it beautiful?"

"Oh, Jerri, it's elegant, just elegant." I answered.

Although the simple gold watch would have held little value in the marketplace, the joy it brought her was immeasurable.

This encounter, similar to the others I heard, brought comfort. Jerri's offered more, however. It provided evidence for life after bodily death. Only her deceased grandmother knew about the watch and its whereabouts; therefore, the apparition provided accurate information--known only by the discarnate.

Our small town was built on wild strawberry fields, but the annual harvesting was put aside in preparation for the upcoming high school graduation festivities. My mother, a bit of a psychic, wandered into my room, saying, "Honey, have you ever noticed that just when you're strolling along, thinking how wonderful life is, the old devil jumps up from below and grabs you by the heels? Something's going to happen." Days later, before our commencement celebration, Mother's premonition struck our close-knit community. ...

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