On an early morning last week, just 10 days before Christmas, as I lay in bed gathering my thoughts, I heard a loud crashing sound downstairs in my house.
No sound had preceded it, so I did not fear a break-in. But it was loud enough to wake my wife. “What was that?” she asked, alarmed. “I’ll go check,” I said dutifully.
In that no one else was home, I had figured that the Christmas tree had toppled over or a picture had fallen off a wall, but I could find nothing out of order.
With no place else to look, I checked the sparest and smallest room downstairs, the one where I kept my weights and a TV to watch while working out.
What I found there, especially on reflection, was evidence enough for me to come to a rather stupendous conclusion: yes, Virginia, there is indeed life after death.
To understand how and why I concluded thusly requires a little back-story. It begins with a family friend we will call “Anna,” a sensible young wife and mother I have known forever.
After years of suppressing her gifts, and more years still of struggling to reconcile them with her deep Catholic faith, Anna has let a few people know what she believes herself capable of doing, namely – hang on here – communicating with the dead.
I have been historically agnostic about all things irrational and/or intangible like extraterrestrials or ESP or telekinesis or poltergeists or pro-life Democrats or people who self-combust in their living rooms.
Despite my doubts, Anna approached me because of my access to the media. There were missing person cases where she thought she could be helpful but, understandably, she had made little headway with skeptical authorities.
Curious, I asked her what she could tell me about Clinton Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, the title character of my book, “Ron Brown’s Body.”
The apolitical Anna had not heard of Brown but came back a day later with astonishingly accurate details about his life and death. Still wary, I figured, she could have pulled some of these details from my book, but not all.
For one, the death scenario she drew differed from the one I had depicted as most likely, but hers was nonetheless entirely plausible.
For another, the personal details she evoked went well beyond anything I knew. To check, I called Brown’s confidante, Nolanda Butler Hill, and the precision of Anna’s revelations took Nolanda’s breath away.
Some time later Anna called me without prompting. She told me that my late father had visited her the night before. This was not an area I was eager to explore, but I chose to listen.
As Anna related, she had been awakened by a very loud rendition of the song “Sloop John B.” She heard my father’s voice filtered and coming from her left. This meant, she told me, “He did, in fact, shoot himself.”
Anna laid out the details: my father been demoted from top grade detective to cop on the beat in a political purge by an incoming administration. “He hated the corruption around him,” she told me.
This stuff happened in Newark, I explained. I was 15 years old at the time. Anna had yet to be born, but she was eerily accurate.
“It was not only a self-esteem thing,” she told me. “His salary had been cut, too. It caused him to feel badly about himself.”
Anna then proceeded to tell me the when, where, how and why of his death in detail beyond what my three siblings and I had ever shared or even knew.
After the conversation, I called my oldest brother, Bill. For about an hour, we parsed the lyrics of “Sloop John B.”
“We come on the sloop john b/ My grandfather and me/ Around Nassau town we did roam.” My father’s grandfather was John D. Cashill, who had come of age in Princeton, N.J., “Old Nassau.”
Beyond that, we were struck by the haunting repetition of the refrain, “I wanna go home.” Anna had explained that as a result of the suicide my father remained in a purgatorial “healing place” and had yet to get home.
That much said, my brother and I laughingly conceded that we might have been reading more into it than a Beach Boys song could possibly bear. Still …
Shortly after this revelation, my brother, Bill, was diagnosed with a potentially fatal immune disorder. Despite a valiant struggle and a bone marrow transplant, he died last month, two years after the diagnosis.
Bill was largely asymptomatic during those years, and I spent a good deal of time with him and his lovely and loving wife, Maybel.
Spiritually, and politically for that matter, Bill and I were on pretty much the same wavelength. He chose me to deliver the eulogy.
When Anna learned of Bill’s death, she e-mailed me her regrets saying, “I am sure Bill will send you some sort of sign to let you know he is OK.”
A day later Anna sent me another e-mail. Bill had come to her. Although she had never met him, her description of him and my mother and father with whom he had happily reunited was absolutely on target.
Bill’s message, “There is nothing to fear. It really is that beautiful. It’s truly amazing.”
Although Bill did not tell me what to say, my eulogy mirrored the sermon preached that day and the Bible verses he chose.
“In the last third of his life Bill learned to appreciate his faith,” I concluded. “There is no wisdom without it. This is something that he wanted you all to know and remember, especially his family.”
In the final sentence I echoed Anna’s comment, “And now that he has had firsthand experience with what happens next, he would want me to share with you one final thought: There is indeed life after death, and it is a beautiful and amazing thing.”
Two weeks later, before going to bed, I reread these words. As much as I wanted to believe them, I still hoped for “some sort of sign” from my brother as Anna had predicted.
“Billy,” I thought, “I have negative ESP, a brain encased in lead. I have never even won at the track. Make that sign obvious.”
What I found that next morning seemed to be about as obvious as a sign could get: One of my two 25-pound barbells had somehow come off the radiator and fallen into an unwanted gift basket, breaking two cups and waking my wife.
Those barbells had nestled in the radiator’s grooves without incident for the last 10 years. I had placed them there at least 1,000 times and not touched them in two days. Plus, they were about the only items distinctively mine in the whole house.
That night I had some friends over, and we tried without success to conceive of a physical explanation for the jumping barbell. We could find none.
My friends were spooked. Seeing had made them believers, in no small part because they knew an additional detail I have yet to share: That day was my birthday; the incident had taken place at my birth hour.
I e-mailed Anna and explained what happened. “Whaddya think,” I asked.
“Is your question supposed to be rhetorical?” she joked. “A sign like that is hard to overlook and dismiss. Consider it a special birthday gift.”
So I do. Thanks, Billy, and Merry Christmas!