We were not the friendliest of neighbors. When I was introduced to Betty Frost at a neighborhood picnic a few days before I moved into the house next to hers, she struck me as a gray ghost of a woman — a beauty whose fullness has been leeched by time and disappointment, leaving a woman in her 70s, her face sallow, her body concave. Her take on me was indicated by her greeting: Instead of the “Hello” or “Welcome” I was expecting, she looked straight up and said, “Well, and I suppose you’re going to be gone all day too and leave the house up here empty, just like the rest of them!”
“Well, I teach . . .” I said, feeling accused of some sort of devious feminism.
“Sonia’s a professor at Notre Dame,” another of my new neighbors added. “She’s a poet.”
“My husband’s uncle was a poet,” Betty said, in a tone that indicated she wasn’t much impressed with either one of us.
“Oh?” I said, for politeness sake. Everybody has some relative or other who dabbles in verse. “What was his name?”
“Really?” I said, completely off-guard. “I did some of my graduate work on Robert Frost. He’s a marvelous poet — much more complex than most people think.”
But Betty wasn’t interested in Frost’s complexity. “I’ve got some letters he wrote my husband,” she said. “They’re worth money.”
“Yes, they probably are,” I said, visions of literary sugar plums dancing in my head. It would be a professional coup to come up with unpublished Frost letters. “I’d love to read them sometime — when it’s convenient for you. . . .”
“They’re worth money,” Betty repeated.
“Oh, I don’t mean you should give them to me! I mean it would be nice to read them . . . and perhaps I could help you find a buyer — if you want to sell, that is — or get them published.”
Betty made a noncommittal sound. She turned and focused her attention elsewhere at the picnic. I had been dismissed.
Most of our encounters were like that, it seemed. For Betty, everything was worth money or not worth money. The few over-the-fence chats we had in the next five years almost always went down that track: how much her house was worth, how much she had made on other properties, how much my house was worth, how people had cheated her, how various folks were trying to get her money. I brought up the Frost letters once or twice more, still hoping for an unpublished glimpse of the famous man, but the conversation careened away so swiftly that I gave up and abandoned the topic.
In truth, though Betty managed the mounds of impatiens that made her back entry look like a tiny European courtyard in the summers, I seldom saw her. She was not in good health. Whatever her social skills were in youth, she was now reclusive and seemed to rebuff any overtures on my part. In the fifth year we shared at the top of our hill, she suffered an aneurysm and was hospitalized for three weeks. I learned this through another neighbor, and I sent offers of help, but I didn’t visit her. That seems wrong now, but Betty had never indicated any pleasure in my company, and I didn’t take much in hers.
That mutual distance made it all the more remarkable that when I came home one day in October, with late golden light spilling across the lawns, Betty was out tending the last of her flowers and hailed me over to talk. Instead of the usual abrupt dismissal, words poured out in obsessive, non sequitur fashion. She was aware that she’d had an aneurysm and knew she’d spent time in the hospital, but she remembered nothing from those weeks, she said — nothing, that is, except the “weird dreams” she had, each more vivid and detailed than anything in her waking moments.
In one of those dreams, three Madonnas sat on a table — busts of the Madonna from the waist or hips up. They were beautiful, she said, but as she watched, two of them disappeared, and the one in the center began talking to her. She couldn’t remember exactly what the Madonna said, but the words were kind and loving, and in front of the statue was a pile of gold dust that Betty kept picking up.
Wouldn’t you know, I thought, even her dreams are about money, but Betty’s tale continued. As the gold dust sifted through her hands, it changed form into something sheer and gossamer that she didn’t recognize, and she asked the Madonna what it was. “Stockings,” the Madonna said, “golden stockings for you.” The Madonna was surrounded by a wonderful light, Betty said, still amazed as she struggled to describe it: “I have never seen such light.”
That got my attention. Some years ago, in a different part of town, a houseguest left behind a copy of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life, a compilation of interviews and analysis of people who have been clinically “dead” but were brought back to life by modern medical technology. While Moody’s informants reported various aspects of these death experiences, certain core elements were reported by virtually everyone who had “died,” and the most prominent of these was an unearthly light, bright but not blinding, usually emanating from a being they recognized as a godlike or religious figure.
I devoured that book. Given the arguments for both belief and unbelief, I have chosen to believe — in God, in Jesus, in my own possession of a “soul” that will endure. But belief, by definition, is a long way from certainty, and my academic training makes me crave empirical evidence and logical proof. There’s not much proof, scientific or otherwise, for a heaven, a hell or a version of the Elysian Fields. In fact, when a friend posed the question, “Do you really believe in an afterlife?” to a small group of Catholic friends, our answers varied all the way from firm conviction to rather vague hope.
Yet I want desperately to believe I won’t simply cease to be, that relationships with those I love will, in some unimaginable way, continue. I can intellectually conceive of a state in which my consciousness simply doesn’t exist, but I can’t actually imagine it. I can’t imagine a blankness so complete that I am incapable of reflecting on how blank it is. I’ve experienced the dreamless absence of sensory data that takes place under anesthesia, but even that can be experienced in retrospect: A voice in the recovery room says, “You’re fine! Your surgery is over!” and you begin to comprehend that hours have passed since you were on the operating table with tubes in your arm, counting backward from 10.
Moody’s Life after Life landed at my house just as I was preparing to teach Katherine Anne Porter’s long story, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” about a young woman journalist who survives the Spanish influenza of 1918, only to recover and be told that the soldier/lover who cared for her has succumbed to the disease. I instantly recognized that the scenes I had previously regarded as symbols for death that Miranda hallucinates in her delirium were, in fact, elements of the “death experience” Moody describes. Of the 15 elements or “stages” that Moody enumerates, Miranda experiences 11 in some form. (The average Moody informant experienced eight.) Among them are an intense but unblinding light, beings who come to meet and help her, a sense of joy and peace, a border or barrier of some sort that seems to represent the limit between this life and the next, and a sense that she cannot cross this barrier but must return — reluctantly — to life.
Afraid that my own imagination was working overtime, I set out to discover if Katherine Anne Porter herself had ever had the Spanish influenza. Without too much digging, I found an interview she gave in 1956 when “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” was being made into a film for television. Asked about her sources, Porter replied, “It’s a true story. . . . It seems to me true that I died then, I died once, and I never have feared death since” (The Denver Post, March 22, 1956). Other sources report similar statements from Porter, and despite confiding to friends that she couldn’t “re-see” this vanished heaven with earthbound eyes, she completed the story and published it in 1939.
The fact that Porter experienced this “death” half a century before Moody, Elizabeth Kubler Ross and others began to write about near-death experiences seemed to me a form of verification; Porter’s attempt to recreate her experience was untainted by reports in the popular press. Porter was not particularly religious (nor, if her biographers are to be believed, was she always particularly nice), but she told author Glenway Wescott that what she had experienced was “really heaven.”
A work of fiction is not proof of an afterlife, and Raymond Moody takes great care to point out that his research does not constitute empirical evidence. Both texts are less about death than they are about the human experience of dying, but even that, for those of us who choose to believe, is a tiny lifting of the veil.
Betty’s dream of golden stockings was not her only one. The scene with the Madonnas metamorphosed, she said, into three horses, red, black and white. Pale horse, pale rider, I thought, the archetype Porter also described. In a third and “border or barrier” dream, Betty was in a newly built airport that was deserted except for one man stationed near a pair of glass doors. Two planes sat at either end of the runway. “I told him I had to get on one of those planes,” Betty said. “I insisted!” But the man at the glass door was adamant: “No, you aren’t going on that plane.” She tried to argue her way onto the one at the other end of the runway, but the man stood his ground: The doors would not open for her, no planes would take off.
Betty made no interpretations of these dreams, even as she marveled at them, and I was too wary of her reactions to attempt an explication of Moody’s research. As she continued to talk, she slipped back into some of her old concerns: how people were trying to do her out of money, how some woman brought a will to the hospital, but she wasn’t so out of it that they got her to sign.
After that autumn afternoon, I never saw Betty emerge from her house again. I never saw the Frost letters either, though now they seemed less important than the legacy of “dreams” she gave me over the fence. That winter, Betty died. I’d like to think she donned the golden stockings before stepping into the light. I’d like to think a mysterious plane was waiting at the new and deserted airport. At any rate, this time she didn’t come back to report her dreams; this time she boarded and took off.
Sonia Gernes is a professor of English at Notre Dame