They Took Direct Flights to Heaven

Our blogger recalls how his mother and a beloved parishioner both died quickly and peacefully.

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Posted in , Apr 27, 2021

An illustration of a single airplane flying through the clouds; Illustration by Tatsuro Kiuchi

You probably have someone like Edgar at your church. That beloved member who always shows up, knows every hymn by heart, greets you at coffee hour with a radiant smile, always wishing you the best. When our kids were young, he’d slap their outstretched hands with a high five. “There’s my boy,” he’d say. If my wife, Carol, and I tried to explain what God’s goodness was like to our sons, we could point to Edgar, a walking example, a real angel.

His presence was especially welcome in our family because my parents, the kids’ doting grandparents, lived in California, thousands of miles away from us in New York. They were good about visiting once a year and sending presents for special occasions, but Edgar was always there in the flesh for our sons. At church every Sunday. Ready to give a hug. To applaud them in the Christmas pageant, to hear them sing in choir, to celebrate their Sunday school graduations. Their surrogate granddad.

Edgar had immigrated to New York from Barbados back in the 1950s, working first at Horn & Hardart, the legendary New York City automat, where you could put your coin in a vending machine and take out your sandwich, salad and dessert. Lunch on the go, like magic.

He showed up at St. Michael’s—named for the archangel—in the 1960s and soon made himself invaluable, serving on the board and then becoming the sexton and all-around handyman, painter and carpenter. He once described the challenge of painting our Chapel of the Angels—the place where Carol and I were wed—and how he had to work around the mosaics and Tiffany stained glass. I like to think that the prayers made in that space have soaked into the walls, Edgar’s own handiwork providing a base coat.

We grew older and Edgar did too. He must have been in his nineties when I visited him in the hospital after he’d rallied from surgery. We sang a hymn together, me at his bedside. I had to refer to the hymnal. He knew every word, even then. Of course. A couple years later, when I was struck down by some mysterious infection, who should show up at my hospital bedside? Edgar, of course.

The time was nearing when our church would celebrate his hundredth birthday, a milestone for the whole congregation. His daughter Millie came down from Upstate New York, and was joined by Edgar’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a few great-great-grandchildren. After the service we had a big cake for him and shared our favorite Edgar stories.

I recalled a men’s dinner a couple years earlier when we sang some rollicking spirituals, including one of my favorites, “Shall We Gather at the River.” Edgar started chuckling at the music. He said it reminded him of when he was a kid back in the Islands and a visiting evangelist urged everyone in town to give up their wine, beer or liquor.

“He took us down to the water to dump out the contents of any bottles we had,” he said, “and led us in song.” The song? “Shall We Gather at the River.” I can assure you the story added to the evening’s merriment. Edgar might have needed a walker by that time, but nothing could slow his good humor and style.

Edgar’s family planned a second, smaller celebration of his birthday with a fancy dinner at a Harlem restaurant on a Saturday night. Carol and I couldn’t wait to go. Alas, our life took a different turn.

Monday that week my 93-year-old mom in California landed in the hospital with a case of pneumonia and a rapidly beating heart. I flew out on Tuesday. She seemed in good spirits when I got there, restless and uncomfortable but quick to brag to the hospital staff: “The last time I was a patient here was when I had my last child.” Some 62 years earlier.

She’d always been so healthy and vibrant it was hard to imagine that this wouldn’t be something she’d get over. The doctors would fix her up and she’d go back home. But I couldn’t help recalling the prayer I’d been saying for her for two or three years now and had even told her about. “Mom,” I’d said, “when the time comes—and none of us hope it will come anytime soon—my prayer for you is that you get a direct flight.”

“A direct flight,” she said, thinking it over. “Yes, I like that.”

On Thursday two ministers from her church showed up at the hospital with all of us kids gathered around her bedside. One of the ministers asked her what her favorite Bible passage was. “The one about the eagle’s wings,” she said. He read the whole chapter from Isaiah, and then Mom turned to me and quietly said, “I’m going to the Lord’s house soon.” Those words took my breath away. Soon. Sooner than any of us could expect.

That night, when all of us had gone home, she died.

I called Millie in the morning, explaining why I wouldn’t be able to make Edgar’s big party. She offered her sympathy, and I told her about my prayer for Mom. That answered prayer. The direct flight.

Sunday morning, after going to church in California, I got a message from Millie, asking me to call. How sweet, I thought. She probably wants to tell me about the birthday party.

“Hi, Millie,” I said, getting her on the phone. “How’d it go?” She described the fun at the restaurant, how her dad had gotten up from the table, hardly needing his walker, and played the piano, singing and dancing, with everybody clapping, shouting, “Go, Edgar!” His church friends, his family. And then, at the evening’s end, he collapsed and couldn’t be revived.

“He died right there,” Millie said. “At the end of his party.”

I paused in disbelief. Mom, Edgar. Gone from this world. Gone in a flash. “I’m so sorry,” I said, offering all my sympathy. Millie was quick to remind me of my prayer. “It was a direct flight for both of them,” she said. “First Class tickets.” I could just imagine them on their angels’ flights, and there was much peace for us in that.

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