May 10, 2004! The day after Mother’s day! I had the most unusual experience. An experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I was home alone after leaving Miami where the rest of my family gathered around my sister-in-law Maguy who was in the last moments of her fight against breast cancer. Six years since she was diagnosed. Six years of hope and miraculous developments. Six years of a graceful and inspiring life. But the first week of May was a trying week for the whole family.
The hospital turned my sister to hospice cares as the cancer had metastasized throughout her body. She was sent home with just the necessary instructions to keep her comfortable regarding her constant pain and her breathing. She was restricted from receiving anything by mouth, even water or ice chips. We were all taking turn around her bed caring for her: husband, daughters, granddaughters, sisters, brothers, in-laws, nephews and nieces, the church family, friends and caretakers. We were waiting for the inevitable to happen… just praying for a smooth transition. In the past six years, I have been more than just the brother-in-law. She had called me her brother, her private physician, her counselor, her confident, her friend, her faithful friend. One can imagine therefore how devastated I was to see her in that condition. I could hardly refrain from shedding tears that flooded my face whenever I looked at her helplessly lying in that bed, breathing with effort despite the oxygen mask on her face. She was somewhat unconscious, in a comatose state, drifting away more and more from us. On May 9 in the morning, a Sunday, Mother’s Day in that year 2004, after a moment of walking around in the house sensing everybody’s position and assessing the whole situation, including all the medical information that I knew about her case, I concluded that she needed to be set free to go. Yes, the familial bound was strong! Yes the love around her was palpable but she needed to be set free. There was no reason to prolong her agony. Therefore I did two things.
First, I leaned over her bed close to her ears and started talking with her as if she could hear me. In fact, looking at her face, I could tell that somehow she was paying attention. I started by naming everyone that was present in the house and the love that we had for her. I retraced the walk she had for the past six years and how she had been a source of inspiration for more than one. I counted all the blessings of God in her life and reminded her of how beautiful her life was. Then I concluded that there was a more beautiful life waiting for her. “The best days of your life are ahead.” I quoted from a dream she had once during the course of her sickness. Now she needed to let go of her ties with us and leave. “We love you… very much… and it is going to be hard on us…without you. But as Christians, we know that we will see again. Thank you for being the dear friend that you are to me. You have and will always have a special place in my heart.” Then I kissed her on her forehead.
Interestingly, right after I finished, someone came, handing a phone to me. “That’s for you!” I grabbed the phone and quickly identified the voice at the other end. That was Sister Betty Walker, my pastor’s wife calling from Portland, Oregon where she was in a church meeting with her husband. “Brother Hilaire,” she said, “have you talked with sister Maguy? Did you tell her that she could go?” My heart pounded in my chest as I was so shocked at the timing of her call. “I just finish telling her”, I answered. “I am glad you did,” she replied. “People need to understand that she can go. Tell her that I love her.” And she hung up.
The second thing that I did shocked everybody. I announced that I was going back to Tampa… right away. My wife unsuccessfully tried to convince me otherwise. But I could not tolerate the whole scene anymore. It was a matter of time for Maguy to leave her body but it was too devastating for me. I hugged everybody and drove back alone to Tampa, crying during the whole journey. I knew that was the last time I saw my dear friend and sister alive.
Being alone in the house in Tampa was painful. Nevertheless, overwhelmed by grief, tiredness and the events of the past week, I finally fell in a deep sleep to be awakened by a touch on my right knee. Someone had touched me. The touch was so strong and yet gentle that minutes after I could still feel the pressure of someone’s fingers on my right knee. Despite knowing that I was alone in the house, I was not frightened. Instead I felt a peace in the room and a friendly presence. I looked toward the clock on one of my nightstands. It was 4:13 a.m. going on 4:14 a.m. And I said to myself: “Maguy has just left and she stopped by to say good-bye. I am sure that my phone is going to ring.” Minutes later indeed, it rang. That was my wife at the other end. With a peaceful voice, she confirmed what I already knew:
“The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away, blessed be His name!”
“I was just waiting for your phone call,” I said.
“Because Maguy just stopped by, to say good-bye. What time did she leave?”
“It was 4:08” my wife answered. “We were all in the room with her. All of us had slept in the room. She didn’t suffer. She didn’t agonize. I was looking at her chest when she took her last breath. Then I close her eyes and her mouth. Her face looked at peace.”
“Well, it was 4:14 when she woke me up to say good-bye. She touched me on my right knee. I could have called you at that time but I said, let me wait for your phone call and here you are. I feel special that she took time to come all the way to Tampa to say good-bye.”
After she hung up, I could not help thinking that our story ended like it started: by a touch. I always like to recall my first encounter with her after marrying my wife. As I presented my hand to greet her she opened both her arms and said with a wonderful smile, “You are my brother now. I want a hug.” She made me feel so well accepted…Then I told myself, our story didn’t really end. She will always be with me, in my heart … just because of who she is and our lifestyle and the hope we have in the Lord. I walked around the house and felt her presence everywhere, so grateful that she was able a few weeks ago to spend a month with us, allowing my wife and I and the rest of the family in Tampa to care for her. I had no doubt that the days and weeks to come would be hard but I took comfort knowing that I have been touched by an angel…this early morning of May 10, 2004!
Dr. Joël Hilaire
Pastor of Orlando Gospel Assembly