PROOF OF HEAVEN by Mary Curran Hackett
story began to unfold nearly thirty years ago. I was sitting at the
kitchen table with my mother and my siblings, when my father, covered in
soot from a fire he had fought the night before, walked into our kitchen
and threw himself onto my mother. Her body almost collapsed under his
weight, but somehow she mustered the strength to hold up all 250 pounds
of him. His body convulsed as he told her that my uncle, Butch Melody,
and my father’s friend, Joey Halas, had been crushed when a floor of a
burning warehouse collapsed on top of them. They died instantly.
I ran and hid in my parents’ closet, clutching my father’s church
loafers and inhaling the faint scent of his pipe smoke and Vitalis. That
morning, I prayed to God over and over: Please don’t take my dad. From
that moment on I realized two things: 1) In an instant, everything I
knew could be gone, and 2) I was powerless to do anything about it. My
parents were devout Catholics, who raised us with the belief that if you
prayed to God, he would listen and that when we died we would all go to
Heaven, where we would be together as a family and where God, the
Angels, and the Communion of Saints would be waiting for us.
My family life was bookended by these two realities: Fire and God. On
one end, we were held up by the Fire Department and the unique sort of
family that came with it, and on the other, we had our Church. We were
Secular Franciscans, the type of family who said Rosaries when we got in
the car. We said Grace before meals, and prayers and novenas before bed.
We stopped wherever we were when the sirens sounded and prayed for God’s
and St. Florian’s protection for my father. We went to the Stations of
the Cross together on Fridays during Lent, and to all of the High Mass
services. My brothers were altar servers, and we girls sang in the
choir. My mother taught our parish’s first religious education classes
from our kitchen table. For years children streamed into our home, where
my mom would tell detailed stories of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us.
She dressed us in costumes, and we acted out the Nativity or the
Crucifixion on the hearth in front of our fireplace. I believed my
mother was the greatest storyteller who had ever lived, and I attribute
my love for a good story to her and the Bible as much as I do to Laura
Ingalls Wilder, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Charles Dickens, and Louisa May
We children were extreme in our devotion, too, but we were far more
disgruntled. We hated that my parents always invited wayward guests,
lost souls, lonely widows or widowers, introverted bachelors, and even
priests to our house for dinner on Sundays and even precious holidays.
My parents’ idea of family literally included everyone they met. The
kettle and the pot of coffee were always on, and my mother and father
could be found holding court at any time of the day or night. (And to
this day, in the evening, a bonfire burns at the end of our street, and
around it you will find my parents and countless friends and family
members circled round it, laughing, drinking, loving, and living the
only way they know how.)
But throughout my childhood I had a secret and it was hard to keep. I
wasn’t so sure I believed it all. Throughout my childhood, I had never
actually seen or experienced God in spite of all my piety. Like the
character Colm in my story, I collapsed on a regular basis as a child
(and never experienced the visions I had often heard people with
near-death experiences had). I was what my family called “delicate” or
“a fainter.” I was frequently short of breath, listless, weak, in
incredible amounts of pain, and prone to unconsciousness. I missed
school often, and at one point in the sixth grade, I was absent for more
than a month while the rest of the family went on with work and school.
As a teenager, I pushed myself by playing sports and even training for
marathons because I didn’t want anything or anyone to slow me down. But
since my first collapse, which occurred more than 25 years ago, I have
probably hit the floor nearly a hundred times. I have gone down on busy
Metro platforms with subways ripping by within inches of my head, in
museums surrounded by crowds of strangers, on sidewalks, and always it
seemed, at the most inopportune moments.
One night in 2003 when I was 26 my heart stopped beating while driving
my daughter home from preschool, nearly killing us both. I remember the
world going very quiet and still while looking at her for a brief second
in the rearview mirror, and I knew there was nothing I could do before
it all went black.
My father, who happened to be outside on that cold January day chopping
wood, stepped out into the road because he heard a speeding car. As it
came closer he saw my body slumped over the wheel, and the car
accelerating as it barreled toward him. He leapt out of the way as my
car crashed through a large, icy snow bank and came to a stop within a
couple of feet of my parents’ living room window. He ran immediately to
my daughter and pulled her out of the vehicle. She was safe, thanks in
part to the snowsuit that packed her so snuggly into the car seat. I
don’t have any memory of any of the accident, but in the ambulance I
remember my friend Nibby, an EMT fireman who knew my father, yelling at
me to come back, screaming at me to stay with them.
I was met at the hospital by a police officer who had come to take away
my license. As sick and confused as I was, I was more upset about losing
my license than the accident. Without the ability to drive, I couldn’t
get to my job. I was a single mom at the time and had mountains of debt.
I received no child support from my daughter’s father, and I was living
in my parents’ basement while juggling a demanding career and side work.
Losing my license was equivalent to financial suicide.
Shortly after, I moved to Cincinnati to be close to my boyfriend (now
husband) and where I would have access to reliable public transportation
and good hospitals. It was in one of those hospitals during a routine
doctor’s appointment that I flatlined again. When I woke up, there was a
flurry of doctors and nurses standing over me—others rushing at me with
needles and paddles and screaming at me to wake up. (I woke up
spontaneously after almost 2 minutes of being asystole). Later on,
through the chaos, I found the calm, smiling face of an Indian doctor,
who said, “There you are, my good girl.” Within days I had a pacemaker
installed and a treatment plan for the rest of my life. I was eventually
diagnosed with several related disorders all linked to a form of
dysautonomia, which was explained to me as a condition in which the
brain was at war with the heart and other parts of my body. It summed up
my life perfectly in more ways than one. My brain and heart often wanted
entirely different things.
I have since been diagnosed with Malignant Neurocardiogenic Syncope
Disorder, POTS, and left atrial reentrant tachycardia. However, my
conditions are well managed (I can even drive now), but I’ve been told
they are incurable, so I do my best to take care of myself and my
This particular novel first took root in me in 2006, when while bathing
my son, I watched as he stopped breathing and began to die in my arms.
He was sitting up one minute in the water and then suddenly he
collapsed. He would have slammed his head on the tub had I not caught
him in my arms. Within seconds, his face went ashy, his lips turned
blue, and he stopped breathing and moving. It transformed me. I had
never been on the other side of watching someone lose consciousness. In
order to deal with my fear of losing my son to what I thought was my own
condition, I began to write PROOF OF HEAVEN after I returned home from
the hospital. (Colm’s collapse was thought to be a possible epileptic
attack or severe asthma attack. It was most likely the latter, since he
has since suffered from several subsequent asthma attacks.)
That night a million thoughts raced through my head, but in the end all
I could think was: What would I do? What would I do if I lost my son?
How does any mother go on? Later that same night when I couldn’t sleep,
I sat staring at him and I had a vision (the closest thing I have ever
come to a religious experience) that I knew I had to get on paper. The
first chapter flowed out of me, but I left the file on my computer
untouched. Meanwhile, I taught English literature, acquired and edited
several books for others, and continued to write all sorts of other
stories and articles. One day while cleaning my computer, I accidentally
found a file named PROOF, and as I was about to press delete, for some
reason, I started to read it. Cate, Dr. Basu, Sean, and Colm started to
live and breathe inside my head and they literally wouldn’t let me sleep
until I finished putting their story on paper. In writing this novel, I
was able to see things clearly for the first time.
For me this story is a really not about proving whether there is or
isn’t a heaven, or a God. I leave those questions for my readers to
decide. What interests me are the questions we face in life and how we
mere mortals deal with them. My wish is to understand the limitless
capacity our hearts and minds have to embrace and understand love. It’s
about what makes a family a family because many of us, like the
characters in my book, craft our own version of a family. PROOF OF
HEAVEN is also about sacrifice—we all make sacrifices every day for the
people we love. And, ultimately this story is a love story between a
parent and a child—the unique sort of love that knows no bounds. It
travels the world. It’s bigger and shinier than the largest, most ornate
cathedrals, both the ones built by man and the ones found in nature. It
blossoms from the soul and expands and grows and eventually
explodes—with an energy only equaled to the electricity and energy of
the stars—and the human heart.
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