This is an updated excerpt from Daniel My Son (I have changed some names).
Is death the end or a mere gateway to a different world? There is no more profound question, and it is one I have pondered with added urgency since my son Daniel’s death.
As a bereaved parent, I want and need to believe that Daniel still exists in some form. Just occasionally, there is a shard of evidence – not just faith or belief – that he does.
A few weeks ago, Claire and I were in Krakow, with its beautiful old town, youthful vibrancy and sophisticated café culture.
Death nevertheless hovers over this part of Poland. The Oscar Schindler factory bears eloquent testimony to the depraved brutality of the Nazi occupation (though, strangely, has relatively little to say about the enigmatic man himself). Even the enormous, and enormously impressive, Wieliczka salt mines are a tomb for the countless workers who perished there in pre-health and safety days, and for the First Word War German soldiers who drowned when the thick film of salt overlaying an underground lake prevented escape from their capsized boat.
And then there is Auschwitz, 90 minutes’ drive from Krakow. Just as at Dachau many years ago, I found it impossible to get my head round all the suffering which once suffused where we trod. The poignant sight of visitors from Israel (including many schoolchildren), holding hands in large circles, heads covered in white, praying and crying for their lost relatives, edged reality a little closer. But still I was left unable to comprehend the combination of circumstances it requires for ideological perversion and sheer venomous hatred to take hold of so many people and lead to such dehumanising behaviour on such an enormous scale.
For me the day began with a much more personal connection with death.
The night before, I dreamt, in two separate dreams, that Daniel was dying. This is not an unusual dream for me. I dream about him quite a lot. As I explain in Daniel My Son, I am really grateful for this, because it means that we are reunited for a few seconds. It may not be conscious reality but it is still a reality of sorts. The fact that he is nearly always dying in my dreams does not matter: we are still together again. I know of many bereaved parents who desperately want to dream about their children but are unable to do so.
I related my dreams to Claire and we made our way to the tour company. The minibus was delayed because we were waiting for one latecomer. The driver came up to me and asked ‘Is Dan Thomas with you?’. I heard him but, taken aback, asked him to repeat the question. The missing passenger was called Dan Thomas. I suppose the driver, knowing my surname, not unreasonably assumed that Dan Thomas was with us. Daniel and Thomas are common names internationally (although Thomas is only really a surname in the English-speaking world) so it is not all that surprising that there should be a tourist of that name in Krakow at the same time. But that he should be booked to go to Auschwitz that same day and at the same time on the same minibus and that he did not show, and just after I had dreamt that Daniel was leaving the physical world …
So there was an empty seat on the minibus near us intended for Dan Thomas. Just a coincidence? Or portent of something more profound?
Stories from Daniel My Son
In Daniel My Son, I tell three other stories which have given me hope. One is Petra’s, Daniel’s mother, and two are mine. Before I relate them, some grounding in realism. Astonishing coincidences happen all the time. When you pass a stranger in the street, imagine the infinitesimally large number of decisions, going back millennia, which had to be taken in one way rather than another for the encounter to take place, even for the two people to be born. The odds against the encounter, even viewed from the perspective of a hundred years ago, are many billions to one. And yet there are millions of such encounters every hour.
Similarly, the chances of a pack of cards being dealt in a particular order is 80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636,856,403,766,975,289,505,440,883,277,824,000,000,000,000:1 (I haven’t checked the calculation) – or 52 factorial. And yet every time a pack is dealt, those exceptionally unlikely odds are realised.
So, when people say ‘That can’t be a coincidence’, the answer, almost certainly, is ‘Well, actually it can’.
Petra’s story is this. A few months after Daniel died, she went to see a psychic named Frances, recommended to me by a friend. Petra’s expectations were low but she was desperate for reassurance. Frances said she made contact with Daniel. Much of what she said could apply to him but to many others, too. Other comments were more particular to Daniel; some things made no sense. I believe that reflects many people’s experiences of spiritualists. At one point Frances said: ‘Daniel was trying to get a message to you before Christmas that he is ok. Did you give your sister a dog, no a china dog, for Christmas?’ A pretty random question.
Petra had indeed given Angela a china dog. It is not the sort of present she would normally buy her, but she had seen this ornament and thought it looked like Angela’s dog, so she bought it. The display dog had a label round its neck with the name ‘Lucky’, a pretty standard dog’s name. Petra assumed they were all called Lucky. There was nothing to indicate that different dogs had different names. The assistant pulled one off the shelf, packed in a box.
When Angela opened the box on Christmas Day, the label around the dog was ‘Daniel’.
Whenever I have related that story, even atheist friends have gasped. I had never heard of a dog called Daniel, or even Dan or Danny. It is does not feature in any list of popular dogs’ names, though there might have been some personal reason why the manufacturer chose Daniel as one of the names. People are with justification often sceptical of psychics and the way they pick up what people say, their body-language, to make them think that they have made contact with someone who has died. There are undoubtedly shysters out there, preying on the vulnerable. But Frances could have known nothing about this unusual gift, or had any control over what it was called.
Nearly a year after Daniel died, I was staying in a hotel. Flicking through TV channels, I chanced upon University Challenge, a programme I like but rarely watch (Daniel loved it). It was half way through the episode. Aficionados will know that the two teams are given a starter question, and the team that gets it right then has three bonus questions. The first starter I heard involved identifying a hymn tune. The team that buzzed got it wrong. They got a later starter right and were asked to identify three other hymn tunes.
Of the four hymns, we had had three at Daniel’s funeral: Guide Me O That Great Jehovah, The Lord is My Shepherd and Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. These are popular hymns, but even supposing the programme was only choosing hymns from the 15 most popular and that included these three hymns, the chances of all three featuring approached 2700:1 (allowance has to be made for the fourth hymn slightly contracting the pool if it came up early in the selection).
Odds of 2700:1 are not that remarkable. What really grabbed my attention was that both the starter and bonus questions were answered by Magdalen College, Oxford, Daniel’s college. Even on the basis that Magdalen was appearing on that particular episode, the chances of its answering both starter and bonus, in purely statistical terms, was 4:1, which immediately lengthens the overall odds to around 10,000:1. And, in fact, Magdalen is one of 28 teams in any year’s competition, and on average appears only every two years. A further twist was that The Lord is My Shepherd is sung to a number of different tunes. The one the programme used was the one we had, the great Crimond, admittedly the most popular of the melodies.
I wrote to the producer, to ask how often contestants were asked to identify hymn tunes: in fact, the only time since the programme reappeared in 1994 was about 16 years ago. One has to make some assumptions, and statisticians might bridle about artificially creating a statistical scenario retrospectively, but I estimated that the chances of Magdalen answering these particular starter and bonus questions, during the second half of the programme, was of the order of 5m:1 to 10m:1. And then one has to factor in the unlikelihood of my watching at all. I would see perhaps only one episode in two series. In fact, I had noticed in a newspaper that Magdalen were on that evening and had made a mental note not to watch, because I thought it would be too upsetting.
The third story is that, just prior to Christmas 2013, I was watching a video of the performance, by a 5,000 strong choir of the public, of a beautiful song, Clouds, composed by Zach, a 17 year old with osteosarcoma. The song became a hit after Zach died. I was barely concentrating, when the camera suddenly zoomed in on a 6 or 7 year old boy in the choir. He was identical to Daniel at that age. If I had seen the images not knowing the context, I would have said ‘That’s Dan’, without a moment’s hesitation. Rationally, I know that the young Daniel having a double is not that surprising. The fact that the other boy was in a sarcoma fundraiser and that I chanced upon it (those two factors are linked, I acknowledge) is far less likely.
Does any of this prove that Daniel still exists? Sadly, no. And the proposition that he or some other force had something to do with the University Challenge questions or the Clouds video, and my watching both, or china dogs, or tourist buses to Auschwitz, raises the most profound questions, not least about free will and determinism. But there the stories are.
Many people have told me of the experiences they have had after the death of a loved one. Quite a few – spotting butterflies, rainbows, that kind of thing – one could categorise as understandable attempts at reassurance that their child lives on but not, objectively, very convincing. Other stories are harder to dismiss. The parents of a 12 year old who had died of osteosarcoma many years earlier visited a spiritualist. ‘Fiona is glad that you have finally had her watch repaired’, the spiritualist said out of the blue. Her mother was confused. She did now know that Fiona’s father had just had Fiona’s watch repaired.
An Ewing’s parent in the US told me that one night, soon after they lost their son Richard, his wife had woken from a bad dream at 2am. In the dream Richard was at a funeral, near a brown metallic casket with bronze sidings and a big cross on top. A few hours later, his mother learnt that a favourite aunt had died, at 2am that night. At her funeral, her coffin was exactly the same as the one in her dream.
A coincidence? Richard’s father, a scientist, does not think so. Before this and other experiences he was a sceptic. Now he believes in God. He told me: ‘Rest assured that Daniel is with God and Angels’.
Another Ewing’s parent claimed a direct experience. She related this conversation with her son who had just died:
‘I wish I would have held you longer the day you left this earth. Even though I heard you, "Mom, what are you doing? You KNOW I'm not in there anymore. Get up" plain as day. I still wish I would have held you longer’.
Coincidences or divine messages?
What does all this mean? Does it, indeed, mean anything? Or is it just a series of coincidences, the false deductions of parents desperate to deny the reality that their child has gone for good?
St Augustine converted to Christianity in the 4th century AD when, hearing a voice telling him to read the first thing he came across in the Bible, he opened it at the section in St Paul’s letter to the Romans which instructed readers to give up a debauched lifestyle and put their trust in Christ instead. Coincidence or divine inspiration? St Augustine took it as the latter and changed the Church’s history. The odds against him opening the Bible at that particular page are, incidentally, far lower than those of any of Petra’s and my stories, let alone all four cumulatively.
For all the healthiness of sceptical minds testing the claims of religion, we yearn for certainty to ease our profound insecurity in this world.
Back at Auschwitz, I bought a book, I was Doctor Mengele’s Assistant, by Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish doctor from Romania who was transported to Auschwitz with his wife and teenage daughter in 1944. Dr Nyisli put himself forward when the call came for doctors and he ended up acting as pathologist for Josef Mengele’s horrific experiments on twins, gypsies and others. He does not really explain in the book how he appeased his conscience. My guess is that he would have reasoned that the experiments would take place whether he took part or not and that the victims were already dead by the time he got involved. But that does not really wash: autopsies were a necessary part of the experiments and his actions as a respected pathologist gave legitimacy to Mengele’s madness. And, he says that he was certain that he was going to be killed at some point – he knew too much – so why not just refuse to take part?
I suspect the truth is that Dr Nyiszli did harbour hope, however small and irrational, that he would be reunited with his family (as indeed he was) and that he saw his assistance in the experiments, with the privileged living conditions it brought, as a possible route to survival, thereby providing the quietening of his conscience necessary for such distasteful work. It is easy to condemn from the comfort of our armchairs: we simply cannot imagine the pressures which concentration camp inmates were under.
We struggle to find hope amongst all the despair which surrounds us. We struggle with ethical dilemmas. We struggle to understand what life is about. What has happened, post death, to all those Nazi oppressors and their collaborators? To all their victims? To Mengele, who drowned in Brazil in 1979, a fugitive from justice (at least the earthly variety)? To Dr Nyiszli, who returned to medicine after the war (though not to pathology) until his death in 1956?
And what has happened to Daniel? Was he with us in Krakow that day?
We cannot know this side of the grave. And perhaps not beyond it either. But we can hope. We can hope that there is more to life than transient existence and suffering devoid of meaning. The numerous stories I have heard, and lived through, would not satisfy any legal standard of proof. But they do give hope, even to this wizened old lawyer.