On Sunday, May 8, 2005, my reality changed. That was when I discovered a handprint on the bathroom mirror in my home.
The day it appeared was the first anniversary of the death of my husband, Max Besler. We had been married for four years when he was found, at the age of 56, to have esophageal cancer. Six months later, he was gone, devastating me and my 14-year-old son, Tanner.
In his final two months, Max spent a lot of time during the day with our friend and housekeeper, Helen. He insisted that I continue working—I was the publisher of the Sacramento Bee—so I went to the office and drove home at lunch for visits.
One day, Helen and Max were in the kitchen. The sun was shining outside—until it suddenly poured. “We both just stopped and looked,” Helen recalled. “I told him, ‘I know you don’t believe in God, but this is something God created for us today. After you’re gone, if you can find a way, let us know that there’s something out there, that it just doesn’t end.’”
Max agreed he’d try. “But it will be up to you two to see it,” he said.
The Hand Appears
A year after Max’s death, Tanner and I were still working through our grief. On this Sunday afternoon, he and I were sitting at a table in our yard in Sacramento, California. I was comforted to have him there, and I smiled as I noted his habit of moving his lips while he read. I was catching up on reading from work. After a while, I got up to go inside and bring us a snack.
Our home was U-shaped, and on the right side of the U were our kitchen, a guest bedroom suite, a laundry room, and the exit to the garage. Max had spent the last month of his life in the guest room because he was more comfortable in a bed by himself, as he was in grave pain.
Before entering the kitchen, I stopped in the bathroom in the guest suite. That was when I saw the handprint. It hadn’t been there when I’d gone in an hour earlier. I froze. Had someone played a trick? That was doubtful—Tanner and I would have seen or heard anyone.
I shouted, “Tanner, come here. Hurry!”
“Mom, what’s wrong? Are you OK?” he asked, running over.
“Look,” I cried. “You didn’t do this, did you?”
As I spoke, I knew that Tanner couldn’t have made it, because he’d been next to me the entire time. Still, I asked him to hold his hand up next to it. It was much larger than his and shaped differently. It was no ordinary handprint. Seemingly made of a soft, white, powdery substance, it showed the entire bone structure, as if it were an X-ray. Like most wives, I could recall precisely what my husband’s hands looked like. The wide palm with the long, narrow fingers was reminiscent of the shape of Max’s hands.
The clock had stopped at 12:44, the exact time of Max’s death.
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We stared at the print, speechless and awestruck. We knew we were witnessing something astounding.
“Mom, I don’t get it. What is that?” Tanner asked.
“I’m not sure what it is, Tanner.” Then I asked him, “Do you think there’s any relationship to Max, since it’s the first anniversary of his death?”
“Maybe, but how weird is that? And how could he make it happen if he’s gone, Mom?” Tanner asked.
I had no answer, only a sense that I needed to remain calm and inquisitive. “I guess for now we don’t know. Why don’t you go out to the driveway and shoot some baskets?”
I hugged him and said I’d join him in a few minutes. I grabbed my camera and took several photographs. I should have done more, like taken a sample of the powdery substance for analysis or asked a forensics specialist to examine the fingerprints. But I was so stunned that it didn’t occur to me.
Was Max visiting to let me know there was more? I’ve always been open in life, and I wanted to be open now. But I was scared too. Entering the unknown was intimidating.
Time Stands Still
This wasn’t the first unusual occurrence. Max died in our living room at 12:44 p.m. on a Saturday in May 2004, surrounded by family and friends. In the backyard beneath the overhang of the roof just outside the door were two heavy wind chimes that he and I had hung. Both were sizable—one produced a deep musical sound, while the other one reminded me of the gong of a buoy at sea. I thought it was fitting that they both rang the instant that Max died, filling the house with rich, melodious tones. As a group, we stopped to listen. And as we turned our heads to watch the chimes, we noticed something peculiar: There was no wind.
Then, one week later, I took Casey, our yellow Lab, for a walk. It was Saturday around 7 a.m., and Tanner was asleep. I returned an hour later, and as I was unhooking Casey’s leash, I glanced up at the large, round clock over the fireplace in the living room. The clock had stopped at 12:44, the exact time of Max’s death. At first, I didn’t process it. I thought, Time to get Tanner up for breakfast. Then it sank in. How could the clock show the time of Max’s death instead of eight o’clock, the proper time?
I walked to Tanner’s room. “Wake up. Wake up. You’re not going to believe what I just saw,” I told him. He stumbled sleepily down the hallway with me to the living room. I was half hoping that when we got there, the clock would be correct.
“Look, Tanner,” I said, pointing at the clock. His eyes became big, and he muttered two words: “No way.” Tanner knew what that particular time meant as well as I did.
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The night before, the clock had been normal, and no one had been in the house. Besides, it was too heavy and awkward to lift it and change the time; neither Tanner nor I could manage it.
“Mom, maybe it needs a new battery. We can’t change it, but we can get some help to pull it down,” Tanner offered. “And it’s probably just a coincidence that it stopped at 12:44.”
“Yes, that’s probably it,” I said, uncertain but unwilling to consider the idea that it might be more. I wanted a neat answer. The shock of Max’s diagnosis, his battle with cancer, and his sudden death had taken a toll on me.
The clock stayed at 12:44 until Wednesday, when Helen, our housekeeper, arrived. After I came home that evening, I found a note from her. She said when she was there, the lights had flickered and the clock had restarted. “I think Max may have paid us a visit,” Helen wrote.
Yet Another Message
The handprint unmoored me in ways that the clock hadn’t. Not only was I sure I hadn’t imagined it—Tanner had also seen it—but it was too shocking to ignore.
Shortly after we saw the print, something else strange happened. Max, Tanner, and I had been planning a trip to Italy before Max’s diagnosis. He had been excited because he was knowledgeable about Italy’s artists, poets, and musicians. I told Tanner we’d go in Max’s honor. I thought of it as a way to spend time with my son and consider what was happening.
We toured Rome and Florence, and I tried to relax. But there were painful moments when I craved Max’s presence. Yet as we toured the cities, I began to unwind. Curiosity was replacing fear.
Tanner and I went next to the Italian Riviera. One day before sunset, we were strolling in Portofino and the afternoon sun was casting a magical glow. I handed my camera to a passerby, who snapped the two of us.
After we got home, I had the film developed—this was pre-digital cameras. I went through the photographs until I came to the one with Tanner and me at the harbor.
Behind us in the photo was the stern of a boat anchored 30 yards away. Its name was lined up between my shoulder and Tanner’s, where Max would have stood if he were there. I squinted to read the name on the boat and saw three letters: MAX.
The odds of this occurring seemed astronomically low.
A Final Acceptance
From that point on, I decided to learn as much as I could about these incidents by talking with experts and reading. My journey would span eight years and take me across the United States to speak to different scientists, professors, and spiritual practitioners.
One of them was Dean Radin, PhD, chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which is devoted to the study of consciousness and phenomena that don’t fit the prevailing scientific models. In 2010, I sat in his office and showed him my photos of the handprints—a powdery print appeared again on that very same bathroom mirror on the anniversary of Max’s death in 2006 and in 2007.
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Now it was time for me to ask my question: Had he seen anything like this before? He told me he couldn’t think of anything exactly like my experiences, but he and his colleagues regularly came across similar things in their research—thousands of similar occurrences, in fact. The clock stopping at 12:44? He said he could have written an entire book about clocks stopping for inexplicable reasons associated with emotional events.
I went from believing my story was extraordinary to learning that these types of events are happening to many people. What was extraordinary was the very ordinariness of it.
After I left Radin’s office, I wondered what all of this meant and how it would affect me going forward. And then it hit me. Since Max died, I had lived with a subtle but nagging fear that my exposure to these stunning occurrences meant that I wasn’t normal. Now, for the first time, I had confirmation I wasn’t that unusual.
I remembered something I had read in Radin’s book The Conscious Universe. He cited Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest and a sociologist, who found that 67 percent of American adults had reported having psychic experiences. Greeley also said that many widows who reported contact by their dead husbands had not previously believed in life after death.
According to Greeley, “People who’ve tasted the paranormal, whether they accept it intellectually or not, are anything but religious nuts or psychiatric cases. They are, for the most part, ordinary Americans, somewhat above the norm in education and intelligence and somewhat less than average in religious involvement.”
This was a pivotal moment in my personal journey. I went from believing my story was extraordinary to learning that these types of events are happening to many people. In other words, what was in fact extraordinary was the very ordinariness of it.
I realized that it was time for me to start talking openly, without shame or embarrassment. From this point forward, I vowed to myself, I would open up not only to those I was interviewing but to my family and friends. And if I could comfort anyone, what a privilege that would be.
It was a breakthrough. I felt free.