Q&A: Author Janis Heaphy Durham Explores the Afterlife in 'The Hand on the Mirror'

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Janis Heaphy Durham once called herself a "professional cynic." She worked at newspapers for years, first at the Los Angeles Times and then as publisher at the Sacramento Bee.

But when her husband, Max, died of cancer at age 56, Heaphy Durham began to question her skeptical instincts. Her lights would flicker, doors would open and close, and the clock would mysteriously stop at 12:44, the time of Max's passing.

In her inaugural book, The Hand on the Mirror: A True Story of Life Beyond Death, she explores the idea of an afterlife and what that looks like to those we leave behind. Heaphy Durham will discuss the book on Thursday, April 30, at the Columbus Museum of Art as part ofThurber House's Evenings with Authors series. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. Get your ticket here.

We talked with Heaphy Durham about those otherworldly moments and the balance of critical, analytical and emotional thinking.

-Taylor Starek, @taylorstarek

For those who haven't read your book, can you talk a little about its premise?

The book is about the story of my spiritual journey, and it follows the death of my husband, Max who had died of cancer. He died in our home. It was May 8, 2004, and he died in the family room, surrounded by his loved ones, family and friends. After he passed on, we had the funeral, and approximately a week later, some events began to unfold that were what I would call extraordinary and otherworldly. I had no understanding of this realm. I was the publisher of the newspaper in Sacramento, the Sacramento Bee, and had spent over 20 years at the Los Angeles Times, so my background was a rational, fact-based life. You're a professional cynic, but when things began to happen, it was something I needed to compartmentalize.

What kinds of things?

One week to the day after he died, it was morning, and I was taking our dogs for a walk and came back around 7:30. I was undoing his collar, and I looked up at the clock we had on our fireplace, and it said 12:44. My first response was It can't be 12:44. It's 7:30! And then I remember his exact time of death was 12:44 . I knew that because I wrote it down for the authorities. I woke up my son, and we said, "What is this?" We rationalized that the battery had gone out on it. It was quite a coincidence. Over that next year, we would hear off an on some knocking, almost like a pounding of a nail, or the front door would open and shut on its own, and lights would flicker a lot at different times. There were reasons why, and you'll read those in the book, it had to do with Max. I continued to rationalize, and I was trying to raise my son and do my job. But on the first anniversary of his death, which was May 8, 2005, it was a Sunday. My son was doing his homework outside. I was seated with him. I went inside to make us a sandwich, and I used our guest bathroom near the kitchen. Max had resided there near the end of his life because it was too uncomfortable for him to sleep in our room. I looked up at the mirror, and I saw a stunning image on the mirror. It was a handprint. It was large, and it was the shape of a man's. It was like an x-ray, as if you could see the bones. It was astonishing. I called my son. We said, "This is surreal." It's as if your eyes see one thing, and your mind tells you something else. After that, there were a couple of years in a row, 2005, 2006 and 2007, where powdery images appeared on a bathroom mirror. Ultimately, I fell in love again, and I decided to retire, and Jim, my husband, and I were going to live our life in Sun Valley, [Idaho]. But the events kept recurring. A girlfriend finally sat me down and said, "Why don't you research and investigate?" I set out to answer the question of does our consciousness survive death?

When you saw the first handprint, how were you feeling in that moment?

Lots of emotions, all simultaneously. Fear and curiosity. I wasn't afraid in a scary way. I was afraid in a way that said this is not normal. This is not an ordinary life. Anytime you venture out of what you know, you have some fear and trepidation. I had that, but I never had the fear of it being something I needed to be afraid of because I knew it was Max. It resonated in my intuition that it was Max, and Max would never do anything to hurt me. I always felt safe. I felt immensely curious. I felt hopeful, like maybe this meant that there's something more.

Where does your faith and spirituality factor in versus your instincts to be skeptical?

I think it's an integration of sorts. As you age, you become wiser, and I suppose I would say I now have integrated both thoughts. It's like a left brain and a right brain. You have your analytical thinking and your emotional thinking. I have an analytical mind that's interested in critical thinking. I think critical thinking is the sensible strategy for life. On the other hand, you have to be open to realities. We can't possibly know everything. Sometimes it's about being open. I try to have both of those at work in my daily life.

Since writing this book, have you had any similar experiences?

The last I had was 2012 when my mother was dying. She was 92, and she had a natural and peaceful death. I hadn't had anything occur since 2010. Jim and I found footprints on the club chair of our office den in Sun Valley. That was the last demonstrable, tangible thing that occurred. Nothing from 2010 to 2012, but interestingly, in 2012, I knew my mom was sick but on this particular day, the lights flickered in the closet where I was dressing. I came out and walked to the other side of the house and said to Jim, "Honey, did you see that?" He said, "See what?" so I knew he didn't. I went on my walk, and I pulled my phone out and looked at it, and it said 12:44. I thought wow that's interesting. I talked my mother, and she dropped the phone, and I started to cry. I knew she was in trouble. Right at that moment, every light in our family room and kitchen went all the way up bright and then dark. My husband witnessed it. That was the last one. Sometimes I see 12:44 on my iPhone. Something will generally follow that, something about my brother or my husband or something to do with illness. That's rather remote compared to the others.

What made you want to tell this story?

My hope and goal in writing this was to open the dialogue and encourage others to come forward with their stories too. I've found people along the way who say they were embarrassed to talk about an afterlife communication because they'd be judged.

When you sit down to write, what does that look like?

I'm generally at my computer, always in a space that has beauty, by that I mean a view of something outdoors where I can see. I wrote much of this book facing a beautiful area with birds and enclosed, beautiful trees and plants, and then I also wrote in Sun Valley. It's very pretty, and I have a view of the mountains there. I need a quiet space, a beautiful space to concentrate. There were times when I would go for 10 hours or 12 and just get a little bit nutty working and then break out of it. I try hard to pay attention to what frame of mind I'm in. Some days you're distracted, and other days I'm much more with the flow of the writing. Then I try to just listen to what I'm hearing in my own mind. I would add that I received a lot of help from my agent, too.

Any other books in your future?

Actually, I'm thinking about writing a book about cancer. I would like to write the story from the caretaker's standpoint. Cancer is very different. When you get older, it's much more common. The thing about cancer is you have time to come to terms with your death in a way you wouldn't if you had a sudden heart attack. It's an interesting phenomenon. How do you cope with it as a caregiver and make the most of the time you have left? How do you think about your own mortality?