Heaven is now: advice from a friend who died young

Cathy Hutchison
7 min readMay 16, 2023

Stephanie Darnell was light and love.

It came off of her in waves.

We went through yoga teacher training together. Then met for coffee to work on her LinkedIn profile.

It wound up being the first of many, many coffee dates.

She told me a story once about going to a yoga event and seeing a banner. (This was before Tumefactive MS put her in a wheelchair and changed the trajectory of her life.)

“Heaven is now” was spelled out in flags across the courtyard. She snapped a photo of it. It felt significant to her at the time, but she didn’t know what it meant.

The photo that Stephanie took at the yoga event

At 24, when the disease snatched her mobility, her ability to swallow, and compromised her voice and vision, her life started on a different path.

She no longer taught multiple yoga classes each day, but she did practice. Breathing became therapy.

She became an advocate for people with disabilites. She shared about overcoming through love, mindfulness and community. She taught chair yoga.

And as the meaning behind the sign began to take shape in her mind, she shared with her friends about “heaven moments.”

The “heaven” moments she shared… (in her own words)

When you open your eyes from a coma and get the tube taken out of your throat that first breath feels heavenly.

Working out or any type of yoga feels like heaven. When I first did it in therapy after not moving for so long, I felt frustrated, but after I was done, it was heaven.

When you’ve been in bed for two months, and then you move in new ways, it’s like your body recalibrates and feels happy about it. You recognize the heaven moment. When you can roll over or sit in a chair, it bursts your heart open. Because you couldn’t do it, then all of a sudden you can.

I couldn’t eat for months. The day my speech therapist came in for the swallow test, she gave me a warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookie to work on swallowing strategies. THAT was a heaven moment.

Or when my mom snuck me in macaroni and cheese. It tasted like heaven.

The first time I was in the hospital, I had double vision. I couldn’t see anything. Then I got prisms in my glasses. I could read. I could text. It was life changing.

Once in the hospital, I had a high fever and the nurse dumped a whole water bottle on me. It felt so relieving.

People brought me flowers in rehab and they were so beautiful. Seeing them was so encouraging and heavenly.

Putting on my “fight like hell” t-shirt that I got in a thrift store. Bright yellow with a black punk font. Wearing it became a heaven moment.

In the hospital, I couldn’t smell because of COVID, but now, every essential oil smells amazing.

There are birds chirping outside my window. And there is a little woodpecker who lives across the street. I can hear him working away.

Seeing the people I love is definitely heaven. That’s what makes me know I’m alive. The people that I love are here.

In my previous life before sudden MS struck, I was often bored with the mundane activities of life. Now I see that nothing is boring. Everything has the potential to be heaven. I didn’t know that every little thing meant so much. It’s so much more vibrant. Going outside is such a sensory experience. In fact, now I prefer mundane. (I’ve been in the most dramatic situations.) The seemingly mundane is now the heaven moment.

There’s so much I didn’t realize. There were so many moments in my previous life that were heavenly. I didn’t necessarily see them.

The love. You don’t know it until it is so close and you can see your funeral. Then you get to know about all the love that was poured out on you. The cards, text messages, and all the many prayers.

How does your belief that “heaven is now” impact you?

I started taking my iPad with me whenever we met together. She shared a perspective that I wanted to capture. These are Stephanie’s answers to my question.

Resilience

It’s given me a lot of resilience. Resilience isn’t a trait you have from birth. It builds stamina. You start noticing the smaller things.

If you are noticing the heaven, then you are building the resilience.

Living in the present moment

Living as if “heaven is now” puts you in the present moment, and being in the present moment is really helpful. You are never in the fear of what might happen next.

This improves your decision-making. For example, when the representative from a new rehab center came to my house, I was able to facilitate this happening without fear. I’m going to a new rehab. The answer is yes. I’m able to make the decision in the present moment. I wasn’t elsewhere in the brain.

Present-moment living helps you notice the heaven around you. It’s about being in my body, even though it sucks.

Setbacks in your recovery happen. It can be scary and discouraging. You can get so frustrated with your body, but the reality is that the heaven moment is that your body is fighting for you. That is discovered through being in the present moment.

Living in the present moment is something you have to work at becoming good at. It’s too easy to focus on the past or fear the future. We often leave the present moment because our bodies are uncomfortable, or a situation is overwhelming, or pain takes over our thoughts. In those moments, it’s hard to find heaven. But in the end we are called back to be in our body. Ultimately, our body is taking care of us.

Connection

There is a level of connection that you get with other people when you are in the present moment. Say I’m at the grocery store and I need someone to get something from the high shelf. I can look at someone and know “this is the person who can help me.” I’m operating from my heart.

It’s okay to see yourself as “someone who needs help” because that is everyone on this earth.

If we are all in the present moment, that’s when the earth becomes peaceful because we are all operating at a human level which is either I want to help or I need help.

That’s what I realized when becoming disabled. We are all humans needing other humans.

While I am dependent in some way, I find peace when others help me because they are just as thankful to help as I am to be helped.

A lot of people are looking for people to help. Many need that in their life and they don’t get it because they don’t know how to get it.

If my friend, Melanie, and I go somewhere and I’m in my wheelchair, Melanie is treated better. People want to be helpful. And that’s where the peace comes in.

Being in the present moment creates more access to the gifts you have to give. You can fully show up for someone and help them step into the present moment with you. They experience that fullness of connection. You can create a space that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

The legacy we leave.

So many times I’ve heard people say how sad it was that Stephanie went from being so active — a dancer and a yogi — to being confined to a wheelchair.

But I watched her do amazing things.

She took up ukelele to strengthen her left arm. (Trevor Hall’s Lime Tree was her practice song.)

She started practicing aerial yoga. (She said it was more falling than practicing but that everytime she got to hold a pose, it was thrilling.)

She taught yoga — even though it was hard.

She danced in her chair with friends around my living room for her 30th birthday (not knowing it would be her last one).

She laughed. A lot.

She understood and shared love at a level that’s hard to describe, but people felt it when they were with her. She was magnetic.

As I went through the notes of things Stephanie shared with me, I found this:

I am not illusioned by positivity, nor ignorant to the many ways humanity suffers. I believe that different opinions can coexist. If we let down our ego, we can learn from each other.

I have treated this experience as life-altering and deeply spiritual. I do believe that these bodies we have are vessels to carry a light within each of us.

It’s sad when someone dies — even more when they die young. And I desperately wish I could pick up my phone and call Steph for just one more coffee.

Yet her impact on me remains. I get to keep it for the rest of my life.

Because I will forever notice in each moment that heaven is now.

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