Our children want to know if you’re dead forever. I tell them yes. But I wonder about that too.
Death makes life worthwhile. It gives each moment meaning. I hope I live to one hundred and fifty, and that our daughters can make it to at least two hundred. But death drives life. It frightens and inspires us. Do away with death, and we’d have no reason to get out of bed (or into it), grow, work, or love. Why would we do much of anything if we had the time for everything? It’s the certainty of death that moves us to sing and write poems, find friends, and sail across oceans and skies. It’s because we know that we don’t have all the time in the world that we try to use the uncertain and unknowable time that we have to do something that endures. Death is sad, grim, unwelcome and invaluable. But it’s why we try to make something of life. It’s why we have children.
I don’t know what becomes of us when we die. But I believe I will go on to a place (which will probably look a lot like Chicago and Normandy) where I’ll find my mother and my father, my stepfather, and all of our beloved cats, dogs, horses, turtles and fish who predecease me. I’ll get to take a walk with Gandhi, have a glass of D’Yquem with Mr. Jefferson, and a glass of just about anything with Sir Winston. I’ll get together over tea and an asp with Cleopatra. I’ll have a catch with Jackie Robinson (and hope that celestial climes improve my infield skills).
I believe that I’ll get to look out over the world and behold my daughters. They’ll feel my love, hearten to hear my gentle instruction, and miss me; but not so much that they won’t spend most of their time giggling and enjoying life in full measure.
In time, I believe I’ll be reunited with my fabulously kind and beautiful wife, even if she runs away with a Hollywood star or an Italian race car driver as soon as my ashes cool. I will count on heavenly powers of understanding to look down at her happiness and nobly smile, and if they expect to be with her, too, I rely on God to work that out.
I do not know if God will reveal Him, Her, or Itself to me as a craggy old African man with a long white beard, or a mature, Rubenesque woman barely concealed by clouds, or as some kind of mollusk. I am undecided on the essential questions that can make theologians stammer: if there is a God, how does He or She or It let little children suffer? What kind of Heaven can there be if innocents have to share it with scoundrels? Do gnats have souls?
But when I spent the last days of my mother’s life alongside her in the Intensive Care Unit, our talk about death and whatever follows grew real. The hereafter was no longer hypothetical. It was the stop just ahead, and the next place I knew my mother would be (and the rest of us, too, in too short a time.)
My vision of the hereafter has no scientific, religious or even much mythical foundation. But I just can’t get by, day after day, thinking that we go on to nothing when we’re done here, and never again see those we love. I don’t worry about being right. I just want to wrap myself in a belief that gets me through the long nights of life.
I am getting a life’s lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU. We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?