Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Heaven Can't Wait

[From a book of 23 essays called "Heaven", edited by Roger Ferlo, Seabury Books, April, 2007. See link to Church Publishing.]

"What do you think happens when we die?"

My eighty-year-old mother had the pedal to the metal. We were hurtling through spring sunshine and green hills, past the long sparkling lakes that mark the San Andreas fault just south of San Francisco. I was careful, very careful, not to express surprise at her question. Religion was an unmentionable subject in our family, a topic loaded with dangerous intimacy.

Her Edwardian outlook, capacity for denial, and inability ever to let go of anything were hallmarks of her life, yet she had grown old with unusual grace. Paradox was her m├ętier: when facing a difficult choice she would worry and fret, twist and turn, her anxiety levels skyrocketing. But when the dreaded task could be avoided no longer, she would walk serenely through the jaws of whatever it was she had feared as if she were going to a garden party at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

She liked to present herself as a grande dame but she had a wild streak, which I encouraged whenever it peeked out of its elegant shell. The car we were riding in was the consequence of one of these glimpses. Little did I know that it was a mild flutter compared to the escapades her envious, more conventional friends would recount after her death.

"What do you think happens when we die?" Her question was costly; how long had she been waiting for the right moment to ask it? What had provoked it? She was not requesting a story or a discussion but demanding a naked truth that would bridge the abyss between our conflicting perspectives. Underneath my mother's studied nonchalance lay barely controlled terror; for me, death was as familiar as my own face.

I shifted slightly, as far as the bucket seat, restraints, and g-forces would allow, trying to respond as casually as she had asked the question, laughing a little at the existential and cosmic incongruities.

"My views on this subject are mindlessly simple. I think the universe is made of love and that when we die we are somehow drawn deeper into that love."

Having obtained the information she desired, Mother withdrew into her own thoughts, and we traveled the rest of the way to Palo Alto in silence. I have no idea what she thought about heaven. She was an obsessively private person and not an abstract thinker. Until the last four nights of her life, when she had no other choice, this single exchange was as close as she would ever allow me to come. To ask for comfort would have been, for her, a serious moral lapse.

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