I’m afraid to open my eyes. The bed is soft as if I’m swaddled in a giant down pillow and I feel better than I have in years. If I open my eyes, I will be in the hospital. In my hospital room, in my hospital bed, in my hospital gown, my body connected to machines with wires and tubes. With my eyes closed, I’m in a safe, comfortable cocoon.
Must be early morning, it’s too quiet to be anything else. But I don’t recall getting my midnight meds. My back isn’t sore. My legs and arms don’t ache. Breathing is easy and relaxed. Maybe I’m dreaming, but I’ll take it until the nurse enters carrying reality on a tray full of vials and needles. No need to open my eyes. What would I gain? I would lose everything I’m enjoying right now.
How long can I keep my eyes closed? All day if I want to. Until Beth or the kids come. I miss the grandkids, but I agree I’m a bit scary looking these days. I don’t think I’m going to die this time; not this time, could be next time. I’m strong, weak physically, yeah, but not that weak and I refuse to give in. A person’s spirit makes a difference and I’m not done yet, I’m not even close to being finished.
I should open my eyes, can’t lie here daydreaming all day, if that’s what I’m doing. As a good patient I have obligations: taking my medicines, clearing my lungs, moving around, getting the blood flowing. Shouldn’t wait for the nurse; must take responsibility for myself. I don’t have to pee. Can clear my lungs anytime. Temperature is perfect; it’s usually too cold in here. I’m sure I’m awake and not dreaming; I feel good for once. Would I feel lousy again if I open my eyes?
Wait until the nurse appears. Come on, you’re a grown man, face it grandpa, an old grown man. Open your eyes, behold the wonders of medicine, rejoin your dwindling world. Could still be night, hours of sleep left. If it’s early morning you can witness the hospital begin its day.
I open my eyes. The room has changed. It’s not my room. It’s three times the size, light green rather than light blue. I begin the struggle to sit up but there is no struggle. I twist around and adjust the pillows with ease. Must scope out the new room. A queen size bed rather than a hospital one. A sofa rather than a heart monitor and two easy chairs, a kitchenette off to the side with a dining table and four chairs. The sofa is a light-hearted tweed of blues and grays and the chairs a darker solid blue. I get it. This is a room for visiting VIPs. They needed my room for someone else and I was moved into a suite that was vacant. When did that happen? No wires. No tubes. Doesn’t even smell like a hospital; fresh, more like Hawaii, near the ocean. Now I’m sorry I didn’t open my eyes earlier. Pajamas, I’m wearing pajamas. When did I get those? My memory is getting really bad if I can’t remember putting on PJs. I’m probably going home today. Feel great, ready to go. No clock in this new room. Early morning, has to be. I’ll be discharged around ten is my guess. Beth will be here to push me out in a wheelchair, I’ll pop in the car at the hospital entrance and we’ll be home by one. Home by one sounds great. I hope it isn’t cold outside.
A soft knock on the door.
A nice-looking fellow enters the room, somewhere between the kids and grandkids’ ages. He isn’t wearing a uniform, so he’s unlikely medical. Administration of some kind. Dressed relaxed, as I like, in khakis and a polo shirt, dark green, my favorite. He’s wearing running shoes, though his extra bit of suet around the middle suggests they’re more for comfort than jogging down the street.
“Good morning, Mr. Greyson. How are you today?”
“I am great. Better than in a long time. You guys do good work. What’s the plan?”
“The plan, sir, is to get you situated. I trust you see your room has changed,” he says, now standing next to the bed.
“Yes. Have no idea when that happened, but I’m happy it did.”
“And you’re feeling well?”
“Absolutely. I’m ready to get home and get busy again.”
“Well, Mr. Greyson, there is good news and bad news. My name is Pete. My job is to guide you through the good and the bad.”
“I feel great, that must be the good news. What’s the bad, insurance isn’t covering the hospital bill?”
The new guy Pete laughs. A nice, friendly laugh. I like him.
“No, nothing like that. What’s the last thing you remember from yesterday?”
I search my memory for a moment or two. I remember my family visiting. Beth and the kids.
“My family visited yesterday. They do all the time. Visiting me might even be the highlight of their day.”
He laughs again. “The bad news, Mr. Greyson, is you fell asleep during their visit and didn’t wake up. You died yesterday afternoon.” Pete reaches to grab a dining chair, swings it over next to the bed and sits on it.
My brain empties; then fills with resentment. “That’s not much of a joke. I don’t appreciate your humor.” I respond as coldly as I can. Why would he say such a thing?
Pete leans forward in the chair. “Mr. Greyson, this is no joke. I’m sorry to give you the news; dying is the bad news. The good news is you’re in Heaven.”
“I’m really dead?” I struggle to breathe. Need air.
“In Heaven.” Can’t feel my arms, my legs.
My mind swirls. Spinning faster and faster. A whirlwind in my head. I can’t grab a thought. Nothing in my head. Everything vanished. Pete is sitting there, looking at me. I don’t know who me is. “This is Heaven.”
“Yes, part of it,” Pete says. I hear the words but they mean nothing.
Slow deep breaths. Concentrate. “I’m dead.” That’s all I can say. I hold up my hand. I’m staring at my hand, turning it, looking at front and back: thin skin, veins, wrinkles, lots of brown and pink spots, broken thumbnail. That’s my hand. I am here, how can I be dead? I want to be in the hospital. Do I? Do I want to be alive in the hospital? My world is gone. I am somewhere else. “I’m dead.”
“Yes. Surprisingly, you can tell you’re dead by how good you feel.” He smiles. “Kind of counter-intuitive, wouldn’t you say?”
Think. Must think. A person doesn’t die every day. Slow down, take your time. I feel great, so I have to be dead. Can’t beat that logic. I’m dead. I died yesterday. Yesterday I died. Today I’m dead. Today I’m in Heaven. Can’t be. Can’t be. Oh, no. This is bad, really bad. Somebody made a huge mistake. What am I going to do? Take it easy. At least my brain works again. Have to say something, but I hate it. I sigh, a big, end-it-all-now sigh. May as well get the worst bad news over with.
“Pete, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in Heaven and I don’t believe in God.”
“Yes, we know.”
Pete’s tone is that of a New Englander being asked if he knows the way into town. Almost an “ayup.” Casual; no sense of awe or even concern. And I’m dead, dead, dead, dead, and dead. And in Heaven. This is a Mad Hatter’s tea party.
I died yesterday. At this moment I am dead and lying in a bed in Heaven. Okay. Strange, weird, uncomfortable, hard to understand, but I’m breathing and I’m thinking. I was sick, very sick and I died. What I knew was going to happen someday, happened yesterday. Can’t complain my time finally came. Sooner than I wanted, but okay. Wasn’t bad. Falling asleep and dying, couldn’t ask for a much better death. What about Beth and the kids, and the grandkids? How are they? I sit higher in the bed, something I hadn’t done in a while.
“They’re doing fine. You went to sleep as you sometimes did, but you slept longer than usual and your breathing became labored. Your family called in a doctor who checked, listening to your lungs and your heart. She stood after leaning over you and told your family you were dying. They were shocked at first. Over the next few minutes, discussing possibilities and options with the doctor, they accepted the situation and agreed there would be no extraordinary efforts to resuscitate you. Your death was understood, they were prepared. It was gentle.”
They must be sad. Why don’t I feel sad for them? Why don’t I feel sad for myself?
“Why don’t I feel sad?”
“Ah, yes. The concept of death from your side, the side of the living. Death is laying down heavy burdens, isn’t it? Rest for weary bones. Parting from loved ones. Never again playing with grandchildren. The end to lazy summer afternoons sitting in a boat in the middle of a lake casting for dinner when you don’t really care about catching anything. Yes, the joys of life. And for atheists like you, the end of all possibilities and the folding of consciousness into nothingness. Death, the most profound loss for the living. But, hey, from this side, the side of the afterlife and Heaven lies an infinity of possibilities and more love than you could ever imagine. Pete spread his arms out wide. “You don’t need to be sad. Nothing to be sad about. You know it. You can feel it.”
Okay. I’m a guy; not a manly man with a five o’clock shadow by lunchtime, but a guy. Feelings are not where I live. But death. That’s a big deal; gotta have feelings about being dead, especially for those I left. I search inside. Don’t find feelings. Not quite right. I’m fabulously content. Anything else? Curious. More? Content, curious, and something more. Confused. The three Cs of death, contentment, curiosity, and confusion. A touch of anxiety? Not sure. Back to the issue at hand; the deal breaker. I always tried to look for the bright side; there isn’t one here. But I have to tell the truth.
“I’m an atheist, Pete. That has to mean something.”
I hope my thin voice doesn’t betray my fear. In a heartbeat I might slip and slide into a fate that couldn’t be possible. Hell was never a consideration and now it could be real and I might soon stand at the gates of it.
“And you’re concerned you’re in the wrong place. By the way, may I call you Mike?”
“Of course. And, yes, I’m concerned. I didn’t believe there was an afterlife, but here I am. I was wrong. When you don’t have faith, I understand you go someplace else.” I made a terrible mistake and I’m going to pay for it. Here it comes. Stomach churning; almost fainting. Brace yourself.
“There is no someplace else.”
Confused, but relieved. Let’s review. I died yesterday. I’m dead and in Heaven. I’ve just learned there is no Hell by someone who should know and at the moment I’m not keen on asking any more questions about faith. I’m not worried about my family. My major emotion is contentment, which seems reasonable. Pete is a director of sorts for the good and bad. And I’m breathing normally.
“Pete, what is your job?”
“To be your guide for the first week or two, until you get your bearings. There is a lot to learn. I’m here to help. Why don’t I make coffee while we chat?” Pete walks into the kitchenette while I continue to make sense of what and where I am.
“Are you dead too?”
Pete answers while facing away spooning coffee into the filter. “No. I’m like you, except I never lived on earth, or anywhere else.”
“What am I? A ghost, a spirit, an angel?”
“You’re not really a what; you’re more of a where. You’re in Heaven, same as me. The only difference is I am here to guide you. It will all make good sense in time.”
I hear coffee dripping into the pot and revel in the familiar aroma. Pete returns to sit next to the bed. I’m an atheist; at least I was when I was alive. Now I’m in Heaven. That means God exists. Pete could be an angel. But I have another question.
“How did I die, what killed me? I was sure I would be going home.”
“Your congestive heart failure finally overwhelmed your body. Your lungs couldn’t provide enough oxygen. And you hadn’t been eating which further weakened your body. Everything just wore out at the same time. Nothing could have been done, except keep you artificially alive in the critical care unit. You’d be on a respirator for a few days or weeks, semiconscious and uncomfortable, but so-called alive. Your family made a merciful decision. May I ask you a question?”
“Were you prepared?”
“Yes.” Pete rises at the beep of the coffeemaker and returns to the counter.
I expected death would be the end of me. One day I would cease to exist, be the same as I was before the egg and sperm fell in love, nothing.
“All I did was accept the reality of no afterlife and keep a grip on my composure. You know that quote, ‘Do not go softly into that good night?’’
“Dylan Thomas, part of a poem.”
“Well Dylan was wrong.”
“He wrote it about his father and promoting living a full life.”
“I think a full life is one thing, but if there is one time for acceptance and quiet dignity it is when you’re dying. I wanted to die well for my family, ease their grief and fear. I hope I did a good job of it. Can you tell me if it worked?”
Pete answers as he pours the coffee. “Yes, I can confirm you did a good job. Your family was comforted by your attitude, by your acceptance and, I must say, how much you expressed your love for them and how you embraced their love for you.”
Pete returns with two cups of coffee and hands me one; black, as I like it.
“Your name…Pete. That’s not like Saint Peter, reviewing my life for entrance at the Pearly Gates?”
“Nope. If there were gates, you’re past them.”
“I didn’t see a bright white light.”
Pete’s hands cover his mouth; eyes wide open.
“You didn’t? Oh no. No white light you say?”
“What?” Heart pounding again.
Why did I bring that up? I was feeling good; I was just kidding around. What did I know? Could be bad people just die; good people see a white light and move toward Heaven. What have I done?
Pete lowers his hands and leans back in his chair.
“The bright light some people say they see when they are clinically dead is simply brain neurons firing. Means nothing, especially since none of them die, at least not then. Trust me; this is where you are meant to be.”
Relief. Now I understand the need of a guide like Pete, although a more solemn tone would be nice. Being dead is not easy. Well, it’s easy to be dead, but strange to be dead yet know you’re dead. And to be in Heaven. Sounds good but discombobulatingly odd.
Pete continues. “Why don’t you get up, shower and get dressed? You’ll find clothes in the closet and I’ll make us breakfast.”
I do just that. Up, shower, shave, which seems strange to do in Heaven, dress, and sit at the table facing scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and sourdough toast; with orange juice and more coffee. Looks wonderful. Smells fantastic. Tastes out of this world.
We discuss my situation for an hour or so, when Pete makes a suggestion. If I want, I can go out the door and be at the trailhead of one of my favorite day hikes, to Lake 22. Give yourself a chance to relax and ground yourself in a favorite activity and mull things over, he says. Should take into late afternoon. We can meet back here for dinner and wrap up the first day in Heaven. He shoves a daypack into my hands. “I packed what you will need.”
When I open the door, the parking area at the trail-head for the hike to Lake 22 waits. It’s empty. Over on the left is my usual parking spot, far enough from the trailhead to avoid bumps and scratches from wide backpacks and clumsy hikers and far enough from the trees to avoid bird droppings. Small birds in the nearby trees like to perch on car side view mirrors. They sit there long enough to leave presents. I learned the hard way those small birds discharge a lot of poop. The dirt and stones and sand under my boots are the sensations of home. My deteriorating health ended my hikes to Lake 22 about ten years earlier. Lake 22 isn’t its official name. My friend Rudy loves this route so much he said if you hike it once, you’ll hike to the lake at least twenty-two times in your life; so that’s what we called it.
Just before stepping on the trail, I glance back at the door, half-expecting to see nothing, or a Dali-esque door hanging in space in the middle of nowhere. But there is the door, the front of a building, whitewashed adobe, one story, about eight hundred square feet. Normal enough, under the circumstances. I laugh at myself. What would I know about normal under the circumstances? Nothing, that’s what.
I start the trail. It is eight miles to the lake, up and down hills with an elevation gain of almost two thousand feet. The path twists through thick forests of cedar and pine. The last part near the lake would be above the tree line, mostly boulders, scree, grass, moss, and a few bushes.
After two hours of sheer delight, huffing up slopes, smelling the forest, gazing at the sky, and otherwise for-getting I was dead, I reach Whisper Rock, my name for the last place for cell phone coverage and where I phone Beth to tell her how I am doing. I call it Whisper Rock because when I was on the phone I sure didn’t want to disturb other hikers who also wanted to enjoy the wilderness. Out of habit, I suppose, I reach for my left front pocket and of course, no phone. There is no one to call. Yet again, no sadness. Are only selected feelings allowed in Heaven? Seems like a good idea and intrusive at the same time. I relax on the rock to ponder my situation. I suppose this is why Pete suggested the hike, to reflect on being dead. The sun moderates a chill wind as I lean on the rock. I am dead. I am in Heaven, part of it as Pete said, the orientation part, I guess. Orientation to being dead after arriving in Heaven seems reasonable. No more thoughts arise. I reach into the pack and pull out two granola bars. They’re the same green wrapped ones I enjoyed in the old days. Where would they get granola bars in Heaven? Is there a factory somewhere? And what about breakfast? Are there egg laying chickens in Heaven? Do they slaughter pigs for bacon in Heaven? Who made the hash browns? The chill wind carries away the sun’s warmth. I stand, pull on the daypack and start up the next hill.
Muscles ache by the time I reach Lake 22. I find my favorite viewing spot among three boulders and look over the scene before me. The lake is about a hundred feet below, almost round, and reflects the clouds from its surface. I smile. My first thought is, “I could stay here forever.” Right. Next set of thoughts. What is real? This obviously is not the real Lake 22 trail; it’s a beautiful day yet the trail is empty. The granola bars were not real granola bars. How would Heaven import granola bars? Why did I even eat? Sheltered from the wind, the sun is warm, a short nap sounds good. Do I even need to sleep? I should compile of list of questions to ask Pete.
The issues; what are the issues of being dead? Dead isn’t the state of nothingness I had assumed. Had I known this, I wonder if I would have taken more chances when I was alive. I wanted to jump out of a plane; never did. I considered running for Superintendent of Schools; didn’t do that either. It seemed clear to me too, that I was a member of the impulsive, immature, clown half of the species. Was my fate sealed at birth? Did I win in life; did I lose; does it matter? How should I have kept score? A more interesting life might have been an exhausting one, stretching myself to the limit or even a dangerous one earning a well-deserved rest in the hereafter. Seems like I wasted my life not doing what I could have. How much was my life avoiding what I feared? Did a safer life give me a longer life? Was it worth it? Was my life worth it? Enough wondering. I have to turn off my mind for a moment and sooth my soul with food.
A quick search of the daypack secures a tuna sandwich on whole wheat, my standard daytrip lunch. Nestled in between the rocks, enjoying the sweetest tuna sandwich ever, I ponder more. Nothing I can do about being dead. Heaven seems like a nice place. I’m experiencing mostly positive emotions. There must be a reason an atheist is allowed in Heaven. There might be degrees of Heaven. It could be my experience of Heaven won’t be a lot of fun. Must be a good reason it takes a week or two to figure things out. Another search of the pack brings out a plastic storage bag of chocolate chip cookies, my favorite. Homemade. Warm. In Heaven cookies are warm!
I sit looking at the lake and pondering for a good hour, hesitant to leave a familiar place to face my surprise chance at eternity. The quality of Heaven might depend on what I figure out.
In my early twenties, starting out in life, sometimes I would suddenly wake in the middle of the night, terrorized, fearing death will gut my life before I even have one. The dread of inevitability, of powerlessness, of helpless panic was overwhelming. With marriage and children and a developing career that panic faded. I was creating a history, a life of meaning, fulfilling responsibilities, experiencing the phases of living and the joys and sorrows of graying hair and diminishing abilities. Did I do it right?
What defines a good life? My idea was my life had to be my life, no one else’s. God wouldn’t want me to waste my unique existence being like everyone else. What would be the point of that? And if God did not exist, why would I want me to be like everyone else anyway? I was certain when alive that I was the sole maker and judger of my existence. All life has worth, but not all lives have value. How does a person determine the value of his or her life; or any life? I thought I knew. Now I’m not so sure, not sure at all. What have I fallen into?
Back on the trail, descending toward home. Love. Did Beth know how much I loved her? I could have shown her more deeply and more often. Same with the kids. The grandkids were easy. I told them all the time.
Whoa. I must have missed it on the hike up, a tiny yellow flower growing in the middle of the trail and I almost stepped on it. Gotta be a rule in Heaven against stepping on a flower. Springtime. Should always be spring in Heaven. The trail is dry, not the mud that it usually was in spring. Don’t know how many times I slipped in the mud and landed on my keister. This little guy is proudly in the middle of things saying “Here I am.” In the summer all the plants are fully-grown and glorious, adding to the splendor of the outdoors. When the wind shifts and comes from the north, branches become dry and brittle, leaves turn brown, fall off, and are pushed along the ground by the wind. In winter most plants will be covered by snow and many will be gone. People my age will say, “It all goes so quickly.” It did for me and I’m in Heaven. Now what will become of me? What’s after winter?
The hike down the mountain takes much less time than the way up, but I still arrive at the trailhead and the building at dusk, later than I anticipated. I am sore in every muscle, bone, ligament, and tendon, loving every ache. The mild discomfort is invigorating compared to the unhappy maladies that had become my daily life. There is no pain, only physical awareness. Out of breath is from activity, not lungs that no longer work.
I smell sizzling steaks as soon as I open the door. Pete exchanges my daypack for a glass of pinot noir. After dinner, Pete and I sit to talk more about life and death.
“I know I’m dead. I accept that.”
“Why aren’t I unhappy about it?”
“What would be the point?”
What would be the point? Good question. If I were dead as I expected to be, I would not exist. I would experience no feelings, sadness or any other. If I die and end up in Heaven, why would I be sad? I would have been sad to end in Hell, but that doesn’t seem to be the case—or is it? Oh no. Ohhh no. Breath catching. An old Twilight Zone TV episode leaps into my mind, about a crook killed as he tried to escape the police. He ended up in a luxury apartment, not unlike my current room, with a guide just like Pete! The crook was given anything he wanted and what he wanted was wine, women, and lots of money. All of it was his, anything and everything. After a month he was bored, said he didn’t like Heaven and wanted to go to the other place. His guide said with a smug smile, “Why do you think you’re in Heaven?” Could that be me? I must face the music one more time.
“Pete, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this kind of thing, but there was a Twilight Zone episode on television, must be from the early sixties about a crook who died and thought he went to Heaven…”
“Yeah, I’m familiar with the story. Title was ‘Nice Place to Visit.’”
Pete smiles that nice smile of his, warm, caring, almost angelic, “No. That is not your situation. Heaven is a good place. No one is tormented for eternity; no point to that. No lessons to learn, no punishment for evil deeds. No nothingness for nonbelievers.”
“Okay. That was a worry, as much as I can seem to worry. Everything is more from curiosity. Speaking of which, you mentioned I’m more a where than a what. Can you explain? And what or where are you?”
“You’re also wondering what is real?”
“That was on my list.”
“Let’s start there, with what is real. How about an after dinner Scotch?”
I nod. Wine and Scotch in Heaven. Who would have imagined that?
Pete goes to a cupboard in the kitchen, pulls out a bottle of Red Label, to another cupboard for two glasses, fills the glasses with ice from the dispenser in the refrigerator door and returns to pour each of us a drink.
“Is this from Scotland?”
“Ah yes,” he smiles. “Is it real? Mike, where you are now, everything is real, including the Scotch.”
“Where does everything come from?”
Pete purses his lips. “It doesn’t come from anywhere. It is where it needs to be when it needs to be there. I am here because I need to be here. You are here because you need to be here. The trail to Lake 22 was there because it needed to be there. This room is here because it needs to be here.”
I’m a pretty smart guy, Masters in Education from Stanford. I understand the words; have no idea what Pete means.
“Sounds like magic.”
“Not magic, physics.”
I sip on the Scotch to take a momentary mental break. The ice against my lips settles me down, a little.
“Yes, let me explain. Everything, all energy and all matter, stars, people, marshmallows, x-rays, contain information. If you decode that information and then encode it, you can decode it again, whenever and wherever you want. Take the egg and sperm. Tiny, tiny things, containing the information to create a fully functioning adult human being. Just decode the information in the DNA and do what it says. Similarly, a strip of fried bacon, if you decode the information, has all the information needed to create a sizzling slice of bacon, without creating a pig, raising it, slaughtering it, curing the meat and finally frying it. Encode and decode, and you can create ready to eat bacon. Everything, and I mean everything, contains the information needed to make it again.”
I’m getting it. One question will tell.
“What about emotions and thoughts?”
“Emotions and thoughts, both are matter, such as brain cells and neurotransmitters and both are energy, such as electrical impulses and are encoded in the brain cells by how and where cells are connected and what the ratios of various neurochemicals are. And as you know, matter and energy can convert into each other.”
“I am here because I was encoded while alive and then decoded after I died?”
“What about you? Where did you come from?”
“I was decoded because you needed me to be decoded.”
“You’re a figment of my imagination?”
“Not at all. I’m real, decoded information just like you are.” Pete takes a drink of his Scotch, although I doubt he needs it. I need it and take a healthy sip.
“Who or what does the encoding and decoding?”
“Ah,” Pete smiles. “That is the big question. The question of all questions. I suggest you sleep on it.”
“We’re talking about God, aren’t we?”
“Yes. Which is why I suggest we take a look at what everything means tomorrow after breakfast. There is a lot to discuss about God and we should do it all in one go.”
“Sounds good. What happens to you now?
“I disappear, watch.”
He stands, walks to the front door, opens it, waves goodbye, and closes the door behind him. Just like a normal person.
There are pajamas lying on the end of the bed. I leave my clothes on the nearby chair and follow my nighttime routine, including brushing my teeth, all the while questioning why I should brush my teeth.
After climbing under the covers, I wonder if I’ll get much sleep with all the thoughts roiling in my head. But I am content. Not a bad condition for someone who is dead.