It was early March when I finally saw him again. I dreamed it was getting near noontime of a warm sunny springtime day. I’d just emerged from a shady and minty-pine-scented eucalyptus grove into a fresh, gentle breeze and bright sunlight. On a footpath banked by tall green grass I began to descend from the hilltop.
The sky was cloudless, an azure dome spreading from horizon to horizon. I felt like a medieval pilgrim looking out beyond the blue sky to see the mechanics of the heavens. I could make out the tracks that the sun, moon and stars move along. Straight above me was the sun, and a waxing gibbous moon hung in the western sky. In the sublunar world below, the eastern slope of smoky blue mountains rose to my left. Far distant to my right, beyond the base of these foothills, spread chalky white suburbs and a cobalt bay, and, beyond both, emerald hills defined the southeastern horizon. I was high enough to perceive a slight curving of the earth.
Green were these hills where I was walking. Close to the path, at the peak of their season, a rolling sea of California poppies was in full bloom, a burst of orange as thrilling as that in Monet’s “Poppy Field in Argenteuil.” Tarweed and bay laurel grew thick in the distance, and in another direction stood a copse of oaks, and in yet another was a stand of acacias decked in yellow. As an adolescent, I’d loved hiking up here.
One time long ago my wife Ilene and I roamed in these hills. It had been a sunny spring day just like this one. That had been about a year before we were married. We had been looking for a bird’s eye view of Filole, a country house and array of gardens. Back in the day, Our Song, one we definitely did not have played at our wedding, was R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” No one at our nuptials would have understood why a couple so in love would have chosen this to be Our Song. “Oh, life is bigger,” sang Michael Stipe. Or did he sing, “O Life, it’s bigger”? At our twentieth wedding anniversary dinner, she and I debated this. Oh? or O? This was the pressing question because it made all the difference.
Making my way, I wondered if this was a place for before we are born or for after we die. I descended the trail for a long time before coming to a river. I didn’t remember a river ever having flowed through here, but because there was no other way forward, I jumped into the fast-moving cold water. I was instantly fully submerged; chilled and gasping for breath, I surfaced and started to swim. I was glad when I reached the other bank, for on the opposite side I found August sitting in his Zippie wheelchair. This was my pearl. He had died at the age of fourteen, but in this strange land he had grown up into a handsome young man of about twenty one.
“Hey, dad!” he said. My non-verbal son was talking! These were the first words I’d ever heard him say.
I climbed out of the water and shook the wetness off. It was warmer on this side of the river. “You’re speaking!” I said. I wanted to cry when I heard him, but I suppressed the urge. “How did you learn to do that?”
“The therapists here are the best!” He was communicating with me as if he were a grown man, clearly, with good articulation. It was very sweet to hear his voice, which was moderately deep, and he expressed himself with the confidence of a mature adult. I sat down in the soft grass in front of his wheelchair and looked up into his face. His gaze met mine, something he had never been able to do while alive because of his cortical visual impairment—for all intents and purposes he’d been blind.
“Did you have any trouble getting in?” I asked. As I spoke I realized that my clothes were already dry.
“In?” he said, looking at me quizzically. “Into what?”
“Oh. Is that what this is?” he said, his right hand gesturing around him, something he’d also never been able to do. In life he’d been a spastic quadriplegic. “The guards waved me through security.”
“Guards? Get out! There are security guards at the gate of heaven?”
“It’s like at the airport, with body scanners. They need them. Didn’t you hear? Just last week a bad angel wearing a suicide vest tried to—.”
“Stop, son!” I interrupted, holding up my hand. “You’re seriously freaking me out!”
I must have raised my voice because several heads turned. The scene had changed from a riverbank to a seashore. Somehow we had been transported to this new location without my having noticed. It was an enormous sandy beach somewhere in the Florida Keys. In front of us were the ocean’s breaking waves like in the movie Contact, and in the other three directions people surrounded us for as far as the eye could see, and all of them were wearing sun glasses and bathing suits and lazing in reclining chairs. There were thousands—one hundred and forty-four thousand of them. I knew this exact number, I don’t know why. Even though the sunshine was searingly hot, not one of them had a beach umbrella to shield themselves. If I didn’t already know this was heaven, I’d have concluded they were all being punished for their sins, forced to lie almost naked in the blazing sun.
I myself was sitting fully clothed on the edge of one of the reclining chairs, facing August, who was still positioned in his wheelchair. He too was wearing clothes—beige shorts and a tee-shirt as orange as a Reese’s Pieces wrapper. He was sweating, and so was I. The place felt both womb-like and uncomfortable—the heat made the air oppressive. Many of those around and behind us were sipping from glasses with little paper umbrellas poking up above the rims. Was everyone in heaven a parrot head?
“Why did you leave?” I said.
“I had to. I had to go away. It was my turn to go.”
I looked around at the vast sea of sunbathers. “Do you like it up here?”
“They play way too much Jimmy Buffett.”
“What would you prefer?”
“The Twilight Sad.”
“Really? No way! But The Twilight Sad’s a bit too angsty for heaven.” I changed the subject. “Why are you still using a wheelchair? Aren’t you supposed to have a glorified body or something? Be able to walk? The nuns in my grade school told me that’s how it’d be.”
“You mean like Jake Sully in Avatar? No way! I’m no Jake Sully. There’s nothing wrong with me the way I am.”
“You said it. Crip pride! Nothing about us without us!”
As August was speaking I noticed that his arms and face had a heavenly glow, a luminosity, as though his whole body was an LED light stick. A service angel came through taking orders for drinks. We both declined. August told me that he had just learned a new term in the accelerated school they have for kids like him, coup de grâce. “It’s an act that brings to an end a bad or unpleasant situation,” he explained. “I’ve been practicing using it in a sentence. I wheel up to the people just arriving and I ask them, ‘Why are you here? Did you experience a coup de grâce?’”
“Do you crack a lot of jokes?”
“Yeah. I’m pretty funny. At least my friends think so. And humor keeps the bullies from taking my lunch money.”
“Shut up! You’re kidding me, right? Bullies?”
“The Bible doesn’t mention a lot about what goes on here. If this is heaven, there’s been a cover up. It’s a real shit show.”
I just shook my head in dismay. What was the world, er, I mean, what was heaven coming to.
August was to my right. To my left was a woman in her early thirties reclining on a lounge chair. She was wearing a very brief bikini. She was practically naked. It was kind of shocking. Her name was Matty or Mary Ann—I couldn’t quite catch it. The man lazing on the recliner beyond her had uttered her name. He was a young, handsome, well-built, dark-skinned fellow. Lifting an icy drink from a tray, he said, more distinctly, “It’s hot.” Mary Ann, or Matty put on dark glasses and agreed.
“Why don’t you move up here?” August said. “It’s nice. And you and me could be together again, all the time.”
“Thanks, I appreciate the offer. But I’ll pass on it for now. The time will come. And I’d like that very much. In fact, I look forward to being able to see you again every day.”
“Me too! I can’t wait! That’d be so cool!”
“It would be!” I said, and we high-fived on it.
“But dad,” he said, turning serious, “I’ve gotta tell you something. It’s important.”
“What’s that, son?”
“I want you to lighten up.”
I paused. “It’s very hard for me, son. Since you died, I see the mark of death everywhere. I see it on everyone’s forehead. It’s like I’m living in the Capuchin bone chapel in Rome.”
“That’s no fun, living in a charnel house.” He stopped speaking and looked directly into my eyes, as though to make me pay attention.
I looked away. It was hot on this beach. Too hot. I wiped the sweat off my brow. Why would anyone think sunbathing in this heat was pleasant?
“It’s hard to move forward,” I finally answered, meeting his gaze. “You’re my only son.”
“I get it. But now it’s time to let go. It’s time to move on. When we next meet, I want to see you a cheerful man. It’s time to laugh again.”
“Laugh? You’re kidding me, right? That would dishonor your memory.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Dishonor me? Give me a break! Don’t worry about me. I’m doing just fine. I’m worried about you. Since I died, you’ve stopped using your eyes.”
“I didn’t know I’d stopped using my eyes.”
Now came his tough-love talk—it was like an intervention.
“Old man, you’ve only got a few good years left yourself. You’ve stopped seeing, stopped moving forward. Your grief has made you self-absorbed. Since my death you’ve been consumed by sorrow and self-pity.”
I nodded when he said this. What he was saying was true.
“My message is: don’t look back. Find where you can be happy.” He paused long enough for this to sink in. “Don’t make your life into a monument to me,” he continued. “Preserving my memory has become your religion. Lose it. Lose that religion. It’s time to let go of the past. Life is for the living. Commit yourself again to the current of the world. Open your heart to the influence of the light.”
“What light?” I said despairingly. “For me, the light has gone out.”
“You’ll soon be entering, how many years of mourning? Five?”
“Six? Enough already! Enough mourning. There’ll be a new light. You’ll know it when you see it. It’ll be the right light. It’ll be a new blazing world. But in the meantime, until you do, learn to live again! Find where you can be happy. Be silly! Be playful. Be hopeful. Go back to being ironic.”
“No, no! No way! Those days are over. Irony is broken.”
“Is it broken?” he said, his eyes directly catching mine and giving me a knowing look, “or are YOU broken?”
“I don’t know.” I sat thinking about this question for a time. I really didn’t know what to reply. Finally I said, “yes, I’m broken. Maybe I’m too broken to do what you want me to do.”
“I don’t want my father to be a broken man,” he said firmly, the child becoming father of the man. “Don’t be the sad guy. And don’t be the mad guy. Don’t roam the earth a seething malcontent.” He paused again. “Hey! I’ve got an idea. You’re writing a book, right? Why don’t you tell a humorous story about the death of your son?”
I remember thinking, “What? A funny story? Was he kidding? How would such a thing even be possible?” I just looked at him in disbelief. This is the kind of thing you would expect from a fourteen-year-old boy. Every adult knows that humor and the death of a child don’t mix. What kind of twisted logic would motivate a grieving parent to attempt to do something so unorthodox? In response to my incredulity he had a wise look on his face, as though he distributed Zen kōans by the truckload. It is so easy to give advice when you are already dead!
“Old man, it was your sense of irony that made the difference,” he went on. “Your irony and your silliness and your playfulness and your positive attitude made everything fun for the both of us. You were ironic even about being ironic. So, be ironic again. Or be sincere. Whatever. Sincerity, they’re now saying, is the new sarcasm. Or just be silly.”
“Silly? You want me to be silly?” For a second or two I pondered this. “Okay, I’ll try to be silly, if that’s what you want. It won’t be easy. But I’ll work on it.”
“You’re going to work on being silly!” he said in an arch tone reflecting the inherent contradiction in this.
I reached over and rested my hand on his shoulder, and that’s when I realized he didn’t have any body heat. He wasn’t cold, but he wasn’t warm either. He was room temperature, like a pillow. Realizing he wasn’t generating heat was eerie. A shiver ran down my spine.
“You know what I miss most about you?” I said. “Your body heat. When I used to sit you on my lap and play ‘Hands Clap’ with you, it felt so good. Do you remember? I loved to feel your warmth, your body heat.”
“I miss those times too,” he said and stopped, ruminating. “It’s been a while now. I need to remember how it was to feel alive.”
Apropos of nearly nothing I said, “I will love you, son.”
“I will love you too, dad.”
“Are you happy here?”
“This is happiness,” he said, using words that flooded back from an earlier time. “I can’t wish for anything better. Now I experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful for my life, which gave me so much.”
Why was my son quoting lines from an Ingmar Bergman film? But this made the message all the more intense and, hearing him, I broke into sobs. August moved his wheelchair closer, to give me a comforting hug. The sunbathing sybarites lounging nearby turned their heads to look. They were disapproving. People in heaven don’t usually cry, I guess. It wrecks the mood. Someone from several rows over, a dead hippie I think, yelled, “HEY, YOU! YOU’RE BUMMING MY HIGH!”
August burst out laughing, and there it was again—the laugh of Medusa. Then he yelled back, a lightning-quick reaction: “That was so funny the first time I heard that, I laughed so hard I FELL OFF MY DINOSAUR!”
I recognized the line from Step Brothers, a Will Ferrell movie. I guess that’s the kind of thing they screen for the kids up in heaven. Does God really like movies with Will Ferrell? Can a God who likes Will Ferrell movies still be a just and loving God?
But wait! Something was wrong. Was there a mix-up? Wasn’t this the good place, like the one Eleanor Shellstrop finds herself in on the TV series The Good Place? Had August landed in the right kind of afterlife? What if he hadn’t? Do mothers and fathers have any say about where their dead children are placed? In a matter as serious as this, parents should have a voice.
I began to add it all up: security guards, body scanners, a suicide bomber, Jimmy Buffet on the sound system, parrot -head drinks, bullies taking lunch money, intense sunlight and searing heat, no umbrellas, an angry dead hippie, a Will Farrell movie, and 144,000 sybarites. Most troubling was the presence of Matty or Mary Ann. She shouldn’t have been here. Wasn’t she the villain in Body Heat?
OH, MY, GOD!! This wasn’t right at all! There’d been a mistake! AUGUST WAS IN HELL!
Suddenly Mary Ann, or Matty, or whomever she was, turned to me. She looked me square in the face, her green eyes radiating a strange light. They dazzled like a mirror. And then she shouted, “WE’RE GOING TO HAVE A BABY!” There was something about her mouth.
“What?” I replied.
“You better not try and escape,” she said maliciously, making an authoritative and self-affirming head bob, “because WE’RE GOING TO USE THE VACUUM!!”
Oh, no! That was all I needed. Terrified, I got up from my chair and began sprinting. As I fled, the Florida beach gradually turned into the green grassy foothills. As I ran I found that I was moving not forwards, but backwards. Somehow I made it to the river, and when I dove in, I awakened.
The first idea that came to mind were some of the words to Our Song. They rushed into my consciousness with so much force that I felt a stab of melancholy.
“I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
But that was just a dream.”