Avoiding contemplation of my own mortality was easy, as I recall, when I was a young man. It has become increasingly difficult to do that as I grow older—especially when in discussion with an inquisitive granddaughter.
“Do you say prayers, Gramps?”
“Prayers? Ah, yes, sure, I say my prayers.”
“Actually, I do it in the morning, before I get out of bed.”
We were alone in the house, I reading a book, she playing with her Lego set. Music was playing softly in the background. I wasn’t sure if she was just making conversation, or whether this was a significant moment.
“Do you pray to God or to Jesus?”
“Well,” I began, “aren’t they really the same? I guess I pray to both.”
“Do you believe in Jesus, Gramps?”
I put my book down on the table beside my chair. She kept building her blocks, but I could tell she was listening for my answer.
“I believe in the things Jesus taught us,” I said. “That we should love each other and try to be good.” I was hedging a bit, because I have long had difficulty with a literal reading of the Bible.
“If we’re good, we go to heaven when we die, right?”
“That’s right!” I said, on firmer ground now. “That’s one of the things Jesus taught us.”
After a few moments, she said, “Old people die before kids die, right?”
“That’s right,” I repeated. “Most of the time, old people die first.”
“What do you think heaven is like, Gramps?”
I wanted to tell her that heaven, for me, was having this opportunity to talk with her, listen to her, and feel the love swelling in my chest. But that wasn’t what she was after, so I tried a reply I’d heard years before when my father-in-law, shortly before his death, was asked the same question by my wife.
“I don’t know,” he’d said, a sly twinkle in his eye. “Nobody’s ever come back to tell me.” His sense of humour had never left him.
My granddaughter gave that some thought as she continued connecting block to block, building I knew not what. It was colourful, though.
“I know nobody comes back, Gramps. But what do you think heaven is like?”
“Hmm,” I said, trying to figure out how I might answer that. I have never thought of heaven as a streets-paved-with-gold sort of place where I’ll meet up again with every person I ever knew—assuming they would also make it there. My own perception has been evolving over many years, more urgently as those years have mounted, and now my granddaughter was asking me to explain it.
Deep down, I think I believe that heaven is bound up in the vast universe we all inhabit—an ever-expanding universe if science is to be credited. And I think I believe that every living thing is, in and of itself, already a part of the creator that, in several different languages, we have called God. So in that sense, we are inhabiting heaven now, wending our way on an eternal voyage through the stars.
I think I believe that every living thing, including each of us, is animated by an inextinguishable spark of energy—I might call it the soul—that enlivens us during our mortal journey. And when my own journey ends, blotting out my conscious existence as one little girl’s grandpa, I think I believe that my soul will carry on, perhaps to animate some other form of life somewhere in the universe.
I’m as certain as I can be (which, I suppose, is not so certain at all) that my soul, that unquenchable amalgam of light and heat, will live eternally, for if it were not so, if that energy were to dissipate and die, the universe, rather than expanding, would surely be shrinking, bit by bit by bit.
But every time I ponder these things, I remember the admonition I constantly remind myself of—not to believe everything I think.
“Gramps?” my granddaughter said, looking up from her blocks, waiting for my answer.
“Hmm,” I said again, realizing I was out of time.
“It’s okay if you don’t know,” she said, standing up from her Lego endeavours. As she climbed onto my lap, she added, “I just don’t want you to die.”
It was several moments before I could speak again, so I held her close, offering a silent prayer.
And in that moment, I knew what heaven was like.