What’s Heaven Like?

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.”

“Every night?”

“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.

Paulie

A friend of mine from our teenage years died recently, after a long, slow decline, taken from us before his time.  For more than fifty years, Paulie and I celebrated our friendship in the company of our wives, themselves close friends since high school, and our children.

We journeyed through many stages of life together—boyhood teammates and opponents in the sports we loved to play; young men starting out, full of hope and sure of success; new fathers, surprised at how quickly we got to that point; fellow-travellers far and wide, our growing families in tow; and eventually grandfathers, proud all over again of a new generation.  Through it all, we played our games and remained steadfast friends.

Our boyhoods were spent in the suburbs, where every community had its own park, and we spent hours there after school and on weekends.  We were from different neighbourhoods, but connected on those playing fields during the endless summers and wondrous winters, eager warriors on the ball-diamonds and hockey-rinks.  Especially the hockey-rinks.

In every park there was an outdoor ice pad or two, where neighbourhood fathers (and a few intrepid mothers) would stand every night, alone in the dark, flooding water on the rinks to provide fresh ice for the following day.  I’m not sure we thanked them enough back then, but we sure benefited from their dedication.

By the time we’d arrive at the rink, skates dangling from the hockey sticks propped on our shoulders, fresh snow had often fallen.  So the first kid to get there would take one of the shovels propped in the surrounding snowbanks, and start clearing the ice.  As more of us arrived, we’d take turns until the ice was cleaned off.  And then we’d lace up and the game would begin.

Paulie and I were habitués of those parks.

As adults, our careers took us in different directions, and to different cities.  But we talked frequently by phone—mostly about business, our families, and, of course, sports.  Especially hockey.  We never talked about dying and the hereafter, and what it might hold, not even near the end.  We weren’t afraid of it, I don’t think;  it was just too abstract to be contemplated.

But now it’s happened.  My friend has gone.

But where?  Where is he now, I wonder?  Or, more precisely, where is the essence of who he was?  His soul, some might call it.  In my sorrow, I’ve concocted a scenario that consoles me, regardless that it may sound far-fetched to others.  Paulie would understand.

There’s a celestial park somewhere, complete with a neighbourhood ice pad.  It’s covered with the whitest snow any of us has ever seen, and my friend is the first one there.  He’s grabbed a shovel, and he’s busy scraping the ice.

Sooner or later, I like to imagine, I’ll be joining him.  He knows that, so he’s not troubled.  And when that day arrives, when he sees me coming, he’ll stop for a minute, lean on his shovel, and shout in my direction.

“’Bout time ya got here!  Where ya been?”

I’ll shrug and wave a greeting, my wide smile letting him know how happy I am to see him again.

“Grab a shovel,” he’ll yell, as I stuff cold feet into my skates.  “This is hard work!”

But it won’t be, not really.  It will be joyous work—legs pumping, hearts pounding, breath forming around our heads, skate-blades cutting their cold, choppy sound in the ice.  Just like always…just like always.

In no time at all, the snow will be cleared, the ice will be ready.  And when it is, I choose to believe, we’ll toss a puck out on the ice, take up our sticks yet one more time, and play our game together, the game we always loved.  The way we loved each other.

Paulie and I2

Teammates again, friends forever.

Paul Joseph Boyer

26 July 1942 – 16 March 2017

 

 

And the Beat Goes On

Away back when, wiggling in my mother’s womb, I listened to her loving heartbeat.  In that steady, reassuring cadence, I heard the most intimate murmurings of her soul—the fears and doubts she harboured, the hopes and aspirations she nurtured.

Many of those, of course, were focused on me, her firstborn child.

Will I deliver a healthy baby?  Will I be a good mother?  Will I give him a happy, successful start to his life?  Will I make him proud of me?

She couldn’t know the answers to those questions, of course.  Not then, not yet.  But she was an extraordinary woman, my mother, and she turned her formidable mind and powerful will to the shaping of our lives together.  To make it so.

mother-and-childIn time, four more children followed, my siblings, and I hope they, too, were attuned to the musings and melodies she would have had for them.  I heard her refrains for me, echoing and resonating in that remembered, rhythmic beating of her heart, until the day she died.  Even now, whenever I’m confronted with challenges and doubts, a quiet, firm voice speaks to me from deep inside, offering care, counsel, and courage.  Her voice.

So the beat goes on.

When my two daughters were born, I strove from the beginning to insinuate myself into their wee hearts, yearning to know the singing of their souls.  I imagined I could hear it, modulated by their intrepid heartbeats, and my own soul sang back to them, every chance I got, conveying my doubts and fears, my hopes and aspirations.

Will I be here for you when you need me?  Will I make you proud of me?  Will you love me unconditionally, as I already love you?

I proudly watched as they grew from infancy to adulthood, strong, independent, and loving.  And I was humbled time and time again, realizing I was the nexus between these remarkable women, my mother and my daughters.  A biological bond, and more, I hoped—a protector, a guide, and ultimately an unabashed admirer.

My wife—a fiercely-loving mother in her own right—had as great an influence as I, perhaps greater, on our girls.  But it is I who connects them with my mother.

And now our daughters are themselves mothers—five wonderful grandchildren for Nana and me.  Their hearts beat now in harmony with the hearts of their children, their souls connect with the same passion we once shared.  I cannot know for certain, but I imagine these young mothers sing the same heart-songs, straight from the soul, that I first heard from my mother.

Will I always be your friend?  Will I live up to what you expect of me?  Will I be the mother you would have me be?

Knowing my daughters as I do, I believe they will answer those eternal questions affirmatively and beyond doubt, just as I witnessed with my mother.  For they possess the very same hearts—beating the very same rhythms for those same good reasons—forever crooning the songs of the soul I first heard in the womb.

And the beat goes on.