Do You Believe In Heaven?

Yeah. Same.

A few weeks before my sister Lin died, she asked me if I believed in Heaven. I was holding her water bottle, positioning the straw closer to her lips, and I tried unsuccessfully to stay steady. I don’t recall the last recorded earthquake in Shorewood, Illinois, but this was the day my entire foundation was shaken to her core.

“Yes. Of course I do. Yes.” My Y was weak both times, and her sinking eyes lost a bit of flicker. There wasn’t much left, already.

On a moment magnitude scale, it was a 5.9. Moderate quake. Considerable damage.

Three days after my dad died, my mother-in-law informed me brightly during dinner, “Right about now, your father is paying for his sins in Purgatory. Hopefully, he’ll be let into Heaven very soon…”

Am I the only one who thinks of ladybugs as tiny angels?

After watching my dad suffer from lung cancer for nearly three years, I didn’t want to hear about Heaven’s rough intake process. I looked down, locking eyes with my empathetic catfish. He was pissed, too.

I pull back and involuntarily cringe when people talk definitely about Heaven. They quote scripture casually and Instagram Story their pastors’ words and they look to the sky, up above the clouds, and explain the After the way it’s always been explained Before.

“But how do you know for sure?” I never ask. I’d love a little less blind faith and a lot more shared experience. So, here’s mine.

**

I’ve always told my girls that Heaven is just past where you can touch. They’d stretch out and try to find their aunt, and I’d clap my hands and exclaim, “Almost! Almost! You’re almost there!” and then pull them back to me where they belong. For now. For as long as I can keep them.

Anyway. I made that up, Heaven’s close proximity, just in case one of us has to go.

“We’ll still be close,” I promised. “Just a little beyond our reach.”

But then we moved to Indonesia, and I learned I was exactly right.

Now, I’m an awful historian who spends more time on the emotions of an era rather than the actual events, but I’ll explain Indonesia’s history from 1965–66 like this: There was a genocide. It was a genocide much like any other genocide, like the Holocaust and the killing of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge and the current situation with the Uighurs, except Indonesians used hatchets.

No worries. That was ages ago.

When you move eleven hours into the future, your body needs a minute or two to catch up. We were understandably exhausted, our new sleep schedule not helped much by Melatonin or the double shots of NyQuil after we ran out of that. But during our first family dinner at the local Mexican spot about a week in, we started talking about the vivid nightmares we’d all been experiencing.

Lillie, my oldest daughter, brought it up first. “Every night, a grandma shows up next to my bed and puts a silver blanket over me. It’s like a cold fog, and then I can’t move.”

“You’re lucky,” my husband shook his head. “An old, angry lady screams in my face and then starts punching me.” He added more specifics about the beatings, but all I remember were his eyes, round with fear.

“Oh, I have one in my room, too,” my middle daughter Gracie offered in between chips and guac. “He’s sitting up on top of my armoire.”

We waited, blinking while she asked our waiter for another drink. She ordered them like, “Strawberry daiquiri without the…” and then waved her arms. I wondered if he really understood her charades, keeping an eye out for slurring words and chair dancing. She certainly wouldn’t get it from the ground.

“Yeah,” she shrugged. “I just gave him a little” — she saluted with her left hand while holding a chip — “when I saw him the first night, and he’s never been a problem. He’s just…sitting there. We’re cool.”

The waiter brought her drink, she took a sip, gave him a thumbs up, and told us, “Just say hello. Acknowledge their presence. That’s all they want.”

Esmé, my youngest, was asleep in her quesadillas. We decided not to tell her about the ghosts among us.

That night, I slept with Lillie in her bed in her usual spot. Sure enough, just before I fell asleep an old women appeared next to me, lifted her arms, and covered me with a soft, silvery, billowy blanket. I felt cold and warm all at once, safe but not scared whatsoever.

I smiled at her and whispered, “Hello. I see you. I hope you’re well.” And then she was gone.

I wish I’d said something cooler, but it’s not every day you meet a ghost.

Somehow, life in that house went on. It was us and them, and neither seemed concerned with the other. (Except for the old angry woman by my husband’s side of the bed. He never got a break, no matter how nicely he smiled or how politely he said hello.) I still can’t figure out why any of this was okay with us, especially since one of my girls found a roly-poly in her bedroom two midnights ago and had to move to another floor of the house.

I set up my writing office on the first floor, close to the kitchen and next to the stairs. Every day around noon, I’d feel someone walk behind me, passing by on a little puff of wind. At first, I thought it was our maid, but she napped in her room from noon to two. Once, I happened to be exiting my office just when that wind was blowing by, and I felt it on my cheeks. More accurately, through my cheeks.

I remember thinking something along the lines of, “Wait. What. Did. How. Wine. Now.”

Months later, I invited a new friend for tea, a woman who’d lived on Java about as long as she’d lived in Japan. While we chatted, she kept turning her head to look toward my office. At least five or six times.

“Did you know,” she asked gently, “that you’re living in a pass-through?”

I blinked twice and lost all the air in my body. It was one thing for us to see the ghosts, you know? It was next-level horror story for someone else to see them.

“They’re harmless,” she held out her hands to catch my panic. “They wish you no ill will. They were just taken before their time. Their souls aren’t ready to leave yet. They very much wanted to stay.”

They very much wanted to stay.

Oh, I felt that.

**

I always knew wandering souls were a possibility. When I was twelve, a neighborhood kid fell through the ice in the river flowing in front of our house. His best friend who witnessed his fall panicked and ran home, where he stayed in his room and pretended like life hadn’t just ended. I am certain he spent the rest of his days regretting the hours he wasted, even though only the first twenty minutes truly mattered.

By the time the volunteer fire and rescue team showed up with plans and machines to break through the ice, the situation was apparent to everyone. Even sixth grade me. They set up camp at our house the next morning because we were closest to the river and because my dad was friends with all of them. It used to be such a small world.

At one point, someone suggested a psychic. I KNOW. I look back on this moment in the eighties and can’t imagine that’s even in the top million options for these old men in John Deere hats and Frye boots, long before they were sold at Nordstrom.

As the memory goes, one of them knew a guy who knew a lady, and she called my house to talk to the rescuers. They tried to tell her all about the boy, but she didn’t want to know too much. Just his name.

She relayed messages to the rescue team in the water, like, “Please don’t make me spend another night down here. It gets so dark.” and “If I were a giant, I’d see a silo.”

Well, yes. This is a farm town, sweetie. Still, they kept their unorthodox faith in her and reported every clue.

I ran downstairs to the basement and gently picked up the other phone. As the youngest of five, I’d learned to listen in on boyfriend calls without mouth-breathing.

“My left foot is so cold,” I heard her say in a high-pitched, almost see-through voice, channeling the boy. “It’s so cold.”

And then she gasped. “Oh! There you are! I see you coming toward me! Just a few more steps. Over here. You found me!”

When he was pulled from the water, his left boot was off.

**

Also, if you don’t have a disco ball, you should totally get one.

I follow this account on Twitter called tiny fairy tales. I love it. The other day they wrote that “Heaven is just a big laundromat where souls get washed and dried before someone new takes them for a spin. The last thing you see before you’re born is a lifeguard at the top of a water slide giving you the thumbs up that it’s your turn to go. It’s also the last thing you see before you die. It’s all waterslides, baby.”

But my favorite tweet of theirs is this one: “Maybe no one’s ever really gone, maybe they become light and surround us, scatter rainbows across our bedrooms, glint off the sky colored water like a million tiny gemstones.”

Oh, I felt that.

**

My sister was cremated. Her husband scattered some of her at their favorite spot in Florida, but the rest of her is with my mom. During one of my visits back to Illinois, my other sister who still lived in town popped in to see me.

“Oh!” my mom clasped her hands together. “All three of my girls are here.” Her joy made my heart skip a beat.

I’ve never seen a love like the one between my mom and sister. There’s something about trying to save someone for years and years that takes a relationship so deep, you’d both drown without it.

The night my sister died, I heard the phone ring and sat up in bed with a gasp. I stumbled into the hall and waited in the shadows, not wanting to breathe. I heard my mom say, “Okay. Okay. Okay. I’m coming now.” I saw her at the other end of the nighttime house, wrapping herself in fleece and bending down to pull on her boots. And as she bent, she crumpled in half and wailed softly, her hands on her knees trying to push her back to the surface.

“Okay. Okay. Okay,” she whispered to herself. And then she was gone.

Her soul wasn’t ready for my sister to leave. She very much wanted her to stay.

“I had a dream about Lin last night,” my other sister said. “She said she could see everything and it all looked so beautiful.” There were details about the pinks of my mom’s flowers and the green of the trees from our childhood and the twinkly lights on my mom’s back deck.

My mom gasped, then stopped and stared at my sister’s glass urn, a green and fuchsia swirl of a lily she’d positioned in front of a window.

“I Windexed her house last night,” she whispered.

Of course my sister never left my mom. I’d expect nothing less from their love.

Maybe all three of her girls were there that day.

**

I’ve lived in a lot of homes, in Oman and Jordan, Chicago and Virginia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and a few in between. I could tell you my favorite things about each place, and it would take weeks. But if you ask me my favorite place to be, it’s right next to my girlies three. I can’t imagine ever being ready to leave them.

I will very much want to stay.

Is there a Heaven? I have no idea. But I know for sure there’s a very real place for us all, just past our reach, close enough to feel each other on our cheeks, a bit beyond our fingertips.

Just a few more steps. Over here. You found me.

1 Comment

  1. edillow says:

    I think I already read this one on Medium, and yet I cried again reading it today. Your Lin stories are just… [insert word I can’t put my finger on that makes my throat hurt]

    Liked by 1 person

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