I started writing my grandfather letters the year after he died. I was nine. Soon these yearly letters, composed in our expansive garden that he had so lovingly and obsessively cultivated, migrated from paper to prayer. I was, and remain, achingly convinced that he could hear me. No sudden rainbows, as appeared at the end of Tim Russert’s funeral, no parting of the veil (whatever substance that veil may be). But I felt a closeness, like the tether between soul and substance was not entirely broken.
The night they disconnected my father from life support, I finally fell into a fitful sleep 2000 miles from his hospital room. The strength of my sobs that evening surprised the sliver of reason that remained objective, observing in awe as primal grief overcame body and soul. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, understood: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her [family] refused to be comforted . . . because they were not.”
In those few hours of slumber, I had a dream. I went to the hospital to see my dad; he was awake and his entire face lit up when he saw me — a look of absolute delight and love. He couldn’t talk but he smiled as I talked to him. I had brought him ice cream. For my dad, sweets were a language of love.
The next morning, as I awaited word of his final passage, I went to the mailbox and found an unexpected package – a Mary pendant, taken from a painting my father loved. Something I had ordered on a whim from Etsy weeks and weeks before, just as my interest in Mary was kindling.
That was three summers ago. I still talk to my dad a lot, particularly in these weeks as I celebrate my birthday, father’s day, and his birthday — and prepare for the arrival of his grandchild. I talk to my soon-to-be-born daughter, as well, and the connection feels similar – as if there is a spirit, an energy, that hovers between planes, tied to me by a mystery I can’t fully understand.
Occasionally I ask my dad to help me with small things, things he’s good at. Like getting the wireless signal to interact with the TV after hours of frustration. Like helping me find a safe and friendly place to get a gallon of gas for my dead car. I have felt him in moments of practical need. Nothing the world would record as miracles, but I feel an energy that is distinctly “dad,” and I can recall with a little more clarity his voice saying, “I love you, kiddo.” And I often start to cry, as I am as I type this, because the very cells of my body remember him and miss him.
I believe in the life-after because our souls are too impossibly beautiful to simply disappear. Despite the authoritative way we sometimes speak in church, we know very little about the shape and substance of the next life (sadly, folk doctrine can take on a disturbing life of its own.) But most of our basic doctrine on the subject is remarkably egalitarian and universalist – eternal progression, second chances, sociality of spirits, no real hell, multiple planes of happiness, unbreakable attachment to those we love best. Eternal growth; what more could I want for a father with an insatiable thirst for knowing?
I find myself a bit bewildered when people talk in worried tones about “making it” to the Celestial Kingdom or “losing” loved ones. It just doesn’t compute with this expansive vision — nor with a Savior who says, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions . . . none of them which the father hath given me shall be lost.” Life, death, grief, reunion are themes we see throughout Jesus’ ministry. If any power can bind us through the valley of the shadow of death, it is the power of love. He claimed to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven and then proceeded to reach out to those on the margin, to view others radically differently than society judged (as my favorite nuns call it, “radical love”), to provide chances for healing, growth, and renewal at every turn. I like that lived vision of heaven. A place to grow, to rest, to feel love, to share love, to heal, to be healed. Home. It shapes my view of the after-life, where fathers, Father, mothers, Mother await. And it comforts me. (But I still miss my dad.)
What is your vision of the after-life? How has this vision evolved? How has your perspective (or the perspective of others) given you comfort – or not – in times of trial?