“Do you believe in life everlasting?” my father asked me as we sat in my car and his driveway in 2006, his final year.
He didn’t know it was his final year, but he and I both knew the end was coming sooner than later. His body was shot, ravaged by drink and the cigarettes he’d smoked since the age of eleven. Besides, my mom had died three years earlier, at seventy-five, and people often say the surviving spouse of a long marriage is only good for another three after that.
It wasn’t a question I’d expected, and certainly not one phrased with so poetic a touch as “life everlasting.” Not that he was incapable of poeticisms. It just was not his way. His life—and his system of values—was based on work, hard work. Conjuring poeticisms was not work to him. Writing was not work.
I write, so we often differed. One night in my teens, when I drank too much of the beer in our refrigerator, he came down to my bedroom with what was left of a twelve-pack and threw it at me. I was on the phone with a girl that I liked when the carton with the remaining beer cans hit me on my arm, the cans spilling out and rolling across the carpet.
“What the hell?” I said.
He stared me down. “What are you gonna do about it—write a poem?”
At the time he’d asked the question about life everlasting, I did believe. I still do, actually, though not quite the same way as then. My idea of life everlasting then was of a Catholic variety. I didn’t grow up in the denomination; I became Catholic in my late thirties—just before my second marriage—willingly, intensely, but briefly. (In the Parable of the Sower, I was the seed thrown upon stony soil: I sprang up fast and vigorous, but my stunted roots could not sustain that vigor.)
At the time of my dad’s question, I was no longer with my second wife, but I still considered myself Catholic. My idea of life everlasting was a Catholic heaven that ran on the same schedule as every Catholic church in the world. During the Eucharist, we were told, all of heaven participated in the Mass at the very same instant we did: ancestors, friends who had died, famous people, saints, martyrs, ordinary Joes. It was a beautiful image to me: all of us reenacting, reexperiencing, the Last Supper together—every word of the liturgy, every action of the priest and parishioners in sync with Christ and the dear departed.
“Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit…”
My dad was not Catholic, nor was he especially religious. He was baptized at eighteen, at the insistence of his sister, Elaine when he was shipping off with the Navy and she feared for his soul. Elaine had brought a Methodist minister to the house to perform the rite on that day in 1945. My grandfather, who was adamantly not religious (and who also valued hard work over ideas), pulled my dad aside and told him that, while he wouldn’t stand in the way of what was about to happen, he figured it would be just as effective to climb a ladder and piss on my dad’s forehead.
I was baptized in 1967, when I was four. I think that was around the same time my parents joined St. John’s Reformed United Church of Christ. To this day, I don’t know why they did it. They never burned with religious faith. I don’t recall having a single faith-based conversation with them during my childhood. The topic of heaven or life everlasting never came up at the dinner table nor anywhere else. The only thing I can think is that my dad, a shrewd gambler with good instincts, was simply hedging his bets. Better safe than sorry.
But every night, my mom would sit at my bedside and wait for me to finish my prayer: “…If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
The minister at St. John’s, Calvin Hay, came from New England. He had a son a few years older than me, Arthur, whose name he pronounced, “Aaah-thuh.” His wife played acoustic guitar and sang folk songs. The minister, like both of my parents, chain-smoked cigarettes. My dad liked him—his smoking probably had something to do with it. It leveled the playing field, appealed to my dad’s proletarian sensibilities. Hay’s sermons were entertaining too. He’d stray from the pulpit often, pace back and forth in front of the altar, waving his hands to make some point, usually something touching on everyday life. He was what my dad would have called a regular guy. No artifice or fancy talk. No lording over his congregation.
The Reverend Hay’s take on the Bible caught my interest when I was a kid. His interpretation of scripture was anything but fundamentalist. Rather, he valued its practical applications—its didactic properties. In a Sunday school class, he actually used the word “myth” when referring to the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three men in the Book of Daniel who were condemned to death in a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to an image of King Nebuchadnezzar. He claimed that the men did not emerge unharmed from the flames as it was written, but rather what lived on was their cause: the idea of worshipping a heavenly god rather than an earthly king.
Myth interested me early on; I shared that interest with the Reverend Hay. My focus was Greek mythology. I idolized Odysseus and had a deep interest in the Trojan War from probably the third or fourth grade. I wasn’t mature enough to think in sophisticated theological ways, but certain things did concern me. For one, I yearned to meet Odysseus and other principals of The Iliad: Achilles, Diomedes, Agamemnon —even though I knew they were fictional or, at best, loosely based on historical figures.
The problem was, how could I ever meet with them in heaven if heaven was limited to Christians? If life everlasting was truly a thing, what had happened to all the departed souls that predated Christianity? Were there separate heavens for ancient Greeks? Romans? Egyptians?
I agonized over this question long enough until I finally thought to bring it to Reverend Hay. It was downstairs in the church basement, where we often met for Sunday school. Classes had just ended when I approached him and expressed my concerns about the fate of Odysseus and the others. He listened with interest, though I’m sure he craved a smoke after a morning of teaching.
“I’m sure they’re up there,” he said at last. “If they were good and honorable, they probably made it.”
In “The Brief History of the Dead,” a short story by Kevin Brockmeir that ran in the New Yorker in 2003, the author presents an afterlife with a thought-provoking twist. Brockmeir’s hereafter is a huge metropolis—much like any thriving city in the world of the living—with shops, restaurants, theaters, and churches of all faiths. But there is one catch: The inhabitants remain only as long as at least one living person back on Earth still remembers them. After the last person who does perishes, they vanish.
I think of this story whenever I do genealogy, one my greatest passions. And I think of genealogy when I hear someone refer to an ancestor “of blessed memory.” For memory is what keeps our departed loved ones alive in our hearts and minds, perpetuates those lives lived when we share our memories with younger generations.
I like to think (and hope) that these backward glances nourish the spirits of the departed as well, if indeed there is such a thing. My thought (and my hope) is what motivates me to drive by the houses and significant physical spaces of my recent ancestral past—locally, my parents and grandparents. I do this daily, on my morning coffee drive. It doesn’t take long, and there isn’t much fanfare. I simply drive past these places, keeping the former occupants in mind and perhaps saying their names. There is the cedar shake-sided duplex where my paternal grandparents spent their last years in the downstairs apartment, and where my parents and I lived for the first six months of my life. There is the intersection of Market Street and West Avenue: the location of my mother’s flower shop (no longer standing); and also that of the hospital where she was born in 1928, gave birth to me in 1963, and where she passed away in 2003. My Grandma and Grandpa Brown both died there as well; and my dad spend much of his last month in and out of the ER. As it happens, St. John’s church also stands at that intersection.
Talk about a family energy space.
Just a few weeks ago, I was driving past the corner of Market and West on my coffee drive, thinking of my folks and grandparents and listening to my Spotify playlist. Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” came on by way of random play, and, at that very moment, something moving caught my eye and I looked up to see a low-flying swirl of mourning doves.
And above them, just beyond the white wooden steeple of St. John’s, a bald eagle soared.
Today I believe in energy, and while I still think the image of the universality of communion is a beautiful one (and one that still brings me comfort, though I no longer participate), I now simply like to think of the soul as the energetic essence of a life that, at the physical end of that life, leaves the body in accordance with the law of conservation of energy. To where it goes from there, and to whom it answers once it gets there, is a question that will be debated until the end of human existence. For my part, I am frankly content not knowing the answer, at least not right now. And while it is tempting at times to consider making a quid pro quo deal with some gatekeeper of the hereafter, I try (albeit imperfectly) to make being good and honorable an end in itself.
Especially intuitive people claim to have seen the departing souls of the dying. People who work in hospice report these events from time to time. Sometimes it’s a light that hovers over the body, or light rising from the mouth of a patient at their final breath. I’ve read descriptions of a visual disturbance of the air that resembles water moving upward.
It is claimed that some souls contact the living on their way to wherever it is they go. My dad insisted that his oldest sister talked to him in a dream on the night she died. And I once had a similar situation in which a woman from my childhood, a longtime neighbor, visited me in my sleep. I hadn’t seen her in years, nor had I really thought about her. The next day I learned that she had passed away in the night.
Nobody saw my father’s spirit rise from his body when he died in a nursing home on the morning of November 7, 2006. Just an hour before, I had left the facility to take a shower at my apartment nearby. I had been at his bedside three days, sitting vigil. The nurses were busy attending to their rounds that morning, and when they came in to check on him, he was dead. They called me with the news.
I returned to find him lying at peace, his hands joined at the solar plexus, the sheets and white bed blanket smoothed by the nursing staff over his body. His sightless eyes were closed as though he were engaged in the gentlest of naps. Morning sunlight coming in through the window lent a warm glow to the room. His mouth was open slightly, though it evidenced none of the contortedness of his last days of tortured breathing.
How to commemorate a moment like this? During the days of vigil, I’d wondered what I might do when his time came. In years past, I had witnessed the last moments of my maternal grandmother and my own mother—both of them succumbing to strokes. For my grandma, I whispered in her ear the beautiful name she’d been given at birth: Eura. It was a name that the people at a Catholic orphanage took away from her when she was just a child, replacing it with Margaret, a proper saint’s name. And as my mom slipped away, I told her all the things I should have said when she was consciously alive, things that my pride (and in some cases my anger) prevented me from saying. Because she and I had often differed, too.
But my dad’s case was different. Despite his seeming to be at peace, at this point his body itself was just that: a physical vehicle. I could sense there was no more “him” there, so there was nothing I could express that would make a difference—no regretful words, no promises, no goodbyes. The skin of his face, already growing cold, felt different from living flesh when I bent to kiss the forehead.
What to say? I did not know if his energy remained in the room, as I lack the developed sense of intuition that some possess. And if the spirit had indeed left, then to whom would I be saying my words, with just me and this empty shell of a life on the bed? I thought of Edwin Stanton’s epic statement at the deathbed of Lincoln: “Now he belongs to the ages.” I suppose I could have uttered something poetic like: “Thus it begins,” because in so many ways my own life had just entered a fresh and uncertain season. My last parent was gone, and my dad was a parent who had cast a long, long shadow—sometimes scary, always overbearing, often loving—over this only child in the forty-three years we had spent together. In so many ways, I was now and suddenly free. Come what may.
But no matter whether it remained or not, the essence that was his life needed to be honored, acknowledged. What finally came to mind was a passage from a discipline I practiced then. I placed my palms together at my chest, bowed to the body on the bed and to its departed spirit. And in the silence of the brightening room, and softly, I sang the farewell chant from Kundalini yoga:
“May the longtime sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way on.”
“Do you believe in life everlasting?” he’d asked me in my car that day.
There was an edge to the way he’d said it. Maybe that was the reason for the poetic touch at the end: “life everlasting” uttered in an almost mocking tone, like he was staring down the possibility, trying not to flinch in the face of whatever awaited him. Or, alternately, was he looking for something to go on—a sign or something I might say to help him believe?
He was depressed and angry; he’d been that way since my mom died. We (me and mom, probably my dad too) had always expected that he would go first. But this was not how it played out. Mom’s stroke had beat him to the punch and left him a widower, left him with three years to regret the way they’d fought for nearly six decades, the cruel ways they often treated each other.
But I’m speculating here, since my father held those cards close. I never once heard him apologize or express regret over his mistreatment of mom, me, or anyone else in his life. And since she’d been gone, he’d dealt with her absence by mythologizing their marriage, refashioning it as an epic love story rather than the fiery furnace of enmity it so often was.
Maybe, in the caverns of his own thoughts, he feared he might not make the cut. Was it already too late? Or was there some probationary space of time in the hereafter, a soft landing of sorts in which he might reconcile his misdeeds and be reunited with mom in a way that reflected the fantasy he’d concocted since her death? I can only imagine the finality, the cruciality of his concerns at that moment that he actually stooped to show his vulnerability and ask my opinion. But he did.
“Do you believe in life everlasting?”
“Yes, most definitely,” I replied. “Do you?”
He paused for a long moment.
“I don’t know,” he said finally.
But here again, tone is important. He let the end of his statement trail off, almost to a whisper. He faced something big here, certainly the biggest win of all if the fanfare over life everlasting was justified.
And while I can never say for sure in this earthly life, I want to think he was on the verge of throwing in his stake just then, of going for broke.
Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. His work has appeared in Hippocampus, On the Seawall, The Dillydoun Review, and elsewhere. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin, with his wife, Katie, her kids, and seven pets.