To call it big would be inadequate. But plain, even dull though somehow not depressing in its dullness seems to get the flavor just right. Big, however, is too small a word. This place is huge, flight deck huge, and just as, how to say it? There!
This surely is some sort of a building, and it seems no expense was spared building it. As far away on every side as the walls may be they are walls. As far above my head, and the “just got here” sense of things inside of it, as the ceiling is it is in fact a ceiling. Eagle high it is. There’s a reassuring sturdiness to its unadorned plainness and a comfortable matter of fact familiarity for all of its great size. I feel at home, here. The place has a purpose it seems to say. That makes me and what seems like a stadium sized crowd of strangers I find myself among very calm. At least I think so, and it seems everyone else waiting with me thinks the same thing. But, where? And, for what?
We shuffle ahead toward one distant side of this place, a broad wave like mass advancing glacially a half step or so at a time; each of us silent, composed, waiting.
Time passes. I don’t know how long. I would have thought I’d feel, or others would, some kind of impatience, the sense of annoyed impatience I get on line at the Motor Vehicle Bureau, the dreaded DMV. Nothing of the sort is going on. This is like waiting in line at the movies. Better yet, it feels as if I am, with the vast crowd, moving up in line after the doors have been opened and the show is soon to begin. There’s that sense of anticipation, I think. The difference is that I still haven’t any idea where I am and where I am bound and what I am anticipating.
The line, I suppose it is a line, now, is in fact moving along toward /something/. I can see ahead through the thinning ranks in front that it ends much before we reach the wall. I notice people walking across an expanse of open floor to a long row of tables set against the wall. It’s not a clear view; shuffling people tend as they shuffle to bob from side to side. I resist and slight urge to tell whoever is in front of me to stand still as I try to make out what exactly is going on by the tables.
Near as I can determine what is going on is this: Folks reach the end of the line and stop for a second or two. I’m coming closer to that point so I can see some of them turn their heads, as if listening, and then step off across that openness, that plaza. They go to the right or the left, some straight ahead, hesitantly or quickly, quietly, thoughtfully or with a sense of easy happiness. It’s hard to tell, but some even seem to be joyful, breaking into a dancing, skipping run.
The whole thing has gotten me very curious. Glancing around me at the ranks nearby I notice people of all ages are here, the very old, the very young, all ages and every race. Behind me, where the line stretches out for a long way, I begin to wonder if there is any rear wall, and if so, where the entrance is to this place. Other lines stretch to my right and left.
Once again, the quietness catches me, the strange calmness which fills everyone. I wonder is anyone else curious about this? Why isn’t anyone talking? The questions aren’t giving me the creeps, though. As a matter of fact, “the creeps” in a place like this seems to me now to be very much out of place. Still, I am about to ask the person just in front of me if they know just what in heaven’s name is going on. As I lift my arm to tap them on the shoulder I hear someone call my name.
“How strange can this be,” I think. “Who is it calling me?” As I look about me I can see no one nearby who seems to be trying to get my attention. Everyone is simply doing what they have been doing, moving ahead slowly and steadily and quietly. “Who called me,” I wonder.
“I called you. You will soon come to the place you call a plaza where the line you are in will end. Everything is now ready for you. Please, when you get there look ahead. You will see where you should go to, one of the tables near the wall. You may walk there as soon as you see the location. Thank you.”
Again I see no one and ask aloud, “Who, or where, are you?” No one near me takes any notice, or even seems to hear me. I wonder if I even spoke the words.
“I am your Guardian Angel.” The next word I cannot even reproduce. I know that it is a word, but the sound isn’t speech to me. It’s more living than that, more information that speech, more light than sound; as if it is itself what it sounds inside of my head. The nearest I come to making sense of this name is Gloria. “I have been with you since the beginning in the Heart of God and in your mother’s womb.”
The line inches forward another half step and I almost forget to move with it. “My who?”
Again I hear the word I call, “Gloria!”
I am imagining all of this; dreaming I tell myself. The line moves again. I am so close to the man in front of me that I barely touch him as he stops briefly, long enough to look sharply to his left and moves away, walking across the great plaza now in front of me.
But wait! Something has happened. Well, everything has happened. There is light and color everywhere. It’s as if Spring and Summer, and all the colors of Autumn, all the bright snow blinding light of Winter jumped suddenly into view. One instant ago I was behind a fellow in a quiet and peaceful, though slightly confusing place. Now I stand at the edge and see him walking through a shower of light and color, across a shimmering floor tiled, it seems, with prisms toward a wall of precious stones whose colors and shapes breathe and ripple in every shade, a living wall of rhythmic dancing beauty. It’s as if I was behind a curtain. But no, I turn and look behind me and even there all is light of every describable color. “I didn’t see before, but now I see,” I think. “What more will I see?”
And this Guardian Angel, this Gloria, is here. Not for the first time I wonder where “here” is.
“Ahh,” I hear “her” again. “You want to know where this is?” “Well,” I say, “before you tell me that I’d like to know where you are.”
“I am right here with you, where I have always been.” And now, standing at the edge of this amazing place, waiting for God knows what to happen, I see Gloria, faintly, a shimmering form, light within light. ” The name fits,” is all I can think.
“You look exactly like your name,” I tell her.
“Well, thank you. Since it is what I do it is nice of you to notice. And you look exactly like your name. As a matter of fact you always have,” Gloria answers, and the words smile in my mind.
I am aware that I am grinning kind of stupidly. I turn in my place, looking left and right down the long rank of people and see faces which look much like mine must look. Most are filled with delight and astonishment, some are looking bewildered, overwhelmed. On one or two there seems to be a look of worry or annoyance; that DMV look, I think quickly.
Someone touches me and I turn. An old woman standing next to me tells me her name and asks me mine. I tell her. She says, “Oh, that’s so nice. I thought that might be who you were” “Funny,” I answer, smiling at this, “but now that I look at you closer, I just know that you are exactly who you say you are.” My answer surprises me; delights me, too.
As we are standing there, in a silence not at all awkward, simply enjoying looking at and knowing each other, I am suddenly aware that she really isn’t an old woman. She has become; no she is exactly who she says she is, youthful, very much alive and herself. Though I have not seen her until just now, as we stand smiling and waiting, I know her as a friend. I realize that we will always know each other this way.
Gloria is here. Near me she stands, living joy. “I’m so sorry, ” I say. “I forgot about you for a second, didn’t I.” I looked where I sensed her presence and saw her fully visible now, beside me, a form of light in a color I can’t even begin to name. All about us now I see others, angels, attentively and kindly beside each one standing there waiting for the next thing to happen. It seems as if I am beginning to vibrate with anticipation. I can hardly breathe, or more clearly, I can’t breathe enough. I want to breathe in everything, to soak it all into me, consume it, assume it; to become the very stuff I breathe. Joy and happiness are growing inside of me as if they were a part of me, or I a part of them.
I turn to Gloria who is simply there. “What is this? I want to leap into the air. I want to take flight, to become flying, the very thing itself.” She laughs like water flowing , like rain on stones, like drops in a pool. “There will be time for that, soon enough. But everything in its turn. Someone seems to want you.” She inclines toward the direction of the wall on the other side of the plaza, and the tables in front of it.
As she does I hear my name again. Gloria begins to rise from me, joining a great number of others rising above the throng of us at the edge. They move towards an opening in the wall, more like a turning out than anything else, through which light was pouring, white light, pure and a thousand hued at the same time, light and music all in one.
As Gloria and companions stream into the light I turn in the direction of the voice which calls me again. “Please come here,” it says. The voice is pleasant, happy, familiar, coming from one of the tables . I begin to leave in that direction and turn to my friend to say goodbye. She herself is leaving to cross the plaza. “Goodbye,” she waves and leaves. “We will see each other soon,” I say. It’s one of those things that are said, but I know it’s true.
I realize that all of this is happening in an instant, moving ahead, turning, speaking, in a manner much different than it might have happened in another place. It occurs, somehow, at the very same time, each of these things simultaneously, effortlessly, but each of them occupying me completely. My attention isn’t shifting from one thing to another. I am fully occupied with each of them, fully aware of all of them.
I ask Gloria, “Why are you leaving? Will you return?” She answers, “I am not going away. We are together now as we have always been, but more perfectly, differently, yet the same. You will see me whenever you will. Now I am here.’
With these words in my mind she continues to move with the others. As they move they vibrate in some kind of song. She becomes what she is. Praise! Praise in word and song going toward the light streaming into this place through the open gate. It is sound so beautiful I rise on its strength with them all as I move toward the voice which called me, straining toward the sound meeting light, becoming light and color and that becoming music and sound until I can’t tell one from the other. I slow and descend into mysterious joyful silence. There I find myself standing before a young man of extraordinary vitality and beauty. He looks at me and says quietly, “Welcome to life.”
I am standing in front of my father.
“Dad!” I say. “It’s you!” I knew him as soon as I saw him. He smiles. No, he beams at me. “Yes it is, son,” he answers. I’m happy to see you.”
“What, what are you doing here?” I stutter, and continue, “What am I doing here at this table?” This was Dad, this young man so full of life. This was my father in front of me. But, he was dead. He had been dead for quite a number of years and when he died he looked, well he looked absolutely awful, destroyed by cancer and alcohol even though he was a young man in his 50’s. He had been a letter carrier all his life and never seemed to be able to figure it out, if you know what I mean. At some point he gave up and became a sad, lonely haunted man.
It was something that even the jolly years when we were youngsters couldn’t hide, couldn’t defeat the thing that ate him up. He became empty of something, and, it always seemed to us it was this emptiness and yearning to escape it which finally took his life away.
Not any longer, though.
“Well,” he said, still beaming at me, “to answer your questions in order, I’m sort of delivering the mail. Do what you can do best I always say. Do you know where you are” With a turn of his head he indicates everything around us, the huge hall, the people, the light.
“No place on earth for one thing,” I answer, “and you Dad, you are so good to see, so good to look at. This must be heaven!” “Not quite,” he grins. “But close.”
“I’m dead you mean,” I say flatly. My father laughs just the way he did when I was a little kid. “No, dummy, you’re alive, you’re body’s dead, but you? You’ll soon understand all about that. You’re alive now and I’m here to see it happen again. That’s what’s so great.”
“What? What’s so great?”
“You being born,” he almost shouts it, and then laughs. “Dad, ” I say, “Hasn’t that already happened? I mean if I’m dead and this is heaven, I’m already re-born.” The I remember what he’d said about delivering the mail and I ask, a little bit shakily, “What did you mean about delivering the mail to me?” He chuckles and I interrupt, “Don’t laugh, Dad. I’m starting to get worried, here.”
“That’s funny,” he says, “coming from the guy who was always telling everyone not to worry, everything would turn out all right.” He looks right and left along the row of tables for a brief moment then leans over towards me. “Just wait here for a second.”
And like that he is gone. He doesn’t leave, exactly. He just isn’t there any more before I can do or say anything. Now I am alone at the table feeling very foolish and not a little nervous, not a little lonely, in the “not quite heaven” to use my father’s term. Just to my right I notice someone who seems to be in the same state of growing unease that I am.
Our eyes meet. “Lot on your mind, eh?” he says to me. “You have to admit it’s a bit of a shock to the system.” I answer, and go on. ” I admit I’m guessing about a lot of this, but it seems we’re on something like heaven’s front porch. What do you think?”
“Spot on,” he answers, and I realize he probably English, or was, or something. “I don’t know about you, friend, but I was not too long ago driving home on the N1 south of London. It was a lorry full of cars done for me. Bloody bad luck, that was, too. I had a pocket full of winnings from the pool. Do you remember?”
The question throws me a bit and I just stare blankly at him. “Fella?” He leans over and pokes me on my shoulder, jogging me back to the, there’s no other way to say it, real present. I am about to answer him, but I notice someone standing behind the table where he is. They hand him a small envelope. He takes it and immediately I sense a change in his mood, a darkening. He begins speaking to the person behind the table. At first I have no idea what he says, but his voice rises, angrily. “So, ” he says, “this is the sum of things, is it? I certainly thought, considering all, that there would have been more. You know as well as I do what my life has been.” The other person stands silently, with a look of sad endurance. “If this is everything, one wonders what was the worth of it at all. Why did I waste my time?” Throwing the envelope across the table he says, “Here, you keep it. I have no use for it considering all the good it’s done for me there, or here it seems. I see I was a fool.”
He looks angrily over at me and says, “There you see it, friend. My life!” he laughs, a bark more than a laugh. “See what a fraud and cheat the whole thing is. Better to wake up now, though, and see it for what it is. You, too, if you’ll take my advice. Your turn is coming, friend. It’s all a cheat, a cheap trick, isn’t it.”
As he finishes he turns and stalks away from the table, back across the plaza towards the ranks of people on the other side. I watch as he goes and perceive him getting smaller, dimmer, darker in the light, and then, an emptiness where he might have been. I turn back and notice the person at the table he’s just left. Our eyes meet briefly and I seem to see into them, seeing there a sadness, not personal, at the man’s angry rejection of the envelope. This person seems beyond hurt, and is simply absorbing the moment. Sadness passes over him as a cloud might pass over a small pond on a quiet day. A brief wind rises, and when the cloud is gone calm returns as if it was always that way. I turn again to look for the man who left and cannot see him. I have trouble, myself, remembering him.
“Here. Take this.” It’s my father at the table, again. He stands there holding out a small box to me. I don’t know what it’s made of, but it’s about the size, now don’t laugh, of a bread box.
“What is it?” I ask.
He’s smiling at me. As a matter of fact I notice that he’s been smiling since I first walked up to this table. It seems Dad’s just happy to see me, and that strikes me a just fine, thank you. I smile back at him and say again, “Come on, Dad, tell me what’s in the box.”
“You should know,” he says. As I guess I look kind of puzzled and worried at this, he says, “Don’t worry, son. I’ve handled bigger ones, and a lot that were smaller. Not too long ago there was a fellow here who almost needed help carrying his away. But he was a missionary. They almost always have a lot.”
I take the box from him. It’s a bit heavier than I expected. Dad continues speaking as I heft it, turn it over. “It’s not really all that bad for 78 years considering that for the last ten of them all you did was drool.” With that he looks at me and laughs out loud. I remember the sound, and a lot more. “But, that’s all over, now, son. If I’m any judge, you’ll find out it made up for a lot that went before.” I look at him, memories flashing through my mind with blinding speed, and brush away what I think is a tear.”
He comes around and puts his arm on my shoulder. “Now,” he says quietly, “that’ll do. Of course you remember the old saying that you can’t take it with you. Well, you can’t, but you can, at least, send some of it on ahead.”
“You mean…” I begin, but stumble on the words. “I mean exactly that. This is more or less what you’ve prepared for yourself and everyone else in eternity. It isn’t everything by any means. There’s so very much more that’s been prepared. But you remember what my Grandma always said about coming to a new place for the first time?” “I sure do, ” I answered. “Never come to the door for the first time with your arms the same length.”
“That’s the thing,” he smiled. Opening his arms in an inclusive gesture he paused and looked around before continuing, “Think of this as a present to you and everyone else on your birthday.
“Everyone? But how can…” I begin. “Now, just stop, ” he says. “Remember the loaves and fishes. A little bit goes an awfully long way here, son. I said everything has already been taken care of, didn’t I. You do know that, don’t you, son?” His tone is just like the “Old Man” at homework time.
“I know,” I answer, at last beginning to understand.
“Well then, it’s time to go to the party isn’t it?” I nod my answer.
“Good,” he nods back. “Good, then let’s go. We’re all waiting to see what you’ve brought us.”
I tuck the bread box under my arm. My father takes my hand and we begin walking.