The lights blurred and flickered through my creased eyes. The pain was fading, drifting away like a forgotten memory. Darkness was coming, slithering through silently as reality walked away. I was alone as my life left with muted footsteps. Then, I floated away.
There was light, light so bright I could not see. I staggered, surprised to find that I was standing. I hadn’t stood in so long, not like this. Not upright. Not without pain. Not with unmarred, perfect feet, as new and soft as a dewdrop on a summer’s morning.
There was music, a soft music that one could forget about if one didn’t listen. It was lilting and sweet, resonating through one’s heart like a lullaby. It was warm.
“Hello,” a voice said, filled with kindness and soft wisdom.
I turned. It was difficult to make out much in the light, but I thought I saw a man, a short man with a bowed back and white hair like candy floss. He wore white so his dark olive skin stuck out all the more in the intense lightness of the place.
“Hi,” I said. I wore white like he. White was everywhere. I tried to recount my last memories, before I realized, “I’m dead, aren’t I?”
“Do you feel dead?” he asked, simply.
“I don’t know. I’ve never died before, at least not that I can remember, so I don’t know what being dead feels like. But, I think I was dying. And now I’m here. So I must be dead, right?” I frowned in concentration, before looking up at the man. I could see him more clearly now. His face was lined with wrinkles and he wore a soft smile. Soft. I decided that was the word that described him. Nothing about him was sharp-edged. He was as soft as a warm blanket, a swirl of mist, and a tender heart.
“How about we take a walk?” he asked, gesturing broadly into infinity.
I nodded. Somehow, this idea of a walk made tremendous sense to me, so we walked.
The light shifted and lifted, revealing a beach. I could feel the sand beneath my feet as my heels sunk into the granules. The breeze rustled my hair. I could taste the salt and hear the rush of waves. The sudden change did not perturb me. It seemed right. Natural.
“Are you God?” I asked suddenly, my mind slowly making connections. But the lowered speed of my thoughts did not concern me; there was no rush. There was no longer any need to hurry. There was nothing but tranquility now.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You seem rather like God, but I don’t know if I believe in God.”
The waves gently lapped at my ankles as the surf rose. The water was warm, as if kissed by the sun.
“How come bad things happen to innocent people. I mean, little children die and starve in Africa. If you’re omnipotent and benevolent, wouldn’t you stop that? I mean, couldn’t you just wave your hand, and then they would all have food and people to care for them?” I asked.
He looked at me with warm eyes. “Do you need more food and people?” he asked.
I looked down, thinking hard. “Well, I suppose there is enough. Just in the wrong places. Other people have too much food, and there are plenty of people. But, why don’t you put food in the right places? And what about diseases? Cancer, heart defects, congenital things? What about them?”
He looked out into the waves, and I did as well. There was blue as far as the eye could see. A startling, warm, true blue that transcends such a prosaic germanic word as blue. This blue was as deep as space and just as captivating.
“What is your body made of?” he asked.
“Um, cells?” I said. “I mean, I’m not sure I’m made up of cells anymore, but I was.”
“And what do you wish for the cells in your body?” he asked, still staring.
“Well, that they keep working and keep me healthy,” I said. “I need them, or else I would die.”
“Would you be sad if one of your cells died, if it suffered?” he asked.
“I suppose; my cells make up me,” I said. “I’m sad if I suffer.”
“Do you know the fate of every cell in a body, before the body as a whole passes on?” he asked.
“Um, well, they eventually all die, right? Different cells live different amounts. Like the cells in your lining of your stomach only live a couple of days but muscle and bone cells hang around for a couple decades. Nerve cells stick around forever, right?” I asked.
“Why do you think the different cells live different amounts of times?” he asked.
“Well, I suppose it’s because they have different tasks, and some tasks are harder than others. To be a cell in the stomach means you are constantly exposed to acid, but as a brain cell, the conditions are not so extreme,” I said.
“What would happen if you gave every stomach cell the lifespan of a nerve cell?” he asked.
“Well, you’d have too many, and they wouldn’t work right. They would be worn out. It’d be cancer. It would kill you,” I said.
“So, why do stomach cells pass on so young? Is it because you don’t like stomach cells? That you want them to suffer?” he asked.
“No, it’s because they achieved their purpose, they’re tired, and they need to make room for others,” I said. I took a deep breath of the warm, salty air. It was filled with soft scents of lavender and vanilla, so delicate that one might miss them. It soothed every nerve and lightened every heavy thought.
“So, that’s why people die? Because they have served their purpose and they’re tired. They did what they had to do. Now, they pass on so others can take their place?” I asked.
He smiled softly. He gestured ahead of us. “Would you like to sit down?”
We walked forward as the sand faded and newly shooted grass took its place. The soft blades waved in the wind and caressed each step. As we sat down, it took our weight as gently as a chair knit from marshmallows. Slowly, wildflowers of every shade and hue grew from the grass to brush our toes and fill our noses with their sweet scents.
Bees buzzed lazily by as I looked up at the sky. Birds flitted here and there in newly raised conifers, singing songs as lovely and lyrical any of Beethoven’s symphonies.
“Do animals come here when they die? Do plants too?” I asked, turning toward him.
He was staring into the sky as I had been, smiling at the flight of a ladybug around his hair. “What is here?” he asked.
“I don’t know. What is here?” I asked.
“What brought you here?” he asked.
“Death, I suppose. So does that mean this is heaven? It can’t be hell. It’s too nice for that. It could be heaven though, but I didn’t believe in you. How come I’m in heaven if I didn’t believe in you? Or, is it not either heaven or hell, just what’s after life, what’s after forever, the far side of forever.”
“The far side of forever?” he asked with a smile, tasting the phrase. “It’s quite a nice phrase, no?”
“So, if it’s the far side of forever, is everything here dead? Is all the dead here?” I asked.
“What do you see?” he asked, brushing an upraised palm past the horizon. The trees faded and the birds took flight into another plane of existence, leaving an enormous void of penetrating brightness.
“I see white and lightness,” I said, squinting my eyes slightly against the glare.
“What is white light made of?” he asked.
“All the colors of light--green light, blue light, and red light,” I said automatically. “So everything is here then? That’s what you’re saying? We all make up this place like individual colors make up white light. Then, how come forests and meadows and beaches and oceans can be created? Are you like a prism that separates out the colors? How can you do that?”
“Am I doing that?” he asked, with raised eyebrows.
“Aren’t you?” I asked. “If not, who is? Is there another god somewhere? It’s not like I can wave my hand and raise mountains.” To illustrate my point, I swept my hand across the whiteness. From it, large, majestic sandstone, tinted with ferric oxide, rose immediately.
I stopped and stared.
It was beautiful. The rocks stood regal and proud, of a deep red that roared passion and ferocity. The edges were tickled with orange beget in fires. Fierce, unrepenting angles defined ledges and cliffs.
With another gesture, I leveled the scenery. I brought sands upon sands without any notice of plant or human life. The sands were of beautiful crystal, refracting light into a million colors.
Then, I brought the stars and sky. A curtain of black over a prismatic shifting sea.
“How can I do that?” I asked breathlessly.
“How did you think I could do it?” he asked.
“Well, you’re God, aren’t you? I mean, I mean-” I started. I looked at the soft man and his warm smile. I recognized him from somewhere, somewhere deep in my past, but I could not place him. Whatever memory it was, it was full of warmth, but not divinity.
“You’re not God, are you? Does God exist, or was I right? If there isn’t a god, then what is this? How can it exist? Is this real? Am I just having throws of delusions in death?” I asked.
“What is real?” he asked.
I grabbed a handful of sand from beneath me, letting it slide through my fingers in a cascade of particulate silicon dioxide. I could feel the grains press into my finger, feel the coarseness. I could see the light refract into a rainbow as each grain danced in the air. I could smell the dry, earthiness that bespoke the aerosolized minerals in the sand being bound by olfactory receptors in nasal cells. I could hear the subtle impact as each grain joined its brethren once again as it fell to the ground. I was sure if I placed it to my tongue, I would taste it.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure if anyone can ever know. It is impossible to separate reality from whatever my brain tells me. The brain takes the information observed by the body--the hands, the nose, the eyes, the ears-- and turns it into a vision of reality. If my brain doesn’t do it correctly, then I can never know. I could be dying right now, imagining all of this while dying alone, and not know it. Except I’ll die, and then my brain will stop working. Will I know when I die or will I just blink and that will be it?” I asked.
“What the difference between being alive and being dead?” he asked.
“When you’re alive, your brain works. When you’re dead, it doesn’t,” I answered automatically. It was simple.
“Is that it?” he asked.
“Yes. Probably. I don’t know. It’s what I used to think, but now with this, maybe there’s more, something else in life that isn’t just neural circuits or cells reacting to maintain homeostasis. Maybe there’s souls, or whatever you want to call them. A lifeforce. A brightness that encompasses all living things and brings them here.” I laid down in the sand, looking up at the stars. Their entrancing, crystalline beauty sparkled like a chandelier. “Is that it? Is there more than what we can document scientifically? Well, I guess we are constantly increasing what we can document scientifically with more sophisticated equipment all the time, but I mean now, or then, before I died. That is, if I’m really dead now. Is there more?”
“Is this more?” he asked.
“I think so. I do, but I don’t know. What if it’s not? What if I am dying? What if the darkness comes for good and I can’t open my eyes to find this place? I don’t want to go,” I said. “I don’t want this to disappear.”
He wiped a tear from eye. I smiled sadly. “Will you hold my hand? Just for a while. Just to make sure this is real, and if it isn’t, then I don’t want to die alone.”
He nodded, leaning back into the sand and watching the dark sky with me. He held my hand in his warm, soft one. His touch was light and kind.
“Have you died?” I asked.
“A very long time ago,” he said. “But I waited.”
“Waited for what?” I asked.
I faced him. His face was lined, his hair wispy and thin, but his eyes glistened with youth. In those eyes, I saw him as a young man, broad-shouldered and smug, when his hair was dark as night and lustrous as a ripe raspberry. I saw when he wasn’t so soft, but let his edges show by the cut of his jaw and the jibe at his tongue.
“You waited for me,” I repeated.
He nodded. “I did. I had to. So we could do this together.”
“You mean, go onward?” I asked, staring up at the sky.
“What’s onward?” I asked.
“Do you think I know? You were the one with all the answers; I just ask the questions,” he said. He smiled. There was that edge of youth, sparkling in his teeth.
“Thank you,” I said. The world was whitening. The stars I created were brightening to fill the entire sky with a blinding white. The dunes of sand trickled away as if funneling through an hourglass.
I held his hand. He held mine. Our fingers interlocked as if the whole world may collapse but it would not matter if we had each other. Perhaps the world was collapsing with this oncoming brightness, or perhaps it was beginning. Whatever it was, we would meet it together, as one, as we were always meant to be before death twisted us apart and now, how we were when death pressed us together.
I did not die alone.