Feb 7 2012

Hundreds of Heavens

Two years ago today, my mother took her last breath and I began the process of putting my knowledge of her, and my love for her, into the folds of my memory. Ramping up to this anniversary, I’ve been thinking a lot about her last days, and how remarkably courageous she was, opening and closing that last door.

She was too pragmatic a woman to stir up any drama, and opted instead to put her life in order so that task wouldn’t be left to us. She marched stoically to her grave, much to the bewilderment of the undertaker, who confided in her when she insisted upon an appointment to discuss the details of her own funeral, that he “wasn’t accustomed to speaking with the deceased.”

Last night an email in my inbox, titled only Goodbye, linked me to Toddler Planet, a blog by Susan Niebur, astrophysicist and mother (among many other things, I’m sure) and cancer survivor – until yesterday, when her husband posted the news of her death. I never met Susan, but I read her blog, the posts of which elicited small gasps, sighs, and tears. You may have noticed the No Princess Fights Alone badge in my sidebar, placed there as gesture of quiet support, but also as a reminder of how life dishes out surprises, good and bad, and there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I and other such reality-checking sentiments.

I’m sad to learn that she’s gone. I wonder, where has she gone? And when she gets there, wherever it is she’s going, will she run into my mother? My college roommate’s father died within a few days of Freddie Mercury, and she had this fantasy about their encounter in purgatory’s green room, the two of them making small talk while waiting to be called in to meet their maker. She held a position of some influence in the music industry and imagined her father, upon learning of Mercury’s occupation, launching into a proud fatherly pitch, as he was prone to do. “Oh, you’re a rock star? You must have known my daughter, she works at MTV!”

I think we’ve all imagined – whether we believe or not – what an afterlife might look like. My heaven has the same dark-blue-and-pink-flowered wallpaper that hung my parent’s dining room. In fact, my ancestors are seated around the dining table; my mother is in her customary place and my father at the other end of the table with all my grandparents seated between them. There are a few empty chairs, waiting for my siblings and me, I presume, but sometimes they are taken by other friends who’ve passed on and who occasionally pass through my vision of the afterlife. Timmy, a childhood sweetheart who died in his mid-twenties, his silver-capped tooth in the center of his grin. Dilts, who died of a brain tumor six months before my daughter didn’t die of one, carries his old Smith Corona typewriter and offers a mischievous shrug to beg their pardon for placing it on the table. Even De-facto’s father makes an appearance from time to time, lamenting to my father that they never got to meet Short-pants and Buddy-roo.

My mother didn’t believe in an afterlife. I asked her point blank, “what do you think will happen to you when you die?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Life will just end.” Then, probably in response to the display of dismay on my face – because maybe I wanted her to believe in something – she’d rattle off all the good and interesting things that happened to her. “I’ve had a such a beautiful life. It doesn’t owe me anything.”

The renown atheist Christopher Hitchins wrote a number of essays on this subject, and gave interviews that were especially poignant when he was dying of cancer. He said that the hardest part, for him, was being told he had to leave the party knowing that it would go on without him. He also wondered – and I paraphrase, because I can’t find the link where I read or heard this during the flood of articles about him after he died – if heaven wouldn’t be someplace awfully dull, that the sustained condition of bliss over such a long time as eternity might be terribly tiresome.

It’s a valid point. Literature isn’t any good if there isn’t some tension. Wouldn’t it be the same for the afterlife?

As a devout pluralist, I’m open to any eventuality: a monotheistic-ruled paradise or an eternal dial tone. Or reincarnation. Do we come back in order to learn new lessons so our souls can evolve? Then we’d get a vacation from the boredom of a blissful heaven. But if you were an American, is your reincarnation shorter? Do the French demand a lifespan that’s the equivalent of all-of-August? Do you have to earn your vacation? Can you opt out?

I’d like to believe in something like a blissful afterlife. But I don’t know what happens to us after we die, and in the absence of knowledge, I feel that any guesses I make are fictional. But I’m not disturbed by believers. I respect their faith, and might even admit to envying it.

Maybe we need heaven because it’s hard to imagine that someone you love could simply cease to exist. Maybe there isn’t one heaven. Maybe each one of us has our very own heaven, mine with its ornate wallpaper, someone else’s rests on a cloud or it’s a long stretch of sand with waves lapping against the shore. Maybe heaven is for the living, a place for us to keep alive the memory of people that we don’t want to stop loving.

If that were the case, there’d be hundreds of heavens – or more – for Susan Niebur. It’d be like looking up at the night sky, every heaven like a star in her beloved universe, a twinkling remembrance of her and her courage. And there’d be just as many heavens for my roommate’s father, and for Freddie Mercury, too. And for my mother, yes, hundreds of heavens, each one fashioned in the faithful imagination of every friend and colleague, and everyone in her family, all the people who adored and admired her, and who still miss her so much. Thank heavens, we have a place to keep her.

~ ~ ~

Susan Niebur spent five years battling inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that presents without a lump. I’m making a donation in her memory. If you’re inspired to do the same, you can donate here.