For my father.
After a long, eventful life and a mercifully brief illness a man named David died quietly in his bed. His wife of forty-six years was at his side, as were his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
As he closed his eyes, David was surprised to see not darkness, but brilliant light. He felt as if his very soul was rising out of his weary body as indeed it was. Irresistibly he was drawn upward. There was a tug of sadness as he left his family behind and a thrill of wonder as he felt himself pass through a sort of doorway or opening. But there was no fear.
He was in a featureless space, full of bright white light. Before him, seated at a plain wooden table, sat a figure robed in the same white light. David looked into his eyes and was overcome with a feeling of pure, calm, abiding love.
"Hello, David." The voice was warm and familiar.
"Hello." His voice (still his voice!) was a stammer.
"It's my job to welcome you to the afterlife." The figure smiled. "No, that's not quite right: it's my privilege."
David was speechless. He felt small and unworthy before this being of radiant light.
"I know what you're thinking, David. You think that you don't really belong here. That you haven't done anything very good, or very important, in your life. That you're just an ordinary man. Am I right?"
"Well, you might be surprised to find out that many of our leading citizens felt the very same way when they arrived. You know, we take notice of even the smallest thoughts and deeds. You actually did quite a lot of good during your time on earth. You were a loving, faithful husband. A good, giving father. You were honest in your business life. Those things count pretty heavily up here. And you were always kind to your animals."
It was David's turn to smile. Yes, he had had many dogs during his long life. And they had always filled a very special place in his heart. Unbidden, memories came rushing back: memories of a sweet little Beagle, a ladylike black Cocker Spaniel, a feisty Wire Haired Fox Terrier, and two silly, wonderful Kerry Blue Terriers the two dogs he had loved the best.
"Yes, yes, we're the ones who keep track of the sparrows and the field mice, remember? So your kindness to so many dogs weighed rather heavily in your favor."
"I understand. But "
The angel (he was an angel, of course) held up his hand and shook his head kindly. "You have a thousand questions, I know. What about the loved ones you've left behind? What about the loved ones who went before you? What happens now what's it like to live in Heaven?"
"Well, I can't answer all of your questions at once. Rest assured: you will not be separated from those you love. And as for the housing arrangements" he rose from the desk "let's take a little tour." The angel waved his hand, and (without any sensation of movement) they were instantly elsewhere. This was a very different place: it looked and felt very human, very normal. They were on an ordinary, quiet street, standing in front of a clapboard house, and it was an early Autumn evening. The angel's hand was on the wooden gate.
"Go on in," he said. "This is your house."
Confused, David did as he was told. He swung open the gate and walked up to the green painted front door; the knob felt oddly familiar in his hand. The door was unlocked. He walked in.
Feelings, sights, sounds, even smells they washed over him. He knew this house. Surely it was the little house he grew up in; yes, there was the old china closet in the corner, and there was the ticking cuckoo clock that had so fascinated him as a child. But no! This was his own house, the house he had bought, with a borrowed five hundred dollar deposit, after the war. The house his children had grown up in. Yes, of course there was the mark on the baseboard molding where little Billy had roller skated through the living room.
"It's both of those houses, David." The angel grinned. "It's a house built from your memories. That's the way architecture works up here."
But it was more than the rooms, more than the sofas and lamps and tables. There were people coming to greet him, their arms outstretched. His eyes filled with tears.
"Yes, David, we're here." He had almost forgotten the sound of his father's deep voice. "And there's Uncle Will, and Aunt Sophie, and Cousin Michael. We're all here, boy! And we've been looking forward to this day for a long, long time."
The next few hours or was it days? were a blur of meetings, handshakes, embraces, many tears and much laughter. His mother's perfume. His grandfather's crooked smile. His brother's first wife, killed so long ago in that car accident: he had forgotten how very beautiful she was. And the taste of his grandmother's apple cobbler was it possible that he had lost that memory over the long years? He was overwhelmed, lost in the rush of emotions. It was a profound relief when he felt a strong, gentle pressure on his arm: the angel's hand, leading him toward the kitchen doorway. It was warm in this bright, quiet room, with the late sunlight flooding through the backdoor curtains.
"It's a lot to take in all at once, I know. I thought you might need a moment to yourself."
"Thank you." David nodded. "But my family" he began, gesturing toward the crowded living room.
"Don't worry, David, they won't be offended. There's time here, time for every last conversation, every last cup of coffee, every last song, every last game of catch." The angel smiled broadly. "You'll have to get used to the idea that no one here is going anywhere. You're all done with saying goodbye to the ones you love. You can't lose them anymore."
As the meaning of the angel's words sank in, David felt a deep sense of peace and acceptance spreading through him. But strangely, incongruously, there was a pang of emptiness as well. How could that be? He was in Heaven healed of his sickness and sorrows. His lost loved ones were all around him, and he knew, with a certainty beyond certainty, that his family on earth would join him in due time. What else was there to want, to long for?
"I know what you're thinking, David. It isn't quite complete, is it?"
"Well no, it isn't." He felt ashamed, ungrateful. "I can't explain it, but it's true. Maybe I don't belong here after all."
"Nonsense. Maybe I can explain it for you." The angel glanced toward a row of wooden pegs by the back door. David's eyes followed. On each peg hung a dog leash, its leather shiny with use. "There are still a few old friends you haven't seen, David isn't that right?"
As if in answer, there was a sound of paws at the back door, and a chorus of eager barks: the special welcome saved for a master long missed.
"Yes, they're all here, David. You see, you haven't quite finished the tour. You've seen the house. Now it's time to see the yard."