Tuesday, June 16, 2009

This side of heaven


At the age of 77, Deangelo died in his sleep. As a Christian, Deangelo didn’t fear death in the way that many unbelievers he knew dreaded the prospect. Of course, we don’t have complete control over our feelings. There’s a certain natural anxiety doing something for the first time. Deangelo had no prior experience of dying.

Deangelo read about deathbed visions in which a dying saint had a vision of his relatives waiting for him on the other side. But Dangelo was the first Christian in his family. He had no parents or grandparents waiting to greet him when he crossed over. Two of his older children were Christian, so he would have to wait for them to join him.

Deangelo was curious about heaven. What was heaven really like? He’d read some descriptions of heaven by Isaiah and John the Revelator. Glorious, to be sure. But a bit intimidating. Indeed, when Bible writers describe their encounters with God, they often fainted in his presence. So Deangelo was a bit apprehensive.

As a kid, Deangelo had a dog he was very fond of. He was sorry when his dog died. He missed his dog. After he became a Christian, Deangelo wondered if he would see his dog again.

Still, he found it hard to imagine where his dog would fit into the picture of the glassy sea, with the lightning and thunder, cherubim and seraphim.

What was the first thing you saw when you died? Does every Christian see the same thing the moment he dies? The moment he crosses over to the other side?

If you had friends and relatives waiting for you, where were they waiting? What was in the background? Meadows and mountains? A garden? A shining city?


Deangelo woke up. Or was he awake? At first he thought he was dreaming. A lucid dream. He remembered going to bed. He was feeling very tired that night.

Deangelo looked around. He was on a bus. Deangelo was a bit disoriented at first. It took a few moments for him to get his bearings.

As he looked out the window, he knew where he was. This was his old bus route. As a college student, living at home with his parents, he used to take the bus to school and back.

That was nearly sixty years ago. He later moved away. Made a life for himself. His parents died–as parents are wont to do.

Yet he always felt nostalgic about that time of life. That time and place. Although he went back from time to time, there’s a sense in which you can never go back. Places change over time. And even if you can go back to the same place, you can never go back to the same time. To the way things were.

Deangelo always enjoyed coming home. There was something special about coming home. Leaving home felt different from coming home. Even if you wanted to leave home to go do something, it always felt good to be on you’re way back home.

Not that things were necessarily any better in the past. Rather, the goods and evils of life were distributed throughout life. If only you could hold on to all the good things, and forget the bad things.

That’s why Deangelo enjoyed dreaming about the past. Dreaming was the closet thing he had to going back.

Not that he wanted to live in the past. But it would be nice to visit. And it would be nice to cut and splice the past so that you could cut out the bad parts and splice all the good parts together.

Of course, when you dreamt, you dreamt about a fallen world. The good and the bad. Some dreams were wonderful while other dreams were horrible. There were some dreams you wanted to go on and on. You were sorry when you woke up.

That’s why Deangelo enjoyed lucid dreams. In a lucid dream, you could dream about whatever you wanted. But, there was a catch. Lucid dreams were rare. And once you knew you were dreaming, it was hard to stay in the dream. You woke up as soon as things started to get interesting. Deangelo was determined to make this dream last as long as possible.

Deangelo got off at his old bus stop. He used to walk to the bus stop. It was a long walk, but he enjoyed the walk. Part of the walk had a view of the lake. Then he’d take a shortcut through the woods to get back home.

He hadn’t does this for over 50 years. And in the intervening years, things had changed. The area became increasingly urbanized. It lost its rustic charm.

But in his dream it was just the way he remembered it. Indeed, better than ever. It seemed to mix and match the best of different decades. At least, during the he lived there, and went back there for the holidays.


The driver let him off at his own bus stop. This was exhilarating. It’s the first time he’d had such a long lucid dream. He was apprehensive that he’s wake up any moment and find himself back in his bedroom. He wondered how long he could string it along.

Walking back felt good. He felt young again. The weightless gait of youth, before age capitulated to gravity. That was one of the nice things about dreams. Everyone was young again in his dreams. You might be bedridden, arthritic, a quadriplegic, but in your dreams you were in the prime of life.

Yet this was different. He couldn’t quite place it at first. Then it dawned on him. It wasn’t just the aches and pains, stiff joints and general fatigue that seemed to melt away. No, it went beyond the body. It’s as if all the cumulative regrets and disappointments, resentments and anxieties of 77 years in a fallen world suddenly melted away. He was elated. He’d forgotten what it felt like to be so happy, so carefree. It was like a second childhood.


He started down the tangled driveway of his old, childhood home. It was a long, winding, wooded driveway–with dappled light from the trees overhead. As he was about halfway down the driveway, he saw his old dog bounding towards him. His old dog coming to meet him. Coming to greet him.

She seemed to anticipate his arrival. Seemed to be waiting for him.

The last time he saw her alive was not the way he wanted to remember her. She’d had a stroke. He had to put her to sleep. He stood by her and stroked her as the veterinarian inserted the needle. Then she went stiff. That was his last image of her. Seared in his memory.

But now she was young again. They were both young again.

They went down to the house together. The house was still intact, but the grounds were overgrown–as though no one had lived there for a hundred years. The forest was reclaiming the property.

Deangelo spent several weeks pruning trees and vines and shrubs. Clearing underbrush. Burning heaps of clippings. Mowing. Weeding. But he enjoyed the work.

His old home reemerged from the thicket. Things were back to the way they were when he was a kid. Now he had to wait for his children to pass over and rejoin him in the sweet bye-and-bye.

What a beautiful dream! But only a dream. Alas! If only that were true! A dream come true! But any minute this would fade away, and there he’d be–a lonely old man in the bedroom of his empty house.


The next day, Deangelo woke up. Or did he merely dream of waking up? He looked around. It was the bedroom he had as a child. His dog wagged her tail when he got up. He must of dreamed of falling asleep, then waking up.

It seemed like a whole night and day had passed, but of course, time passes at a different rate when we dream. A few minutes of dreaming may seem like hours.

Deangelo walked around the neighborhood. It was a picture perfect day. He didn’t know who he'd find, if anyone. Maybe it was deserted. Dreams are funny things.

But as he was out walking, he saw Gabriella gardening in her front yard. He hadn’t seen Gabriella since high school. He had a bit of a crush on her, but at the time she was dating another boy. And she was a bit out of his league, anyway.

She looked up from her garden. When she saw him she beamed. She looked exactly like he remembered her in high school–only better.

She came over to him and gave him a hug. “So glad you finally made it,” she exclaimed.

“Made it?” he said?

“To heaven, of course!”

“This is heaven?”

“That’s right!”

“I was expecting something different.”

“There’s a lot more to see. What you see right now isn’t all there is. Not by a long shot. But newcomers need some time to adjust. So they’re generally assigned to some place fond and familiar. After they get settled in, they can explore the more exotic reaches of heaven.”

But she could tell, from his expression, that he didn’t seem convinced. “I know–it’s hard to believe at first.”

Yet Deangelo was thinking to himself, “If I’m dreaming, then I’d expect somebody in my dreams to tell me I’m not dreaming.”

Still, it was the best dream he ever had. So he was happy to play along with it.

Gabriella made lunch for him. They reminisced about old times. They also talked about how God had guided them from the time of their high school graduation to their deathbed. Guided them without their even knowing it.

It occurred to him that some of his classmates were sure to be heavenbound. After all, some of them were Christian. Either Christian in high school or later in life. He hadn’t thought of heaven as a high school reunion, and, of course, heaven would be a very selective reunion. But, among other things, heaven would be a way of reconnecting some of the folks you lost track of over the years.


At first, Deangelo was afraid to believe it was real. It was too good to be true. It would be a terrible letdown to convince himself that he was really in heaven, only to wake up the next moment and find himself back in his old bedroom, in his empty house, in his decrepit body. He’d suffered enough disappointments in life.

But as day followed day and night followed night, it dawned on him that he might have everything backwards. Maybe this was too good not to be true. Maybe it just got better and better as time went on.

1 comment:

  1. Steve, I enjoy these stories about the afterlife. You really should publish a volume containing them.