Peopling Heaven

by Bill Bly

Until recently, when my father died, I hadn't given much thought to heaven. As a child I'm sure I imagined it as being "up there" somewhere, far enough away that we couldn't see it -- even from an airplane -- but that when we died, we would somehow sail there, perhaps on wings that unfolded, like a butterfly's, when we broke free from the chrysalis of the body.

This beautiful image doesn't survive into adulthood, when we think of heaven vaguely, if at all, as a place where the dead wait for us, expecting to pick up the suspended relationship where we left off.

The Scripture we read at my father's funeral is one often chosen for Christian services, Revelation 21, verse 4: "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things have passed away." The former things. Meaning: the present things.

Perhaps as grownups we can no longer believe in heaven as a place, but we can still conceive of a state of being where all the things that torment us in this life are magically removed. In fact, what else can we do for our lost ones except to picture them, arrived at last at that bliss and peace, in the most beautiful place we can imagine?

But then heaven isn't for them, it's for us, isn't it? It doesn't exist "up there" or away from here at all -- and it's not constructed of clouds or ether or crystal spheres, but rather of the concrete love we bear for our departed ones.

When the news got out that my father had died, the platters of lunch meat and the casseroles began to arrive at my mother's door, borne by friends who could only hold them out, unable to find anything to say. There isn't anything to say, and the food was of considerable pragmatic value: none of us, my mother especially, felt like cooking, and the house was full of people -- relatives, neighbors, other friends -- who needed to be fed. And food is the most appropriate gift, because it is perishable, just as we are. In medieval times the body was called wyrmes mete,[1] food for the worms. And since what we eat becomes us, we are sharing our physical substance, the very real mystery at the heart of Communion.

At such a time an offering must be made -- to the living, not the dead. The dead need nothing from us any more, and it is this emptiness we perhaps are trying to fill with flowers and food and murmured words of sympathy. No one is fooled: it cannot be filled, because it was there before, it is always there. Death is a presence, not an absence. Death is what we share with every other human being, alive, dead, or yet to be born. Death is the one thing we have in common with all of creation. Death makes our life.

In our quotidian consciousness, the world is too huge and too complicated for one person to be able to perceive, let alone understand or control. So we narrow our focus, hatch our little plots, fret over trifles that are made into monsters by the intensity of our concentration. And then someone dies.

In Greek tragedy, this moment is called peripeteia, which is usually translated "reversal" -- the hero's fortunes having suddenly gone from good to bad. But the etymology of the word yields "falling all around," the image of a building collapsing about one. However, this also opens up the sky and the horizon as far as one can see in all directions.

When someone dies, we are given the opportunity to behold our life as it is, complete. A death clarifies, makes most real, illuminates; whatever is extraneous falls away, and we can see where we really are.

But where are the departed ones? Where did Daddy go? In one sense, of course, I am where my father went, and I can feel him any time I want: all I have to do is look at my hands, which resemble his, or hear his voice in my own whenever I answer the phone.

And then of course there is his memory, alive in everyone he knew. Galway Kinnell's poem "Memories of My Father" expresses this idea beautifully in its closing passage, which I read at my father's funeral:

Then the lost one
can fling itself outward, its million
moments of presence can scatter
through consciousness freely, like snow
collected overnight on a spruce bough
that in midmorning bursts
into glittering dust in the sunshine. [2]

Literally, of course, my father went to the cemetery. Some would say those ashes are not my father, but of course they are, or else it wouldn't matter where they ended up. What's left of him is in that box that I carried to the grave against my side, where I carried my kids, where my father carried me; my father is in that box I left in a hole in the ground. When I walked to the car, I wept because I was abandoning him, and because this is what our life is: being left behind, then leaving.

Perhaps the proper question to ask is not "Where do we go when we die?" but rather "What do we leave behind?" At the punch-and-cookie reception after the funeral, my mother kept saying to herself, "I'll have to tell Bill about all these people" -- and then remembered. Across from where my mother sits at the kitchen table will always be my father's chair. Love stays here. Love brought us into the world, love sends us hence; from the unknown into the unknown. Love keeps us, while we're here, shelters us in the daily from the immensity we cannot bear to behold except in glimpses. And love attends the devastation of those glimpses.

As we pulled into the church parking lot for the funeral, it began to rain; by the time the music started, it was pouring. Lightning snapped, dimming the lights a couple times. My mother thought the thunder was the best part. Everyone sitting behind us saw her shoulders shaking and nodded to each other, sure she was crying. Only the few of us in the bereaved family pew could see that it was laughter she could hardly contain. Afterwards she told us, "When the thunder started, it just popped into my mind: that's Bill Bly, pounding on the gates of heaven!" She never said whether she thought he got in.

For the moment I stand alone, where my father stood when his father died, with the walls down all around me, seeing what he saw with my eyes. And I think I can see heaven: if we can enter it, it can only be here, the place where love is crossed with death to bring forth love.

Bill Bly (III)

[1] Pronounced (more or less) WEER-muhs MATE-uh. Wyrmes Mete is the title of my hypertext chapbook of poetry, in which this essay also appears.

[2] Galway Kinnell, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, p. 11.

© 1996 Bill Bly. All rights reserved.

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Last updated 9 April 2001.