|By: Paul S. Cilwa||Viewed: 1/23/2021
||Topics/Keywords: #ReligiousPolitics #Spirituality #ShortStories||Page Views: 2270|
|What if you got to Heaven…and found that you didn't like it?|
Emily Smallidge lay gasping. Tubes ran into her nostrils and carefully measured amounts of painkillers dripped into her veins.
Her only child, Tony, stood at her side, blinking furiously. "Mama, I'm here," he cried. "Kathy's here, too. I know we've had our fights in the past, but all that's over, Mama. I want you to know I love you—we love you—and we want you to get well."
Emily struggled for enough air to complete a sentence, but failed. "Still living in sin?" she whispered.
"It's not that we don't want to get married," Tony began, but the dark-haired woman next to him interrupted. "Yes, it is," she said.
Emily silenced them with a cough. "You slut," she gasped. She didn't have the strength to raise her arm, but she wiggled a finger. "Jesus sanctified marriage at Cana. He condemned adultery when He told Mary Magdelene…" She was overcome by a coughing fit, bits of mucous hurled feebly into the air. "…when He told her to sin no more…"
"But, Mama! Kathy and I love each other and we're only happy when we're together. What's wrong with that?"
"Happiness is for the next life…not this one." The beeping of the heart monitor took on a syncopated rhythm and the room grew darker. "Happiness…is for…Heaven…" By now the room was completely black except for a point of light directly ahead of her. Somehow she was no longer connected to the hospital equipment, or anything else. She felt herself drifting toward the light.
I'm dead! she thought joyously. Sweet Jesus! I'm going home.
She had half expected an escort of the loved ones who had gone before her. But, as she considered each one—poor Jerry, her Aunt Ethel, her mother—she remembered how sinful each had been. Jerry, who'd been a good father to Tony, but whose foul mouth had undoubtedly accompanied him to Hell. Aunt Ethel, who couldn't quite resist her frequent nips of gin. Even her mother, who had deserted her father and her, all those years before.
At least there was nothing holding her back. Not Tony with his whore, not even the night nurse who entered the room smelling of cigarettes. Soon she would be with her precious Jesus! She hurried toward the light.
She didn't so much reach it, as it reached her. Suddenly she was enfolded by it, and found herself on a grassy knoll, blinking in the noontime light of a blazing sun. A pleasant breeze caressed her body, and the scent of wildflowers caressed her nose. Emily inhaled deeply. It felt so good to breathe again!
Suddenly the blood rushed to her head. There were others on the knoll, but what she saw now was nothing short of blasphemous. Lying in the grass, not a hundred yards away, a young woman was sunbathing in the nude.
Overcome with indignation, Emily marched angrily to the woman's side. "Have you no shame?" she shrieked as soon as she was within shouting distance. "How dare you defile God's paradise like this?"
The woman rolled over and sat up, blinking. "Are you talking to me?" she asked.
Emily spluttered, "You know I am. Put your clothes on!"
Light dawned in the young woman's eyes. "Oh, you must be new here! Dear heart, we don't have to wear clothes. We're all innocent here."
"But—but—" Emily shook her head. "That's just a technicality. Any decent person would keep herself covered. And, anyway, what are you doing lying down in Heaven?"
"I'm Son-worshipping," the woman replied. She pointed at the brightness directly overhead. "That's God, you know. Ever since I got here, I just bathe in His Light. It feels so good!"
Emily was scandalized. "I can't believe Jesus permits such things in His Father's house. You get your clothes on and come with me. I'm going to find Jesus and make sure He knows what you've been doing."
Again the young woman pointed to the zenith. "God already knows everything, in case you've forgotten. Anyway, you can do whatever you want, but I'm staying right here." And, with that, the woman turned over and refused to respond to anything else Emily said.
Finally, Emily gave up and stalked away, vowing to return to the spot with Jesus in tow, as soon as she could find Him. He had to be close; after all, this was Heaven.
She followed a path into a ravine. It was cool and shady, and the sound of running water grew louder until she found herself at the edge of a fast-moving stream. Sitting on a rock was a young man in cut-offs and T-shirt, fishing.
When she was close enough for conversation he looked up and smiled. "Hi," he said. "You must be Emily. Welcome to Heaven."
"Thank you," she sniffed, annoyed at his disrespectful attire. "You seem to have the advantage. Who are you?"
"Why, I'm Simon. Peter, I mean. St. Peter to you, I guess."
Emily's eyes narrowed. "If you're St. Peter, then why weren't you here to meet me when I first arrived?"
Simon grinned. "I was here," he said. "What's the difference if I come to you or you come to me?"
Emily regarded the young man's fishing gear. "I must say, so far I've found Heaven to be a good deal more casual than I expected."
Simon laughed as he threaded a worm onto his hook. "Heaven is whatever you want it to be. That's the point. If you want to play a harp all day, you can. Me, I prefer fishing."
"But we should all be spending eternity worshipping God!"
"Absolutely," Simon agreed.
"I don't call fishing a form of worship," Emily sniffed.
"Perhaps you don't," Simon nodded. "But God does. Since He created us, we can't help but worship Him in everything we do."
Emily turned angrily, preparing to return the way she had come.
"Wait a minute," Simon said. "There's a coupla things I'm supposed to tell you. First thing is, you can do, be or have anything you want. Just let yourself accept God's gifts and they're yours…just like on Earth."
Her back to the young man, Emily forced herself to uncross her arms. "And the second thing?"
"The Father wants us to be happy, but He won't force happiness on us—not on Earth, and not here. That's another one of His gifts you can accept…or not."
"Are you quite through?" When Simon didn't answer, Emily stole a peek behind her. The young man was too busy reeling in a large trout to notice.
The path to the ravine must have forked, because when Emily climbed out of it she found herself, not at the knoll, but in a long mountain meadow bordered by forest. In the middle of the meadow was a building that appeared to have been transplanted from New York or L. A. A neon sign glared above the door, insistently blinking the word "Cabaret."
Emily was horrified, but more so by the sounds coming from the building than by the building itself. Someone was singing "Put On A Happy Face", someone who had her dead mother's voice. In spite of her revulsion she was irresistibly drawn to the door.
Inside it was dark and smoky, except for a blue light that pierced the air. A woman sat in its glow, microphone in hand.
The woman on stage looked just as Emily remembered her, although Emily had been just fifteen when her mother deserted her family.
"Mother! What are you doing here?" Emily demanded.
At the sound of Emily's voice, the woman stopped singing and looked at her. "Well, well," she said. "Emily. I'm so happy you made it, dear. Frankly, I'm a little surprised." There was laughter from the audience.
With decades of anger welling inside her, Emily could hardly speak. "You're surprised? I never expected to see a child deserter in Heaven!" Some members of the audience gasped.
"Show's over, folks," Emily's mother announced. In ones, twos and threes the audience vanished like leaves in the fall. When they were alone, the woman gently took Emily's hand. "A deserter? Is that how you see me? Have you forgotten that you and your father told me to leave? 'Go back to the Hell that spawned you and leave us in peace,' those were the exact words. They echoed through my dreams for years after that." The woman smiled sadly. "Forgiving you was the hardest thing I ever did. But I finally realized it was all for the best. I was never going to change your father, and allowing him to change me would have been the greater sin."
Emily shook away her mother's hand and backed up. "All we asked was that you show a little propriety."
"Your father forbade me to sing or dance. Once he caught me singing show tunes while mopping the kitchen floor, and beat me with the mop handle until I lost consciousness."
"Voices should be raised only in prayer," Emily said grimly.
"He beat you, too."
"Father never laid a hand on me, except when I sinned."
"Oh yes, sins. Your father had the largest catalog of sins I ever heard of. For him, there was no greater sin than to question: questioning the accuracy of the Bible, posing a question he couldn't answer, challenging his authority—it took me years to understand that your father was a sad little man who had no real strength, and so usurped God's for his own purposes."
"How dare you speak of Father this way? The man was a saint!"
"A saint? Hardly. He was just a bully, only worse. He wasn't content to tell us what to do; he told us what to believe, even what to feel. How I hated him."
"No, you didn't. You only say that to ease your conscience."
Emily's mother laughed bitterly. "He taught you well. I should have taken you with me; but by the time I got up the courage to go, it was too late. You wouldn't have gone."
A heaviness settled upon Emily, forcing her to sit in one of the dark wooden chairs. "Where did you go?" she asked, after a pause.
"In those days, your father could have had me arrested and brought home. So I took another name and went to work as an assistant cook in a convent in Canada. Eventually I converted and became a nun."
Emily leapt to her feet. "You're a Catholic?" she moaned. "Catholics in Heaven? Sweet Jesus, what is He thinking?" Suddenly Emily blanched. "Mother—there aren't Jews here, too, are there?"
"Of course there are, dear. Jews and Buddhists and even atheists—they're the ones with the startled expressions."
Emily sank into the chair and held her head in her hands. "I can't believe this," she said. "Everyone who was supposed to be condemned to Hell is in Heaven instead. So much for justice." She looked up and stared into her mother's eyes. "Now you're going to tell me Father is in Hell."
Emily's mother smiled, a sad, quick, smile. "No dear, there's no Hell. No God of love could have designed such a place."
"Well, then, where's Father?"
"There's no Hell, Emily, but some people just can't accept God's love, either. They choose to wall themselves away from Him, and the rest of us. So you see, although God never created a Hell, in a way some people have created one for themselves—just like on Earth."
Emily stood. "Well, you may think this is how God wants things, but I don't. Somehow Satan has infiltrated this place. Yes, that's the only explanation."
"Nothing happens without its being God's will," her mother assured her.
Emily looked up. The light of God was so intense it could be seen through the ceiling. "'No one can look at the Face of God and live,'" she quoted. "But I'm dead. Someone needs to tell Jesus what's going on here before it's too late."
"But, Emily…" her mother started, but Emily ignored her. She was supposed to be able to do anything she wanted, they said. Very well, she wanted to fly to the Lord. Instantly she sprang into the air, passing through the roof of the oddly located cabaret, leaving her mother's unfinished sentence behind her.
Emily flew for a long time. The ground grew hazy and indistinct below. There seemed to be no horizon; the edges of the land just seemed to fade into the brightness of the sky. Eventually the land disappeared altogether.
"No wonder God doesn't know what's going on in Heaven," she thought. "He's too far away from it." She tried to suppress the blasphemous notion; as a very small child voicing such thoughts had brought swift retribution.
Then, all at once, the brightness engulfed her. The sense of well-being she had experienced on her arrival—only to be shattered by that naked hussy—here, was almost suffocating. She struggled not to let the giddiness overcome her.
"Jesus!" she called. "Sweet Lord Jesus! It is I, Emily. I must speak with You!"
The brightness around her cleared. She was in an enormous greenhouse. A little man in soiled work clothes and apron spooned dirt into a flower pot.
"Jesus?" she asked, hesitantly.
"No," the little man replied. "He's out mountain biking with Mohammed and Eleanor Roosevelt. I'm His Father. Can I be of assistance?"
With a gasp, Emily threw herself on the floor and covered her face. She remained there for minutes while the soft sounds of spoon in dirt continued. Finally she peeked between her fingers. "How long should I remain prostate?" she asked.
"As long as you like," God replied. "This is Heaven; do whatever makes you happy."
Emily leaped to her feet. "That's what's wrong with this place," she blurted. "There's no rules!"
"Didn't you have enough of rules on Earth?"
"They gave life meaning."
God chuckled. "And, here I thought I was the One Who gave life meaning."
"I only lived to obey Your Word!"
"Then listen to it now: I want you to be happy."
"But You've filled Heaven with the most disgusting people! They don't wear clothes, they fish when they should be working, they sing show tunes instead of throwing themselves at Your feet."
"That throwing business was your idea, not Mine. You have no more idea what Heaven is now than you did on Earth."
Emily blinked in confusion. "You mean, Heaven isn't filled with sunbathers and Catholics? This has been some kind of test, hasn't it?" Emily brightened. "I almost forgot—we're to be judged after our deaths. Of course; it makes perfect sense. You've just been testing me! —Waiting to see if I'd succumb to a lazy, sinful existence just because I'm dead."
God brushed dirt from His hands and sighed. "Most people find death to be a truly transfiguring experience—it makes them see things from a completely different perspective. But, you…you behave in the afterlife just as you did on Earth. You're still rigid and unyielding in your beliefs, self-righteous and parochial."
Emily beamed. "I only exist to serve You."
"And now you're ready for your reward."
"To worship You forever is all the reward I need."
"Very well," God said. "I won't force you to be happy, any more than I would force you to obey My Will in other things—it's not the way I work. But if you change your mind…"
"Oh, Lord, I won't," Emily promised.
Emily's voice rose in adoration. Although she was surrounded by millions of other white-robed worshippers, she could hear only her own voice echo in the glass booth. Every worshipper was in a cell of his or her own, to avoid the temptation of interrupting the eternal prayer with idle conversation.
The cells were somewhat cramped. If not for the glass, she would have literally rubbed elbows with the souls at her sides. She was also hot, but Emily struggled to ignore the distractions. She was here to worship God.
Ahead of her, to her right, was a very familiar head. For months Emily wondered if its owner might turn around. But then she realized that this was just an extra twist, a special irony given by God as a special test—for extra credit, as it were. Inches from her, but unknown to him as long as he remained steadfast in his worship, was her earthly father. She could see him but she would never be able to speak to him or get his attention.
As the years passed, the air grew hotter and more fetid. Sweat poured into her eyes. She blinked, but never lowered her arms from their position of eternal supplication.
I love You, Lord, and worship You, she sang with all her heart. I will praise You forever. She inhaled sharply of the stifling air. Whether You want me to or not.