"There's a feeling I get
When I look to the West
And my spirit is crying for leaving..."
—Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven
That's when the hospital called me, early one evening over three years ago, two weeks after I had taken her back home to Oregon from California. This after a disastrous stay with my sister only months after my father died from battling cancer and failed treatment.
The surreal phone call had me frozen in place in our kitchen, the phone pressed to my ear as the Mama watched me intently.
"Yes, I understand," I remembered saying. "But what happened?"
"We don't know yet, but we've cooled her body temperature with ice to slow any permanent brain damage that might occur due the heart failure and loss of blood flow. We have her on life support now."
"Will she wake up?"
Silence on the other end. Then, "It's possible. We'll know when we start warming her up in about 48 hours. I assume you'll be coming up."
"Yes. Yes, I will. We will."
Two days later my sister, my wife and I were all there. Together we stood in silence around my mother's hospital bed. She lay swollen and silent, eyes closed, the only noise coming from the life support systems keeping her alive. I had just talked with Mom on Thanksgiving the week before, but my sister and her hadn't spoken since their falling out.
During our awkward silence around her bed, I wept. Not only because I missed our mom and I couldn't say goodbye, but I wept because her broken heart still trailed in pieces behind her since she'd lost her husband, and more recently since she wasn't speaking to her daughter.
I wept because I believed then as I still believe now that her broken heart gave up, that she wanted to go home to heaven and be with Dad.
A week later we told Beatrice about heaven. In the simplest of definitions, with loving language and expository words used sparingly if at all.
The Mama had finally made it home from Oregon, but I remained with my sister taking care of what had to be cared for. There I was, watching my family on FaceTime in front of our fireplace adorned with stockings and alit with Christmas moon lights, thinking of It's a Wonderful Life.
"What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down..."
Bryce babbled and ran back and forth across the phone camera's field of vision, calling for Amy's mom, and she answered back softly. Beatrice stood in front of the couch while the Mama knelt next to her. She held the little figurine of two mice that she fell in love with when we were up visiting my parents in June, Nana and Papa as all the grandkids knew them.
"Beatrice," the Mama said, "we want to tell you that Nana isn't sick anymore, that she's with Papa in a better place."
"Yes," I said.
The Mama continued. "Nana and Papa are now together in heaven where they will be forever."
"Nana and Papa are together," Bea echoed. "In heaven."
"Yes, sweetie. They love you very much and will always be with you."
As I said those words, I ached to believe them, as if my very presence in that moment depended on everything I learned as a child growing up in the Nazarene Church -- the many pictures of smiling Christs, arms always draped lovingly around children of all colors and nations, set in a meadows on warm spring days.
"They will always be with you, Bea." And I really wanted to believe that for me.
I watched as Bea's mind swirled and ticked, trying to understand what it all meant. She held the mouse figurine tightly and smiled. I took that as my answer.
For two people who've always questioned the edicts and redeeming value of Christianity, the Mama and me were quite comfortable telling Bea about the coloring book version of heaven.
Because we believe we'll be together someday in a better place. Because we already are -- the Mama, me, the B-hive and our family and friends.
Heaven is being with those you love. To hell with everything else.
Heaven is now; heaven is forever.
All this came back to me when I saw the post from a dear friend of mine who just lost her husband, both of whom have been battling cancer for years and the complications that unfortunately come with those battles. I touched my computer screen and wept for her and her family, losing her husband, her best friend, the love of her life and the father of her children and grandchildren.
I wept because I know how much she loved her husband. I wept because I still miss my parents. I wept because I imagined losing the love of my life and the mother of our two lovely little girls.
I wept because I know resiliency and healing are like continuous tides that eventually wash away our grief, while the footsteps of those loved ones who have passed before us remain permanently affixed upon our stairways to heaven.
Again with now and forever. Amen.
Their heaven wraps around the finger lake at sunrise
like a gold band forged now and forever.
I walk and cry and laugh and run along the paths,
Draw beauty of sky, trees, debris and water
deep into my lungs' tendrils that feed my heart.
I stop to pay homage to Kinkade and Sparks,
tempered (of course) by Hopper, Folds and Peart,
Bly and Kerouac, and Stein and Thompson Walker of late.
I thank God for my parents, for their love and suffering
when their bodies finally slowed to sudden stops
only four months and a day apart after a millennium.
Heartache leaves permanent scars of pleasure and pain,
but I thank God for my parents and their heaven,
for it will be there for me every morning I rise
promising more than until death do us part,
an eternal promise for my wife and us all.