How come nobody knows firsthand what happens when you die while at the same time there are so many stories and images floating around? The answer to the first question is of course that no one has ever come back to tell the tale. Probably couldn’t be bothered once they got to the other side. And the answer to the second question … I’ll get to that. Let’s go with those that went before us, first.
I can’t say I blame them. I always thought that, when I finally kicked the bucket, I wouldn’t turn back, not even for a last glance. What would be the point? When your train leaves the station (or in the case of Elvis, you leave the building), you don’t go back for your keys or a clean hanky. What’s done is done.
When you die young, you have every right to be pissed off and ask for a second chance. I suppose that may have happened in a few cases. They were given a few more days, weeks or months (probably not months) to bring their affairs in order and to show what good people they were. Some of them may be responsible for those soppy movies about second chancers falling in love on their second time round, only to find some smartass angel blocking the way to everlasting happiness with a one-way ticket to heaven. Not my favorite movies, I confess.
Heaven is of course what we all hope for, even if we know the chances of us getting in are slim with all the shit we pulled during our lifetime. It’s strange. So many people are curious as to what heaven will be like, even if they know damn well they themselves are headed in the other direction. Well, hope springs eternal, as they say.
Me, I never harbored any illusions. Barring a clerical mistake of epic proportions, I knew very well where I’d end up. ‘Never be afraid to face the music,’ my grandmother used to say. This was way before New Age tropes like, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway,’ but it boils down to the same thing: You do something bad, you come clean and accept your punishment. It’s not hard to see who the beneficiaries of such a strategy are. Not the kids, that’s for damn sure.
Still, lessons learned in childhood are not easily erased from the blackboard of our earliest classes, and are more like the hundred eleven indelible commandments on stone tablets you get to lug around for the rest of your life. Free choice is highly overrated.
None of this matters when your time has come. Coming clean and fessing up is what you’ll do, whether you like it or not. Supposedly, it’s not even necessary. They already know, and when the scales tip even one gram in the wrong direction, your goose (and you) is cooked. Literally.
I don’t know what I was expecting. One moment I was in hospital, looking at nurse Harriet’s shapely backside (one of my few remaining pleasures), and the next I’m standing at the bottom of this giant staircase. It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together. This was the big moment, and the coolness of the air around me was at least an indication that barbecue was not on the menu. Not yet, at least.
Also, as any optimist will tell you, there was no way to go but up. Moreover, there was nothing else to do. That staircase was all there was. There were no fluffy clouds, no heavenly stars, not a single angel telling me what was next. When there’s only one thing to do, that’s what you do. So, up I went.
One thing that bothered me as I took the first steps: Why was I the only one there? I mean, every day, 150,000 people die. That staircase should have been crawling with people pushing ahead, unless jumping the queue was a mortal sin and no one wanted to be the one to arrive first.
But it was just me. Me and a staircase that reached up as far as the eye could see. As staircases go, I’d seen better ones. A bit of marble wouldn’t have gone amiss, but those wooden steps under my bare feet weren’t even painted. And let’s be honest, I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, either. Bare feet, a hospital gown, open at the back, must be the most unflattering of outfits imaginable. The least they could have done was put a decent change of clothes on the first step.
Silly thoughts, maybe, but when you’re climbing a seemingly endless set of stairs, you’ve got plenty of time to think. They say that when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. They don’t tell you that this flash lasts a lifetime. That’s a movie I really didn’t need to see again. But it wasn’t as if I had a choice. It just happened, and it took a long time. How long, I don’t know. I suppose we don’t need clocks in the afterlife, what with time being an illusion, anyway, but once my life flash ended, I did begin to wonder if I would ever get to the top.
I also wondered what would happen once I got there. Would there be gates made of pearls? Would there be a bearded geezer in a smock with a big book, or maybe an iPad? Or maybe St. Pete would look like Charlton Heston in *The Ten Commandments*? For all I knew, Heston himself could meet me there. I could tell him I’d always been a fan. A little kissing ass never hurt anybody, and I had nothing to lose.
Or maybe Christianity was a hoax. I wouldn’t be surprised. It is, after all, a pretty unbelievable story. And that brings me to the second question. Some people will believe anything. Santa Claus married the Easter Bunny and they lived happily ever after on Venus. I’m sure I could get someone to go along with it.
The more I thought about it, and that interminable climb gave me plenty of time to think, the more I came to the conclusion that whatever I was going to find up there would be a total surprise. Maybe I’d meet the archetypal Death (I suppose a capital D is in order), complete with a black robe and a scythe to cut your last lifeline, which in my case would be the drip that still seemed attached to my arm.
I imagined him (or her; this wasn’t the time for sexism) to be a bit impersonal. Surely, a mythical skeleton wouldn’t wot of human trials and tribulations. He (or her, or it) would have never had to worry about bringing home the bacon, would never have considered going on a diet or contemplated another hairstyle. Reasoning with such a being would be futile.
It was with some trepidation that I finished the last steps.
All I saw, was a door. A sliding door. No pearls in sight. And no St. Pete or Death either. After such a long climb, I felt entitled to a little more than a door. Given the life I led, I didn’t exactly expect a choir of cheering angels, but come on, surely some form of welcome was not too much to ask for.
Next to the door was a single button. An elevator, I thought. Seriously? After all that climbing? Couldn’t they have put an elevator at the bottom? I pressed the button, the door opened and I stepped inside. No buttons there. Of course. Nowhere to go but up, as the optimist said. But up was not where we went. We went down. Down, down and further down still.
This was beginning to feel like those substitute birth dreams I used to have, flying down a chute that got ever narrower. All I knew, I was heading somewhere. The temperature was rising, but that could mean anything. Soon, I would know.
Copyright © 27-02-2021 Theo van der Ster
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