Some years ago, when riding home in the family car from her grandmother’s house, my little girl sat up front, making the most of time alone with me her Mom, as that noisy baby slept in the back. She looked at the sky. “If I could make a big enough ladder,” she said pensively, “I could climb there.”
Time keeps slipping for me this week. I think of the cold night earlier this month when I found myself in a florist’s greenhouse. It was near suppertime, but the shoppers there seemed reluctant to depart this damp Eden with its glass walls and ceilings all misted over with moisture.
Then time slips again to a long-ago night: Our then six-year-old had gone to bed. Downstairs, his father was playing his weekly bridge game with his pals. Elsewhere in the house, our other kids attended to the night’s homework. Then here came suddenly a sound of weeping, faint at first, but building in despair as it built in duration.
Our six-year-old appeared suddenly at my bedroom door. It was he who wept so. What was it?, I asked rushing toward him. A bad dream? He shook his head no. A pain? No again.
He sat on the edge of our bed and, after a long time, did his best to convey it: “I was thinking about death,” he finally whispered. “How when you die you just have to lie there. Forever.”
“Ah but most people don’t believe that. None of us has been there of course, but most people picture Heaven.”
“I don’t want to go to Heaven!” he burst out. What would I do there? What do people do when they’re there?”
I remembered an image that had comforted me once. “Well, they say it’s like a big party and everyone you ever loved is right there in the room with you – and your old pets, and the toys you lost and thought you’d never see again…”
“But even a party can go on too long.” He shook his head sadly. “And what if there is no Heaven and you just…..end?”
“I don’t think it’s like that,” I said, hugging him now and swallowing back my own tears. “Why don’t you stretch out here a while?”
And so he did, as I busied myself nearby. Thirty minutes later, he was still curled in a tense ball. I went over and lay down beside him; buried my face in his little-boy neck. “Listen!” I said at last. “Can you hear all those sounds? Daddy downstairs with his pals? Two kinds of music? Your brothers and sisters all talking and moving around?”
He nodded his head without opening his eyes.” Always you will have that: other people all around you. No one is alone, you know.”
“I know,” he whispered, and gave a final shuddering sigh.
He had looked over the edge into that terror. Most people look there exactly once, then get to work building a structure against it, whether you call it belief in the hereafter or faith in one’s fellow men or That Which Does Not Die.
I can’t say if that youngest child of mine began building his then and there. I can tell you that as far as I know he never wept like that again.
In that wintry greenhouse, I watched the clerk wrapping a plant against the cold with all the care of one easing a baby into a snowsuit. So. I told myself, there is this care, then.
There are the long bars of sunlight, winter or summer.
There are the voices of others as you slip into sleep.
And then there’s that ladder, which, built of strong enough stuff and fastened with Belief, may let us climb it upward after all.