What Happens to Us When We Die? Views of the Afterlife
Today I’m wondering, as I do each day: what happens to us when we die? Where will Ronan go? Will I be walking down the street someday and recognize his green-brown eyes in the face of another little boy? Will I catch a whiff of his mellow sweetness in a neighbor’s dog who nuzzles my hand in the street? If science tell us that energy never stops completely but is endlessly recycled, does this mean that Buddhist notions about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls have some truth to them and that death is just a gateway to a new experience? Or is energy tightly packed up in the Christian heaven, a kind of holy clearing house for souls or energy bodies roaming free, released from the bonds of physical impediment? Both concepts or visualizations require that some element of that person is sustained, endlessly protected, and in some sense living on – the essence, the soul, something. And I’m also thinking about karma, this notion that each of us must live out old stories that are unknown to or at least well hidden from us in this current life, which seems both unfair as well as an inadequate way of explaining the unfairness of life.
I’m reading this poem by my friend Phil Pardi:
Drinking with My Father in London
With his mate, Wilfred, who was dying
I discussed ornithology as best I could
Given the circumstances, my father flushed
And silent, a second pint before me,
My fish and chips not yet in sight.
Condensation covered the windows
and in the corner a couple played
tic-tac-toe with their fingers.
Behind it all, convincingly, the rain fell.
The mystery, Wilfred was saying, isn’t flight.
Flight is easy, he says, lifting his cap, but
landing – he tosses it at the coat rack –
landing is the miracle. Would you believe
thirty feet away the cap hits
and softly takes in the one bare peg?
Would you believe no one but me notices?
I’d like to come back as a bird,
Wilfred says, both hands on the glass
before him, and here my father
comes to life. You already
were a bird once,
Wilfred, he says, next time
next time you get to be
the whole damn flock.
From Meditations on Rising and Falling
This February, after my session with a past-lives healer as I struggled to digest what he had told me – that Ronan had been a healer in another life, a very rare and well-known boy healer who had died young as a result of accidentally ingesting poison – my friend reminded me that it doesn’t make sense to believe in something that is unbelievable just because it makes you feel better. Too right. It’s what I’d been searching for as the healer, a gentle, blond man speaking to me in a soft voice from Denmark, also revealed that Ronan may have lived in Peru at one time and that he had chosen Rick and me as his parents because we knew we would take care of him and that we could handle it. I wanted to believe him. I waited for that flash of faithfulness, that certainty I hoped would rocket through my heart and mind as it had through Paul on his way to Damascus, a conversion experience that would illuminate the truth in a single, unquestionable flash. Instead, our overseas Skype connection kept shorting out, the screen shifting every few minutes to fuzz. After a few moments I’d see his wife on the screen adjusting the computer and muttering in Danish before stepping aside and allowing her husband to continue the session. “So sorry,” he said each time. “Now, back to Ronan.”
On the other side of the screen, in those trembling and thunderous few weeks after Ronan’s diagnosis, I sat, practically steaming with terror. “Terror breeds apocalyptic visions,” a religion professor once told me when were discussing the origins of the Book of Revelation. No shit. My friend’s comment that it was impossible to believe in the unbelievable just to find a way of moving through a difficult experience – or even just a single day — was absolutely correct. But he also talked about how he believed that stories make life cohere and order itself around us, and that this can help us live. And all of the notions of the after life are, of course, stories. People may ardently believe in them, as incredulous as they are to non-believers, but the truth is that nobody has come back to verify the facts of anybody’s vision of the afterlife. No empirical evidence exists. Nobody knows anything for sure. We can only believe in what we’ve come to accept as truth. We only have stories. In one of her songs, Neko Case sings: “Voices that did comfort me/furthest from my sanity/come from places I have never seen. Even in my darkest recollections/there was someone singing my life back to me.” In my friend Barbara’s letter from around this time she reminded me of the scene in one of Philip Pullman’s novels when Lyra must tell stories in order to set the trapped souls free and how the experience nearly kills her. In Buddhism we’re invited to see ourselves as part of the natural cycle of birth, aging and dying. Stories: they’re all we’ve got.
But all the old stories fail me (I think of the hymn “The Old, Old Story”: “I love to tell the story, the old, old story, of Jesus and his love.”) Belief in anything is difficult for me these days. One morning I woke up while it was still dark outside, misread my alarm clock, and found myself convinced that the sun was not going to rise. I felt relieved. My private apocalypse had finally spilled over into the larger world. I wouldn’t have to explain a single element of my personal tragedy. Everyone would be having their own.
The notion of karma is troubling me because it’s the one thing I feel like I can hook into at the moment; it feels the most true and yet it’s the most problematic because it seems the most closely linked to divine retribution and a punishing, all-seeing God.
“In the summer of 1819, she could think of nothing but her loss. She had been a mother three times; each time, the child had been snatched from her. ‘Oh, oh, oh fate, cruel giver of evil gifts, almighty shade of Oedipus, black Erinys, how overwhelming you are,’ Shelley had written, quoting Aeschylus, at the end of her first journal. What sin, she wondered, could have merited such relentless punishment?” (Mary Shelley, by Miranda Seymour).
Mary Shelley again, here berating herself for the loss of her three infant children in less than five years. If they hadn’t gone to Italy, if they hadn’t been on that road or passed through that dirty street, perhaps her children would not have fallen ill, perhaps they would have lived. A torturous list of what-ifs. For a self-proclaimed atheist, her sudden sink into a belief in divine retribution is telling, and points to the depth of her despair.
The Danish healer tried to soft pedal karma in our virtual meeting (he knew he was dealing with a grieving mother), but he did insist that all of us benefit and suffer from karmic motion. Of course my initial reaction to the idea that Ronan has karmic weight to haul around or old stories to deal with and/or resolve and this is why he will only live for a few years while gradually regressing into a vegetative state is to look at his chubby baby face and chubby baby thighs and feel angry. How ludicrous. Why give such a load to a baby? Why dump it on a baby’s parents?
But then why give it to anyone? Who is more worthy (or less worthy, depending on how you think about it), of a load of karmic crap? Who is to say who is deserving of one less fortunate life and who is deserving of another, “better” one? In fact the idea of “deserving” anything when it comes to life feels misguided from the start. Mothers lost their children all the time in Mary Shelley’s day, and women all over the world still lose their children to war, famine, preventable disease. Women in his country, in 2012, lose their children to abuse, starvation, murder. Is my perspective on karma simply a byproduct of my privileged life and the fact that death has not confronted me full-on until now? Is my worldview, which I like to think is so expansive and inclusive and enlightened, actually quite limited in this respect?
This fall I was walking with R on the arroyo path near his house when a woman passed us, curious, as everyone always is, about this baby contentedly snoozing in the front pack. After I told her Ronan’s name she repeated it and asked me if I’d had him baptized yet. I said no and walked on, making light of it. We passed her again, she asked again about the baptism. R told her, quite rightly, that she was being rude (he said it in the nicest way), but days after Ronan’s diagnosis I found myself haunted by this question. Was that woman some kind of special seer who knew that my baby was sick long before I did and was giving me solid advice about how to help him? Had I failed my son by not having him baptized, failed to protect him somehow by not assuring his safe passage to heaven with all the other doomed babies? By not baptizing my son had I failed to provide what, in some ways, acts as a safeguard or a reliever of karmic burdens?
Several years ago I was walking other Em’s son Coll to his school in London. A fearless kid, he wanted to run ahead and promised to stop and wait for me at the corner before crossing the street. He assured me several times that this would be perfectly acceptable to his parents. I was pushing his sister Anita in the stroller, watching his blonde hair flapping in the wind, dust flying up from the soles of his shoes, buses and cars roaring past. Nervous, I called for him to come back. “If it’s okay with you, I would like if you’d walk next to me,” I said, trying to mask the terror so evident on my face. (When he was just weeks old I took him for a brief walk in the stroller and didn’t take one breath the entire time.) He was annoyed, but he patiently walked with us to the school yard where he turned to me and said, “You can leave me now.” I panicked. Could I? How did I know what was going to greet him on the jungle gym, in the classroom? Who can say that my protectiveness on the street meant anything at all? Being vigilant in one potentially dangerous moment was no safeguard against future trouble. Anything could happen at any time. Some wounding comment might be made and never forgotten, some maniacal swing from the monkey bars might end in a life-threatening free fall. No, I simply could not leave him at this school, where physical and emotional disaster lurked in every kid-occupied corner. I looked around for the teacher, prepared to tell her that I was taking Coll home, and trying to think of a plausible reason why this would be necessary. But before I could find a single adult he was off, and I turned the stroller around and headed back to the house, Anita chattering along as we bumped across the park. Em’s garden faces the school yard of the primary school, and all afternoon I tried to comfort myself with the roar and flow of children playing. I assured myself that someone would be looking out for him, that he’d be fine. Still, I was relieved when he returned home. It felt like a small miracle, and I couldn’t imagine reenacting it each day. How do parents do this? I wondered.
How do we know when to leave people behind and when to send them off? Rick’s grandmother was sent away from Radomyshyl, a shtetl in the Ukraine, when she was still a child. Pogroms were getting worse and her parents wanted to try and offer Rose, the smartest child, a different life. They would save her by letting her go. For Rose’s parents in 1918, putting their not-yet-teenaged daughter on a cart out of that village was tantamount to sending her over the edge of the earth. She never saw them again. The letters from her sister stopped during the early 1940s, and she later learned that the entire village was wiped out in a single afternoon. Years later that girl, grown up and married, would find herself in a Brooklyn alley on one summer evening, sifting through ripped open garbage bags, pawing through coffee grounds and food scraps and soggy paper with her husband, the two of them searching for the ring I now wear on my finger, the ring Rose realized must have fallen into a bag of trash and that was the only thing of value she had ever owned. This life, never known to her parents, lost to them. My friend’s grandmother stood in a church in the Netherlands in 1939, and when a woman wearing a red scarf passed her pew, she handed that woman her baby girl, who would be hidden with a Christian family for the duration of the war. The instructions were to smile and act casual, as if the woman in the red scarf was the actual mother of the child. The real mother had to repeat this ritual twice, relinquish her child twice, as the first family was “compromised.” I imagine this mother who had already lost her parents and brother to debilitating poverty in a Polish shtetl, sweating in her high heels, pretending to know the Christian prayers, holding her baby to her chest, watching the women file past her, waiting to see the edge of that red scarf, her heart beating fire. And Rose’s parents, watching their youngest daughter bounce out of the village in a rickety old wagon, armed with Yiddish and Russian, a few words of German, and enough money (they hoped) to get her, eventually, to the United States.
As a parent, I want to know what’s waiting for my son at the end of his life, and I want to get him there with dignity, and to know each moment he has with us in this life. I speak mostly with parents of terminally ill children who share my philosophy of care approach: minimal intervention, maximum life experience. But when the body doesn’t make the decision for us, how do we know when to leave one another? How do we know when to let go? How will I know what to do in that moment when a decision is required of me? What will be my guide? Motherly instinct, whatever that is? The harshness of scientific fact? What speaks to me in Phil’s poem is the implication that any afterlife we imagine is so limited that the only thing we can do is let go of the hat and trust that it will land. We might never see it; we might be the only ones who ever do.
Nobody gets a free pass. The stories I heard from some of the other Tay-Sachs parents has absolutely confirmed this. Just because you watch your child die does not mean you won’t shepherd your parents through a debilitating illness, or that you won’t get cancer, or that your husband won’t die in a car crash. Although my great fear while I was pregnant was that they’d gotten it all wrong and my birth defect was genetic, part of me believed that I’d earned a bit of good fortune; that it was my turn to be visited by some grace. But grace is more fickle than luck; sometimes you need a magnifying glass to see it. Sometimes you need super powers. The only thing I have is imagination.
The truth is, I don’t think anyone gets to come back as anyone else, as the same age-old creature housed in a new body. I don’t believe in heaven. I wish I did, as I’ve witnessed the comfort they give to others. But I do believe in stories, and I believe they are the only vehicles of grace.
There’s a story that I tell myself when I think about “after Ronan,” whenever that time is and however it looks. It’s not a place I want to visit, but this story helps me go there, and I hope it will help me visit him, or the dream-feeling of him, until I’m old and have forgotten everything else. It’s part memory, part dream, part wishful thinking. Perhaps it will change and shift. Perhaps more people will move in and out of the narrative, but this is how the story reads right now, today.
The story is this: I’m on Inishmore, an island off the West Coast of Ireland, walking toward Dun Aengus, an old ancient fort that has been eroding over centuries; half of if has already fallen into the ocean below. I visited the Aran Islands with friends in 1994, but in the dream-memory I am alone. I scale famine walls, pass cottages and a few isolated people. A fog descends. I can no longer see my hands or where my footsteps are taking me, so I turn around and walk in the other direction, away from the sound of the water. I am not afraid, only curious. My mouth tastes of seawater and wool. My feet and legs hurt, but not in an unpleasant way. In fact, I feel sporty and alive. My blood is warm and I can hear my heartbeat. The color of the sky begins to change; there is sun behind the thick reach of gray-white clouds. Slowly, it gets warmer and warmer. There are more people on the road now, nodding at me as they pass. The sleepy town is no longer sleeping. I walk down the dirt road, past a yard where baby clothes are fluttering on a clothesline, still too wet and heavy to flap in the wind. The sun is strong now, almost tropical strength. I reach the shore of a small rocky beach littered with seaweed, sit down, then lie down, and finally fall asleep. I wake up to barking, splashing, and my face pounding with sunburn. Sound echoes and astounds as it does when you rise from a dream state; it refracts and shifts like light, like moods. Out on the rocks are a few dark seals, their sleek and impossible bodies – so graceful, so smooth — slipping in and out of the water. I watch them for a long time, those seals dipping in and out of the water, cool and calm and singing singing singing singing singing…