“Call this one idea of heaven,” says the dying man. His voice has a theatrical thickness and command, telling a professor’s story of library books with ornately designed covers and years spent at the head of the classroom. I can’t help but feel some expectation when I hear his words. This will be the truth. How does that line of poetry go? The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Is it such a fallacy to imagine that a man in his last months of life might have some special mastery of heaven? But the topic shifts, the subject changes. The air inside the house becomes more casual and breathable. Now we are talking about how to keep track of the appropriate dose of a blood thinning medication, a concern of the physical world if ever there was one. Is heaven just delayed, or forgotten, lost forever in a maze of tangled synapses?
One idea of heaven is a box of rocks in the hospice home, or a box of stones, really. “Rocks” is too angular a word for what they represent. “Stones” has the long “O” that lies parallel to the round fullness of a life. They are kept there for a weekly remembrance ceremony for those who have died. Each week the doctors, nurses, chaplains, social workers, volunteers, and families rake their fingers through the cool stones, sifting for gold, looking for some glimmer to remind them of their patient or loved one. To celebrate a life in a small, humble way, and drop it into a tall vase filled with other stones where it will clink briefly and satisfyingly before coming to rest. And here I am, at the start of a new year for the hospice home, looking at an entirely empty glass tower, soon to be filled with the weightless weight of loss and love. Where are the stones from the previous year, I wonder? Maybe taken outside and buried, so that they might grow into electric flowers.
One idea of heaven is standing in the nursing and rehab center with a tentative smile painted on my face in chapstick and nerves, making occasional eye contact with an old lady dressed in impossible pink and clutching a yellow teddy bear. Every time she stands up, the fall alarm on her wheelchair launches into a MIDI version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and a nurse makes her way over to convince her to sit back down. Sometimes it takes them all the way to trouble melting like lemon drops. For all I know, maybe she just keeps standing up because she wants to hear the song. The nurse I’m following has just met a woman who doesn’t yet understand that her husband won’t be able to make a full recovery from his heart failure exacerbation, may only ever even temporarily clear the delirious clouds. I can’t begin to imagine how much it must take to accept that truth, and so I don’t. Doesn’t the song say that dreams really do come true? She’s standing up again, somebody really ought to catch her.
Snap back to the professor’s “a place for everything and everything in its place” living room, no doubt carefully curated by his wife, more than ninety years old and still razor sharp. I remember her daughter had told me and the hospice nurse how important the bird feeders in the backyard had become to the family, watching the bright colors flit back and forth around the glass tower filled with seed, just another handful of fluorescent stones waiting for something to remember. Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.
“Right, right,” the professor says. “Call this one idea of heaven.” He remembers now. “If I could go to Harris Teeter and sit in my motorized cart and drive around, no rush, I wouldn’t put anything in the cart, just write down a list of all the things I want and drive around.” The last few times he rode the electric carts in the store his daughters had to run after him to save the wine bottles and other shoppers from a low speed impact.
“That would be heaven,” he says, and Jesus and the angels laugh and cry and love him for everything he is, which isn’t much anymore, but is still something, at least. His wife smirks, and the look is complicated through the branches and fragmented light. His daughter is out back with the birds, who only know the more joyful hymns. I am somewhere. Somewhere, dreams come true.