As a writer of murder mysteries that feature a hospital chaplain, I’ve probably given death a lot more thought than most people.
Brief sidebar–my daughter seems to have inherited my fascination with the morbid. While most children play the License Plate Game on long car trips, my kid keeps a tally of the different roadkill animals we pass. I think we got up to 13 possums on our drive from Illinois to Virginia last summer.
Okay. Back to my fixation with death. When I was in college, I realized that there was no heaven, at least not in the sense that I’d been raised to regard it. When I say “realized” it genuinely was a moment of realization, like a reverse Road to Damascus moment.
Here’s how it went down. My roommate, who is Jewish, had received a kosher care package from her mother in advance of the Passover holiday. She and I unscrewed a bottle of Manischewitz wine (which, if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying it, tastes like Kool-aid with a fistful of Jolly Ranchers melted into it). As we drank, she told me about all of the ancient traditions of Passover — the meanings behind the food that was eaten and the words that were spoken. I realized in that moment that my sweet roommate, who is still one of the nicest, most considerate people I’ve ever known, wasn’t going to hell. It kind of broke my brain. I mean, this thought was totally at odds with everything I’d been taught as a strict Baptist, i.e. all non-believers, including many Catholics!, would go to hell. Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Light and NO ONE was gonna get to the Father except through Him. But how could this be so? My roommate was following the religious teachings she’d been raised with. Was she really supposed to throw all that out and toss aside her family and thousands of years of history in order to score a ticket to the one and only (Baptist) Heaven?!
Once my belief in heaven and hell became unmoored, other long-held “truths” got caught up in this tsunami of doubt. I have never been able to get back to any kind of certainty about what happens after we die. All I know is that I don’t believe that anyone deserves eternal damnation, especially anyone as good as my Jewish roommate. This uncertainty has made life all the more precious to me. This life may well be all that there is. You might think that that would make me cling to it like some kind of stubborn, agnostic barnacle. On the contrary, it’s made me value quality over quantity. For me, fifty bright-burning years of wonder and joy, soaking in the warm light of consciousness is always going to be way better than 100 years of meh.
Along those philosophical lines, I encourage you to read this wonderful piece in the Washington Post about the American obsession with extending life. So many of us try to stretch out those last months and years like stingy people trying to spread our little pat of margarine across an endless piece of toast. I hope that, when my time comes, I’ll have the courage to face the unknown with bravery and with the hope that there is some kind of heaven. Perhaps the kind of place where my roommate and I can sit around together, sipping terrible wine on a Tuesday afternoon.