Monday, October 8, is/was my dad’s birthday. Although for a few years prior he had had various ailments, he died unexpectedly of his first and last heart attack when he was just 57 and I was just 15. That was over fifty years ago. I think of him on occasions such as his birthday and the anniversary of his death but there have been long stretches of time when he has not entered my consciousness at all but slipped away into the shadows of memory with all of the aunts and uncles and grandparents who went before or with or since his own departure.
Does my memory of dad keep a bit of him alive, and if I stop thinking of him completely is he then truly gone? If I call out to him, does he hear me and answer, and if he does answer, can I hear it? What happens to those who die before us? Even if their consciousness lives on in some other realm or dimension, are they at all cognizant of us, do they keep up on the episodes of our lives like a soap opera? When we remember them or think about them or miss them, do they sense it, know it, feel it?
I think of my own son Rob who died two years ago and also left a daughter behind who was 15 at the time. Fifty years from now will she also be remembering him as I remember my father and wondering where all the years have gone. When I was pregnant with Rob his expected birthday was the same as my father’s, but he delayed his arrival and came instead on the anniversary of his death. I wondered for many years if my father had come back to me in this new body to rearrange our relationship into new patterns.
And now that they are both gone, I wonder if they are together, these two who never met in this life, this grandfather and grandson, although the longing was great in each for the other – one for the son he never had, the other for the father who was missing. Are they together now? Is my dad perhaps explaining the intricacies of baseball and the superiority of the Yankees? Are he and Rob enjoying a day of fishing beside some heavenly stream stocked with trout? Do they talk about the children they left behind and how they loved them?
What happens after we die? I do not remember how or where I existed before this birth – will it be the same after this death? I understand that all form dissolves and I will take nothing with me on this most singular journey, but are memories things? Must they also be left behind with the houses and cars and diamond rings? Or are memories not of the mind but of the heart and therefore weightless, formless and impervious to the vicissitudes of time’s grasp?
When we at last leave the burden of aging and ailing bodies behind and our spirits spring like newly released birds into the heavens and we follow the straight arrow of light home, is there indeed a gate of pearls, which are the tears of the heart, and will all our loved ones be waiting to embrace us like a crowd on the platform of a train depot waiting for the returning hero?
As I get older these questions become more frequent and more pressing. Where once there was a fear or trepidation about death, there is now a growing curiosity, a desire to explore, to peek under the covers of this ancient magical mystery. As we took our journey into birth and this life alone, so shall we return and at the end of our journey I wonder what awaits.