Tag Archives: afterlife

A Bucket of Wings and a Pitcher of PBR with the Baby Jesus

The first time that the Baby Jesus talked to me was at YMCA Summer camp. I heard him on assignment, lying on my bunk in a group cabin while the cicadas droned outside. Us campers had been sent back to our quarters after an evening devotional to listen for a message from God. Around the campfire, our counselors had had admonished us to listen with humility. We had to silence all our selfish desires if we hoped to perceive a divine whisper. We even had to relinquish our hope to hear a whisper from the Lord, if we hoped to hear a whisper from the Lord.

As I lay with my eyes open in the darkness, I was having more trouble tuning out the insects than the cacophony of my selfish desires. The cicadas’ ballad seemed to come from the darkness itself. I had long practice ignoring the undulating buzz, having grown up in the South with no central air and therefore reliant upon open windows for enough cool to allow Summer sleep. With no clamor in my head, the bug song rose from the suppressed depths of my consciousness to make a noise again. I tried to block it out while not trying to block it out, or trying to try to block it out, and so on, until my attention became exhausted and let go of the sound.

Just then, something happened. A voice, or maybe just a feeling, told me not to worry. The speaker was there. Everything was going perfectly according to plan. I felt great. Maybe I even let go a few tears of joy that night. In any case, I soon fell asleep and when I woke the next morning, the world seemed to have a fresh scent, like it had been sprinkled with the lavender water of permeating divinity. The divine freshness lingered for a couple years, but from the moment of spritzing, it was doomed to fade. It could not be reconciled with events on the road to camp.

Our family had set out with a very aggressive vacationing agenda that year. We had left home two weeks prior on a mission to visit my grandmother and Disney World, both a day’s drive away. We would then loop back up to drop me at Summer camp, while my brother would go on to baseball camp, leaving my parents with a week of real vacation for themselves. The schedule was tight, and my father was not pleased when we pulled up behind a row of parked cars on a two lane road in the flatlands of North Florida. When we stepped out of the car, we could see an object blocking both lanes in the distance. Other people were getting out of their cars too, and it was quiet. We walked forward with all the rest.

On the opposite side of the road, about 30 yards up, a distraught elderly couple sat on the ground by their car. The car had a dent in the hood and its windshield was caved in. A few yards beyond lay a mangled bicycle. It was nice, or it had been. I had wanted a BMX bike like that for a couple of years, and I would have done with it what I imagined its rider was doing when the old folks hit him: jumping the banks on either side of the elevated roadway. The boy lay a dozen yards beyond his wrecked bike, diagonally across the lane lines. He was on his side with no apparent injury, from a distance, but with a puddle of blood around his upper body.

Standing over the boy, one could see that the blood was coming from his ears. His gaze fixed on something impossibly distant and his breaths came halting and deep. We circled around him as he died. Someone remarked that an ambulance was on its way, A nurse in the crowd screamed at the rest not to just stand there, but to run and get a blanket. She was upset to a degree beyond what the collective paralysis of the bystanders merited. She may have been wondering how Baby Jesus could allow such a thing. As a child, I knew that adults had their reasons and that those reasons were sometimes unfathomable. I just assumed that the same was true of the Baby Jesus.

I saw no injustice, but I saw his stare. Surely, the distant thing upon which the boy’s gaze fixed was his own death. Yet he would never get to that far place. If he just snuffed out, then he just snuffed out, like when the dentist gave me anesthesia to remove my wisdom teeth and asked me to count to ten as the drug took effect. I didn’t even fail to count to eight. I counted to seven and that was it; there was no experience of looking back on an unsuccessful effort to count to eight, only a memory of seven, then nothing. Likewise, if he saw a light at the end of a tunnel or rose into the ether to look down on his inert body, then he experienced a metamorphosis. He got yanked away from those final moments of physiologic cessation just like the anesthetic yanked me away from counting to eight.

If I had asked any of my fellow onlookers gathered around the body that day, I’m sure they would have spoken of death as a thing which might bear a scythe and a cowl. They would have named it an independent reality. But after that day on the road, I slowly came to see that they were wrong. I fantasized about what would happen if the boy could tell us about leaving his body. Jesus’ disciples were said to have had that very experience, when Jesus returned from the dead to speak to his inner circle. Yet they were only twelve meeting The One. I imagined a world where meetings with the dead were common. I imagined ghosts at first, but engaging in spectrology proved an unnecessary complication. The situation was the same if what happened to Jesus happened to everybody. Your bodily functions stopped. You went up into the clouds. You got a bit of a rebuild. You came back down.

If universal resurrection came to pass, the first generation affected might continue to speak of the Grim Reaper. But as the reportage of the pierced, crushed and disintegrated became commonplace, no one would refer to Death as a thing in itself. There would be misadventures and resurrections, and all would be properly seen as aspects of our total experience. Eventually, no one would even talk about Life anymore.

Though I did not appreciate it at the time, the considerations which began on that roadway in the Southern plains generated a frictional heat, which would finally evaporate the lavender water of permeating divinity. Over years, it dawned on me that Eau Divine had already transcended itself if we could put a name to it, even if we just spoke metaphorically. Like life and death, the scent arose from a great continuity of experience, which we could never look back upon from a discontinuous beyond. It was a slow drying out, and I did not even miss the scent until the next time Jesus spoke to me. That final time, I was sitting in a bar at lunch, far from Christian Summer camp, when the voice of the Lord came to me from a bucket of wings.

I don’t know why I ordered the wings. I was at a crossroads career-wise, so maybe I felt a little unstable and subject to whimsy. As I stared into the jumble of battered and fried appendages however, I recalled why I had become a de facto vegetarian. I felt sick as I imagined all the capabilities which those little wings had possessed in life, reduced to the mess before me on the plastic table cloth. But it was too late by then. I understood my place in the supply chain (having ordered) and besides, I could not leave food uneaten in my financial circumstances. Luckily, there was cheap beer on tap. I asked the bartender to bring me a pitcher.

I took a solid gulp of the rice-brew swill before having a second look at the wings. That’s when the voice, or maybe it was more like a feeling, came to me out of the bucket. It told me not to worry. Life had been given for life. It was all going according to plan. I could eat those chicken wings with a clear conscience, because that’s how it was meant to be. The essence of life got passed on, said the voice, and carried on from the poor little chickens to me. I stared at the crusty wings, and was not reassured. Those bits of bone and muscle that had been, could be taken for almost anything now. But they could not be taken out of circumstance or consequence, anymore than that boy on the road, Life and Death, plans both mortal and divine, or the voice of the Baby Jesus, coming, as it did, from the bucket, or the ether, or any other relatively distinguishable source.

I downed the remainder of the swill and pushed back from the table. Somebody else got the wings, and that was the last I heard from the Baby Jesus.

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The Prelife

I have resigned myself to die many times over, but I have been lucky. I wasn’t shot in Paris. I didn’t fall off the North Ridge variation. I wasn’t killed by rock fall, or struck by the falling body. The avalanche didn’t push me over the cliff. I recovered from my pneumonia and I stopped rolling before I went under the car.

I have known others who had similar experiences and the same good fortune. One guy fell from the top of an ice climb and punctured his lung. When he got out of the hospital, he sold all his gear and quit climbing. Another locked the back brake on his motorcycle at 60 mph to slip behind the car he was passing. In doing so, he avoided a head-on collision with a truck, and barely kept his machine upright through the ensuing fishtail slide. After he pulled off the road and dismounted, he never climbed back on a bike again. On the other hand, another guy I know survived altitude sickness on Denali, came down and bought a para-glider  Then there was the friend who took fall after fall, and each time climbed farther from his protection than the last, until he began to eschew the rope altogether.

The first group, those who escaped a close call and chose to hoard the life that might remain to them, were wrong. Time kept in a vault sustains nothing in the end, it simply perishes. However, the second group, those who saw themselves as survivors specially blessed by fortune, were also wrong. No such privilege exists. Of all the people I’ve encountered who confronted death, the only ones who seemed to get it right every time were those who died.

I have seen a lot of people die. On the road, in the snow, in bed and on gurneys, the people I have seen die have done so in quiet, while the people around them wept and wailed. I think that arrangement reflects the truth more than any other set scene we might devise to frame the end of a life. Those remaining mourn for themselves; they are the ones who have lost something. The dying become quiet because they return to the prelife

The prelife is an individual’s condition before they come to be conscious, when their heritage and senses have yet to generate the identity necessary for experience. No one recalls the moment they pass from prelife to life any more than anyone recalls the exact moment that they fall asleep. No one fears or laments the time before they first woke any more than they fear the moment that they go to sleep, when they come to it (even if they are the worst insomniac existentialist).

It is easy for us to accept the necessity of our preconditions. It is more difficult for us to accept the necessity of our post-conditions, though they are actually much the same as the circumstances that conspired to bring us about, except of course, for the fact that we have been.

So, we make up bedtime stories for ourselves about afterlives. Stories of this kind are necessary to get us through the uncertainties of childhood when we lack the experience to allay our anxiety about the unknown. In those stories though, the dead are truly lost to us, as their lives become a token of their true existence at best. Worse, each person is lost to themselves from the start, as they are, in the end, separated from the determinants and contents of their lives as a whole and are left with a remnant, and a stagnant one at that, if we believe the claims of eternity in those yarns.

Read through from a mature perspective, the accounts of paradise sound more like dark, German fairy tales than lullabies. A ghost condemned to wander a pleasant meadow will be just as miserable as one who haunts a swamp. Lucky for us,  afterlife stories are only a class of fiction. We won’t be condemned to an endless disassociation. We may expect instead to return to the prelife when we die.

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