This week last year was pretty awful. Surprisingly, it was already bad even before my mom died suddenly on the Saturday evening, which obviously made it one of my worst weeks ever. But before that happened, I got the news earlier in the week that an old college friend, Linda, had died of cancer. I had only recently learned that her cancer was terminal, and I didn’t expect the end to come so soon.
I was shocked when I got that call, but I didn’t cry. I’m weird about tears — I cry easily, but not always at the things you’d expect. Not yet guessing how many more tears I’d be crying before that week was over, I felt terrible about my friend’s untimely death but I didn’t immediately burst into tears.
A day or two after Linda’s death, Cape Breton singer Rita MacNeil died, and the radio was filled with her songs and tributes to her. Now, I liked Rita’s music, but I wouldn’t call myself a major fan. I’d never seen her in concert; I admired her as someone who’d made something beautiful out of a tough start to life, and I was sorry she died. That was pretty much it. But then, the day after her death, I saw this cartoon and it brought tears to my eyes:
(in case you don’t recognize them, the other figures in the cartoon are also dead musicians from Eastern Canada. But you probably guessed that from context clues).
A few hours after I saw that cartoon, I was thinking of it while driving when Rita’s signature song “Working Man” came on the radio. I started crying so hard I almost had to pull over. When I did pull in to my own driveway I just sat there bawling uncontrollably for awhile. Fortunately I have a degree in psychology, so I was able to make the not-very-stunning deduction that my tears had more to do with the friend I’d just lost than with a musician I’d sort of admired. Music is a big emotional trigger for me, and I often cry when songs come on the radio or we sing hymns in church that awaken memories. But in this case it was the cartoon that stood out in my mind. Why, out of all the tributes to Rita MacNeil I’d seen, did this one move me to tears — and why did that unlock a deep well of grief for the friend I’d lost but hadn’t yet cried over?
It reminded me of another cartoon honouring another dead celebrity — again, someone I’d thought was talented but had not been a devoted fan of — that also moved me to tears. A week or so earlier, writer and movie critic Roger Ebert died, and this cartoon made me choke up a little:
The whole “recently dead celeb arrives in heaven” theme is very popular in tribute cartoons (regardless of the religious beliefs of the celebrity involved or whether they believed in any kind of afterlife at all). And these two really got to me, especially as I reflected on my own losses during that week.
The existence of cartoons like these is evidence of something I see all the time when people are faced with death — even people who have no religious beliefs and are skeptical about any kind of afterlife. We have a deep-seated need to believe, or at least to pretend, that the life of the person we loved is going on much as it used to, on some other plane of existence, in company with those who’ve already died.
When my co-worker Jeff died suddenly, one of the messages a student left on his classroom board read “I hope the coffee’s better up there, buddy.” (Our lunchroom coffee was pretty horrible at the time). Nobody inquired too deeply into where “up there” was and whether good coffee was a feature of eternal bliss. We all understood it as an expression of the desire to believe that our co-worker was still, somehow, himself, and enjoying the things he’d always enjoyed, like a good cup of coffee.
As a Seventh-day Adventist, albeit one with a sometime-shaky faith in eschatological things, I don’t believe our beloved dead are anywhere conscious at the moment, but I do believe in some kind of afterlife beyond the Resurrection Day. I can’t fathom what the life might be life, though, and I think it’s highly unlikely that it’s just an exact copy of this life without all the hassles. The Bible certainly doesn’t promise that — most of our images of heaven are more folk-religion than Biblical. If you read Isaiah 65:19-25 as being about heaven rather than an idealized earthly Israel, then it does seem to promise some of the features of everyday life on this earth — but it’s the only Bible passage that does so.
For the most part, I think, believers and non-believers alike have to put a big question mark over the idea of a heavenly existence after death — even if we’re sure it will happen, we can’t really imagine what it might be like, and surely life in a perfect world would have to be different in some very fundamental ways from the life we know here.
But what we want — what we all express, whether in cartoons or eulogies or sympathy cards, in the days after someone dies — is more of this life. We want everything to be back the way it was, to imagine that for the person we loved, existence continues as it always did, except that we can’t see them.
I thought about this as I was preparing the tribute I gave to my mom at her funeral. Seventh-day Adventists, as I said, don’t imagine our beloved dead continuing to consciously co-exist with us on a heavenly plane, so a whole wealth of popular platitudes was denied me. But I made use of the popular trope anyway. Drawing on my mom’s well-known love of going for a drive to see the sights, I imagined her on Resurrection Morning, glad to see Jesus arrive to take her to heaven but hoping He could go for a little drive around on the way there. I liked that image. It was the right one to end her eulogy on — something that made people smile and kept a little bit of her personality alive in everyone’s memory.
And that, after all, is what we’re all doing with our pictures of heaven — keeping those we love alive for a little longer. Hope in an afterlife is a wonderful thing for those of us who have it, but it does not promise what we want most, which is for things to not change, to go back to the way they used to be.
The truth is, regardless of what we believe or don’t believe about the afterlife, there is only one place where Rita is still singing with the band. Only one place where Siskel and Ebert are still reviewing movies together. There is only one place where my mom is still going for long drives just for the fun of it, where Linda is forever singing into a hairbrush with great dramatic flair. One place where my friend Jamie is still laughing with me as we over-analyze song lyrics, where my co-worker Jeff is still enjoying a cup of coffee. Only one place where my Uncle George is still regaling us with stories about family history and my Aunt Alicia is still doing the same for the other side of the family — and my mom is still skeptically wondering, under her breath, how much of the story was made up and how much was true.
There’s only one place where things remain unchanged, where all these things are still going on. And it’s not heaven.
That place is called Memory. It’s the most precious thing we have.