Five years back, my friend died. Natalie was a beautiful faithful 33 year old with two kids and a talent with words. She was one of the few people in this world who read more than me. She died from stomach cancer, one of the worst kinds (to my mind) because it is rarely found before it's too late. I also lost an aunt to stomach cancer when I was just a wee thing. Her funeral is one of my earliest memories. According to my dad, it is quite likely that his mother died with stomach cancer as well. I never got to meet her, and that has always been a sore spot for me. Anywho, I digress.
After Natalie died, I started having panic attacks. I would try to imagine her in heaven. I thought that would help me be okay with her dying, but it didn't help at all. Everything I had ever been taught about the afterlife suddenly seemed too little too late, flimsy cardboard ideas meant to comfort small children.
As a matter of fact, I realized just this week that Natalie's death wasn't the start of my struggle with heaven. When I was ten, the same age as my oldest son, my Papaw passed away. He lived with us, and he died while we were at church. He was home alone. I vividly remember begging to see him and Mom saying no. I can't say I blame her. I would have done the same with my own children. I sat in our brown recliner, and Preacher (that's what we called him) came over to talk to me. He told me about heaven. Twenty years later, what I remember thinking is this, "That's not good enough."
And I still feel that way. Pearly gates, streets of gold, angels dancing around a throne, blah blah blah blah blah.
Someone, trying to be helpful after Nattie died, handed me a copy of 90 Minutes in Heaven. Well, perhaps it is a good book. I can't tell you objectively. What I can tell you is this: the author's experience of heaven was exactly what everyone tells you heaven is like. It was exactly the kind of place I'd been taught to imagine. Instead of bringing comfort, the panic attacks got worse. I could not finish the book. I'm not discrediting the author's experience. I'm only saying that his account did not help me. Could it help you? Sure. Many people raved about that book. I'm glad it was good for them. Some of the youth from church have tried convincing me to read Heaven is For Real, and that's just not happening.
Later, I was listening, with my sons, to the audio of The Wizard of Oz. Most of you know the story, how Dorothy's one desire is to just get back to Kansas. I can't remember which character asks, perhaps the Scarecrow, "Where's Kansas?" And Dorothy tries to explain. In the end, the best she can say is something like, "I don't know how to pinpoint it on a map, but it's home, and that's what matters."
That was my first clear breath of peace. I was at last able to relax into the thought that I can't pinpoint heaven on a map. I can't outline its borders or describe its contents. But, I trust God and wherever God is, that's home. Jesus said he went to prepare a place for us. I don't need to know the specifics of the place, because I trust Jesus. My kids didn't need to know the detailed floor plan of this house before we bought it. We're their parents, and they trust that we won't make them live in a tin shack with no running water.
I thought I was past the whole issue until I got a call from my mother, a call much like the one Cheri wrote about today, at Middle Places. My Uncle Greg was sick. Really sick. Lots of tests were run. Doctors were consulted. Treatments were tried. The phrase "Stage IV" flew from the telephone and started burrowing down inside of me. I felt, again, a great panic. Not Greg, I thought. He's the youngest brother. Besides, in his family, the men die of heart attacks, not cancer. Greg's cancer had already spread. It was eating him up from the inside out.
A dear friend, knowing I was struggling, suggested a book. She promised it was no first-hand account. It was, rather, a well-researched volume exploring what the Bible actually says about heaven. The book was called, simply, Heaven. It is written by Randy Alcorn, and it is a wonderful book. I was reading it when the next phone call came. I hopped on an airplane and made my way home for a funeral. I took Heaven with me and read bits of it to my family. Somehow, I ended up bringing the message at our family church on Sunday morning. The book didn't wrap and regift all of the pat answers people gave me over a span of years. It used logic and study, metaphor and analogy.
The next summer, I lost another uncle to cancer. I made it through with minimal panic. Then, this year, Granddaddy got sick. I mean, he's been in a home living with Alzheimer's for a few years already, but he started sliding downhill. We had him a birthday party in September. He was lucid, and we thanked God for one good day. He danced with his girlfriend. He hugged us all over and over. I sat beside him and he told me how much he loved me. He called me 'sugar.' We knew that he knew why we organized that party. But he seemed at peace with it all. On Halloween morning, while my husband held his hand, CJ Calhoun passed away.
He was so sick, at that point, I think we'd all been praying, "Lord, just let him go." Still, knowing he was gone... I distracted myself with a Halloween celebration and getting the house and laundry clean before leaving for the funeral. My oldest son took it hard. He reminded me of myself at his age, not understanding why Papaw was gone so suddenly. It seems sudden when you're a kid. Old age and illness aren't tangible things for a ten year old.
What helped me most, this time around, wasn't something that actually happened to me. My MIL and FIL went out for lunch, before the wake and funeral. A man they had never seen before stopped at their table. He said something along these lines: "The man you're worried about is fine. He's with God. You don't have to worry anymore."
Now, Granddaddy wasn't a regular church attender and he wasn't the kind to talk over his spiritual state. So, my MIL was worrying about him. That man at the deli didn't know them from Adam and had no way of knowing where they were headed. The encounter gives me chills every time I think of it. Had those words come from a friend or a book on death, they would have meant absolutely nothing. God knew that. He knew the words would have to come to us miraculously in order for us to believe them.
I still get tight chested over heaven, over death. I'm not 100% at peace with it. Maybe because I don't want to be. I have some ethereal idea that making peace with death is only done by dying.
However, I do trust the one I follow, wherever and whatever the afterlife may be.