There are two boys in the woods. You see them as you round the bend in the trail, crouched down, silently studying something on the forest floor. They look about five years old, tousled of hair and wiry of limb. They resemble each other, but not in a way you can quite put your finger on—not brothers, but not strangers, either. As you approach you see what they are looking at: a garter snake, harmless and fascinating, black and white and olive scales, momentarily frozen.
The secret of this scene, so common you could come upon it in nearly any woods in the world, is this. One of the boys is my father, and the other is my son.
Ok, so this is not from “real life.” It is, I know, biologically impossible for my father and my son to be five years old at the same time. But I imagine it is happening somewhere else, on some other plane. My father has been dead nearly two years, you see, and my son has not yet been born.
These days I’m interested in the question of where we are before we’re born because I’m wondering about the future person who will be my son. Is he somewhere right now? I’m far enough in my pregnancy that labor could begin at any moment, and yet it’s hard to think of the squirming fetus in my belly as an actual person. He’s almost there, getting closer all the time. The light is gathering but won’t fully come to fruition until he is born.
So where is he? From where does the light come? And where is my dad? Where does the light go? If there is an afterlife, surely it is the beforelife too. So it follows—using basic logic!—that my dad and my son are in the exact same place.
I used to think that heaven was a childish concept. It’s easy to sneer before you lose someone you’ll really miss. Still, there are a number of logical problems when it comes to the afterlife: How old are you in heaven? The age at which you die or the age of your choice? Neither make sense because those most deserving of a choice—the very young—would be unable to decide. Do widows and widowers who remarry spend eternity with their first spouses, or their second? Are broken bodies mended, and if so, what counts as broken? And where is heaven, anyway, and who’s allowed in?
I propose the following answers. In heaven you are all possible ages, regardless of how long you were alive on earth. There are no marriages to sort or bodies to mend and for this we should rejoice. Lastly and most importantly—here’s an opinion unpopular with a few religions I can think of—everyone gets into heaven. Believers and non-believers. Penitents and apostates. Good people and bad people, which is all of us, both.
I imagine my father in his sixties, holding his newborn grandson. It’s natural to picture my dad as I last knew him and my son as I will first meet him. But that is not all that is happening in heaven. In heaven it is my son in his sixties, looking into the infant eyes of his grandfather. In heaven they are both young men, scaling mountains. They are both five years old, entranced with a garter snake on a forest floor.
Do I know, really know, that this is true? Of course not. As to what happens when we die—or where we were before we were born—your guess is as good as mine. But I think there’s a chance that my dad and my son are indeed scampering about some Elysian forest, picking up sticks and looking under rocks. I think they are together because they cannot be apart. Something cannot be apart from itself.
The life that was my dad and the life that will be my son are the same. It’s the same life as all the fathers and sons that ever were or will be. All the daughters and mothers, too, if I may take a moment to feel smug about my role in all of this. It’s the same life as the trees towering over the boys in the forest. And it’s the same life as the garter snake, which, after submitting a moment to their scrutiny, slithers away and is gone.
Abigail Mitchell is a singer and writer. Despite being an outdoors enthusiast and Pacific Northwest native, she finds herself living in Manhattan, where she sings opera, writes fiction and essays, and explores the city with her husband and son.
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