A couple years before my dad died, he gave me a gift. He told me he had a story idea about an old man’s date with destiny. He described the scenario vividly and I could picture every moment of this man’s journey as my father transferred the story from his mind directly into my brain. When Dad died, I searched his computer, wondering if he had written this wonderful story. I wanted so badly to find his words so I could print them out and share them with the world. But, the words were not there.
So, it was my turn to give him a gift. I took the words he etched on my brain and wrote his story honoring almost every detail. I say almost because I did make one change and I think he knows why.
Here’s to you, Dad!
Bernie opened his eyes as he did every morning sharply at 8:00 am. He was alive for one more day, and the butterflies in his belly sent a message to his brain that something good was on the horizon – perhaps the sun. After an extended absence, the sun had indeed emerged from behind the clouds and found an opening in the drapes, targeting Bernie right between his watery brown eyes. The hot ray of sunshine on his face demanded his attention as it warmed his chilled body from the top of his hair-challenged head to the tip of his arthritic toes and as it sent its heat through his body, it seemed to illuminate each object in the room with an ethereal glow. The floral print on the curtains went from dingy pale pink and yellow to a deep fuchsia and saffron with leaves and stems as green as the grass of St. Andrews. And the petals of each flower might have been moving; he wasn’t sure. Were his old tired eyes playing tricks on him? And, why did his body respond so profoundly to a silly ray of sunshine? Of course, he did live in Seattle where a sun sighting was rare, but still, this reaction was over the top for that one sunny day in December.
Bernie had been feeling crappy for weeks – forty-seven weeks to be exact – and if that warm beam of light could to bring him out of his funk, he would embrace it. He sat up slowly, preparing himself for his morning trip to the bathroom. It had become a struggle to move his heavy, aching legs into the waiting slippers and shuffle to the room he knew so well; the room in which he struggled to relieve his swollen prostate; the room that held the putrid remains of each small meal his body refused to digest after chemo; the room he had come to hate. God knows why I’m optimistic, Bernie thought. The prognosis was not promising, but Bernie always looked for the good and still found humor and joy in his life in spite of his circumstances. He wasn’t supposed to survive this cancer, but he knew if anyone could beat the odds, he would be the one. And, when he got that final miracle declaring him cancer free, he would buy himself a Mustang convertible. It would be red to match his favorite golf sweater and cuffley cap. That was Bernie – always hopeful, always dapper and always full of life. He was not going to give up!
On this exceptionally bright winter morning, he felt more hope than ever. He reached for his pain pills then suddenly realized he felt no pain, in fact, he felt better than he’d felt in fifty years. Crazy what a little sunshine/vitamin D can do for an old body, he thought. He had barely left his bedroom in the last month and now he was ready to go to the dealership and buy that Mustang. Had he turned the corner? Was the chemo finally working? He felt like dancing! How could this be? From handfuls of oxycontin to feeling like a young man again, it didn’t make sense.
Oh, God, it really didn’t make sense! Something was wrong – very wrong. Oh, God, NO! This couldn’t be happening to him. “Damn it, God, I’m not ready for this!” Bernie shouted. He ran to the window. It was not sunny outside. It was dark as hell. But, inside his room that bright light glowed like a lighthouse beacon. There was no ray of sunshine, no ray of hope. It was the end. He was heading into the proverbial light everyone told him he would see when he died. He didn’t even believe in that crap and now he was living it – or more accurately dying it. God Damn it! There was so much he had missed in life and now it was over.
“God doesn’t appreciate you using his name in vain, Bernie. ‘Damn it’ is not God’s last name.”
“Who said that? Saint Peter? Am I at the Pearly Gates?” Bernie blinked and his room was no longer visible. He was floating on a cloud, talking to God’s right hand man. “Sorry about the ‘Damn it, St. Peter.”
Bernie felt something wet and salty escape from his soft brown eyes. Tears? They rolled slowly down his still handsome old face. Eighty-three years left their wrinkled mark, but he still had a sparkle in his eyes and a smile that could not hide his wicked sense of humor. But…he was not smiling now. “What the hell is this? I thought there was no pain or sorrow in heaven, but I feel so sad – for Christ’s sake, I’m crying. Damn it! I had so much to do on Earth; my wife won’t be able to get along without me and my girls need me.”
“Sorry, Bernie, if we waited for everyone to finish every little thing, no one would ever die. Did you really think you’d live forever?” St. Peter handed Bernie a tissue.
Bernie reached out and felt the warmth of St. Peter’s touch. “Thanks. I guess I always thought there would be more time. Time to travel; time to drive my new red Mustang; time to enjoy my girls and my grandsons and time to show my wife how much I loved her – I’m not sure she really knew.” The tissue barely contained his tears. “I never could live up to her expectations.”
“Sorry I can’t give you that time, Bernie. Got to follow the rules. And, speaking of rules, we have a little game for you before we allow you in…or send you down.”
“A game? Rules? You have rules on dying? And you want to play a game? I thought you just sent me up or down and that was that.”
“It’s not that simple. Here’s the deal.” St. Peter reached into a file for an instruction sheet which he read to Bernie. “You have twenty-four hours in Earth time to decide whether you want us, meaning God and I, to determine your destination. Or, you can choose to stay in Limbo forever. There is no pain in Limbo, but there is no joy. It is safe.” He looked at Bernie over his reading glasses. “If you take a chance, you could have everlasting peace and joy in heaven, but it is a risk. There is always a chance you could go the other way where there is unending sorrow and pain.”
“I have to decide?” There had been so many decisions in life and many hadn’t turned out the way he had hoped. Now there was a decision that would affect him for eternity. This was unfair. “Do you do this to everyone? Jesus Christ, how am I supposed to know what’s good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell?”
St. Peter smiled. “Everyone needs to evaluate their own life and decide whether they believe their actions were good enough – those are the rules. You have twenty-four hours Bernie and your time starts NOW. And, Bernie, your decision is final – there is no bending of the rules.” St. Peter handed him a book with all the important people and events of his life. It was now up to him to make a choice.
The book fell to the ground before he had a firm hold on it. He bent over to pick it up, “So, what will I find in this book, St. Peter?” He looked around, “St. Peter? St. Peter? Where the hell did you go?” No answer. He was on his own now.
And his surroundings had changed again. He was still up in the clouds – still closer to heaven than hell – enclosed in an exquisite room with a huge picture window overlooking the never-ending continuum of the aforementioned clouds. He was getting a little tired of clouds, but at least he wasn’t on hot coals down below. And the room was beautiful, if not a bit stark with the same theme of white, white, white. “Don’t they use any other colors up here?” His mind took a photograph of the room – white wool carpeting, white roses in a white mother of pearl vase, white silk drapes swept to each side of the massive window and a white leather recliner directly behind him waiting for him to park his skinny white butt on the soft cushion. His hand brushed the soft leather and he could not help but smile, “I guess cows go to heaven, too.”
But enough of the interior design critique; it was time to evaluate his life. Expecting a book with eighty-three years of events to weigh heavily on his all too thin legs, the lightness of this tome set his mind in motion. “Is this all there is? I lived eighty-three years and my whole God damned life is in this crappy little book? I don’t even get a hard cover – it’s a paperback.” Bernie loved books and would have liked his book to be leather bound with gold leaf, but no time to pout; he had to start reading and making some decisions.
Chapter One – there on the first page was his first challenge; there was his father’s face. The face of the man whose approval meant the world to Bernie – approval that never came. I hated my father, Bernie admitted. He pushed me so hard, but I was never good enough. He always did everything better and never praised me – never. And I withheld my love from the man. Was that a sin, God? If I had loved him instead of deserting him in his final years, maybe he would have told me he loved me, too. And, now it is too late. Will my unforgiving heart be reason to send me down there?
Chapter Two – Nancy. Nancy had been his friend in high school, his pen pal when he went off to serve in World War II and finally his wife when he returned. She was beautiful, but complicated – full of fun one day and full of shit the next. She chose her battles with no discretion – everything was a battle and an issue. Soon there was no more fun. Bernie wanted to move to New York to further his career – Nancy said ‘No’. Bernie wanted to buy a sailboat – Nancy said ‘No’. And then there was retirement and a chance to travel to Europe, take a cruise down the St. Lawrence River or golf on the big island of Hawaii. Nancy’s response – No, no, no. She complained about every little thing and let Bernie know he had not lived up to her expectations. Just like his relationship with his father, Nancy made it clear that he was not good enough. Was it his fault? Could he have changed the dynamics of this relationship if he had shown more love and affection? He didn’t know. All he knew was he didn’t want to rock the boat and he let her have her way for sixty years. And he resented the hell out of her. Was resentment a reason to miss the cut for heaven? If so, he would have to consider Limbo.
Chapter Three – Bernie’s two beautiful daughters looked at him from the family photo in his book. Did they know how much he loved them? He wondered because he certainly hadn’t said it enough. He hadn’t played with them when they were young – he was too busy trying to get ahead at work. His primary connection to them in their youth was his lectures and poetry recitals each night at dinner. He wanted them to excel in life and took every opportunity to correct their grammar, critique their homework and lead them in the direction of his favorite classic books. Did he push them as his father had pushed him? God knows, he loved them, but did they know that and did he praise them enough? And, now they were grown and both had challenges with men. Had he been a good role model? Could he have done more to prepare them for this world?
Chapter Four – Various faces were displayed in this chapter. This was Bernie’s career. There was joy in the friendships he developed over the years, but also pain that he never reached his goals. He was more intelligent than 99% of the population – his IQ on his Mensa application proved that – but in business it was more important to play the game than have a brain. He made it to a fine mid-level position but he coveted that VP position in New York or even a regional VP and it never materialized. In his quest for the brass ring, he did everything by the book, never stepping on anyone’s toes, but he thought about it. Were his thoughts of envy and jealousy a sin? And, his family had probably suffered for his ambition. Would he be asked to pay for that now?
The last chapter in the pathetically short book outlining his life was filled with minor infractions that may or may not have been considered sins. Squashing bugs, shooting rats and rabbits (they were ruining his garden) and, of course, his propensity for swearing.
Bernie had all the information now. He laid his head back on the soft leather recliner and contemplated his decision…
“Is that your final decision, Bernie?” St. Peter looked deep into Bernie’s eyes, his expression asking him to change his mind – to take a chance. This was cheating, he knew. He wasn’t supposed to show any favoritism.
It didn’t matter because Bernie looked away quickly, put his head in his bony, old hands and said, “Yes, I’ve made my choice. I’m choosing Limbo. What else can I do? I’ve made mistakes and I know God cannot be that forgiving. I think I hurt the people I loved the most, but I don’t want to go to Hell, so I choose Limbo, the safe place. I’ve always chosen the safe place, so this won’t feel much different than my life.”
“No, it won’t, Bernie.” St. Peter said sadly, “You will spend eternity as you spent your life – safe.” Bernie’s transition paperwork was in front of him and he chose the big red stamp in the middle to mark the documents – LIMBO. He handed the packet to Bernie and pointed him toward the center hallway. “Time to go, Bernie.”
“I’m ready” he said stoically. He reached out, took the papers and stepped into the dark tunnel. A misty rain sent a chill through his old body as he walked toward his destiny…
BOOM! A lightning bolt split the sky and then the deep, familiar voice. “Hey, Peter, what’s happening here? This was not my plan for Bernie.”
“Sorry, God, but he chose this fate. He played the game and decided on Limbo.”
“You know we would have put him in heaven if he let us choose. He was one of the good guys, in fact, he was better than 90% of the people we have in there now. How could he NOT see his goodness? Did I fail him?”
“Rules, rules, rules. Rules were meant to be broken. I sent that message down to Earth in the 1960’s and although some have abused it, I think it worked out. Maybe the rules don’t have to be so rigid. Maybe you and I should be a little more flexible.” God wrung his benevolent hands. “I’m not saying we should let any old riff-raff in, but for Christ’s sake (sorry, son), Bernie should have some joy. He sacrificed his life for others – now it should be his turn. I think I let him down in life – this is my chance to make it right.”
“Really? Rules are rules, God. We’re heading down a slippery slope if we break them even once.” St. Peter paced in front of God.
“I know. I know. I’m the decisive one, right?” All powerful, all knowing God actually seemed nervous. “Why is Bernie causing me to question myself? What’s done is done – he had a choice and he chose poorly – Damn it! I shouldn’t change the rules for one sweet old guy…”
Meanwhile…Bernie continued walking in the rain toward his mediocre house in his mediocre town in Limbo. This was going to be an existence of unimaginable boredom. There would be no horrible sadness, but there would be no happiness – no elation watching his grandsons grow, no traveling down the St. Lawrence River, no golf at St. Andrews.
Yes, it was safe, but maybe he would have felt more in Hell. At least he would have felt something. Had he made the wrong choice? It was too late to second guess. It had always been too late for Bernie. If he had been in Hell, the pain and anxiety of regret would have been overwhelming, but in Limbo it was merely unsettling and he knew his desensitized heart would feel only a dull ache of regret for eternity.
He took another step into the overcast surroundings. The rain had stopped quite suddenly and the clouds were split by a small ray of sunshine. He felt hope, maybe even joy. This was not supposed to happen in Limbo, especially not the feeling of elation that was coursing through his veins. His body felt light and young and wasn’t that his boyhood friend who had died last month up ahead? Surely he would not be in Limbo.
In a matter of minutes, the grass was greener, the leaves were brighter and the sun was glorious – no more clouds. His favorite symphony was playing and he heard it loud and clear for the first time in thirty years. No more hearing aids – his hearing was perfect and his eyes saw the beauty he had never allowed himself to see in life. This wasn’t Limbo, this was Heaven. He looked at the documents in his pocket, unfolding them slowly to see that there was a dark line through the LIMBO stamp and HEAVEN was written above it in pure gold script. Was this God’s handwriting?
Bernie looked to the sky and heard the voice. “Sorry, Bernie, I made a mistake. I couldn’t let you live in Limbo.”
“But, what about the rules?”
“I make the rules and I changed them today… I love you, Bernie.”