I walked away from our makeshift camp to finish my routine before going to bed. We had spread the tarp out, just off of the road and at the edge of a field, and arranged the bags and blanket on it. We also built a fire ‘pit’, actually a ring of stones with some dirt at the bottom, on the road in front of the sleeping area.
We had taken it easy after lunch, pausing for a few breaks so the boys could explore. The hillside and woods were wonderful, as diverse as anything we’d see in the park and I wanted to make the most of our time together, while still heading out to be ‘rescued’. We stopped once at a boulder field and another time by a stream and the boys had a blast. It was easy to forget that we were walking out of an accident site to find help.
The field gave us a perfect spot for the night. I didn’t want to be on the road in case some kids came driving up it looking for a private spot to drink or make out. I figured we were about a mile from the main road and should be able to make it early the next day.
When I returned to the camp Teddy was already sleeping. Derek looked up from his comic book, which he was reading with a flashlight, and gave a small wave before diving back in. At first I didn’t see Jason, but then notice his silhouette in the middle of the field, looking up into the sky.
Jason was always quiet and often appeared emotionally flat. We had worried that he was Asperger’s, but he did well in school and the teachers all loved him, so we never had him tested. His quiet and emotional distance had increased since Nancy’s death. I had worried more about him more than about the other two combined. To say that I was relieved by how well he interacted with Teddy and Derek during our trek would be an understatement. It warmed my heart to watch Derek reaching out to Jason and getting him to play along. Despite his sarcasm and sharp wit, Derek was a great kid.
I walked over beside Jason. He gave a brief nod to acknowledge my presence, but continued to watch the sky.
I turned my head up. The clouds had blown off earlier in the afternoon so we had a clear view of the stars. The thin moon hadn’t risen yet and there was no signs of artificial light. I can’t remember ever seeing so many stars so clearly.
“Wow,” I said, more an automatic exclamation than anything aimed at Jason.
“The Milky Way is very clear tonight,” Jason said. “See the Great Rift? I can imagine the arms of our galaxy stretching around us, going thousands of light years, tens of thousands of light years.”
I nodded, knowing he wouldn’t see it.
“It looks like you can reach up and touch it, doesn’t it?” he asked. I did my useless nod again. “Yet it is all so immensely far away. Light can circle the Earth in a fraction of a second, yet it takes years to reach the nearest stars. The photons striking my eyes could have been traveling for hundreds or thousands or millions or even billions of years. Just think, the first thing that a photon that was created ten billion years ago struck was the retina in my eye. Humbling isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “The size of the Universe just boggles the mind. It’s impossible to wrap your head around it.”
“Which way is up?” he asked.
I pointed above my head.
“I think someone in New Zealand might disagree,” he said.
“No, I think they would agree with me that ‘up’ is away from the center of gravity,” I said.
“So ‘up’ for the Solar System is away from the sun, for the galaxy is away from Sagittarius A*, and then from the center of gravity of our local group, right?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“So which way is ‘up’ for the Universe?” He lowered his eyes to look at me.
“I’m assuming you don’t think there is a way to figure out the center of gravity of the Universe,” I said. “You may be right, all points seem to be just as far away as all others, with each point imagining it is the exact center. Any reason for bringing up this philosophical puzzle?”
“Every direction you travel from here is filled with enormous reaches of emptiness, void, nothing save a sprinkling of stars and dust clouds and such. Yet everyone talks about Heaven being above us, up there. What does that mean? Where is Heaven?”
I searched his face without catching his emotional drift. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and say, “You’re 11 years old! Go play a game or something instead of asking impossible questions!”
“Well, I’m no theologian, but I do have a few ideas,” I finally said. “Perhaps the simplest idea is that Heaven is a short distance from us in a direction that our senses can’t fathom.”
“You mean a different dimension.” He said.
“Yes, a different dimension or parallel Universe,” I said. “To me that isn’t very satisfying. How about that a small amount of the unknown is really Heaven? Maybe Heaven is created from Dark Matter and Dark Energy. We know it’s there but can’t see it.”
“I don’t know, Dad…”
“I’m with you, but I had to throw it out there,” I said. “Perhaps the entire Universe is just part of a cosmic Terrarium in God’s office.”
“Think about it. God created the Universe. God is in every part of the Universe, every dust speck contains his essence, right?”
“Yeah, they say something like that.”
“Well, that means He exists outside of the Universe, doesn’t it?” Jason looked at me with a puzzled expression. “He had to be outside of it to create it. So there is a ‘place’, for lack of a better word, where God exists that is outside of our space-time continuum. Maybe Heaven is there, in God’s own domain, or in a separate space-time continuum that he keeps in a jar in his living room.”
I could see a half smile on Jason’s face. “That is just weird, Dad!”
“Not as weird as vast cities in the clouds,” I said, winking without caring if he could see it. “Then again, perhaps Heaven is a state of mind.”
“I thought of that,” he said. “Sometimes it sounds like a story someone made up.”
“Sure, it is possible we created Heaven, but that’s not what I meant,” I said. “Where and what are you? Is your mind really just a bunch of neurons and chemicals? Perhaps there is something beyond and that is what we really are. Our minds are wonderful and can’t be explained. Perhaps that vague place were the mind exists is where Heaven lies. I know that though your mother is gone out there, she is alive in my heart and mind.”
Jason made a noise, almost a sob. He was still looking almost straight up, but I could tell that there were tears around his eyes.
“That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? You want to know if your mother is in Heaven.”
“Yes and no,” he said. He lowered his face. “I’m just trying to make sense of it.”
“We all are.”
“No, not just that. I saw her. She saved my life.”
He nodded. “Yesterday I looked up and saw her in the road. I thought you were going to hit her, but you slammed on the breaks and came to a screeching halt. She wasn’t there, of course, so I thought it was my imagination. I went back into my game and only half noticed you getting out.”
I watched him closely, trying to make out his expression.
“But then I heard her yelling at me. ‘Get out of the car, get out now!’ She said. I looked and she was sitting next to me, glowing. She was concerned and angry. ‘Don’t look at me, just get out. This second or sooner. Now!’ I got out and took a step towards you and…”
His face went through a few contortions before going back to his normal passive expression.
“The road caved in and the car fell,” I said.
“But you weren’t in the car. Your mother…” I stopped.
“There is nothing in science to make me believe there is such a thing as ‘ghosts’,” he said.
“Or angels,” I said.
“So who or what told me to get out of the car? I don’t understand it.”
“Why are the stars so beautiful?” I asked.
“Why are the stars so beautiful? There is nothing in the survival of an individual or the species that would benefit from us thinking the stars are beautiful, is there? There is nothing in science to describe what makes us human.”
“Can science explain that Beethoven Sonata you were practicing the other day? And please, please tell me the scientific explanation of that rap song you were listening to or the scientific reason why a person who loves Beethoven would listen to rap! I need to know, so please tell me the science!”
“There is so much about us humans that science just doesn’t explain very well. That is a basic tenant of science, that it can change as new data is acquired. There just isn’t any data about some of these subjects. Does that mean they don’t exist or that we just haven’t found a way to measure them yet? And does something have to be measurable to be real? I can’t measure how happy or sad I am, can I? And love. How do you measure love? It is most allusive, but it is certainly real to me. And when you are questioning that your mother really saved your life yesterday, you are just doing that, trying to measure her love.”
“Hey Dad, I never knew you were a philosopher.”
It was my turn to chuckle. “You didn’t know me when I was in college. Yeah, you brought up some deep topics that many people never think of their entire lives, and you, the 11 year old philosopher…”
“I’ll be 12 in a month.”
“That’s right. I guess that must explain it.” I winked again. “Thinking of explaining, besides saying that your mother’s love for you transcended the grave, I have no explanation for what happened. It’s just one of those things. Now it is up to you to always keep her alive in your heart, OK?”
He looked down at his feet and nodded again. I punched his arm very softly. He looked at me and I pointed to the sky.
“But aren’t the stars beautiful tonight?” I asked.
His eyes were moist, but he was smiling. “Yes, gorgeous, “ he answered, head bent back to take in the sky. “Simply gorgeous.”
— — — — —
This story continues with the last inst5allment, Nancy (Embers)