Is the Third Floor Still There?

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HEAVEN SCARED ME when I was a kid.

It’s one of my earliest memories. I’m playing in the backyard, and my mother comes out into the sunshine and sits me down at the picnic table. She tells me Grandma has gone to heaven, and I don’t understand. In my mind, heaven is a place full of pews, where Grandma will have to stand forever, singing while some monstrous organ plays endlessly. And God stands at the front of heaven facing all the pews with his arms straight out, palms up. He has a green stole draped over his shoulders and a thin stream of spittle occasionally connecting his upper lip to his lower lip. Light reflects off his bald head.

God actually looked a lot like Pastor Witmer.

I remember wanting to know why Grandma couldn’t come back. My mother’s answer was something like, “Well, you can’t come back from heaven.” I felt sorry for Grandma and scared for myself. What kind of destiny is that?

But at least she wasn’t in hell. From what I’d gathered at Bible School, in hell, they set you on fire.

Sometime after my grandmother’s death, I dreamt that I’d died and gone to heaven. I found myself sitting encased in a glistening soap bubble, floating alone through dark blue space. And though I could see other bubbles, no one could talk to each other. No one could touch and no one could leave.

When I woke up, I crawled out of bed and walked swiftly through the dark into my parents’ room. Carefully I climbed into their bed, slipping under the warm sheets, snuggling myself between Mom and Dad, and I stayed there the rest of the night.

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people,” but I disagree. I think hell is isolation. Hell is being abandoned in the dark.

It’s like this: I used to take Tae Kwon Do at the YMCA when I was a kid. After we’d all bow out and class was over, the first people to leave were the kids whose parents were out in the parking lot waiting for them. I’d sit out in the lobby and watch them go as I stared through the glass doors, hoping, praying, for Mom’s van to pull up. I was always the last kid left. Then adults would start drifting by, and I’d try to pretend like I wasn’t panicking. Dennis, 20-something and almost a black belt, would walk by scowling straight ahead and looking dangerous, leaving me unacknowledged as he passed. Then Jeff, the big soft spoken businessman, would walk by and give me a nod, his face pink from the shower. Then Edgar, then Cricket, then Darryl, Sue, Tommy and the sensei, last of all. Cleaned up and wearing a golf cap, he’d give me a wave before vanishing out into the parking lot.

I’d watch the adults drift out the doors, scattering in all directions like marbles spilled from a jar, until it was just me and the guy behind the front desk.

If Mom was five minutes late, I’d break out in a cold sweat.

If Mom was 10 minutes late, I’d start pacing the lobby.

If Mom was 15 minutes late, I was an orphan for sure.

And then, 17 minutes later, the van would pull up, and I’d be demanding to know where she’d been. The grocery store was never an acceptable excuse.

C.S. Lewis once dreamt he was in the afterlife. It was an empty town, submerged in unending rain and perpetual twilight, where people abandoned house after house, spreading slowly further and further apart out into the darkness for all eternity. This is Lewis’s picture of hell. A far cry from Dante’s crowded, constricted Inferno, in this hell, Lewis barely sees anyone at all. Henry V, Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar are all millions of miles away from each other and everyone else. Napoleon’s house is nothing but a distant star, light years away from everything.

It seems to me the universe works about the same way. Starlight tinted the color of redshift tells scientists that everything is drifting away from everything else. High-powered telescopes have killed all the men on Mars and shown us we’re just floating all alone in the solar system. Maybe we’re floating all alone in the universe. When scientists talk about extraterrestrial life now, they’re hoping for bacteria shivering on some distant moon.

I read a book that said the universe is surrounded by nothingness. It was a book for a philosophy class. It said if the universe contains every single place there is, then there can’t be any place outside the universe. If you telescope out far enough, beyond counties, countries, continents, orbits and galaxies, out beyond the universe, we’re nowhere. The universe is floating in nothingness, suspended like a soap bubble.

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