We are blessed to live in a truly beautiful place, on Fidalgo Island, in the San Juan Islands. I grew up in Southern California, where to live with a view of the Pacific Ocean, one had to pretty much be either a movie star or in the NBA.
Here in the top most northwest corner underneath Canada, the San Juans are a cluster of small to medium-sized islands, mostly covered by trees, and surrounded by miles of rocky beaches. I will never stop being amazed that regular folks like us can stare at the ever-changing water, breathe the salty air, and marvel at the sunsets, and not be even the tiniest bit famous.
Whenever it is not raining, I try to take my son Nick (who is 27 and has autism) out for a walk. A day with a walk in it seems to help him talk more lucidly, sleep more soundly, and rock and moan a little less. It has similar benefits for me.
I often invite family and friends to come along with us, like Nick's big sister Chelsea, and her infant daughter Mary in her stroller. Or Nick's little brother Duncan, when I can track him down in his busy life. Or our neighbor Carolyn. Or my grandkids, Emmaly and Ethan.
On a recent weekend, Emmaly (10) and Ethan (8) were over, so we walked the Washington Park Loop. Washington Park sits on the west end of Fidalgo Island, past the San Juan Ferry Terminal. The park is wooded and shady, but then the path suddenly opens to vistas of the islands and the big sky beyond, into the Strait of Juan De Fuca. It is often windy, kind of damp, and full of critters like squirrels and chipmunks and deer. Nick also assures me that it is magical, and that he has seen fairies there. I have not yet seen any of these myself.
Nick always lopes out ahead, with his long-legged strides, and spritely Ethan does his best to keep up with him, his short legs pumping. Emmaly is patient and lags along in the rear with me.
As we were plodding up the first hill, Emmaly pointed up at sun rays splaying through the trees, like golden misty fingers.
I laughed, and said, "When I was little, in my Children's Bible, there were pictures where those rays would come down from Heaven, and people's spirits would get sucked up the light tubes."
Emmaly's blue eyes got round. She said, "Really? That's kinda scary."
"I know, right? So you know what I did every time I saw those in real life?"
Emmaly raised her eyebrows quizzically.
"I hid under my bed. Seriously. I was just not ready to get sucked up to Heaven. I am positive that it is a wonderful place, but I have always thought I have a lot to do in this life. No Cosmic Vacuum for me, than you very much!"
Emmaly nodded, smiled briefly, and said, "Yes."
Emmaly is a serious person. We get each other. She is kind, and helpful, and thinks deeply about things. I could tell she was working on some deep thoughts, as we crested the hill.
I hollered ahead to Nick and Ethan: "Dudes! Not too far, okay?"
They stopped in their tracks, looked at each other with obvious shared annoyance, then started off again, slower at first, but then speeding right back up to their regular pace. I just sighed and smiled at Emmaly.
"Boys," she said.
I nodded, "Yep."
"Grandma?" she said.
"I've been thinking."
I smiled. Who knows her granddaughter? "Yes?"
"Are you afraid to die?"
I reached over and held her hand. Her hands are always warm and soft and a little sweaty. We swung our arms, walked in step. I could tell by her voice that this was a real question, and she wanted a real answer.
Emmaly and Ethan don't go to any church. We say grace at our house, and they have both learned to join along, by rote, before they can start eating their dinner. So she needed my spiritual truth, not some religious answer.
I said, "Nope, I'm not. Are you?"
Her blue eyes were large, and looked concerned. She said, "Yes, I'm scared. I'm scared for Mommy and Daddy to die, for Ethan, for me. That would be so sad."
I nodded, agreeing, "Mm-hmm."
"Then how come you're not scared?" she asked.
We walked along, our arms swinging. How to explain? What to say?
"Emm, did you know that after Nick was born, I died for 20 minutes?"
She stopped and dropped my hand. "What? Seriously?"
I reached for her hand and we went on. "Mm-hmm. I was super sick right before Nick was born. That's why the doctor made Nick come out a month early. That may be part of the reason he is how he is."
She squeezed my hand, and I squeezed back. We kept walking, the noises of Nick and Ethan pulled us forward, as if we were on the tail end of a long connecting cord.
"So, right after Nick was born, I had really high blood pressure. It gave me a really bad headache. I tried to tell the nurse, but she just gave me some Tylenol, and handed me this button to push if I needed anything."
Nick and Ethan turned a corner and were suddenly out of our line of sight. Emmaly and I instinctively sped up our walking, until we could see them again. We settled back into our regular rhythm.
"So, the pain gets worse and worse, and then I hear these big bangs, four of them, like those machines that pound the street. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! And the pain in my head is crazy bad, like it's ripping in half. And I am trying to push the button, to call for help, but I can't make my hand work."
Emmaly is watching her steps, listening intently.
"And then I am standing in this place, and I am surrounded by light. There is no more pain. I am just floating. And there is this person standing with me. He is made of light. He is warm. And he knows me, Emm. He knows me all the way back and all the way forward. He knows everything about me, all the way through me, and he loves every single part."
She looked up at me. "Who was that?"
"I guess it was Jesus. Or God. I'm not sure. And I was so surprised, because in Catholic school, they taught us that when you die, there was this big judgment, some kind of life review, and you are sent right to Heaven or Purgatory or Hell."
She nodded, "That's what I've heard, too."
"But it wasn't like that. So I knew I wasn't making it up, you know? It wasn't what I expected at all. It was like they knew all my choices, forever, and they understood why I made them in the context of all my lives. And that was new, too, because being Catholic, I was taught we only have one life. But it turns out we have, like, a jillion."
She walked alongside me, head bowed slightly, silent and rapt.
"And the Light Guy let me know that I was dead, but that I could still choose. That either way I chose, it would be okay. I could choose to stay there, with Him, with them, or I could choose to go back. And I looked, and I could see that Nick was going to be disabled. And that Chelsea was still just a toddler, and they both needed me."
"And so I turned to the Jesus Being, and said, 'I want to take care of them. I want to go back.' And I hadn't even finished the thought, and I was sucked back down this long tube into my body. And I sat up. And there was this sheet over my face, and I was told later that the nurse in my hospital room pooped her pants, because I had been dead!"
Emmaly put her hand over her mouth and giggled.
"And I was in so much pain, and my left side didn't work, and I couldn't talk because my mouth was full of blood and I had bitten all the skin off the inside of my mouth during the seizures, and I looked up at the ceiling, and tried to yell: 'Do over! I change my mind. I want to stay with you!' But I had made my choice. And I was here to stay."
She shook her head and said, "Wow, Grandma. That is nuts."
I said, "I know, right? Goofy. And it took me about a month dragging my left leg around to get it working again. And my left foot is still a little floppy, that's why I trip and fall so much."
"Ohhh, I see," she nodded.
"But I am really glad I picked here, you know? I got to take care of Chelsea and Nick, and then Duncan. I got to marry Papa Dan, and meet you and Ethan, and be your Grandma. And I got to live knowing that Heaven isn't a judgmental place, and that they know everything about us, and understand and accept every single thing. And love us like crazy, Emm. Like your Mommy and Daddy love you and Ethan, except then times maybe 80 kabillion."
She smiled, "That is a lot!"
I nodded, smiling, "Mm-hmm. So, when I was little, I was afraid to get sucked up to Heaven in those cloud beams. And now, at 52, I am not in any hurry to go there, because I feel like I have a whole lot of loving still to do, you know? I still want to take care of Nick. And Papa. And little Mary. And you!"
She smiled and we sped up again, to gain some ground because Nick and Ethan had zoomed around the last corner, before the path opens up onto the broad gravelly beach.
"Grandma?" she said, her hand tugging away. Her body clearly wanted to join the boys down by water.
She headed away, and said loudly, over her shoulder, "I'm glad you chose to stay here."
I watched her catch up to them, then smiled up at the hazy sky, "Me, too."
[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]