Advent is the season of reflection, hope, reconciliation, anticipation of joy. But for me and my sister, it’s also a season of melancholy as we remember our parents. Both died in December, my father 10 years past, my mother 31 years ago.
When I was a child, I used to eagerly await my father’s return from work around five o’clock each spring and summer day. He carpooled, since we, like most families back then, had only one car. His driver would drop him off at a house three doors down on the corner, and I’d be out playing on the sidewalk of our split-level and rancher development, sun slanting its late-day rays to warm my shoulders and face, hope and happiness and lack of fear in my heart.
No sense of hunger–in those pre-air-conditioned days, I could smell my mother’s dinner cooking along with countless neighbors’.
No sense of fear–Dad always came home, and the sun always came up the next day.
No sense of longing for anything except the one thing I knew for certain would happen–my father’s wide grin when he saw me, his loping walk up the street before he greeted me, his unconditional love written all over his face. Pure joy. A kind of eternal joy, with no before or after, just an endless bliss of the present tense.
That, I think, is a glimpse of heaven.
When I wrote the novel After the War, a young nun, a main character in that saga, thinks she has died as she lies in a hospital bed. She wrestles with the fact that heaven is so “unremarkable,” so disappointing.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some fear this, that the afterlife can’t possibly live up to the joys, the graces, the delights and blessings of this life. In earlier times, when misery abounded, when disease cut short lives, when childbirth buried mother and infant, when war and starvation made life a living hell, it might have been easier to imagine a place beyond that suffering where every tear would be wiped from one’s eyes.
But we live in an age where diseases are conquered, where lifespans have lengthened, where communication with loved ones is easier, where art is available at one’s fingertips on screens big and small, where life is, for many in developed countries, more gentle. What kind of afterlife could compete with our best days?
Some of my “best days” now are when we as a family go to the beach, and, as I reflect on my obsession with beach trips, I realize it’s because I often find glimpses back to my girlhood there.
Not that I’m in the ocean a lot. I just like sitting on the sand, listening to those eternal waves whispering, feeling the warmth of the sun on my shoulders. They return to me flashes of the feelings I had as a child when future and past blended into the singular elation of waiting for the enveloping love of my father to lift me up.
So when I think of heaven, I don’t think of singing angels or robed figures. I think of those blistering bright moments when my father came home from work and nothing existed but the warm cocoon of love in his smile.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, “Fall from Grace,” has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.