I was five when I first learned about Heaven. Or maybe I was younger, I’m not really sure. I tried to take notes, but I was writing with crayons and my penmanship wasn’t the greatest. All I know is, by the time I turned ten I had completely wrecked the concept.
Most of my hard information about the afterlife and an eternal reward came from the nuns and priests at our Catholic school. They told us that in Heaven, we would be happy. Constantly happy. And we would have everything we wanted. They also informed us, with a tinge of regret it seemed, that animals did not have souls and therefore did not go to Heaven. I was immediately confused. I thought we could have everything we wanted. How did a No Pets policy fit in with that?
This was an important point, at least to me. My first encounter with death involved one of our tropical fish at home. We had a large tank in the living room, and I loved those fish. They seemed so purposeful, as if every movement and change in direction had a good reason behind it, even if I’d never know what it was. I especially loved how they looked me in the eye. How did they know to do that, to connect with my eyes?
One day after school I sat in front of the tank and watched a fish as it struggled to swim to the surface. Then, exhausted from the effort, it would sink slowly back to the bottom. After a minute or two, it would again force itself to the top, then down again. Each time it swam up, it would stop sooner and sooner, until it was just hanging in the water, looking pitiful. I left eventually, to eat or do homework. When I returned, the fish was lying on its side in the colorful gravel at the bottom of the tank.
In school, having been told that animals didn’t have souls and didn’t go to Heaven, I immediately thought of our dead fish — an angel fish, by the way — and our cats. It made no sense. How could I be happy knowing I’d never see my pets again? I didn’t know who it was who’d decided that animals didn’t have souls, but I was sure it must have been someone who never had a cat look them in the eye, or a fish.
As upsetting as the pet question was, the parent issue was devastating. I’d sit alone in church on Sunday mornings and listen to our short, gray-haired priest bellowing about the fires of hell. He’d look out over the congregation and notice the number of children who had walked to Mass without their parents. And he’d tell us that we could get to Heaven if we steered clear of evil. But missing Mass was a mortal sin and without the sacraments there was no recovering from it. Our mothers and fathers, he’d say, were doomed to spend the rest of infinite time suffering the agonies of Hell if they continued to ignore their obligation to be in Church. And I’d sit there, the flat wooden seat pressing hard into my back and tears sliding down my face, trying to decide if I’d rather go to Heaven by myself or burn in Hell with my parents. For a young boy who grieved even for small fish, it was an impossible choice.
The eternity part also troubled me. I tried to imagine what forever meant. Rolling through months and years in my mind and never getting any closer to the end, the idea sounded like a trap, and made me want to run screaming from the room.
I don’t know if I was the only one who felt uneasy about this prospect of endless happiness. It was a risky thing just to be thinking this way. But I was cursed with a mind that was constantly asking the wrong questions. For example, one of the incentives for going to Heaven was that we’d be reunited with loved ones who had died. What about my godmother, the woman who sold Avon products and was always hugging me? She seemed to be perpetually coated in a thick layer of perfume and powder; worse, she had once made me a bowl of split pea soup for lunch. Would she be there, waiting for me? Talk about getting eternal bliss off on the wrong foot.
Another reward was the promise that when we got to Heaven, we’d finally understand all of the things that had made no sense to us on earth. God would reveal the answers to his mysteries. This made me uncomfortable, too. What if I didn’t understand the explanations? I had one of those brains that had to hear things three or four times before I got it. My mind wandered a little. Would God take that into consideration?
I feared there would be some unclear role for me in Heaven, as there had been in the Mass. As an altar boy, I had never really learned what I was supposed to do. I still don’t know why that is. Surely I had received explicit instructions, but I guess I wasn’t paying attention. (I’d joined the altar boys only because someone had told me they got to go to Yankee Stadium. As it turned out, we went to an amusement park instead — one of those ancient places where half the rides are shut down for repairs.) So I missed most of the information. Then I’d find myself in a situation, such as serving an actual Mass, where there were gaps in my knowledge. This was one of the reasons I was always volunteering to serve the Masses at five in the morning. The congregation at that time of the day usually consisted of a half dozen elderly women in shawls. Most of them seemed to be asleep the whole time, so my mistakes tended to go unnoticed. Later, when the service was over, I relished the sense of relief I felt when no one yelled at me for being a jerk. There was a certain euphoria connected with having slipped through another one unscathed, a feeling I still get sometimes, especially right after tax season.But what if Heaven were less forgiving? It sounds ridiculous, but maybe the forgiving part all had to do with getting to Heaven in the first place, and once you were there you really had to shape up and be in top form and know what you were supposed to do. Forever. There was some pressure there. Really, sometimes the thought of howling in the depths of Hell with my parents and our flesh on fire and falling from our charred bones didn’t seem all that bad. At least there were no expectations.
One of my biggest worries was the idea that I wouldn’t know where to go, that Heaven would be a lot of hustle and bustle and nobody there to tell a little soul whose mind wandered exactly where he was supposed to be and what he should do when he got there. This is another feeling I’ve never been able to shake, the fear that there’s a complex process going on, and that I have nothing of much value to add, I might just be in the way, and that if I simply left, things would go on better without me.
I don’t know if there’s a Heaven. I doubt it, but would love to be pleasantly surprised. If there is a Heaven, I hope the entrance requirements aren’t as strict as I’d been taught all those years ago. My parents didn’t go to church, but they were good people and I’d want them to be there. I could even put up with my godmother and her powdered hugs. But there’d have to be animals. At least cats and fish. And maybe a few dogs.
A weekend pass would be nice once in a while, too. A chance to get away. Eternity is an awfully long time, even for bliss.