When I was 5 years old, Grandpa had a heart attack. My dad found his body in the field on the other side of a truck where they’d been scooping wheat or corn (as I recall). Dad and Grandpa were alone in the field, miles from town and other human beings, so Dad rolled up a coat and put it under Grandpa’s head. Then, he ran to the truck and drove to my Grandma’s house to call 911 (this was before cell phones existed).
When my dad drove into the yard, Mom, my brother Ryan, and me were standing in front of the big picture window at my Grandma’s house admiring a Christmas tree plant that had bloomed suddenly and inexplicably a few days prior. Dad went to the door and pounded and cried out to us. There was a commotion and Ryan and I were moved to the side.
Dad called 911 and as I watched him lean on the wall and as I listened to him describe the situation, the death and the fear and the end of life as we all knew it, to the person on the other end of the line, I felt numb and detached. I was just a young child with little experience in the world at that time. I had no power to control or to change anything that happened (or so it seemed then). And so, while I felt scared and concerned, I also believed that I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t want to understand.
And it was in this state of suspension, this state of uncertainty that I felt hope.
Maybe things would be okay.
But then, suddenly, we were all in my Grandma’s brown car. We drove fast along familiar roads, but everything had changed. Nothing would ever be the same for me or for anyone else in the car that day. Because, as we turned the corner past The Old Place (as we called it), there he was, the patriarch of our family, laying in the dirt, unmoving and stretched out as my Dad had lovingly left him.
Ryan and I were told to stay in the car and we obeyed quietly while the adults ran to the body. I watched out the window as Ryan sat beside me, frozen. Mom and Dad took turns breathing in Grandpa’s mouth and pushing on his chest while my Grandma stood over the scene in her coat, a kleenex at her mouth. I pounded on the window and then I hit Ryan over and over again for his silence and inertia. I screamed and I screamed and I screamed.
At the highway, some distance away, there was a red and blue light that moved slowly and silently across the horizon. I saw it coming and though I was young I knew what it was and I screamed at it to go faster! Still, Ryan sat silent and paralyzed beside me, but I thought that maybe the red and blue lights would bring the breath-of-life with them.
Still, there was hope.
But even after those lights got close enough to bathe us all in the strobe of red and blue, things didn’t get better. People in uniforms walked toward the body and rather than hope, I felt defeat. From the car, I could see that something had happened and that it was both very sad and very important.
Later, I saw the body in a hospital bed.
After that, I saw the body in a coffin.
Uncertainty turned back into certainty then. Questions turned into answers, though not the answers I’d wanted.
I promptly came down with tonsillitis and I got a high fever. I couldn’t get the image of Grandpa lying on the ground out of my head for many days. I’d see it every time I closed my eyes. It was Easter. At some point, I went back to school, but I felt funny. Of course I had no words for this change, but it was dark and uncomfortable.
Later –many years later –I learned that Grandpa visited Grandma the day after his death. He came to her and sat at the end of her bed and they talked for many hours about all the things that needed to be said. I asked her how he looked to her and she said that he shimmered and that his body was translucent.
I believed her completely.
For many years, I would see Grandpa at my parent’s farm. He was always wearing a railroad cap. I’d see him out of the corner of my eyes as John and I were working. He would check up on us regularly until Grandma died. And then, I didn’t see him anymore.
Again, after Grandpa disappeared, life changed.
Mom thought I was crazy because she doesn’t believe in ghosts. To me it was hopeful to see Grandpa at the farm, but to her it was frightening. What she believed and what I believed were different. So, I doubted myself.
I wrestled with the panorama of certainty and uncertainty.
Over time, our beliefs diverged more and more. And as my beliefs changed, my experiences changed too. The more I experienced about the world, the more I realized that what I believe is relative to what I can experience. The limits of my experiences are directly contingent on the limits of my beliefs.
I took a break from Mom and Dad for four years to sort through our differences. And then one day, I realized that I had to accept their beliefs in order to accept my own. The big revelation was that I couldn’t accept just one or the other, but rather that all paths are both void and valid.
Now I know that when my Grandma visits me from The Other Side, that she brings her whole house with her. And I feel like I’m there. I smell her cookies and I can see tiny details of the place she last called home. I’ve learned not to discount these experiences because they’re as real to me as any other experience that I’ve had in my life. She tends to come to me when life is uncertain and she rarely comes alone. She and The Others are part of a strong eternal connection that I have to specific people, some living, some dead. I liken the connection to a thick silver cord. It’s not something that I can see. Rather, it’s something that I feel.
I believe that I’m connected to every living thing by this silver cord, but that in many instances the cord that connects me to another person is tenuous, like a spider’s web. In a few instances, the cord is thick like the rope you’d use to pull a sled or hang a swing from a tree. And in still other much rarer instances, the cord is thick and strong like the young branches of an elm tree. The thickness and strength of this connection is not always related to the proximity between me and the person I’m connected to. I’m connected with strong, thick cords to a number of people that I can’t be close to (in terms of space/physical distance) because they’re too toxic or because we simply haven’t met yet. But I still feel these people through that connection.
I may feel sad without knowing why. Or I may feel like someone is angry with me even if I don’t have contact with the angry person at that time. Sometimes I know who’s pulling at the cord. Sometimes I have no idea.
But death does not sever these cords.
It was through this connection that I felt my own Dad as he underwent heart surgery though he and I hadn’t spoken and I was completely cut off from our family for four years prior to this event. Mom wanted to keep the surgery secret even though Dad asked her to get in touch with me. But I contacted Dad “out of the blue” based on intuition. And it was through this connection that my mom knew that I was in the emergency room after John and I had a stillborn baby even though there was no way that she could’ve known (since we were traveling and I was in a hospital en route to our final destination).
It was through this connection that Lydian found Naing Naing at a restaurant in Bagan, Myanmar. And it is as a result of this connection, and not an action that he’s taken, or a specific experience we’ve had with Naing Naing that we love him. It doesn’t matter what happens next. The connection exists. We’ve observed it and connections like this don’t dissolve. They last forever.
It’s true that there are many uncertainties in my life right now. And Lydian’s and Naing Naing’s lives stretch out ahead of them and they have a lot of challenges to face what with being from different cultures. That’s undeniable. And John and I have chosen to live close to them, so our lives are also uncertain, but we have more choices and more experience in the world. The uncertainty is an ocean we’ve been navigating for some time now so it’s easier for us. We’ve survived a few tidal waves.
Over the past few months, as we’ve all been speaking to lawyers, embassy workers, immigration specialists, and friends and family, many of them have questioned our reasoning. How could John and I support Lydian and Naing Naing? The two hardly know each other and they’re from different cultures. How on earth could a relationship like this work?
It’s a good question. It is. It would be a logical question, if love and the connections that we have to other people was logical. The strong, thick connections that exist between one person and another are usually based on what appears to be nothing. They arise out of nothing and they exist beyond death. How does that work? People waiver on such abstractions. The connections are inexplicable, but observable if you believe in them.
But if you don’t believe, you won’t be able to see them. They’ll be invisible to you. A paradox, I know, but this is the point of digression where I’ll wrap back around to my original discourse on certainties and uncertainties.
When Grandpa was stretched out in the field 38 years ago, I balanced carefully on the edge of a blade as my parents worked to revive him. The outcome was uncertain and the uncertainty was a vast, open space filled with possibilities and hope. But even at that moment of certainty when Grandpa was pronounced dead, the certainty was not nearly as solidly hopeless as I was told. At that time, I saw Grandpa’s death through the eyes of people who didn’t believe in eternal connection.
But this is not an article about the mechanics of Life After Death. It’s about certainty and how, as humans, we imagine that we know what’s certain and what’s not. The sense that we know what comes next in our life story is incredibly comforting at times, but the sense that anything is possible and that anything can be overcome or made better or that hope is never fully lost is even better than certainty, isn’t it? I’m not sure. I’m asking myself this question, but also, what do you think?
Can a person trade certainty for hope?
I think so, but my hope doesn’t negate your certainty. I think a person can have whatever they want. So a person who wants certainty gets certainty and all the restrictions that go along with it. A person who chooses hope gets hope. Both are valid and there’s no value judgement here. I mean, if you don’t believe that you could ever get what you want (whatever that might be), then we’d have to start over and have a brand new conversation about that. If you believe It, It becomes true. Whatever It is.
If you believe It (that you can get whatever you want), the spell is broken. And once the spell is broken, you begin to see what you’ve never seen. Your eyes open. And it’s in this state of suspension that it becomes clear that improbable is not impossible.
…and the apparent flimsiness of the pep talk part of this discussion fades behind a foreground of weirdness when you find Mr. Improbable in a vegetarian restaurant on a four-day vacation to Burma.
A lonely young woman could stumble upon Mr. Improbable and they could meet and fall in love within an Improbable Time Frame (4 days) under a government regime that restricts contact between the two and they could travel an Improbable Distance (halfway around the planet) to be together under conditions that are painfully uncertain, but still manage to be happy and have fun together and perhaps even laugh at all the Improbability and all of the obstacles, that they’ve surmounted even though the obstacles were technically insurmountable.
A person could forget the magic of having conjured faeries or of having walked through walls because the general public scoffs at such silliness. A person could forget that they once moved a mountain if no one saw them do it. People see improbable things happen all the time, but then, after they see and after they believe, they forget. Their consciousness moves down to another, lower level, where the improbable seems impossible again.
I do it too.
But, I’ve been blessed with uncertainties. This space and this time that’s left me without answers. It’s not just a puzzle to be solved, but a state-of-mind to sample and suspend in a jar for future observation so as to always remember that life is not mundane. There’s magic in the uncertainties; a super-dense, super-hot pinpoint of possibilities ready to explode into a Big Bang of new universes. It’s a terrifying thought that maybe a Big Bang would be less uncomfortable than the old shoe of certainty that blisters your toes and makes you walk funny. It’s weird, if not downright humorous to think that you can trade in the blisters for the Big Bang at any moment, and that that’s the reality we confront every day of our lives.