Heaven and Hell

I was never what you'd call a religious person, but I'd heard all the stories about Heaven and Hell. I've seen the movies, read the books, and heard the songs and I'm here to tell you, everything is bullshit! Well, maybe not everything, but a lot of it.

What? What do you mean, 'How do I know?' I just know, ya know.

I guess I should start from the beginning…or should say from the end. My name is Joseph McDowell. I was just an average Joe (pardon the pun). I had a wife (Angie), two kids (Jimmy and Jenny), a blue collar job, a house in the suburbs, and a dog. My life was pretty dull compared to some, but I loved it. For me there was no better day than a Saturday watching movies with Jenny or tossing the pigskin around with Jimmy. And all the nights spent with my beautiful wife, sharing a laugh with Jay Leno or just lying close in bed expressing our love without even saying a word.

Anyway, I died eight years ago tonight. I fell off the roof of my house after I fixed a leak around the chimney. It was only a twenty-foot drop and I probably would have ended up with a broken arm or a concussion if I'd remembered to put away the damn rake that I'd used earlier that morning. The back of my head landed on the points of the steel rake. (How's that for luck?) I died three days later in the Intensive Care Unit of Shady Grove Hospital.

In life I wasn't a bad person, but I was no angel either. I honestly didn't know whether I'd go to Heaven or Hell. As I heard my wife tell the doctor to pull the plug, and as an electric ventilator took my last breaths for me, I found myself anxious to see what the afterlife had in store for me.

I was there on that hospital bed for several hours waiting for something to happen. I began to imagine angels singing, seeing my new world of bright white, and walking through the billowy softness of the clouds beneath my bare feet. Suddenly, that image turned to one of intense heat, deafening screams of agony, and the smells of rotten, burning flesh. Then I thought, what about reincarnation?

I'd never really entertained these thoughts in any serious manner while I was alive. Who's right here? I thought. What if Heaven, Hell, and reincarnation are just words? What if Heaven is real but not the bright light, pearly gates thing we all hear about? What if Heaven is more personalized? What about Hell?

There were so many questions and no answers. What? My personal heaven? That's easy. My wife and kids would be with me, a two day work week, non-alcoholic beer that tastes right, NFL football all year long, and ten thousand cable channels.

Anyway, I was thinking about all this stuff while I was laying there on that bed and nothing was happening. No lights…no heat…no nothing. Finally I was like "the hell with this", and I got up. I just sat up and climbed out of bed. It felt natural enough until I turned around and saw my body still lying there. "Oh shit! I'm really dead!" I yelled like it was some huge revelation.

I looked at my hand, it looked the same. No…not really the same, something was different. The color was off…not pale exactly…more like dimmer. Then I noticed I was naked. Of course I was, clothes don't die.

I looked back at my lifeless body lying on the bed and reached out to touch myself one last time. (No, not like that you pervert.) I held my hand above my body's chest for a few seconds (coming to terms with your own death is quite difficult), and eased my hand onto…no into…no through my body.

This bothered me a little, but I realized I was now in a different world and things were bound to be new to me. So, I shrugged it off and made my way through the ICU.

At the end of the hall, I reached out to push the door open and nearly fell down as my hand passed right through the door. (It takes a while to get used to walking through stuff.) I walked down the hall and into the Cardiac Care Unit wondering, If I can walk through walls and stuff, what's keeping me from falling through the floor? So many questions.

I stopped in front of an open CCU room bustling with doctors and nurses. "Starting compressions!" someone yelled over the noise. "Susan, I need you on the bag!" There was no commotion with me; just a yank of a cord and that was all she wrote. I remember hearing the doctor telling my wife things like "brain dead".

I was so wrapped up in my thoughts; I didn't notice that someone had walked up beside me. I jumped at the sound of her voice. "Oh dear, do you think they'll make it?" she asked in a voice that reminded me of my third grade teacher.

I looked over and beside me was a woman at least a foot shorter than me with bluish-silver hair and a naked eighty-year-old body (not a pretty sight). I glanced back at the bed and caught a glimpse of the old woman's face in a sea of blue, green, and white scrubs.

"I don't think so ma'am," I said. I turned to her to explain what was happening (or as much as I could tell her) when she looked me up and down.

One of her wrinkled hands seemed to try to cover her eyes and mouth at the same time, while the other pointed, with her little finger, to my crotch. "Young man, you need to put some clothes on!" she said, shaking her pinky at my winky.

"Believe me ma'am, I'm just as disturbed by the nudity," I said and motioned for her to look down at herself.

"Oh dear," she said trying to cover herself.

I stifled a laugh when her arm went across the middle of her abdomen to cover the nipples of her sagging breasts. A mental picture of me at that age flew through my mind; balls hanging down to my knees. I was almost glad I died when I did.

"I'm sorry ma'am," I said to her and was, again, about to explain everything when our attention was diverted back to the open room.

The mass of doctors and nurses all stopped and stared at the bed. After a few seconds, which seemed like hours, I heard someone say, "Good try everyone, we did everything we could. Time of death: nine-oh-two PM."

I reflexively looked down at my watch but, of course, it had survived along with my clothes. Then, I looked at my hand. There was a white stripe was around my ring finger where my wedding band had been for the past thirteen-plus years. Words that I'd heard so long ago rang very loud in my ears: "Till death do us part." I knew I'd never see my wife and kids again.

I was snapped out of my thoughts again by the old woman. "Oh dear," she said again as the doctors and nurses cleared out of the room. She walked over to where her body lay on the bed. She leaned over and tried futilely to brush a strand of hair out of her face.

I walked up behind her and set my hand on her shoulder. I could feel her cool skin beneath my fingers. Okay, I thought, that's how it works. I can't touch real things but I can touch… What? Ghosts? Spirits? Souls?

"I don't understand," the woman said.

"You've passed away," I told her. "We both have."

"I've figured that part out." She shrugged my hand off her shoulder. "Where are the bright lights? The angels? St. Peter?"

All I could do was shrug; I was wondering the same thing.

"So are we just supposed to wander around naked for eternity?" I shrugged again and her voice got louder. "This is bullshit! You mean to tell me that I've been going to church every Sunday, donating money to them, and doing volunteer work for all these years and this is what I get? This sucks!"

I couldn't hold it in, laughter burst out of me like a champagne cork on New Years Eve. To hear this rant come out of such a prim little old woman was too much. I tried to regain my composure, but every time I looked at the naked old woman, a new wave of laughter crashed through again. Before long, she was laughing with me.

As we pulled ourselves together, she wiped a non-existent tear from her cheek. "Damn, I can't even cry." She held out a wrinkled, old hand and said, "I'm Barbara Tunis."

I took her hand gently and shook it. "Joe McDowell, nice to meet you."

She looked around and said, "I wonder what we're supposed to do now."

"I was just roaming around hoping to find someone who might know something."

"Mind if I tag along? Maybe we can figure this out together."