Lord, Lord - an Excerpt
It may not be the Heaven we expect.
“This is it.”
“This is what?”
I looked around the tastefully decorated office with its Persian carpets over heart-of-pine floors, highly-polished mahogany furniture, Waterford crystal lamps, and oil paintings by names like Renoir, Degas, and Monet. This was Heaven? I wasn’t buying it.
I’d been a late bloomer in high school, something of a slut in college, a 30-something bride, then a small town newspaper reporter (that means you do everything). After all that, I was more than a little skeptical by nature. So I asked the woman sitting across from me, “If this is Heaven, where are the puffy clouds, harps, and streets of gold?”
“Oh, that stuff is just for the tourists,” replied the large, black woman in the teal, tunic-style pants suit. Her skin was the color of warmed pancake syrup, and her hair was piled on top of her head in an impossible-to-follow pattern of intricate braids.
“Tourists? In Heaven?” I asked.
She nodded in response. “Lots of them.”
“How can you be a tourist in Heaven? Aren’t you either saved or damned?”
“Yes, but for those who are damned, He likes to break it to them gently.”
Her nodding continued while I let this information sink in, which was not easy to do. I noticed that I was dressed for an ordinary work day: nice jeans, oxford shirt, and raw linen blazer, hair loose around my shoulders, minimum jewelry and make-up. OK. Nothing extraordinary in my physical description. But my mind was going a hundred miles an hour. My five senses were lagging behind like they were trying to run in loose sand on the beach. I was in Heaven, as in actual Heaven. Seriously?
Slowly, my thoughts began to move in a specific direction instead of just colliding against each other as if they were being thrown inside some kind of superconductor. Out of chaos, a single one emerged. As I formed the words, the woman’s nodding slowed to an eventual stop. “OK. If I’m in actual Heaven, then why don’t I get the clouds and harps tour?”
She smiled. “You aren’t damned,” she announced matter-of-factly like it was the morning line on a race at Santa Anita.
“Thank God,” I said, instinctively. My attention drifted from the warm face that was fixed on mine. I began surveying the impressive room for a second time until I was brought up short by the woman’s response to my comment.
The shock sent my head swirling back to face this woman like a hinge breaking loose on a heavy screened door. I tried to speak, but no words came out. I cleared my throat of a massive lump and tried again. Minimal volume squeaked out. “You’re . . . God?”
“No. But I’m authorized to speak for Him at this level.”
“And what level would that be?”
“Introductory,” I repeated, trying to make sense of what I was hearing, processing one word at a time. “To what am I being introduced?”
I heard the word. I absorbed the word. The meaning of the word slowly dawned on me.
“Eternity. As in, I’m . . . I’m . . . deceased?”
“No, you’re dead, dear.”
The announcement had the exact effect on me that you would expect. I swallowed another lump in my throat and tried to focus my blurred vision. I steadied myself by grasping the arms of my chair with every ounce of strength I could muster. “What happened to breaking it to folks gently?”
“Like I said, you’re not da - ”
“Damned. Yeah, you said.”
Again I surveyed the room to get a bearing on my new surroundings. I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles - appropriately I guess - that I was sitting in the Dean’s office of an Ivy League University, not stepping over the welcome mat into Heaven.
“Deceased, passed away, crossed over, bought the farm. That’s all for the tourists too. You’re dead. It doesn’t have to be sugar-coated for those who will be staying here and are not just passing through.”
I nodded to indicate understanding. But understanding would not come. Fight or flight was setting in, and I became more desperate by the minute. At this point I was way passed simple unbelief. “Are you telling me the truth, or are you just saying what you think I want to hear?” I asked with all the cynicism of the reporter I was . . . once was . . . used to be? Like I said before, I’m a hard sell under the best circumstances, which apparently these were not.
The woman let a smile slowly take the place of the patient countenance that had been her most frequent facial expression during our brief exchange. “I am telling you what you want to hear. At this point it is the easiest way for you to process what has happened to you. That doesn’t mean it is not also the truth.”
I squirmed in my seat. This was some dream I was having. But it didn’t feel like a dream. It felt real – too real. Like everyday life in high definition. Finally, some reasoning solidified in my brain, and I came up with a legitimate argument – one I’d bet my life on – so to speak. I sat up straight and looked deliberately into the dark brown eyes of this imposing woman in order to state my position.
“You know; I was raised on the Bible. The Holy Bible - The King James Version - Southern Baptist in the deep South when you didn’t go to the movies on Sunday, dance, or wear pants to church. And I don’t recall hearing anything about ‘tourists’ in Heaven.”
She also straightened in her high-backed, executive chair, nonplussed, and answered my argument with intelligence along with a full measure of graciousness. “Well, the brochure for eternity is just like the brochure for anything else on earth. It’s trying to attract prospects. Let me put it this way. On earth you were a prospect for Heaven. Here, you’re a customer.”
“You don’t say.” I stood, although I had no idea what made me think I could accomplish erectness under my own power. I was drawn to the closest window like a flower innately reaching for the sunlight.
The office I was in was part of a large, weathered-brick building that sat along a tree-lined avenue. Based on the view, it could have been spring in any small town in America. This picture could only be described as something right out of Norman Rockwell.
Wait a minute. Wait just a darned minute. I turned on my heels to confront my new companion. “A brochure? Did you call the Bible a brochure?”
She shrugged with exaggeration then relaxed back into her chair. “Semantics. I meant no disrespect.”
“Semantics?” I let that revelation sink in.
“And by the way,” the woman continued. “With all due respect to your Southern Baptist brand of religion, the King James Version is no more authoritative than any of the others. It’s not the translation that gives the Bible authority.”
“Oh yeah? What does?” the tone in my voice had its hands on its hips. She just smiled. “What He says to you through what you are reading.”
OK. That was profound. But I wasn’t giving in that easily. The tone in my voice repeated my previously stated, Oh yeah? “What if I’m not reading? What if someone else is, or it is being preached, or just quoted?”
“Then its meaning is up for grabs.”
“No sh—ah, no kidding?” I returned to my Corinthian leather, winged-back chair to dwell for a moment on the essence of what she’d said. I was sitting opposite this woman who I realized looked vaguely like the lady who used to keep house for my granny in Savannah. I leaned in and placed my hands on the edge of the desk to make the space between us more intimate. The woman leaned in also.
“Let me understand this. The Bible is a recruiting tool for Heaven?” I asked.
“Well, actually for God; but yes, for all intents and purposes, the answer to your question is yes.”
“And folks who are going to end up in Hell, get to be tourists in Heaven first?”
“Some. Not everybody. It’s kind of a sliding scale of eventuality.”
“And I’m dead.”
She reached her hand across the vast desk to cover mine like a blanket on a cold night. “Bless your heart,” she said, definitely sounding like Granny’s housekeeper.
I'm going to be terribly disappointed:
“Are there really angels?” I asked, taking the Limoges teacup being offered to me. “I’m really going to be disappointed if there aren’t angels. I was looking forward to those.”
“I’m an angel,” she smiled. She had a soft grin that lit up her wide face and put a twinkle in her eyes.
“No dear. You are still you. You’re just here with us now.”
I kind of sulked for an instant, when another option occurred to me. “Do I get to be an angel later?”
This self-proclaimed angel paused from sipping her tea, set her cup back onto its saucer, and pursed her lips as she formed her answer. “On earth I would ask you this question. Why would you want to take the pay cut?”
Her answer got my back up, so to speak in the vernacular of my recent past. “What’s wrong with being an angel?”
“Oh, nothing. It’s just not what you are. You’re made in His image, remember?”
“That’s what I’ve been told.”
“Well, we’re not. We have an important role to play; don’t misunderstand. ‘The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place.’ Revelation 22:6. But, you know, it’s not the same. We minister. Y’all, primarily, get ministered to. Do you see the difference?”
I concentrated on her features and asked, “Have you ever been to Savannah, Georgia?”
Her previous grin widened. “I remind you of your granny’s housekeeper, don’t I?”
“Spit and image.”
“She always made you feel welcome, didn’t she?”
I nodded, remembering. “Her name was Mary Esther. She always had sugar cookies, warm out of the oven, for me when I got to Granny’s, no matter what hour we drove in from Atlanta.”
“Is she here?”
“But you are not her?”
“No, dear. I’m Michaela. I’m your one angel welcoming committee.”
It all started coming back to me, like a show I’d watched on television the night before. But this wasn’t an episode of “NCIS”. This was beginning to seem really real.
“I was in a car wreck.”
That question caught me off guard. “What do you mean? You don’t know that? Don’t you know everything?”
“Not nearly,” Michaela said with a quiet laugh.
“Well, I was.” I perused the room once more. “I guess that’s why I’m here.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, Liza, that is not why you are here at all, but we’ll get to all that later. You should eat something now. It tends to help folks settle in at this point.”
Michaela moved her hand, covered in dark jeweled rings on each finger, to press a button on the side of the desk. A door opened behind her, and a slight, older, Asian man brought in a large tray, and set it down on the table beside my chair. The tray was laden with a variety of finger foods, presented on small, delicate china plates – ivory with pale blue flowers around the edge, with folded linen napkins, and sterling silver flatware.
As I looked more closely, I realized it was a sampling of all my favorite foods placed on my own wedding china pattern: shrimp cocktail, skewered steak and mushrooms, medium hot wings, brie cheese, veggies and dip, a fresh fruit salad with no pineapple, chocolates, and petit fours-sized cheesecakes – the good kind that required no toppings. The man made a second trip carrying a tray with a tall goblet of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a small pot of coffee, a saucer of heavy cream, and a crystal bowl of sugar cubes.
“Would you prefer sweet tea, ma’am?” the man asked with an old world accent.
I looked into his wide eyes. “Any hard liquor in the house?” I whispered.
“That’ll be all, Numah. Thank you,” Michaela said, dismissing the man with a smile and a wave of her hand.
“Eat something, dear. You need your strength.”
“And why would that be, Michaela? Why would I need my strength right now?” I asked, rising to my feet and beginning to pace the length of the hand-knotted, silk rug. “I’m dead, remember? I’m in Heaven - and apparently not on the six-days, seven-nights tour. What else do I need to know? Is there some kind of twelve-step plan for entry into eternity? Or do I just have to complete the orientation, and I’ll be directed to my mansion just over the hilltop?”
“No, dear, mansions over the hilltop are just for the – ”
“- tourists. Yes, I know. Or at least I’m starting to understand.”
I stopped pacing and turned to the sound of Michaela’s patient voice. “Sit now, dear. And have something to eat. It will do you good.”
I returned to my place opposite her desk, settled myself into the firm chair, and took a bite of shrimp that tasted as if it was fresh off the boats docked at Tybee Island. My mother had a house there, or used to before she passed. The cocktail sauce had just the right touch of horseradish, not too much, not too little. I’ll bet Michaela made this herself. No, Mary Esther would have made it herself. I’ll bet angels don’t cook; they probably just speak things into existence.
“No dear, only God can do that.”
“Only God can do what?” I asked.
“Speak things into existence,” Michaela answered.
“Did I say that out loud?”
Michaela just smiled.
Whoa. I’d better watch what I think around here.
“No you don’t have to watch what you think. You can think whatever you like. You’re redeemed, remember? It’s like Mark Twain said. ‘Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.’”
I have an angel who quotes Mark Twain? I shook my head, trying to take all this in: I’m dead. I’m in Heaven. And I’m one of the redeemed. Does that about cover everything?
“It does indeed.”
I shrugged. “If you say so, Michaela.”
“No. If He says so - and in your case, dear, hallelujah, He does.”
“Tell me what you remember about the accident,” Michaela said as the door closed behind the servant.
He’d removed the last remnants of the meal, leaving only the coffee and the chocolates that turned out to taste just like Three Musketeers candy bars - my favorite. My skepticism reared its ugly head once more.
“Why is my welcoming angel a black woman and my waiter an Asian man?” I asked, recharged by the sustenance I’d been provided.
“Why do you think?” Michaela asked with all the insight of a trained therapist.
“Oh, no, lady. Don’t try to pull that analyst bull on me. Not now. Not here. My favorite candy. My favorite foods. Coffee just how I like it. A lady who looks like my granny’s Mary Esther. A waiter straight out of central casting or my favorite sushi bar. Just how stupid do you people think I am? I can tell when I’m being conned. Do y’all seriously take me for some kind of racist with the I.Q. of a doorstop?”
“Liza. Take a breath. Calm down. No one here takes you for anything of the kind. We are just trying to help you feel comfortable. You’ve had a shock. You are not being conned, I assure you.”
“And I should take your word for it – why?”
Michaela let out a slow breath. “What choice do you have?”
That shut me up.
“Now. Tell me what you remember from the accident.” Michaela reminded me of one of those wonderful elementary school teachers who made you feel loved, like she was one of your favorite aunts and not just a teacher. But she also made you aware that there were limits you were not going to be allowed to go beyond, like she was your momma and not just a teacher.
I took a moment. “I’m not sure what I remember. I was driving to work, just like always, around nine in the morning. I was fine. My car had just had a tune-up. I always made sure it got its regular maintenance. A Saab is a very reliable car if it is taken care of properly.”
Michaela nodded in agreement prodding me on.
“Anyway, it was a day just like every other day. I was headed up to a county in north Georgia to cover another Ten Commandments dispute. The ACLU was bringing another freedom of religion complaint against a county courthouse for displaying the commandments on a wall in their entrance lobby. This was about the sixth such story I’d covered for my newspaper.
“I’d cleared the metro traffic easily enough and was headed into the Smoky Mountain foothills when I suddenly felt like I couldn’t get a breath. My chest was tight and I was just beginning to feel a sharp pain when I realized I was well into a curve and going way too fast to maneuver it. The rest is a blur. I guess I went over the edge of the cliff.”
“Yes. I love the way He does that.”
“Fuzzes the end, so folks don’t remember so vividly. Most people have enough sorrow to stop remembering from their lives. No need to make them also remember a violent end.”
“I don’t remember a violent end. It was just over. One minute I’m driving a familiar highway. Then the next I’m here talking to Mary Esther in some dean’s office. Well, that was my first impression.”
“That’s mercy, dear. It’s one of the things He does best. He spares you from knowing every painful thing that happened.”
“I see. I appreciate that. I’d just as soon not have the last memory of my life to be the experience of plunging over a cliff and bursting into flames.”
“What is your last memory of your life?”
I had to think a moment because that was not a question I was expecting. Then it came to me, my only option for an answer. My children.
Michaela smiled and I continued to answer her.
“Lauren is 18. She just left for college. Talk about pain. That’s like cutting off your arm. You know in your head that you are going to miss them. But you have no idea how much it is going to hurt.
“And Jesse. He’s 15. He’s - Oh, God -what is going to become of Jesse without me? His father can’t . . . his father can’t . . .”
The tears came, taking my breath, choking me. I couldn’t breathe. My heart was pounding in my chest as if it would burst apart. I gasped. I clutched my arms and rocked back and forth with every building wave of loss. All I could think was “Oh, God, help me.”
I don’t know how long I cried before I fell into an exhausted sleep, into the deepest sleep I’d ever experienced. And when I awoke, I knew where I was, even though the scene had changed.
Michaela and I weren’t sitting in a dignified office any more. I was lying on a chaise lounge on the patio of a house with a lot of picture windows, beside a stone swimming pool surrounded by a beautiful garden. I was rested and at peace.
You know how you wake up sometimes, and you don’t know where you are, and you don’t remember what was happening before you fell asleep? It wasn’t like that at all. Even though we had moved from the office to somebody’s home, and even though Michaela now wore an oyster-colored, long flowing dress, I was alert. I understood where I was, and I knew everything.
“Not everything, dear. Not nearly everything. But you’ll get there by and by. Feel better after your rest?”
“No dear, you don’t have to call me ma’am. Just call me Michaela.”
She took me by the hand and walked me over to the side of the patio for a better view of the garden. It was manicured, but in an unprofessional way, as though it was the hobby of the lady of the house. There were climbing roses, stands of tall, multi-colored irises; and ground-cover gardenias perfuming the cool air. All my favorites. Here we go again.
“To make me feel comfortable, right?” I gave Michaela a knowing grin. “Like you being black and the servant before being Asian.”
“What?” Michaela asked.
“Well, I had my faults, but I was never a bigot.”
“Nobody thinks you were a bigot, Liza.”
“A black angel and an Asian waiter? Isn’t that a little bit of a generalization? What does that say about me?”
“I don’t think it says anything about you. It might say something about us, I suppose. We’re just trying to avoid throwing anything at you that makes you feel . . . “
“. . . alarmed by the fact that I’m toast?”
“Something along those lines.”
I guess I was starting to get with the program because I was aware that my shoulder-length, brown hair was tied back with a ribbon, and I was wearing a good quality cotton sundress in a black and white pattern. I almost thought I was barefoot, I was so unencumbered, but when I looked down I saw I was wearing sandals with cork heels just the height I preferred to take the pressure off my lower back.
Michaela motioned for me to sit in the wicker chair alongside hers. I said, “My husband had no patience for gardening, but I thought of our yard as another room in our house.”
“You were good at it.”
“I managed to kill half of what I planted every year.”
“That’s a good average. You nourished half of what you planted. When it came to your children, you had an even better average. They are both wonderful people. You did that - practically by yourself.”
I could think of my children now without crying. I didn’t know how, when I couldn’t bear it before.
“That’s Heaven, honey. One of the perks.”
“Not just for the tourists?”
“We’re past that.”
“I didn’t raise the children alone, but I did most of it. Jim was more of a playmate to the kids than a father—when he was around.”
“And what was he to you?”
“But not a soul mate.”
“When did you first realize you’d made a mistake?”
I didn’t bother any more to ask Michaela how she knew that. Like I said, I was starting to get it.
“Well before the wedding. I kind of knew in my heart, but I wouldn’t think it in my head. The way I was raised, I’d bagged my limit. I’d slept with as many guys as I could justify with excuses, even in the 1970s. It was time to get married.”
“Sex is the most misunderstood thing on earth,” Michaela said.
“Now you tell me.”
Michaela glanced at me sideways and grinned. “He has told y’all everything. Most of you won’t listen. When He gave you free will He should have added a pinch more intelligence to go with it, if you asked me.”
This angel apparently had given this subject a good deal of thought. She seemed to reign herself in for a moment, calming herself down to resume the task at hand, namely – me. “But it’s not all your fault. There’s the enemy you know.”
“The enemy? You mean Sa -”
She held up a hand, stopping me mid-word, and her smile vanished. “His name is not spoken here. He’s done his worst already. You are past that now too.”
A cool breeze rose up and popcorn clouds drifted with it. It was that end part of the day when the heat of the afternoon was giving up to the cool of the evening.
“Tell me about meeting Jim.”
There was more to the story than just “boy meets girl”, so I started with the backstory. I’d always thought it was significant.
On Amazon by Kathleen Cochran
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