After my dad died, when my daughter asked me if I believe in heaven, I hedged my bets. I told her only what I knew to be true: that different people believe different things, and what some of those beautiful ideas might be. But one recent day – at a swimming school, of all places – I realized with a shock that I know exactly what I believe.
For the first time in weeks my work schedule had allowed me to take her to her weekly class myself; usually, she goes with my husband. I was laden down with my computer and notebooks, planning to get some writing done while she played games and learned strokes. As I pulled into the parking lot, I heard an uncharacteristically small, shy voice from the back seat: “Mom, are you gonna watch me?”
Breathe. Smile into the mirror. Extract carving knife from heart. “Yes, of COURSE!”
“Good.” (Voice smaller still.) “I’ve missed you.”
I left the computer and the notebooks in the car. I watched like there was no tomorrow, leaning over the balcony of the upper level, taking in the joy on her face as she swam back and forth. Pretty soon, I realized I was crying, and that very possibly some of the other moms up there were edging carefully away from the lady who was clearly having a psychotic break during Advanced Beginners Group B. It wasn’t just mom guilt. It was grief. The thing was, my daughter had put into words exactly what I have been saying to my father in my head all these months. “Are you gonna watch me? I’ve missed you.”
Isn’t that what we all want, selfishly, whether we are five or forty or one hundred? That sense that someone has their eyes on us? We’re so lucky, those of us who get it from someone when we are kids; lottery winners, those of us who get it not only from one parent but from two, as I did; wealthy beyond belief, those of us who enjoy those riches long into adulthood. But it’s hard sometimes to remember our good fortune when we lose a parent like that, no matter how old we are. Part of what we mourn is that feeling of being watched over. Part of what happens when a parent dies, a good, loving parent like both of mine, is that we remember that we are still children. We see our fancy suits and briefcases or whatever trappings of adulthood we have acquired as the dressup game they truly are. We still crave that pat on the head, that safety.
But that’s when I realized it. I realized it as my chin fluttered along the same fault lines as my father’s chin, my eyes watering just as his would have. I realized it as I literally watched over my daughter, far below in the pool, having so much fun. I realized that she is my heaven. She is the place I will go when I die, along with my favorite spot in Sipp Bay on the Maine shoreline, the roots of my favorite fig tree in the park next to our house, and every cup of coffee ever consumed from that day onward. And the two of us together in that moment, my daughter blissing out in the water and her mother watching her in a sort of rapture: we are my father’s heaven, one small part of it. The people, the things, the places we love – that’s where we go. When those people and things and places are noticed, are seen, are loved by someone else, that’s when we come alive again.
That’s why I see my grandmother sometimes in the gleam of a bird’s eye. That’s why we feel so comforted as we run our fingers down a bookshelf full of classics, the whispered words of brilliant minds long gone. That’s why we might feel someone’s presence so strongly in a piece of music, a park bench, a sports team. That’s why I met my father at the neighborhood pool that day, so much more than I do at his grave. He is not beneath that stone, not really. He is there only when we are. When we get up to go, he does, too. He moves along, because we, the people who loved him, are the place that he has gone.
So many people have put this into words so much better than I – such as Mary Elizabeth Frye, who wrote, “Do not stand at my grave and weep / I am not there; I do not sleep” – but like everything else in life, you have to learn it for yourself. To be hit with this realization that day amidst the shouts and splashes of little kids was a massive gift. Maybe it was a birthday present, but from him to me.
I dreamed that night that we were going about our lives and that my dad was among us, having somehow survived his Stage IV pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. It was the first time since his death that I’ve dreamed about him healthy, walking around, not in bed. At one point I caught him watching the scene, my daughter scrambling around looking for her socks, and I went over and gave him a huge hug. “I’m so glad you’re here,” I said.
He met my gaze. “Me, too,” he said significantly, just as he would have, looking slightly shaken, as in: I really dodged a bullet there. Thank goodness I made it through.
I woke up sad, but also wondering. I’m so glad you’re here. Was it just a wish? Or was it simply a statement of fact? Could it still be true, in the light of day?
I’ll be back on Monday with the Costa Rica Daily Boost, a series of weekday posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook!