Papa believed in heaven for most of his life. To be absent from the body meant present with the Lord, at least for the self-selected who believed Jesus was Messiah and shared an abhorrence for anything bearing even one whorl of Satan’s fingerprint—bare shoulders on females, movies with lust and words like goddamn, and the idea that maybe God, if there even was one, was not male, or Christian, or all that into damnation. I say most of his life because he experienced nothing the one time his body tried to die but was thwarted by a nurse unaware of his DNR order. He had drank some orange juice, accidentally supplying his failing organs with a surfeit of potassium, and simply fell asleep to the offbeat rhythm of his exhausted heart, waking to shouting, beeping, and a sense of being robbed by the nurse who might have been too late to meddle had she just stopped to tie her shoe before checking on him. Though I was tempted to ask if he believed his ticket to enter the pearly gates was still good when he confessed he was angry at being alive, I did not want to risk forcing him to say no. But Mama said he stopped reading his Bible and bitterly told her second daughter the only time he prayed without being coerced was for his children. He died less than two years after that practice run.
I ceased believing in heaven as it is traditionally understood by one raised in the home of a Southern Baptist preacher years before Papa moved from the known to the unknown, the here to the somewhere else. I am unable to imagine my father in some gold-washed realm above the sky, but perhaps this is because I know he is in my carpet cleaner. Bits of him anyway. A pinch of ashes funneled into a bottle of Diet Pepsi by my sister in our attempt to memorialize him without getting our hands gritty caused an eruption of soda, laughter, and specks of Papa in his favorite liquid to trail from the dining table through the kitchen to the sink where he was sent to the municipal water supply, too. And I occasionally visit him in the drive-thru at the McDonald’s where we dumped the ash-flattened soda into a flower bush before ordering a vanilla milkshake neither of us would drink despite how much he enjoyed them and how deeply we missed him. All is nonsense in love and grief.
Papa is also present at Clio corner in southern Iowa, some 930 miles from where he took his last breath, though he once thought he was going to die there, where my habit of taking corners too quickly began during a driving lesson. I weighted his dust with taco pizza from the place we sometimes went to after church in my high school years fifteen years previous and where the veil of mystery between living and dead parted and I felt him close again more than a year after I last kissed him goodbye. He endures in the roundness of my cheeks when I smile and the crinkle of my nose when I laugh, my affinity for philosophical debates and my inclination to secret certainty I am right no matter what I otherwise profess. My words take shape around his absence, a faint outline of all he was to me. And his laugh echoes in my ears while I watch Abbott and Costello.
He is in more places now than when confined to a body, but is he also in heaven? The hypotheses of what happens after the heart ends its song and the brain takes a bow are legion, and we each select whatever keeps us from vomiting in terror when we contemplate our own demise. I have chosen the notion that heaven and hell are not destinations, but how we are thought of by those still gifted with air in their lungs even as they forget daily what an absurdly brilliant privilege it is to be counted among the living. If that is the case, then what matters is not what Papa believed about God or life after death but what I believe about him.
I believe he was a man who wanted to be good and often was. I believe his love for his children was extravagant though doled out through fingers clenched with fear. I believe he did his best. I believe he loved his wife. I believe I was lucky to be his daughter. He is held in my memory, my breath, my words with love. Only love. Love, I believe, is heaven.
A penchant for eavesdropping and a need to complicate everything created a writing career for Leah Senona. She is fortunate enough to live in Landrum, SC with her family and as many animals as she can sneak into the house. She can be found online on Facebook and Instagram.