Andy doesn't know how to write but sometimes finds completed works on his computer.
I knew where I was going when I died. The problem was that my father didn’t.
Raised Christian, the nights of his childhood ended with his head bobbing above the open pages of the bible on his desk, the words blurring as his eyelids grew heavy with sleep—a testament of his faith, according to my grandmother.
But now where was he? Nowhere, it seemed, even as he wandered through his retirement traveling abroad and trekking through different states in his old van that was on the verge of breaking down. I often wondered what’d happened to his relationship with God. From what I knew, he’d experienced no sudden tragedies in his teenage years that would have unclasped his hands from prayer and placed them at the side of his hips in pride.
Before his long journey across highway 66, I begged him to drive something else for the trip, evening showing up to the old house in a teal Nissan rental; but all he did was laugh, shake his head with a smile, and wave his hand like I’d told him there was a beehive forming in his backyard, which there was.
My mother had been agnostic before she’d passed from breast cancer, always had been growing up. But I’d describe her faith, or lack of, more as unsure. In her last days on her hospital bed, she’d expressed hope that maybe death wasn’t the end of it all, that those buzzing, flickering columns of light on the ceiling wouldn’t be the last things she saw and heard before she took her last breath. She put her fingers on my knuckles and brushed them with her fingertips. I could see the light hidden behind her black pupils, the light of her soul, asking me to answer her question for her. So I did. I told her about Jesus. I started off calm, with slow arguments about how impossible it’d be for us to have just appeared here out of chaos. She looked out through the window like she was searching for something in her memory as the passion in my voice grew and I went on to sin, her sins, which had been so evident to me but so blind to her, and Adam and Eve, and why God was waiting for us to come back to Eden with Him. Each time she glanced at me through the tears she fought I felt something inside me gritting hard like clenched teeth; I felt God in me, saving my mom. And when I told her that God was right in front of her, that it was not my voice speaking but that of The Holy Spirit, she finally let go of whatever she was holding onto and broke into tears, nodding. That’s all I needed, that slight but conscious tilt of her head up and down. That’s all that God would need.
With my mother, once the subject was out in the open, I could say anything to her, what was really on my mind. It was nothing short of a miracle that she’d brought it up first. But my relationship with my father was of a different breed, filled with long strides of near-comfortable silences, broken only when logistics needed to be discussed like my mother’s funeral date or if I could pick up my sister and her husband from the airport.
On the day he came back from his trip, rolling into the driveway of my parents' old house, which I’d been watching during his leave, he had a grin on his face; the engine of the van sputtered and the brakes squeaked a sound that reminded me of lasers. I’d just collected everything inside his over-stuffed mailbox into my hands, letters and flyers barely clinched between my fingers.
“Didn’t break down once,” he announced, as if this were a personal triumph of his belief in the van’s ability to endure. I wondered why God didn’t let those brake lines finally detach and send him off the turn of a bridge into an icy river, filling everything with water and scare the Jesus back into him until, after he begged to be saved, a foot came smashing through the back window and a hand—the hand of God—pulled him by his shirt collar all the way up to the first breath of his renewed life.
Time doesn’t exist. Only change. And we’re on a constant course toward death, continually becoming more of our final selves when the end seals us into permanence.
Change. Change. I prayed to God that He change my father, somehow remove those gates of hell which he’d locked from the inside for no apparent reason. But years passed, and he continued traveling, and I continued rubbing my fingertips together anxiously in Church as I thought about the possibility of him suddenly dying on one of his trips to third- and second-world countries that seemed so precarious with their doctors who hung self-printed certificates because they’d received their official documents in an email from a one-building medical school on the edge of a run-down city. What scared me most was that God would let him leave earth and perish, or worse, descend into a realm of that place below.
So, on his next road trip, I decided to go with him. His eyes beamed surprised joy. He knew I hated being in vehicles, particularly because traffic, with its constant stopping and going and close encounters of minor scratches and fender benders, nauseated me to the point that I refused to live more than ten minutes from The Salvation Army Downtown Headquarters, where I worked as an outreach director. And he knew why I was lugging myself into that van I so didn’t trust—he’d just passed his 73rd birthday and had begun walking with a slight limp—making this one of his last long road trips before he settled somewhere quiet and economical.
I don’t remember the scenes outside our window the first hours driving through Arizona, just the columns of sunlight glimmering through the clouds along the dashboard. He insisted on taking the first shift. As he steered with one hand on the bottom of the wheel and rested the other casually in his lap, I picked at my nails, thinking about how I would approach the subject. It seemed that no matter which way I settled it in, my intentions would become clear the moment I didn’t let it go like it was just another one of the canyons we were passing that could easily be skipped.
“Hey Dad,” I said.
I felt us both stiffen in our seats. I don’t think I’d ever said ‘hey dad’ to start a conversation before. I always got straight to the message, or mumbled my way in. Two opposites, but neither seemed like they would make this go any smoother, so I picked the middle path.
“Yeah?” he said, uneasily like I was going to ask him if he’d ever cheated on Mom, or something worse.
“I was talking to Grandma the other day,” I said, “and she told me something about your childhood that I wanted to ask you about.” That was a lie. I hadn’t talked to my grandmother in over sixth months, but then I considered that ‘the other day’ was possibly vague enough to absolve itself; I quickly asked for forgiveness anyways: there was no room for lies and pride here. Not now.
My dad’s voice perked up along with his ears. “Yeah, what’s up?” He sounded glad, like maybe in his eyes, this was already heaven, just him and his son on a road trip, his son trying to know more about him after forty-five years of not knowing much.
“She said you used to read the bible every night as a kid.”
I glanced outside my window. A large valley narrowed toward the horizon, simmering every hue between orange and red.
“Yeah, what about it?” His tone was defensive.
“So, I was wondering what happened. I mean, you and Mom certainly didn’t raise me Christian.”
In fact, I’d been a staunch atheist for more than half my life who knew what came after death—nothing; until God decided to gradually reveal His Spirit to me in a series of events that were too coincidental to not be fate. That’s how it went with those who switched sides: the stronger the faith, the more stubborn the doubt. And the stronger the doubt, the more fervent the faith.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I just started thinking for myself one day instead of listening to what other people were telling me.”
He didn’t know? He guessed? Thinking for himself? That was how you got into trouble— believing you knew better.
“Well, just because other people are telling you something doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
“What’s this all going to?”
I noticed his turns had become choppier, despite not being able to see what was around the corner of the rocks. I advised him to slow down a little, and then I began trying to convince him to go back to his faith, the passion in me rising from my original meekness. As with my mother, I once again spoke like a man possessed, referring to God as ‘being right here in this car, trying to get you back’.
“Son,” he said. “Please don’t ruin this trip. Let’s just enjoy what time we have left together.”
“We can share all of eternity if you’ll just listen.”
We were passing a rest stop, a semi-circle of dirt overlooking a canyon, protecting vehicles from the cliff with a low rail. Suddenly braking hard, he swerved us in, the tires skidding against the dirt, which kicked up from the ground and lifted into a sheet toward the sky. Our car stopped inches from the rail.
The families that had been standing in a makeshift line to take photos had all grabbed their children and run to the sides. My dad opened the door and got out. The dust, unsettling around us like falling smoke, washed into the van. A woman shot me a disapproving look through the windshield as she covered her son’s mouth with her sweater. I became angry—who was she to judge? She knew nothing about us. Why my dad did that. What I was trying to do. I got out and walked over to the rail through their glares and shaking heads. My dad was leaning forward with his palms against the metal.
“You don’t know anything,” he said. “None of us do. So don’t go off running your mouth to me about heaven and hell and Jesus and God, when there’s people all over the world that won’t even hear about it and will, according to you, go to Hell.”
“But we’re here right now. And you’re—“
“Not another word,” he said, gravely. Leaning further in, he peered down into the valley.
You’re here, I thought. And you’ve heard about Jesus. And God. And Heaven and Hell. Why won’t you listen to me? Why won’t you come back?
I’d failed, but when he was diagnosed with lung cancer years later, despite never having smoked a cigarette in his life, I saw it as a second change to bring him back into the kingdom.
His hospital room was the opposite my mom’s: six columns of light stretched across the ceiling, each controlled by a knob so that he could configure the brightness of the room exactly how he wanted and make some areas darker than others. Even on his deathbed, we only talked logistics. When my sister was coming in again. That he was leaving the house to her and my brother-in-law. The savings he was leaving for me.
“I don’t want the savings, Dad,” I said, rising from my chair. “I just want you to accept the gift of God back into your life.” Tears cracked from the sides of my eyes. I blinked and let them shutter down my cheeks. I hadn’t let him see me cry since I was a child.
“You don’t get it son. It’s not that simple. I can’t just say that stuff.” He coughed, and it sounded like a charred rock was trying to scratch its way out from his throat. “I can say it, but I won’t mean it.”
“Then just try to mean it,” I said.
“Fine,” he said. “If it’ll get you to stop bugging me about it in my last days.”
I bowed my head and said a prayer out loud, then looked at him.
“Amen,” he said, rolling his eyes.
He sighed. “Look, son. You listen to me good here.” He reached up and grabbed my wrist, squeezing. “This right here is eternity. The moment you’re born until the moment you die. I know this because I’m about to leave. So don’t go living life like you don’t only live once, preparing for the next one and missing this one. You understand me?” His eyes were teary, collecting around his irises and breaking like shards of glass in the church windows of his childhood.
I wrung my hand away and left, shaking my head. I put off visiting him for four days, and on the morning I donned a white polo and slacks, like I was planning to drop in to church to pay God a quick, unexpected visit, I received a phone call from the hospital, telling me the news.
I prayed for him. I pray for him still. Because I know his Amen in that hospital bed was tangled with pride, and that God would not—could not—receive him into the kingdom in the proud state he was in. So I asked that my father find his way to us, eventually, somehow. That God give him a chance and show him the way. And that God forgive him for his sins. And that God forgive me, for wanting my dad to be in heaven more for my sake than for his.