Why I Choose to Believe in Heaven, Despite the Odds

Heather M. Edwards
9 min readAug 25, 2021
All rights © Danist Soh

Maybe Heaven smells like cinnamon and secondhand books. Or chiles en nogada. Or tikka masala. I don’t know. But I do know there is no money, there are no mosquitos, and maybe when Mary Oliver isn’t writing she’s picking blueberries with Pablo Neruda. Jaime Sabines is smoking in a hammock. Jesus is eating mangos with Mohammed and playing games of chess neither of them wants to win. Every game ends in a stalemate so they flip the board over to play backgammon.

I know it’s not just white robes and white clouds and hierarchies of angels but the fig trees stretching beside the lavender fields are always in season. The lavender always blooms, and every species of bees eat their fill. There is sunlight and moonlight and candlelight and campfires and ghost stories even though there’s nothing left to fear. I don’t know how old we are. The age when we died? Our favorite age? All of them like one prism? Maybe there’s no such thing as age.

There are gorgeous thunderstorms, kintsugi lightning gilding the sky but there are no droughts and no floods. I want to water the naked-man orchids and lightly run my finger around the Oaxacan pottery. I want to feel the smooth skin of madrones but maybe there are no things, no texture. No priceless objects. No birch paper to peel from tree trunks. Maybe we just watch watercolor sunsets and bright fauvist sunrises and talk about abstract art but there are definitely no balloons in Heaven. Mylar and plastic don’t make it up here but the poets will recite their poetry if you ask them. Billie Holiday sings whatever she damn well pleases.

If Heaven is a coffee shop that never closes, buzzes with laughter, and hums with music no one hates I’m sure there are no laptops. Time doesn’t exist here but there is still the glow of late nights and red wine. Somehow there are still changing seasons, falling leaves and the sword tips of gladiolas, that faint smell of new lilacs through open windows.

There are always road trips but never car accidents. Heroes, but no tragedies. No sickness but there are rope swings over lakes of endless summer. And wood stoves and blankets and the softest snow falling quietly outside, a winter that no one suffers.

I will meet my Grandpa McDermott for the first time in my conscious life. I was only three when he died. There are pictures of us together in Nuremberg, we’re both laughing. Your grandfather was a king among men, my dad says with a quiet gravitas about his father-in-law. Everyone smiles when they talk about him. I would like to say to him and his bright blue eyes I’ve only seen in pictures, Pleased to meet you. I’m your only daughter’s first daughter. Will you tell me everything about you?

My cats are there listening to Elijah McClain play his violin. My sweet, sweet three-legged Jimmy. My tuxedo-ed Dominique. They might have “just” been cats but they were both good and kind people. Elijah would have loved them. Pure hearts all of them. Gentle souls that weren’t spared.

If you die young, do you get to finish growing up in Heaven? If you died tragically do you get to start over? Do you get to finish what’s been left undone?

Because I want to live to be an old lady I want to give Elijah the most realm-bending grandmotherly hug, a hug that can take him back in time and change everything. I want to tell him I’m so sorry I couldn’t protect him. I’m sorry we didn’t save him. George Stinney, Jr. puts one hand on Elijah’s shoulder, looks at me and says, “It never had to be that way.” They are both so young and I am crushed into nothing but pain. In his other hand George is holding the Bible they sat him on like a booster seat so this young boy, his small body, a beautiful child of God could fit in an electric chair made for adults. We didn’t protect him either.

But then again this wouldn’t be Heaven for them, to absorb strangers’ deep grief and absolve them of their heartbreak. We are not helpless. We must do more on this Earth. Now.

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” — the Gnostic Gospels

I want to tell Papa, my other grandpa, what my unopened letter said. I only vaguely remember it myself but I was devastated to find it still sealed with a stack of other mail. It didn’t get to him before he died. But it shouldn’t have been my only attempt to say goodbye.

And because I am selfish even in Heaven I want him to forgive me for not calling him the day he died. I remember holding the red cellphone in my hand and being too scared. We knew the end was close and I still couldn’t bring myself to do it, even to say goodbye and thank him for always believing in me, for being excited about my future. I still have a three-page letter from him but I can only bring myself to read it every few years.

He was an odd duck and was never that close to us. Our last conversation was his lamentation on “Blacks and their drugs” and “all those Hispanics over in Salinas killing their girlfriends”.

I was dumbstruck. I’d never heard him say a racist thing in my life.

I have all of his medals but I never asked him about the Pacific Theater, about the photo album full of professional portraits of young Indian women. I never asked him about Korea.The awful truth is that I was never curious until it was too late.

He did wrong by my Nana. She’s in Heaven too, dipping Easter candy in Dutch cocoa and drinking coffee. She’ll switch to Coke and sticky buns in the afternoon.

I should’ve stayed the night she died. I’ll be honest. My Nana could be a mean and difficult woman but she was a talented artist. They told me right in front of her that the end was near, that they could tell by her fucking feet. They didn’t say “fucking” but I couldn’t believe they said it so casually, pulling the blanket and sheet back to show me how the blood leaves the feet first — like they weren’t talking about her imminent death, like she wasn’t lying right there. I sat beside her bed until late and read Fahrenheit 451 to her because I didn’t know what to say and I had it with me. A man I was falling in love with loved that book and was surprised I had never read it. (It never became a favorite but it is not without its damning prescience.)

When I told her I was leaving for the night she grabbed my hand, her face pleading with me but I couldn’t understand the words she was trying to form. I can still see the look in her eyes and it wrecks me when I let it. I should’ve crawled into bed with her and held her so she wouldn’t be scared but I didn’t. It would’ve been so simple. What the fuck is wrong with me?? Why didn’t I? Because I was selfish and tired and had to work in the morning. And I was scared. And overwhelmed. It was all too real. She wasn’t malicious but she had a mean streak. She was demanding and oblivious. I told her I loved her and I would be back tomorrow. What if tomorrow is the last word you speak to a loved one and tomorrow never comes for them? Why didn’t I just call everyone and say “It’s time”? Why didn’t we gather as a family to ease her fear and thank her for all the good, regardless of all the bad?

I let both of them go without the best goodbye I was capable of. Without coins for their eyes or kind words for the journey. I was a piece of shit and I didn’t have to be. They didn’t have to be perfect to earn my heartfelt goodbyes, my love. They loved me whether I deserved it or not. I didn’t have to earn their love by proving my worthiness.

Sometimes I try to comfort myself with earlier memories. I hope that my Nana remembers when I took time off work and flew to California to take care of her. To ask her how she painted water you could swim in. That I hugged her goodnight and took her shopping. That she lived long enough to see a Pope named after her favorite saint. She seemed to smile when I told her that.

Mostly I just try not to think about it at all because the carnivorous guilt devours me. I try to remind myself that there is no guilt in Heaven.

One nurse told us Nana would fall asleep on one of the couches with her rosary in her hand. A year and a half later I draped that rosary around her brother-in-law’s headstone in Belgium. Before he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge he wrote my Papa and told him not to worry that she was a Catholic, that their Methodist parents would come around.

I want to believe she is in Heaven painting with Artemisia Gentileschi and Camille Claudel. My Nana has forgiven my Papa. Camille has forgiven her mother and brother. Rodin brings her a beaded glass of cold lemonade, a sharper chisel, and a small rasp. He kisses her on the cheek.

Is there sex in Heaven? Climax? I don’t know. But I do know that every single book ever written is there. Not just in book form but living and breathing inside you. Every story you started but never finished. Don Quixote. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Master and Margarita.

There are dogs everywhere. They are the only beings who are just the same in Heaven as they were on Earth. My Charlie is there. I wasn’t the best dog mom. I learned that I really am a cat person at his expense. But he is pure and he forgave me a long time ago. He is happy to see me. I want to fall on my knees and wrap my arms around him again, to beg him for another chance. I’ll do it right this time, I promise.

All animals are loved like dogs here. No animals are food. No animals are commodities.

We don’t need words to communicate but everyone understands every language ever spoken. Archbishop Romero can sing the Gospel in Spanish and Gandhi will respond in Hindi.

I don’t know Pirbhaya’s real name. But I read that pirbhaya means “fearless”. The six men who gang-raped her, who sodomized her with an iron rod and threw her mangled still-breathing body out of the back of a bus are not there. They were not sorry until they got convicted. Some of them laughed during the trial. She is safe now. Smiling again.

I will finally hug my Grandma McDermott again. I will thank her for visiting me in my dreams, for telling me that she’s ok.

I am not a theologian and I don’t need to be. I believe in Heaven because I can believe in nothingness, which perhaps is its own kind of peace, or I can believe in eternal happiness, however naive that may be. Heaven is the ultimate superlative. And I believe in Heaven because it is my best chance to say how truly deeply sorry I am to those who are already gone.

But Heaven isn’t just a purgatory of crushing rootbound regret and hopeful reconciliation. That’s just the vestibule. The rest is ripe avocados and the opportunity to love eternally. It is butter melting on warm bread and your beloved’s hand stroking your hair forever. It is uproariously funny dinner parties and glasses clinking.

Yes, there are creature comforts of sorts. Nostalgia. But imagine loving your loved ones forever. We don’t have to stop when they die, when we die. I know I never meant to only bloom at night. This flower wants another chance. Eternal daylight. Death is too final for all the love I have left.

Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time;
it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.

— Sydney J. Harris

In this world, I still have time to learn from my mistakes. I still have time to change my life.

So do you.

And until we meet again, live like you want your first day in Heaven to be a reunion. Not a reconciliation.