For all the tests and needles, all the frantic whispered exchanges and phone calls, what it came down to was this: Richard was old, and he was dying of it.
He protested little against all the useless activity rushing about him. He let himself be shuttled by car and wheelchair, showered with flowers and cards, drowned in vague well-wishing. He knew he was dying and would soon be dead. He felt it in his lungs, in his eyelids, in the slow, plodding beat of his heart.
One day, he woke and knew he would not wake again in this world. He had his daughter, who worried her way into the room day after day, call the pastor.
Pastor Aldrich came, bearded and stately, a rather fine man considering the boy Richard remembered him being. “May I read a few verses?” Pastor Aldrich asked.
Richard listened, eyes half-shut, thin hands grasping his sheet. He smiled feebly at the words. He nodded with exaggerated slowness as Scripture murmured in reassuring tones.
“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he has redeemed you from death through the forgiveness of your sins by his death and resurrection?”
Richard had believed for many, many years. He spoke with finality: “Yes.”
Pastor Aldrich took hold of Richard’s hand and with bright eyes said, “Soon there will be no more tears or sorrow or sickness.”
Richard released his hand and turned away.
“What’s the matter?” Pastor Aldrich asked.
Richard’s thin body trembled. It shook the words out with gentle proddings. “I must tell you something.” Pastor Aldrich waited. “I’ve never told anyone before.”
“Don’t be afraid. Your past sins are forgiven.”
“And present sins?”
“Confess, and God is faithful to forgive.”
Richard’s lungs filled with air. His hospital sheet rose and fell. “I am afraid to die.”
“Be assured. By faith through Jesus, God will bring you safely to heaven.”
“I mean, I don’t want to go to heaven.”
Richard’s eyes, sunken into his skull, flashed fiercely.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” the Pastor said politely, to buy time.
“My aunt is there. I know she is. She’s a boastful, horrible woman, but she always told me how much she loved Jesus, so she must be there. First thing she’ll say when I see her is how she reached 95, and I’m only 92, and that it’s because she prayed three times a day and sang hymns at night in her bed, and I never prayed that she saw and always fell asleep early. She had exact hours she prayed. She set her clock for it. That’s how much I love the Lord, she told me whenever I decided to go play with my friends instead of joining her when I was a kid.”
Richard struggled to sit up, wriggling like a fish, and Pastor Aldrich moved to soothe him and opened his mouth to encourage him, but the floodgates had been opened.
“And I don’t like to sing. I can stand a little, but even the good hymns, why do they need six verses? And the bad hymns! How many verses will there be in heaven? Seven? Seventy times seven! Hours of tortured voices struggling against the shrill organ. I don’t think I can do it.”
He closed his eyes against the horror. “And even if we get to stop singing sometimes, what then? I like to play euchre. Does God like euchre? And if he does, we’re all perfect, so we’ll know exactly what card to lay each time. Is that fun? Where’s the risk?
“I suppose we’ll have to sit and stare at the sunset and the waterfalls and the stars and everything. It’ll be very nice. Maybe for a hundred years, even. But after that? I can only look for so long. Send me to a museum, and I’ll read ever plaque, that’s fine, but then what?”
Richard pressed his hands against his face. “I’m so tired here. But to rest…forever…? I might die of boredom–if I could die.”
Richard became very quiet. Pastor Aldrich waited a moment before beginning to–
“And those eye-things,” Richard said. “What are they called, cherubim? Eyes all over their bodies? I don’t want to see that. It’s disgusting! Unnatural! It’s exactly what Paul said we shouldn’t be, all eyes! It’s like having spiders in heaven, but worse!”
The old man jumped, and the Pastor himself seemed rather surprised by his outburst. “Richard, what do you want in heaven?”
“Well, now, it’s not really my place to tell God….” He saw the Pastor’s skeptical look and relented. “I don’t know. My wife, certainly. Young again. And me too. When we didn’t care about exercise or weight or money or politics.”
“Like on your honeymoon.”
Richard gave a stern look. “That’s not proper talk from a pastor, Pastor.”
“How about meeting someone better than your wife? Someone who knows your deepest desire, who has always known it, and who has sought after you day in and day out?”
“My wife and I were married 71 years, Pastor. None of this talk of another. It’s indecent, simply indecent.”
“I don’t mean–” He shook his head. “You’ve missed the point, Richard, a rather important point.” Pastor Aldrich stood. “I think you’ll find heaven a little better than you expect. I look forward to meeting you there someday.”
Richard watched him leave, dumbfounded. He expected Pastor Aldrich to pop back in with some lame excuse about it being a joke. He did not. That was an even worse joke.
He called his daughter in. “Heidi, I’d like a hymnal.” Richard sighed. “Might as well pick out the best, in case they’re taking requests.”