Tag Archives: heaven

To eternity…and back

Credit: marybreath.com

Credit: marybreath.com

Servaas was sweeping the floor of his little cottage when the attack came. At first it was only a dizzy spell, but he soon had to sit down to avoid falling down. Oh, he’s had similar incidents in the past, especially after that new batch of Kleinpiet’s peach brandy was served in Boggel’s Place, but this was more severe, less ignorable and the headache didn’t wait for the next day – it was there immediately.

He tried to think, realising he needed help, but the more he tried to grab at thoughts – any thoughts – the less he was able to formulate a logical response. Yes, he knew he had to call out…or something. Maybe crawl to the door? Bang on the floor? Get something to make a noise with…?

And then the darkness started approaching. This, he could understand. The darkness would come and creep closer and closer until it seeped into every little crack in the floor. Then it would rise, grow bigger and stronger…and then there would be a bright tunnel of light. This was quite all right, he knew. It had to happen sometime, hadn’t it? And now, with this inevitability established, he felt a wave of resigned peace wash over him. Let it go…let it go…

At once he became aware of Siena. Not Siena the way she looked when she was in hospital after her stroke, no…Siena was young and vibrant and…beautiful.  Yes, he remembered that dress – the white, frilly one with the little flowers around the hemline. And oh! The inviting smile! She was just standing there, waiting with a hand raised, waiting for him to ask her to the dance in Sarel Rooidam’s barn on Saturday. He was trembling, fumbling for words…

“You may ask me,” she said with that familiar smile.

“But…”

He remembered that moment. Amongst the jumble of racing thoughts cruising through his brain right then, that moment froze, focussed, became startlingly clear. He couldn’t back then, neither can he now, bring himself to ask her to accompany him to Sarel’s barn.

“I know it’s hard to take that step, Servaas. So much uncertainty! So much to risk – what if she says ‘no’?. ”

Hey, wait! Siena didn’t say that? Who did? It’s a different, more commanding voice. Servaas tried to look around, but his glasses had fallen off during the dizzy spell. Everything is so…unfocussed. Yet, he could make out the outline of …somebody?

“Yes, Servaas, it’s me. You often wondered, didn’t you? Well, no you know.”

An image of Oudoom’s church now flashed through his mind.

“Oh, I know you tried, Servaas. All of you did, even Oudoom – as you call him. But you know? You guys were only scratching at the surface of Truth. You created a man-made religion with man-made rules.” Did he hear a chuckle in the voice? “It’s funny, actually. I mean: how you pieced together the puzzle and got the completely wrong picture. So, so many wrong pictures, to be exact.”

A thought gelled at last. “Am I dying?”

“Everybody’s dying, Servaas, you just choose to ignore it. Nobody lives forever down here on earth.”

“Will I…will I go to…heaven?”

This time the chuckle is unmistakable. “It depends on whether you want to sing in a choir for eternity, or prefer living in a suburb with pearly gates and golden streets. Then, I’m afraid, the answer is ‘No!’. But, if you wanted to find Peace and Love at last, then I’d say you have a very good chance.”

“But…where am I going now?”

The image faded a little, the silhouette becoming hazy. “To hospital, Servaas. They’re going to make you better.”

The last image Servaas became aware of, is Siena waving a cheery goodbye, her dress held down by a shy hand as the wind threatened to expose a knee. Almost a Marilyn Monroe picture, he’ll recall later.

***

“Servaas….?”

Precilla wipes the sweaty brow with a damp cloth while she whispers his name over and over again. When did she become so fond of the cantankerous old man? Why, he’s forever being obtuse and garrulous, and yet here she is, next to his bed in Upington’s hospital, feeling so sad she could cry for days.

Doctor Welman – who treated him before – told her old Servaas had had a minor stroke but that nobody could predict the outcome. He may be paralyzed, lose some words or parts of memory, even be blind or deaf – who knows? Only time will tell.

There is the faintest suggestion that the frown on the forehead deepened slightly.

“Servaas…?”

***

Siena returned for the last time.

“You’re not ready yet, Servaas.” This time the dress was loose, faintly suggestive as a thin strap slipped from her left shoulder. She’s still smiling that inviting smile, her eyes sparkling with some inner humour. “Don’t worry, I’m waiting for you. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Wha…what is this?” He was thoroughly confused.

“Ag, Servaas!” A slight note of exasperation crept into her voice, like it always did when he asked a stupid question. “This is Life, Servaas. Different, but the same. Here, but everywhere.”

“”I don’t understand…”

She sighed, pulled back the strap. “I didn’t either, when I was still trapped in a body. Shame, man! I know it doesn’t make sense right now. But here’s what I can tell you: you’re living only a fraction of the life you have. You know a little bit of something so big, it’ll blow your mind to know more. You must tell Oudoom that.”

He remained silent, digesting what she had said.

“Listen, Servaas: when you get out of hospital, you must really try to be more…religious.”

This time, it was Servaas who rebelled. “Siena, you know me. Head elder. Upholder of morals. I sit with Oudoom every week to work out his sermion….”

She… giggled…? It was hard to tell, for she had hidden her lips behind a demure hand. “Oh, my old sweetheart!” Yes, there was definitely laughter in her voice. “I know you try so hard. But really, Servaas, do you think that is what it’s all about? Religion is so much more than a sermon or the desire to criticize. No, what I’m telling you to do, is to practice compassion and kindness. Religion isn’t about wearing black suits and white ties and sitting in the front pew. You have to live your religion – every hour of every day. Make people experience what you believe in by the way you act, the words you speak, the  smile to the stranger.” She took a step closer, but stopped suddenly as if she realised there was a barrier between them. “Reading the Bible and praying is good, Servaas, and please don’t stop. But, my dear, those are things you do by yourself and for yourself. That’s a teeny bit of what your religion should be all about. Your religion, Servaas, should be a beacon of light to others, not a series of selfish acts to soothe your conscience. It must be apparent to your friends, your family, the cashier at the till, the newspaper vendor on the street corner. It’s not about knowing which verse to quote under the right circumstances, it’s about living compassion.”

***

“Living…compassion.” Servaas’s eyes flicker open for a second.

“Hey, guys, Servaas is back! He sounds a bit confused, though.” Precilla motions the group at the door to gather around the bed.

“What did you say, Servaas?”

“Living…compassion.”

“Yep, he’s confused, alright! Doctor Welman said it might happen.” Vetfaan stares down at the gray-haired patient. “At least he can talk.”

“I can…do…more. I…must…do more.”

“Yeah, yeah, Servaas. One step at a time, will you? Relax now, everything is just dandy.”

“No…it isn’t. It never was…”

When Servaas slips back into the peaceful void, the little crowd around his bed exchange worried glances. Their old friend seems to be so very vague, so extremely abstruse…

They are so very wrong.

(To be continued…)

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The Scent of Eternity

IMG_2516Old Oom Ben Kromhout has been dying for a long time now. Gertruida once said that one mustn’t pity people like this; although the lingering shadow of death may be upsetting for everyone concerned, the person at the centre of it all enjoys the singular privilege of saying goodbye, sorting out personal and financial issues and making peace with Life and God. Still, to see the old man wither away like he did, makes one doubt the statement. Perhaps Gertruida should have set a time frame to her statement – a three-little-bears clause, saying it shouldn’t happen too fast or too slow, but just right.

Living – and dying – on his farm Kromdraai, Oom Ben used to be an example of how one should integrate the reality of this world with the belief in the next. He applied his vast knowledge of the Old and New Testament to the way he lived, the hardships of the Kalahari and the way his wife left him for that travelling salesman, that Philistine, Frederik Kotze. 

“We are but like the grass of the fields,” he said at the time, “here today, gone tomorrow. And if a Kudu came around and ate it, then the grass won’t see tomorrow’s sun. And who, do I ask you, directs that Kudu? Not me or you,” he said as he swivelled his eyes heavenward, “not me or you.” And he’d smile his peaceful smile and say that forgiveness is the answer.

No wonder then, that he was the head head elder in the little church in Grootdrink, where he used to be a pillar of wisdom. The answers to all questions, he maintained, are there for all to read. Just open the Book, and you’ll find it, he always said.

Gertruida now sits at his bedside, holding the terribly thin hand – almost transparent, it seems – as she watches the laborious breathing. She wonders what will happen to all the memories and knowledge the old man had stored in his brain. A lifetime of gathering knowledge and filing away facts – does it simply disappear into a void once we die? Gertruida, who knows everything, shakes her head. No, that is the final puzzle, the question we cannot answer at all.

And what about the soul? Yes, she’s read SHIMMERstate, and it makes some sense – but who really knows what happens when the blood stops carrying oxygen to the grey matter in our heads? The people with near-death experiences didn’t go all the way, did they? Even so, she thinks, the answer must be within the brain. That mushy collection of billions of nerves must be where the soul lives. And if it does, does that mean all brains possess a soul? 

She once asked Oom Ben the question.

“Oh no, my child,” he said, “only Man. Humans have souls. It says so in the book. The animals and the birds and the scorpions and the fish? They don’t have souls. We, as humans, are the only creatures who’ll live on in eternity. The rest return to the veld, my dear, to become part of the very ground you tread on. For them, life is fleeting, a season, and then they’re gone…forever. No heaven for them.”

But, she asked back then, why do we find the same DNA in all living things. Yes, the codes for a Kudu and a Gemsbok and a lion may differ significantly from our’s…but isn’t DNA God’s signature? Isn’t that double helix a sign that everything was created by a single hand and that somewhere in the mysterious twirls of protein, the code for the soul is to be found?

“Ah,” Oom Ben said, “science! That’s the biggest threat to religion, my child. We want to explain everything. Now don’t you go meddling with those ideas, no, not at all. We know only a part of what is. We have to accept that simple fact. One day, when we face the Great Truth, we’ll have answers. All the answers. In the meantime, we mustn’t go about explaining God in our terms. The answer, my dear, is far too simple and much too complicated for us to understand.”

But, Gertruida said, it’ll be sad to believe there are no animals in heaven. What about Elijah, she asked, was he not taken to heaven in a chariot drawn by horses? Where did they come from?

Oom Ben thought about this deeply, sipping his coffee from the saucer in the way he used to when he rummaged through the files in his head.

“They were heavenly horses. Made up there, stayed up there. That’s what.”

And dogs and cats and cows?

“No. Not them.”

Her reverie is broken when the breathing becomes even more irregular. It is time, she knows. Oom Ben’s suffering is almost over. Taking the Bible from the bedside table, she starts reading Psalm 23.

“Aaaaah,” Oom Ben says suddenly as he opens his eyes wide. “How wonderful.”

He says this clearly, in a young voice, so clear that Gertruida will remember it for many years to come. And it’s not only the clarity of the voice. No, not at all. There is something else: a joy, a celebration of sorts, that tells you he’s smiling even if you can’t see it. 

Gertruida stops reading.

“What is, Oom Ben?”

“It’s so much more!” His voice is still smiling, but the eyes are closed now. “So much.”

He’s silent for a while as his chest heaves up and down.

“Oom Ben?”

“My child…” Now his voice seems to come from far away. “It’s so…beautiful!”

Another pause to catch his breath.

“And…I can smell it.”

“What, Oom Ben? What do you smell?”

Now the chest stops straining so much. It doesn’t have to. It’s almost over.

“Puppy-breath, my child….I…smell…puppy-breath.”

***

They bury old Oom Ben Kromhout in the little graveyard on his farm. It’s a dignified service led by Oudoom and attended by almost everybody in the district. They have come to pay their last respects to a man who lived as an example to them all. Some speak of how Oom Ben helped them through hard times, others remember a visit, a handshake, a smile. Kind words and tears mingle as the coffin gets lowered into the ground.

gemsbokAnd maybe it’s because of the tears, or perhaps the downcast eyes – but only Gertruida looks up when the group files past the open grave to throw handfuls of sand back into the hole while Oudoom intones the bit about dust to dust.

And Gertruida, who looks up at that moment, sees the Gemsbok on the rise beyond the little graveyard. It is a magnificent creature, seemingly standing to attention with his horns held high and his many-coloured coat shining in the sun.

And if you asked her, she’d say she was sure that he was smiling. It looked that way, even at that distance.

The History of SHIMMERstate

Where did it start? I often wonder where stories come from – especially this one, by far the most unusual of all. SHIMMERstate goes back a long time…

Many years ago, I attended a terminally sick gentleman. His body had given up the fight against cancer, leaving him frail and weak. This, quite naturally, was the reason why he became more and more depressed and short-tempered.

I came to know him quite well in those days. Twice a day I’d sit down next to his bed to try and convince him to see his family and friends; but he refused, saying he didn’t want them to see him like that.

“I used to be a big, strong man Doctor. In my youth I excelled in athletics and later I played wing for my club. Look at me now – I’m a pathetic bag of skin and bones. I don’t want hem to remember me like this. Anyway, mind your own business. The other patients are waiting for you.”

Despite his rebukes (and later, sullen silences) I’d spend time next to his bed every day, chatting about Life, Love, Faith and Hope…even the subject he detested and feared: Death. Whenever I sat down with him, I’d be met with a scowl and a tired sigh.

Then, one morning, he flashed me a brilliant smile as I walked into his room. He was – quite obviously – in a tremendously happy mood. I asked about it.

“Last night, two men visited me. They were dressed in white robes and stood at the foot of the bed while they spoke to me. They told me too say my goodbyes today, Doc, and that they’d be here at eleven tonight to escort me home. 

“I can’t explain it, but after they left, a feeling of excited anticipation settled inside me. I understand things so much better now. Please, Doc, tell my family I’d like to see them. Please?”

I asked the night staff: no, nobody visited him during the night. His room was right opposite the nursing station, they’d have noticed…

He spent the day with his family and friends, encouraging them, telling them not to worry. He knows where he’s going now, he told them; the fear of the unknown is gone.

That night, at exactly eleven, he smiled, closed his eyes – and was gone.

***

That incident planted a seed that would take more than two decades to germinate. During that time, other patients and other events added to my impression that we are so much more than a body. And finally, when I sat down to write SHIMMERstate, the story came to me as a complete unit – I only had to write it down. Even so, it took three years.

I’m not a theologian, and my talent is not to convey a message with a dry, unexciting thesis. I’m a story-teller: that’s what I do best. So, SHIMMERstate is the story of a simple man who experiences a near-death event. In his comatose state, he leaves his body and gets involved in the ultimate adventure of his life. 

My wish is that the book will help people to look at Life with new eyes; that we’ll start questioning the superficial values society accepts, and that we’ll appreciate each other with greater respect.

           Click to buy.

Click to buy.