What I Want You to Know About What I Think Happens When We Die

Even to my untrained eyes, the objects in the black-and-white CT scan seemed misshapen. A burgeoning blob filled most of the ovular cross-section of your mom’s abdomen. Squeezed into the bottom right corner were several other organs, huddled together as if in fear of the growing mass nearby. 

For the last two weeks, your mom had complained about her stomach feeling tight and bloated. “I just feel like a pressure cooker; like I wish there was a knob I could twist to let out some air,” she’d say. Now, looking at the image on the screen, it was easy for me to see why she would feel that way.

“That’s the liver,” the attending physician told us. “The tumor has caused it to stretch greatly. I’m sure that’s the cause of the discomfort.”

I looked again at the image, wondering how a tumor could go from being unnoticed to the size of an overinflated water balloon within a matter of weeks. 

It was then that the dire nature of the metastases really hit me. Seeing into the body like that helped me understand how greatly the cancer had spread, and how uncomfortable your mom must have been. 

Later at home, I tried to tell our family about what I had seen. I wished I had taken a picture of the scan in the hospital room. If only they could see what I saw, I thought, then they would understand what I now understood all too well: that your mom was most likely on borrowed time.

Back when we met and fell in love at seminary, your mom and I talked a lot about religion. One of us would come home from class and share something a professor had said that got us thinking. Like many grad students without children or other obligations requiring our attention, we had plenty of spare time to talk about all of life’s deepest mysteries. What is the meaning of life? Where did we come from? What happens to us after we die?

In the years since, though, the big questions about life and death gave way to more immediate concerns, like who was going to pick you up from school the next day or what new plan we should implement to get you to fall asleep at a reasonable hour. On date nights we’d talk about your latest achievements, and drop our voices, conspiratorially, to say how much brighter we thought you were than any other kids your age.

Even when your mom was diagnosed with cancer the first time, we didn’t talk a lot about death or what happens to us after we die. We talked instead about treatments and what we would do after they were all finished. We talked about how you were handling everything. We talked about how much brighter you still were than any other kids your age. We were positive and hopeful, grateful for each day and certain we would be grateful for the next one as well.

A few days before she died, your mom and I finally talked about death. We had skirted around this topic the past few weeks, going over some of its practicalities like end-of-life care and funeral wishes, but always in an abstract sort of manner. We avoided the meaning of death, as if talking about it would snuff out the faint flicker of hope for her recovery still smoldering in our hearts. But, having finally decided to head home for hospice care, we reluctantly accepted that death would come.

“What do you think it will be like?” I asked, tentatively.

Tears started to fill her eyes as she looked up at the ceiling and bit her lip. After a few moments, she shook her head and said she didn’t know. She told me she thought there was an afterlife, but she couldn’t imagine what that meant.

Then she asked me what I thought. 

I hesitated, wanting to be honest with the woman I loved in her final days, but also wanting to offer comfort and hope. Finally, with trepidation, I told her that I thought our perception of time is limited. I said that we measure our lives by the passage of time and perceive things as being linear: X happens, then Y happens, then Z happens. 

I told your mom that I thought our lives were not so linear. I talked about some of the best moments in our lives: falling in love; your birth; watching you learn to walk; a quiet night watching a Gonzaga game as a family. I told her that I think we are always there together in those moments, and we are happy. 

I tried to tell her I don’t think death is a finality. Rather, when we die, we escape time’s constraints on us.

I don’t know how well I articulated that to your mom as she lay in the hospital bed. I’m not sure how much it mattered to her what I thought about death, anyway, since she knew I was as clueless about it as she was, and probably more so. Anyway, my words didn’t seem to trouble her, so I took comfort in that. 

If I had had a little more time to think about it, I might have told your mom that I think the way we perceive time is a little like how a CT scan perceives a body. The machine works its way along from one end to the other, seeing the body in limited segments. 

Each slice tells a story. When things are going well, the story is typically a predictable and boring one: everything looks as it should. Or maybe there’s a cyst that turns out to be nothing at all. Sometimes, the story is incredibly dire, like a liver that has nearly taken over the whole abdomen.

Even when the story is dire, though, it’s incomplete. The scan that shocked me didn’t show the other places in your mom’s body, for instance: places where the cancer had spread and other places where it hadn’t. Neither did it show the smile on her face as she greeted a friendly nurse coming to bring her another popsicle. Or the light in her eyes as she talked about how much brighter you still were than other kids your age.

If she had more time, I might have expanded the analogy for your mom, and told her that if you were somehow able to take a CT scan of a tree, slicing horizontally from its highest leaf down to its deepest root, you’d see a variety of images. 

At the trunk, you’d see something resembling a tree stump. You might even be able to count its rings and guess the tree’s age. The way it has marked the passage of time in its own being.

At the extremities, though, you’d find very different images. There would be cross sections of branches and leaves at the top, and of twisting roots at the bottom. With all the disconnected shapes spread far and wide, it would probably be difficult to tell it was a tree at all.

If I had had more time and better words, I would have told your mom about the image of the tree, and shared that I think that’s how it is when someone you love dies. 

You and I, still bound by time, remember when our three lives felt singular and whole, tightly bound as bark to the trunk of some great oak. Now that your mom is gone, though, she often feels distant and far-removed from us, like a tiny branch alone at the outer reaches of the page.

If we were not enslaved to time’s shackles, however, we would be able to assemble the parts to create the whole image, to observe that what seemed detached was really a single, beautiful thing. We would see that past, present, and future are just ways our minds construct the world around us. We would know that because your mom was once with us, then she is still with us, and she is happy. 

I didn’t know how to say all of that to your mom as she lay dying, so instead I’m telling you. But you probably already understand all of this better than I do, and can probably articulate it far better than I can. As your mom is always reminding me, you’re so much brighter than other kids your age.

4 Comments on “What I Want You to Know About What I Think Happens When We Die

  1. This is such a great way to think of all the people we’ve loved and lost. They are part of us in ways we don’t always recognize and comprehend. Beautiful essay, Caleb.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Caleb. I’ve wondered what Jaime was thinking about death as it approached. I’m not sure what I think myself, but I saw a book once with the title “One Day My Soul Just Opened Up.” I have never read the book, have no idea what it’s about, but have always kind of liked that title as an idea of what might happen when we die.

    Liked by 1 person

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