Measures

Here’s how it happened for me. I was sitting in the back seat on the passenger side. I had just asked the driver how long he’d been with Uber, and he said, like he’d answered the question a thousand times, “Six months.” Then I asked how many rides he’d given, and there was a sort of cool pride in his face and I was expecting a big number, when I saw—or really felt—a presence to my right, a buzzing, looming mass. I looked out the window, and there was the wheel of an eighteen-wheeler right beside my door, coming closer. I still don’t know whether it was changing into our lane or we had drifted into its.

Everything after that happened in a moment, and yet I remember each moment as if it were a chapter in a book. There was the jostling thrum of rubber on metal. Then a hard jerk back and to the right. Then a terrible crunch, and I saw the ceiling coming down toward me. A loud, low pop. Glass against my face. Then the worst thing of all, the worst thing my body ever knew or would ever know: something struck the top of my head, something utterly disinterested in the presence of my head, then terrible pain. Then I saw, or felt, a flash of light that pulsed rapidly, like the waves of a beach sped up ten thousand times. Everything went silent. I felt myself pushed down toward the seat, straight over, in a way no one can bend, and all the while the whole car was rocking and tumbling.

And then it stopped. You know how it is: you must have felt something like it yourself.

I was standing beside the freeway, looking at the car and the truck, gnarled together, and I thought: how terrible; no one could survive that. Other cars slowed down. Everyone was looking, mouths open, shaking heads.

I thought: how did I get here? I must have been thrown from the car.

I kept watching. Cars were stopping. People were getting out. Oh my God, they said. Someone started crying. A man went to the wall, placed his palm against it, and vomited. No one saw me standing there.

I didn’t need to wave or shout. I knew, somehow, that I had been killed, and that all the waving and shouting in the world would do nothing to catch anyone’s attention.

I wondered about my driver. Adrian, I remembered. Adrian was his name. I didn’t see him anywhere. I guess I kind of expected to see his ghost, if that’s what I was, if he were dead. Maybe he was still alive. But from the shape of the car, it didn’t look like possible.

But there was someone there. He was standing slightly behind me, to my right. He said, “Hi, Ella.”

I looked at him. He was an odd little man, about my height. He was wearing the sort of clothes you’d get from a second-hand shop—a faded shirt, jeans that had seen real work, stained boots—though he wore them tidily enough. He looked Mexican, but I didn’t hear an accent either then or later. He was standing politely, just looking at me. His eyes, which were set wide in a rather ugly little face—yes, I see by your laughter you know just what I mean—wore an expression of sadness, and joy, and patience, and peculiar familiarity.

“Hello,” I answered. “Who—? Oh no, were you the truck driver?”

“No, no,” he replied, smiling. “He’s alive. See?” Sure enough, the driver was climbing down from the cab of the truck, which didn’t look badly damaged. When he reached the ground he stumbled onto his hands and knees, and then he was crying, and rocking forward and backward, and because he was so fat it reminded me of a baby just starting to crawl. O God, what a world it was.

“Then why—” I started to ask the man, but didn’t know how to finish.

He completed the thought. “Why am I here?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve come to bring you in.” He spread his hands in a sort of welcome or invitation.

I didn’t know how to answer this. I turned away and watched the road for a minute, the firemen swarming around the wreck, foaming it down, looking for a way in.

I turned toward the little man. “Bring me in where? Into heaven?” I felt just a twinge of nervousness—not as much as I would have expected.

He cocked his head on one side in a funny way, and answered, “If that’s where you want to go, it is open to you.”

I thought that was a little cryptic, but I didn’t pursue it. “So are you a ghost, like I am? Or an angel?”

He chuckled a little. “A bit of both.”

Through all this I felt surprisingly mild. I thought, even at the time, that I should have been wracked with terror, or grief, or anger. I did feel all of those things. And yet there was a cleanness within me already that seemed to sweep away the worst of my fears and shames and rages.

It seemed like only a minute had passed, but now it was getting dark, and the emergency responders were prying open the wreck with a nasty-looking metal claw. Traffic slipped by slowly, like flotsam in a river, and I felt unaccountably embarrassed that I had had some part in making all of these people late.

“Well, angel,” I said at last. “I’m ready to go.”

He smiled, and for a moment I couldn’t tell that he had done anything in answer to this. But then in the gloom, by the sweeping lights of passing cars, I saw he had extended his hand. With a nod he hinted I should take it.

I didn’t. I was never a very trusting person, as you know. “Are we going to fly or something?” I asked.

“Something like that.”

“There’s something I’d like to do first, before—before we go to—to heaven.” I was really thinking, but didn’t want to say, “before I go to meet God.” That thought really did fill me with something dangerously like fear.

He smiled broadly. His eyes were still kind. I had the feeling he’d heard this sort of request before.

“We can go anywhere you like,” he said. “We have all the time in the world.”

“Can we see the city?” I asked.

He looked delighted, as if this were something he positively craved to do. “Of course!”

I reached for his hand, couldn’t find it in the dark, then felt rough, dry fingers grip mine.

All at once we were in the air. There was no sensation of movement, or almost none. No sound of wind in the ears. The earth simply dropped away from us. We didn’t lean forward and spread our arms like they do in Peter Pan or Superman. We were just standing there, hand in hand, like nothing had happened: except that gravity, and inertia, and air, and hot and cold, had forgotten us.

And now it was just before dawn, and the red sunlight cut through the gray streets and houses and trees that stretched out and away on all sides. We kept rising slowly, fifty feet, a hundred feet up.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he said.

People were clambering out from their houses, racing to work. Children with backpacks—or was it backpacks with children?—scampered out to catch buses. A woman with her keys in her mouth spilled coffee on her blouse, and cursed. An old man was sleeping in a rusted car. A boy on a bicycle tumbled off and skinned his elbow.

“Some of it,” I answered.

“It’s all beautiful,” he insisted. “But it’s not all good. Very little of it is good.”

I felt him squeeze my hand tighter, and we were rising rapidly now. A thousand feet, perhaps. Two thousand. Five thousand. I don’t know; I can’t tell these things. But we could see a great deal of the city now, row after row, rank after rank, the rich and the poor, the high and the low. I had seen it before, taking off in an airplane. But this was different. Somehow, now, I could see not only the mass and geometry of the city, but also the small, the particular, the details. Two small children on a doorstep crying. A girl driving, singing loudly to shrill music. A packet of drugs passed hand to hand under a bridge. A woman on her knees, grubbing for weeds. A man striking his girlfriend again and again, and the oddly distracted expression she wore.

“Can you take me home? I mean to my house?”

He smiled again, then turned his head in the direction of my neighborhood, and we slipped over the earth. I saw my suburb, my street, my house.

We were in the living room, no longer holding hands. Jack was there, on the phone. His elbows were on the dining table. There were papers in front of him. His eyes were red. He hadn’t slept. He’d been crying.

Tyler and Belle had stayed home from school. Tyler was on the Xbox, looking even more blank and vacant than usual. Belle lay on the sofa, watching Tyler’s game. She was holding her Snoopy dog, that had been my Snoopy dog. Her eyes were red too. She was sucking her thumb. She hadn’t done that in six months.

Jack muttered a word or two into the phone, pressed a button, then put it on the table. Immediately his head dropped, his eyes squeezed shut, and a very high sound, almost a whine, came between his teeth. For a minute or two there was silence, but his back pumped up and down in an agony of rhythm.

I ached, I wanted so badly to comfort him, and I moved toward him. I wanted to put my arms around him, to show him my face and tell him I was all right.

But then I stopped. His lips were moving. He was speaking, silently. And though his throat made no sound, I knew what he said, as plainly as if he had said it aloud. He was praying, his thoughts disjointed and panicked.

“God, I’m so angry. Forgive me for being so angry. How am I going to take care of these children alone? I’m not made for this, Lord. Help me take care of them. Help them grow up okay without—her. I don’t have enough faith. Help me. Help me.

“What are you thinking, God? This is wrong. You know this is wrong. They’ll be damaged, Lord, forever. We’ll all be damaged.

“Take care of her, Lord. I know she’s with you. I hope she is. I hope you are there to receive her. Please receive her. Why couldn’t she stay here? I can’t lose her. I will miss her, Lord. It’s terrible. Terrible. Terrible.”

He was clenching his fists, bumping the table, but gently. I looked at Tyler and Belle. They didn’t seem to notice anything.

“Forgive me, Lord,” he continued. “Forgive me for that, what I cannot speak. Forgive me. Oh, Lord, there is some relief. There’s a part of me that’s happy, Lord. Forgive me. I always was a coward. Forgive me, Ella. Help me. Forgive me.”

He muttered on this way in a kind of stupor. Then came a long silence. Some minutes later he said, “Amen.”

The little Mexican repeated, “Amen.” Then he turned to me. “Do you forgive him?”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“He asked you to forgive him.”

I stared at Jack, who was weeping into his fists. “I forgive him,” I said at last. “Can I talk to him?”

The little man nodded, and I went to Jack, and put my arms around him. I did not—could not—wrinkle his clothes. But I could feel him beneath my arms.

“I forgive you, Jack,” I whispered. “I loved you. Still do. You’ll be fine with the kids. God will answer your prayers.” Somehow I knew, as I never before had, I was right.

I don’t want to dwell on this part. I held the children, and said good bye. I was sad then.

When we were ready to go, my ghost, or angel, asked, “Where to now?”

“Up there, I guess,” and pointed to the sky.

He touched my hand, and in a breath we were racing up from the earth, above the clouds, far above the clouds, the earth was a curve cloaked in dark blue, then an orb beneath our feet, and the moon another orb.

“Can I look for a moment?” I asked.

We looked, the ghost beside me wearing an expression, somehow, of mixed sadness and delight. There were storms sending telegraphs of purple lightning over Australia. A ribbon of fire burning in Mongolia. Wisps of cloud shredding long between the teeth of the Rockies. And all around and above us were white stars, sharp, and close enough to touch.

The man turned away and said, “Let us go on.”

There was the thinnest of whispers, the barest hint of motion, as we passed through a trillion miles in a moment.

It was much darker far from the sun, and yet the brilliant stars were everywhere. The sun was the sister of a family, a point in a constellation that was falling away below us. The constellation was a note in a measure, in a symphony, that was a galaxy that I could have blown and it would turn. The galaxy was one among a hundred, a thousand, each one green or red or purple or orange or blue. One was being eaten away by a pride of black holes, like ravenous lions. Some flickered with pulsing suns in wild rotation, or swirled in the winds of their own bright sighing.

A long while later, when I had recovered myself, I asked the ghost why I had died that day.

He gave me his wry smile. “Because your body was crushed in a car,” he answered.

I smirked. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes,” he said. “I do. You died for the same reason that everyone dies. The Father declared that this was the best time for it.”

“With my children so young? With so much of life ahead?”

The man sighed. “There is never a good time for death. And yet it comes to us all. You’re right that your death now will bring hardship and pain that might have been eased if it had come later. But there is good in it happening now, too: great good, as you will see.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

At this the man laughed, not cruelly or cynically, but with mirth and something like fondness. “Yes, you do. And I can see why. I really can.”

Just as suddenly, his face straightened, and he fixed me with a gaze as grave as I had ever seen. “The judgments of God are just and good and true,” he said. “Do you know justice better than God, that you can teach him what would be more just?”

“Well, no, of course not, but—”

“Do you know goodness better than God?”

“Certainly not, but—”

“Do you know what is true better than God?”

“No,” I answered, but anger smoldered in my heart.

We were still clasping hands, but now I wrenched free.

Immediately we began to drift. He twisted to the left, or I to the right, and we fell back away from each other, between the painted walls of the universe.

I heard his voice from below me. “Set yourself aright.”

I flailed my arms, tried to twist my body. “I’m trying,” I growled.

“You’re drifting away,” he said, still calm. “Right yourself.”

“I can’t!” I shouted, beginning to panic

“Then take my hand.”

I reached for him but couldn’t turn far enough. Although it was space and I should not have been able to breathe at all, my throat constricted and my breaths came in thick gasps.

“Help!” I cried.

Suddenly he grabbed my wrist. I reached for his arm and took it in both hands.

He spoke, calmly and quietly. “Death is a grievous thing. And your anger, in a way, does you credit. But don’t presume to judge the one who made all this—” he indicated the rainbow brilliance around us “—and who loves you, and Jack, and Tyler, and Belle, more than you yourself do.”

I was trembling, and my breathing slowly eased. Finally I asked, “Will I see them again?”

At this he brightened. “You will.”

Eventually I let go of his arm and held his hand simply, though tightly, and for a long time I watched the shimmering galaxies spin slowly in their places. All was perfectly quiet.

“If you are a ghost,” I asked, “how did you die?”

I seemed to have disturbed him from his thoughts. “Ah!” He glanced at me, only a moment. “I was executed!” He sounded almost pleased to say it.

“What, uh—?” I hesitated, not sure how to ask delicately, or how much I wanted to know. “What had you done?”

He hesitated a moment, and didn’t look at me when he answered. “You name it, I was guilty of it.”

I almost let go of his hand again—he must have felt me lighten my grasp—but thought the better of it.

“What will happen to me when I meet—you know—?”

“The Father?” he offered.

“Yes.”

“You will be judged.”

I’m not sure whether I bit my lip, but I felt like doing so. “I’m not ready.”

“Oh?”

“I’m scared.”

“Yes.” And then he added, not very helpfully, “So you should be. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ Solomon was right.”

“Will I have to tell? Will I have to confess to—everything?”

“Your sins are known whether you confess them or not. But yes. ‘Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.’ Everything you said in the dark will be heard by daylight, and what you whispered in the inner rooms will be announced from the rooftops.”

I shuddered. “I can’t face it,” I said. “I can’t face—Him.”

“You will face it. To avoid that meeting is impossible. Yet no one can see God and live.”

“What will I do?”

He seemed to gather his thoughts a moment. “Let me ask you,” he began. Then he turned toward me, and took my other hand as well. There was nothing romantic in this, of course. It was an older brother calling a younger sister to account.

“On what merit,” he asked, “or for what reason should the Lord accept you?”

This time I really did bite my lip, and I couldn’t look at him. “I have no merit. I’ve done nothing to deserve anything from God—except condemnation.”

“That’s a good start,” he said, and his smile again was wry. “And yet from the moment I saw you beside the road you’ve been calm, for the most part, and mild. You’re afraid, as you should be. And yet confident. Why is that?”

I saw what he meant, but it took me a moment to form my feelings into words. “Because I do believe, or trust, or hope anyway, that it’s not really about me. I hope that Jesus will be there. And if he’s there, I will point to him, and I’ll say, ‘I claim the merit of this man. Judge me as you would judge him, Father. Because if I learned anything in church when I was a girl, it was that he died to put my sins on him, and to put his righteousness on me. Judge me on that basis, if you will, Lord.’”

“Very well,” he said, and looked thoughtful, or even a little wistful.

“Will it work?” I asked.

“Will what work?”

“Will the Lord judge me on that basis, by those rules?”

The ghost let go my left hand, and turned as if getting ready to move on. “The Lord judges each person on whatever basis that person chooses. Any rules you like, so long as they are right and fair, he’ll use them.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “I doubt that’s the way it works.”

“You doubt a lot of things,” he said.

We began to race through the cosmos, galaxies drifting past like icebergs. For the first time my guide seemed a little put out. He didn’t look at me. “Don’t you remember what the Book says?” he said. “‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’”

“I suppose so.”

“And what do you think it means?”

“That God judges people by the same standard that they impose on others.”

“Yes. And so?”

“So, if I forgive others, then God will forgive me.”

“True. That is a right and fair standard of judgment, and God will use it if you request. Have you forgiven others?”

“I forgave Jack.”

“Yes.”

“But—no. I held a lot of grudges. I didn’t forgive everyone.”

He nodded. “That’s the trouble, isn’t it. You can ask God to judge you by whatever standard. And yet for any standard you choose, if it is right and fair, you are bound to have broken it somehow.”

“But—that can’t be the whole answer.”

“It isn’t. Go back to the answer you gave me before. What if you ask to be judged on the merits of the Son of God? Would that be right?”

“Since God gave us the option, it must be right.”

“Exactly. You’re learning. Would it be fair?”

“Not exactly. It seems pretty hard on the Son. And yet—it’s fair in that he himself chose to provide it. It would be more unfair to throw away the gift he paid for.”

“So it seems to me. And there you have it. To claim the gift of the Son is to claim a right and fair standard. And can you comply with this standard? Or have you broken it?”

“No, I haven’t broken it. It’s not possible for me to break it, because it doesn’t depend on me at all.”

“Yes. There, you see? You comprehend.”

“Then—” I thought for a moment “—God will see me as being as perfect as the Son is. Is that right?”

He wore a faint smile of satisfaction. “That’s right.”

After a while I asked, “What about the Uber driver? Adrian?”

The ghost seemed a little troubled by this question. “What about him?”

“Is he here? Will he go to heaven?”

He hesitated. “‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’ He too will be judged by the standard he demands.”

The galaxies slipped past more and more quickly, and the light became more and more blinding, and I squinted and blinked and my eyes streamed with tears.

Somehow we came to the end of the universe, though I don’t suppose that’s really possible in the ordinary way of things. And then I was here, in the heaven beyond heavens.

And you all were here, Jack, and you, Tyler, and Belle, which surprised me at first, until I realized that time doesn’t work here as it does there.

The little man said goodbye, and turned to go, and waved. Then I saw something I hadn’t seen before, something about the hands I’d been holding all that time. They were wounded. And I asked him who he was. He answered, “I Am That I Am,” and then I knew what I’d known all along. I ran after him and stopped him and clung to him. I asked, “What about the Judgment?” and he answered, “You see all these people, millions upon millions, of every nation and language on earth, streaming toward the city, toward the Throne? Walk with them. Stand at the Judgment. Face the Judge. But in truth you have already been judged, since before the creation of the world, and your name has been found in the Book of Life. Come and enter into the joy of your Lord. You will shine like the sun in the kingdom of your Father.”

Before he left I asked, why did he come to “bring me in” from the earth, when he could have sent someone else? And he answered, “How could I have sent anyone else to greet my daughter? I wanted to welcome you myself.”

But you’ve heard all this a thousand times, and you know it better than I do.


The young woman in the back seat is cheerful, beautiful. She is asking me about Uber, looking at me through the rear-view mirror, those fetching eyes. Suddenly I realize that the truck on our right is drifting into our lane. I try to slow down, to pull away, but it is too late. Something rattles. We are tugged backward, then to the right. I see the belly of the truck scraping toward me across the hood of the car. I wrench the wheel to the left, but nothing changes. There is a low pop, and glass. A shattering pain. Blackness.

The blackness lasts an age, though it is a millisecond.

I move through it, stumbling and crawling. There are roots and vines. Something slithers over my bare knuckles, but I am unafraid.

Light dawns, a green light from above, filtering down through an unbroken canopy of leaves. It is a jungle, teeming with Life. The bark of a huge tree seethes with beetles and centipedes. A cougar tears the throat from a fawn. Tamarins swing above me, then mate feverishly on the branches. Their children are born, beautiful and squirming, except one, and the father devours it. High above, a sparrow watches the stars to fly true north. Below my feet, the miniature sculpted caverns of ten thousand colonies of ants shiver with industry.

I am filled with awe and wonder and with a thrill almost of worship at the majesty and complexity and brutality of it all. I think, “So it is as I suspected. At heart, all of reality is bare Life, and contest, and survival. It is glorious.”

The living vision congeals in my mind. The creatures in all their activity twist and connect, until before my eyes they form a face. It is long and striated, beautiful and terrible, ever-changing, shifting and writhing.

“All is lost,” it says. It is a woman’s voice, but as low as a tremor of the earth. It penetrates and surrounds me.

“Who are you?” I ask, still unafraid.

“I am Nature,” she answers. As she speaks, the seal pups that form her lips fall into the vacuum of her mouth and are replaced by a sleeping python.

“Am I still alive, or dead?”

“You are dead,” she answers. “You are the last spark of a dying brain.”

I knew it already, and yet somehow I am wracked with grief. I begin to sob. “What will happen to me?”

“‘Me?’” she answers coldly. “There is no ‘me.’ There was a chemical reaction, effervescing in a vapor of momentary consciousness. Now it is spent.”

I collect myself, and nod slowly. “At least I will be remembered.”

She laughs, and it is the sound of thunder echoing amid mountain peaks. “There is no memory. The brains of your children will record the impressions that your body produced on their perceptions. Your grandchildren will know only your name. Your great-grandchildren will forget you utterly. The generations flow, one from another, surviving only, forgetful of the useless dead. All memory is lost.”

There is something about this answer that offends me. “But I played my part, didn’t I? I perpetuated the human race. I joined in the dance of Life.”

The python forms a sneer. “There is no dance.”

“But you— all of Nature— it is the Glory of Life, the Grand Game, the Everlasting Struggle. And I have been part of it.”

Her reply comes as a whisper like the rush of a mountain river. “In ten thousand years the last human will die. In a hundred million years, the last life on earth will boil away under a massing sun. The universe itself is in aching mid-life: a few billion years and the stars will cool, all skies will darken, and all Nature will dissolve into a cold, changeless dust. There is no Game.”

“But at least—at least I will have lived. At least we all—we will have Lived.”

“No one will remember,” she says, with a lion’s groan and a whale’s sorrowing song. “There will have been nothing. Every pain, every pleasure, every joy, every fear, every symphony, every word will pass into nothingness upon nothingness. Vapor of vapor, all is vapor. There is no dance. There is no memory. All is lost.”

I stand still, watching the roots growing and tangling at my feet.

“Then it is better to meet oblivion head on.” I sigh, and feel something like peace, or resignation. “I am ready to die.”

“You are already dead,” she whispers. “And I must glut myself, gnats and worms, on the bread of your body, the wine of your blood. Come, enter into the perfect sleep of Entropy. Come and be fed. Be fed to the all-consuming nothingness.”

Her mouth yawns, a swirling, dripping emptiness, and I am drawn inside, not unwillingly.

The vibrancy of green fades, and the ripple of living things quiets and becomes still. I walk a rolling path over barren hills, but there is no sky, only void. There is the torment of obliteration, a licking black fire, but I cannot fix my mind on it. The path becomes smooth, descending, a gray, dull channel. I work to recall my wife, my family, but nothing comes. All is silent. I am utterly alone. All of this is a millisecond, yet it lasts age upon age, age upon age. I am consumed by fire and worm.

In the silence I say, “Adrian,” my name, but it does not attach to me. It is mere sound: a tone and a click and a turn and a narrowing. “Adrian,” I say. “Ayd— ay—”

I work the sound, but my voice is crushed by the voice of Nature, intoning her benediction.

 

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