Having pressed the doorbell at the golden gates of Heaven, I sat and waited. Of all the mindless tasks I’ve done while dead, this was probably the most frustrating. There was nothing to watch, nothing changing, no sense of the passing of time. I had nothing to track how much time had elapsed since I had pressed the button. But what else did I have? There didn’t seem to be anywhere else to go.
Eventually, on the far side of the golden gates, I finally caught sight of something moving, something that seemed to be slowly approaching. As the shape drew closer, it resolved itself into an old man in a white robe, shuffling along with his head bent.
I waited impatiently as the man drew closer. I spotted him a good distance away, still, but it took ages before he reached the gate. Pushing on the gate, it swung open just enough for him to stick his head out. He peered shortsightedly at me. “What do you want?” he asked, sounding somewhat grumpy about being forced on his hundred-mile voyage.
What did I want? “I want to come in!” I said, exasperated. “I’ve been waiting here for days!”
“Days, huh?” he repeated, eyeing me. “Why didn’t you just open the gate? We don’t lock the thing.”
If this was an angel, I wasn’t sure if Heaven was run any better than Hell. “I tried – they wouldn’t open.”
He stepped back, letting the gate swing gently closed. “Try once more, then.” I did so, and once again, the gate didn’t move an inch.
“You see?” I cried, exasperated. “Just let me in so I can get on with whatever I’m supposed to be doing!”
The man shook his head regretfully. “Afraid you don’t qualify, it seems.” He looked genuinely apologetic.
“You weren’t good enough during this life,” he explained. “Everyone has the chance to climb out of Hell. Some people don’t, of course. They think that they belong down there. In a way, I guess that makes them happy, that they’re being punished for the crimes they committed. But everyone has the chance to climb up, to make it to Purgatory.”
“That big tree in the middle of the field,” I guessed. He nodded. “It was nice there.”
“It is nice, and some people spend their time there,” he responded. “But not everyone is allowed into Heaven. I mean, this is the big finale! You have to earn it.”
“So how do I earn it?” I asked. “I’m dead, obviously, so am I just stuck out here forever? I failed the cosmic test?”
The man grinned toothily at me from the far side of the gate to Heaven. “Of course not!” He gestured at the clouds beside me, where, totally silently, a hole had opened up. “You can jump! You’ll pop up somewhere back on Earth, and you get another shot at things! If you’re good enough there, you can come in next time you climb up here. If not, well, try and try again.”
I eyed the hole. I couldn’t see the sea of green through it; the tube merely disappeared into the clouds below my feet. “Couldn’t I just climb back down to Purgatory? Relax under the tree?”
The man shrugged one shoulder at me. “Course you can. I’m not stopping you. Do whatever you want.” With that, he turned and began slowly shuffling back into the distance from whence he came.
I shouted one last question after him. “Where is everyone else?” I hollered. “I haven’t seen a single other soul!”
He glanced back over his shoulder at me. He certainly wasn’t moving too fast to hear me. “They each have to take their own trip,” he shouted back. “No helping on this one!” I had more questions, but I couldn’t vocalize them, didn’t know how, so I merely watched as he disappeared back into the distance.
I pondered that hole for a long time. It had been pleasant, down beneath the branches of the massive oak. I had felt in touch with Nature, with myself, with the world around me. But it wasn’t really living, any more than I was really living now. It was peaceful, but it was stasis, and it would never get any better than that.
I wondered if I had been here before, had been faced with the same decision previously. I couldn’t remember any previous visits, any past lives. What if next time I didn’t get in to Heaven? What if next time, I didn’t even have the courage to climb out of Hell? What if this was the best I could achieve?
For a long time, I sat on the clouds, thinking, looking between the ladder and the hole in the ground. Finally, I stood, stretching my legs. I had chosen. My mind was made up. There was only one choice I could possibly make, only one that I could live with.
Figuratively, of course.