They say death is a dark tunnel, where at the end glows glorious light. That a comforting voice, soft like summer wind, beckons you forward. That you know, when you get there, all your lost loved ones will be waiting for you. And that is close to the truth. What they fail to mention, as they are living, and could not know, is the path forks. One leads towards light, a holy chorus, the afterlife of your choosing. The other to a pool of water, still and cool and inviting.
You walk up the path to the pool, curious, and as you approach the water begins to ripple. Looking closer, in those tiny waves… you see…
Loved ones, dressed in black, looking up—or down, from their perspective—into the pool back at you. They cannot see you, they hold each other and weep. You see they are at a cemetery, at a grave, at *your*grave. It is a gray day, the grass is damp as if earlier it was drizzling but now is only dreary. The air is still and heavy with rain yet to come. You see your mother and father, bent double with age’s burdens that you will never know, their faces ravaged with a toll they never expected to suffer: the loss of a child.
“My son…” One whispers, sentence cut short by pain. The other only sobs, all words stolen by tears.
You see your lover, whose cheeks are dry. All his strength focused on remaining stolid for your children, who themselves are silent. They surround him, like pillars holding up a leaning tower. If they separated, even for a moment, they would all collapse. Something is missing, and it takes a moment to realize that thing is you. You wish you could go to them, hold them one last time.
And a voice speaks… Choose.
In your mind’s eye, you approach the pool, submerge yourself in its waters. You drown, and open your eyes back on Earth, a translucent shade. A shocked voice speaks your name, disbelieving. Looking up, you see your family can see you. They surround you, hands passing through you. Saying your name, first uncertainly. Then louder and louder, with joy that you have returned, with sorrow that you are not fully there. You luxuriate a moment in the love of a life well lived, but eventually, sensing a force calling you back across the waves, your time drawing to an end, you cough to catch their attention.
“I don’t have long, I- I- do not know where I am going, but… I couldn’t go there. Not without saying good-bye. I wish, I wish I had more time. All this love in my heart, for all of you, feels wasted. I should have told you every day…”
Your lover approaches. “We knew. We know. Do you have to go? Can’t you… won’t you try to-?”
Stay with me. With our family. The look in his eyes pleads. And you would. You would. If only it were your choice to make.
He understands. This is only temporary. And for a moment he and the kids just exist in the space you inhabit and try to feel close to you one last time. You lean forward, to kiss him on the lips and, just for a moment, you feel each other, echoing a familiar, electric touch. The fire your lips once felt for each other that burned over and through you both, a passion like none other.
Then the feeling is gone, you are remote and dead once more. You speak the names of each of your children, smiling, telling the oldest to be brave, and the youngest to remember your love, always. You tell your parents thank you, thank you, you say that you were a good man, all because of a path they set for you. The greatest gift a parent can give a child is a map to righteousness, a demonstration of empathy. It is up to each person to walk that trail on their own.
“But thank you-thank you for guiding me to it.” You finish. They collapse against each other, too tired and sad to even weep.
And you begin to fade. You expect to return to the pool, and enter the light. But you just feel colder and colder and more and more distant from everything. You realize, this is it. The price for good-bye is you sacrifice the hereafter. Your last thought, as on Earth it again begins to rain, both from the clouds and from your family’s eyes:
Maybe it was worth it…
Your eyes flutter open back at the pool, looking up/down at your family. So… that was just a fantasy. A preview of what will happen if this death is the one you choose. You wander down the black halls, and back up the other hallway toward the light.
As you approach, the brightness fades, and you see…
A lush land of wonders. A resplendent field of impossible green, flowers—of colors and designs foreign to Earth—grow to incredible heights. These plants cast shadows on the men and women who wandered among them, some engaged in intense conversation, some laughing, some just gazing in joy and disbelief at the world around them. You close your eyes, and the wind tousles your hair. You smell the scents of enormous flowers, your head dizzied by their pollen. The air is a confection. You open your eyes, and are walking down a path accompanied by strangers who understand your greatest passions. For they are their passions too. You dance through the afterlife with unparalleled intellectual partners. But they are unknowns, and all the people you meet in this vast lands are unknowns. No friends, no family that preceded you into the vale ever cross your path. And you know, somehow, that none ever will. Your soul endures, but endures alone.
And you understand the choice before you: See your family once more and give way to the void. Or linger forever in the vast pastures of faith, exploring the universe’s mysteries that one life is nowhere near enough time to unlock.
You open your eyes back in the black, torn between two impulses. That of the past, your family, everything you have ever known, the desperate need for one more goodbye. That of the future, the unknown, the possibility for great discovery, the very human fear of non-existence. We all want to go on. We all wish we could go back.
Choose. The voice whispers again in your mind.
And so, despite the weight of the options before you, despite the impossibility of this choice and its implications, you head, resolved, toward the-