When they arrive, I’m always at my most courteous. After all, dying isn’t easy. With the squeal of a flat-lining heart monitor still ringing in their ears, people imagine they’ve stumbled into the waiting room of some immaculate dentist’s office. Chairs line the room’s periphery. Stacks of magazines sit on small tables. And there I am, smiling pleasantly behind the receptionist’s desk, ready to receive them. I’m polite, cordial even. I need them calm. None of it works unless they trust me.
Here comes one now. Watch and learn.
“Where am I?”
His eyes are a jumble of fear and disbelief. His jaw hangs open.
“Please, take a seat, sir. Make yourself comfortable. We’ve been expecting you.”
“But, what is this place?”
Ease the transition.
“First sir, if you can, please tell me the last thing you recall.”
The memories are confused, difficult to piece together. He searches his mind the way you’d collect the shards of a broken mirror.
“…I was in a bed…there were faces I didn’t recognize…and things happening around me that I couldn’t see…”
Just a little prompting.
“What did you feel?”
“There was this wave of tension. It rose up from under me and it was building so quickly…”
He’s almost there.
“Yes, go on?”
“And then the wave broke. Everything relaxed. And I was here.”
“You’ve asked me where you are, but I believe there’s another question you need to ask first.”
He hesitates. The words struggle, but he forces them out.
“Am I dead?”
Now we’re getting somewhere.
“Yes, sir, you are.”
And now, the inevitable questions.
“Are you god?”
I resist the urge to smirk.
“No, sir. I’m afraid I’m not god.”
“Well, are you an angel?”
No need to lie.
“Yes sir, you could say that. More importantly, I’m here to explain the way things work.”
“But, is this Heaven…or” his voice quavers, “Hell?”
“Does it really feel like either, sir?”
His eyes gallop around the neutral room, searching unsuccessfully for signs of bliss or torment.
“No, I guess it doesn’t. But, if it’s not Heaven or Hell, what is it, Limbo, Purgatory?”
Here we go.
“Essentially sir, it’s easiest if you imagine that you’re standing at the gates.” I indicate the innocuous door to my left. “You can enter whenever you choose. But, you can also remain in this room until you’re ready. You’re about to take an incredibly important step, so you should feel free to deliberate for as long as you deem necessary. Remember, time means nothing here. There’s no rush.”
Never rush them. No pressure.
“But why would I need to deliberate before walking into Heaven?”
Uneasiness crawls up his neck and onto his face.
Quietly, he asks, “Which gates are these?”
“If you’ll forgive me, sir, I was just getting to that. As I was saying, when you enter these ‘gates’, you do it of your own free will, but you have to make that choice without knowing if you’re about to enter Heaven or Hell.”
“What?!! I have to send myself to Hell?”
“But, if I stay here, I can avoid Hell forever, right? I never have to go?”
This loophole is easily stitched shut.
“Only at the risk of avoiding Heaven. Remember sir, if you never walk through that door, you’ll be condemning yourself to an eternity of knowing that perfect bliss could be one step away? You need to ask yourself if you can handle that.”
He mulls this over.
“Has anyone ever stayed here…forever?”
“Never. The room is empty for a reason.”
No one passes up a chance at heaven. That’s the point. I can see his curiosity devouring his fear.
“So, all I’ve got to do is open that door?”
His index finger trembles almost imperceptibly.
“You can only properly begin your afterlife by choosing to do so. And, if I had to guess, I’d say you’ve made your choice already.”
He puts on inevitability like a coat of armor.
“I believe I have.”
Along with that first split-second of unendurable searing pain comes the flash of recognition—who I am and what game I’ve been playing. Stepping into Hell is so much worse when you’re carrying hope of Heaven. This is, by far, my favorite part. I savor it like a choice wine and it never fails to satisfy. The last thing he hears is my laughter as the door shuts behind him.