by Leon Kortenkamp
With grateful recognition of Ladislaus Boros, S.J.
Arthur sat up in bed wide-eyed. He had not stirred for days, and his sudden awakening startled everyone gathered at his bedside. Then, without a word, he settled back against his pillow, closed his eyes and took his last breath. Valorie squeezed his hand tightly, as if to try to hold him back. Earlier, in a moment of strength, she had whispered her permission for him to go. The others at his bedside shared solemn glances through their tears, and Sister Cecilia led an Our Father.
Arthur, miraculously out of his hospital gown and clad in a white robe, looked down on himself in pallid repose and on his loved ones gathered around holding hands and joining in Sister’s prayer. Aside from wanting to assure them that he was fine, he felt no sense of separation, even from Valorie. He loved her and loved them all with a freedom past anything he had previously known, a love free of possession, and oddly even free of regret at leaving them behind. The rhythmic beeping of the monitor in his hospital room faded, and he was wrapped in the soft strains of what seemed to be a Chopin melody, one he didn’t recognize.
The melody gently morphed into a chorus of distant voices rising and falling, as on a soft breeze. He strained to make out the words when suddenly a young woman in a flowing white silken gown appeared. Her long golden hair framed her gentle smile and fell softly around her shoulders. Extending her hand, she said, “Come with me, Arthur.”
As he reached for her hand the sleeve of her gown brushed his arm, and a deep calm settled over him. She turned, her hand slipped from his, and she led Arthur down a winding path through a stand of tall trees and into a meadow lush with flowers.
“Where are you taking me?” Arthur asked.
“You’ll see. Don’t worry; it’s not far,” the young woman assured him.
Their footfalls made no sound on the path as they floated along just above it. The intense color and variety of flowers in the meadow and the vivid cellophane green grass of a clearing just ahead were beguiling and oddly familiar.
“What is this place?” Arthur asked.
The young woman turned and gestured toward a weathered teak bench at the edge of the grass. Arthur stroked the heavy wood of the bench with the flat of his hand and sat down.
“This is the Garden of Decision,” the young woman announced. “Here, at your leisure, you will review your life and make your final decision.”
“Yes, following your life review, you will decide your eternity.”
“Me?” Arthur questioned. “I’ve always heard if there was anything other than black nothingness after death, there would be some sort of judgement.”
“Far from black nothingness, there is indeed judgement,” the young woman replied. “And you are the judge. You decide.”
“I don’t understand,” Arthur protested.
“You will,” she answered. Then, with a calming smile, she added, “Arthur, it is time to pick the mature fruit of your lifetime of liberty. The choice is yours; it always has been yours.”
“I expected a judge,” Arthur protested. “You know, a stern Christ figure passing judgement from his throne while souls cower in fear, or an all-knowing old man in the sky holding a balance sheet with sins on one side and devotions and kindnesses on the other. A judge…”
“A judge with whom you could argue?” the young woman interrupted. “A vision I might expect of a third grader coming to me following a tragically early death, but you, Arthur, have had a lifetime of opportunities to develop a more sophisticated expectation than that.”
Pointing her delicate finger at a distant warm glow in the sky, she continued, “There is no old man in the sky, no judgmental Christ figure, but beyond is the all-knowing source of all life, the source of absolute forgiveness and unconditional love, who awaits your decision. You can choose forgiveness and unconditional love, or you can choose to deny the existence of the source of that love, deny that you have any need for forgiveness and leave this Garden of Decision with your misguided skepticism, and self-indulgent shame intact, for all eternity. The choice is yours.”
“Isn’t that a bit harsh?” Arthur protested.
“Isn’t an eternity without love a bit harsh?” the young woman replied.
“Who are you to give me this ultimatum?” Arthur countered. “I’m a scientist. I have always made my decisions based on the data. Show me the data,” he insisted.
Just then, a small bird with bright blue, orange and red plumage landed on Arthur’s shoulder and whispered in his ear, “A little tip for you: It’s never a good idea to argue with an angel.”
“Angel?” Arthur questioned, turning wide-eyed toward the talking bird. “Is that what she is?”
The bird cocked its head, rolled an eye toward Arthur, and flew away.
“You have had a lifetime of data, Arthur,” the young woman responded. “it’s time for your decision, and when it comes to accepting or rejecting forgiveness and unconditional love for all eternity, it comes down to a simple yes or no.” With that, the young woman vanished from his sight.
A silence fell over the meadow except for the occasional birdsong and the faint chant in the distance. Arthur reached down to touch the soft green grass, as if to check if it was real. Its brilliant color aside, it reminded him of the grass in the park at the end of the block where he played with his brother when they were very young. He and his brother were very close in childhood, but in their later years they had grown estranged, largely over political differences. His brother died seven years earlier, and Arthur deeply regretted the distance which had developed between them up to and including the time of his passing. As he touched the grass, a flurry of memories of his brother flashed through his mind with immediacy and clarity, as if they were happening for the first time. Their love for each other, the happy times, the bitter times, the times of deeply personal sharing and the times of distance and stubborn rebuff. Arthur felt his brother’s feelings of closeness and his pain at being slighted and insulted. His brother’s feelings were now his to bear, and he began to understand the cryptic words of the young woman about picking the mature fruit of his lifetime of liberty.
The flashbacks continued: the loves, the hurts, the failures to love involving everyone from every time in his life, all with equal intensity, all presented with stark crackling honesty, fleeting through his memory with the speed of light while including every personal detail and every emotion. He was in a realm outside of time. Celebrations, conflicts, the most mundane moments with his mother, his father, dear sweet Valorie, their son and their two daughters. Every moment of shared time with all of them and every solitary moment of loving, appreciative reflection and every solitary moment of prurient indulgence, bigotry, and vengeance. The failures were particularly poignant. He felt the pain he had caused others with heart-wrenching intensity. The experience was endurable only because he felt the sweetness of all the loving moments of inclusion, devotion, and fidelity with equal intensity.
One boyhood experience, which he remembered with particular poignancy, had to do with a groundhog. He, his brother and a neighborhood friend came upon it in a woods at the edge of town. They tried to catch it, but it escaped them and ran into its den in a hollow beneath the roots of a large tree. As the creature cowered in its den, Arthur and the other boys repeatedly poked it in the face with the end of a fallen tree branch in an effort to force it to come out. Of course, it never did come out of its den, but it suffered their many blows until they finally gave up. That incident haunted Arthur for years. The groundhog had done him no harm, but he beat it with the tree branch out of some misplaced primitive hunter instinct. He had killed birds with his BB gun, but he had never killed anything as big as a groundhog, and he thought of it as a large hunting trophy he could proudly bring home to show his friends. It was the beginning of conscience for Arthur. He knew at the time it was brutal and wrong. With remorse, he realized there was nothing he could do to atone for his savagery toward the creature. It had probably suffered a slow, agonizing death because of it. This flashback was particularly torturous. In addition to his vivid regret, Arthur felt the repeated blows of the tree branch as if he were the groundhog under attack.
How do you ask a groundhog for forgiveness? There is no way. It is not possible. Perhaps if the source of all life forgave him, that would include the groundhog—he needed forgiveness on that scale—perhaps that forgiveness would include his brother as well.
Another reviewed memory worked more to Arthur’s favor: the many years he cared for his schizophrenic friend, Bobby. By watching over Bobby’s entitlements to state and federal financial assistance, Arthur saw to it that Bobby had a decent place to live with meals provided. Through those years, Arthur looked in on Bobby regularly, made sure he was taking his medication, and Arthur took him out for coffee, donuts, and conversation. He was a friend right up to and including the drafting of a medical power of attorney form for Bobby, which guided the medical decisions at the time of his death. Arthur’s many kindnesses on Bobby’s behalf stood out like shining stars amid his many reviewed failings, and he was deeply moved as he felt Bobby’s deep appreciation as those moments flashed by. Shortly before he died, Bobby had suggested they might meet again in the next life. It was a memory which brought momentary delight to Arthur’s heart. Maybe that was still to come down another path in another meadow.
As his life review concluded, Arthur leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. Altogether, it felt like surrender. Where was the banter? He was good at banter. He always came out well if there was banter. He never did well with the ponderous. Accepting unconditional forgiveness and love in the face of all he had just reviewed called for a recognition of personal culpability past anything he had ever admitted to himself or anyone else. He had made equivocation a way of life. Now, he saw it all laid out before him, and he found the requisite for absolute honesty terrifying.
As a way out, he considered accepting his shame as a badge of independence for all eternity. It was what he deserved. “You can leave this Garden of Decision with your misguided skepticism, and self-indulgent shame intact for all eternity,” the young woman had said. At that thought a desolation swept over him. He began to weep as the litany of his failures to love echoed through his heart. A part of him longed to be made new and whole with a new chance to love. Again, the surrender thing. Give up the cunning equivocation and duplicity and play it straight from the heart no matter how scary. Surrender to contrition, forgiveness and a fresh option to love. It became clear there was only one way to set all the wrongs right. Sobbing and shaking, he whispered, “Yes.”
Suddenly, the young woman appeared by the wooden bench. “Yes,” she repeated softly. Extending her hand, she said, “Now, we can go on.”
Arthur took her hand as a new path through a larger and grander meadow appeared before them. A large escort butterfly, resplendent with delicate wing patterns of deep blue, turquoise and rusty orange, awaited them fluttering above the path, and a flock of small golden-breasted birds celebrated the moment, swooping and circling overhead. The distant chant grew louder and clearer as a vast gathering of people came into view across the meadow. Arthur’s heart leapt at the sight of a throng of familiar faces coming toward him on the path. In his wonder, he tightened his grip on the young woman’s hand. She turned, and with a fleeting smile, vanished from his sight.
Leon Kortenkamp is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and artist who lives with his wife, Ginny, in Belmont, California. He was drafted into service in the US Navy during the Vietnam War. Following his military tour of duty, he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
His work has been exhibited, published and collected throughout the United States and around the world. Recent writing includes short fiction illustrated with brushed-plate monotypes or photographs. He grew up in rural Iowa, and memories of those formative years are often reflected in his work. It is from this perspective that he examines the vicissitudes of contemporary urban life. His work often features a resolute consideration of constrained emotion lurking in the mundane, reflecting his conviction that ordinary objects and everyday events are deeply charged with spiritual reality.
He is a professor at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, a deacon in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, an environmental activist, an advocate for honesty and justice in politics, and a lifelong supporter of the humanitarian aid work of Doctors Without Borders and Catholic Relief Services around the world.