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M. C. Syben
Not For Sale
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“… I am grateful to see so many here this evening as we pay our respects to beloved daughter, sister, granddaughter, and classmate, Chelsea Elizabeth Whitmore. What can I share about Chelsea, the youngest child of Walter and Frances Whitmore?
“First of all, let’s talk about the obvious. This blessed daughter brought joy and happiness to parents who thought producing a baby girl was an unfulfilled wish of the past until Chelsea surprised and delighted them. Although Mom and Dad worked long hours, their joy was to hurry home and bask in the glow of their miracle girl.
“Then there is Grammy who treasured her grandchild. Young Chelsea’s favorite seat in the house was Grammy’s lap where she would share the day’s events with wide-eyed wonder. Her Grammy appreciated how important those moments were, encouraging Chelsea’s individuality from the toddler years to the present. As Chelsea grew, so did her bond with Grammy…”
Say what? Where? I’ll never forget ‘coming to’ on the day of my funeral. I sat cross-legged on a pale blue carpet—confused, baffled. My blurred surroundings forced me to focus on the chaplain’s Friar Tuck wondering if another nightmare had captured me.
You see, for almost a year a dream haunted me. It was always the same—I realized that I was taking a bath in the middle of the school cafeteria. I looked out in terror at my classmates—some passed by without noticing me. Others pointed and laughed.
The exposure left me frozen with humiliation but humiliation seemed better than the terror that churned inside my gut when I thought to stand up, step out of the tub, and stroll to the exit naked, with my confidence intact. I always woke up not having made a decision. Of course, I understand now the dream was a metaphor for my life—afraid to “bare” my uniqueness.
However, as I stood to gain a better perspective of where I could be, I felt the same as I did after that horror—out of sorts, out-of-sync, just not right. But, when the chaplain brought up Grammy, he caught my attention because Grammy and I were close—“two peas in a pod,” she would say.
Grammy was my heart, the most important family member too. She was the cook, housekeeper, my personal sitter, comedian, songstress, and our spiritual mortar. I spent most of my time with her since Mom worked long hours as a nurse and Dad worked the same kind of hours managing the county rescue squads.
My two older brothers stayed busy too: Junior, the firefighter attending night school, and Karl, the EMT who followed Dad’s example. While careers monopolized my parents and siblings, Grammy filled the void. Feeling those memories confused me. I refocused my efforts to sort out the mystery of where I was and what I was doing there, if I was there at all or in another dream.
“Yes, Chelsea arrived later in the Whitmores’ life and our normal reaction is to believe she died too young, cheated of high school years, motherhood, a career, and a long life. Yet, I can’t accept those thoughts because they hint at a sheltered individual who never made choices or had never become self- actualized. That was not Chelsea Whitmore.
“As Chaplain of the Blue Waters Nursing Facility, I saw Chelsea five days a week and often times, more. I have never met a sixteen-year old who cared so deeply for others. That truth is written on the faces of Blue Waters’ residents and staff who insisted on saying goodbye here today.
“They were recipients of Chelsea’s tenderness and uncanny ability to sense what was needed, be it a warm blanket or an extra piece of pie, Chelsea would know. She worked for the sheer love of it, seeking no compensation for her many hours at the Home. Who was this giving teenager?”
It is a dream. I’m certainly not dead. He’s wrong, I rationalized, brushing off the obvious. As the chaplain continued his monotone, the back rows appeared to clear as my confusion lifted. He was right about that part I conceded. Most of my elderly friends slouched there forlorn and lost. Their despair tugged at my heart; I wanted to cry until a familiar face in the last row smiled right at me. Mr. Pasternak sat with Miss Morgan, Mrs. Clemons, and Scooter, the ancient who had scooted down the halls in her wheel chair all day determined to get somewhere, anywhere. They delighted at my presence, grinning with shiny white teeth as they waved at me.
Glad to see them looking healthy and happy, I waved back. That’s when I felt another sinking feeling—those happy souls all died the past year. Two had passed away as I held their hand, waiting, hoping for a family member to arrive in time. Yes, they were dead, yet they could se; worse, I could see them. I have to be dreaming, I insisted to myself. I averted my eyes from their cheery expressions as the chaplain’s gloom continued. Soon the entire room emerged into my view—a sea of sad faces—familiar faces—family faces.
When my awareness settled on the front pew, I recognized Mom, Dad, Grammy, Junior, and Karl—the shock overwhelmed me. I felt chills; my brain sped in circles as I tried to make sense of my family, in what appeared to be a quaint chapel. They only attend church for Christmas and Easter. Did someone get married? Did someone die? This must be another nightmare. I tried to slow my brain. Maybe if I concentrate on the chaplain’s words, I will solve this mystery. I solved it all right.
“I think most of you realize Chelsea handled the stares and whispers about her robust stature, with a quiet grace. Her life flowed with the love, support, and adoration of her family who knew she contained a heart full of love, stout and vigorous. “She did not wallow in self pity because she was, well, unique. Instead, at a young age, she rose above the ogles and took after Grammy Loveland’s heart of service.
“Her compassionate soul reached out to any homeless or wounded animal she found. Help, she would say as a toddler. A starving kitten, a lost dog, a bird with a broken wing, counted on Chelsea for care.”
Great, I thought. Apparently, I was dead but my size was still topic for discussion. Okay, I was big for a girl at six foot one, in tenth grade and about thirty pounds overweight… Okay, maybe thirty-five but I wondered when were people going to get over it? Besides, where did the chaplain get off saying I flowed through life?” He made it sound easy for me; it wasn’t. Sure, my family gave me a lot of love and support but I was strong for them too because, well, they were stuck with me—answering the same questions in pre-school, kindergarten, and elementary school.
“Why do they call me a giant?”
“They’re jealous of you, Sis, because you’re taller and see things they can’t see,” Karl explained.
“And you can reach things too high for them,” Junior added with an impish grin.
“Why am I big?”
“Because your heart is so large and beautiful a regular size body could never hold it,” Mom answered.
"Jen and Melanie say I’m bigger than a boy."
“They’re envious of you because you’re allowed to go on big-kid rides at the park and they can’t,” Dad said, folding his paper. He was unique that way, seemingly absorbed in his own devices, yet following the family conversation.
“I think your momma is right. So many people love you, an average-size body couldn’t hold so much love. It would just burst,” my Grammy said with open arms. How I loved to sit on her lap, which provided comfort, refuge, and the aroma of roses.
Even though I felt safe and loved, hearing the truth would have been easier to understand. I wish they would have told me, “It’s in your weird genes” instead of making up excuses. Sure, the rationales worked in my very early years but reality began to sink in especially in fifth grade when I understood I would never fit in outside my home; it hurt. But I vowed I would never let family see or feel my pain or loneliness. After all, they had tried for years to protect me from it. When boys called me names, I acted as though it didn’t hurt—it didn’t matter. When cliques avoided me, ignored me, I pretended I didn’t care. Inside, though, I felt alone and began to doubt myself.
I stopped performing in school plays, ate lunch by myself, and spent free time wondering why I was born and where I belonged. I thought that surely God gave me some talent; some gift to make up for my quirk of size—but nothing came to me magically. Still, every night, I prayed God would stop my growth. I grew anyway. So, I prayed He would give me a way to fit in. By eighth grade, I realized no matter how I implored, I was on my own.
Ironically, tall as I was, I was no one special. Even though I worked hard in school, average was the best I could do. Plus, I was clumsy at sports and art challenged. As I got older, I watched others join debate teams, hang decorations for high school dances, go out for sports, or run for student council, but not me. Why prove I was useless there too? No way, voluntarily sticking out wasn’t an option.
I tried to avoid the never-ending faculty and parental stares and questions too: “Excuse me; I want to ask how old you are.” “Are your parents, ah, large too?” I began to sidestep peers if they represented a life I would never be a part of, the petite, the normal sized, the cover girls, the A-list. I felt stressed. I was supersized. Since the popular kids ignored me, I avoided all my peers; I didn’t make friends. In retrospect, I am surprised I didn’t grow angry or bitter at what I thought was the Creator’s perverse sense of humor in making me. I’m glad now I never gave up my prayers completely.
Thank God I found an outlet to keep me from vegetating—animal rescue. Local shelters needed help. Like my family, dogs and cats accepted me without question; they loved me unconditionally. Since I had brought home strays all my life, I think they sensed I wanted to help. In a way, they looked up to me. Involvement with animals let me use the caring inside my heart.
Later, almost a year before the funeral, on my walk home from the shelter, I found another source of acceptance. As I passed the Blue Waters Nursing home, a geriatric woman sat stranded in a scooter on the sidewalk—the battery had quit. She twisted her hands together, wrinkled and gnarled. She was frantic, afraid to be forgotten and locked out of her safe haven. When the old woman saw me, her face changed from fraught to relaxed. She smiled at me as though I were an angel and placed her hands together in a prayer position with her chin resting on the tips of her fingers.
“Oh, I knew God would send help. Honey, please, please won’t you help me inside?” She correctly pegged me as a helper. We had a good laugh as I pushed from behind while she steered down the path. When I wheeled her inside, the staff and residents overwhelmed me with gratitude. “Oh, sweetheart, you make us all feel safe knowing kind, caring people still exist out there.”
Thanks to Miss Morgan’s testimony, I became a heroine. Both staff and residents became a part of my life. In time, I realized the Home was full of likeminded residents. When I say like-minded, I mean like me—they no longer fit in. These ancients, these venerable who were once loved and beloved, maybe leaders or vital members of their families, had turned to self-described burdens. They felt useless, forgotten, outside society, and most wore defeated masks or stoic smiles. Fighting old age proved useless like me fighting my size. We were captives of our circumstances and resigned to it.
Soon, animals and geriatrics filled my hours but those weren’t enough. A part of my heart still wanted the approval of other teens. I wanted to cruise the mall with friends, watch a movie, and hang out. I needed to feel attractive, respected by other girls and admired by boys. Somewhere, deep within, I yearned to be normal. I envied their pretty, pretty lives. Yet there they were, classmates with blank stares taking up space using my funeral as an excuse to miss school. It was then I realized I had elevated others’ opinions of me more than I valued my family’s, the geriatrics’, and my own. I regretted allowing their human failings to get the best of me. My epiphany changed pretty to petty in my mind.
In an instant, a familiar scent, spicy but mild, pulled my attention away from peers. The aftershave I bought as a Christmas gift wafted up my nose—I knew Dad wore it for me. Daddy began to slouch, rounding his shoulders to hide the tears that escaped down his cheek. He dabbed at them using the bright red and white paisley handkerchief I had given him for father’s day while still pre-school age. No wonder he had never used it before. It looked like a farmer’s bandana, the kind used by motorcycle gangs on their heads. I was touched he had kept it all those years but my gratefulness began to evaporate when his grief overshadowed my pleasant memory.
Suddenly, I experienced something the living can’t see—his thoughts. They rose above his head like a movie short—it was a memory from years before— one of the many times he tried to clamp down on my rescue efforts. “Enough, sweetheart,” Daddy said, “no more animals. We can’t afford to feed and vet them. Besides animals are animals. A concern for people is more important. Many are homeless and hungry. Maybe when you grow up, you can go to college, and learn how to help people.”
Poor Dad didn’t anticipate what that new idea would cost him but the memory of it etched a smile on his face. Through him, I relived a phone call he made to his brother, my Uncle Ralph.
“I finally got through to Chels about her strays. No more animals in this house, I told her. Next day, the doorbell rings and what do I find? There stands a young Latino man with his wife and four small kids all under the age of eight hiding behind him. The oldest holds a scrawny Chihuahua. This man just stands there smiling at me so I ask, ‘Is there something I can do for you?’
“‘Si, Chelsea say I work, you feed.’
“Before I figure out what’s going on, Grammy pushes me aside and says, ‘Nonsense. No working on empty stomachs. Come in and eat first.’ “Next thing I know, all the leftovers for dinner are scarfed down by a stranger and his family. As for our family, my wife had to run out to Mickey D’s. “Of course, the garage has never looked cleaner or more organized but my Chels is driving me into the poor house. She has the same save-the-world obsession as Grammy Loveland.”
When the memory dissipated in the growing haze around me, Daddy began to laugh aloud. I mean how many Dads laugh at their daughter’s funeral? But it was a good laugh and I understood. The pastor, tripped on his words, stuttered, and lost his place in the printout he followed. Flustered, he stalled for what seemed an eternity to his audience. People began to fidget until he collected himself and continued.
“Chelsea shared her family with troubled children whose parents generated little love. Her Grammy’s lap provided a sense of what a kind family experience felt like with otherwise-neglected children.”
While he talked, I searched the room for those few children from my early pre-school and elementary years. I knew one had moved away. Two had dropped me when they realized I wasn’t cool, but there they were with tissues in hand. I felt a warm glow inside. Maybe I had made a difference in their lives.
“Chelsea volunteered her daddy’s back for toddler horse rides and insisted her brothers teach soccer and baseball to little boys and girls who had no father living at home. She shared extra snacks at school with those who brought little to eat.
“It became obvious early on Chelsea did not covet material possessions. For instance, she received numerous Barbie dolls through the years but she donated them, often before she opened the box. One morning, Frances watched Chelsea walk to the bus stop with her new Barbie Doll sleeping bag over her shoulder. That was the last time they saw it. When asked why she did those things Chelsea said, ‘Helping makes me feel good.’”
Yes, I guess I did get carried away but I wasn’t as altruistic as the chaplain made out. I had no use for a Barbie Doll collection. Why did I want to look at the petite figures I knew I would never have? If I felt bad about them perhaps, normal girls might find joy, so I gave them away. American Dolls were okay but after giving away all the Barbies, I guess my relatives gave up on dolls as gifts. The chaplain didn’t know I had three sleeping bags while Jen, my one kindergarten friend, didn’t have any. The gift was no big loss for me so I discounted his compliment. Besides, helping was a great place to hide. Involved with others’ needs, I had little time to sit on a pity pot. Helping was kind of running away from me, from my fears, from my thoughts of inadequacy. I squirmed at the understanding and wondered what else I would learn now that it was too late to do anything about it.
“Of course, childhood passed and Chelsea’s sweetness wasn’t appreciated by others going through the difficult stage of puberty. She endured her share of bullies whose meanness could have changed Chelsea’s outlook.”
‘Could have?’ Could have changed my outlook? Ha! I couldn’t believe my ears. First, my friend, the chaplain, stretched the truth about my good nature. Then he missed the bull’s-eye—bullies did affect me. They changed the way I perceived my life and my future. Let’s face it, bullies were a pain. Period, full stop, end of sentence. I mean most were too scared to mess with me physically but I heard the comments behind my back. Did everyone think their words didn’t change me?
Well, they did, especially the name calling. The Sasquatch label hurt my feelings the most. Yet, I never let any of them know how scared I was of their words. I pretended I wasn’t but I was. I stood there, looking out at them, realizing I shouldn’t have felt frightened at all. The bullies were the ones with bona fide problems. Their energies, confused and scrambled, crashed into themselves—they were so imbalanced.
For the first time, I felt empathy for their difficulties and understood the true meaning of compassion. I wished someone had intervened in the bullies’ early years with a healthy dose of love, unconditional and consistent.
“Instead, Chelsea retained her sweetness and continued with her charitable nature by volunteering at the Blue Water’s Nursing Home, which is, as I said, where I met this exceptionally kind spirit.”
The service moved along pretty well until I saw Mom hunched over, with her head in her hands. I thought the water works were about to begin. Mom knew how to cry but usually it was from joy. As her thoughts appeared to me, I realized she was somewhere else in time. Her memories spiraled upward as she thought of my older brothers’ births. Their eight-pounds didn’t stretch the birth canal enough for me, a fourteen pound baby. Mom revisited her twenty-five hours of labor before I broke out and gave her relief. The loving vignette showed her endurance and determination to birth me through natural means—no drug would touch her unborn. I understood Mom loved me from the moment she held the positive pregnancy result in her hand. She didn’t hold the labor marathon against me. Her capacity for love didn’t diminish even when she saw me for the first time. Lucky me, I inherited the Whitmore bone structure— heavy like branches of an oak tree with a thick mop of strawberry-blonde hair, which turned a deep auburn as I neared puberty.
Suddenly, Mom remembered Daddy’s first reaction to me. “Wow, Fran, she’s two babies in one. We’ll have to call her two-girl or double-dame, something like that,” Dad laughed with sheer joy.
“Over my dead body. Her name is Chelsea, like the Clinton’s Chelsea. She’s a perfect, blessed Chelsea Whitmore.”
Mom’s memory moved onto my tenth year when we vacationed in the Smokey Mountains. She told me how she hated to leave the fall colors behind, so I surprised her with a colorful bouquet of autumn leaves on thin stems to take home. She displayed them in our best vase. Unfortunately, she soon discovered I had picked my gift from a bush of poison ivy. Everyone broke out in a rash except me.
My mom began to giggle behind her hands but when she snorted trying to hold in the laughter, she stretched her body upward hooting aloud. The chaplain mustered on through, raising his volume and picking up speed, despite the weeping and wailing of relatives who thought Mom and Dad were cracking under the weight of their sorrow.
“Chelsea gave the same kind of love she received from her Grammy, her parents, and the two big brothers she adored, Junior and Karl.”
He was right—a girl couldn’t ask for better brothers. They were my advocates, my best friends, my only friends. During the service, their stone-face demeanor lasted a long time but I understood why when their thoughts reached me. Until Mom lost it, their plan of being stoic had worked. According to their thoughts, they had practiced too.
“Man, we aren’t going to cry at the funeral. Chelsea would hate to see us upset. No crying, you hear?” Junior was adamant.
“How? How?” Karl croaked.
“We’ll think of something funny… something real funny.”
“Remember the first time Chelsea made pie on her own, blueberry pie?” Karl began to smile.
“You mean when she rolled Grammy’s missing dentures right into the dough and baked them?”
They both began to laugh.
“She loved thick crust.”
“And she made extra dough for the smiley face she planted on top for us.”
“That made finding the teeth inside even funnier.” Karl smacked Junior’s back.
“Especially since Chelsea cut out the mouth of the smiley face for Grammy—the piece had her oven-baked dentures inside.”
“Grammy was so happy to find her teeth; she wore them stained deep-blue and all.”
My brothers looked at each other and smiled. Each had dyed their teeth blue in support of the other. They lost it. They guffawed, elbowing each other almost off the pew. The family, each with their own reverie, joined in the laughter as the minister and guests reacted stupefied or with pity. I snorted right along with Mom, Dad, and my brothers realizing, how fortunate I had been to be a part of the Whitmore family. But my happiness vanished when I realized I thought of my family in past tense.
I felt worse when I saw Grammy, the only one who couldn’t laugh, with an endless supply of tissues, her eyes red and swollen. When I sensed the service, my service, would end soon, a remote sense of panic began to pull at my spirit. Will I ever see my family again?
Hardly had the thought struck, when a white fog appeared at the far end of the chapel. Like steam rising from scalded milk, it swirled, garnering my attention. Like an independent cloud, it floated closer until it enveloped me. My eyes strained to pierce through its density when I heard an elderly, female voice. “Chelsea, Chelsea, dear.” A shape, a being, began to take form. She seemed familiar as she walked toward me with her arms outstretched. “Hello, Chelsea.”
“Grammy?” I asked as she could have been my grammy’s twin.
“No, dear, I’m your great grammy, so to speak, your mother’s grandmother Lydia on the Loveland side. Whew, that’s a mouthful.” She smiled at that last.
Her countenance was ancient, wrinkled, with snow-white hair and dressed in turn of the century clothes I had seen in Grammy’s old photo album.
“Oh.” I hugged her cautiously, afraid I might snap bones of a lady that old. “It’s nice to meet you but I’m confused. Something happened to me; I’m a little foggy about it. No pun intended.”
“What do you remember last, Chelsea, before this day?”
“Well, I got ready for… my first date.” I suddenly remembered my life had been about to change for the better. As school ended, a male voice called me, “Chelsea, Chels, wait up.” It was Skip—I knew and liked him, one of the few who liked me. Selected for a charter school, he’d disappeared from our circles, caught up with new activities and new friends on the other side of town. Since kindergarten, I had a major crush on Skip. Back then, I called him my boyfriend and pulled him around the playground like an untrained puppy on a leash. He was shy then and shy now but had never acted mean to me.
Wow! Right off, I noticed Skip had grown from cute to handsome. His eyes, a pale blue-green, glowed in contrast to his rich dark brown hair laced with golden highlights. He kept it trimmed but the fringe in back touched his shoulders. I was thrilled to see this new version of Skip. He’d shot up over the school year; now a head taller than I. In a stupor, I looked up at him for the first time, amazed how gorgeous he had grown.
“Uh, I was wondering… you know… on Friday… after school… I’m taking my boat out for a run and wondered if you would like to go… you know… with me.” I couldn’t believe it. Me, a sixteen-year-old loner asked out on a date, a date with Skip! It was a dream come true and, of course, I was torn between running away and following my heart.
“Sure,” I managed to whisper as time stopped. Thankfully, his grin lit up the hallway as he recited a time and place while walking backwards, finally banging into the lockers. It was Wednesday afternoon. I never thought I’d make it to Friday.
I hurried home and Googled boat attire hoping I had something to wear. I searched my closets for hours. My efforts wore Grams out with desperate attempts to look hip. She set me straight.
“Chelsea, Skip has known you since elementary school. He asked out that girl. Don’t try to become anyone else but you, especially on your first date.” Grammy made sense to me as usual.
“You’re right, Grammy. I guess this outfit will do.”
That Thursday, I explained why I missed my Blue Waters Home friends the day before. They forgave me quickly as word spread about my date. Everyone was happy for me. I couldn’t begin to recall all the advice I got about how to behave on a first date. Everyone cared so much. Of course, school seemed never-ending on Friday. Finally, when the bell sounded, school let out, and I flew home; I wanted to look perfect for my first date, with my first crush. The movie in my mind paused, remembering the excitement and the anticipation.
“Go on, Dear. Relive it for me.”
I chose a loose fitting peasant blouse with matching Capri’s. I wore tennis sneakers with white bottoms so not to track up Skip’s boat. I brought a jacket to match my Capri’s and pulled my hair back. I popped a Dramamine a few minutes before leaving and Mom and Grams slipped sun block into my bag as I ran out the door.
“Be careful, Chelsea. Listen to Skip. The boating world is unfamiliar territory to you,” Mom called out. I was more concerned with barfing all over him and his boat. Anyway, I jumped into Rusty, my Corolla hand me-down, when Junior and Karl rapped on my windshield.
“Yo, little Sis, this guy better treat you right or he’ll be dealing with me.”
“Yeah, and me too,” Karl added, holding up a fist.
“Gosh, guys, it’s Skip. You remember Skip? We went through grade school together. They don’t come any nicer; stop worrying.” When I turned the key, the engine coughed and sputtered. Oh, no, not now, not today, not for my first date. I was used to Rusty conking out weekly. I gave it a minute and tried again while I prayed. Please, God, let it work. Usually, when Rusty died, he was done. We’d come to a sort of agreement. When he felt cranky, I had to give him a day. Unfortunately, he’d had a number of petulant days recently. After one, short, silent prayer, I turned the key again—a miracle! The engine kicked in but let out a backfire. Junior and Karl dove for cover—so much for my tough protectors. Great Grandmother Lydia had a good laugh—full of life yet lady-like as was the rest of her. I felt her love wash through me.
Even if she was a relative, I thought it was unusual a virtual stranger would want to know every detail of my first date. But, since Gram Lydia was related, I volunteered the information, not that I had a choice once I realized she could see the movie in my mind. Besides, I never had the opportunity to tell anyone about a date before. It felt good to relive the experience.
My car coughed down the drive while the stench of exhaust and dingy smoke created a cloud behind me that my brothers got lost in. Grammy and Mom stood in the doorway waving goodbye, blowing kisses, embarrassing me in front our neighbor, Mr. Rose, as he attended his garden. I guess they thought of their own first dates. They looked so happy for me.
You know island time—leave late, get there early. Well that was me. I barely recall driving down Centre Street extra slowly because I followed a tourist going five miles an hour. I must have parked by the docks, but I can’t remember. Nerves wracked me, but I pretended otherwise while I looked for Skip’s boat. I remember seeing the “Dottie B” and “Valhalla,” but I couldn’t spot the “Hot Dog,” the name of Skip’s fishing boat. It’s named after a product in his dad’s meat business. I saw The Knockwurst—his dad’s yacht, but remembered Skip’s was only nineteen feet long according to Junior. Anyway, I began searching for a smaller vessel.
I grew more nervous by the second for lots of reasons: I feared I wouldn’t find Skip in the marina, feared I wouldn’t know what to do on the boat, and feared trying something I’ve never done before, but mostly I felt afraid Skip wouldn’t like me after our date. Lost in my fears, I was oblivious of those about me when, all of a sudden, a boat of partiers cruised in from the Intracoastal Waterway. They were having an awesome time; I felt foolish for being scared about a boat ride, but then, just like that… Boom! Their boat exploded!
My adrenaline went on automatic. Without thinking, I jumped in the water to save whomever I could but… Something happened—not sure I remember. I spotted Skip and his boat. He was so strong, I watched him drop his anchor and pull several accident victims on board. The partiers lucked out with minor scratches. It seemed I jumped in the channel for nothing.
“That’s right, dear,” said my otherworldly great grandmother. “Do you remember any more?”
“I… I watched Skip cruise to the dock but wait… I remember he stopped… to let the passengers pull another victim into the boat. Strange, she was big, tall like me.”
“Yes, she was, dear. What do you think about that?”
I felt a lump in my throat. Junior had told me repeatedly “stop trying to save the world.”
“I guess it was pretty stupid trying to save someone when I wasn’t a good swimmer. But the desire to help and passion of the moment got the best of me and the next thing I knew… the back of my head, Great Grams, my neck… what happened to them?”
“Think, Chelsea.” I fought the flood of memories. Responding Rescue put Skip’s head between his legs. He took turns sobbing and vomiting as they covered my cold, blue face. Poor Skip. Poor me. I go on my first date and my date kills me? “Skip’s boat ran over me? Is that right?” I paused, taking in this new reality. “I really am dead aren’t I?” This is where I hoped the mysterious Great Gram Lydia would tell me, I was having a dream… it was only Thursday. Right? No such luck.
“Yes, Chelsea. Skip could not see you in the water as the western sun glare-blinded him. The boat struck your head and snapped your neck causing the difficulty with remembering—it happened very fast. Your physical body is dead but the eternal part of you continues. You are still alive in this sense, your soul. The essence of you continues.”
I felt a deep sadness but now my concern shifted beyond my family. I focused on Skip. He sat between his parents, expressionless, almost catatonic. His eyes, red and puffy, brimmed with tears. My heart broke.
“Skip, I’m still here. It’s okay. I’m right here in front of you.” I tried to make the only boy who ever liked me aware it wasn’t his fault. I shouldn’t have been in the water. One bad decision and I gypped myself out of a long life and perhaps the beginning of shared happiness. Instead, I left Skip holding a bag of guilt.
As my cousin Pearl sang, Amazing Grace, I shouted into Skip’s face. “It’s not your fault, Skip. It’s not your fault.”
“He cannot hear you, Chelsea.”
“But Great Grams, what can I do to make him feel better, to make my family feel better?”
“I can help you and Skip, dear.” As I watched my newly found Great Grammy whisper into Skip’s ear, his expression changed. Even as tears flowed down his cheeks, he gave a huge sigh and sat up straighter. A small smile began to form; he gazed at the ceiling, nodded, and mouthed, “Thank you.”
I looked at Grammy quizzically. “I am experienced at relieving unwarranted guilt. I’ve done it before. You do not have to be concerned about Skip anymore. He knows it was an accident. He has forgiven himself. Your young love will live a happy life.” It was my turn to exhale. I felt a burden lifted from my psyche, a weight I hadn’t realized was there. “Can you help my family too?”
“No dear. It’s best they go through a period of grief, but a Comforter will arrive soon to ease their pain. However, my dear, your hanging around will make his job more difficult. The only thing you can do to aid their recovery is move on. Staying glued to the ones you love makes the hurt last longer. If you have seen enough, if you are ready, you are welcome to follow me, dear.”
When Great Gram Lydia held out her hand, she reminded me of the Home’s geriatric residents who loved me and looked forward to my visits. They shuffled down the hallways, they surrounded me and greeted me without judgment. The old folks loved me unconditionally; I would miss them. I gazed at those who’d passed on, at the love emanating from the back row of the chapel and waved. Their thoughts welled toward me.
“Don’t worry, Chelsea. It’s lovely where you are going. Come visit us.” They stood and disappeared before I assured them I would.
Great Gram Lydia led me to the pew where my family sat and nodded. “It is time to say goodbye, dear.” Standing before each of my loved ones, I tried to kiss them. How odd I could feel their breath but they couldn’t feel me.
I whispered, “Goodbye. Thank you. I love you.” I kissed Grammy’s tear-stained face. “I’ll miss you most of all, Grams.” Oddly, she raised her hand as if to cover mine. Finally, happy to stand with someone so tender yet self assured, I turned to the lovely woman standing with me, my great grandmother. My hand felt good in hers, strangely familiar, and comforting. We stepped back into the fog and walked as if on air toward a light filled with peace and hope.
Great Gram Lydia congratulated me as we headed toward a clearing in the clouds. “I am proud of you, Chelsea. All your extended families are. You continued the Whitmore’s and the Loveland’s good reputation of service, a brief life, but well loved and well lived.”
“Thanks, Grandmother. But where are we?” My old relative chuckled as we walked through the last of the haze and emerged into a glorious surrounding, clear, with a breeze of freshness so unexplainable and new to my mind I began to babble.
“Whoa, it’s cliché. I mean it’s everything I heard it would be and more but I never imagined feeling this kind of peace and the aroma of… it’s so sweet-oh my, there’re the pearly gates. Is that St. Peter?”
“Slow down, Chelsea,” Gram Lydia laughed. “It is the pearly gates but no, it isn’t St. Peter. He holds a much higher station. Besides, the gates are automatic. The Book of Life contained your name for many years.” The height of the gates extended past my capacity to see. As we approached, they opened automatically.
“Streets of gold, too,” I thought to myself.
“Yes, streets of gold.” Gram Lydia laughed.
“You heard me? I didn’t talk out loud; still, you heard me.”
Gram Lydia smiled. “Listen to my thoughts too, Chelsea.”
“Cool. I did hear you and you didn’t move your lips once. Way cool.” Death had benefits I learned, like a superpower. I wondered what other powers I might have.
“You will find out, darling, don’t rush it all at once. Dear, would it make you uncomfortable if I change to a more convenient body?”
Gram Lydia didn’t wait for an answer; she melted into my counterpart in age. She became blonde with deep blue eyes, and petite, but that was typical on the Loveland side of the family. Freckles sprinkled her face and her lips grew full while the bottom extended into an attractive pout. She was beautiful. My Great Gram Lydia’ hair hand been piled loosely upon her head, but now it turned from whitely radiant to luxurious gold.
She now wore a sleeveless, puffy dress in a creamy color. Her light lacy gloves ended above her elbow while the dress topped her ankles. High-laced shoes appeared made of a fawn material, sturdy yet feminine. I couldn’t see the uppers of her high-top shoes under the hem. A colorful parasol dangled from her wrist.
“You are beautiful. How?”
“We are in Heaven, dear. I escorted you here with a body type you might expect to see to help you feel comfortable, not threatened. But I don’t want to be an old person for all eternity. Now, I’m sweet sixteen and feelin’ good, girlfriend. Let’s hang together and I will show you around.”
I giggled at her teen vernacular. “You look great but why would you want to be sixteen again? It wasn’t all I wanted it to be. Did you have a good time at sixteen?”
“Times have changed, that is true, but in my day, every schoolroom had its rotten apple. We endured a few. In those days, they were far and few between. We, the good girls, were the majority and we handled them.
“Today, it breaks my heart so many teenagers treat each other cruelly. They act ignorant and stuck on themselves and judge others. Because they’re so loud and vulgar, they seem to make up the majority but they don’t. I know you had a difficult time with a few of them, Chelsea.”
“I kept busy. They can’t pick on somebody too productive to stick around them. Still, the bullies called me names like Wilt Chamberlain and Water Buffalo, but I hated the Sasquatch label the most.” I sighed, surprised at my new lack of feelings about the whole topic. Death really did put one above petty matters.
“Whitmore genes are big and don’t make tiny body parts even when mixed with the Loveland side.”
“Oh, Chelsea, you were beautiful alive but if you want to make yourself skinny or smaller, go ahead. Just think it, dear.”
I closed my eyes. I visualize skinny, shorter with a short skirt. “I really, really want to be thin and petite.” When I opened my eyes, I stood in front of a mirror and laughed in open-mouth surprise. “Look at me. No, wait. I’m not done.” Heaven might not have the tight budget of a sixteen-year old girl. I closed my eyes again and pictured myself in skintight, low-rise, designer jeans. When my eyes popped open… wow! “Is this me?”
“It’s you, dear.”
For the first time in my life, I looked “in.” At first, I twirled around while looking into a mirror. But something wasn’t right. I stopped, stared straight into my eyes, and shook my head. “I don’t want to look this way; it isn’t me.”
“And you looked beautiful the way you were made. You learn fast, Chelsea. There are many other things to do here, which aren’t, well, shallow.”
I reverted to regular me, satisfied. “It took forever to accept myself thirty pounds overweight but in this new existence I shaved off half that so I could look and feel healthy. But I think the extra fifteen pounds keeps me looking like me.”
“Perfect. It isn’t about petty Earthly standards here, dear. You will find a balance. I found the best way to learn how your heavenly self fits in is to get busy. Let’s visit the vocation house and choose your first assignment.”
“But, Gram Lydia, I just died. Don’t I get to see Him first?”
“You know… the Creator… God.”
“Oh, of course, God. Yes, let me explain about God. The Creator resides in His house, the Abode of God, in another level of Heaven accompanied by His Son and Holy Spirit, along with saints, innocent children, and worshipping angels.
“Whitmores and Lovelands were similar families. We were good people but we didn’t fully commit to our beliefs did we? We didn’t attend church, talk to God every day, or talk to others about God. Yet we were good people who believed and helped others. This is the part of heaven filled with souls like us.”
“You mean I’ll never see God?” I felt anguish; I still didn’t fit in where I wanted.
“Oh yes, He appears on occasion and in certain moments allows us to hear his worshipping angels. But, we don’t see the Creator daily. When He feels you are ready to see His glory, He will arrive; until then, make up your mind to feel Him. Try it, Chelsea, take a deep breath and feel Him.”
I did as my great grandmother suggested. “It’s beautiful. It feels wonderful, a wonderful love, a kind of love bigger than I’ve ever felt before. I smell and taste it too, the sweetness grows, like orange or magnolia blossoms.” I breathed in slowly and exhaled through smiling lips as an overwhelming ecstasy entered my soul. I don’t know how long we stood breathing in the Creator but I could only taste it until its intensity became too wonderful. Gram Lydia touched my head. I returned to the state I was in before but still felt the exhilaration of His presence. “Great Grams, one question.”
“If I’m dead, how can I breathe in? How can I smell? How can I taste His sweetness? How can I feel Him through a dead body?”
“Good question, dear. Most souls don’t ask those questions. Realize you are newly dead and your energy, your soul remembers its house on Earth, your body. Really, you are energy only here but until you grow accustomed to it, you will manifest what you are used to. For now, you think of breathing and you breathe, but your senses are far more powerful. You will see colors far beyond those in the rainbow. You will hear the heartbeat of the universe.”
“Thank, God.” Those words really meant something to me. I held onto the ecstasy that ran through me and hoped it wouldn’t wear off… ever.
Gram Lydia linked her arm in mine. We meandered toward the vocation facility while people flew by us. None had wings; they just floated and moved. Some flew high; some flew close to the ground, which was covered with the plushest grass I ever saw, at least that was my conception. Others may have seen desert flowers, a forest, or a sea. There were souls everywhere yet the space around us never congested. Seeing people float through a sky, more blue than language can describe, felt natural to me. Already, I was adapting to Heaven.
We arrived at the vocation house and lined up with other souls of different ages, and genders, most who dressed in the era they had lived on Earth. A few wore glittery robes.
“I thought everyone would wear flowing robes in Heaven.”
“Oh, no, dear, that is a misconception humans originated long ago. Some of us like to reflect the time we lived on Earth. Others select different fashions but most everyone chooses to represent their Earthly experience. It’s not only interesting, it also helps us identify one’s place and time on Earth without asking.—what a tedious question otherwise.
“So, when did the robed people live?”
“Another good question. First, you need to understand our courtesy protocol. When you pass a robed one, bow your head in respect. If you converse with them, bow your head first and after for those with robes have earned them.
“Robed ones are souls, ancient in Earthly time, who chose to return to Earth in some helping capacity. God deemed them righteous and to be honored by everyone. He rewarded them with those robes and the ability to experience a life on earth once again.”
“But, if they are so righteous, how did they end up on our level… away from God. Why didn’t they go higher?”
“In their time, they had no belief, not beyond that of primitive man. The true God hadn’t identified Himself yet. But these peoples expressed love anyway; they helped and shared with those in need. In a time where man turned on each other for a handful of berries or meat torn from a mammoth, they refused and became the rarity.”
“I can’t imagine surviving and thriving in spite of the barbarians surrounding them.” I felt awe. I couldn’t even stand up to people in a dream.
“Then you understand why God honored them but rules are rules. This is their assigned level, their home base, so to speak. But they are able to visit other levels to learn; they work with humans on this same level too.”
“One more question?”
“Go on, dear.”
“I’m wearing my clothes here. I’m not choosing to.”
“Again, as a new arrival, you haven’t recognized your pure energy form yet. A part of your psyche is still clinging to Earth. It creates the perception you see.”
“Is that wrong? Am I already doing something wrong?” The idea of being mediocre in heaven irked me. I felt threatened—would I not fit in again?
“No, Chelsea. There is no wrong here. It just requires practice to manipulate your energy, sweetheart; it will come to you. I suggested volunteer work to help you learn the new you. Shall we go inside?”
I took a deep breath and nodded. I was newly dead… what did I know? So I took my elder’s advice and vowed to relax and grow accustomed to the new me. She guided my arm as we entered a large auditorium with marble walls lined with tables made of precious stones, or so it seemed to my eye. Energy seeped through the hall and glittered like miniature Christmas lights. Each gem’s power entered my eyes and gave me a sense of peace. “I’ve never seen anything so… so…”
“Yes, extravagant and gorgeous. Still, I just died. Do I have to do something right away? Can’t I take in the sights here?”
“No. You don’t have to work. All eternity awaits you in heaven, but remember volunteering will help you. You will appreciate these sights more when you develop your energy fully.
“Besides, the Whitmores and Lovelands don’t laze about on Earth and certainly not in heaven. One more thing, dear, call me by my given name, just Lydia.”
“Oh. Okay, Great, er, Lydia. It suits you much better.” Lydia had a beautiful smile especially when I called her by name.
“Let’s pick a placement, Chelsea.” Again, I agreed to Lydia’s plan of action. I knew I could trust her and she was right—I would be in heaven forever. So, I took a deep breath of sweetness and began to cruise each table, which weren’t tables at all, but living dioramas that provided information for particular tasks. Each job attached various assignments, both Heaven and Earth-bound. For instance, chorus volunteer titles included: daily choir, special occasions, composers, lyricists, and voice coaches. The next showcase needed teachers. At first blush, I thought teaching was out of my league, but some worked with animals. I wanted to learn more. I began to walk faster and whizzed by other tables: worshippers of many faiths, welcoming committees, re-incarnation boards.
My thoughts pinpointed a table labeled Teen Angels. I paused, hanging back. “What are Teen Angels?”
“Oh, yes, I worked as a Teen Angel for a while. You are assigned to one or more teens who need an extra push to choose good or protect from the not good. It requires patience and it does provide much needed help to make a difference in your client’s future and ultimately, eternity.”
“Help—my middle name. I want this job.”
“Yes, it seems a good fit. It has been some time since I worked in this area, but would you want my company?”
“You can do that?” Lydia nodded at the facilitator. He wrote our names down in a book.
“Of course, girl friend, with a snap of my fingers.” I felt a sudden whoosh and looked around me. We were back on Earth and standing on a sidewalk.
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