There was a man and he died and that would be the end of the story if he didn’t end up opening his eyes after it all. But he’s human and they’re stubborn and the only world they know is the one in front of their nose. If they sneeze, it – that world described by the poetry of two hands doing, feeling, and stumbling – disappears. For a second or two everything fades, and they can’t help but close their eyes. In a way, it is like they have died. Their body freezes. Their fluids spray out. And when the sneeze ends, they are left to try to catch their breath after it all.
That’s how I met him. Dead, and breathing heavily. Sohail, an Indian salesclerk who immigrated to America in 1965 as a way to feed a family of four, sat on endless white clouds gasping for air. Blue-spaceships speckled his pant legs as he panted. He was in his pajamas.
“Where… where am…” he managed to ring out between breaths.
“You suffered a brain aneurysm while having breakfast. The EMT’s tried their hardest. They spent two hours attempting to resuscitate you, but you were pronounced dead at the scene. There was nothing they could do.”
Sohail blinked. Once, then twice. “Where … where am I?” He stuttered again.
“You’re dead, Sohail. You’re dead.”
His pajama’s glowed against the blanket of white behind him. A twitch bounced its way onto his lips. Open. Close. Open. Close. His mouth hung slightly. A lifetime ago, his mother would chide him for the nasty habit. She’d curse, “A fly will lay in eggs in your mouth if you keep it open,” though even young Sohail knew this was absurd. So each time he replied, “Well, at least it might taste better than your cooking.” A fight usually ensued, where every fiber of Sohail’s body regretted his snarkiness. Lucky for Sohail, though, Heaven had no flies or food or mothers for that matter.
But this knowledge would not help him now. Maybe I should’ve been softer with the news of his passing, but there was no point in mincing words. Besides, Sohail knew better than most that in a world stuck searching for Paradise, even Heaven will have its sharp corners. Born no more into security than a captive animal is born free, Sohail struggled for most of his life. His father held the Gita above all else, and so poverty and comfort were relative. In a rich Indian accent, his father consistently chanted, “Even a millionaire is a poor if his wants remain unfulfilled.” Young Sohail wondered if the want for richness was enough to fulfill the hunger in his stomach, though he’d never dare to ask. Instead, he’d nod and sit like a teapot left to boil in the sun and wonder if questions without answers are worth the silences that follow.
He wasn’t silent now, though. He was stammering, stuttering, and stuck trying to get the words to lap off a slippery tongue. “Why?” He whispered, his words being lost in their uncertainty. “Why did I die?”
“Sohail, we all die.”
“But why did I die?”
“It was your time.”
“It was breakfast.”
“Some people die during breakfast.”
“There must be one to have the other.”
“But my family…”
“Your family misses you and loves you and will remember you forever.”
“But I miss them.”
“They were lovely.”
“They are lovely.”
“You’re right, Sohail. Are.”
And they were. His wife was the typical brown-skinned beauty, with anime globes for eyes and a seemingly-endless amount of hair to maze one’s hands through. Mona and Surya, his daughter and son, could slow a person’s heart to a crawl with a smile. Sohail always said that they were his angels. Farishta, he’d whisper into their ears, and look at his wife, and he’d smile, and he’d lift up a masterpiece, and he’d show her how divine beings can’t seem to draw within the lines no matter how hard they try. But now that he was in Heaven, his angels were nowhere in sight.
“So, this,” his arms spread out in front of him like a cross, as if he was attempting to reach out and touch each trough and each crest, each, each bump and each straight line, and extend beyond the yellow glow of the infinite sky above and below him, “is Heaven?”
“And you are God.”
“I am God.”
He looked at me with fascination only comparable to that of a child. As his hands went limp to his side, he laughed. I’ll admit that I looked no more like a God than anyone else would after being here since the beginning of time and then some. My appearance was a bit bedraggled. I hadn’t shaven my beard for centuries nor did I change out of my comfy sandals, apparently too busy for divine and graceful looks. My hair was white, a symptom of being old and tired from watching world after world become destroyed without even the slightest notice – except of course, by me.
“That means you’re the Creator?”
“And the Destroyer.”
“And the Omega.”
“So why didn’t you stop me from dying?”
“I gave you free will.”
He looked at me, then at his hands to his side, and then back to me.
“So you gave me the will to die by an artery exploding in my head? Sounds more like a last rite to me.”
“That’s easy for a God to say. You make them happen.”
“I can’t control every little atom here and there. I only created them. Once the gears are set into motion, the clock runs without its watchmaker.”
Sohail laughed again. A cold hard laugh. “So what are we ticking to?”
“To the end of time, I guess.”
“And my clock gave out.”
“By a balloon of an artery bursting in my head?”
“In more explicit words than I’d like, yes.”
“Did I have blood from my ears?”
“Yes, a little.”
“And my face was submerged in my cereal?”
“Yes. You drowned in the cereal before you actually died of internal bleeding.”
“He’s listening.” But the joke wasn’t funny. Sohail was shaking.
“Oh god. Oh god. Oh god.”
“I’m sorry, but I am or I was or I whatever an atheist.”
“No God would act so indifferent to the world.”
“You know what – some days I’m an atheist too, Sohail.”
“I, the creator of everything and everyone, have to see my children buried every day. I have to watch people I have observed since infancy die horrible, painful deaths. I have to see luscious fields that I spend thousand of years molding and planning, turn into little more than slaughter houses. I have to listen to gunshots instead of symphonies. All the suffering, all the sadness, all the unimaginable evils that haunt this world – your world – I have to sit through and watch year after year after year. And when you die, I have to be here to greet you with a smile, knowing in my heart that I let you die in a way because I caused all of this, and because when I set it all in motion, you were always going to die, no matter what.”
Sohail shuffled his feet. I continued.
“I wonder what kind of God would do this: create evils and diseases and horrors that match only the sickest of imaginations. I try to think who in their right mind would allow wars to be waged over whether people should follow a version of some God’s rule, only to have both sides wrong about it anyways. I wonder who would make it so that a schizophrenic could microwave his two month year old baby in order to save him from the invisible spiders that were crawling all over him. I wonder what God would ever allow the world to climb out of shit only to fall right back into it. And then I remember: It was me. All of it was always me. Your protector. Your lover. Your guardian. Your God.”
My echoing voice banged on endlessly for an eternity. In the time it took to reach one end, two parallel lines met, 2200 fashions were all the rage, and the world was embroiled in its sixth world war. “I may be a God, but even I have doubts,” I said. “Even a god can be a nonbeliever.”
“This whole thing.”
“But you’re supposed to do it – you know, be a God and all?”
“I do it not because I’m supposed to, but because I know nothing else. I’ve always been a God.”
“I guess.” He looked around, slightly bored. I wanted to get back to the conversation I originally planned, though.
“Don’t worry, Sohail. If I were you back on Earth, I wouldn’t have believed in God either.”
He smiled. “Even though I claimed I was an atheist, I think deep down I always believed in God. I just didn’t trust him. Or you, I should say.”
“What did you trust in?”
“Myself. And my family. And those that loved me.”
“People, after they die, tell me God is love. What do you think of that?”
“I think that it’s a pile of crap.”
“Because if what you say is true, then love was meant to happen anyways, so what’s the point in feeling it?”
“To be happy – that’s something I could never determine or plan.”
“Well I was and now I’m here and I’m crying.” I hadn’t noticed, but Sohail was indeed crying.
“Sohail, don’t cry.”
“I want to go home.”
“This is your home.”
“This is your home, not mine. You’ve been here, in Paradise, for eternities, when in reality you were just waiting for people to die.”
I sighed. “Sit with me.”
And he did.
“This is your world.”
And he looked.
“Here is the Universe.”
And he saw.
“If the world would disappear, no cosmic event would notice. In fact, it would be better for the Universe. Entropy would increase.”
Sohail was still crying.
“You have to understand that I care for you – all of you – when everything else in this Universe doesn’t.”
He wasn’t listening.
“You want to know something, God?”
“It’s a story. I can’t promise it’ll be verbatim, but I’ll try. A man spends his entire life donating to poor people. His more affluent friends tell him its useless; poor people will remain poor and he’s just robbing himself of his potential opulence. He disagrees entirely. He tells them that God is not in money or in Churches or in religion. Instead, God is found in people.”
“And now I’m here. I’m away from my gods, from the people I love and cherish and worship.”
“And I just want to go home and kiss them and say goodbye and tell them I love them.”
“I can never forgive you, God.”
“I don’t expect you to. You never asked to be born; I made it be.”
“You didn’t do everything, you know.”
“Like how I spent my entire life trying to be good. Not because I expected reward or redemption or anything like that, but because in a world of evil and potentially one life, I didn’t have enough time to be bad.”
“I know and…”
“And I want you to know that I never regretted anything, even if I was predestined to do it.”
“There’s nothing to regret. Know that I could never reward or punish you for what happened, especially since I made you in my own image – a God. This is because even a God makes mistakes, and sometimes, I think the Earth may be my biggest of all because it is the only one with species that can judge me for all my other mistakes.”
“Up here for thousands of years, I get to think of some good jokes.” Sohail wasn’t crying anymore. I joked lightly again, “It was Voltaire who said I was a comedian with an audience too afraid to laugh, right?”
“I think so,” said Sohail.
“Want to meet him?”
“But he speaks French.”
“Up here, we all do.”
And then we walked and drank wine with Voltaire and danced with Nietzsche and laughed with Einstein about quarks and then Sohail asked me what else does a God do up here in Heaven.
I told him that God doesn’t play dice, but he sure does play poker. And we did for two thousand years. The stakes were infinite, but luckily, we had the time.