• James Tam

Heaven

Updated: Apr 18


Heaven is available in printed form in the "Hong Kong Stories - As We See It" anthology:

After Gabriel fades out of sight, I let out a heavily muffled mental murmur: “So long you prissy feathery prig . . .” The juvenile remark, so unlike me, feels great.

So, this is my Day Number One of Eternal Life . . .

I can still smell the sanitised odour of the urine bag that hung from my deathbed, and feel the warmth of soiled diaper creeping inside the prickly hospital blanket. The squeaky weeping of Elena, and the droning prayers of our son Rev. Kelvin Lee (II) still ring in my ears. And I can’t stop the phantom pulses of the monitors I was plugged into, like a car being checked at the garage. I have no idea what these things were, but had long realised they were futile.

A waste of electricity, but they persisted. I had been lying there, technically in a coma but for my clear perception of things happening around me for months, years, perhaps longer. I couldn’t tell then; I only knew it had been a long time. The coma was taking me farther and farther away from the mundane world, but no nearer the Kingdom of God. Take me now God. Pray pull the plugs. I begged with all the mental energy left in me. But they wouldn’t. Alas, not on me. I had been a powerful voice against abortion and euthanasia before the car accident. They didn’t dare to cut the drips for as long as my body displayed the faintest sign of technical life, and against my will it did, on and on.

For years, I’d argued passionately that life’s something only God can give or take. But in my case, God neither took nor gave back. He kept me dangling in a poorly defined state for eight years four months sixteen days two hours and twenty minutes before sending Archangel Michael.

Finally. Heaven. Thank God!

I always knew I’d go to Heaven; come on, I’d been a good man: Dutiful husband, loving father, and devout Christian. Heaven’s made for dead people like me. Well, there had been a few minor transgressions, but in the interminable time that I idled comatose, I must have repented thousands of times for each of the five occasions I cheated on Elena. All of them happened while I was on church business in Hong Kong.

I don’t know what possessed me but I do concede I was no match for Satan’s cunning device. Look, with due respect, even God has trouble obliterating this supreme evil so . . .

Anyway, when I was driven past Wanchai in the church limo, I was attacked by an irrepressible erection, something I thought had long died. Honest to God, I didn’t even give so much as a glance at the tawdrily dressed girls outside the sleazy bars. But when we drove past, my penis would swell as if pumped with blood collected from the gutters of Hell. After the chauffeur dropped me off at the hotel, I dashed to a cold shower, and prayed. But the hellish tumescence crept right back. I struggled, fiercely, then succumbed, and sneaked out. That was the first time.

Similar relapses during my four subsequent trips were in a way more disturbing because of the shameful anticipation. The plane wouldn’t even be airborne yet. My cheeks would still be damp with Elena’s good-bye kisses, and I would start praying for advance forgiveness with my seatbelt on. My heart would race ahead of the flight, and my mouth would be dry for the entire journey, no matter how much water I drank. I was evidently overwhelmed by evil, and helpless. But God wouldn’t give me a guiding hand. He let me stand my own test; I did, and failed.

Well, all that was in the past. Though not totally forgotten, these trespasses had evidently been forgiven. Otherwise, I’d be somewhere much warmer right now wouldn’t I?

It happened abruptly. From one second to the next, my time was up. One of the machines tolled my knell: Ding . . . ding . . . ding . . .

Elena and Junior arrived. She sobbed, a bit too loud and ceremonious I thought. Junior prayed, thanking God on my behalf, also too loud. I joined him. I wasn’t positive that I’d really died. Everything felt the same: Cold. Perhaps a touch colder than usual, but that was all. The temperature difference between life and death turned out to be rather subtle at first.

Then a firm and even cooler hand gripped mine.

“Let’s go,” a voice said. I recognised him right away because of the iconic sword clamped under the armpit to free his hand for mine. In his other hand was a scale, the one he weighs souls with. He had a stern expression, almost fierce. I didn’t take it personal. The Archangel never smiles. That’s his reputation.

“I know who you are - The Archangel Michael!” I exclaimed, perhaps too excitedly. I was proud of myself for recognising.

“Let’s go,” he responded dryly.

“Can I have a few minutes more with my family? Just to wait till they’re gone?” I felt my voice choking. Michael looked at me with the same expression and repeated his favourite phrase: “Let’s go.”

“OK then.”

I could tell he wasn’t going to change his mind. I tried to sound light-hearted instead: “I know I know, I’m not the only one dying today right?”

He ignored me, maintained his forceful grip, and pulled me towards Heaven.

I expected to be introduced to God at the Gate of Heaven soon. That’s one of Michael’s many angelic duties besides battling his indestructible foe Satan who’s also destined never to win. After my comatose experience, I can now see the pointlessness of the struggle with a touch of philosophy. No wonder Michael seems crabby. At the instant of that thought, he shot me a glance. I suddenly remembered I was now dead, and among angelic beings. Whatever I was thinking could probably be tuned into by God’s messengers.

Of course. What do I expect? To hide my thoughts from God?

I was embarrassed by my impertinence. Smarten up, I told myself. Get ready to meet God Himself momentarily. Should I shake His hands? Bow? Genuflect? Or prostrate? The Bible mentions nothing in this regard. I decided to prostrate, to be on the safe side.

If Michael was still listening, he didn’t volunteer any advice. I followed mutely, weaving from one patch of whiteness into another. So far, since leaving my deathbed, everything had been featureless. There was a constant wind hissing through his prominent pinions. The feathers were white with a beautiful golden sheen; perhaps a little tired though, a little limp . . .

He turned to regard me again.

Oh shoot! I abruptly took my thought off his personal appearance, and replaced it with a rapturous mental praise: Oh beautiful Archangel! Oh what a perfect being!

At the Gate of Heaven, Michael handed me over to Gabriel - here! - then turned to leave. Gabriel mumbled “Thanks” to his back. That was it. I couldn’t help feeling a little dejected.

Gabriel was more pleasant. I nearly mistook him for God.

“Welcome to Heaven Rev. Lee. I’m Gabriel, Archangel in charge, Chief Worthless Servant to Our Lord God the Almighty and Everlasting,” he recited in a flat and detached tone, sounding more like an English butler than Jewish angel.

“Please call me Kelvin, Archangel Gabriel. You have no idea how honoured I am to meet you.”

“Is that so?” he said, followed by an unnervingly long pause. I waited with my mouth open, uncertain whether to interrupt. “Marvellous,” he finally resumed. “You’ll be most welcome to see me whenever you wish, assuming you have a valid reason, of course, or whenever I need to see you, which I sincerely hope not. We like to leave the Sinners alone to enjoy their everlasting lives unless they get into trouble.”

“Sinners?”

“Against God’s Perfection, are we not but dismal transgressors Rev. Lee?” Gabriel chuckled. I wasn’t sure what the joke was but instinctually chuckled along and agreed enthusiastically: “Sinners. Yes. Of course. Transgressors. Ha, haha!” Sharing a joke with an Archangel. How ‘bout that?

The Gate of Heaven is a virtual gate. Similar to everything else, it has no distinguishable features. Two plum toddler angels sat on their haunches, staring straight ahead. Their trumpets laid on the cloud in front. Their cute little wings opened as if cut right out of a Christmas card. They didn’t pay any attention to us. One of them rolled his heavily lidded eyes towards Michael for a second when we just arrived, then resumed his listless goggle at the haziness ahead. They didn’t seem to notice Gabriel at all.

Gabriel noticed me staring, and said: “Infant Mortality.”

“Pardon me?”

“There used to be lots around when my Lord God the Sparkling Wisdom enjoyed having a cloud of them singing and trumpeting above his head. Thank God He eventually got tired of them so we strictly enforced admission Divine Rules to curb these pests.”

“Don’t they play music anymore? Like, a welcome tune or something?”

Gabriel gave a disdainful look. “Not to you anyway, no offence.” He then glanced contemptuously at the baby angels and added: “If I were you, I’d keep away. Original Sins you know.”

“Thanks for the information Angel Gabriel,” I tried to sound grateful.

“ARCH . . . angel,” he corrected me, cocking his head disapprovingly, raising his frosty brows.

“Sorry Archangel Gabriel.”

I tried to shift my weight, as was my habit when feeling uneasy. But I had become weightless. There was no physical feedback from my weight transfer. I had noticed that empty feeling of being part of a vacuum soon as I died, but was not yet used to it.

Gabriel spent what seemed like an afternoon (The soft diffused light, moderately cool temperature and mildly humid air all stay constant, and there are no clocks. It’s hard to mark the passage of time in Heaven.) to give me a quick intro of my new home forever. But instead of the orientation I had expected, he mostly babbled about personal achievements while taking me for a guided aimless tour of the homogeneous place.

He bragged about breaking the news of pregnancy to Mary. Apparently, her initial response was hysterical: “No one will believe that for God’s sake!” she screamed. “They’ll stone me to death. Joseph will cast a boulder the size of a bread-box.”

Gabriel had to calm her with authority: “Hold thy tongue woman! Have faith! The Lord hath chosen thee to bear the Son as a Virgin. No one shall harm thee.” Then he added with a shrug: “You have no choice anyway.”

So, that was the Annunciation.

He admitted with the ostentatious nonchalance of a professional insider that he wasn’t sure how the event might have unfolded. But if Mary’s savage world decided to stone her to death, it would have been Michael, not him, who had to retrieve the embryo of the Son so he couldn’t care less. As it turned out, everyone just said “Wow!” Even Joseph didn’t ask any difficult question. Now, that was a miracle.

As the afternoon wore on, I was acclimatised to Gabriel’s discouraging countenance, and ventured a few questions. He gave me some indications which mostly confirmed what I had understood about Heaven. However, instead of gratification, I felt a strange sense of foreboding. Something seemed amiss in my clerical knowledge of the eternal rest home. Perhaps it was my lack of consideration to everyday details.

My first question was how I might acquire a pair of wings. Everyone I’d met so far was winged, I felt naked and deformed.

“In due course. Normally after you’ve had an audience with His Eternal Grace, provided there are yellow ones in stock.”

I couldn’t hide my shock and indignation. I was American, and thoroughly Christian. He was saying I had to carry (or grow?) yellow wings, presumably because of ethnicity? This is blatantly racist! I was about to protest when it suddenly dawned on me the Bible never promised anything like racial equality in God’s Kingdom. Even Jesus was reluctant to help the Canaanite woman because of her tribal background, right there in Matthew 15:21-28. I know my bible. I sensibly let my grumble flash past, and covered its track with a loud mental Hallelujah! In only a few hours, I’d become much better in controlling the big mouth of my mind. I was quite pleased with myself in that regard.

“Would I look like a chicken?” I decided to demonstrate a sense of humour rather than complain. Acceptance is a virtue of all great men when they have no choice.

“Probably. But you shall have time to get used to it,” Gabriel agreed, his upper lip twitching between a faint smirk and disdain.

“When will I meet God?” I asked, straightforward, decided to leave the disturbing issue of chicken wings behind.

“In due course.”

I wondered exactly how long is one due course, but enquired instead how I might find my dead relatives. On the way up, the hypnotic sibilance of a steady wind going through Michael’s feathers had lulled me into a reverie. I had visualised an emotional reunion with my parents and uncle Joe, all exemplary Christians. They’d no doubt be up here somewhere.

“Feel free to look around,” Gabriel said. He explained Heaven’s not a fascist state. There’s almost absolute freedom of movement. Sinners can wander from one end of infinity to the other without being regularly monitored.

I tried not to let my frustrations show. After a brief pause, I changed the subject once more: “What about Jesus?”

“What about Him?”

“I’ve been His devout follower all my life. Can I meet Him?” I could hear my pious and reverent voice hardening but was hopeful that the situation might improve if I could meet Christ in person.

Gabriel sat down somberly in an invisible armchair, and signalled me to do the same. I lowered myself cautiously into a sitting position. I couldn’t feel any supporting furniture, or the strain of hunkering down. I finally let go completely, and came to rest in a sitting position. There are some neat things in Heaven after all.

“You have a son right?”

“He’s also a preacher,” I replied with pride.

“Have you ever, say, disagreed?”

“Of course. But by the Grace of God, I always managed to find the weakness in him, and helped him to come around. I’m his father you see.”

“The Son and My Lord the Infinite Mercy have similar divergences every now and then.”

“Archangel Gabriel, I’m not sure I understand. Junior and I are faulty mortals. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three Perfect Beings in one. How can they have squabbles?”

“Well, they do,” Gabriel said blandly, raising the frosty eyebrows again to elevate his vexation to the surface. “Being bound in trinity with one’s Son kind of gets to one after a few aeons, as you might well imagine. Closeness tend to breed contempt if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t,” I said curtly, surprising myself.

I desperately needed to sigh, so I took a deep breath. But the inhalation vanished. I drew in a bigger one. That vanished too. This must be No Sigh Zone. For the first time, I felt dead.

The Archangel watched me baffled by my transmogrified respiratory mechanism with a supercilious sneer, then said in a deliberate tone: “The Son’s in Hell.”

“What?” I jumped up from the non-existent chair.

“Calm,” he ordered softly. “It’s not what you think. He went there voluntarily. Tired of life in Heaven, said it sterile, and that he was sick of praising His Father the Lord God of Shinning Truth non-stop. Young man in relative term after all, you see. He wanted to go where He’s most needed, where there’s a high concentration of condemned souls. He went to Earth for exactly the same reason, so it wasn’t the first time.”

“Bu-bu -” I’d suddenly developed a stutter.

Gabriel continued, ignoring me: “It was good for everyone in the end. Those two were at each other’s throat ever since they had the big fight over the great Egyptian plague. The Son never forgave His Father for massacring the firstborns. Since then, He had bugged our Lord of Limitless Magnanimity for every single massacre He had devised. His Son’s a softie, always been.”

“Bu-buh-but -” It took me more than ten “buts” before gliding over the roadblock in my larynx. “But damnation’s eternal! Hell is eternal! What’s the point?”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows again, then pulled the lids down without relaxing his forehead. I was beginning to find the diversity of his contemptuous facial remarks amusing rather than irritating. He then asked dulcetly, keeping his eyes closed: “Surely, Reverend Kelvin Lee, you must know that in the soul saving business, it’s the effort, not result, that counts. Did you not take that missionary position when you went to Hong Kong five times?”

He knows! God da-da-da . . dit, he knows!

But I had thoroughly repented, and repeatedly, superfluously . . .

NOT FAIR! Fu-fu-fu . . . fullelujah!

I felt my cheeks burning for the first time since rigor mortis.

Gabriel waited for my mental shrieks to die down, then lifted his lids halfway. Radiation of smug satisfaction leaked through. He tossed his wings out a little -fluff - and adjusted himself in the imaginary chair.

“Keep an open mind Kelvin,” he said in a kinder tone. “Heaven’s just how you’d pictured it, but failed to contemplate the details. That said, there’s no better place to spend eternity once you’ve come to terms with the mysterious ways in which Our Lord the Ultimate Magic and Indescribable Kindness moves.”

The way he spoke and praised God, I could not be sure whether he was being wicked, or just quaint and officious.

“Will He be back?” I finally asked.

“You mean Jesus? Of course. He comes home for the occasional Christmas with his virginal Mum.”

“May I ask what’d happened to the Trinity then?”

“Nothing,” Gabriel said, nodding thoughtfully. “If you’ve bought a box of cereal, and it comes shrink-wrapped with a tube of toothpaste and a Hello Kitty sticker, the three have become one right?”

My mind kept drifting back to the incredible fact that he knows about my trips, and that I repented for years in vain . . . Hallelujah!

“But it doesn’t mean they’re equally important and inseparable.” He appeared pleased with his cleverly human analogy, and didn’t mind my mental digression. “The box of corn flakes will always assume the utmost priority. Fine, some might find the toothpaste useful, but nevertheless secondary in the Divine order of things. As for the cute little sticker? Yes it’s in an odd way part and parcel of the Trinity, but if you chuck it out, nobody would even notice.”

I couldn’t believe I was listening to the Archangel comparing Christ to a tube of bonus toothpaste. “There’s no point asking the Holy Spirit’s whereabout then.”

“That’d be very insightful of you Reverend.”

Gabriel flexed his wings again with manifest boredom, then collected them around his body the way women in big flared dresses do before sitting down. “So, Reverend, any more questions?” he asked.

“No Archangel, you’ve been most kind.”

“Very well then. In that case, I wish you a good stay.”

Gabriel was just turning to go when I remembered my neighbour Peter who died before my accident. He was Buddhist. An OK guy, a good guy in my view, but stubbornly heathenish, and morally indolent. Kind of weird too, and vegetarian. Now that there really is heaven, and God does exist, I feel vindicated yet sorry for him, and was curious if his sceptical soul was crackling in Hell or being purified in purgatory.

“If he’s Buddhist, then he’s probably neither here nor there. He might have reincarnated or gone to Nirvana. God knows.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “You’re kidding me right?”

“I kid you not Sir. Buddhists don’t come here. They don’t believe in God. You don’t want a bunch of chanting atheists loitering about do you? Only good Christians and Muslims come here.”

I wished I could faint to take a break from all these nonsense. Muslims and Christians in the same Heaven while Buddhists get reincarnated. I took another deep breath, and felt it vanished.

Gabriel faced me again and explained. “Mystery is infinite Reverend. Up here, we know many things that they don’t down there - but we don’t know all either. Otherwise it wouldn’t be infinite would it? It seems that after death, you end up somewhere that resembles whatever you believed when alive. You believed in God the Everlasting Truth so bless your soul and here you are. Granted, some are surprised by the details, mostly because of their own failure to contemplate carefully.”

He paused to stretch his wings yet once more and crane his neck at the same time like a swan. “Muslims and Christians believe in the one same true Him: God, Allah, Yahweh are the One. You are people of the same Book. You share holy stories, Archangels like my humble Self, prophets, and a passionately entwined history. So, all ye faithful come here if you’ve been provisionally good, same Heaven. Where else?”

He then added as an after-thought: “Mind you, the verdict’s still out. Michael is supposed to work on the logic and logistics of the Last Judgement but he seems to be taking his time . . .”

“But Muslims are fundamental extremists! Terrorists!” I interrupted, shrieking. I’d forgotten to breath while he talked. Luckily, asphyxiation no longer harms me.

“See? You even have the same epithets for each other. Brothers are brothers.”

“And Buddhists end up somewhere else?”

“Probably.”

“How’s that possible!”

“Kelvin,” Gabriel said in a loud sigh, showing off there are things only the Archangels can still do in Heaven. “With your kind permission, I shall repeat myself this one final time for your benefit: We don’t exist in the mind of atheists, so how in Heaven’s name do you expect them to come here? They get recycled down there, then, one day, enlightenment! and off they go to Nirvana.”

“And where’s that?”

“How do I know? Reverend -” he raised his voice a few ominous decibels “- if you’re sitting in an Italian Restaurant, being patiently introduced to Chef’s Special by the Manager, don’t you think it kind of rude to enquire persistently what the Chinese Restaurant down the road might be serving?”

“I suppose -”

“Excellent! You should be happy and proud that what you’ve believed all your life is true.”

My words, like the air I breath, had also vanished.

Gabriel turned to leave without another farewell, mumbling audibly to himself: “Always like this isn’t it? The more you tell, the less they know, and the more they ask, on and on, as if there’s nothing else to do in eternity . . . “


After Gabriel fades out of sight, I let out a heavily muffled mental murmur: “So long you prissy feathery prig . . .” The juvenile remark, so unlike me, feels great. For the first time since arrival, I’m alone in my final resting place. Ironically, now that I’m here, I find Heaven unbelievable.

I look around. There’s nothing to see.

I think about my life, my recent death, and this morning. Somehow, the pieces refuse to fit. I contemplate my surrealistic situation and the meaning of perpetuity, and feel emptily nauseous.

Every now and then, an angelic zombie drifts by like a lone sea-horse in a bare aquarium with murky water. Most have wings but none flies. Perhaps they’re for decoration rather than aviation. A few are wingless and bemused like me - newly dead. I don’t feel hungry, or thirsty, or tired. These sensations have ceased. Good, there’ll be no need to find a bed if night should arrive. Doesn’t look like it will though. That’s right: In Heaven, there’s no darkness. How many times had I said that in sermons? I was right!

About thirty yards away, a man with scruffy wings moonwalks by. He’s rapturous, as if high on something.

I don’t s’pose they have bars around here? Boy, for once, I need a drink.

That man’s in bliss. He’s in Heaven, no question about that. I try to ask his secrets. Excuse me . . . ? Again, the words can’t come out. Oh well, I’ll ask later. Perhaps in a million years or two. What’s the hurry?

“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” He yells happily, waving and smiling, blowing kisses in my direction.

I smile back out of politeness. Then, almost involuntarily, I holler: “God is Great! Brother!” My voice has returned with a deep and objective vibration. The words echo on powerfully. Perhaps only praising and respectful words can come out? It makes sense doesn’t it? There’s no end to everlasting life. If we’re allowed to speak freely, a slip of the tongue might happen once in a million years. What if we slip into something seriously blasphemous? Eternal fire will no longer be an option! Our words are therefore purified before leaving the tongue. How clever of our Father Who Lives a Thousand Eternities with Wisdom Shinning Through a Billion Universes!

The man twists away merrily without registering my response, waving hands above head as if belly dancing, clapping his wings and wriggling his bum rhythmically.

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Huhuhuhu Akbabar!

Suddenly, my smile explodes into an unstoppable guffaw. I’m roaring, shrieking, bellowing rapturously to sum up my first day of Eternal Life.

YES! There are no tears in Heaven.

- end -



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