Kyle was just a regular guy living a regular life when WHAM! He died. And it turned out that staying dead was complicated.
He’d just come off the course after playing 18 holes at the Mercer County golf course with three co-workers, John Greenly, Merv Goldsmith, and Rich Reddington.
They teed off at 8 a. m. on a beautiful, warm summer day and immediately ran into a traffic jam.
“God damn amateurs,” John loudly muttered, as the men watched the group in front of them chasing balls around the first green.
Kyle was going to point out that there were two other groups waiting to tee off ahead of them at the next hole so there was no rush, but (A) John would just get louder which was always embarrassing, and (B) the neophytes were indeed annoying to watch. “Who the hell putts the ball five times? ” John asked sourly. Finally, two players sank putts, one picked up his ball, and the fourth continued to doggedly knock his DayGlo-green ball back and forth.
He finally sank the ball and struck a pose, an arm raised in triumph.”Jesus Christ, move!” John yelled. There were poisonous looks as the group ahead of them headed for the next tee where they would all soon be standing uncomfortably together, Kyle thought as he pitched his #4 Titleist onto the far side of the green.
The refreshment cart drove up and they all bought beer and chips. It was going to be a long round.
The crowd thinned out after the ninth hole and the mood lightened as the pace picked up. Rich sank a great shot from a hundred yards out and John drove the green on a par four, but otherwise the day was uneventful.
They trooped into the cool, wood-paneled bar and ordered drafts and dogs, reliving the highlights of their game. Kyle picked up his beer but suddenly he felt very tired and set it down again. Without a word, he toppled over and died, age 46, of a heart attack.
He floated above his body and watched the pandemonium as everyone in the room tried to do something useful. Some guy he didn’t know was praying aloud, the bartender was shouting into a phone, Rich was giving Kyle’s inert body CPR, and Kyle couldn’t have cared less.
He was free. A great sense of warmth and love and compassion enveloped him, and he was one with the universe. He knew everything. He understood everything. He comprehended that his wife had cheated on him not once, but twice, with the kids’ elementary school principal, not that it mattered. He saw that she was going to collect on his million-dollar life insurance policy and then win the lottery, but it was of no consequence.
As he watched, his body was zipped into a bag and hauled off, sirens screaming because it was rush hour, to the new hospital with the impossibly long name. “DOA,” the doctor on duty said, making a note on a clipboard.
His wife, trembling and white, came in with John. Kyle saw her minor feelings of sorrow and guilt as well as her huge anticipation of the life insurance money. He watched his boring, uninspired funeral and his burial in an ugly and crowded cemetery without much interest. He was being pulled away.
His Catholic upbringing had not prepared him for the truth about the hereafter. There were no saints, no pearly gates, and not a halo in sight. This seemed more like what he saw on the Discovery Channel, and so, when a bright white light appeared, Kyle knew to go there, although “going” was more of a thought shift than a movement. He was already everywhere.
But as he slowly moved up the light he wondered where the souls of his parents and grandparents were and that of his best friend, killed in a high school drunk driving accident 20 years earlier. He’d expected them to greet him, but they were not there. “So,” he thought, “I don’t know everything.”
Once beyond the light, Kyle felt like less like part of the universe and more like an individual dust mote in a sunbeam, floating aimlessly. Other motes floated around him. Some were smaller and kept floating past and disappearing through some kind of barrier Kyle couldn’t pass. The larger motes seemed directionless, remaining at what might be called “the bottom” of some kind of astral plane. Every so often, motes of any size simply vanished in a flash of blue light. It was all very puzzling.
When Kyle tried to understand what was happening, and why there seemed to be a hierarchy among motes, he drew a blank. “Why can’t I understand what this is?” he thought in frustration. “When I died, I knew everything. Now I feel as if I know less.” It was like forgetting nouns in his 40s.
Kyle tried to get information from a tiny mote that floated past, but it disappeared without acknowledging him. Several much larger motes came toward him, but Kyle suddenly felt the urge to move away from them. It reminded him of the Spring Fling dance at the golf club where everyone spent all their time trying to talk to the bigwigs and avoid the zeros.
He finally joined up with a smaller mote that came near, and to his astonishment he realized it was his dog, “Buddy,” who’d tragically died on Christmas Day when he was eight years old.
They merged into a moment of warm oneness, then separated. Buddy indicated that he’d be willing to share thoughts, and Kyle jumped right in. “This doesn’t seem like heaven at all,” he complained. “Who are all these motes and why are they different sizes?” The reply came into his head at once. “The different sizes mean they have experienced either more, or less, in their lives. The large motes are less mature — frogs and bugs for example. They live short lives, have simple experiences, and return still underdeveloped. Plankton and bacteria are the least experienced of all.”
“Bacteria have motes? How big are they?”
“Really big, but they are in a different place, hanging out with their own size. They need generations of experiences to be here.”
“So you are saying that things like bugs stay bugs for centuries?”
Kyle sensed amusement emanating from Buddy.
“Some bugs have complex lives,” he smiled, “but the simplest must repeat their low-key levels of life until they have acquired enough experience to become smaller.
“That might take a short time if they have complex experiences like becoming queen ants, or a longer time if they are slugs that sit under rocks all summer, then die. But eventually they become higher order bugs, then animals, and then complex animals. Someday they’ll become so small that they achieve permanent Oneness.”
“Why smaller? Wouldn’t they become larger over time?” Kyle wanted to know.
Buddy smiled again. “No, that’s not how it works. Think of it like erosion. You get increasingly smaller, then you can merge with the universe. Remember how you felt when you first died?”
“That’s what you are shooting for,” Buddy explained, “except it will be permanent.”
“How long does that take? I mean in Earth years.”
Buddy suddenly pushed against Kyle. “Watch it!” he cried.
Kyle saw a slight shimmer go by, an almost imperceptible distortion in the space they occupied. It was moving and as he watched, a mote crossed its path and disappeared in a flash of blue light.
“What was that?” Kyle asked in alarm.
“That is to be avoided,” said Buddy laconically. “Those are reincarnation portals. Merge with one and you are re-born.”
“I’m staying here,” Kyle stated firmly.
“You have no choice. You must be re-born,” Buddy explained, “and you want to get smaller, so you need experiences, but they are not always pleasant. That poor bastard was reincarnated as a feral kitten in Detroit. He won’t live long, though his mote will get smaller when he returns here in a few months.”
“In your last life,” he went on, “you took the easiest path and have learned very little. You didn’t have challenging experiences that might be hard but that would alter your point of view. You didn’t seek out people who are really different than you, live in a place far way from your hometown of Princeton, or even learn a new language. You did whatever was easy and convenient. It was a lot like the slug under a rock,” he concluded slyly.
“What do you suggest I choose for my next life? ” Kyle asked. “A queen ant?”
Buddy laughed.”When the moment comes, the blue light will flash and you’ll be gone, back among the living. But not as an ant. Something higher-order like a crow or an octopus. They have huge experience potential.”
“Not me,” Kyle retorted. “I’m going to stay here for awhile. No stress, no body to worry about, no trying to figure out other people.”
“The problem is,” Buddy said, “you’ll forget and let a portal get too close. Then it’s all over ’til the next time you’re here.”
Kyle struggled to hold onto that thought. His awareness, which had been flint sharp at his death now felt fuzzy and indistinct. “Buddy, why don’t I know everything anymore? You just told me something important but I can’t remember the whole thing. Something about next time.”
“Uh oh,” Buddy said. “This is happening faster than I thought.”
“You are about to be reincarnated.” The former pet mote began floating away.
“Wait!” Kyle called. “I still have a lot of questions.”
“Sorry but I don’t want to be too close when you get zapped. Better you than me.”
“Here is my most important question,” Kyle asked in desperation. “Why are you smaller than I am?”
Buddy sent one more thought Kyle’s way: “I am smaller because I had many varied challenges and experiences. I started life as a country stray and my mother died when I was very young. I was picked up by the pound, was adopted into suburbia and then got lost again when I ran away in a thunderstorm. I was hit by a car and was taken care of by a vet for a month, then your family adopted me. Each time I had to learn a new name for myself, new rules, new environments, and new people. I loved my mother and then the people who cared for me, but they were replaced by others again and again. I acquired experience and am smaller as a result.”
Buddy floated upwards through a barrier and was gone.
Kyle was determined not to be re-incarnated. It sounded very risky.”OK, so if hitting one of those blue light thingies means I get re-incarnated then it’s easy. I’ll just keep out of their way,” Kyle decided.”Otherwise I might end up as something awful like a dairy cow on its way to being burger or slime mold,” he thought, though he didn’t really know what those were. He’d always just liked the name.
Then Kyle began to feel panicky. His awareness was dimming. What had Buddy said? There was something to be avoided. He scanned the area and felt reassured when he saw only motes of his size floating around. He saw no danger of … what should he be avoiding? He tried very hard to think, but all he remembered was his earlier feeling of panic.
There was a shimmer to his left and just as he tried to see what it was, WHAM! Pouring back down the beam of light into his new life as a cobra in an egg near Jodhpur, India, he had a final moment of clarity.
“Now I remember! I was supposed to avoid the blue light!” before his memory was wiped clean and his new life began.
Romanaux lives in Princeton and is director of communications for Liberty Science Center. She is the past presidnet of the NJ Association of Museums and served on the board for nine years. She is an alumna of Princeton Day School and Wellesley College.