My father has my heart. Seriously-he really has it. It's beating in his chest. I'm floating high above and see it clearly; it's thumping up and down like a hiccup.
This guy Pete's right next to me. "Lorelei," he says, "you won't need it now."
That makes no sense. My heart's been with me a lifetime-sixteen years, two months and three days. And I was counting on it being with me for a very long time. How in the world did I end up here? I shake my head and try to remember, but it's no use. My brain's as blank as unused paper.
At least this place looks nice. We're standing in a white window and the air that's around us is tasty as rain. It's pure as a waterfall. I gulp it down like I've been stranded in the desert for ages, instead of attending private schools, pretty much living a life of privilege, with nothing much to complain about.
"Take your time," Pete says, and pats my shoulder reassuringly. "It doesn't matter here."
I don't say anything. I'm trying to figure out what has happened to me.
"Take your time," he says again, like maybe I'm hard of hearing or something. "You have forever."
What I have are questions. "Can I keep my name?"
"Would you like to?" he asks.
Yes, I would. I nod and step back and take a good look at him. He's ancient and wrinkled, like he's been around for a very long time. He's got long bony fingers and acres of fluffy white hair. And his voice is nice. It's warmer than mittens, so I try hard not to notice that his arms have more hair than my cat. I want to take him home and stash him with my stuffed animals.
"You can have what you want, Lorelei," he says, and beams. "Anything." He looks like sunrise bursting into day.
One donated transplanted heart in exchange for anything. That sounds like a pretty good deal.
"For always," he adds.
A really good deal. But, one of the doctors is taking my kidneys and others are taking my liver and corneas.
Pete's eyes are larger than lakes. It'd be easy to fall into them.
"Anything?" I ask.
"Yes," he says.
"Can I go back?"
The Golden Window
Pete doesn't answer. I turn to look and he's gone. I plop down on the edge of the window. It's etched in gold with crystal panes. Inside is a giant white pillow. I bury myself in its folds and watch the doctors carve up what's left of me. They must think I'm a garden. They're snipping this and gathering that. They unearth what's left of me and place my organs into Rubbermaid coolers. They're working hard. They raise their arms and wipe the sweat from their brows. And they watch the clock like it's the setting sun, so they have to hurry. Obviously, time matters there.
My body before them is full of organs. If I'm a garden, it's a good crop. They take out the parts of me that are needed, but what's left is rather gruesome. I flinch and look away. Too late-my last moments flash before me like a deck of cards. One by one they shuffle past, then poof! They're gone.
At last, the doctors are finished. There is the clinking and clanking of metal against metal as their tools are tossed aside. Next, the snapping of rubber and the crumpling of tissue as gloves are peeled from hands and paper robes are shed from bodies. The doors swoosh open. The surgeons and nurses meander off, speaking in hushed tones. It's one a.m. Bodies in white rush in to snatch up the coolers. There's a helicopter waiting. It flies the cooler to a jet that continues on to cities I've never been to. Ones my father flew to before his heart got this virus. I close my eyes and see his face. I lean back on my pillow and hear his words from long ago, rich as fudge and warm as sunshine.
"You'll see all those places someday, Lorelei."
He's right. Exceedingly right, my mother would say. Her name is Grace. It means undeserved favor. She prefers words that add emphasis: exceedingly, substantially, tremendously, horribly. She says those words, and more, quite comfortably when others can't. They sound perfectly normal falling out of her mouth, like they live in a grand house at the base of her throat and adore her.
I watch the doctors in another operating room close my father's chest. When they finish, the one they call Dr. Harvey goes to my mother. He tells her my life is over, but plenty of others will have another go at it. Of course, he chooses just the right words when he does.
The hospital chaplain arrives and makes a silly proclamation like he's the Pope and my mother has an audience with him.
"She's giving birth to a host of lives whose destinies will forever be changed," he says.
My mother's head jerks to attention and nearly snaps off her neck. Her eyes open wide, wider than they're supposed to. The clergyman has his closed. He's nodding his head and pressing his lips together.
"Yes, a glorious birth," he says, his milky-white hands folded in prayer.
He should stop praying-for the moment-take a good look around, and get with it. I'm their only child. Any fool can see that my mother finds the word "glorious", horrendously inadequate for this particular occasion. I'm sixteen years old. My mother counted on my giving birth, eventually, but in a traditional sense.
"Stop it!" my mother says. She tells him it is utterly preposterous. She will
absolutely, unequivocally not hear one more word of this ludicrous analogy.
The minister opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. That's good. He should just stand there and be quiet, not only out of decency for my mother, who is suffering, but for his own safety.
My mother's angry. The vein at the side of her exquisite forehead is pulsing. Soon a cloud will form on her brow. It'll gather strength like a summer squall. Before it subsides, a tirade will pour forth from the voluptuous mouth of that storm. An explosion of words will erupt from an Estée Lauder pink volcano and spew lava down to devour him.
Better yet, he should go off in a corner and read the latest New York Time's bestseller, What to Say and When to Say It.
His words are foolish, but they're powerful, too. They smash the window of denial and open the door to reality. They remind my mother that I am, that is to say I was, their only chance for a future generation. If this man-in-black thinks my mother will take comfort in my body birthing destinies instead of grandchildren, he's undeniably stupid.
He should read that book twice.
The Porthole of Truth
Pete says I can't go back.
"But, let's say you could?" he adds. "Perhaps I'd have you choose your gender, then spin a wheel like this," he says, and spins this enormous dial like Bob Barker on "The Price is Right".
"Let's pretend it would give you a body and a birthplace," Pete explains.
Sounds good to me. I watch with interest.
The wheel whirls round and round like a giant top tipped on its side. Every place in the world is on that wheel. I watch to see where it'll stop. The excitement mounts. England! Spain! Italy! France! Slowly it careens to a halt, but it comes to rest on a city I've never heard of.
"That's in Siberia," Pete says.
"Siberia? I was thinking of something nicer, like Switzerland or even Colorado. I really like to ski."
"So, you would be taking quite a chance, wouldn't you?" Pete says.
"Couldn't I spin more than once?"
He shakes his head. "Afraid not. It there was a choice, you would get one spin."
"Well, I wouldn't want a new body," I point out. "And I wouldn't want a new birthplace. I might end up in Bangladesh. I might be born mentally challenged, or without arms, like the Agent Orange babies!"
Pete nods. "You see my point."
Sadly I do. "But-what if-"
"Lorelei," Pete says softly, "You can't go back. Your body is no longer available.
Well, duh! Obviously, I've seen for myself through the Golden Window with the pretty white pillow that it's not in very good shape. I should be screaming like a baby. Instead there's a strange peace inside me.
"Were you able to go back," Pete says. "It would have to be in the body of another."
"I don't want a new body," I say, more to myself than to him.
I've always been very comfortable with the body I have. I look like my mother, not completely, but sort of. And she's very beautiful. Since first grade, I've told myself I'd grow into a stunning creature precisely like my mother, with a neck as delicate as a swan and skin soft as spun silk. I'd have cheekbones like hers that would be the envy of all my friends and long slender legs. And full breasts, definitely full breasts. Not the kind you buy from a doctor, but real ones, like hers, that rest in beautiful lace cups, that jiggle when she moves, that peek out of her favorite black evening dress, and swell up and down each time she breaths. And I was nearly there on the breasts; I even checked them off my list. And I was patiently waiting, confident of the rest when I did something incredibly stupid, something irrevocable and totally irresponsible, without giving one thought to the consequences. That's what my mother says teenager's do. We don't comprehend that things can turn deadly. She insists that we are totally unaware of the dangers involved that surround our life.
"It's what youth is," she says. "An inconsiderate mass of hormones raging out of control, with thoughts of immortality stored in your brains and branded on your hearts."
That's a very scary thought and now I know she's right. I've ended up here. I touch my face and examine my hands and arms carefully. They feel and look the same. I'm completely whole. How can my body no longer be available?
Pete rambles on. "That is why there is no going back. There is the glory of going forward-to eternity. That's the part that matters," he says as he wags his finger and points upwards.
I look above me and wonder what's there. I want to be angry. "You said I could have anything."
"Ah yes," Pete says, "anything, but not eeeeveryyything."
I laugh. It comes out as music. Pete joins in. We're an ensemble making heavenly sounds. I laugh even harder and it's as if a philharmonic orchestra's joined us. I twirl around and around, enjoying this new way to experience mirth. My steps are lighter than feathers have ever been on air. My body spins and glides with ease. I'm floating! It's a sensation above all others. It's incredible! I dance figure eights around Pete and wonder what else awaits me.
"What's that?" I ask. There's an opening with a beam of light so bright it dazzles. I'm drawn to it like a hummingbird to nectar.
"That is the Porthole of Truth," Pete says somberly "It is where we view the hearts of those below. We can see and feel their thoughts."
"Cool," I say, and walk closer. I want to know what David thinks. He's tall and very hot-a senior-and the captain of the football team. I've been in love with him for months. He has a girlfriend that looks like Reese Witherspoon, who I want to hate, but she's extremely nice, so I'm never quite able to. They hold hands and kiss in the hallways and have their lunch together at the cafeteria. They nibble on each other's sandwiches and speak a secret language that doesn't require words.
Even so, David stares and smiles at me in the hallway and I've always wondered if it meant something, or if he stares and smiles at others in that exact same way. I want to know. I need to know. Now, I will know! I'm delirious. Now I can stop wondering. Pete stares at me intently.
"Not for things like that," he says, like has an invisible porthole he hasn't told me about and can see into my brain.
"It's so we can make a difference. The Ole Man grants free will, but he stacks the deck!" Pete says, and winks.
"The Ole Man?"
"The Big Kahuna, the Great Spirit, the Head Honcho, Prince of Peace, Supreme Being, King of Kings-" He says, and once again points upwards. "You can call him what you like. He takes no offense here."
"Have you seen him?" I ask, excited.
Pete smiles and nods gaily. My parents don't go to church, except on special occasions, but we believe in him.
"What does he look like?"
"Exactly how you've pictured him."
"How can that be? There must be a zillion people here," I say, and for the first time I wonder where they are. Surely, I'm not the first one to make it.
"Simple, he is all things to all things," Pete says, and extends his arms outwards like he is embracing the very air before him.
It's incredible. Pete's seen him. He knows him! "What's he really like?"
"Like you and I," he says. "Or I should say you and I are now like him."
I let that sink in.
"Oh," Pete adds, "And he loves wearing jeans."
"You're funny." I giggle, and immediately feel the tinkle of bells that are tickling my tongue. They float out my mouth and cavort in the air like tiny bubbles. This is magical. My mother would love this kaleidoscope of exquisite sounds and breathtaking colors. This is heaven!
Maybe it's good I'm not going back.
The Silver Lining
I've had some fun. But now, I want to go home. Here come the tears.
"Ah," Pete says and sighs. "It seems I must get to work." I look at him like a puzzle that's hard to put together. Maybe I didn't hear him correctly.
"You have a job?"
"Oh, yes," he says.
"Does he pay you?" I point to the spot above us, and Pete shakes his head that he does, but not with money.
"I don't care," I say, sulking.
Pete says, "You still want to go back." He nods firmly and rubs his chin.
"Yes!" I say emphatically. "But I don't want to spin some silly wheel."
"No, of course not. What I meant is you want to go back exactly the way you were."
"Precisely," I say, noting how easily my mother's words have become a part of me.
"And continue with your life below as though this never happened," he says and now has my undivided attention.
"Yes! Yes!" I say, and jump up and down.
"In that case, I have a surprise," he says. "I have found a way to do that."
I'm flipping out.
"It's very special," he says. "Would you like to see?"
I nod my chin and bob my head so hard I'm sure my teeth are loose. "Yes! Yes, I would," I say, and think of the time my father said those words. A shiny new bike was parked in the driveway with a red ribbon as big as a dog house tied to the handlebars. "Happy Birthday, Princess," it said. I was five. It was a two-wheeler. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Now I had.
Pete tells me to close my eyes. When I do, he turns me around and around.
"Now open," he says. I watch as I'm spun into a gigantic pink mist. It's a giant cloud of cotton candy, totally delicious. Pete steadies my shoulders. I come to a halt.
"Voile!" he says, and I step out of the pink doorway. Before me is a window much like the golden one. This one is etched in silver and lined in matching satin. It has a large pillow loaded with diamonds and pearls. It's pretty awesome. I climb up into the window, running my hands along the smooth edges that have been dipped in paint the color of crystal. The pane sparkles and glistens.
"Is this how I'll go back?" I ask.
"So to speak," Pete says.
I hang my head. I don't trust him. Pete's full of surprises, but they all seem to have a catch. I'm no longer jumping.
"Lorelei," he says, "it's the best I can do, but let me explain." He glides into the window like a large bird and perches on the oversized pillow.
"This is The Silver Lining," he says.
I'm no longer interested. I pretend I'm not listening.
"Through it you will see your life exactly as it would have unfolded had you lived."
Maybe I am interested. I step closer. "Exactly?" I say. "No catches?"
"No catches," he assures me.
I'm very interested. If I can't live my life, at least I can watch it. I'll be the star in my very own movie. "This will be like that Jimmy Stewart one, "It's a Wonderful Life," only in reverse," I say.
"The movie?" Pete says.
"Yeah, this guy George got in trouble and wished he'd never been born. Then Clarence, this totally cool angel, showed him what life would have been like if he hadn't of been.
"Yes, yes, I remember," Pete says.
It affected so many lives you wouldn't believe."
"Oh, I would believe," Pete says.
"So, I'll be seeing-"
"You'll be seeing your life had you continued to live it."
"Right, the opposite of George Bailey," I say happily. "He saw life as if he hadn't lived it. I'll see mine as if I had. Totally cool!"
"Right," Pete says and his eyes light up.
"I promise," he says. "But remember, just like ole George, you may not be happy with all that you see."
Of course, he's wrong. What could be more wonderful than seeing a life that was cut short, go on? I'm ecstatic. I flit in and out the window as easily as a sparrow. I zoom around like I have wings. When I tire of that, I plop onto the soft pillow, dizzy with happiness. I stare at the endless expanse and the infinite colors that surround us and realize this is eternity. But something's missing.
"Where are all the others?" I ask.
Pete points to the vast universe above us. It is a gold and purple haze that stretches far beyond what my eyes can see. I marvel as it shimmers and sparkles and wonder why I'm here and not up there.
"You'll go there next," Pete says. Now I know he has a porthole to my thoughts. I hadn't said a word.
"When will that be?"
"When would you like it to be?"
I'm not sure, so I don't answer. I'm resting next to him on the satin pillow that is softer than down feathers. It's a totally cool window. It'll take me back, if not to live my life, at least to see it firsthand, as if I had. It'll be almost as though I never left! This excites me. Every part of me tingles. I lean deep into the pillow and close my eyes. I'm on the ascending rail of a magnificent roller coaster. Pete is beside me. We're not at the top, yet, but close, very, very close. Swooooooooooooooosh! We plunge over the edge and roar down a descending track so steep it's nearly impossible to hang on. I grab Pete's hand. He's my rock. We're tossed out of the coaster, spinning like whirling dervishes. We fly past the sun. Down! Down! Down we go! We fall through clouds as gentle as rain. We soar through the bottom of the Silver Lining.
"Here we go," he says. "Hang on!" We're hurled into the wind. It howls as we enter its belly.
"Can you see?" he yells.
"Yes!" I squeal. "I can!" I look beneath my feet as the wind tosses us into a gentle breeze. It rocks me like a baby. I lie in the sway of the tender gust that holds me until I'm able to catch my breath. My hands are shaking and something familiar is beating again in my chest. It feels like my heart! I can hardly wait for what comes next.
"I see my parents! There they are!" I look back at Pete while I point.
They are close enough for me to touch. I grin and turn once more to Pete. He's reverent. I'm crazy happy and giggly silly.
Then I look again. My mother's crying. I'm standing beside her in the Ralph Lauren dress she bought me at Lord and Taylor. I never wore it and never planned to. The last time I saw it in my closet it still had the tags attached with little gold pins under one arm. It's navy blue and has matching pumps and a purse with silver accents. Now, I'm wearing this gross outfit and I have on navy blue hose. Dorky! The leather purse is on the seat beside me.
I look sort of grown-up, except for my eyes. They're as swollen and red as a little kid's who's been crying for hours. I'm chewing my bottom lip like gum. It cracks and starts to bleed. My mother opens her pocket book and hands me a tissue.
There are people gathered around us in a room I've never seen before. It's got more flowers than a garden. My father's lying at the front of this room in another little room, kind of a room within a room. His part has creamy carved wood all around it, and a very fancy arched doorway above it. The ceiling has three parts to it with each section a little higher than the one below it. It's got this funky light directly over his head. It's glued to his face. Bits of dust are floating in the light. They're dancing around like it's some kind of party and this is serious stuff. I brush the dumb dancers aside, but they never miss a step. My mother shakes her head, then, takes my arm and draws us closer. She places her hand on my father's chest and gently rubs the folds of his suit coat. She leans over and kisses his cheek. I touch my father's hands. They're folded one over the other with his wedding band hand resting on top. They have make-up on them. They look like wax, but when I lift one up, it's heavy.
"Uuuuh!" I gasp and place the dead weight quickly back down. His fingers look like they've been carved out of wood and lightly stained. What have they done to my father's hands?
Up close, the spotlight staring at his face is creepy. I wish they'd turn it off. It makes me shiver. I'm crying, first just a little. Then something grabs me-a pain so bad I grab my chest. Now my tears are sobs. They run down my face and plop one after the other onto my dress. My mother places her arm around my shoulders. She pulls me tight and inches me close to where my father's head rests on a really nice pillow etched in lace. I lean over and kiss my father's cheek, just like my mother did. My tears spill all over him as he lays in his . . .his resting place. I can't say the real word. It's stuck to my tongue.
A tall stately man whispers to my mother that they're ready to begin the service. He's wearing an elaborate gold name badge. It says Thurgoode Castle, Director in script. He guides my mother gently to her seat. He motions for me to follow, then nods to two other gentlemen who are now standing like guards on each side of my father. They have the same badges pinned to their suit coats, with different names engraved, of course. I look at Pete. He's next to me, but I know the others can't see him. I realize he's right. There are things I don't want to see. Oh, please! I watch as the guards close the mahogany lid. Please! Please! The enormous brass buckles are snapped firmly into place. A huge wreath of roses and lilies mixed with baby's breath is placed on top; ribbons of black satin trail down the sides. Your Beloved Wife and Your Precious Daughter is stamped in gold and sits in the center. This is the silver lining.
"It's not what I expected," I whisper to Pete, choking on the words.
"No," he says, "it's life, Lorelei. And life here includes death."
And it sucks. I know Pete hears my thoughts. He winces.
Sucks! Sucks! Sucks!
"So there!" I say, and look up. My mother jumps. Pete takes my hand. He places his arm around me and lets me rest my head on his shoulder. He doesn't breathe a word, just gently pats my back. I'm liking him more every second that I know him, and I liked him pretty much, to begin with. I don't care that he is ancient and wrinkled. He's warm and funny and I love his soul. It's pure gold; it feels my pain. I know this.
I look in his eyes and see that it's written there, clearly, in a language called understanding.
* * *
"Why did he have to die?" I say. We're on our way back and my heart is heavier than a baby elephant.
"You weren't there to give him yours." Pete answers. "They were looking for another match when his gave out."
There's a fluttering inside my chest. It quickly fades and what was beating leaves me, once again. Will my heart slip back and forth in place each time I make this journey? Pete says it will.
"It's safely back within your father, now," Pete says. I'm relieved and sigh.
"Remember Lorelei, the Silver Lining will not change anything, permanently. Everything you experience through it is temporary."
"I know that." I tell him.
Yet it felt so real when I was there, that I forgot.