Benny slipped in and out of consciousness. Even when awake he was not always alert or coherent.
"Is that you?"
"Where am I?"
"In bed. Safe. I'm here, Benny."
"Is supper ready?"
"I'd like burgers and fries."
"That's what we're having."
"Where're my shoes?"
"You don't need shoes tonight, Benny."
"Thought we were going for a walk."
Then he sighed and slipped away again.
Rain was falling outside. Drops pattered against the ICU window and streamed down the panes. The storm contributed to the gray mood that had claimed the world.
Once, near midnight, Benny woke and was lucid. He knew exactly where he was, who I was, and what was happening. He turned his head toward me and smiled. He tried to rise up on one arm, but he was too weak even to lift his head.
I got out of my chair, stood at the side of his bed, held his hand, and said, "All these wires ... I think they're going to replace a few of your parts with robot stuff."
"I'll be okay," he said in a faint, tremulous voice that was strangely, movingly confident.
"You want a chip of ice to suck on?"
"No. What I want ..."
"What? Anything you want, Benny."
"I'm scared, Daddy."
My throat grew tight, and I was afraid that I was going to lose the composure that I had strived so hard to hold on to during the long weeks of his illness. I swallowed and said, "Don't be scared, Benny. I'm with you. Don't—"
"No," he said, interrupting me. "I'm not scared ... for me. I'm afraid ... for you."
I thought that he was delirious again, and I didn't know what to say.
But he was not delirious, and with his next few words he made himself painfully clear: "I want us all ... to be together again ... like we were before Mommy died ... together again someday. But I'm afraid that you ... won't ... find us."
The rest is agonizing to recall. I was indeed so obsessed with holding fast to my atheism that I could not bring myself to tell my son a harmless lie that would make his last minutes easier. If only I had promised to believe, had told him that I would seek him in the next world, he would have gone to his rest more happily. Ellen was right when she called it an obsession. I merely held Benny's hand tighter, blinked back tears, and smiled at him.
He said, "If you don't believe you can find us ... then maybe you won't find us."
"It's all right, Benny," I said soothingly. I kissed him on the forehead, on his left cheek, and for a moment I put my face against his and held him as best I could, trying to compensate with affection for the promise of faith that I refused to give.
"Daddy ... if only ... you'd look for us?"
"You'll be okay, Benny."
"... just please look for us ..."
"I love you, Benny. I love you with all my heart."
"... if you look for us ... you'll find us ..."
"I love you, I love you, Benny."
"... don't look ... won't find ..."
"Benny, Benny ..."
The gray ICU light fell on the gray sheets and on the gray face of my son.
The gray rain streamed down the gray window.
He died while I held him.
Abruptly color came back into the world. Far too much color, too intense, overwhelming. The light brown of Benny 's staring, sightless eyes was the purest, most penetrating, most beautiful brown that I had ever seen. The ICU walls were a pale blue that made me feel as if they were made not of plaster but of water, and as if I were about to drown in a turbulent sea. The sour-apple green of the EKG monitor blazed bright, searing my eyes. The watery blue walls flowed toward me. I heard running footsteps as nurses and interns responded to the lack of telemetry data from their small patient, but before they arrived I was swept away by a blue tide, carried into deep blue currents.
* * *
I shut down my company. I withdrew from negotiations for new commissions. I arranged for those commissions already undertaken to be transferred as quickly as possible to other design firms of which I approved and with which my clients felt comfortable. I pink-slipped my employees, though with generous severance pay, and helped them to find new jobs where possible.
I put my wealth into treasury certificates and conservative savings instruments—investment requiring little or no monitoring. The temptation to sell the house was great, but after considerable thought I merely closed it and hired a part-time caretaker to look after it in my absence.
Years later than Hal Sheen, I had reached his conclusion that no monuments of man 'were worth the effort required to erect them. Even the greatest edifices of stone and steel were pathetic vanities, of no consequence in the long run. When viewed in the context of the vast, cold universe in which trillions of stars blazed down on tens of trillions of planets, even the pyramids were as fragile as origami sculptures. In the dark light of death and entropy, even heroic effort and acts of genius appeared foolish.
Yet relationships with family and friends were no more enduring than humanity's fragile monuments of stone. I had once told Benny that we lived on in memory, in the genetic trace, in the kindness that our own kindnesses encouraged in others. But those things now seemed as insubstantial as shapes of smoke in a brisk wind.
Unlike Hal Sheen, however, I did not seek comfort in religion. No blows were hard enough to crack my obsession.
I had thought that religious mania was the worst horror of all, but now I had found one that was worse: the horror of an atheist who, unable to believe in God, is suddenly also unable to believe in the value of human struggle and courage, and is therefore unable to find meaning in anything whatsoever, neither in beauty nor in pleasure, nor in the smallest act of kindness.
I spent that autumn in Bermuda. I bought a Cheoy Lee sixty-six-foot sport yacht, a sleek and powerful boat, and learned how to handle it. Alone, I ran the Caribbean, sampling island after island. Sometimes I dawdled along at quarter throttle for days at a time, in sync with the lazy rhythms of Caribbean life. Then suddenly I would be overcome with the frantic need to move, to stop wasting time, and I would press forward, engines screaming, slamming across the waves with reckless abandon, as if it mattered whether I got anywhere by any particular time.
When I tired of the Caribbean, I went to Brazil, but Rio held interest for only a few days. I became a rich drifter, moving from one first-class hotel to another in one far-flung city after another: Hong Kong, Singapore, Istanbul, Paris, Athens, Cairo, New York, Las Vegas, Acapulco, Tokyo, San Francisco. I was looking for something that would give meaning to life, though the search was conducted with the certain knowledge that I would not find what I sought.
For a few days I thought I could devote my life to gambling. In the random fall of cards, in the spin of roulette wheels, I glimpsed the strange, wild shape of fate. By committing myself to swimming in that deep river of randomness, I thought I might be in harmony with the pointlessness and disorder of the universe and, therefore, at peace. In less than a week I won and lost fortunes, and at last I walked away from the gaming tables a hundred thousand dollars out of pocket. That was only a tiny fraction of the millions on which I could draw, but in those few days I learned that even immersion in the chaos of random chance provided no escape from an awareness of the finite nature of life and of all things human.
In the spring I went home to die. I'm not sure if I meant to kill myself. Or, having lost the will to live, perhaps I believed that I could just lie down in a familiar place and succumb to death without needing to lift my hand against myself. But, although I did not know how death would be attained, I was certain that death was my goal.
The house in Bucks County was filled with painful memories of Ellen and Benny, and when I went into the kitchen and looked out the window at the cherry trees in the backyard, my heart ached as if pinched in a vise. The trees were ablaze with thousands of pink and white blossoms.
Benny had loved the cherry trees when they were at their radiant best, and the sight of their blossoms sharpened my memories of Benny so well that I felt I had been stabbed. For a while I leaned against the kitchen counter, unable to breathe, then gasped painfully for breath, then wept.
In time I went out and stood beneath the trees, looking up at the beautifully decorated branches. Benny had been dead almost nine months, but the trees he had loved were still thriving, and in some way that I could not quite grasp, their continued existence meant that at least a part of Benny was still alive. I struggled to understand this crazy idea—
—and suddenly the cherry blossoms fell. Not just a few. Not just hundreds. Within one minute every blossom on both trees dropped to the ground. I turned around, around, startled and confused, and the whirling white flowers were as thick as snowflakes in a blizzard. I had never seen anything like it. Cherry blossoms just don't fall by the thousands, simultaneously, on a windless day.
When the phenomenon ended, I plucked blossoms off my shoulders and out of my hair. I examined them closely. They were not withered or seared or marked by any sign of disease.
I looked up at the branches.
Not one blossom remained on either tree.
My heart was hammering.
Around my feet, drifts of cherry blossoms began to stir in a mild breeze that sprang up from the west.
"No," I said, so frightened that I could not even admit to myself what I was saying no to.
I turned from the trees and ran to the house. As I went, the last of the cherry blossoms blew off my hair and clothes.
In the library, however, as I took a bottle of Jack Daniel's from the bar cabinet, I realized that I was still clutching blossoms in my hand. I threw them down on the floor and scrubbed my palm on my pants as though I had been handling something foul.
I went to the bedroom with the Jack Daniel's and drank myself unconscious, refusing to face up to the reason why I needed to drink at all. I told myself that it had nothing to do with the cherry trees, that I was drinking only because I needed to escape the misery of the past few years.
Mine was a diamond-hard obsession.
* * *
I slept for eleven hours and woke with a hangover. I took two aspirin, stood in the shower under scalding water for fifteen minutes, under a cold spray for one minute, toweled vigorously, took two more aspirin, and went into the kitchen to make coffee.
Through the window above the sink, I saw the cherry trees ablaze with pink and white blossoms.
Hallucination, I thought with relief. Yesterday's blizzard of blossoms was just hallucination.
I ran outside for a closer look at the trees. I saw that only a few pink-white petals were scattered on the lush grass beneath the boughs, no more than would have blown off in the mild spring breeze.
Relieved but also curiously disappointed, I returned to the kitchen. The coffee had brewed. As I poured a cupful, I remembered the blossoms that I had cast aside in the library.
I drank two cups of fine Colombian before I had the nerve to go to the library. The blossoms were there: a wad of crushed petals that had yellowed and acquired brown edges overnight. I picked them up, closed my hand around them.
All right, I told myself shakily, you don't have to believe in Christ or in God the Father or in some bodiless Holy Spirit.
Religion is a disease.
No, no, you don't have to believe in any of the silly rituals, in dogma and doctrine. In fact you don't have to believe in God to believe in an afterlife.
No, wait, think about it: Isn't it possible that life after death is perfectly natural, not a divine gift but a simple fact of nature? The caterpillar lives one life, then transforms itself to live again as a butterfly. So, damn it, isn't it conceivable that our bodies are the caterpillar stage and that our spirits take flight into another existence when our bodies are no longer of use to us? The human metamorphosis may just be a transformation of a higher order than that of the caterpillar.
Slowly, with dread and yet hope, I walked through the house, out the back door, up the sloped yard to the cherry trees. I stood beneath the flowery boughs and opened my hand to reveal the blossoms that I had saved from yesterday.
"Benny?" I said wonderingly.
The blossomfall began again. From both trees, the pink and white petals dropped in profusion, spinning lazily to the grass, catching in my hair and on my clothes.
I turned, breathless, gasping. "Benny? Benny?"
In a minute the ground was covered with a white mantle, and again not one small bloom remained on the trees.
I laughed. It was a nervous laugh that might degenerate into a mad cackle. I was not in control of myself.
Not quite sure why I was speaking aloud, I said, "I'm scared. Oh, shit, am I scared."
The blossoms began to drift up from the ground. Not just a few of them. All of them. They rose back toward the branches that had shed them only moments ago. It was a blizzard in reverse. The soft petals brushed against my face.
I was laughing again, laughing uncontrollably, but my fear was fading rapidly, and this was good laughter.
Within another minute, the trees were cloaked in pink and white as before, and all was still.
I sensed that Benny was not within the tree. This phenomenon did not conform to pagan belief any more than it did to traditional Christianity. But he was somewhere. He was not gone forever. He was out there somewhere, and when my time came to go where he and Ellen had gone, I only needed to believe that they could be found, and then I would surely find them.
The sound of an obsession cracking could probably be heard all the way to China.
A scrap of writing by H. G. Wells came into my mind. I had long admired Wells's work, but nothing he had written had ever seemed so true as that which I recalled while standing under the cherry trees: "The past is but the beginning of a beginning, and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn."
He had been writing about history, of course, and about the long future that awaited humanity, but those words seemed to apply as well to death and to the mysterious rebirth that followed it. A man might live a hundred years, yet his long life will be but the twilight of the dawn.
"Benny," I said. "Oh, Benny."
But no more blossoms fell, and through the years that followed I received no more signs. Nor did I need them.
From that day forward, I knew that death was not the end and that I would be rejoined with Ellen and Benny on the other side.
And what of God? Does He exist? I don't know. Although I have believed in an afterlife of some kind for ten years now, I have not become a churchgoer. But if, upon my death, I cross into that other plane and find Him waiting for me, I will not be entirely surprised, and I will return to His arms as gratefully and happily as I will return to Ellen's and to Benny's.