When I Get to Heaven

May 4, 2020

Linda Mastro provided another insightful reflection for our blog today. She is a retreat presenter at our Center and will be guiding, “Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart”, a women’s retreat next January. Click here to read more about the retreat. Thank you, Linda!

When I Get to Heaven         

I have many spiritual teachers and guides. Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Joyce Rupp, and Thomas Keating top the list. I recently added John Prine, the folk song writer and singer, who died on April 7.

Prines’s songs are stories delivered in a gravelly voice with a sly smile. He twangs about the human experience, mixing together tenderness, wisdom, humor, and irreverence.

I discovered a video version of “When I Get to Heaven” among the tributes posted about Prine’s passing. In this song from his last album, “Tree of Forgiveness,” he lists some of the things he wants to do when he gets to heaven. Right after he shakes God’s hand he wants to “have a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale,” and he wants to smoke a cigarette “that’s 9 miles long.” I suspect these were things he had to give up when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Later in the song Prine muses about people he wants to see again like his mother, father, and brother, and his mother’s sisters, “Bless their hearts.” He sings that these aunts taught him how to love.

In “When I Get to Heaven,” Prine goes on to describe how he will make music in heaven, just as he did during his time on earth. He seems prepared to die with no regrets and ready to eternally replay the best parts of a life well lived.

Because I was so touched by the message in this John Prine song I emailed it to a friend. She is my legal health advocate and we often talk about how we want to live, how we want to die, and what might come after this life is over. We recently spent an afternoon together writing our obituaries. I have given her ideas for my memorial service and she has done the same for me. When I sent her the Prine video link I told her that I want “When I Get to Heaven” played at whatever celebration my friends pull together for me.

My friend responded, saying, “Since we really don’t know what happens after we die, let’s all do whatever is on our list now while we can enjoy it for sure!”

I know that my friend’s practice of Buddhist philosophy rules out an afterlife. She is my role model for living every day as it comes, accepting the present moment, no matter its content or emotions. I agree that living fully in the here and now is the shortest way to a real love for God, my neighbor, and for myself, and – this is where my friend and I differ – I believe there is a heaven.

On one of our talks, my friend dug a little deeper into what I liked about the song “When I Get to Heaven.” I told her that while there are so many things I can do now, what I miss are the people I love who have died. Every time a friend dies I must rely on the presence of memory when what I really want is their real presence. Memories are the next best thing, yet they cannot replace laughter, hugs, and real conversations

In her typical thoughtful response, my friend sent me this poem:

Do not weep for me for I have not gone.
I am the wind that shakes the mighty Oak.
I am the gentle rain that falls upon your face.
I am the spring flower that pushes through the dark earth.
I am the chuckling laughter of the mountain stream. 

Do not weep for me for I have not gone.
I am the memory that dwells in the heart of those that knew me.
I am the shadow that dances on the edge of your vision.
I am the wild goose that flies south at Autumns call and I shall return at Summer rising.
I am the stag on the wild hills way.
I am just around the corner.

Therefore, the wise weep not.
But rejoice at the transformation of my Being.

So many times in these last months I have had the urge to call a departed friend to check in on him. I go to dial a friend to tell her a funny story then realize she can no longer take my calls.

Some days I sink into a well of grief recalling the people who have preceded me into death. I like to think of them in heaven, drinking a toast each time another friend arrives. Maybe they dance and sing, play cards and fill their lungs with smoke that can no longer do them harm.

With the help of the poem given to me by my friend I am just as likely to discover the spirits’ of the dead as I go about my day. I see them transformed into cardinals on my bird feeders and robins hunting in the grass. I hear their voices in a hymn or a ballad that touches my heart. I feel the warmth of their smiles in the sun shining through a bank of storm clouds.

In order to be ready for heaven – however it appears – I must remember to live this life to the fullest. I do what I love with people who share my passion for fun, creativity, and wonder. I care for myself as well as I care for others. And I give thanks every day for the presence of memory that keeps me connected to what has been and hopeful for what is yet to be.