Maybe the Afterlife Is Our Real Life
By Israfel Sivad
They hadn’t seen one another in a while. It was through no fault of their own. Too much had been going on. Stuart and his wife, Alison, were in their car on the way over to visit Gabe and Erin who lived in Southeast DC with their newborn baby girl, Shay. Stuart and Alison hadn’t met Shay yet. She was already three months old. The two couples were close. Stuart and Gabe had been friends for a few years, but the two couples hadn’t had a chance to get together since they’d gone out for brunch in May. Erin’s pregnancy had been almost full-term by then. Now, it was a rainy Tuesday night at the end of September.
“We’ve been through so much since then,” Stuart said in reference to the last time they saw Gabe and Erin. “I guess they’ve been through a lot, too,” he added. He frowned. Alison reached over and grabbed Stuart’s right hand from where it rested on the gear shift between the seats. She squeezed his palm. Stuart glanced back at her. His eyes appeared wounded, but he smiled at his wife just the same. She smiled back at him with a similar expression.
They pulled up and parked across the street from the gate to Gabe and Erin’s condo development. That gate was never closed. It was never locked. Stuart didn’t know what purpose it served. The development their friends lived in was new. It wasn’t as new as the apartment building Stuart and Alison shared in Petworth in Northwest, but Gabe and Erin’s development had been built in historic Anacostia less than five years earlier. Gabe was one of the first people to move into it shortly before he started dating Erin. It was the best deal he believed he could find in the District back then. It was an investment.
Gabe answered the door before they even knocked. He must have been on the lookout for them. That might have been because as they stepped into their friends’ condo, Stuart and Alison saw the newborn baby girl, Shay, asleep in her mother’s arms. Stuart blinked. With her fat cheeks and pudgy fingers, Shay resembled a Renaissance cherub. “I didn’t want to wake the baby,” Gabe whispered. Stuart and Alison each nodded knowingly. Although, neither of them actually had any idea.
“Can I get you guys anything to drink?” Gabe asked. Stuart had a beer. Alison asked for a La Croix. She joined Erin on the couch where the mother was sitting with the baby in her arms. Even though she was asleep, Shay’s mouth and lips kept moving like she was breastfeeding. She needed her mother. Gabe invited Stuart out onto the porch off the kitchen where the two of them could talk more animatedly without disturbing Shay.
Once they were outside, Gabe asked, “So, how have you been?”
Stuart shrugged. “We’ve been good.” He sighed. “But you know, we’ve been trying to get pregnant, and we’ve run into some difficulties.”
Gabe’s expression turned from joyful to serious. “What kind of difficulties?” he asked.
Stuart said, “Well, we’ve been trying to get pregnant for over a year now, and it just hasn’t been happening. So, finally, over the summer, Alison suggested we have some tests run. It turns out Alison has PCOS. That stands for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. As a result, she doesn’t ovulate quite right. We really want to have a baby, but it isn’t going to be possible without help.”
Stuart looked defeated. He said, “I don’t want to drag you down with everything you guys have been going through lately, but it’s been hard on us. Alison really wants to be a mom, and I really want to be a dad. But right now, we don’t know if that’s possible.”
Gabe took a sip off his own beer. “I don’t think that’s really a big deal,” he said. “They can do so much now for people in your position. It’s not like back when our parents were trying to get pregnant. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble having a baby. It just might take a little work, but anything worth having is worth working for, am I right?”
Gabe smiled. Stuart smiled back at him. Everybody had said that to him—his friends, his parents, even the doctors. It was nothing new for him to hear, but the sentiment always relieved his anxiety. “You’re right,” Stuart said. Then, he added, “So, how have you guys been?”
This time, it was Gabe’s turn to frown. Stuart could tell his friend wanted to pretend like everything had been going as great as it should have been, but his eyes couldn’t lie. He said, “Well, having Shay has been out of this world. In just a few months, she’s already brought so much joy to my life. I never knew—and I certainly never believed—how amazing having a baby could be. But, you know, with everything with my mom. It just…”
Gabe’s voice trailed off as he looked away at the construction occurring on the other side of the fence from his condo development. Stuart followed Gabe’s gaze with his own. The old building across from them was being demolished and rebuilt into something brand new. Stuart wondered what sort of events had occurred in that building when it had housed people. He wondered what sort of events had occurred in that building since it had been abandoned.
“I was so sorry to hear about that,” Stuart interjected. He’d seen on Facebook how Gabe’s mom had passed away a couple weeks after Shay had been born. Those two major life events were the reason he and Alison had given Gabe and Erin such a wide berth over the past few months. Neither of them knew what the appropriate amount of time was for mourning the death of a parent or for getting settled in with a newborn. But now, Stuart wanted to hear what his friend had been through and what he’d discovered. “How are you handling it?”
Gabe inhaled deeply. He said, “It’s hard, you know. Losing a parent is hard. And her husband, my stepdad, Jack, he’s sick, too.”
“Oh, man, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, we’re probably going to lose him in the next couple months as well.”
“That’s terrible. What’s wrong with him?”
“It’s his heart.” Gabe chuckled softly, “It happened right after my mom went into hospice for the cancer. Jack collapsed the next day. I took him to the hospital, and they said his heart was giving out.” Gabe’s gaze grew distant as he stared at the construction site across from them. It was as if he were seeing something that existed behind the building’s physicality. He said, “The doctors told us he could probably survive it if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. Not without my mom. It’s like he’s dying of a broken heart.”
Stuart glanced back at the window through the kitchen to the living room on the other side. His own wife, Alison, played there with Gabe and Erin’s newborn baby girl who was awake now. The sight of his wife playing with that child brought warmth to Stuart’s heart. “That’s really sad,” he said.
“Yeah, I know,” Gabe said. “My mom would want him to live. She was so full of life, and she loved him so much, but he’s giving up. He doesn’t want to be here anymore. That’s what he says.”
Stuart bowed his head. He wondered if he would still want to live if his own wife passed away. He asked, “How long were they married?”
“Twenty-five years,” Gabe said.
“That’s a long time.” Stuart had only been married to Alison for two years, and he already couldn’t imagine life without her. Even if they never were able to have children, he couldn’t imagine life without her. To lose her after 25 years was unfathomable. The thought of the pain Gabe’s stepdad must have been living through right then made Stuart want to cry.
“It was pretty surreal, though,” Gabe said. Startled out of his own ruminations, Stuart turned away from the kitchen window and looked directly at his friend for the first time since they’d really started talking. “Going down to Florida to be with my mom at the end of her life right after I watched Erin give birth to Shay, that is.”
“I can only imagine,” Stuart said.
“I mean, Erin wasn’t too happy I was leaving, but I had to go. And leaving this little cocoon of life for the reality of death was so weird. When I got to Florida, it was complete culture shock. I was so sleep deprived. Shay had only been born two days before. Part of me wanted to come right back up here to be with her and Erin, and part of me couldn’t believe we were bringing life into a world where everything dies. But being with my mom at that point on her journey was so beautiful.”
“I’ve heard that from people before when they’ve stayed with a loved one who was dying…”
Gabe’s gaze grew even more distant. He said, “I held my mom’s hand as she died. Her breath kept getting more ragged. Then, it all came out in one long note. It sounded like her soul was stuck in her throat. Then, it disappeared, and she was gone. I knew it as soon as it happened.” Gabe took a sip off his beer. Stuart took a sip off his as well.
Gabe said, “You know, it’s easy to leave this world, but it’s a lot harder to enter it. I was so scared for Erin the whole time she was giving birth to Shay. The midwives kept saying everything was fine, but I didn’t know. Shay came out, and then, all I saw was blood. Erin had a postpartum hemorrhage. They said they didn’t need to call in a doctor. They could fix it themselves, but I didn’t know…”
Gabe shook his head. Stuart swallowed slowly. Now, he was fearful of his own desire for Alison to get pregnant. There was a lot he didn’t understand about this world.
“While my mom was in hospice, though,” Gabe said, “I’d go swimming in her pool every evening right before it got dark. It was fresh and cleansing as if I were being born again at the end of each day. I kept thinking about how life and death were coming together in my life right at that moment.”
Stuart nodded. Of course, he had never experienced what his friend was talking about. He could only imagine.
“I found myself wondering…” Gabe said, “The whole time Shay was inside Erin, she had no idea what was waiting for her on the other side. The day she was born must have been terrifying. Her entire world was collapsing in on her. With every contraction, she was being forced out into a place she never knew existed. Sure, she’d had hints of this world. She’d heard voices talking to her from the other side. She’d heard my voice even, but she didn’t know all this was here. She didn’t know who or what I was. I was only a sensation.
“I kept wondering. Is that what death is? Are we afraid of it only because we don’t know what’s on the other side? It could be a whole other world like this one. I mean, I definitely have sensations there might be something else. Maybe, we’re all living in some magnificent creature’s womb, and death is only another birth. Maybe, the afterlife is our real life.”
Stuart didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t an unfamiliar theory, but he’d never thought about it quite like that. Somehow, Gabe’s metaphor seemed more compelling than any argument he’d heard about the afterlife before. Stuart was an atheist. Gabe was, too. They’d discussed their unbelief on many occasions. Stuart inhaled. He looked at that abandoned building across from them. He narrowed his eyes. He wondered what was going to replace it.