My heavy eyelids closed and all weight seemed to leave my body, carried away on my final breaths. All around me, my loved ones sang, cried or simply prayed. I could no longer feel my father’s hand holding mine, but I knew it would be a long time before he let me go.
The sobs faded, but the singing grew louder and I knew that it was not from the world I was leaving, but from a different world.
“Come this way, child,” the voices called, so I floated towards the jovial choir.
Brightness and warmth was the first thing I noticed about the room I was in. As my vision cleared, I marvelled at the vastness of the room, once blurred but rapidly sharpening, and the people there transformed from vibrant vague shapes to graceful animated bodies.
Some talked and laughed together as if they’d known each other all their lives. Some busied themselves hanging pictures on the walls. while other framed pictures lay on the ground, or leant against the walls, presumably waiting to be mounted.
Many people gazed appearing awestruck, of the scenes playing out within those golden frames, while others maintained contemplative expressions. Some just quietly moved from room to room, through the large gallery.
A red-robed figure stood under a high arched door, so still that at first, I wondered if he was a sculpture, until he stretched his hand out to greet me.
“I’m Michael. Welcome, Charlie! We’ve been expecting you!”
“Where am I?” I asked. “What’s with all the pictures?”
Michael smiled warmly. “I knew you would ask that,” he answered. “Where do you think you are?”
I thought for a moment, as I stared around the room. “An art gallery of some sort? But where?”
“You’ve reached the In-between,” he explained. “It is here, that your fate will be decided. Take a closer look at the pictures. What do you see?”
I stepped forward and gazed into the picture closest to me, leaning on the wall. There, a woman stood in a white dress. A child knelt before her, while others looked on. ‘Why is this scene so familiar?’ I wondered. I studied her face, pale with blue eyes, with hair as gold as the picture frames.
At first I thought she looked like my mother, and I wept, for it had been so long since I’d seen her face. Was she waiting for me? Why wasn’t she here already? Hadn’t she made it? This added to my sadness and confusion.
“Your mother is fine. Look closer.” Michael I’d come to realise was my guide, standing just behind me. Just as I’d figured out the woman’s identity, he added, “This is the moment, just beyond the horizon for you in your life. This may or may not be hung, but this is up to you. Every picture on these walls is a significant moment in your life. Every accomplishment, every challenge you met and overcome, and all the ones you didn’t. There are some not-so-proud moments here.”
My heart sank, dreading what I would see in those pictures, but he re-assured me, “Don’t feel bad, for a lot of those came with lessons you would’ve learned in life. I must leave you here for a moment, but take as much time as you need and I will answer any of your questions, when I get back.” In an instant the man disappeared and I was alone to peruse the pictures of my life.
Some made me smile, and some made me weep. Some scenes made me shudder, from embarrassment or regret, but what Michael had meant about lessons hit me. Many moments I thought were mistakes made and regretted the most; considered time wasted and opportunities lost were moments that left scars. I’d carried those right up until that last breath that carried me to the place I stood in that moment. Too pained, I’d look away and move on to the next picture, where it all became clear. Every moment, even the ones I counted as mistakes, led on to the next.
“You see, child, every moment…” My guide was back, this time standing beside me. Though I was a full-grown woman, it didn’t occur to me to mind him calling me that, “… good or bad, happy or sad, happens for a reason.”
“Why am I here?” I asked. The man stayed silent. “Is it over? Am I dead?”
“Only if you choose it,” he answered.
“So I can go back?”
“You may, if you wish.”
I thought about that for what seemed like an eternity. The more I weighed it up, the more curious I was about my next step from there. Stay here, go back or go forward? All the possibilities were up to me.
I answered the call of woman in white. I floated back to her. I wanted to know more about her, now that I knew she was me. Was this my wedding day? Who was the child? Would I be a mother? Was there still a place for me on earth?
I stared into the picture displayed, on an easel. I reached out to touch the textured brushstrokes, to find the paint was still wet. The image was unrecognisable, lost in the thick application of paint. Should I stand back and get a better view? As I backed away, the picture became clearer.
It was of the same woman. The one in the white dress. She stood this time amongst blood red trees, beside her companion, a lion. Above her, a figure eight suggested wind the blew her hair, the leaves and the lion’s majestic.
She was the most powerful version of me I’d ever seen, strong and in total control. And beautiful. This I knew was not my earthly body. Her beauty was in her strength. She is me, I decided, should I choose it to be, but I would have to shed everything from the life I had left behind. Was I ready for that?
As I contemplated the wonder of that future me, the image faded and another image replaced it. The woman in the picture sat with a child in her lap, while another child clung to her dress. There was a mix of joy and sorrow on her face. Was this what I would be, if I went back to my body?
Motherhood was a dream I’d let go of long ago. Was it as out of reach as I’d come to accept? Was it possible?
Suddenly, that image faded, this time a blank canvas replaced it. “Your future is in your hands, to create,” Michael whispered. I’d almost forgotten he was there. “What you just saw on that canvas are all possibilities. You can choose one, or create or create an entirely new image.”
“I can’t decide,” I whispered.
“Take as long as you need,” my guide explained. “Bear in mind though, that the longer you stay here, in the In-Between, the more confusion will consume you, until you’re just like that guy.” He pointed to the man, to my left on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. His face was expressionless.
“How long have you been here?” I asked him.
“Long enough to forget. Even my name has escaped me,” he answered, wistfully. In that moment, I knew that worse than making a decision I might regret, was an eternity stuck in the perpetuity of the In-Between, knowing that I’d never create another memory again.
“If you go back,” my guide began, “You’ll be able to visit here again. If you go on, this place will no longer exist for you. All memory of it will be wiped.”
That was all the information I needed to decide. I closed my eyes and waited, and imagined. Weeping, all around me turned to astonished gasps, as I drifted in once again, and I knew exactly where I was. At the end of my time, I’d be ready and the In-Between would be waiting for me again. Not wasting another second of life, I opened my eyes, ready to create new memories.