Workin' On Leavin' the Livin'
an except from Stand Up, Ernie Baxer: You're Dead
Listen: Don’t put much stock in what the folks at the churches and labs are saying. You keep your body when you die.
I’m dead, but my name is Ernie Baxter. I’ve kept my body, and I’ve kept my name. Keeping those two things was surprising, and there have been other surprises. You have certain expectations, but this much is now clear to me: In heaven, there is no interfering with the living. You can look down through silver-lined clouds and see the people you love down below with a fair amount of clarity, but there is no interaction. I was shocked as shit that the rumors about the clouds and their beautiful lining panned out, but no hauntings. No channeling through dogs and certainly no slumber party board-game communications. Believe me, I’ve tried.
My name is Ernie Baxter, and my hands are tied. My history has passed to the memories and stories of my mother and ex-girlfriend.
Bosses and co-workers.
Bartenders and insurance agents.
Friends and gym teachers.
The day after my funeral, I was watching my mother. Bless her lonely soul, she was cleaning the house. I wished with every ounce of my new, ghostish self that I could do the dishes, clean the wood floors, or switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer. I tried yelling: “Mom! Can you hear me? Mom! If I were there you wouldn’t have to ask more than one time for me to shake out the rugs! Two times tops, mom!”
Nothing. She went about her business.
I tried deep concentration, attempting to send some kind of kinetic waves into her head: “Mom. I love you mom and maybe it’s not cleaning that you’d want. How about this: I’ll come down there right now and leave my socks and shoes all over the house. I’ll forget to feed the cat. I’ll put dirty dishes in with the ones you just put through the wash cycle. Something. Anything!”
Nothing. She blinked at the dishwasher and wiped down the counters, whistling a hymn that was played at my funeral. She looked okay. I tried to convince a cabinet door to swing open, reaching for some sign that would show her that I was with her, watching her, right there.
And then back to yelling: “Mom! Mom, I made it to heaven! You did good, mom. And I miss you.” Believe me, it’s not easy to watch her from here, silenced by what feels to be as many miles as a science teacher could write in zeros on the chalkboard.
There’s more crying in heaven then you might imagine. I’m here in a small crowd, all lost newcomers with dripping eyes, mourning the mourners. Sad that they’re sad. Lonely in heaven.
During the funeral I was able to eavesdrop on particular conversations. It was, in fact, during the ceremony that I realized my most obvious and agonizing limitation; I can listen to only one conversation at a time. As I watched my mother talking to my high school buddies, I panicked as I missed out on whatever my ex-girlfriend was saying to her husband. I couldn’t hear what my cousins were mumbling into each other’s ears without missing out on something the preacher was saying to my seventh grade teacher. With desperation, I eyed each conversation and began spastically darting through them and over them like a bat on a bungee cord. I was terrified.
So I missed a lot of the things that people were saying, but from what I could make out, I’d wager that twenty-five percent of all sentences uttered about me that particular day were horribly flawed. Dates were wrong, funny stories exaggerated, and opinions attributed to me skewed. Some folks thought I was still working in an office when I died and had heard I was up for a big promotion. Others had some “evidence” that I’d gotten really into exercise and were surprised that my health had deteriorated so quickly. One man I didn’t recognize was rattling on about an apparent girlfriend I had in Seattle. He was wrong. I died with my mother, and my mother alone. I’d made some friends on the west coast, but not the type of friends that come to your deathbed, and certainly not the type of friends that fly to the Midwest for a funeral. I had zero representation down there for the past several years of my life, and history was suffering.
Imagine sitting in a theater, at the beginning of a movie, and suddenly you realize that you’re the star. You’re the star, but you don’t remember practicing your lines. All the time you were living your life, making progress, getting paid, falling in love, driving, sleeping, marking an ‘X’ through another box on the calendar… All of it, to your total surprise, was just the rehearsal.
The feeling is unsettling, of course, and it looks like the actual movie, the documentary, is going to last a long, long time. An eternity.
Who would have thought? And who the hell is prepared?
The lead role in the movie of your life is acted out based wholly on the shady recollections of the ones you’ve left behind.
This takes some getting used to, and I’d only had a few days.
You want to believe that memory is a strong entity, the perfect memorial, an asset to the dead. When you are alive, you tell stories in hopes that folks will remember what you’ve said, the points and perspectives you’ve perfected. You do things, say things, in hopes that you will remain intact, removed from speculation and locked safely away in memories, but it’s not to be. Memory, in fact, might be the greatest liar of all time. The most deceptive of sinners. The real face of death.
Truth be told, I was always excited about the “death takes all” idea. Dead, buried, and forgetting about it. When it was all said and done, I figured I’d kick back with the angels, and float around like everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
But the real deal is that it’s never all said and done. From here, it’s clear that although I only walked Earth’s face for a handful of years, those years are going to stretch for some time. The longevity of it chills me to the bone. And look at her. I outlived my mother. The poor woman has been left alone to preserve the memory of her son. A mother should never have to do that.
To be fair, I should highlight some of the bonuses here. I don’t want to misrepresent with half-baked observations and appraisals because there are some comforts that came to me quickly. The people are friendly and heaven is, indeed, a beautiful place. The general overview and speculation you hear is reasonably accurate, but there are some major flaws to the earthly descriptions; I’ve still got the body. The cancer’s gone, but it’s still arms, legs, feet, and hands. I’m not floating around, I’m walking. As it turns out, the streets are indeed paved with gold, which is bitchin’, and the rivers are flowing clean, but I’ve yet to see anyone with a harp. There are certainly some aspects of the myth that can now officially be put to rest. I’m an authority now, and listen to me spewing it out. Up here, I could go on and on with weighty revelations and new prophecies, but it only gives new ironic flavor to preaching to the choir. Watch these words fall quietly down, reaching the globe just as all sound, meaning, and importance fully disappears from them.
I died too early. Perhaps with more time, I could have solidified some of the stories that were told at the funeral, given them a personal stamp of approval and gone away content that history had been secured. But it wasn’t to be.
In heaven, you can spend a lot of time watching the people you miss remember you. The scientists, the preachers, and your mother beside your deathbed will tell you there’s no pain in heaven. Don’t believe them.